Thursday, 2 February 2017
Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #39 – Parasite by Jim Mortimore
By Jim Mortimore
Odd, this one. Perhaps even by Jim’s standards.
Parasite exhibits many of the strengths I’ve come to look forward to in Jim Mortimore’s work. There’s a flair for cinematic action, evidenced in Blood Heat and in its Director’s Cut, and of course in my favourite bits of Lucifer Rising. Parasite can ratchet tension with the best of them, particularly as a paragraph break or a chapter comes to a head, usually in an ohshitwhatdowedonow?! final line. There are great ideas, again abundant in all of the above books: the Director's Cut in particular went to some interesting places, without the worry of ongoing series continuity. And the characters are written well, especially the Doctor, distilled to an iconic essence but kept relatable and fun. And yet, Parasite seems to be missing something.
It’s set in a mysterious “Artifact”: a vast, enclosed ecosystem where the laws of gravity (for starters) fluctuate on a whim. There are walls made of ocean, floating continents that dip in and out of them like salmon, and various flora and fauna all about, much of it hostile, or just inexplicable. It becomes increasingly clear that the whole world is linked and alive somehow. I imagine it was quite a light-bulb moment when Jim thought of this place, and what it’s capable of. It’s fascinating, and a lot of fun watching the traditional rules of alien planets get bent out of shape, right from the start as Bernice floats out of the TARDIS.
And there are also those excellent moments – “cinematic” is the word I gravitate towards, like how my stomach practically turned in Lucifer Rising during the bridge collapse. There’s a sequence early in Parasite where a great wall of the Artifact moves of its own accord, devastating a space shuttle and everyone on board – the dread is absolutely palpable, the images striking. Similarly there’s a bit where Ace is drawn inexorably into a wall of ocean which is just gloriously nightmarish.
Where Parasite stumbles, I suspect, is the plot. Not trying to sound glib here, but there isn’t much of it. There’s some political setup, as the world of Elysium is gradually torn about by different belief systems, hence expeditions to the monolith-ish Artifact that may help to shape their understanding, and their future. One of those expeditions goes awry early on (curiously the second expedition don’t seem to know about this; I’m not sure how much time elapsed between) and another comes along with similar results. The Doctor and co. arrive, they inevitably split up and go with different groups, and then everyone involved pretty much just tries to survive events and/or make sense of the Artifact as all hell breaks loose. The environment becomes more dangerous, landscapes and cities are built and torn apart, there are a stupendous number of monkeys involved, characters are possessed by intelligences and poisoned by fungi, time passes in surprisingly large bursts and it just goes on until it’s done. It’s a bit numbing by the end by which point, thanks to a bit of mind-reading, Ace delivers an enormous amount of exposition about the Artifact and how it all works. It’s a lot to get your head around in one go, especially so late in the book, and coming from Ace it’s positively surreal.
This is what happens when the Doctor is out of the action. Seeking to prevent a malign intelligence from using him, he pretty much switches himself off for most of the book. Which is fair enough, as Bernice and Ace are (exposition notwithstanding) rounded enough to shoulder the story. Both have moments of very evocative memory (again, that filmic quality), with Ace in particular making some firm steps towards her departure from the series. We rely on her military experience (during those books where she was absent) to inform her present, which is about as good as post-Love And War Ace gets, if I'm honest.
Ace must do some terrible things to survive here, and the Doctor can’t reverse all the damage. I do hope this isn’t leading to another of those (seemingly standard) falling-outs, as it certainly ends on a familiarly dark note between the two. In fact, dark much? Ace murders someone almost by accident, everyone except the main three gets killed, the planet-killing monstrosity of the title lets one of its “eggs” go before the Doctor can stop it, and he’s just going to let that one go. He has zero intention of wading into an Elysium civil war or saving them when their own Doomsday Machine comes alive. He's still capable of amazing stuff, when he can be bothered: see him shrugging off a bullet wound to one of his hearts. (This bit is rather too off-screen. Why bother giving him an apparently mortal wound so close to the end, if it’s just a shrug-it-off thing immediately afterwards? There's also an odd reference to a maybe-possibly-I-think regeneration taking place, apparently put in there because Virgin were toying with a new Doctor at the time. Since that went nowhere, this bit's bloody odd.)
I wish the finale was a little more measured out, so stuff like that can be processed. After such a slow burn of nature taking its disastrous course, and characters simply existing at its mercy, it’s a little sudden to start explaining it and assigning blame. As an emotional climax, the reader has already seen so much horror that the Doctor's comparative bastardliness seems like an afterthought. See also the I-suppose-you-could-call-him-that villain of the piece, Alex Bannen’s son Mark (see Lucifer Rising): there isn’t time to develop his personality flaws to the same degree as his father’s, so he just becomes a rather odd recurring figure, a tool as much as the gun he’s holding in the finale. There’s a recurring motif of his mother’s death on Earth, but like the political situation on Elysium, this is buried quite low in the mix.
A number of the characters feel a bit sketched in, although that may be because so many of them die before we get to know them. One of them recurs in a different form: Benjamin Green, a man on a mission, who has a fateful meeting with Bannen and becomes "Midnight", a swirling, evolving, mind-reading mass of… something? He’s probably meant to evoke the Artifact in miniature, but I spent all of his scenes wondering why the other characters weren't gawping at him in utter bogglement. On the one hand I think it’s a shame Parasite doesn’t come with illustrations, as it’s such a rich and evocative setting; on the other hand, good luck drawing stuff like Midnight.
If I’d reviewed Parasite at the halfway point, I’d probably come across more positive. Before it began its downward trajectory towards utter chaos, I was able to marvel at the ideas, and enjoy the little moments. Many of these involve the Doctor, who in (what I like to think of as) typical Mortimore style manages to mix a slight otherworldliness with ordinariness. He is firstly iconic: “A familiar shape, backlit by the fire. Hat. Umbrella. Eyes turned in wonder to the storm, drinking in the view.” But he is also able to sneak up on people without making a sound, which is just deliciously other. The text often revels in the sheer incongruity of his appearance, such as a moment where he literally floats past, doffing his cap but able to offer no actual assistance. All of this, plus an utterly disarming fallibility: “‘I had the situation completely–’ Only Gail saw the Doctor’s fingers crossed behind his back, and shuddered, ‘–under control.’” (Also – not quoting it in full, but it’s on page 75 – there’s an adorable bit where the Doctor gets moss on his hands, and can’t get the stuff off, much to Bernice’s amusement.)
Towards the end though, Parasite becomes a somewhat incidental exercise in getting all these events and disasters on the page, with the characters nearly as passive and helpless as we are. Just as there isn’t time to marvel at what the heck Midnight even is, we never really tackle the ludicrousness of the vast society of monkeys, who occasionally need to commit mass suicide, some of whom can talk, but only in a flat and pedantic manner. It should probably be hilariously odd; instead it’s just a very peculiar idea among many, like some vast galloping monsters and an enormous grey wall of death.
Parasite is commendably ambitious, bringing to mind Venusian Lullaby. At first this you could call this a pretty lazy parallel: Paul Leonard took a similar approach to his alien life as Parasite does to its world, aka as "out there" as possible. But it’s a literal comparison too, as Bernice recalls the Venusian process of “remembering”, a method of keeping the memories of the dead by eating their brains. (Yum!) It makes sense to draw a line between these books, as both err on the side of ideas rather than plot, and heck, I do appreciate that it’s hard to strike a balance. The weirder your ideas, the more a conventional plot structure might seem like you’re conceding something. But I do wish Parasite had some more individual motivations to go with its great, turning wheel of life, and personified its aliens a little more than giving one of the monkeys a name, and letting a character like Midnight ponder on the periphery.
It’s possibly the strangest New Adventure since Transit, and I suspect it has its ardent fans, as well as their baffled opposites. It probably comes down to what you want in a book. If you want a new world, you got it.