The more I read of Miles the more convinced I become that he is to science fiction novels what Grant Morrison is to comics.
Miles is clearly influenced by Morrison, in much the same way the Morrison himself is influenced by Alan Moore – I recently read a message board thread in which a fan had written to Miles asking if he’d ever read Doom Patrol, to which the reply was just ‘how do you think I learned to write like that?’ – but he has his own style, one far more suited to novels. (Miles is also as abrasive and – quite often – irritating in his public persona as Morrison was twenty years ago, when for a long time I wouldn’t read his comics because his interviews put me off. I was eleven at the time, so can probably be forgiven)
The problem is, much as Morrison does most of his work using the mythology he grew up with – superheroes – as the basis for his stories, Miles uses Doctor Who, which limits his readership enormously.
The TV spin-off novel is not somewhere where one naturally looks for literary merit, and if TV spin-off novels are often poor, then spin-offs of those spin-offs could be expected to be truly horrible, full of terrible writing and fannish in-jokes, aimed at only the most insanely obsessive completist.
So when people hear that Dead Romance is a book originally written for the New Adventures, a series that started off as Doctor Who spin-off novels before continuing on based on a supporting character when they lost the Doctor Who license; that it doesn’t even feature that supporting character but a new character who is possibly connected to her in an initially-unspecified way; and that this edition of the novel is a reprint as a semi-apocryphal part of the Faction Paradox series, a series of novels that span off from *another*, unconnected, line of Doctor Who books, one might forgive them for assuming it was illiterate dribble fit only for consumption by Ian Levine.
In fact this is one of the most interesting and intelligent SF novels I’ve read in a long time. If, as Millennium’s Daddy Richard once said to me, The Book Of The War is the BBC/Doctor Who version of The Invisibles’ ITC serials, Dead Romance is volume 4 of Zenith, seen through a filter of Doctor Who rather than old British adventure comics, and written by Kurt Vonnegut.
In fact, the Vonnegut comparison is very valid. There’s a similar fascination here with the actual physical page, the actual text itself, the same slightly distanced tone, the same ‘big picture’ view of human beings as being only (or possibly less than) their component parts, the same slightly non-linear, rambling structure. It came as no surprise to me to find an interview with Miles (and quite a fascinating one) speaking of Vonnegut as one of the few writers he admired – one of the few who was trying to actually *write*, rather than put films onto the page.
And you could read this without having ever heard of Doctor Who and come away without ever knowing it was connected to something else. It’s just a science fiction (or really science fantasy) novel. The few elements from the Who ‘mythos’ included are so radically reworked that someone who didn’t know where they came from would think the influence was Lovecraft or Philip K. Dick rather than Doctor Who.
Apparently Dead Romance is regarded as in some way an ‘experimental’ novel by fans of the Doctor Who novels. This says *far* more about the Doctor Who novels (which can roughly be split into four groups – those by hacks who’d worked on the TV show and needed a quick pay cheque, those by fans who wanted to answer all the continuity questions they’d been bothered by, those by fans who wanted to show that Doctor Who was really grown up adult entertainment by mentioning bare ladies and the spliffs and the young persons’ rock and roll music, and those by people who could actually write and wanted to do something interesting. Sometimes these categories overlapped.)
The ‘experimental’ nature of Dead Romance only extends as far as Miles doing things like having a slightly unreliable narrator, having the story be told in a discursive manner rather than a strictly linear one – in short, the things I would think of as being basic for anyone who wants to do actual *good writing* rather than just being interested in the plot and ideas. Certainly, the writing is no more ‘experimental’ than, say, anything in PEP!, and a lot less ‘experimental’ than Sean’s piece… it’s on the level of a rock band who know how to play a diminished seventh or minor sixth chord, rather than being Stockhausen. It’s sad that fans of Doctor Who – a programme that at its best was all about pushing boundaries and experimenting – could be so illiterate (there’s really no other word for it) that they’d see this as experimental (which is not to say that all, or even most, Doctor Who fans are that illiterate – this often topped polls of the best books in the New Adventures series – but enough are that it’s saddening).
And while this book is full of SF Big Ideas, it’s not really *about* them. Rather, it’s about the changing of the sixties to the seventies, the death of the spirit of optimism in popular culture, the Manson murders, growing older, the way Britain fictionalises and romanticises its past, both the Victorian and Swinging London eras. It’s about serial killers, and fantasy lives, and about the aching sense some of us have that the world we’re living in simply isn’t as interesting as the one we were promised. It’s about how fundamentally shallow much of the Sixties’ counterculture was. It’s about Bobby Fuller and Jack The Ripper and people who create their own pick-n-mix spirituality. It’s about identity.
In his introduction, Miles refers to this book as The Spy Who Loved Me of the New Adventures line (the book, not the film), and this is a very apt comparison. It’s an intriguing example of how you can turn pop-culture mythology into genuine art. It’s not the greatest novel of all time or anything, but it’s a *very good* novel, and that’s *FAR* more than anyone would have the right to expect of it, and it’s very sad that its existence is only known to a subgroup within a subgroup within Doctor Who fandom, rather than Miles’ work being as mainstream as, say, Iain Banks (with whose work this shares a number of characteristics. Miles is better).
As the original novel was rather short, the reprint is rounded out with a few other pieces. There’s Miles’ introduction (“The original Dead Romance had commas in places where commas should never be, and anyone who knows me will know that I’d rather have an editor give a story a happy ending than let him fiddle with the punctuation.”), a rather lovely short story called “Toy Story” which *is* set firmly enough in Doctor Who continuity that it won’t make much sense to non-fans, an essay on the way the universe of the Faction Paradox works (containing a number of ridiculously good ideas) and a beautiful short story called Grass, unconnected in any obvious way to any of the other material, but *well* worth reading.
At this point, having read three books in the range, I am now convinced that the Faction Paradox range of books is the best multi-author fictional universe I’ve ever read. I would suggest that anyone who enjoys my blog – or who enjoyed PEP! 1 – would almost certainly enjoy these books, and I plan to purchase the rest – and the audios – as fast as my credit card will allow. You don’t need to be a Doctor Who fan to enjoy them, any more than you need to have been a Charlton comics fan to enjoy Watchmen, and I think it’s a real shame that, partly because of their origin and partly because of the abrasive persona of the main writer, they’re not reaching a mass audience.
The Faction Paradox books can all be purchased from Mad Norwegian (who publish all but one of them). I recommend just buying the lot…