Theatre Of War
By Justin Richards
It's time for another First Time Novelist, but this time there's no cause for alarm. Unlike certain other New Adventures contributors, Justin Richards shows all the signs of actually reading his material through before submitting it.
One of the first things to strike me about Theatre Of War was the patience of the prose. There's a sequence early on when Bernice visits the Braxiatel Collective, a mind-boggling library on a customised planetoid: it's so well-stocked that virtually everything of interest is stored within, yet so relatively small that you could walk across the world in three hours. This is a perfect day out for Bernice, of course, and Richards lets us revel in it with her, soaking up the sights and the academia. In a weird way, this felt like just the sort of breather I needed after No Future, and didn't get.
The writing isn't necessarily slow-paced, but it's not afraid to stop and take a look around. Exploring the sights (and inevitably, horrors) of an archaeological dig gone wrong, Richards displays just the same lingering eye for detail. You'll have the titular theatre mapped out before long, and remember some of the grisly mishaps like your own bad dreams There's a thrilling dread surrounding those zombie-like statues, pictured on the cover and altogether different from (and nastier than) the modern Doctor Who equivalent. But there are also evocative, somewhat cinematic scenes of violence. For example, this small moment:
"Svenson teased the black glove from his right hand, finger by finger, slowly pulling it free. When his hand emerged, grimy despite its protection from the dust, he flexed it, curling his fingers into the palm. 'Then you had better find something we can take back.' His voice was quiet, reasonable. He understood the situation and the only way to capitalise on it. He dusted his naked palm on the breast of his tunic, and watched the dust catch in the sunlight as it spiralled down. Then he hit her."
Laying the book out like a play may have something to do with this. It's all about the waiting, whether it be for the Doctor and Ace to turn up (approx. 60 pages), or for the deadly machine to go wrong again, or for the Doctor's counter-plan to be revealed (as usual, this is among the last gasps). Some of that's actually a little annoying: Theatre maybe goes on a bit too long and I'm still not sure I grasped everything. But I admire the feeling of a writer who's got it all worked out. The series of fake epigraphs and "source documents" add, with arguable merit, to that professional air.
I'm not sure how relevant all the theatrical theory was, although Richards clearly knows his onions, and it adds flavour to a society (the Heletians) that bases everything on theatre. For all the hard theory, this is actually very subtle: they're militaristic more than anything, but the language leans towards "scripts" and "lines" rather than orders; when a mission is going wrong, they look to "exit" rather than leave. As an alien quirk it's undeniably random, but Richards beds it in so much that it feels convincingly like ancient history.
As for the stuff I didn't grasp, well, there's that pesky machine. A sort of holo-projector that brings plays (literally) to life, it doesn't do much besides run violently amok. The statues (two of which look like Ace and the Doctor) aren't any kind of time travel quirk, as you'd first think, but murderous echoes of a play called Death's Bane. The sudden death of dozens of archaeologists is down to a famed Heletian relic called The Good Soldiers, which has a bloodbath of an ending. And Hamlet shows up on occasion. But the rules are almost as in flux as reality itself: it doesn't just send plays into the real world, with working weaponry, but it can transport you within. It doesn't just reproduce fictional characters, but it can copy real people and events. In the first half of the book, several people are killed by their own traumatic memories; a seemingly pivotal quirk we never see again. By the finale, the machine sticks strictly to robots from The Good Soldiers turning up and doing their Good Soldiers bit. That's less interesting than the meta-physical memory stuff we got earlier, to say nothing of those nightmare-fodder statues. The Doctor tromps through actual plays for a chapter or two, Land Of Fiction style, but we never really utilise the weird potential there. Richards is a bit of a kid in a candy store at times. The machine's going wrong in general, so it can do A, B, C...
And I wasn't too crazy about the overall plan, or the Doctor's part in it. As the holo-projector-of-doom contains a working version of The Good Soldiers, it's catnip to the Heletians, but that's the point: they'll take it home and it'll go predictably wrong, bringing the Heletian/Ripperean war to an (almost certainly violent) end. This is ostensibly because the Heletians are massively corrupt and evil and deserve it, which is explained in ways both subtle and... not. There are references to institutional cruelty in some of the soldiers we meet (Mr "Slappy" Svenson, for instance), plus death camps and the like. Then we meet the Heletian higher-ups: a bratty teenage Exec who calls for executions on a whim, and his murderous power-behind-the-throne (whom I couldn't help picturing as Joss Ackland). There's zero doubt about them being a dodgy bunch, but even so, it seems remarkably partisan for someone we know virtually nothing about (Braxiatel) other than he runs an amazing library, who never gives a particular account of why he's wading into war like this. And whoever said the Rippereans were a lovely bunch and they deserve to "win"?
The Doctor takes part, moderately manipulated (for once), cheerily noting that with a few tweaks he's engineered an end to the war with just a few bruises and broken arms. Yeah, plus those various deaths that occurred earlier, including soldiers with dodgy pasts and at least one kindly, harmless archaeologist. And the plan was originally going to be a whole lot worse, right? Even Ace points out that the Doctor doesn't usually stick his oar into wars, but he's just fine with it this time, presumably because he was able to "tweak" it? But why isn't he mad at Braxiatel for what he meant to do? I couldn't help frowning at how it all turned out. Braxiatel is an undeniably interesting chap, but I needed more.
Theatre Of War is a bit lacking in why people do things, leaning much more towards plot and action than character. But there's still some very good character writing here. Bernice in particular is an absolute pleasure, especially compared to the stroppy disaster we met in Legacy. We get eloquently irritable stuff like: "'How do you do – you must be Lannic,' Benny said quietly to her retreating back." And "I assume there's some point to this – I mean, as a way of subtly changing the subject it does lack a certain finesse." Ahhh. That's how you do it!
Ace has a somewhat functional role, getting into fights and (in one particularly movie-ish moment) vacating a spaceship to personally shoot down its pursuer. Theatre does a better job of juggling the two companions than several of its predecessors, but it still feels like entirely separate missions are the only way it can be done. Bernice spends perhaps half the book back at the Braxiatel Collective, which is admittedly very interesting, learning things that she probably could have been figured out on the fly. (She also misses the death of a rather lovely side-character, and neither finds out about nor reacts to the news later on. I'm not best pleased about that, just as I'm weirded out that a book largely set on an archaeological dig sends Bernice away.)
There's some solidly McCoyish Doctoring, with the honourable exception of his war oar: there's a great bit where he loudly orders the Exec to have him executed on the spot, completely flustering him into abandoning another murderous plan; and some sleight-of-hand when he undoes Ace's restraints without any apparent contact. The whole "manipulative Doctor" thing is a little muddled here, since he's caught up in it as much as the others, and I wish he'd stop arsing about and just tell Ace what's going on. But it's him to a tee otherwise.
There's a lot to appreciate here, from the use of a sci-fi staple (revisiting an old mission/site that went horribly awry) in an unconventional way (theatrical obsession/fiction and reality blurring) to Richards's generally witty prose ("For a split second he wondered where his disruptor had gone. Then it hit him."). You get clever little spins like the doppelganger statues actually not being some sort of time-paradox. Also, in defiance of a strangely popular cliché, the play-within-a-play (The Good Soldiers, which is also a play-within-a-play!) is pretty poor. (I mean, they usually are really, or they're at least flimsy because there isn't ever room for two plays, books or movies. But everyone in the story tends to acknowledge they're awesome, which always feels bogus to me. Here, nope: The Good Soldiers is plenty hyped, and it sucks. Phew.)
It's never boring, but Theatre Of War didn't connect with me on a meaningful level. The academia ultimately felt a little like homework, possibly because I did English Lit for five years and worked in a theatre for eight; the war commentary ends up being about as deep as The Good Soldiers, and although Richards displays a knowing wit around his own narrative's short-comings, he doesn't necessarily absolve them. "But there were hundreds [of robots]. And the Doctor could think of only one reason to swell their ranks." Surely a sly nod towards Theatre's own grossly over-sized team of archaeologists, who of course give the statues plenty of murder-fodder. Deliberate or not, there are still too many of them, with scarcely a personality between them.
It's a moderately unconventional and fun book, but it's still an action movie at heart, albeit one with an eye on culture, and some very spirited prose around the gruesome bits. It's a good indicator that Justin Richards is one to watch, although he's not quite among the classics yet.