Andrew’s Book Club 4: Dead Romance by Lawrence Miles

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…

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30 Responses to Andrew’s Book Club 4: Dead Romance by Lawrence Miles

  1. Bill Reed says:

    A Morrison-by-way-of-Vonnegut comparison gives me the universe’s mightiest nerd boner, but Miles is such an insufferable asshole that I can’t justify giving him money.

    That “look at me, I can write Doctor Who better than those folks on TV who write Doctor Who” tossed-off screenplay was actually very very good, but his “everyone sucks but me and maybe I even suck a little because I hate everything” attitude has turned him into the John Byrne of Who fandom.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I can understand that, but I can forgive an artist a lot if they actually deliver (I’m a Dave Sim fan, after all…) and so far my experience with Miles’ work has been overwhelmingly positive.

      (If it helps you justify spending money on him to yourself, remember that several times he’s claimed to suffer from various mental illnesses – he may well not be fully responsible for the stuff he posts…)

    • Wesley says:

      Lots of writers and artists have been insufferable assholes. This doesn’t always stop them from doing good work. Personally, I just remind myself that buying their books isn’t the same thing as inviting them into my living room, and if they get royalties off the purchase… well, heck, even people I dislike need to eat.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Yeah, I’ve got records by Jerry Lee Lewis, comics by Dave Sim, DVDs starring Tom Cruise, records produced by Phil Spector…

  2. Zom says:

    C’mon Plok, if the books are good and the guy isn’t using what little celebrity he has to promote horrible political and philosophical ideas (ala Simm) then I think it’s just silliness not to at least give them a go. Who really gives a shit whether he’s arrogant or vain or carrying a huge chip on his shoulder or whether he’s a bit obnoxious – these things are trivialities when compared with the need to support good art, IMHO.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Agreed, but just thought I’d point out it was Bill Reed, not Plok (who is a Bill R, but not *that* Bill R), saying that…

  3. Zom says:

    After reading that interview I find myself agreeing with most of his opinions, albeit without wishing to bring onboard quite so many generalisations.

    I’m so gonna get those books

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah. Miles is someone whose actual opinions I find myself agreeing with about 90% of the time, and whose way of phrasing them I agree with about 10% of the time…
      I think you’ll love them. The three I’ve read so far (Book Of The War, Of The City Of The Saved…, and Dead Romance) all seem exactly your sort of thing. Start with Book Of The War…

  4. Zom says:

    Fuck yeah, sorry to everyone!

    I see Bill R in the context of this blog and I think Plok. I see Bill R in the context of my blog and I think Bill Reed.

  5. Zom says:

    I’ll be interested to see if they are my kind of thing.

    Have been reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem recently and have found myself by turns deeply irritated and intrigued. It’s a novel of ideas in a way that very few sci-fi novels actually are, but it’s also more like reading a series of lectures interspersed with fragments of other kinds of writing: some of it travelogue, some of it lengthy description, some of it soapy character dynamics, some of it dramatic sci-fi… I could go on. Despite Stephenson’s best efforts at world building, the overall effect has an arbitrary quality. Yes he tries to make his world logical, yes he finds a powerful device to tie it all together in his fictional linguistic history, but in the end, after many, many hundreds of pages I’m left thinking that the guy could do with more focus and an editor. I’m not saying he needs more plot or more character or more emotion or more ideas, just that he needs less of somethings and that he should have decided before he went in what that less would consist of. As it is I find myself constantly feeling that he wrote x because he was getting a bit bored and wanted something else to do.

    I worry that The Book of the War might be a bit like that, but I counter that worry with the thought that it’s deliberate structure and style might make those sorts of concerns moot.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I can see what you mean about Anathem, although I liked it anyway – Stephenson isn’t the most concise of authors, by any means…

      One of the interesting things about Faction Paradox stuff though is that because of the semi-official way they connect to their ‘parent’ series, a lot of the world-building is rather allusive and oblique – because a lot of it is referencing stuff within Doctor Who ‘continuity’ but without actually making it explicit.

      While this could, in the hands of poor writers, be the most annoying thing in the world, in the FP stuff I’ve read it actually works really well, hinting at a much bigger world whose rules you can never quite get all of – there are all these mysterious huge sinister powers offstage manipulating events…

  6. Zom says:

    You see, I just love the sound of that stuff.

    Also currently reading Jaron Lanier’s You are not a Gadget, an effort to get more computer technologists interested in a humanistic approach to their discipline / vocation / enthusiams. It’s a very interesting read, Jaron’s thoughts are a bit all over the place, and he manages to make a number of arguments quite badly, but as a direction of travel his thinking is well worth consideration particularly when you take into account the extremes of what he’s railing against: advocates of Singularity, Noosphere and the like. What’s scary-fascinating is the implication that those ideas are very popular indeed with the community that he’s explicitly trying to engage (his community no less), and that the very same community are responsible for so much of our modern e-space.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      My problem with the idea of the Singularity isn’t so much with the idea itself – which seems on the face of it to be a reasonable idea once you take out the ‘singular’ part and the conformity and near-fascism of it (I like the idea of becoming immortal and knowing everything, but not so much the idea of humanity becoming a single gestalt organism that takes over the universe and turns it into one single mind, which sounds like the kind of thing Darkseid would do), but just the sheer lack of imagination of its proponents.

      The things you could do with the technology they’re talking about are vastly more exciting and interesting than the uses they *suggest*. But that of course suggests that despite their claims, they’re not really at the forefront of anything in particular. I know very few people with actual technical knowledge who rate, say, Ray Kurzweill as having any real technical ability, and likewise no-one with any kind of imagination who thinks he’s a ‘visionary’, so I think his actual influence – and that of those like him – is limited to people who hang around on Slashdot and talk about how great Ayn Rand is, rather than the people who are *actually* shaping the future…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      (To be clearer, the stuff that scares me about the Singulatarian types is stuff like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_Is_Flat#Ten_flatteners , and the way technology that could be used to free people and bring about a genuinely new way of living for humanity is instead being used in the service of turning the majority of humanity into interchangeable cogs in a machine designed to increase the power of a few…)

  7. Zom says:

    Lanier’s book points to the notion that these ideas are common currency and well regarded in Silicon Valley and associated circles. Perhaps he doesn’t intend to give that impression, but that’s the impression that he gives nonetheless*.

    Singularity of some form or other appeals to the sci-fi geek in us all, but the likes of Lanier and Susan Blackwood have started to get me to think critically about it in all sorts of ways, but more importantly they’ve started to make me feel as though there might be something very troubling about people / communities willing that stuff on.

    It’s worth noting that Lanier undeniably sees advocates of the Noosphere and Singularity as existing at the end of a to some extent invisible anti-humanist spectrum that permeates vast swathes of the e-tech community.

  8. Zom says:

    (That would be Susan Blackmore! Not Susan Blackwood)

  9. pillock says:

    Lanier’s always a good read — I think I first encountered him on Edge.org (where it is still possible to find good stuff, I’ve recently discovered to my delight!), and I can’t help but applaud the “You Are Not A Gadget” stuff…

    I still think people are missing the main problem with the Singularity, though. It’s sort of like listening to physicists talk about the grandfather paradox, where a literary conceit is mistaken for a physical possibility. I think the Singularity’s an amazing backhanded metaphor for a future in which the dependence on discoveries in other specialties crushes the ability to practise one’s own, and yet the depth of things you have to know inside each specialty is also splintering them into more and more subdisciplines. Not Singularity but Complexity…however the effects of such a condition would be similar.

    Pre-caffeine!

  10. pillock says:

    And, oh Lord, what they believe in Silicon Valley! I keep bugging my brother to write a blog about the history of computer culture, all the esoteric tributaries: Lilly, Leary, RAW etc…

    Uh, that’s a pretty poor sample I just gave there, but he knows so much more about it than I do, he’s well-placed to be an archivist. MAYBE ONE DAY! I think it’d be a social and scientific net good…

  11. Wesley says:

    I also liked You Are Not a Gadget. I disagreed with Lanier on some of the specifics (his “songles” concept is awful–I can’t imagine having to carry a junk drawer to work with me just to listen to some albums) but I found myself in agreement with his general attitude.

    Incidentally, on Faction Paradox–Mad Norwegian has almost all the novels, but one, Erasing Sherlock by Kelly Hale, is out of print and harder to find.

  12. Susan says:

    Hooray.

    Er, sorry to suddenly bumble in this way — I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, but I originally stumbled upon it last year sometime because I was looking up Doctor Who stuff. Because I’d started reading the Faction Paradox books. Because… well, the point is I’ve come into this all about as backwards as possible (which is sort of appropriate, I guess). I did watch Doctor Who back in the day, but I gave up on the new series early on, and had no clue about all the books & audios until I started investigating.

    So, while I’m here: thanks to you & Flowers & Wilcox for that PEP! article; it clarified some things — and muddled others in pleasant ways.

    I’m trying not to babble, and probably failing. My points, I think, are that I’m delighted that someone else is just reading these now, and please do get the audios. I just finished the Magic Bullet series last month, and there are certainly flaws, but the final episode just about broke my head, and it is killing me that I can’t find anyone even discussing it.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No need to apologise at all! And you’re not babbling – please stick around and join in the conversations. I pride myself on the comments sections here being full of interesting, friendly people…

      I’d be fascinated to know how you did get into FP, because I can’t see how one could even *hear* of it other than through Doctor Who… (And I gave up on the Welsh series myself fairly early, as you can probably tell ;) )

      I will almost certainly get the FP audios, but probably not soon – I’ve still got several of the books to get through, and don’t have a *huge* amount of money. But when I do get hold of them, I’ll definitely be reviewing them here, and I’ll also be reviewing the books as I get them (getting This Town… today, as a matter of fact – ordered at the same time as Dead Romance…)

      • Susan says:

        Thanks for the welcome! Well, it was through Doctor Who but in a very circuitous way. I read Tachyon TV/Behind the Sofa after I gave up on the series, because their reviews were more entertaining. Miles and his rants were mentioned there occasionally, so I got curious enough to look him up. And after a bit of reading his various blogs, I finally had to give his books a try. (I started reading Warren Ellis years back through a similar “Who is this cranky person people keep complaining about?” route, so I like a bit of infamy.)

        I actually started with This Town — which I loved, but as you’ll see I was jumping directly into the deep end. I have to reread it now that I’m clearer on what led up to it.

        The audios do add up; I had lucky timing since I was able to pointedly mention the series to my relatives before the holidays. So if possible, I recommend exploiting familial obligations for your own gain!

  13. Andy Hinton says:

    I just wanted to say: I really loved “Grass”. I’d recommend Dead Romance’s reprint just for that. Well, that and the fact that I’m thanked in the back of it, ISTR. Which was exciting, especially since I didn’t actually do anything, just offered to.

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