Outside the Government 18: A Romance in Twelve Parts
A commissioned essay for Tiffany Korta
And so here we are again, at Faction Paradox. Let’s start, just because this is eventually going to be collected in the Matt Smith book, far from any other Faction Paradox material, with an account of what this is. It starts, as with most things these days, in the 90s, shortly after Doctor Who failed to return in the wake of the Paul McGann movie. The movie was used as the occasion to move the license for producing original Doctor Who fiction from Virgin, who had been doing a highly acclaimed line of books featuring Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, to the BBC, who proceeded to do a noticeably less acclaimed line of books featuring Paul McGann’s Doctor.
Among the only books in this line that was acclaimed was a book called Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles, which featured concepts like the Doctor encountering his own corpse, the declaration that the Doctor’s body is a terrifying weapon, the idea that Time Lords are defined by something called “biodata,” which is simultaneously genetic material and the sum total of their impact upon time and history, and the idea of a big and apocalyptic war that the Time Lords do not anticipate surviving. Given that none of these ideas have ever been reused by Steven Moffat or Russell T Davies, it’s similarly ridiculous to suggest that the other big idea in Alien Bodies might have any impact on the era at all. That idea is the time traveling voodoo cult of renegade Time Lords known as Faction Paradox.
Miles wrote two more books for the BBC Books line in which he fleshed out these ideas more before a falling out with the editors drove him away from Doctor Who (save for one brief return that had little to nothing to do with his contributions to the Doctor Who mythos), and his ideas were wrapped up in a desperately unsatisfying manner by other writers. Miles, meanwhile, took the concepts he had the rights to, which were mainly Faction Paradox, and shopped them to a variety of small presses that made audio adventures, Faction Paradox novels, and an exceedingly brief comic series. These mostly had very little impact on the world, and we’ve largely checked in with them occasionally as a sort of sad “ah yes, this forgotten and dusty corner of Doctor Who.”
Eventually Faction Paradox’s rights settled in with a charming publisher called Obverse Books, who kicked off their line of Faction Paradox stories in 2011 with a collection of short stories called A Romance in Twelve Parts, which brings us to the present topic. In terms of the narrative of Doctor Who, this is a terribly obscure book. Based on Amazon sales rank I’d guess, and I could very well be wrong, that it sells something on the order of a copy a month, if that. It is a small and minor book with very little impact on the world.
Of course, it’s worth expanding the view a little bit. It is, after all, an anthology of short stories. The science fiction short story, once the most fundamental form of the genre, has effectively withered and died. There are a handful of magazines still publishing original short stories – they have dire circulation that puts them at the perpetual brink of cancellation, and it’s a wonder they’ve not died off yet. The e-reader market, once hailed as the potential savior of short fiction, has mostly failed to accomplish this, in no small part because the company that dominates e-readers cuts royalty rates in half for price points below $2.99, which means that the attractive price points for short fiction are unattractive.
Which is to say that being a home for short fiction with a built-in readership, even if it’s a small one, is worthwhile. Especially when it’s good short fiction, which, I should stress, A Romance in Twelve Parts is. From fairly traditional sci-fi exploration to dark and metafictional spins on fairytales to strange game show parodies that I’ve discussed in other entries, this is, on the whole, a book of good stories. Some are perhaps more reliant on the larger Faction Paradox than is ideal to just recommend to people – the book’s major piece, a collection of one hundred hundred-word shorts set in the City of the Saved, is particularly tough to get into for people unfamiliar with the ideas in question. But even there, the City of the Saved is the sort of idea it’s easy to love – a galaxy-sized city consisting of every single human being ever born, all immortal. It’s bizarre and intriguing and a great concept, even if one feels like one should have read a few more Faction Paradox books before tackling this particular story.
And this gets at the thing that’s particularly interesting about Faction Paradox stories, which is that they are very much stories of ideas. Often their point is to sketch out broad and theoretical ideas, like the City of the Saved, or like a boy who decides to make himself a hero of legend, or like an encounter between Charles Dickens and John Gault (the u is clearly just to avoid copyright infringement) in a hallucinogenic dreamscape of the Wild West. Many of the stories are light on characterization, to say the least, although calling this a criticism seems unfair, since it’s so clearly the point of the exercise. These stories are celebrations of concept and of technique. They’re often willfully difficult, but in a way that embraces mild obscurantism as a concept and as a worthwhile thing to do in the first place.
In many ways, this is central to the Faction Paradox mythos on the whole. While that mythos is mostly in the background of these stories, it’s still sizable, focusing on the previously mentioned big apocalyptic War, now between the “Great Houses,” who are unapologetically the Time Lords with the serial numbers filed off, and the Enemy, who remains aggressively hazily defined save for the fact that it represents a “new kind of history.” Which sets the tone, in many ways. The series is defined by a big war over the nature of reality that is so sketchily defined as to be impossible to trace out the ideas of. It is a series and a mythology defined by setup and by the generation of ideas, as opposed to by their deep exploration and resolution. It’s not about coming to an end or a conclusion in the least.
There’s an image in one of Miles’s Doctor Who books of a planet that is the furthest point that human culture ever reached. And in many ways, that is what Faction Paradox is to Doctor Who – the most obscure and minor body of work to extend out of the cultural behemoth that is Doctor Who. In the past we’ve suggested that this amounts to some sort of textual haunting, in line with the ideology of the Faction itself. But in reality, the truth is simpler and in many ways nicer. Faction Paradox is, at this point, a self-sustaining community of writers who want to produce desperately uncommercial fiction that is nevertheless interesting and worthwhile on its own merits.
This is, surely, a thorough embrace of what Doctor Who is for. The show has always been, as I’ve argued over the long course of TARDIS Eruditorum, about the relationship of the margins to the mainstream, and about the embrace of the strange. A small and marginal community distantly spun off from Doctor Who that exists to write strange and obscure stories with weird ideas feels, in many ways, like the exact sort of thing Doctor Who should create.
This isn’t quite a recommendation. Faction Paradox is few people’s cup of tea. It’s not even quite mine – it’s something I respect more than enjoy. Of the stories in this anthology, the only two I can honestly and with a straight face say I really enjoyed were the first one, with the boy who decides he wants to be a hero of legend, and the deliciously gratuitous Faction Paradox/Iris Wildthyme crossover. And yet the world is so clearly a better place for Faction Paradox’s existence. Weird high concept conceptual sci-fi is something that ought to be a part of the world. And thanks to Doctor Who, it is.
July 14, 2014 @ 1:44 am
The world may be a better place because of Faction Paradox, but tomorrow it won't have been!
Seriously, though, it sounds like this is something I should check out. I love short-form SF based around ideas, I love Alien Bodies, and I admire (and occasionally love) writers playing with the form. It's not that I don't love character-based stories too, but this sort of thing is from a genre whose slow death I have found painful to watch. Will put on my (far too long) list of things to get.
July 14, 2014 @ 2:41 am
I've never liked Faction Paradox much, but I'm intrigued by the Iris Wildthyme crossover…
July 14, 2014 @ 7:42 am
the book’s major piece, a collection of one hundred hundred-word shorts set in the City of the Saved, is particularly tough to get into for people unfamiliar with the ideas in question.
Tough? Maaybe, but A Romance in Twelve Parts was the second Faction Paradox thing I read, after Newtons Sleep, and I found A Hundred Words from a Civil War… not quite easy to follow, but not particularly more difficult than anything else in the collection. It's confusing, but in an interesting way rather than a frustrating way (which could sum up Faction Paradox as a whole, come to think of it).
I'm surprised that you didn't mention the story about how awesome Alan Moore (oh, sorry, 'Jim Sheldrake') is, though, considering your other interests.
July 14, 2014 @ 8:31 am
John Gault (the u is clearly just to avoid copyright infringement)
July 14, 2014 @ 11:21 am
I actually read this one after it came up during a series on the SJA. I don't remember specifics, but was fairly interesting.
July 14, 2014 @ 11:54 am
Just a couple of points. Firstly, with regards to sales, as I understand it the vast majority of Obverse's sales come from their own website rather than from Amazon, so while I don't think this is selling in bestseller numbers, it probably does rather better than the one copy a month the Amazon numbers would suggest.
As for "the most obscure and minor body of work to extend out of the cultural behemoth that is Doctor Who", someone clearly hasn't come across the Periodical Adventures of Senor 105 😉
(And Senor 105 is, like Faction Paradox itself, far more interesting to me at least than post-2005 Doctor Who is…)
July 15, 2014 @ 2:23 am
I've always thought that a Doctor Who villain named "Grandfather Paradox" is such a self evidently awesome idea that I'm amazed he wasn't introduced by Whitaker in a season 2 episode.
Frankly, I think that's part of why the BBC Books went in the direction they did, a combination of the Doctor's accumulated titles (Professor, Advisor, Grandfather) and the same narrative gravity behind the Other: If there's an important and shadowy male figure out there, it's probably the Doctor. It's probably only because the man came out that the Doctor wasn't revealed as Deep Throat in The Impossible Astronaut.
Simon (formerly Johnny Sorrow)
August 17, 2014 @ 3:53 pm
City of the Saved sounds a bit like Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld; a planet populated by every human who has ever lived. They're not undying, but they are perpetually resurrected. This seems to indulge in a lot of the same "mix and match" shenanigans with its cast of historical and fictional characters.