Friday, 14 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #45 – Infinite Requiem by Daniel Blythe

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Infinite Requiem
By Daniel Blythe

The New Adventures are going somewhere new again.  Ace is gone!  Properly gone this time, although for all I know there’s a cameo waiting to happen.  (Hush.)

So we’ve got Doctor Who starring the Doctor and Bernice Summerfield.  Good.  Now, I wouldn’t put Daniel Blythe’s name forward as the obvious inaugural writer of The New Doctor And Bernice Adventures (it’ll catch on), but he did a good job with her in his first novel, The Dimension Riders, so why not?  It wasn’t a very accomplished book, even among these humble Who stories – it dealt too much in cliché – but there were times when it sparked.  Roughly all of those times were when Bernice had something to do.

I might as well burst that bubble up front.  The Doctor is in it, Bernice is in it, and that’s about as exciting as they get.  Blythe is far too interested in his own characters to dwell on these two, or even put the two of them together.  But hey, at least you’ve got loads of interesting new characters to focus on… and I might as well burst that one as well.  Big fat nope.  Infinite Requiem seems in a constant rush to point out how many people and things and places it covers, but it rarely provides a reason to be captivated by any of them.  This is a sprawling, thin piece of work.

Fair’s fair, as it got on the wrong side of me immediately, maybe I wasn’t very receptive.  Infinite Requiem is an eye-roller of a pretentious title, and the book begins with yet another mystifying prologue.  Just what is with all the damn prologues, anyway?  I’ve taken them for granted most of my life, and I’m only now wondering if they’re an especially Doctor Who obsession.  As if 200+ pages aren’t enough to instil a bit of mystery, many of these authors feel the need to fanny about with some metaphysical what-the-effery first.  (If it’s not a mysterious figure being sinister in the dark, then it’ll be someone or something going “Light!  Dark!  There is pain, only there isn’t!  I am one, many, nothing!  Wait, what?” usually in the first person, maybe present tense.)  I tend to re-read these things desperately trying to figure them out, but it’s always pointless.  If they have any relevance it’ll come so much later that you won’t recall them anyway.  And once you get past that you’re rewarded with yet more epigraphs, in all their “Well done me, I read a book once” glory.  And then the book is divided into four named parts, so… it’ll be more like the telly?  And the fourth part is called DARK TRINITY ASCENDANT.  There are so many earnestly snooty bells and whistles in this, and they all give off a whiff of “Take me seriously, I beg of you!”  I mean, bless, but stop it.

We then launch into a battle on Gadrell Major, which highlights another problem: lots of (not terribly deep) characters, lots of things happening, all crammed into too few pages.  Who are these people?  No time, off we go again.  And if we’re not chopping over to somebody new, the character is pausing to indulge in a flashback.  It takes some of the excitement away from, you know, a warzone when the characters we’ve just met are standing about wishing they were somewhere else, and gradually trying to figure out how they got there.  Let alone how boringly obvious it is to pause the action so the characters can join those dots for us.  I actually missed St. Anthony’s Fire reading this, even though the war-torn characters there did a lot of reminiscing as well.  Mark Gatiss just handled it with a bit more patience.  I still remember the sight of a weary general getting a moment to himself, and pulling his knees up slowly to his chin.  He had more humanity than this lot, and he was a lizard.

Speaking of the past, it might help to remember how Blythe handled different settings in The Dimension Riders.  These worked out roughly as 1) sort-of-sequel to Shada set in Oxford, 2) sort-of-Star Trek stuff on a spaceship where the bad guy is.  The Shada stuff was much more enjoyable.  Even the prose bounced off the page a little more, seeming sharper and funnier, whereas the spaceship stuff was forgettable, with stock space characters going about their duties (I’m guessing, since I had forgotten most of it by the end of that book) and a Big Bad ranting and raving like they all do.  Well, Infinite Requiem is like The Dimension Riders if you took out all the Oxford stuff.  The occasionally witty prose is AWOL.  I can only assume it was just a fleeting bit of Adams mimicry.  (In its place is an occasional random bit of wit, like a character saying they can’t wait to devour a good book, then eating one; also there’s a chapter entitled “Womb Service”.  Nobody said it was consistent.)  The characters have a few painful back stories, but none of those translate into interesting people.  One of them turned out, to my horror, to be a recurring character from Blythe’s other book.  Since I didn’t recall Darius Cheynor at all, it will come as little surprise that he made no impression on me here.  Every time we cut back to Gadrell Major, and the wooden Cheynor trying to resolve a conflict with the peculiar Phractons over a wrecked planet, it was a fight to keep ploughing through pages.

To the extent that the book comes alive, it is in the 1997 part of events, when the Doctor meets Tilusha Meswani, a pregnant woman with a psychic foetus.  (Yep.)  Her abusive love story, with her family turning their backs on her, carries pathos.  Her story also informs the battle against Shanstra (head of a psychic triumvirate, blah blah Big Bad) later on.  There’s a quite exciting moment when an ambulance crashes with her and the Doctor in it.  Tilusha is the closest Infinite Requiem gets to a real person, and (inevitably?) she isn’t in it very long.  As for her baby, mingled with another mind from the triumvirate and quickly grown into an adult, Blythe bundles him/her into the TARDIS for most of the book, where he/she can wait for the final confrontation with Shanstra.  Once it’s all over, Sanjay is left as a one-day-old adult alone in the universe.  The book doesn’t begin to ponder that, or how much he’s lost, relegating him to the usual panto walk-down of goodbyes at the end.  If it isn’t our old friend, the reasonably interesting yet unexplored idea.  (And seriously, what an absolutely appalling start he’s had!  His mother’s gone, his family pre-emptively hate him, he won’t get back there anyway, and his lifespan comes up about 20 years short.  So long, good luck etc.)

Meanwhile, we do (sort of) explore the idea of psychics, or at least provide four whole groups of them.  There are the dangerous Sensopaths; invading (but broadly not-evil) Phractons; the Pridka, who are another group of psychics in this apparently (oh wait, fins, they have fins!); and there are some telepathic humans as well.  And yet, for the word-count devoted to them, Infinite Requiem doesn’t really say anything about telepaths.  The Sensopaths, or two out of three, are miserably predictable bad guys, excusing brutal murders because they’re “beautiful” and greeting our heroes with naff lines like “‘Have you come to play?’  The Phractons are globes with psychic jelly in them, and they have a whole linked society, but it never comes to much; they’re just part of the war scenery.  The Pridka inhabit the book’s weakest and least developed setting, the Dream Centre, where the other still-not-as-bad-as-the-main-one member of the triumvirate is causing problems.  This is so without interest that it barely registered, and ditto the Pridka, a bunch of thingummies milling around there.  The psychic humans are indistinguishable from the rest, apart from occasionally pointing out that they’re psychic.  Really, I wonder why the book is so obsessed with this topic if it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about it.

If I seem a little disjointed in tackling this one, perhaps it’s because I rarely sat down and read it in one sitting.  On top of a simply unengaging story and a lot of sketchy characters, the book’s structure works against getting the reader involved.  Blythe writes almost entirely in short bursts, which means there’s never any hope of momentum building.  Now, this device can work very well at doing precisely that: if your story is reaching a critical point, keeping it short-but-sweet can create a certain excitement.  But it doesn’t work like that when it’s the entire bloody book.  Nothing in Infinite Requiem ever seems like a big deal because we’re always off somewhere else – no worlds build, no characters breathe.  Every time we return to Gadrell Major, for example, it’s just the same bloody boring slag-heap full of tanks as when we last saw it.  And that writing style backfires all over again when we reach the action-packed finale – when, of course, a staggered pace might ordinarily have helped, now it’s so par for the course that it doesn’t add anything.  Shanstra’s inevitable demise reads like the rest of it; i.e., totally underwhelming.

The writing that comprises these short sections is not exactly distinguished.  Blythe seems as obsessed with similes as he is with cutting away.  Like any device they’re perfectly fine in moderation, but he sprinkles the damn things everywhere, from the banal (“landing neatly on all fours like a cat”) to the awkwardly odd (“‘Rain,’ the Doctor said softly, watching it lash like angry monsters against the ambulance”).  There’s also an inconsistent habit of using characters’ full names, as if we might run into more than one Darius, Phil or Tilusha ’round these parts.  And while I can understand this might seem like no big deal, there’s a pretty embarrassing collection of Doctor Who references on display.

These came somewhat naturally to The Dimension Riders, since it was more or less a sequel, but what reason is there now for the Doctor to bring up the Key To Time, point out that characters remind him of the Brigadier and Sarah Jane (they wish), admit that his fourth incarnation was a hoot at parties but his sixth was “stranger” (shots fired – or more likely, another reference), or quote a Venusian lullaby?  And it’s not just him: in a tediously typical display of forced “character development”, Sanjay (whilst inhabited by a psychic force) starts picking apart his character arc for him, including the early juggling-and-spoon-playing era, his later tendency to behave like a “chess player”, and various events that have happened during the New Adventures.  I like continuity when it informs the characters or the story – it worked for Set Piece – but this is just a back-slapping display of “I know stuff about Doctor Who.”  To the extent that it is saying anything, it’s obvious.  And with all due respect, more than 30 books into the series and after a whole sub-set of past Doctor books has begun, the average reader and fan is unlikely to be impressed by a cameo from the Monoids.

But there is a flicker of usefulness to continuity.  In the early chapters, Bernice and the Doctor are still reeling from Ace’s departure.  Bernice is wondering what it’ll be like when it’s just the two of them (you and me both…), while the Doctor – naturally wondering if Bernice will bugger off too when he isn’t looking – is still so exhausted from Set Piece, he catches himself longing to regenerate.  It’s difficult for me to get too excited about character development derived from Ace, since I’m desperate for these books to forge a life away from her, but it’s an interesting place to find our characters.  Aaaand then there’s a story that doesn’t do very much with either of them.  Bernice gets bundled off with a holographic Doctor, who seems to exist to provide a distraction in two crucial scenes where a handful of glitter might have done, and the Doctor (in a not atypical dark mood) manipulates people.  The book ends on a sour note as two characters are consigned to tragic deaths in history.  The Doctor’s, and ultimately Bernice’s acceptance of this really ought to give bittersweet pause, but this bit of climax is just as rushed as the rest of it.  (And the characters in question are of such miniscule fascination that it is, at best, mildly surprising that they’ve died.)  Two books to go, just-the-Doctor-and-Bernice.  Step it ruddy well up.

I usually enjoy eviscerating really bad books, but Infinite Requiem doesn’t even have the gusto to stink.  It’s not as diabolical as something like The Ghosts Of N-Space, which makes reviewing it a bit harder.  There’s a dull, but basically serviceable story in here, and a variety of stock ideas, which some people will like.  But it’s an utter chore to wade through, testing your patience by hitting Pause every half-a-page, pouring misery into its characters’ lives but never really bringing them to life, and juggling a solid variety of stuff with a frustratingly docile imagination.  I think I’m past giving these books the benefit of the doubt, certainly on an author’s second go.  I’m too fed up after all that: following it was a misery, remembering it isn’t terribly easy.  Still though, every cloud.


NB: And that’s the end of this Blog Week.  Stay tuned for reviews 46–50, starting with Steve Lyons’s Time Of Your Life.

1 comment:

  1. I do not enjoy novels about superhuman telepaths whose motivation is to cause physical and psychological pain throughout the universe. There is not much fun exploring the mind of a serial killer who has been granted the power of a god. Perhaps it is also because I have absolutely no belief in parapsychological powers, and so simply view them as magic, an unexplained and convenient plot device. Of course in Doctor Who, I must suffer quite a lot of psionics.

    I can enjoy such a novel if it has other fun and interesting things in it: Blood Harvest had the Doctor running a booze can in 1920s Chicago and Romanadvoratrelundar hunting vampires. Unfortunately the evil psionic aliens intrude into every chapter of "Infinite Requiem," so that the interesting alien cultures of the cybernetic Phractons and the peaceful telepathic Pridkas are only tangentially explored. I was also somewhat disappointed by the relative lack of opportunities for humour.

    One good point is that most of the points of plot and characterization are made amply clear in the end. Indeed the author actually writes three chapters after the destruction of the big bad evil one. However I do not really understand what was meant by the phrase, "infinite requiem." An unending mass for the dead? Endless music to lament all the dead in the universe sounds more like the work of someone who mourns death and remembers life fondly, rather than a villain who only enjoys pain and power.

    (Some reviewers complain about the death of Suzi, but I reasoned that her death was necessary for the safety of the universe, since she had been infected by the telepathic power of the godlike Sensopaths.)