What everybody praises about Dead Romance is its twist ending. So here’s the thing. I kind of hate twist endings and, if someone were foolish enough to give me despotic powers over all fiction, I would impose a ten-year moratorium on them along with creepy children and procedurals with social misfit lead characters. The problem with twist endings is that they’re cheap. They’re a cheap way to get out of having to write an ending that actually follows from what comes before. They’re what you do when you can’t actually resolve what you have in an interesting fashion – you decide in the last act that you’re going to throw everything away and establish a new premise for your story.
And yet Dead Romance actually makes it work. There are a couple tricks here. The first is that the narrator is complicit in the deception. This makes a big difference, simply because it means that the deception is thoroughly motivated. When the book pulls the rug out from under us it does so for reasons that are intimately related to the things that Christine has wanted all book, most notably to feel as though she’s real. Everything about why she’d be lying to the reader is set up early on. Furthermore, the revelation itself is set up early on. The revelation that Christine is inside a bottle universe from the rest of the Virgin line is essentially the same revelation as the one that she was just a clone grown by Cwej.
Secondly, it turns on an entirely believable revelation about a character we already know. Cwej is a known quantity to readers of the New Adventures, even if he hadn’t actually appeared in a while. And while we might want to believe that he would never do the sorts of things depicted here, the fact of the matter is that it’s all too easy to believe that he could get this far in over his head and make decisions this bad. It’s quintessential Cwej, tragically enough. And because the twist hinges on that, it avoids the feeling of arbitrariness that plagues some twist endings.
Thirdly, and crucially, it ends up making Christine a more interesting character. Through most of the book we assume she’s the lone survivor of the world, which is interesting but arbitrary. We’re looking at the world through the eyes of the one person who happened to be lucky enough not to die. Fair enough, but ultimately arbitrary. But by establishing that she’s a clone with implanted memories we get a reason why she should survive, which is that she’s not really of the world in the first place. This is actually much stronger than the ending it looks like we’re getting, moving the emphasis away from “everything you thought you knew is wrong” and towards “everything you thought you knew is actually more correct than you thought.”
In interviews Miles describes this book as tragic, and to his credit, he seems to actually understand what that word means. This isn’t just a story that ends bleakly, it’s a story where the bleak ending follows inevitably from its starting conditions, and is in turn hidden behind a twist such that it is at once the inevitable resolution of everything we’ve seen and a complete sucker punch. This, in turn, is built into something larger by the way in which the novel tackles its ambitious ideas.
Let’s look back to The Invisibles for a moment, both so we can highlight the similarity between what Miles does and what Morrison does, and so we can look at a context in which it unequivocally works, since I’ve yet to get around to being particularly charitable to Morrison (or Miles, for that matter). For the most part The Invisibles is at its strongest in the early issues, where we get Jack’s look at the world around him. This is because this is one of the most rock solid and reliable structures ever. Not for nothing did the Hero’s Journey go and infest every nook and cranny of storytelling: it’s a gloriously straightforward structure that’s easy to make work. For anything fantastic it’s a joy because you have a character who constantly needs the plot explained to them. For anything visual effects laden it’s great because the perspective of awe is mirrored in the main character, so you can do the standard issue Spielberg trick of having the movie be about the act of staring slack-jawed at the spectacle. And in general it works because there’s a contrast. Doctor Who has made it fifty years off the basic formula of “put somewhere some place they don’t belong and watch the sparks fly,” and the structure of “someone steps through a portal into another world” is basically that. But once The Invisibles gets out to its big war across the nature of reality and loses the sense of an outsider looking in on it the story rapidly disappears up its own asshole.
And as we said last time, the single best moment of The Invisibles is the issue where Morrison tacks back and fleshes out the background of the random and ordinary person who just gets caught up in the war over reality and gets killed for it. Because as we learned from Robert Holmes the most interesting thing about the epic scale is its fractal nature such that the same concerns play out on the tiny individual scale as on the massive one. So by showing us the war from the perspective of the generic guard who just gets shot in the face Morrison gives us the best window in on the war he ever manages.
All of which said, there’s nothing in Grant Morrison’s entire career (save perhaps his underrated companion to The Invisibles, The Filth) that comes anywhere close to what Dead Romance manages, which is to provide an ordinary person’s reflection not on falling out of the world but on a reality-breaking apocalypse. Dead Romance goes toe to toe with any given arc of The Invisibles for its sheer density of mad ideas, but it does the entire thing from the perspective of a perfectly ordinary person.
There’s a cheat implicit in it, of course, which is that Christine Summerfield acts just like Benny. But Benny is still defined primarily as an adventurer who has normal-person reactions to things. So Miles pulls of a beautifully clever trick and has a character who acts like Benny but who is, in practice, not an adventurer at all. There is, admittedly, a bit of outright trickery here. One of the few big plot holes in Dead Romance is that the book hinges on the fact that Christine Summerfield is just like Benny, hence several paragraphs of recounting the Summerfield family history and the declaration at the end that Benny is the only person in the universe Christine feels any kinship with. But there’s no actual reason for this – nothing explains why Benny’s attitudes and worldview would manifest in Christine. Nevertheless, she’s unmistakably derived from Benny, given different origins and a different setting, but still functioning with Benny’s ability to provide a not entirely credulous meta-commentary on the events of a genre story.
In many ways this fulfills the original premise of Doctor Who, only on the sort of sprawling epics that characterize the series (and most science fiction) as of the late 1990s. Classically speaking, in the Hartnell sense – which is, let’s face it, the sense in which Miles actually likes Doctor Who – it’s a series about ordinary people facing terrifying other worlds. And when it’s in the sci-fi milieu as opposed to the historical one, those other worlds are often defined by their sheer alienness. So here we get a world of utter alienness, defined precisely by the way it just drops into our world and callously slaughters everybody, but we get it through the eyes of ordinary people and get to enjoy the frisson implicit in that contrast.
This is enhanced by the book’s slightly orthogonal relationship with Doctor Who. Although it plays with familiar concepts, including the War and the bottle universes that would be introduced and dealt with more thoroughly in Interference, as well as, obviously, the Time Lords, the nature of the Virgin line and its rights meant that these concepts had to be kept at arm’s length. So the Time Lords never get to be identified as such. It’s obvious what they are if you know anything about Doctor Who, but they’re presented as alien.
It’s a mistake to suggest that this makes Dead Romance a stand-alone book. It’s not quite. Certainly it’s accessible to new readers, but it can only be understood as something that exists within a line of serialized fiction. But more to the point, this approach works because it’s recognizable as a Doctor Who story with the names changed and the concepts pushed to their breaking points. Note how even the concepts that Virgin does have the rights to are stretched. There are bits that are self-evidently about Ben Aaronovitch’s People, but those don’t get named either. Because this is a book about seeing the familiar milieu of Doctor Who refracted back at us at an odd and chilling angle. If you don’t have the frame of familiarity you’ll still follow the plot, but that’s true of most Doctor Who books. But more even than something like Interference, and certainly more true of most generic Doctor Who novels, if you aren’t steeped in the underlying mythology than its fundamental impact is blunted.
But there’s another interesting dimension here, and one that has puzzling and somewhat implications for considering Miles’s broader career. Simply put, Miles is visibly better when he gets a bit away from Doctor Who. Dead Romance is successful because of its partial distance from Doctor Who. His previous best book, Down (which is far better than Alien Bodies) also benefited from an appreciable distance from Doctor Who. Because its obvious that Miles does want to question and undermine key premises of Doctor Who, and the distance he gets from working in forms that are more “outside the government” than attempts at straight Doctor Who. Which is to say that his inevitable stormy departure from Doctor Who is all but inevitable.
Which is to say that everything that makes this book work is irrepeatable, at least within Doctor Who. Even within the Benny books it’s a stretch, since it requires a version of Benny who is manifestly not a competent adventurer. It’s a consummate one-off: The Caves of Androzani for the 90s. Like The Caves of Androzani, it works by finding a set of things that cannot be replicated and doing them so as to escape from the traps that the rest of the era lays. And like The Caves of Androzani, its successes are ultimately damning for the status quo. As good as this is, it points directly towards a fundamental problem with the era – one that is badly obscured by the “greatest hits” approach we’re taking with the books. People have found several ways to make Doctor Who work in specific cases, but there’s no usable general case of Doctor Who right now. It is a concept that only works when it is being reacted against. It’s only by exploiting the tensions within it that it can work at all, and there’s only so far you can ride that horse before it collapses utterly. As we’re about to see.