3 years, 11 months ago
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So here we are. A spinoff of a spinoff. Doctor Who’s own planet Dust - the furthest extension of its narrative reach. The single most remote object that can possibly be called Doctor Who. Faction Paradox. Its effect on the world is vanishingly small. It could be wiped from history, completely removed from Doctor Who’s warp and weft, and the observable effects would be exactly zero. Faction Paradox has had no visible influence on Doctor Who, or, for that matter, on much of anything save perhaps itself. Its writers are marginal, its ideas arcane, and, notably, even Lawrence Miles hasn’t bothered to write for it in years.
The Faction, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way. Authorized ghosts, given free license to operate in the shadow of the greater text, Faction Paradox has never been more at home. This is their nature - the parodic, mocking reflection of the established order of things. The idea of Faction Paradox as a monster hit of mainstream culture isn’t just ludicrous on the face of it - because really, who would want to read this crap - it’s wrong. That’s not what Faction Paradox is designed to do. They’re designed to lurk in the shadows. Even here, in the book named after them, they do not appear as such. It’s never quite clear who, in the story, actually is Faction Paradox. All three main characters might be Faction Paradox agents. None of them might be. Faction Paradox is too obscure and marginal even for the most marginal thing in Doctor Who history.
To revisit one question there, who would want to read this crap? Well, the answer, in practical fact, isn’t Doctor Who fans. At least not in any substantial body of them. Faction Paradox gives every appearance of being just barely profitable enough to publish, bouncing among several small presses over the years. It’s compelling enough to keep gong, in no small part because it’s obvious that many of the people working within it are absolutely fascinated by it, but its readership is tiny. I mean, I outsell Faction Paradox. Coming up with potential readerships is perhaps easier - reading This Town Will Never Let Us Go almost constantly reminds one of Grant Morrison. More than anything actually published under the Doctor Who name, up to and including Morrison’s Doctor Who work, this is the Doctor Who-related piece one can hand to a fan of The Invisibles and say “here, you’ll like this.”
That (along with his longstanding connections to the comics industry) accounts for Lars Pearson’s effort to spin Faction Paradox off into a comic series out of Image, where it lasted for two issues. We should note that when a comic dies after two issues its quality is almost immaterial. Only about 7500 copies of the first issue were sold in the first place. The second one fell off to under 5000. That’s it. You’re done after that no matter how good your comic is, because it got such a vote of no confidence from retailers that it never got the chance to be seen by anyone. As a comic, Faction Paradox was dead before its first issue shipped. If we wanted to be cheeky we could suggest that this is hardly surprising, as a comic by an unknown writer and the former artist of Aquaman that’s designed to appeal to the audience of a comic whose appeal was sufficiently marginal that its creator had to organize a magical ritual in which his fans masturbated to increase sales is not, strictly speaking, what you’d call commercial gold.
But again, this seems like what Faction Paradox wants. And if ever there was a fictional concept one could talk sensibly about the desires of, it is surely Faction Paradox. If you’re the sort of person who creates a spin-off of a quasi-sentient metafiction based around the idea of subversive parodies and weaponized deconstruction then you’re the sort who knows that it’ll have a mind of its own. These processes must be treated with respect. Of course Faction Paradox wants to be a marginal text that’s shifted around publishers and that never quite manages to define itself in a coherent manner. Otherwise people might do something dangerous like take it seriously, or, god forbid, define it.
Like everything, of course, Faction Paradox has had to quietly reinvent itself since 9/11. It’s what happens when you toss around phrases like The War - sometimes you actually get one. One that is exactly as described: an all-encompassing cultural war with the stakes being the nature of history. And Miles incorporated it big time. Even back in The Book of the War Miles was pinning 2001 down as the point where human progress stopped, and he doubled down on it in his review of Rose in 2005, saying “with one drastically potent and lethal act, a new bunch of Smiling Arabs made sure the western world became more terrified and more inward-looking than ever. More terrified, more inward-looking, and as a result more stagnant. This is not a society in which anybody wants to risk speaking, let alone exploring. In September 2001, we went into retreat.” And this logic is not so much present as the whole point of This Town Will Never Let Us Go, in which a war that cannot be questioned or even understood permeates every aspect of the world and is used as the pretext for a continual dullification of everything.
(Here’s a fun fact - there are exactly 911 words in this entry prior to this parenthetical. This is how magic and ritual work - the hazy realm of coincidence and the shape of things, such that the image becomes.)
The primary force opposing the dullification is Inangela, self-proclaimed ritualist, who is trying to raise some hazily defined Great Beast lurking beneath the city via a ritual involving tagging traffic cameras in the shape of a pentagram over a slightly rearranged map of the city. Again, firmly Invisibles territory here - this is straightforward chaos magic. The word “alchemy” gets thrown around a couple of times. We’re not in some subtle territory here. This is a book that is overtly working along the basic conceptual processes of this blog. Magic consists of symbolic manipulation, which just so happens to also be what the world largely consists of.
Except there’s this lingering and downright aggressive pessimism through it. Miles’s position is that human culture is screwed. He grants all the premises of chaos magic and ritual, and then casually declares that it’s no good and the War - now a War that is blatantly the War on Terror (not that it ever was anything different - it’s been a metaphor for the War on Terror since Alien Bodies. We just couldn’t have known it until after 9/11) - is a completely intractable problem. The world will get less and less interesting. Humanity has fallen, and will stay fallen for millions of years, after which post-humanity will finally arise. All is lost, and Faction Paradox were spectacularly ineffective in doing a single thing about it. Master narratives win, and the strangeness of the singular vanishes.
The result is absolutely bewildering. It’s the anarchic visionary approach of Morrison and Moore, only without the belief in an imminent utopian apocalypse that grounds both of them in something relatively usable. There’s a cynicism here that makes Robert Holmes look like Fred Rogers. Miles weaves a situation in which there is absolutely nothing that we can do. The only character who seems to have anything resembling a meaningful shot at agency is Tiffany Korta, a pop star of sufficient importance that she is capable of rendering the culture more interesting. Inangela’s ritual fails miserably, and more importantly fails in a way that implicates the entire system of Faction Paradox and magic, suggesting that what she does is a fundamentally pointless act. Only people like Tiffany Korta - the important people - can accomplish anything, and they probably won’t either, because, again, humanity is doomed to millennia of non-apocalyptic dullness.
All of which comes unsettlingly close to the most damning auto-critique imaginable. For all its cleverness - and let’s be clear, This Town Will Never Let Us Go is a delightfully clever and interesting book - it reads like an aggressive refutation of the possibility of its ever doing anything worthwhile. The book seems an extended argument for its own irrelevance - not least because it rejects its own namesake, relegating Faction Paradox itself to the permanent margins of society such that it is difficult to articulate any clear way in which there might be a way out. This is a chronic problem for Miles, who, of course, previously proved unable to articulate what the competing visions of history that underpinned his war might actually be. Now he’s setting up needed revolutions with no sense of how to carry them out.
I mean, I don’t want to be completely unreasonable. Having a detailed plan for a successful revolution is not a prerequisite for writing revolutionary novels any more than a relatively philosophical writer has to successfully detail every single point and idea to the level of academic precision. But Lawrence Miles tends to make his absences conspicuous and present. The Enemy is not merely unexplained in The Book of the War, it’s conspicuously absent, every entry on their nature having been seemingly deleted, with Miles going out of his way to never name them. Likewise, it is not merely that This Town Will Never Let Us Go fails to solve the problem of magickal revolution - after all, it’s not like The Invisibles solves it as such. It’s that This Town Will Never Let Us Go visibly and spectacularly marches off the playing field declaring that there’s no solution and that we’re all doomed. This, to say the least, rather more than just leaving things unexplained.
Which raises the very real possibility that Lawrence Miles is, contrary to all expectations, the sort of person who writes something like Faction Paradox and doesn’t actually expect its inevitable consequences. He does, after all, have his odd blind spots with relation to Doctor Who. No matter how much he insists on wanting out from it, as we’ve previously observed, virtually everything he’s ever written lands inside Doctor Who’s shadow. Faction Paradox can’t escape from the gravity of Doctor Who. This town will never let us go. And so it exists permanently in the margins, as it was designed to, whether consciously or not.
But if Lawrence Miles is suspicious of the value of the margins we need not be - after all, if there is one thing that is increasingly clear it is that Lawrence Miles fundamentally does not understand the magic he plays with. This is the strange paradox of him: on the one hand, he thinks he’s playing with something trifling when he’s not, and on the other he thinks that he’s further outside the shadow of the thing than he is. So Miles rejects the power of the margins even as he invokes it desperately. No matter. Because the margins do have power.
This is the secret of the wilderness years. Culturally irrelevant and largely left on the ash heap of Doctor Who’s history, the bulk of their content out of print seemingly indefinitely, they nevertheless had a strange power in that they could attempt things that could never be done with Doctor Who while it remained in the mainstream. Much like The Web Planet was valuable in part for the fact that it explored a frontier of what Doctor Who could do, the wilderness years, in a variety of ways, found the edges of Doctor Who’s capabilities. But there’s more to it than that. Even if Doctor Who proper never goes anywhere close to as far as This Town Will Never Let Us Go, the fact that its edges have been mapped that far has changed the edges. Doctor Who is, subtly, something different after the experience. That’s the power of the margins. It’s not just that the wilderness years tended to Doctor Who when nobody else would. It’s that they changed what Doctor Who was. Not in any sense as crass as influence, but in a sense of alchemy - of changing the symbol to affect the thing.
One does not need to speak the change. To do so is, in many ways, too obvious anyway. Let us instead simply bring ourselves to the cusp of it - allow the coincidence to spark, half-seen, at the edges of this essay. This Town Will Never Let Us Go concerns, in part, a girl who circles the shadowed edges of a town as a ritual to raise some buried horror from the depths. It is itself circling the shadowed edges of a town. What horror, in September of 2003, might its release be taken as awakening?
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