I’ll Explain Later
We went skip-happy again. No The Taking of Planet Five (12th best), Frontier Worlds (29th), or Parallel 59 (54th). The Shadows of Avalon is Paul Cornell’s one contribution to the Eighth Doctor Adventures. Mostly it’s a book about Celtic mythology, grief, and the Brigadier. A little bit it’s a book that does a huge plot twist in the novel line as Compassion turns out to be the first of the living TARDISes we met in Alien Bodies and Romana turns a bit evil. Unfortunately it’s a bit wonky. Lars Pearson mourns giving Paul Cornell his first bad review. Vanessa Bishop calls it “less self-indulgent than Paul’s later work for Virgin” but mostly finds time to keep bashing Interference. It’s only at 31st in the rankings, which is strikingly low for Paul Cornell.
It’s February of 2000. Gabrielle is at number one with “Rise,” which lasts two weeks before Oasis debuts at number one with “Go Let It Out,” which is unseated a week later by All Saints with “Pure Shores.” R.E.M., Shania Twain, Christina Aguilera, Aqua, Britney Spears, and… OK, I just need to admit, we’re miles outside any part of British music I know a thing about. So I’m just picking band names that amuse me now. Scanty Sandwich, Lyte Funkie Ones, Sash!, Joey Negro, and Ian Brown also chart. Ian Brown’s name doesn’t amuse me, but the song title “Dolphins Were Monkeys” does, so it goes on the list too.
In news, since we left off, Pervez Musharraf successfully executed a coup d’etat in Pakistan, narrowly avoiding dying in a plane crash, which was actually the other alternative. The Catholic Church and Lutherans resolved their theological dispute over salvation. A horrific train crash took place at Ladbroke Grove, killing thirty-one people and prompting major reforms in rail safety in the UK. Gary Glitter was jailed for downloading child pornography, and both the Millennium Dome and the London Eye opened. Also, the odometer rolled over without the world ending, unless you happened to be a Pyrenean Ibex, in which case you went extinct when your last surviving member had a tree fall on her. While in the month this book came out Peanuts ends its run in newspapers.
And in books, The Shadows of Avalon. So there’s an elephant in the room with this book that I’ll spend most of the post on, but I want to set up some other bits first, mostly because everybody focuses on the ending of this book. And while I want to say my piece there, especially as it’s the bit that feeds into the larger narrative best, I want to give the book the repsect of its own terms as well.
This is, by Cornell’s own admission, a book he wrote because he was strapped for cash. It is, as a result, the weakest Paul Cornell novel by some margin. In some ways this is surprising: the continually passionate Eighth Doctor, who absolutely sings in Orman and Blum’s hands, seems similarly tailor-made for Cornell’s frockery. But Cornell ends up having trouble with it. The reason for this is simple: this is not a particularly frockish book. Cornell has said that he was not in a particularly good place when he wrote it, and specifically that the Brigadier’s intense grief throughout the book was autobiographical. So we have him off the comedic kick he’d been on since Happy Endings and into something altogether darker. And unfortunately, the Eighth Doctor doesn’t support this at all, and the result feels surprisingly like “generic Doctor.”
The Brigadier, on the other hand, is marvelous. The Brigadier has always been a bit of a hobby horse for Cornell, part, presumably, of his larger concerns and interactions with the Pertwee era. Typically he’s engaged in redemptive readings, which make sense – for all Cornell’s leftism, he is a profoundly conservative writer inasmuch as he has always been actively concerned with traditional visions of England. He wants to rescue these visions from their political failings, and he’s very honest about what those failings are, but his focus on small English villages, the Church of England, Celtic mythology, panto, and the days before World War I all point towards a desire to, in essence, perform redemptive readings on those concepts. So the Brigadier, who he’s previously redeemed for The Silurians and turned into a Zen military master, gets a different form of redemption here.
It’s possible, if you want, to argue that the Brigadier’s grief is a bit repetitive over the novel. Equally, however, grief is a bit repetitive, and honest depictions of it seem worth doing. The Brigadier is unequivocally the portion of this book that works, and it’s tremendously effective. It’s the arc-related stuff: Compassion, Fritz, and, yes, the Doctor that Cornell doesn’t seem to have time for, but on the other hand, as we’ve said, he’s writing it for the money. It’s his weakest book, but still ultimately worthwhile.
All of which brings us around to the elephant in the room, in which we return once again to the endlessly fascinating topic of Lawrence Miles. A theme lurking in the background for a while now has been the fact that Lawrence Miles has what might charitably be called a… prickly relationship with a lot of other people in the world of Doctor Who. Really a lot of them. Actually, it’s largely easier to count the ones he still gets on with, but that list’s a few years out of date, so, you know. There’s no realistic chance of going into every one of his feuds, or even into most of them, so since we’re here, let’s pick one of the best documented ones: his feud with Paul Cornell.
Researching this required some digging for interviews. Occasional black masses over the Internet Wayback Machine. You know how it is. So since I am not assuming that all of my readership just knows the details of this feud off the top of their heads, let me just reproduce some quotes from each side.
Paul Cornell, on Lawrence Miles:
In the days of the NAs, none of the authors would comment on each others’ work in public. I still think doing so is ugly. Lawrence and I have been at odds for some time, and I wish we weren’t, because I remember when he was quite sweet to everyone, and I think he’s a great writer. He seems to think I object to his politics, but I’m still not clear what those are, and, well, I just don’t! I wince when he slags off other authors. It’s just wrong to do that. What makes it worse is, he seems to pick only on those who get the same degree of, or more, critical acclaim than him. I also hate the concept that, in a shared world line, he doesn’t like other authors, even editors who’ve been kind enough to commission him, using his ideas. And I feel a terrible sense of vulnerability and nausea on his behalf when he attacks publishers and editors who have, in the most ordinary way, turned down his work. Because he’ll really come to regret that.
At the last Tavern, he approached me kindly, and, feeling really pleased that we were getting on now, I apologised for a couple of old slights and tried to find out what his political beliefs were, and why he felt we were fighting over them. We didn’t get very far with that, but he asked if he could use Bernice in his forthcoming BBC novel. I said yes straight away, because a mutual friend had told me that Lawrence was looking for an excuse to talk to me that night, and I thought it was charming to be asked, and I really wanted to see what he’d do with her. He warned me about the forthcoming web site interview, and said that the only insult he’d flung in my direction was that I’d ‘got a fat arse’. I laughed and said that if that was the worst there was, then he could rest assured that everything was fine now.
And yet, when it’s put up, there it is, all the same old stuff. As if he doesn’t actually know how to be kind to people any more. Or as if he was only nice to me that night to get what he wanted. So now I’m afraid I’ve said no to the Bernice thing. Because I believe in forgiveness, but not in putting pearls before swine.
There’s only one point I want to address directly: he says that in one of my SFX columns, I refer to Who fandom as a ‘squabbling pit’ (that’s the actual quote, I think he dressed it up a bit). Well, I do. And it is. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. I especially don’t see how someone who’s squabbling while he argues can argue with that. But Who fandom is also deeply beautiful, and I’m part of it, and I love it. And I’ve said that on many occasions too. But he doesn’t mention those. And now, I just don’t want to see him, hear from him, or have him anywhere near my life anymore. I want to get on with everyone, I see no value or cachet in having feuds with anyone. So, unfortunately, if he approaches me nicely again, I may well get suckered again. But I quite like being like that.
Lawrence Miles, on Paul Cornell:
Q:Why did Paul Cornell make a statement like that? What was the context?
A: Oh, it was all to do with the ending of SHADOWS OF AVALON. Stephen Cole wanted something very dark and operatic, with the Time Lords trying to… violate the reborn Compassion, but Paul wouldn’t play it that way. He said his beloved audience would hate it, because they preferred feel-good fiction. Bollocks. What the Doctor Who readers don’t like, what they react badly to, is mass slaughter. Jim Mortimore isn’t particularly well-liked as a writer, despite the obvious talent there, because he takes a historical viewpoint. Individuals aren’t important, the way he does things, so there are characters getting killed off left, right and centre. And that’s not a very Doctor Who kind of attitude. Real human tragedy, on the other hand, works very well. But Paul refused to acknowledge that, and it’s one of the reasons why THE SHADOWS OF AVALON is such a mess, I think. It’s this vast operatic story, but he keeps copping out to give the audience touchy-feely feel-good moments…
Q:Paul Cornell’s criticism of you was that you’d broken the Doctor Who writer’s code by criticizing other writers. Fair, do you think?
A: Fair. But I don’t remember signing any official agreement when Virgin signed me up. Nobody told me about this “code”. The thing is… I’ve got a reputation as one of the most arrogant people in the whole of fandom, and it’s kind of funny. If you want to know what “arrogant” means, my God… you make a criticism of Gary Russell or Paul Cornell or someone, they never forget and they never forgive you for it. The word “bitch” isn’t big enough for what these people do. And you should hear the abuse I’ve had over the last couple of years. But unlike 90% of the other writers, it doesn’t really bother me. I still hang around with people who’ve been completely insulting. The problem is, I don’t have a sense of diplomacy, that’s all. I don’t have any tact. The other writers bitch about each other behind their backs, whereas I just come out and say what I think. That’s the problem Paul has with me, I think. Oh, and I don’t have tits.
A: I’ve tried to be nice to him. I’ve always tried. But if he can’t shag you, he’s just not interested. The only sure-fire way to get on that man’s good side is by having XX chromosomes. He’s never had any patience with me at all. That was the really funny thing about that interview he did, where he started slagging me off. He said the politics in INTERFERENCE reminded him of a “seventeen-year-old virgin”. It was just so telling, because what he’s actually saying there, when it comes down to it, is: “I’m wiser than you are because I’ve shagged more birds.” I mean, fair enough, he probably has had sex with more people than I have. His exploits are far more legendary than mine. I just thought that was a very funny attitude, coming from someone who calls me a misogynist.
Q: Why does he think you’re a misogynist?
A: Because of my fanzine. The one I give out at the Tavern. I keep taking the piss out of Kate Orman, so in Shagger Cornell’s world that means I hate women. It’s the way things work on his planet. All right, let’s get down to basics here. We’re talking about a man who spends his life acting like a caring, sharing new man just so he can get into the pants of as many women as possible. And this isn’t just me being bitter, some of Paul’s own friends told me this about him even before I’d met the man. In a court of law, the character witnesses would be lined up around the building three-deep. And I’m a misogynist for having a go at Kate Orman. This is getting really perosnal now, isn’t it? Maybe we should go back to focusing on Krotons.
I do this, to be perfectly honest, to stack the deck preposterously from the start. Because with those two dueling quotes there’s no sane way that I’m going to side with Miles. Because holy shit. Where do we even begin? I mean, I’m willing to set aside the sheer viciousness of the personal attacks for the sake of the argument. And, you know, let’s be fair. These are ten-year-old quotes, and we shouldn’t hold the Lawrence Miles of today responsible for them when we can, you know, get mad at him for photoshopping Karen Gillan with the face of a blow-up sex doll instead.
So let’s look at the specific point of argument as it relates to The Shadows of Avalon. To recap, the end of The Shadows of Avalon was set to resolve this whole arc about Compassion by turning her into the progenitor of the sentient TARDISes seen in Alien Bodies. Fine. Lawrence Miles wanted this plot to resolve with Romana authorizing the rape and forcible breeding of Compassion. Paul Cornell wanted… not that. And Lawrence Miles’s problem with this is that Cornell wanted a happy ending. This is… hm. How to put this.
To think that the problem Paul Cornell had with that plot was that it was an unhappy ending is the most searingly, brutally tone-deaf and brain-dead thing I have had the misfortune of dealing with on this blog since… well, probably since the last time I exploded in mild rage at a bit of plotting involving rape. The reason not to do it isn’t that it’s tragic. It’s that having Romana authorize sending someone to a fucking rape camp is the most staggeringly awful idea I have ever heard and would make it impossible to watch virtually the entire Graham Williams era without just throwing up in your mouth every time she talks because Jesus Fucking Christ no.
Which brings us around to the claim that Paul Cornell “spends his life acting like a caring, sharing new man just so he can get into the pants of as many women as possible.” Which… well, OK, first of all, let’s make a basic distinction here. The categories “committed feminist” and “person who enjoys sleeping with women” are in no way mutually exclusive. Second of all, let’s note that when we say that Paul Cornell “spends his life” doing this we do, in fact, mean that he has a long career dotted with numerous occasions where he has vocally taken feminist stances. Most recently, and in a move that surely did little good for his career in a practical sense, he’s started refusing to sit on panels at conventions that don’t have equitable gender representation. This is hardly an isolated incident. So yes, he does spend his life acting like, well, I’d use the term feminist instead of “caring, sharing new man.” Which is perhaps a reasonable piece of evidence that he is one.
Certainly, and this is a significant point, he doesn’t spend his life writing stories in which the Time Lords turn into gang rapists. And Miles isn’t wrong to assume that this is why Cornell is having sex with more people than he is, because, you know, in general a decently effective way to get along with women is to not be cavalier about the prospect of them getting raped. But as this is the same Lawrence Miles who describes Take Back the Night as a “right-wing, pro-morality vigilante movement” that “has been responsible for acts of chronic violence against anyone – male or female – who stands in its way,” so, you know, I guess that ship sailed.
Which is to say that for all that the “seventeen-year-old virgin” comment Miles bristles at is a bit of a non-sequitur, it’s not an entirely irrelevant one – a point that harkens back to what we were talking about back with The Curse of Fatal Death, and what we’ll talk about again at the end of the month. Which is that there is a viciously misogynistic streak within cult fandom that needed to be curbed. And that misogyny was not so much ideological misogyny as a misogyny born of a peculiar pathology of awkwardness and social isolation. Miles’s lines are part and parcel of the same logic that complains about women putting men in the “friend zone,” that complains that women don’t like “nice guys” like the person complaining, and, in general, a logic that tacitly assumes that women have an obligation to sleep with men who want it. Even Miles’s defenders fall into tediously familiar traps, saying that this sort of thing is just Miles’s sense of humor, a line that will be bitterly familiar for anyone who’s argued against rape culture. (And is it still going on in fandom? At the time of writing the most recent post on the Missing Episodes thread of GallifreyBase consists of someone musing on how they want to see Nicola Bryant naked.)
Which, as I noted last time we talked about this, is something Cornell apparently has personal experience with. And so yes, the “seventeen-year-old virgin” crack was a low blow, though certainly not even remotely low by Miles’s own standards, but it got at something important: Interference showed a vision of the world characteristic of an antisocial autodidact who has spent more time thinking about the world than actually looking at it and listening to it.
In this regard the connections to libertarianism and chaos magic that I drew a while ago continue to apply. In every case there’s a problem of, if you will, stupidity that’s carefully calibrated to appeal to smart people. It’s a peculiarly intelligent screw-up. But it’s a pernicious one that’s intimately connected to why geek culture fosters environments where we come a hair’s breath from having Romana the Rapist. And it really is notable that Doctor Who had a sufficient built-in defense to nip this in the bud, at least in this instance. Cornell was absolutely right to veto Miles’s plot direction and refuse to put it in his book. And while the book still doesn’t quite work as such, there’s no serious way to argue that it isn’t better than it would have been if it were “the one where Romana has the Time Lords gang rape Compassion.”
Which is also to say that for all that we’re going to have… concerns with The Ancestor Cell on Monday, and for all that some of those concerns are going to be the foolishness of having anyone but Miles write the book, equally, at this point, a few months out from this, sacking Miles from control over this story arc wasn’t just appropriate, it was absolutely necessary.