Notes Towards a General Theory of Peter Harness
Another preview essay from my end-of-year collection Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons, available for preorder at this link (and in the UK here). There it will be accompanied by a book-exclusive interview with Peter Harness about The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion. And to answer the question that people have asked in comments every week, yes there will be a print version; it’ll go up closer to release.
One of the most exciting talents to emerge in science fiction and fantasy recently is undoubtedly Peter Harness, who, over roughly a thirteen month period, put his name to ten of the best genre scripts on television in the form of the Doctor Who episodes “Kill the Moon,” “The Zygon Invasion,” and “The Zygon Inversion” and the entire run of the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell adaptation. Any one of these would make him one of the most compelling voices of the past few years; their aggregate is as extraordinary a creative run as exists.
Or at least that’s generally been my opinion, which I’ve spouted on the Internet a few times, leading to the amusing consequence of Mr. Harness getting linked to my blog and reading it and enjoying some of the bits that weren’t about how clever he was as well. Which led to him sitting down for two interviews about his work, transcribed in the two chapters following this. So consider this the annoying bit where the interviewer talks for too long before getting to the good stuff. I’ll try to make it a really sprawling set of remarks that offers something approaching a general theory of how politics and science fiction interact, so as to really give the authentic “shut up and get to the interviews” experience.
I think the obvious starting point when talking about Harness’s work is that it is overtly and consciously political. It’s equally obvious at this point that Harness’s politics are at a minimum leftish. Despite this, however, both of his Doctor Who stories were, to varying degrees, embraced by right-leaning chunks of fandom, generally in the belief that their political views were being supported by the episodes. In both cases I think this is straightforwardly based on inattentive readings of the episodes, but it’s nevertheless striking, especially in a year where discussions of politics and science fiction have become increasingly split into two camps neatly mapping the left/right divide, a process largely driven, let’s be clear, by Vox Day and his inane “pink vs blue SF” rhetoric.
A key phrase in all of this, and generally one slung around with reckless imprecision and universal contempt, is “message fiction.” At this point the mere inclusion of any sort of diversity in the cast seems to qualify as a “message,” such that even stories like Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” in which a group of drunks who beat a man into a coma in the mistaken belief that he’s gay or Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which features a genderless species as “message stories.” By this standard, of course, Harness’s work, which includes two Doctor Who stories that are conspicuously dominated by female characters and an adaptation of a period novel about deliberately subverting the paradigm of white “great men” of history, would count. So would anyone writing something worth watching, of course.
But the real problem with the phrase is, of course, simply the idea that there exists some sort of non-message fiction. To write any story is to make some sort of statement about the way the world is or should be, a statement doubly true of SF/F where you literally have to create a way for the world to be. One might as well start pretending that “apolitical” art exists. But there’s still distinctions to draw, obviously. And let’s be clear, I think “do I agree with this work’s politics” is a perfectly legitimate one, although I tend to think anyone for whom it is the only or even primary one has an underdeveloped sense of attentiveness to how art functions politically and an allergy to dissent.
A more important distinction, however, is between art that is political in an interesting way and art that is politically dull. There are loads of ways one could try to make this distinction, but let’s go ahead and set it up on slightly classicist terms and go with Tolkien’s distinction between allegory (which he disdains) and applicability. To quote the gentleman scholar:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
What he describes as “allegory” is what I think most people are trying to get at when they complain about “message fiction,” or, more usually, “allegory that they also happen to disagree with.” And it consists of fiction where the message is a uniform and absolute statement meant to be decoded and understood by the reader. “Applicability,” on the other hand, is a momentary parallel – something the reader can see and respond to, but that is left as a moment of free play for the reader, as opposed to as a puzzle to solve. One might use the examples, and I’m obviously picking these completely at random, of John C. Wright’s Hugo-nominated One Bright Star to Guide Them, which is an overt allegory about Christian dominionism, and Iain Banks’s classic semi-fantasy novel The Wasp Factory, which is tremendously applicable to discussions of transgender issues without coming to any sort of clearly defined position on the general issue that the reader is meant to infer.
I make this digression mainly to note that Harness is overtly political, but he is also a writer who is avidly, acutely focused on approaching politics from the standpoint of applicability, not allegory. It’s generally not hard to discern his views: The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion, for instance, is clearly written from the perspective of someone generally sympathetic to immigrants and refugees. But there’s never a moment of the Doctor haranguing an obvious Nigel Farage stand-in, and the big speech is about the general case ethics of war. The message is about the importance of forgiveness, just as the message of Kill the Moon was about not fearing the unknown. These are certainly messages with political consequences, including consequences for the specific issues the stories are applicable to, but there’s a level of abstraction at play.
But, of course, abstraction is the point of fiction, especially SF/F. Ideas are abstracted into things, transformed through characters and plot, and reflected back at odd and interesting angles. Which is to say that the fact that “Peter Harness is a political writer” is both a true statement and an effective way to classify him within the particular pool of Doctor Who writers in which he’s most sensibly discussed, in the same way that “Gareth Roberts is a funny writer” and “Mark Gatiss is a nostalgic writer” are useful, but is insufficient to describing him. All the same, it’s important.
The obvious link to break is the one we’ve productively broken several times already, namely the one between politics and message. In other words, to note the simple and obvious truth that there are other ways to talk about politics in fiction. The same process of abstraction that elevates Harness’s use of politics above crass allegory works to tie them to other aspects of the stories to which they’re applicable.
The obvious choices here are character and plot, and Harness is adept at both. Look at how Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell uses the spaces left in its “tragic rivalry between two great white men of history” narrative to tell a story about how women, racial minorities, and the working class experience and shape history. Yes, Harness inherits the broad structure of this from Susannah Clarke’s original novel, but what’s overwhelmingly clear, watching the series, is that he understands these aspects of the novel, and that he considers them the heart and soul of the story. They’re the heart and soul of what the show is about.
But Harness is merely very good at these things. What he is excellent at is… well, two things. The first is in constructing big and elaborate systems of idea and genre. His biggest, of course, is partially inherited from Susanna Clarke, but even Kill the Moon is playing a conceptually dense game about lost utopian approaches to science fiction, the theatrical heritage of British television, and the fear of the unknown. It’s not just that he’s deft at switching among genre expectations, but that he’s capable of wedding genres tightly to the political ideas he’s grappling with.
The second thing he’s good at is clever uses of television as a medium. In the two interviews that follow I suggest two tropes Harness returns to in his work. First, he’s fond of characters looking straight to the camera, and specifically to them speaking to camera (and, notably, The Zygon Invasion features Bonnie giving a look to camera after she’s unmasked as a Zygon). Second, both of his Doctor Who stories and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell end with characters debating the use of a weapon.
The link between these two ideas is admittedly not self-evident. But let’s look at a slightly different bit of The Zygon Invasion, namely the drone strike scene, simply because it is the moment where these two tendencies most blatantly collapse into one, with a debate over using a weapon that’s disrupted when a bunch of people stare into the weapon’s camera. And when one widens the lens, so to speak, and looks at Harness’s looks-to-camera as part of a larger consideration of the relationship between cameras, screens, and the act of looking – which is to say, as part of a larger consideration of television as a medium – things become much clearer.
Notably, the weapon debates in Kill the Moon and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell both also hinge on the mediation of cameras. In Kill the Moon this is literal, with Clara’s address to Earth and the audience calling on them to vote with their lights. In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell it’s more figurative, in that literal cameras don’t exist in its setting, but the denouement is still heavily mediated by acts of scrying and watching. Only The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion fails to directly connect the two, and it’s hardly necessary given the degree to which the larger episode is drenched in strange elisions between the act of looking and weapons, most obviously in the way in which the entire Zygon duplicate process is depicted in terms of television within Clara’s mind. Or, if you want, you can just point out that the Doctor repeatedly frames the Osgood boxes as a demented game show. (Actually, if you really want you could make a bunch of Friedrich Kittler references now about how cameras and guns are inherently related technologies.)
So within Harness’s work the mechanics of television and the mechanics of violence are fundamentally intertwined. And this gets to the heart of my Eruditorum Press colleague Jack Graham’s incisive critique of the Zygon story, which is the way in which the Doctor’s directive to “sit down and talk” in lieu of war necessarily favors the existing ruling powers. And it’s true, this is by some margin the most naive moment of the script, almost willfully ignoring the fact that the entire point of war – to the extent of being a standard adage about it – is to alter the power relationship between combatants so that the act of sitting down and talking plays out differently. That war inevitably concludes with a diplomatic resolution is not, in fact, a case for why you can skip straight to diplomacy.
But while this is a conceptual failure within The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (although it’s also a fantastically well-deployed line that works incredibly well dramatically), it’s a failure that’s implicitly addressed by the entire larger edifice of Harness’s work, where the act of sitting down and talking and the act of waging war are both defined by the way they are mediated and depicted, as part and parcel of a much larger system of savvily framing things in terms of genres and expectations.
The most basic iteration of this, of course, is Kill the Moon, where the first half presents a very specifically and meticulously chosen set of signifiers from a particular era of televisual science fiction, and then the second half demands the ethics of that era confront the radically unknowable. Indeed, this is the entire point of its famously bonkers mid-episode revelation that the moon is an egg: it confronts a story that had been ensconced in the trappings of science fiction with something that is completely outside the normal realm of the genre. But it’s also present in the gradual evolution of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as it transitions through its themes, first introducing the perspectives of women and racial minorities on its great man dualism, then kicking down the veil between its delineated and rule-bound historical world and the churning and chaotic weirdness beyond. And it’s present in The Zygon Invasion/Inversion’s magpie juxtapositions of classic 70s Doctor Who tropes with 90s X-Files-style alien invasion paranoia and sleek conspiracy thrillers so that its sudden collapse to a ten minute near-monologue about pushing buttons can credibly feel like the scale model it claims to be.
In every case we realize that the act of looking through a weapon is just like any other act of looking, and just as based on context. It’s not simply that storytelling is an alternative to warfare, but rather that warfare becomes one form of story, or, if you prefer, one historical process among many. But this is also where the difference between allegory and applicability becomes tremendously useful. Because in allegory, the relationships among these stories is always going to be fixed, just like the set of signs and corresponding concepts. But the point of applicability is that the parallels are variable and shifting. In other words, the changes in context and perspective necessary to transform a story about war into a story about something else are possible in a story whose politics focus on applicability. And that’s what Harness brings to the table that’s so impressive: the ability to construct television stories that think about political alternatives.
But for all of this, I think it is key to note that I think Harness’s best work may still lie ahead of us. The truth is that Jack’s complaints regarding The Zygon Invasion/Inversion are largely on target, namely that the alternative it imagines is in the end insufficiently radical. And a similar accusation can be made of Kill the Moon. Only in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell does Harness seem to propose a truly radical alternative to the political status quo, and the radicalness there comes from Clarke. But he’s yet to offer a truly radical alternative of his own – one that avoids center-left platitudes in favor of something genuinely challenging and unsettling. I have little doubt that he is capable of it, and indeed little doubt that it’s going to happen someday. And when it does, I think it’s going to do for the Earth what Kill the Moon did for the moon.
November 30, 2015 @ 6:53 am
What’s particularly interesting from his Doctor Who episodes is the way Harness sets up moral dilemmas. Keep in mind that Kill the Moon aired after dark in Britain, so the majority of the viewers would have had their lights on. It’s clever enough that Harness thinks up the lights off/lights on idea in the first place, but he takes it a step further. Our default position is to let the creature live. If we want to kill it, we ourselves have to flick a switch.
Which is true for large swathes of Doctor Who. The act of war is always the act. There’s always a button to be pressed, a trigger to be pulled, a light to be switched off. But peace is a meaningful social and psychological shift. It’s beyond buttons – it’s about changing ourselves and the way we think, as opposed to nuking a village or a giant lump of rock.
November 30, 2015 @ 7:13 pm
See, lots of people said this at the time and it really threw me. I’d assumed everybody else, like me, watched Doctor Who with the lights off, in the dark.
November 30, 2015 @ 7:25 pm
And of course it doesn’t even occur to you that this could be a factor in the episode if you’re on the other side of the world, watching it on Sunday afternoon.
December 2, 2015 @ 6:01 pm
But that’s not exactly the primary audience Doctor Who is written for, is it?
November 30, 2015 @ 7:53 am
I think there’s also an important point to be made that Harness’s interest in political vision and political violence largely reflects the fact that those two things have collapsed into one in the past few decades. War is a media enterprise, and the goal isn’t just to make a particular conflict more appealing, but rather to shape our broader norms and values about political violence. That’s what really interests me about the Zygon two-parter: it goes from mirroring the trends and debates in popular politics to suddenly trying to actively change viewers’ international norms.
November 30, 2015 @ 8:07 am
Interesting that Moffat claimed to have written the Zygon Inversion monologue in a recent radio times interview. Harness may well not agree that diplomacy is a solution and alternative to all conflicts (rather than simply a solution in that particular case).
November 30, 2015 @ 11:00 am
As far as political allegories go, speculative fiction usually end up divorced enough from reality its message becomes inapplicable. It’s hard to bring out any real world message about racism, for example, from Lord of the Rings, unless you are a Nazi, because it extensively features evil subhumans that must be eradicated.
Now going with Harness, I find his message in Kill the Moon rather ill-conceived, unsupported and hilarious accidentally pro-life.
But the absurdity of Zygon Inv… is something I’d like to highlight now. The narrative of the story strongly supports Bonnie. There’s no questioning, at all, that humanity will try and murder every Zygon they see. And yet it’s Bonnie who’s vilified for wanting to reveal Zygons. The same Bonnie who’s strangely not vilified for at least several dozens of humans and Zygon collaborators she and her followes murdered and the same Bonnie who is considering the one to give forgiveness after that killing spree. Personally, if I went on killing spree and in the end I was the one whom people ask for forgiveness, I wouldn’t find in unfair at all. Did writing just forgot about all that Bonnie did, or did offence against her was so grave even rivers of blood won’t wash it away? And finally, what did Doctor propose? He chastise Bonnie for lacking a plan, but does anyone in the room actually have a plan? Are they going to wait for the next incident, rinse and repeat, offering blood sacrifice to the idol of status quo?
November 30, 2015 @ 11:53 am
Yes, most of the casual viewers I’ve talked to interpreted Kill the Moon as pro-life, and frankly I can’t escape the suspicion that Harness wrote it so that it could be read both ways and he could walk between the raindrops on that one.
I admit to bias here, as Harness personally attacked a friend of mine on social media for daring to suggest that KTM was anything less than the bee’s knees. If you’re going to write political message fiction you have to a) have a clear sense of what you’re conveying and b) be a little more thick-skinned.
November 30, 2015 @ 11:59 am
What bothers me is that there are people who interpret a story where good women force evil woman to keep the baby that threatens her well-being as pro-choice.
It really doesn’t make sense if you think of women as individuals.
November 30, 2015 @ 12:10 pm
Two major problems with that reading.
1) It doesn’t threaten Lundvik’s well-being.
2) Lundvik isn’t actually pregnant, and so she’s not being forced to “keep the baby,” but rather prevented from performing the abortion on someone else’s baby.
November 30, 2015 @ 12:16 pm
1) It looks like it does. You never know if something’s going to kill you until it does
2) She’s not the only one suffering from it, but she’s one of many. Unlike Clara and Courtney who are outsiders bossing her around. She’s carrying mandate of all the people endangered by a giant space baby that was planted at them without their consent.
November 30, 2015 @ 1:16 pm
I mean, expanding on that point, it’s worth asking the question of what would have happened if the consequences had been negative – if bits of the moon had gone plummeting into major cities and the creature had wrecked the gravitational balance between the Earth and the Moon, or something (pardon my sci-fi). Would Clara’s actions have been acceptable then? And if not, are we saying that an action is good based on almost unpredictable consequences? That it’s good because it happened to have a good outcome?
December 1, 2015 @ 9:58 am
I think important source of my derision for the story is, in fact, what I would call retroactive validation of Clara’s position.
December 2, 2015 @ 5:58 am
The story also implies, to me at any rate, that (a) the decision to let the baby live is the right one, and (b) that the Doctor is doing something rather unpleasant in forcing the humans to make the choice rather than simply stepping in and preventing the Moon’s destruction. I think it can very easily be read as anti-abortion* for these reasons.
*I am anti-abortion myself, but have no time for the ridiculous “pro-life” label.
December 2, 2015 @ 11:56 am
Doctor was a dick for withholding vital information for some reason. This episode really only makes sense if Doctor was bullshitting the whole time to prove some kind of point.
December 2, 2015 @ 12:01 pm
The script goes out of its way to establish that the Doctor has no special information to impart here. He’d just be another participant in the emergent democratic decision-making, and in his opinion he is not a citizen and ought not be given voting rights.
December 2, 2015 @ 12:56 pm
The whole episode consists of stream of revelations that makes no kind of sense of any kind. Culminating with Doctor’s assertion that “Birds don’t usually destroy their nests”.
I find it easier to believe that he was masking prior knowledge with this nonsensical deductions.
November 30, 2015 @ 12:02 pm
I take Harness at his word that he was not consciously writing about abortion as such; simply put, it’s just not that big an issue in the UK and Sweden. I have little trouble believing it could simply not spring to mind.
As for your friend, did your friend @reply Harness in his criticism? Because I have to say, people who deliberately @reply the people they’re criticizing don’t get to bitch when they get pushback.
November 30, 2015 @ 5:47 pm
He did not @reply. I think he may have embed-linked to one of his tweets. I don’t get the need for a successful writer to respond to criticism on social media, personally, but I guess if it was his first realized screenplay he might be defensive of it?
Anyway. I’ll take his word that he didn’t intend an abortion metaphor but so many of the reviews I read of that episode, positive and negative, brought it up. (Bearing in mind I’m not very deep into Who fandom.) At a certain point it seems like even if a theme like that emerged 100% spontaneously a writer ought to own it.
I guess I’m a little gun-shy about writers who seem to be trolling the audience at times with reactionary politics and then claim innocence. Certainly Moffat himself sometimes seems to be guilty of this in regards to his depictions of women…and I like Moffat, when he’s on.
November 30, 2015 @ 5:50 pm
That is to say, “I’m perhaps too likely to assume writers are trolling because I’ve seen it done before”, not that Harness personally is doing it necessarily. I actually agree Kill the Moon seems intended as a pro-choice metaphor but I’m not sure it came off.
November 30, 2015 @ 12:20 pm
I have never attacked anyone on social media. Occasionally people have included me on tweets criticising me and my writing, and if I’ve ever responded to that it’s to ask people to be a bit more polite in what they say and not to include me directly if they wish to say that my writing is shit or that I should be killed before being allowed to write for Doctor Who again. Which I think is reasonable. However, these days, I don’t engage at all. Which is think is even more reasonable.
November 30, 2015 @ 1:17 pm
Please continue to engage on here, though, because most of us love you and you just brighten up the room.
November 30, 2015 @ 1:42 pm
Do you engage with people who think Kill the Moon IS the bee’s knees? Because man, it’s a revelation. I’m trying to figure out if I have enough room to include it in my dissertation.
November 30, 2015 @ 1:49 pm
Well, I mean, he’s given me two interviews. 😉
November 30, 2015 @ 2:59 pm
Yeah, but you’ve also written something like a million words on Doctor Who, so… I mean, jeez, I once had a dream that I could write insightful points about politics and Doctor Who, and then you go and write blog posts like this!
November 30, 2015 @ 8:22 pm
I @ed Peter Harness at least 5 times to tell him he was great for Kill the Moon, Episodes 4 + the finale of Norrell & Strange, and also for TZI/TZI and I got nothing. Bupkis I think one of them got a fave.
Told Gareth Roberts I liked The Lodger, the man treated me like a welcome guest.
If you’re reading this Mr. Harness, do tell us about the Doctor’s final speech, was it all written by Moffat or was it a collaboration
November 30, 2015 @ 12:49 pm
The thing I love about Harness is that things always rest on the human characters. Gorgeous as Doctor Who is, people are always more important.
December 1, 2015 @ 5:55 am
Just to be clear, my critique of ‘Zygon Inv’ was basically coming from perspective which tests its politics against a radical political analysis. That isn’t necessarily a reason to damn it as a piece of art… and, indeed, I go out of my way in the critique to point out that, for all of what I perceive as its political deficiencies, I think it’s an exceptionally well-crafted piece of television. I think the same is true of ‘Kill the Moon’. I think Peter Harness is a very talented and interesting writer.