4 years, 9 months ago
I do not mean my criticism of Oh No It Isn’t! to suggest that Virgin’s Benny line simply misused the character. It didn’t. Oh No It Isn’t! is a fantastic Benny novel, and its flaws are almost entirely as an attempt to launch the line, instead of being what it would have been happier being, a particularly silly entry within the line. And there are other books that absolutely play on what Benny is specifically suited to. Lawrence Miles’s Down, for instance, although it falls just short of being a successful book in its own right, is a book that absolutely could not work with any other lead character.
The setup of the book is simple enough: Benny is fished out of the water on an alien planet and spends the majority of the book explaining what happened to her. This explanation is overtly structured as a pastiche of classic adventure fiction in the H. Rider Haggard mould, with chapter titles such as “Dirigibles of Death!” and “The Primordial Soup Dragon!” The exclamation points are, to be clear, part of almost all of the chapter titles. There’s a character called Mister Misnomer who is an overt parody of classic pulp action heroes. To be clear, the story is not merely a pastiche of adventure fiction, it’s a self-aware one. Mister Misnomer isn’t just a parody to the audience, the characters in the story recognize that he is, in reality, an old pulp action hero who shouldn’t even be real. What he’s doing there is one of the basic mysteries of the story.
That’s the superficial structure, at least. It being Lawrence Miles, it’s also a big, soaring book of ideas. Actually, soaring is almost the exact wrong word for this. The book, by the author’s description, is a psychological descent into hell where the frothy adventure story it appears to be gives way to abject psychological horror. The adventure story stuff is, in Miles’s account, window dressing. This actually makes the book come off as less interesting and intelligent than it is. First of all, the adventure stuff isn’t window-dressing, it’s part and parcel of the book’s theme. Second, the book doesn’t give way to psychological horror entirely: it almost gives way, and then gives Benny one of her greatest moments as she resolves the central tension of the book.
Here, at last, we have to talk about the twist. There are two big plot actions Mister Misnomer takes - he begins gunning down a bunch of ape creatures that Benny believes are likely sentient, and he sacrifices himself to save everybody towards the end. Then, at the very end of the book, we find out that Benny has actually edited her own memories to insert Mister Misnomer: in truth she gunned down the ape creatures in a moment of panic, and it was a mildly reformed futuristic Nazi that sacrificed himself to save everybody, which Benny was unable to square away with her own torture at the hands of the Nazis in Just War. Mister Misnomer, in fact, never existed in the story at all.
But this is not simply a moment where the adventure story gives way to psychological torment. What’s key here is not merely that Benny edited her memories to remove some horrible stuff, but the way in which she did, inserting a stereotypical adventure character into the narrative. And, more to the point, what’s key is that the adventure character fits. The end nature of the planet turns out to be that the archetype of dystopia took root inside the planet and turned it into the purest expression of hell imaginable. And then, when people arrived on the planet, it began expressing this idea in terms of human adventure stories. Specifically, it took on the iconography of the hollow earth and the prehistoric creatures that might live within it. The story spends most of its time acting as though its origins are in things like Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Lost World - stories that feature eccentric spaces. (Actually, the most amusing reference in the book is the fact that several character names are drawn from Krazy Kat, itself a celebration of eccentric spaces.) But the real inspiration is one that isn’t so directly alluded to: H.P. Lovecraft’s short novel At the Mountains of Madness.
What’s key about At the Mountains of Madness is that it explicitly ties the eccentric space of primordial creatures as a source of unfathomable horror. The Lovecraftian horror, recall, is the fear that the universe might be completely irrational and terrifying, and that human reason is not a tool to understand it but a flickering bulwark against the tide of utter horror lurking in the darkness. Where At the Mountains of Madness simply framed this in terms of the pulp tradition of eccentric spaces (and recall that Lovecraft was first and foremost a pulp writer - his work appeared alongside Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and other such classics), Miles pushes it further, arguing for the inherent connection between this sort of adventure fiction and the idea of hell.
Mister Misnomer, in other words, isn’t just interesting for the fact that he doesn’t exist. He’s interesting for the fact that he largely does belong in the world of Down despite the fact that he’s not “real” within it. There’s a point about halfway through when Benny writes in her diary: “‘Archetypal. Not just the idea of the Hollow Earth. This place is full of archetypal encounters. Absolute values. Predator/prey conflicts. Kill-or-be-killed struggles. Good guys and bad guys.’ And then in even larger letters: ‘Mr Misnomer fits in here perfectly.’ Finally, taking up the whole of the opposing page: ‘This place has no subtlety.’”
Miles, in other words, isn’t just going from adventure fiction to hell, he’s offering a critique of adventure fiction and the way in which its simplistic ethics lead to outright horror when paired with even remotely psychologically real characters. In this regard the most telling section may be the one in which one of the supporting characters, Lucretia, turns out to have an existential terror of teleporters based on the fact that they in fact do not transport you but instead murder you and then create a clone of you in a different location. This is, of course, one of the classic objections to Star Trek, along with the fact that the real application of this technology is not, in fact, teleportation but the fact that all objects regardless of value are now trivially reproducible out of thin air and thus a post-scarcity economy can be achieved straightforwardly. But the real point is that it’s a very human anxiety of the sort that is actively pushed out of standard issue genre fiction.
Miles is not, of course, the first person to do this. Sci-fi fans have been harping on that exact problem with Star Trek transporters since they debuted. Heck, Star Trek itself has dealt with it a few times. But normally it’s dealt with in one of two ways: poking at the issue without actually acknowledging its full impact (as the Star Trek episodes do - for instance, one posits a transporter accident that creates a clone of Riker, who actually ends up surviving the episode, but doesn’t bother to deal with the fact that this means every other use of a transport has murdered someone with their own viable life. Another episode, “Realm of Fear,” confirms explicitly that this is how transporters work, then keeps using them anyway.), or doing a postmodern bit in which the horrific aspect of the transporters derails the whole narrative. (The Prestige is a prime example of the latter, albeit one about Victorian magic and not Star Trek.)
But Miles picks the otherwise largely unexplored option of simply adopting the psychological horror of the transporter into the narrative and carrying on. The narrative continues cheerily along its standard adventure story lines, just in a world where people are routinely murdered and cloned without much thought about it except from the margins of society.
The real sting, however, comes when you realize that the basic plot of Down is largely a mirror of Underworld, only with the People substituting for the Time Lords - a connection that The Also People made it exceedingly easy to make. Underworld, it should be noted, is the story Miles proclaims to be the worst story of the 1970s in a large part because of its banal sci-fi cliches. In that regard Down is, unlike Oh No It Isn’t!, firmly engaged with Doctor Who. That’s nowhere near the same as it being Doctor Who, but it’s commenting on Doctor Who. And specifically, it’s making a critique that is central to most of Miles’s work, because Miles has little patience with or regard for most of science fiction as a genre. So he takes what he sees as a particularly science fictiony bit of Doctor Who and redoes it to his own aesthetic. So instead of a sci-fi cliche like a mad computer at the center of the planet we have an idea made incarnate - a concept he doesn’t even bother trying to explain as anything other than the mad and fantastic idea that it is.
And this, in turn, becomes a way of playing with the idea of the People. Miles introduces a murderous and psychopathic member of the People, !X, who is used by God to bring the dystopic idea back to the Worldsphere as part of a hazily defined plot by God to speed the development of the universe. This is all very sharp, and contains some of the most thematically interesting implications, containing as it does an implicit critique of the idea of utopia as something history might aspire to. It’s nothing hugely original - indeed, it’s basically a warmed over version of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But given that the People are a part of the Benny mythology and that The Also People was so praised, it’s a sensible complication of the idea.
There are flaws, to be sure. Underworld is a pathetically easy target, and it’s fair to ask why Miles didn’t line up a critique of something that isn’t, you know, widely reviled when it’s even remembered. On top of that, he never quite manages to sell the innate connection between genre-centric adventure fiction and dystopian hell. This is not for lack of trying, and the argument he makes strikes me as at least an interesting one. He claims that the genre “is based on the supposition that the male-aggressive participant will lead the way, regardless of qualification,” a viewpoint that leads towards the kill-or-be-killed absolutism that Miles equates with dystopian hell. All the steps of this basically work, but with all the postmodern posturing of the story you’d think Miles might have found space to provide the connective tissue.
In the absence of this it becomes easy to miss the signal for the noise. Miles has admitted that the book flopped a bit and was widely misread, and it’s fairly easy to see why. The funny bits are just too numerous and too good for the psychological descent into hell to land. It gets completely outshone, which blunts the impact considerably. The book needs to push its hell a little further. There’s a constant and nagging sense that Miles is parrotting back cliched critiques of sci-fi/adventure stories instead of really breaking new ground. There’s nothing here that’s quite surprising enough to make the radical and clever point Miles thinks he’s making. It’s not that the book isn’t clever. It’s terribly clever. But it’s clever in a knowing, in-joke way that reflects a well-drilled knowledge of genre fiction. In this regard the taking on of Underworld is ironic. Miles tries to come up with the antithesis of that story and ends up with something that feels for all the world like a family-unfriendly version of the Graham Williams era. Which is surely not what he was going for, given his known antipathy to it.
Still, it’s a compelling book that reads like the book of someone who’s about to produce Alien Bodies. And it’s a book that could only work with Benny, since its ultimate resolution is perfectly suited to her, and, perhaps more to the point, would never in a million years work with the Doctor. !X confronts Benny, pulls a gun on her, and puts her in a kill-or-be-killed position, trying to force her into the dualistic logic of dystopia and force her to become a vector for its spread. Benny realizes that he’ll let her disarm him and kill him, but that if she doesn’t he’s going to kill her. And so, faced with a kill or be killed choice with the fundamental teleology of the universe on the line, Benny does exactly what you’d expect her to, and in doing so triumphantly resolves the central tensions of the book.
She takes the gun from !X and shoves it up his ass.
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