Outside the Government 8 (Dead Romance)
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.
January 28, 2013 @ 1:14 am
Great post. I don't think I see Christine as Benny with the serial number filed off – her (consciously) superficial attraction towards trendy counter-culture doesn't strike me as a particularly Benny trait, for instance. Rather, she's familiar, in the purest sense of the word: you can see her as a member of Benny's family, but not the same person. Beyond that, though, I think you're right. Miles' best stuff works by crushing everything around it into a little cube, and here he had a brief window where it didn't really matter that someone did that.
As an aside, do you have any familiarity with Final Fantasy X? It's the story I've come across that's most similar to Dead Romance, and I think it gets overlooked, probably because the story is mainly told via real-time rendered PS2 era cut-scenes with mediocre translation from the Japanese; but it offers a potential model for "Miles-plus", since it adds a credible love story seamlessly into the mix, giving it a humane and generous dimension without compromising the tragedy – arguably enhancing it. (We won't speak of the sequel.)
January 28, 2013 @ 1:46 am
I first read Dead Romance before any of the other Benny adventures and it blew my mind. It took me quite a while to work out why, but I think it was largely because it showed that you could do this sort of work sort of withing Doctor Who (although from an orthogonal angle as you point out.
Great post BTW.
January 28, 2013 @ 1:54 am
this sort of work within the confines of Doctor Who
January 28, 2013 @ 3:40 am
"which is to provide an ordinary person’s reflection not on falling out of the world but on a reality-breaking apocalypse."
Um … Flex Mentallo. Which came out before Dead Romance and does seem to be a pretty clear influence on it.
January 28, 2013 @ 3:43 am
You know, I really need to re-read that. I was far too distracted and careless in the one reading of it I ever gave.
January 28, 2013 @ 4:07 am
"there’s no usable general case of Doctor Who right now. It is a concept that only works when it is being reacted against"
But doesn't that rule out the idea of 'orthogonal angles'? The problem with that, er, angle is that it makes Doctor Who out to be a fixed thing. When actually, pretty much from the start, Doctor Who is reacting against and playing with form. Playfully deconstructing itself and the things it's pastiching.
What Miles does is that, but with no desire to be cosy or to reset things at the end. That's his USP. He's playing exactly the same game all the sentient Doctor Who writers have done since Ian pointed out that the TARDIS is 'ridiculous' (the first episode), he's just snarling a bit more as he does it. Which makes for a good book, but … well, not an unusual one. Like a lot of Morrison's stuff, by accident or design, it is essentially a checklist of postmodern fiction tropes with the author going 'I'm a bad boy, I'm an enfant terrible'.
Also, as with Down, it demonstrates that Lawrence Miles needs a good editor. Here, Rebecca Levene makes him concentrate – in both senses of the word – with Interference, Steve Cole just let him gabble away until they ran out of trees to print it on. Again, it's an indication that this is not some outlier, this is a component of a larger whole. It's the album track everyone loves more than any of the singles, but it would be a terrible single.
Actually, come to think of it, it even has the same story as A Day in the Life, doesn't it?
January 28, 2013 @ 4:11 am
I talk about this more a few posts from now, but the short form is that I don't think the relationship is absolute. Postmodernism reacts against absolute fixity, but it still requires the margin/mainstream relationship to function, and indeed, ultimately assumes that you can't get rid of it.
Also, for what it's worth, Levene was no longer the Virgin editor at this point, and Miles has said the new editor, Simon Winstone, was not pleased with Dead Romance, but that the line was very slapdash at that point and couldn't demand the changes he wanted.
January 28, 2013 @ 4:52 am
And then there's The Quiet Earth, a lovely 1985 movie.
January 28, 2013 @ 5:58 am
"They’re a cheap way to get out of having to write an ending that actually follows from what comes before."
It may not feature a twist ending, but RTD's "Parting of the Ways" suddenly came to mind. 😉
January 28, 2013 @ 6:30 am
Yeah – I'm just suggesting that Doctor Who is, itself, an orthogonal thing. Or inherently subversive/playful/postmodern. It's not the mainstream thing. Dead Romance doesn't play around with 'the Doctor Who formula', it does the same thing Marvels (1994, pre Dead Romance) did of seeing the story from an actual ordinary person's point of view and going 'fuck me, big scary stuff in the sky'.
This wasn't exactly the New Adventures' first go around on the metafiction train. It was a point where only the hardcore of the hardcore were reading – people loyal to the NA project specifically – so it could be double caffeinated.
The real subversion of the book is that the Benny books were based on the idea that Benny's wonderful, that the Paul Cornell world of tea and cricket on the village green are wonderful, that Benny represented all that is decent and good about life, and that basically we'd all like to bone Emma Thompson. Whereas in this one, it's not even Benny, it's a bad photocopy. Miles has problems fitting the Doctor into his Doctor Who books, but he doesn't even bother with Benny in the Benny ones.
January 28, 2013 @ 7:20 am
"What Miles does is that, but with no desire to be cosy or to reset things at the end."
Then gets shirty when other writers completely fail to follow up on it 🙂
I still maintain that Miles should have just set up a little corner of the Who-verse to play in and stop trying to affect change on the property. You can pretty much get away with any kind of story as everyone kind of ignores what everyone else is doing (save for when someone introduces a great repeatable idea), so no matter how much Miles huffs and puffs, he's never going to knock over so much as a toothpick.
January 28, 2013 @ 8:16 am
"Dead Romance is, it seems, the best Lawrence Miles novel ever. Possibly the best Doctor Who-related novel ever."
Absolutely right. The best Doctor Who (or 'sort of Doctor Who') novel ever.
January 28, 2013 @ 9:00 am
"I still maintain that Miles should have just set up a little corner of the Who-verse to play in and stop trying to affect change on the property."
Well, he sort of did that. He took the bits he liked, and got together with some like-minded writers to create a new universe that he could break as much as he liked. Which he did with gusto, and seemed to be much happier for it.
January 28, 2013 @ 9:04 am
"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."
Do miraculous/demonic births count? No more Claires or Boomers?
Also: would you ban first person present tense narration?
If the answers to each of these is "Yes," you've got my vote for literary despot. I mean, not that a despot would give me a vote…
January 28, 2013 @ 9:08 am
I'm tempted to just ban birth as a major plot device for a bit. There you go, television! You'll have to come up with something for women to do besides have babies!
First person present tense is trickier. I'm sympathetic to your point, but fear that people will only fall back on lazier strategies.
January 28, 2013 @ 11:00 am
"I would impose a ten-year moratorium on…procedurals with social misfit lead characters."
I thought you likedSherlock, Phil 😉 Or is this a veiled swipe at Elementary? If it's the latter, I may have some grumblings for you.
I wholeheartedly second you on banning birth, however. I will be your tenacious lieutenant in the literary revolution just for that.
January 28, 2013 @ 11:03 am
I have trouble considering Sherlock a procedural. And I've not actually seen Elementary. 🙂
January 28, 2013 @ 11:19 am
Ah, OK-I could see that.
Elementary is very, very good IMO. I think it's both a great procedural and a fantastic character drama that's ahead of its time in terms of characterization and relationship dynamics. It's overarching plot has a tendency to lurch back and forth on occasion, its progression doesn't always feel smooth and this season has perhaps gone on a bit too long, but on the whole I highly recommend it.
Because comparisons are inevitable, I like it far better than Sherlock, both as a Conan Doyle adaptation and a TV show in general. But that's me, of course, so make of that what you will.
January 28, 2013 @ 3:06 pm
For me, the best bit of Dead Romance comes when Chris is explaining to Christine that she lives inside a bottle Universe that is a simplified version of the real Universe. I forget the exact dialogue, but it's along the lines of "In your universe the Pyramids were built by people, not aliens. It's so implausible. How could you not realise something was wrong?" It works because it's funny, of course, but also because it taps into an idea that the sci-fi world is richer, more vivid, more convincing than what we come to acept as reality, and that's a powerful idea to invoke in many ways.
And I think you're quite right that it's (possibly) the best Who-related novel ever. There are a handful of competitors, but this one is the most ambitious, and also the one that a reader unfamiliar with Who and the Virgin novel range can get the most out of. It inhabits the same sort of literary space as Philip K Dick or Michael Moorcock, and doesn't suffer from the comparison. There's not many Who books that even aspire to that, let alone achieve it.
January 28, 2013 @ 3:41 pm
"I'm tempted to just ban birth as a major plot device for a bit."–so we know what you think of Series Six now then?
January 28, 2013 @ 3:43 pm
That detail of it, at least.
January 28, 2013 @ 3:53 pm
That "detail" works better when taken as a metaphor.
January 28, 2013 @ 4:54 pm
As a man currently writing a novella whose narration is almost entirely in first person limited present tense, I hope I'm not pre-judged too harshly.
January 28, 2013 @ 4:57 pm
Are there substantial differences between the two versions of this book?
Actually, my real question is: Is one version substantially better than the other?
January 28, 2013 @ 11:08 pm
I don't believe in the efficacy of outright bans (well, not in this sort of area). Can't we have yellow flags instead? So, if you want to write about creepy children, or birth, or a social misfit detective, or a twist ending (even 'and then he woke up'), or whatever else our Glorious Leader thinks is becoming ho-hum, you are allowed to – but only after thinking long and hard about whether it's the right thing to do? Just occasionally someone comes up with a nice angle on it (Dead Romance being a case in point, apparently), and it would be a shame to miss out on these instances.
Please, oh Great and Powerful Phil?
January 28, 2013 @ 11:29 pm
No real differences (a single word and some punctuation, I think), but the Mad Norwegian edition has some extra short stories and an essay, all of which are pretty good. It's also the only way you can buy it new, as the Virgin edition isn't in print any more.
January 29, 2013 @ 5:31 am
I believe that a few instances of talking about the thinly-veiled-Time-Lords now call them the Great Houses a la the rest of the Faction Paradox material. Plus the bonus material and in-printness.
January 30, 2013 @ 9:41 am
Compare the opening of Ken MacLeod's Restoration Game, where the characters in the "real world" talk about an ongoing simulation that is evidently supposed to be our own universe:
“… you have brought those poor creatures to the brink of disaster. Nuclear war, ecological catastrophe, and what else? Oh yes — cultural calamity, as they discover they are in a simulation. How long will it take for that to dawn on them?”
“Blame the SPs for that,” says Andrea Memmius. “They used an off-the-shelf navigational package as the basis for their extrasolar astronomy simulation. Naturally it is Ptolemaic. They were not to know—”
“That their virtual creations would one day send probes to the edge of the solar system? That they might just notice that the galaxies are spinning too fast? That the underlying physics of their world are inconsistent?”
“So far,” says Caro Odom, “the sim-people have shown remarkable creativity in rationalizing these … dark matters!”
Plus there's the delightful further twist that while we're a simulation within these characters' world, it's obvious to the reader that their world is a simulation too.
January 30, 2013 @ 9:50 am
I second the recommendation of Restoration Game, which (like just about all of MacLeod's novels) is both smart and a great deal of fun.
December 14, 2013 @ 7:38 pm
What twist ending?
If you'd been following the New Adventures and Lawrence Miles's books at the time, the ending was predictable. Or maybe it was just me.
Anyway, the book was readable, but it didn't seem to have any message or concept. It was just faffing around with mysticism. It is a tragedy, of course. But I'm not a junkie looking for tragedy fixes, and it seems like a particularly pointless tragedy, given that the conditions around it are so bizarrely artificially constructed by Miles for the purpose, and that he doesn't really set up the rules of his universe in advance the way you have to in SF. But maybe I'm missing a metaphor here.
" if you aren’t steeped in the underlying mythology than its fundamental impact is blunted."
Unlike you, I've actually read all of the NAs and MAs and all of the BBC books, (as well as all the TV episodes of course), and I was up to date at the time Dead Romance came out. So I was pretty steeped.
Dead Romance felt like a combination of a number of cheap tricks and a writer who wasn't sure what he was doing and was leaning on poorly-thought-out tropes. It's got solid characterization on the surface, but the deeper you look the less there is there.
"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. "
I didn't think it managed this. Christine Summerfield is too much Benny, and Benny can handle reality-breaking apocalypses, for some reason. (Actually, it's her defining feature early on — she underreacts pretty badly in Love and War to the planet during out to be a giant fungus, and underreacts pretty badly to what happens in Transit, and underreacts to the events of The Pit…) The result is that it's just an incredibly blase reaction as far as I can tell.
"So here we get a world of utter alienness, defined precisely by the way it just drops into our world and callously slaughters everybody,"
Maybe I've read too much stuff about colonialism, but I've read that setup done better several times. In non-fiction.
I just wasn't impressed with Dead Romance, although the prose is competent. The mystery story part might have worked well except I figured it out very early.
December 14, 2013 @ 7:43 pm
That line about the pyramids is a lot of fun. But I still don't get why people think this book is so great. But then I think only some of Phillip K Dick is really great (Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) — and I never could get into Michael Moorcock. So maybe there's a taste I'm missing here.
Walking to Babylon actually has related themes to Dead Romance — the experience of dealing with people who are much, much crazier, in a bad way, than you thought they were. It's underplayed, but I find it more viable.
December 14, 2013 @ 7:44 pm
"I'm tempted to just ban birth as a major plot device for a bit. There you go, television! You'll have to come up with something for women to do besides have babies!"
Only sci-fi or fantasy show I've ever seen do anything good with birth and babies was Charmed, which had the courage of its convictions and actually allowed us to go through the raising of the babies.