“But there was war, even there. There was a war in Heaven. And the wrong side won. The Dark Side won.”
Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle 1, by Grant Morrison and Pasqual Ferry
In the mid-90s Doctor Who was in the worst state imaginable. The TV Movie starring Paul McGann had been a flop, and not only was there no prospect of a series, there was not even the prospect of anyone else having a go because of the complicated rights issues it created. On top of that, the New Adventures series of books, which had been an ‘official’ continuation of the show’s story (at least in the eyes of the writers) and projected an ‘adult’ image (though in retrospect many of them were more adolescent) lost their license to use Doctor Who characters, and instead there was a series from BBC Books, which started with the frankly awful The Eight Doctors by Terrance Dicks (which was the dullest thing ever to have the ‘Doctor Who’ name on it until the new series came along) and didn’t look like it was going to get much better from there.
And then Lawrence Miles wrote Alien Bodies, which for the small number of people who were reading or writing the Who books at the time (I wasn’t one, and I’ve had a lot of catching up to do – they were doing a book a fortnight for the decade-and-a-half the show was off the air) was revelatory.
The basic premise was a good one, which is always a good start – various interested parties (the Time Lords, the Celestial Intervention Agency, the Krotons and others) were bidding for a weapon, which turns out to be the body of the Doctor, from his subjective future – he’s had so many adventures by that point that the information encoded in his body is valuable.
But the book also reveals quite a bit about the future of the Time Lords. In the future, the Time Lords are fighting a war, and losing. We don’t know who the enemy are, and the Doctor doesn’t want to know, for fear of upsetting the Web Of Time. But the Time Lords are, to put it bluntly, shit-scared. So scared that the Celestial Intervention Agency (who are pretty much what their initials would suggest – one of Robert Holmes’ black jokes turned into a major part of fan-lore) have removed themselves from history altogether, turning themselves into purely conceptual entities. Most of the major powers in the universe were lining up on one side or the other, but there was also a third force involved.
Faction Paradox were a breakaway group, started by a rebel Time Lord called Grandfather Paradox, who was so called because (or so the myth goes) he actually did kill his own grandfather, wiping himself out of existence and becoming pure concept. They are a ‘time travelling voodoo cult’ who worship paradox, and who treat timelines and other such concepts as being loas or egregores in Chaos Magick type workings. They wear bone masks made from the skulls of Time Lord/vampire half-breeds from an impossible time-line, and aspire to be a random factor in the war between the Time Lords and The Enemy. (If you’re now thinking of The Invisibles, you’re not far off – Richard Flowers, after reading the first volume of The Invisibles on my recommendation, said “it’s Faction Paradox, if it had used ITC adventure serials rather than BBC Doctor Who as a jumping-off point”).
The identity of The Enemy is never revealed, though Miles’ novel Dead Romance (one of the last entries in the now-Doctorless New Adventures series, which continued with a focus on supporting characters, this was later reprinted as a Faction Paradox ‘prequel’ by Mad Norwegian Press ) gives a very good idea of who he thought it was at the time. But the War caught the imagination of the writers of the series, and quickly became a major throughline for the books.
This was both a good and a bad thing – good in that it inspired some of the better books from the series, but bad in that the one thing a relatively unpopular series really didn’t need was a complicated, ambiguous ‘story arc’ running through many books. The major stories in this ‘arc’ are Miles’ two-volume Interference (where the Doctor’s own past is rewritten, to the extent that his third regeneration now happens in the ‘wrong’ place and time – probably the most controversial Who book, I like it myself, but know people who despise it), The Taking Of Planet 5 by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham (a rather nice story which combines Lovecraft pastiche, hard SF and the return of an old villain) and The Shadows Of Avalon by Paul Cornell (a sorta-kinda Midsummer Night’s Dream-cum-Arthurian-legend riff with Silurians), before it was suddenly curtailed by Peter Anghelides and Stephen Cole’s The Ancestor Cell.
The Ancestor Cell has a … mixed reputation. Among other things it revealed that Grandfather Paradox was the Doctor in the future and that the Enemy are (as Miles put it) ‘three pages of technobabble’, before also destroying Gallifrey. This was intended to clear up the continuity of the series and create a fresh start, but in fact the books became more impenetrable than ever (though some post-Ancestor Cell books build on it very successfully, most notably Lance Parkin’s The Gallifrey Chronicles).
As pretty much all Miles’ original contributions to the book series were excised by The Ancestor Cell, Miles took his ball away with him, and started a new series of books, audio plays and (two issues of) comics based on Faction Paradox, licensing a few other characters who’d appeared in the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor Adventures, and completely ignoring the revelations of The Ancestor Cell. In this new series, the ‘Great Houses’ (the Time Lords) were still fighting a nameless Enemy (which in this context seems to be more a mode of perception than a physical enemy).
(FOOTNOTE: The whole question of who fought who in the War was made even more complex with the return of the Doctor Who TV series, which portrayed a Time War with some strong similarities to the one in the books (The End Of Time, the last Russel T Davies episode of Doctor Who, has been described by those who’ve seen it as being like an adaptation of Dead Romance by someone who hadn’t understood it properly), but where the Enemy were specifically named as the Daleks. There was ALSO the start of a War in Big Finish’s Gallifrey series (which looks like it will be told in full in their forthcoming Season Four). Richard Flowers and Alex Wilcock have made an extraordinary attempt to disentangle all of this and interpret it as rival Hypertime threads in an essay in my ‘zine PEP – free PDF and expensive paper copy. That essay is essential reading for anyone who is reading this.)
I’m only going to look at the first four books of the series (which is still ongoing, between different publishers, at the moment – a new short story anthology is due to be published by Obverse Books in February 2011), partly for reasons of space and partly because I’m more familiar with those books, but so far the Faction Paradox series has been the only multi-author book series I’ve ever read where every single book can be recommended without qualification. Given its origins as a spin-off of a spin-off, this is nothing short of a miracle.
In part this is because the authors clearly have something of a shared aesthetic. They all belong to what Lance Parkin (whose own Faction Paradox novel is one of the best) refers to as The Gray Tradition:
Here’s a by no means exhaustive list of the sort of authors I’m thinking of: Douglas Adams, Ballard, Iain Banks, Roberto Bolano, Borges, Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, Phillip K Dick, Umberto Eco, Alisdair Gray, David Lindsay, CS Lewis, HP Lovecraft, David Mitchell, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Philip Pullman, David Foster Wallace.
They also have more general shared cultural roots – not only in Doctor Who, the mythos of which permeates everything, but at a couple of steps’ remove, like a pinch of garlic added to enhance the flavour rather than anything overt, but in things like I, Claudius (both the TV series – which Miles regards, rightly, as the best TV programme ever made – and Graves’ original novels, which provide an important source for at least two of the books), Monty Python and more. This gives the books a feeling of unity that makes them feel like the work of a single author trying on different styles more than several different authors.
(In this respect I’m talking only about the books, which are a very different beast from the audio adventures. The audios tell a single, complex story with a large cast of characters and regular cameos from Doctor Who villains who are either in the public domain or whose rights can be bought cheaply. They are aimed four-square at what, for want of a better term, we can call the ‘geek’ market, and while interesting aren’t really on the same level as the books).
The Book Of The War, the first book in the independent Faction Paradox series, is one of the two or three most astonishing novels I’ve ever read, if it even counts as a novel. A collaborative work by ten authors, edited by Miles (with the largest contributions apparently being by Miles and Bucher-Jones, but also featuring work by Clapham, Philip Purser-Hallard, Daniel O’Mahony, Ian McIntire, Mags L. Halliday, Helen Fayle, Kelly Hale and Jonathan Dennis), it’s somewhere in-between a non-linear hypertext-like novel, an encyclopedia of a non-existent world, a collection of short stories and a role-playing game sourcebook.
The non-linear structure (though it can be read as a linear story by following the links between the stories in a particular way) is, of course, appropriate for a story of a war that takes place throughout time and rewrites history, but it’s far from the only – or even the most – notable thing about this extraordinary book. Every one of the several hundred entries contains at least one new or interesting idea, ranging from the City Of The Saved (the Omega Point by way of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld) to the conceptual entity The Shift who enters and rewrites the text as you’re reading it, to the connection between Bach’s Musical Offering and the early computer experiments of Charles Babbage, to the hilarious Mulan/Phantom Menace mash-up, to the history of James Whale’s last, forever-unfinished film, to the Ally McBeal parody, to Lego bricks you can use to build your own black holes, to the Piltdown Mob to… well, to entries with titles like “Women (Dressing Up As)” or “Killerbots (Autonomic)”.
The story it tells is a simple one – there is one major force in the universe, the Great Houses, who literally created history. With the event known as ‘The Anchoring Of The Thread’ they created the whole history of the universe from beginning to end, and made it the kind of universe where creatures like themselves could exist, to the extent that they are closer to gods or living concepts than to biological entities. They literally embody history, and it’s not just physically but conceptually impossible for them to be threatened… until they are. By an enemy which they can’t even comprehend, which seems to be attempting to rewrite history into something other. Rather than telling the story of the War (though a chunk of it does), the book concentrates on the effects the War has on other species, most notably a Lesser Species known as Humanity.
Some of the ideas in here come from earlier BBC Books and New Adventures by Miles or his friends, while others would later be expanded into novels or audios in the series, but this is just like getting an injection of pure Concept straight into your brain. An extraordinary, extraordinary achievement.
This Town Will Never Let Us Go, by Lawrence Miles, the first Faction Paradox novel proper, is equally extraordinary and thought-provoking, but in different ways. Described as ‘a study in ritual, politics, pop culture, time-travel and urban horror’, this is equal parts Vonnegut, Orwell, Philip K Dick and Pynchon, a story of what happens to four people in a literally anonymous town. Told over one night from midnight to 6AM, it splits its three stories up into ‘minutes’ rather than chapters, offering a minute-by-minute breakdown of the night in titles like “5.21 Bastard Racoon Has Arrived”, “1.58 On Red Uranium” and “0.20 Traces Of Nuts”.
It tells of a town that is being devastated by a war the inhabitants can’t understand. All they know is that missiles drop from somewhere and cause explosions, and that somehow nobody is ever hurt by the explosions (some people have a theory that the explosions rewrite time so that anyone who was there is removed from history, but this is obviously absurd). They don’t know who’s fighting the war, or why, just that the war exists.
Our protagonists are Inangela and Horror, two Goths performing an improvised ritual with the intent of making the world a little more interesting, Valentine, an ambulance attendant who has a girl in a bone mask dying in his ambulance but has something even more important to do, and Tiffany Korta, a manufactured pop star who’s worried that her image is becoming sentient. Over these six hours, the story follows how all their lives change through such events as George Orwell’s appearance on the Muppet Show and the discovery of a buried Timeship.
A book that takes several readings to absorb properly, This Town… is aiming for something very, very different from the usual SF tie-in stuff you might expect. Closer to Joyce or Pynchon than to Terrance Dicks, had this been published as a standalone work rather than as part of a series it would be the kind of thing that would be in with a chance of winning prestigious literary awards, were literary awards open enough to truly interesting writing. An unalloyed masterpiece.
Of The City Of The Saved… by Philip Purser-Hallard can probably best be described as Post-Singularity Noir. The City Of The Saved exists on the boundary between this universe and the ‘next’ one, at the very end of time, and contains every single human being, from the first proto-hominid right through to posthuman alien hybrids and cyborgs, within its very expansive boundaries (it’s the size of a galaxy or so), all resurrected at the end of time. Based loosely around Frank Tipler’s Omega Point idea, here everyone is free to live out an immortal life in whatever culture they want, from reconstructed Imperial Rome to crime-ridden slums, with no fear of physical harm ever coming to them.
But there are questions. Why are only humans and part-humans there? What about aliens and robots? Who created the City and what for? Are the agents of the Wartime Powers infiltrating the City, and if so how?
And then suddenly, somehow, someone is murdered in the City, something that should never have been possible. And Laura Tobin (a character Miles created for the Eighth Doctor books) is asked by a member of Faction Paradox to investigate. Along the way she uncovers the truth behind the City, the horrible reality of the next universe and the secret identity of the Emperor Claudius, and briefly meets Philip K Dick, while Julian Mammoth-Tooth, a Neanderthal, searches for his lost love.
Finding the perfect balance between the rush of ideas in The Book Of The War and new-reader accessibility, Of The City Of The Saved… manages to be a genuinely thought-provoking book (Purser-Hallard’s doctoral thesis was on the relationship between creator and creature in SF, while he’s written extensively on SF and Christianity) while also being entertaining fun. The only criticism I can make is that it’s not actually possible to solve the mystery given only what we’re told in the story, but that’s a pretty minor criticism for a great book.
And finally (as far as this article goes, though there have been three more novels since) we come to Lance Parkin’s Warlords Of Utopia. The least interesting of these books, this is ‘merely’ an extremely good high-concept SF novel, about a war between all the universes in the multiverse where Rome never fell and all those where the Nazis won World War II. That it manages to live up to, and even surpass, the high concept makes it worth reading.
Written as an extremely good pastiche of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius The God (explained in-story – “I commissioned a prose piece ostensibly the autobiography of the first Emperor Claudius from one of my fellow soldiers, Sepulcrius, but ended up having to amend a great deal of it myself. If you are minded that my writing style resembles his famous book, then that is the reason”), Parkin occasionally goes, Douglas Adams-like, for the cheap joke (and, rather more annoyingly, throws in a few Monty Python references. Much as I love Python, the idea that the mere mention of a line from Python is enough to make something interesting and/or funny is one of the most damaging to have ever happened), but he is so good at his world-building and so consistent in his Gravesian style that I can more than forgive this.
Most impressively, he paints a realistic portrait of a Roman Empire that includes all its worst features – slavery, dictatorship, paedophilia – but still manages to be clearly preferable to the Nazi worlds, and has his narrator defend all these while still being a relatable protagonist. (Of course, a truly brave book would have reversed things, and had the Nazis be the ‘goodies’ in comparison to the Roman Empire, but that would be in horribly bad taste for the forseeable future). Few writers at the moment can avoid the temptation to assume that late-20th/early-21st century small-l-liberal Western values have ‘really’ been universal in all times and cultures, and that all decent people ‘really’ agreed with them. Parkin manages it.
Warlords Of Utopia is the least interesting of these four books, but not due to any faults in itself – it’s a very, very good SF adventure novel, well-written and imaginative. It’s just that the other three can stand up to pretty much any book I’ve ever read, whereas Warlords can ‘only’ stand up against 99.9% of SF novels.