I’ll Explain Later
Ben Aaronovitch’s Transit is the New Adventures’ great piece of Marmite, with reviews either being outright raves or vicious pans. A piece of outright cyberpunk about alien intelligences and vast transportation systems, the book features no shortage of sex and swearing. It also introduces Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, the Brigadier’s genetically engineered descendent, a recurring character in the New Adventures. It was absolutely savaged at the time, with Gary Russell saying outright that it “has nothing whatsoever to recommend it.” Shannon Sullivan’s rankings are only slightly nicer, putting it at fifty-third, with eight books below it, and giving it a 56.5% rating. I, Who is one of the few things to equivocate, saying that “parts of it seem damn clever – but only after back-breaking analysis.” DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s December of 1992. Whitney Houston has just moved into number one with “I Will Always Love You,” and settles in for a massively long run there. Madonna, Take That, The Prodigy, Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan, and Rod Stewart are among those who fail to unseat her.
In news, since we last looked at the world Bill Cinton won the US Presidential Election, and women won the “can we become priests in the Church of England” election. A fire broke out in Windsor Castle, one of several things leading Queen Elizabeth II to declare that the year has just sucked. She then became subject to taxation. This month, the US begins military action in Somalia. Prince Charles and Princess Diana officially announce their separation. And riots break out over the destruction of a 16th century mosque in Ayodha, India, killing 1500 people.
While in books, as mentioned, it is the New Adventures’ very own piece of complete Marmite. I’m fairly easy to predict on Marmite stories. Generally speaking, they’re ones with a very clear-cut reason to love them, but one that is not like the reason to love a lot of other Doctor Who, and thus that fails to appeal to a substantial core of Doctor Who fans. In this case, though, I admit to being a bit puzzled by picking either love or hate for this book.
Let’s take care of the objections, and then see what we have left. We’ll start with the smaller ones. First, this book gets a lot of flack for its marginal use of Benny. This, at least, is preposterous. Yes, Benny spends the majority of the book possessed by the villain. The reason for this is straightforward enough – realistically, Aaronovitch wouldn’t have had the manuscript for Love and War for very long. Putting the new companion in the background is a venerable tradition stretching back at least to Steven getting a bunch of Barbara’s dialogue in Galaxy Four. Nobody faults Kinda for the fact that Bailey couldn’t make Nyssa work in the story and so wrote her out of it.
And in this situation the circumstances are actually even more complex. There’s an interview with Paul Cornell in which it’s suggested that several of the novels in this period were being considered as the book that would introduce a new companion, with Benny being in competition with Aaronovitch’s Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart and, of all things, Neil Penswick’s take on William Blake in The Pit.
(There is surely a blog reader or two who wants me to wonder about this alternate world where William Blake was among the Doctor’s companions. I prefer to wonder about the alternate world where Neil Penswick’s Blake was remotely recognizable as the mad visionary whose prophetic works I so adore. Which also answers why, despite Blake’s presence, I’m skipping The Pit – because the character called William Blake in it is the sanitized, boring version.)
In other words, up until at least somewhat late in the game, this wasn’t a novel that was supposed to have Benny in it. Given that, it’s understandable why she has the backseat role and Kadiatu serves as the de facto companion – because at least one contingency for this book would have had the Doctor arriving solo and leaving with Kadiatu. Especially given that future novels will do so well with Benny, complaining that she was marginalized here seems unfair, to say the least.
For our next complaint, we have that the book is confusing. Not incoherent, which means I don’t have to go be mildly apoplectic or anything, but confusing. This, at least, I can grant. Transit is not an entirely easy to read book. But having granted that, let’s ask about the implications of that being a critique. Is it bad for a book to demand careful reading, or even rereading, in order to be fully understood? Surely as a general critique of books this holds no weight, regardless of Lars Pearson’s asking “is a brilliant work in fact brilliant if it’s accessible to only a few people? Alas, no.” Nonsense. Making demands of your readers is perfectly fair. And as the gap between this and The Highest Science is the last deliberate two-month gap in the New Adventures’ schedule, this is the right time to do it. Readers have two months to work through this book. There’s othing wrong with asking them to use it.
Now, let’s be clear. I’m not saying I want every Doctor Who book to be a dense tome with tons of subplots, an aggressively exposition-free take on the setting, and a narrative style that jumps around a lot. But I am saying that it’s an OK thing for Doctor Who to be sometimes. There’s an implicit tendency by some critics to treat this book as if it’s offering a vision of what Doctor Who and the New Adventures should be. And fair enough, up until Love and War it has been fair to read the New Adventures like that. But we’ve made the transition now. The vision of the New Adventures is clear. They’ve been going on for eighteen months now. There were as many Doctor/Ace New Adventures as there were Doctor/Ace television stories. We know the New Adventures aren’t all like Transit, and we knew it in 1992.
And that makes the bar for critique higher. Complaining that Transit is confusing isn’t, as some critics would prefer, a claim that this is not the correct model for Doctor Who. It’s a claim that this is something that Doctor Who should never be. Which, no. Sorry. I am not buying that one. There are six Doctor Who stories a year. Soon there will be twelve. One of them can be confusing and difficult. Experimentation is how Doctor Who moves forward. Transit, structurally, isn’t doing anything more radical than exploring what novel-shaped Doctor Who is as opposed to episode-shaped Doctor Who.
Which leaves the big one – sex and violence. Transit is an exceedingly explicit book by Doctor Who standards, with several uses of the word “fuck,” some sex scenes that might be called explicit if you’ve never actually read or seen any pornography, and a rather infamous bit in which a prostitute eats crackers to get rid of the “taste of semen” in her mouth. And this is a source of massive criticism.
And OK, look, I said “fuck” last entry. And have several times before. (Although, upon looking out of curiosity, I admit a few of those were gratuitous, and I’ve gone and changed them.) I’m the guy who’s run entries comparing Doctor Who to J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, the International Times, Kenneth Grant, and Aleister Crowley. When the time comes we will, in fact, do an entry on Abducted by Daleks. If you were expecting me to be upset over some sex here, I’m not sure what to say.
But equally, I was also harshly critical of John Peel’s gratuitous nipple-tweaking in Timewyrm: Genesys. But there’s a difference, and it’s a big one. There’s no reason a faux-historical set in Mesopotamia needs to have a ton of sex in it. It was just that – gratuitous sex, inserted because that’s apparently what John Peel thinks makes a novel “adult.” So yes, I’m opposed to shoehorning in bits about men randomly groping women for the sake of having them. But, and I’m kind of baffled this even needs saying, that’s not why the explicit bits of Transit are there. They’re there because Transit is mashing Doctor Who up with cyberpunk, and this is the sort of thing you find in cyberpunk. For comparison, Snow Crash has a glorious bit in which its secondary protagonist, Y.T., remembers just a little too far into a sexual encounter with the main villain that she has a “dentata” on. And exceeds Transit’s total “fuck” count on page fifteen. (In total it has 127 “fucks” to Transit’s fourteen.)
And this isn’t just superficial. Cyberpunk, as we discussed, is as much about a style and aesthetic as anything, and part of that aesthetic is the angry cynicism associated with what we have maddeningly come to call “Gen X.” To not have sex and expletives in Transit would make it a pale and obviously sanitized imitation of cyberpunk. Instead we get Doctor Who set firmly inside the cyberpunk tradition. Is this the milieu Doctor Who should always or usually be set in? God no. Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. But equally, are we really going to say that Doctor Who shouldn’t engage with a major strain of science fiction like cyberpunk? Doctor Who, a series whose entire premise has been invading other types of stories, particularly sci-fi ones, and having its way with them, is now expected to turn down a major target just because it requires saying “fuck” a few times?
Well, on television, yes, because there are laws and moral panics to worry about, and anyway, you’re explicitly targeting an audience of children. Fine. But we’re not on television. We’re in a book line that has explicitly decided it’s doing Doctor Who for adults and is OK with crossing lines that would have made Mary Whitehouse die in a tragic pearl-clutching accident. So given that the novels are willing to do things they could never get away with on television and given that Aaronovitch is consciously shoving the Doctor into a genre that is aggressive and explicit, what, exactly, is the complaint?
No, these objections to Transit are silly. Doctor Who had to do cyberpunk, and it had the opportunity to do so in a genuine way instead of in a sanitized way. If you don’t like cyberpunk and aren’t interested in that approach, fine. It’s a perfectly valid reason not to like Transit. But it’s not a critique of Transit, which is self-evidently doing a perfectly valid and sensible thing for Doctor Who to be doing.
Even still, the book is fortunate to come out after Love and War, when the scope of Virgin’s project had been laid out. If this book were given the weight of defining what Doctor Who would be like in the Virgin era it would be substantially more problematic. But in the wake of Love and War’s establishment of what cannot be reduced out of Doctor Who Transit works better. There’s a clear distinction between the book’s setting, which is a grim piece of cyberpunk, and the Doctor, who is a figure of anarchic glee. Aaronovitch sharpens him just enough to function in this world, but in an absurd way – drinking to celebrate the universe’s birthday, for instance. (This also was deemed controversial, apparently by people who never watched the Pertwee era. Which Aaronovitch even cites within the novel as precedent.) Or, more memorably, having an elaborate scorekeeping system for his general level of devastation and destruction. (A moment that has ample precedent in Love and War, where he declares that he likes “chaos, big explosions, rebellions, that sort of thing.”)
In the end, Transit is a book about a good Doctor in a bad world. Even its most disturbing moment, when Benny realizes that her relationship to the Doctor is akin to that of a pet and its owner, is little more than a cynical restatement of the Doctor/companion relationship implied by Love and War, as is fitting for a character like Benny who is, after all, more cynical and sarcastic than Ace.
The book also deserves more credit than it gets for the character of Kadiatu, who is posited as Earth’s evolutionary response to the Doctor’s interference. This is a very clever and interesting topic, and marks the first time the series has thought seriously about the question of what the Doctor’s long-term impact on Earth might be. Tying that to the Brigadier is also clever – the exact right balance of the mythic and the mundane for his character. He’s what the Earth’s response to the Doctor evolves out of. She’s a phenomenal concept, and as wonderful as Benny is, there’s reason to be disappointed that she wasn’t tapped as the permanent companion.
All told, this is one of those things where Doctor Who would have been incomplete had it never done a story like this. Its not so successful that it becomes a model for future stories, but that’s OK. Given its extended interest in cyberpunk tropes, the New Adventures had to try a piece of full-out proper cyberpunk eventually. They did. It was pretty good, and worthy of respect. It’s not one of the best of the New Adventures yet, nor is it one of the worst. For once we have a story whose Marmite status is wholly undeserved.