Saturday, 8 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #15 – White Darkness by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
White Darkness
By David A. McIntee

A somewhat prolific name in Doctor Who fiction, David A. McIntee makes his first impression with White Darkness.  I've read one of his later books, The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang, and they have some things in common.  Not all of it beneficial.

McIntee is a big fan of historical research, even including an Author's Note to underline it.  In both novels there's a trade-off between narrative flow and period detail; it's well integrated, such as an aside that two cars stopped is the Haitian equivalent of a traffic jam, but you're still aware he's taking time out to do it.  While there is an alien threat in both, the focus is on the people and how it affects them.  That's laudable – it reminds me of Malcolm Hulke and his interest in moral shades of grey.  But White Darkness is severely overpopulated, and between getting the historical period right and juggling the motivations of all the players, it is difficult to tell a single coherent story, or get engrossed in it.

It's Haiti, 1915, and a revolution is erupting between the ruling President Sam and the anarchic General Bobo.  Like a lot of historical Doctor Who, there is an inevitable feeling that these events will trundle on as scheduled, with or without the plot.  Despite all the evocative horror that ensues – especially a massacre of the island's prisoners, a key turning point – there is also a feeling that revolution is the norm for Haiti, and its seedy underbelly of voudoun practitioners [sic – see Author's Note!] will cheerily play the sides off one another and continue to exist afterwards.  There's a certain oddly dull inevitability to it.

Meanwhile, a team of Germans including an evil general, an evil number one and a couple of slightly opposed mad scientists are working on a formula for zombis – not exactly the brains-obsessed George Romero things, but servile and unkillable soldiers.  Such a discovery could win the war for Germany.  Meanwhile (again), the island's big cheese of the dark arts, Mait, together with servants Henri and Carrefour, secretly manipulates them in the hopes of resurrecting The Old Ones (or The Great Ones, or The Great Old Ones, delete where appropriate), ancient enemies of the Time Lords.  Meanwhile (Volume: III), a team of Americans are due to invade the island.  Meanwhile (keep up!), the Doctor, Ace and Bernice arrive seeking, however improbably, a holiday.  Meanwhile (why not?), various other folks flit between all of the above, including a disillusioned Haitian soldier and an American professor.

There is a great deal going on in White Darkness, and obviously a great many people are affected.  Unfortunately the end result is sprawling.  McIntee has a very evocative style, best evidenced during a terrifying shipwreck and the aforementioned massacre, but many of the characters and events still feel like bullet points.  I routinely confused the individual Germans, Haitians and Americans, some of whom (e.g. Henri) seemed to die before they really accomplishing anything.  There is a tendency to describe folks by what they are wearing – a device Terrance Dicks often employs, and one I can't stand as it not only reduces people to tedious constituent details, but means I have a bunch of stuff to recall the next time they show up.  Despite a presumable interest in historical fairness, the bad characters are 100% bad here – in the cases of Etienne and Richmann especially, there is nothing else underneath.

In the end, after a number of escapes and recaptures help to pad out the pages, historical flavour and horror collapse in a helter skelter of action.  It should be exciting – indeed, Dicks mixed a similar cocktail of Evil Military and Occult to great effect in Exodus – but instead it's wearying.  Things go bang and boom, people die and good lord, is it over yet?

I felt disconnected and a bit bored reading much of this.  Another reason, besides the large and thinly-written cast and the too-numerous themes, is the lack of an overall threat.  I'm dimly aware that The (Great? Old?) Ones are something to do with H.P. Lovecraft.  Some of us haven't the foggiest about Lovecraft, so we'll just have to make do with what the book gives us.  And right from the overly ethereal prologue that introduces them, I never got a sense of what they are or what they can do.  They're never "in" the story, as the Doctor prevents their coming altogether; it is suggested a few times that if one acts under their perceived influence, even if it isn't there, the result will be the same.  Sort of undermines them, doesn't it?  And with so much going on in the here-and-now, there didn't seem to be time to establish a coherent threat beneath it all.  I certainly won't lose sleep worrying about Old Ones: Round Two.

White Darkness spreads itself too thin, but hey, at least the main characters are well-written.  The Doctor is full of foreboding, whimsy and otherworldly disconnect from his surroundings, particularly when the prison massacre looms, and when he explains just why you shouldn't kill people, especially in your own past.  There's also a lovely moment where he picks up Cameca's brooch (see: The Aztecs), which doesn't really go anywhere, but I liked it anyway.

Bernice is on fabulous form: one of the novel's highlights is a scene where she is tied to a laboratory stretcher (with a side order of impending doom) only to escape entirely thanks to her own skills.  It sort of undermines the capture, and we march right back to that locale a.s.a.p., but it's still way cool that she can take care of herself.  And Ace slips into her role as the Doctor and Bernice's protector (whether or not Benny needs one), her discomfort around the latter finally beginning to subside.  She's moving more towards Leela at this point, as the apparently fearless and reliable fighter of the group, but there are still glimmers of further dimensions.  There's a moment where she contemplates a different life (“'I sometimes wonder what it would be like,' Ace said softly.  'Get married, have kids, stay in one place and one time...'  Be a mother, she thought, but what kind?”), slyly and simultaneously underscoring the open wound that is her mother.  Less sly, there's a theme in the last dozen or so pages of Ace becoming addicted to violence, which is a valid concern, but the tool used – a parallel, the brutal Richmann – is too bluntly and all too briefly explored.  There just isn't time to get into it.

But that's White Darkness for you.  Historical record, zombie horror, wartime adventure, Doctor Who novel – there’s too much to choose from.  McIntee is a good writer with a keen interest in people, but focus is a vital, missing ingredient.  I slogged through the result dutifully enough, but for the most part merely keen to finish.


1 comment:

  1. I was curiously very unsatisfied by this novel. This book should have been terrific: Cthulhu plus Haitian voodoo set in the midst of an extremely interesting period in Haitian history: a coup d'etat in 1915 and the subsequent intervention by American marines. One good thing about this book: I was constantly motivated to research little tid bits of lore about Haiti: voodoo terminology and mythology, Haitian history and personalities, geography and general cultural history of the 1910s. I enjoyed very much how the author weaves the socio-political history in with the voodoo religion (for example there were petty and short-lived megalomaniacal emperors in Haitian history, and there are empereurs as chief priests of voodoo).

    However, the whole thing seems poorly written. Since I am neither a writer nor an academic student of literature, I cannot put my finger on the problem, but most of the passages were boring. Certainly the dialogue generally lacked cleverness, insight or humour, any one of which would have assisted.

    The Doctor is at times problematic in this one. The final confrontation between him and the villain Mait was not resolved by oratorical persuasion or improvised trickery, but rather by brute force.

    The Germans (it is 1915 after all) come across as cartoon Prussians, but it is a cartoon with too much actual slaughter and too little actual humour. The Haitian voodoo characters are very convincing, but the colourful and light side of Caribbean culture is neglected: some different scenes with a sense of carnival would have given the novel a richer Haitian atmosphere.

    The Cthulhu stuff does not really mix well with the voodoo except as a pseudo-scientific explanation. However I do like the hints at the history between the Time Lords and the Great Old Ones. Are the Vampires considered Old Ones?

    Ace is tempered in this book. She can kick ass like a grown up version of herself from "Remembrance of the Daleks," but she has lost the most psychotic tendencies from "Warhead" and "Lucifer Rising:" for example she feels genuine horror and remorse at her heat-of-the-moment killing of one villain. I liked her teaming up with the Haitian Captain Petion: it made Ace personable again and it showed the good side of the Haitian people.