Wednesday, 9 February 2011

History 101 by Mags L Halliday

Plot: Someone is interfering with the perception of history as the Doctor, Fitz and Anji discover, visiting Picasso’s Guernica and discovering it doesn’t horrify them the way it used to. The hop back to the Spanish Civil War and discover things aren’t as clear cut as they seemed, somebody is interfering with how we perceive historical events and several important moments are being seen from very different points of view…

Top Doc: Surprisingly muted for the most part but sensitively written nonetheless. It is painful when he falls to his feet howling at the loss of the TARDIS, the one thing that can truly reduce him to nothing. Seeing him become a shell of a man, mistakenly convincing himself that he can make the machine day after day for months is haunting, especially the thought of him taking a crowbar to the glassed of book sections, violently angry at being cut off from the secret knowledge of the TARDIS. It is only when he realises he has been looking at the problem the wrong way around that he solves it, nothing is wrong with the TARDIS it has just been trying to protect itself. I loved it when he finally stepped out of the shadows and set about restoring anarchy to history, his debate with Enrique is unique because it finally pins down what the Doctor is about, stopping any one person from making history exist from their point of view, he exists to make sure everyone can be heard, every view point satisfied. Once he discovers Sabbath’s involvement he is angry at his manipulation and wonders just how far his enemy is involved. Described as someone who can smile at you like you are the most important person in the entire world.

Scruffy Git: A scruffy, smug sod, according to Anji. Manages to get by despite being his own worst enemy. Described as an old penny who always turns up again. I like the idea of the Doctor sending Fitz off on an important mission and they way he achieves this, without the smugness or the intelligence or ability of, say Benny or Anji, but getting by on his wits and good humour, living rough, striking up a friendship with an agent of his enemy and wearing him down so he likes him. Fitz is all about personality and seeing how he achieves so much here just by being himself is beautifully done. His relationship with Anji has softened considerably too and now they bicker like brother and sister who love each other deeply. Seeing the horror of Guernica from Fitz’s POV is best way the book could have presented it, through his very human eyes the massacre is truly nightmarish.

Career Nazi: As is common with the last few books it is Anji who takes the plaudits and thanks to the talents of another female writer she is rounding off very nicely. She tries to stay outwardly collective when irritated and his militant debating skills. She is no longer the weary cynic that the 20th Century demanded. She admits history will have to deal with her gender and colour and goes insane when she is called a little black bitch. She seems to fit in wonderfully in Spain, this surprisingly cultured piece of history suiting her professional, sensual needs. Her cataloguing of all the unusual events is very nice, Anji practically taking over the Doctor’s role whilst he is obsessed with the TARDIS. She hates not being able to predict things and says that she is not girly girl despite running terrified from a horrid multi limbed monster. Sweetly, she is bothered by how much she misses Fitz and from her playful attitude with him it is clear she is deeply fond of him now. She feels nauseous at the thought of somebody invading her privacy, keeping track of her personal life. She realises she might not be as logical or as smart as she thinks.

Ham fists: Sabbath is concerned that matters are resolved to his satisfaction. Here he wishes to see the System, a data network that contains information about him (specifically how his shackles were released…), destroyed. He is still using agents to do his dirty work. He considers Fitz and Anji to be the Doctor’s agents rather than his friends and admits Jueves/Sasha was extremely impressed with their ability.

Foreboding: In a completely unrelated moment (to the plot, that is) the Doctor spots Fitz’s handwriting in his copy of the Age of Reason and turns de
athly pale as if realising something terrible. In truth he has a battered old journal from a doomed expedition to Siberia (also foreshadowed in Anachrophobia), which he now realises, was written by Fitz at some point in the future. From now on, Fitz is marked. Also Sabbath pulls the Doctor to one side at the climax and says, “There is another matter…” but we don’t hear any more. That black sun eyeball is once again watching over events…

Twists: The very first chapter sets out to trick you as Sabbath sends his agent out wipe some fellow travellers (given what we know of him my immediate reaction was the Doctor and his friends but he is talking of the Absolute). The Absolute is a marvellous idea, a servant of a data network and sent to a certain time period to record all events without bias (he could see everything, each person, at every age, every perspective, all overlapping but fitting together to create a full representation). To demonstrate the unobtrusiveness of her argument, Halliday features Durriti’s death and the bombing of Guernica several times, taken in completely different contexts depending on how they are perceived, it’s an extremely thoughtful approach to writing a historical novel and getting us to think about its importance. Miquel’s body is flipped inside out as the Absolute tries to bring him into the System. The Absolute sees the Doctor, Fitz and Anji flickering in and out of existence because they are and aren’t supposed to be there. Denied access to the Hub, the Absolute needs to find a way of dumping all the conflicting data (perceptions) and discovers a link to the TARDIS, a machine with acres of space. Enrique is furious when he tries to correlate perceptions of the same thing because each of them are vastly different (Selectively editing reality until it fitted in with what they wanted it to be). The destruction of Guernica is visually arresting. Fitz realises history is never tidy when he watches one version of the bombing take place, the bombers trying to take out the roads and the wind dragging them into Guernica. Anji and Elena being attacked in the moonlight park by a creature of many twisted limbs is great. The twist that Fitz’s friend Sahsa is also Anji’s friend Jueves is excellent, with Sasha asking Sabbath to take him back a few months so he can live them again as Jueves. The scene where Anji tracks down Blair to the telephone exchange and sees thousands of images of herself, the Doctor and Fitz hanging in the air is really trippy. Sasha uses the TARDIS to retroactively revert history back to normal. In the dramatic climax the Doctor forces Enrique to confront the proper version of the Guernica bombing, finally allowing it to reconcile its insanity of differing viewpoints.

Embarrassing bits: I can understand folk who might not have patience giving up on this book early on, there are far too many characters (Alberto, Luiz, the Absolute, Sabbath, the agent, Duritti, McNair, Elena, Miquel, Pia, Blair…) and plotlines introduced. About two-thirds into the book the plot stalls whilst we have a riot in Barcelona which adds little to the plot and distracts from the main threads.

Result: A book which is not afraid of flaunting its intelligence and will leave those behind who wont put the right amount of effort. Saying that, the rewards a manifold; a complex and fascinating plot, some startling ideas, a brilliantly original way of going about exploring a historical event, another excellent use of the regulars… Following hot on the heels of a book that couldn’t be more different, this is an equally thoughtful book which prefers to contemplate rather than thrill and succeeds in intimately exploring the many viewpoints of the Spanish Civil War and continue the eighth Doctor arc plot with Sabbath proving as elusive and dangerous as ever. People say the book has a dry edge to it with documental rather than sensual prose but isn’t that rather the point? By allowing us to see history from so many viewpoints the plot does veer off in far too many directions but I doubt it would be as interesting without this unusual technique. It is a striking debut, layered with meaning and educational, I took my time with it and found it revealing experience: 8/10

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