Sunday, 28 November 2010

So Vile a Sin by Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman

Plot: Roz Forrester is dead. N Forms are blossoming, Empresses are dying, Wars are brewing…this is the story of how she died.

Master Manipulator: In a way this is the ultimate exploration of the Doctor and in others it is an over dramatic slant on this already angst soaked incarnation. The Doctor is seen in many, many different lights as we experience a number of alternatives Doctor’s as the Nexus spits out its universe twisting tendrils. One died on Yemaya 4. One didn’t regenerate in Planet of the Spiders and lived through the 80’s and 90’s and saw the Earth through its negotiations with the Martians in 2010.

When the Doctor comes into contact with the Nexus he has to try and work his way through 2003 different timelines…he manages to whittle it down to 50, then 10, then 1. Whilst accomplishing this feat he looks as if he has lost substance. Astonishingly he kills the Empress of the Earth Empire, the old harpy. Both the Doctor and Roz left their homes and became something more. In the books best scene he threatens Roz that if she aids her sister to wage a war that will kill millions their friendship is over. It’s spine tingling because for once he is powerless to stop her making her own decisions. He suffers a near fatal heart attack at her funeral and is a wasted shell, confined to a wheelchair. There is no one for him to take his revenge on, nobody he can blame her death on. She made sure of that, that’s why he is dead inside.

Stroppy Copper: Roz’s last book. She had the potential to be the best seventh Doctor companion. Seriously, as much as I adored Bernice (and believe me she does take the number one position by some distance) Roz is actually far more interesting because she has so much potential. Her background has been scrupulously worked out and her vices (racism, stubbornness, general stroppiness) make her the most malleable of characters. A shame then that only four or five authors bothered to write her with any respect, if they remembered to write her in at all. Roz starred in less than twenty books but there is only seven or so where she makes any impact. It’s irritating because in those books she is just so good (Just War, The Also People, Christmas on a Rational Planet). So where does So Vile a Sin fall when it comes to Roz? Aside from one or two truly winding scenes in the last fifty pages it is another waste of her character – and in her swansong too! I mean come on…this books deals with Roz’s homecoming with such insouciant incompetence it’s a wonder why they bothered. She has been missing for years, presumed dead and she’s accepted back into the family as if she was never away. We are denied a confrontation between Roz and her mother (who I presume is dead…she doesn’t get a mention) who dictated so much of her beautiful characterisation in The Also People and her relationship with her sister lacks warmth or conflict. What’s more aside from the climax Roz is really an afterthought in the grand sweep of events that is taking place. She pops up throughout the book, an action scene here, a witty quip there but for what should have been a book that lived and breathed her character this is insignificant stuff compared to the Lance Parkin or Aaronovitch’s previous work with the character. What’s more the opening section of the book sees Roz as the Doctor’s employee rather than her friend, on another mission for her. Frustrating.

The Doctor says that Roz’s life has more possibilities than Chris. The Empire had changed. Or maybe it was her. How much of what she remembered had changed since she had been travelling with the Doctor? She still wears her engagement and thinks of George – a lovely touch. She felt there was a switch in her head called ‘That’s too Big’ which had flipped a few times in her travels with the Doctor. Roz is younger than Leabie but looks and feels older. She feels she has come home and brought the monsters with her. Leabie offers her the position of Head of the Order of Adjudicators and she accepts this as a position to help shape history.
The Doctor doesn’t want her to take and warns her if you see history coming, duck. The reason Leabie won’t be a tyrant like the Empress of Walid is because Roz will be watching over her. The Doctor threatens Roz that if she goes to war their friendship is over and in an astonishing moment she finally steps out of his shadow and stands up to him, telling him he owes her this decision for everything she has been through for him. She admits she won’t be able to look the Doctor in the eye if she throws her lot into this war and not get her hands dirty. After her death Chris’s eulogy states that heaven will be a fairer place when Roz is done with it and I can’t think of a lovelier way to think of her character. Roz wrote the last chapter on her life, which was always going to be how she left the Doctor.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Why do I bother? He snogs Roz again. And weeps a bit. He’s just rubbish. And now we’re stuck with him solo.

Twists: Mei-Feng has a multidimensional time bomb hiding in her head. The N Form explodes out of her head. Roz sets an explosive, which brings tons of dwarf star alloy down on the creature. An artefact is resting under Artemis Mons, a psychic signal is emanating from under Ipigenia, something very old and damaged, a bow ship carrier TARDIS, the same size on the inside as on the outside. The N Forms were built to attack the Great Vampires. This TARDIS was trapped in Agamemnon’s gravity and sending out an erratic call for help and automatically switching on the N Forms it comes into contact with (Damaged Goods). The Doctor sets it to self-destruct. The self sacrificing Ogrons is a lovely touch. The Joseph Conrad is a city ship – a touch of The Also People. Zatopek, an agent of the Brotherhood is suddenly an alternative of the Doctor as the Nexus stretches out, suffocating him. The Empress’ body is kept alive whilst her mind is slaved to Centcomp. The computer runs the Empire and she begs the Doctor to kill her, which he does. The Empire starts falling apart at the seams, all those possibilities spraying out of the Nexus. Thandiwe was cloned from Leabie to fill the gap in the Forrester line that Roz left. The Time Lords chose to make the universe rational, they were the first species to evolve in the universe and Rassilon made the decision to turn his back on magick and embrace science. Psi was the last magick to survive because it was the most like science and the psi lines became an early warning system of irrationality to be stamped out. The Nexus is where these lines converge and when the Doctor came into contact with it it released every potential possibility of his existence. The N Forms are typical Time Lord blunders, they don’t just detect psi, they actively attack it! Chris is offered a job as Leabie’s personal pilot so if things had ended less bloodily they both would have stayed behind in this adventure. Walid is (predictably) working with the Brotherhood – they want to bring all those with potential into fruition. The Doctor is tortured horribly, they flick through all the alternatives where he died to try and convince him to help. There’s a second Nexus in the solar system.

Embarrassing Bits: I want to be constructive about my criticism but part of me just wants to scream ‘WHY?’
because this should have been as good as everyone says it is but I feel people are rather blinded by the top drama surrounding Roz’s death and forget the wealth of flaws that stack up throughout this novel. It’s one of the few books where I want to criticise the ambition, a shocking admission but there is just too much squeezed into too little space. This book is 312 pages long but really the events should take place over a 600 page Interference style epic – or even over a series of books. The upcoming Gods arc in the Bernice New Adventures is no where near as dramatic or as twisting as the events in this book and they would have been much better off exploring these events in greater depth over four or five really meaty novels than stuffing all these developments into one biblical novel. My biggest of several problems is that the book skips over the most dramatic of events as though it were discussing a tea time snack simply because it doesn’t have the breathing space to execute it with any kind of panache or style. Events such as the Doctor killing the Empress of the Earth Empire, his trial, Roz’s homecoming, the final devastating War and her death…all rushed and most of it happening off the page and being recounted after, Adventuress style, but from the point of view of the characters so we know they survive these terrible events. So much of this book should have left me gasping for air and under the right circumstances would have. Instead it left me cold and disinterested. Unthinkable.

The prologue is a genuinely awful piece of writing, harshly written Transit style with lots of future slang and characters introduced that we don’t see again for 100’s of pages. It reeks of Aaronovitch so it makes me wonder if this would have actually been better if he had finished the book. It’s disjointed, nonsensical and stuffed with continuity.

Useless material gains focus whilst dramatic developments are practically ignored. Orman spends pages and pages handling stuff like the Doctor, Chris and Roz shopping but skips merrily over the house of Forrester being invaded! The alternative third Doctor and the Zatopek double Doctor should have been skipped altogether to allow moments such as the revelation about the Time Lords creating the N Forms to actually be worked into the plot dramatically rather than the Doctor info dumping this over breakfast with Roz. I mean come on…these books have been leading up to this revelation and it’s just chatted about casually! Argh!

Pages 273-299 sees an entire war take place, planets destroyed, alliances shifting, sacrifices made…25 pages are you having a laugh? Its just dull, dull, dull…spat out like a news story when we should be experiencing the horror and the scale of the fight. It was like somebody had squeezed a horrific conflict into the palm of their hand and bled away all the conflict. This should have been an entire novel.

This book is essentially two stories, strenuously linked together at the end. Part one ties up all the threads of the psi powers arc whilst part two deals with Roz’s homecoming. Or rather it doesn’t because there is no time left to explore it. So Vile a Sin is the Planet of Fire of the novels, it just has to end up doing too much and ends up doing nothing especially well.

Lack of answers: Why does the Brotherhood want to active all the latent psi powers? Why is Walid working with them beyond a petty thirst for power and when did that begin? Why did the Time Lords create such a ridiculous and destructive weapon to destroy the Great Vampires…for beings who can control Time this is remarkably unsubtle? Who set up the computer that runs the Empire? Why is there a second Nexus in the solar system and where did it come from? Why has Leabie been building an army on such an awesome scale and how has she managed to keep it a secret? Who the hell are Genevieve and Simon and why are they so important? Why? Why? Why? Rush, rush, rush…no time for explanations!

Oh and the Doctor is chatting away with Death again, he’s still completely mad.

Result: What a senseless waste. So Vile a Sin is the biggest casualty of the New Adventures wrap up. Gobbled up by Ben Aaronovitch’s computer never to see the light of day, Kate Orman steps into the breach and completes a novel that needed at least another 200 pages to come anywhere near dealing with this plot satisfactorily. The two writer’s styles are diametrically opposite; Aaronovitch is all world building, imagination and head fucks whilst Orman is the character queen, the lighter touch to the range. Occasionally their styles create some magic (the Doctor finding the bow ship carrier, Roz’s final confrontation with the Doctor) but more often this book feels as though an intruder is executing its grand ideas. And what ideas they are…a summary of So Vile a Sin sees an imaginative, sprawling epic the like of which we have never seen in Doctor Who before but a summary is all we get. So much of this book is disjointed, rushed or just plain ignored we are denied the pleasure of actually experiencing the imagination and emotions of such a twisted masterpiece. A TARDIS from the Great Time War spewing signals out and activating N Forms. The Doctor assassinating the Empress of the Earth Empire. Alternative realities spat into ours. A war that spans Empires. The death of a Companion. All skipped over rather than engaged, explored, dealt with. A book that desperately wanted to exist before the Virgin Doctor Who licence ran out and its lack of a logo is perhaps the most telling sign for such a disappointingly unclimatic novel. With the luxury of more time and more pages, this could have been the best Doctor Who book. For the ambition: 4/10

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