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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

32 Comments

  1. wumbo
    January 1, 2014 @ 12:40 am

    That was beautiful! Do you have writing anywhere else, Jane? Could I send you an email?

    Reply

  2. Alex Antonijevic
    January 1, 2014 @ 12:43 am

    Very well said. I haven't actually read this book since it was released, but I really feel like re-reading it. I remember when watching the Moffat era how elements of this book kept surfacing in my mind. It's really quite well written and so memorable.

    Reply

  3. J Mairs
    January 1, 2014 @ 1:03 am

    Your opening about taking time travel stories too literally is what I really hate about a lot of the critics of the current show – especially the sort who don't accept that Time Can Be Rewritten – and twist themselves into knots to prove that everything is exactly how it was and always way!

    Also more experimental posts please!

    Reply

  4. Lewis Christian
    January 1, 2014 @ 2:44 am

    OT but still relevant: happy new year everyone.

    Reply

  5. Jack Graham
    January 1, 2014 @ 5:55 am

    Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating.

    Reply

  6. Seeing_I
    January 1, 2014 @ 7:06 am

    Great post! I remember reading this book when it was all the rage, it brought tears to my eyes, it really did. Now that Moffat seems to have finished playing out themes from it in Who, I will have to go back and give it another go.

    Happy new year, everybody.

    Reply

  7. jane
    January 1, 2014 @ 7:53 am

    I loved all the avian references in the Xmas special — cooking a turkey, the Doctor as a tough old bird, Clara's father trying to cheer her up with a penguin, and trying to get Gran to tell the story of the pigeon in the restaurant…

    …Karen coming back as an Angel of Death…

    Reply

  8. jane
    January 1, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    I wonder how many of those convolutions are really attempts to avoid the dramatic concerns for which Time Travel is used. In Who, of course, there are two (contradictory) concerns — the ability to change, and the acceptance of fate. This is a juicy conflict, which actually reflects our own experience in the world, for we are constantly presented with opportunities to rewrite our stories, and yet there's so much that can never be rewritten.

    We can't escape death. Delay it, perhaps, but not indefinitely. But we can change our attitude towards death — and if we can do that, then it's it's a brand new game. Same goes for grief, or any of the other "negative" emotions that create catharsis.

    The conceit of Regeneration is actually quite beautiful in this context, thinking about the Xmas special. The Doctor accepts Fate — accepts his death — and this is matched by a moment of Grace, whereby death is married to rebirth, and so he changes.

    But my favorite has to be the Pandorica loop. People complain about the ontological paradox in it as a "cheat" for the Doctor to escape, but there's actually a thread leading into that loop sticking out like a sore thumb — when the Pandorica (Circle in a Square) converges with the Exploding TARDIS (Square in a Circle) the Doctor starts traveling backwards in time. If this convergence, then, was inevitable (like, if the Doctor never got out, and the Earth eventually disintegrated and the Pandorica was drawn by gravity into the heart of the TARDIS) then the Doctor could have stepped out at the appropriate moments and built up the ontological loop from the outside, a rebuilding that was subsequently rewritten so that only the apparent loop remains. So while time can be rewritten, eventually all that will remain are the loops which we'll never rewrite, because to rewrite them would be to destroy something beautiful in the vain attempt to avoid any suffering.

    Which is why Amy and Rory can't go back and save their baby. To do so would destroy the River Song they've come to know and love. This isn't stated directly, in exposition, but it is explored metaphorically through The Girl Who Waited.

    Sorry, I'm rambling.

    Reply

  9. jane
    January 1, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    I liked Niffenegger's prose — very clean, and relatively free of affect. Sometimes the voices of Henry and Clare aren't so distinct; other times the clarity of voice rings out, especially the parts from Clare's point of view as a little girl.

    I first read it a couple years ago, while my dad was in the hospital for brain surgery. I wasn't paying attention to any of the motifs (other than the diary and the out-of-order shenanigans that were obviously mirrored in the Doctor/River relationship) but this time I was on the lookout for all the motifs I've since identified in Moffat's work on Who, and I was astounded at the resonance, both between the two works, and what it actually accomplished in TTTW.

    The repeated use of motifs in literature and cinema is a desperately underappreciated technique, I think. It creates so much layering, so much depth. I think it's underappreciated because we don't really notice them at first, but maybe that's not a bad thing — because then they end up working subconsciously, which is where emotions are generated in the first place.

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  10. Nyq Only
    January 1, 2014 @ 8:49 am

    Rambling is a good thing. Odd that we use it negatively when it comes to our thoughts.

    For a show with a time traveling hero, Doctor Who pre-Moffat avoided time-travel stories i.e. stories in which time travel occurs within the plot rather than as a frame at the start and end of an adventure. This is understandable because they can end up with a Clavin-and-Hobbes comic confusion of hanging plot ends – and without such hanging plot ends you don't really get the full effect of time travel stories.

    Time travel stories are best in which the total number of time travel events are an odd number greater than 1.

    Reply

  11. Anton B
    January 1, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

    A fantastic critical reading. Thankyou jane/Alison. Like other commenters here I am minded to return to this book. by the way, in your opinion, is there any literary merit to Niffeneger's other works?

    Oh and on the subject of piscine/avian imagery need we look further than the 's fish fingers and custard and those damned elusive Leadworth ducks?

    Reply

  12. Anton B
    January 1, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

    ^missing words in the above being 'The Eleventh Hour' of course.

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  13. Galadriel
    January 1, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

    While I agree that the book is neither romance or scifi, I think literary fiction has a acquired a bad reputation among general readers as snobbish and confusing–more Uyssess than Dickens. I'd almost classify it as another badly-considered genre, "paranormal romance", but one that fully explores the challenges and effects of non–human romance.

    Reply

  14. jane
    January 1, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    I haven't read Niff's other stuff, so I really can't say. All I can say is that TTTW is obviously influential, and has the literary merit I outlined above. I cried more on the first read, but on the second, when I was keeping an eye on literary techniques, my breath was taken a bit away.

    Now, when we get to Eleventh Hour, of course we have fish fingers — this is Pond food, and helps ground the Doctor, helping to bond him with little Amelia. Missing ducks, on the other hand, is later revealed as timey-wimey — they disappeared because of the Cracks — and of course the Doctor flies over London at the outset. Jeff is given the opportunity to "fly" and meanwhile there's a pool in the Library (heh). The Doctor makes his final stand on a rooftop.

    We get Mirroring from the get go, which is about as old as symbolism gets in Mythology (Prisoner Zero is silver and acts as a mirror to his victims, to the Doctor and Amelia, and eventually to himself.) Zero looks like a giant eel (fish) but hangs from the ceiling (bird) — this is an alchemical shapeshifter.

    But there are other motifs to look for that aren't stolen wholesale from TTTW. For example, the Head in an Eyeball motif, which gets repeated in stories like Byzantium, Hitler, Wedding, and Crimson; lots of Eye imagery overall in Moffat's run. There's the Red/Blue dynamic, the union of opposites; likewise, Fire and Water. There's the Circle in the Square, a symbol from Masonry, the divine in the material, and its first representation is in a Clock. The laptop labelled "M?TH" indicates a psychological take on mythology.

    There's gardens, ladders, apples — a town called Leadworth, and a TARDIS interior that's burnished in copper and gold. This is the language of alchemy.

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  15. jane
    January 1, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

    Oh, and of course, Amelia thanks Santa for the fish.

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  16. jane
    January 1, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

    Hearing birdsong after he wakes up…

    Reply

  17. Adam Riggio
    January 1, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

    One of the recurring ideas in the Moffat era is different riffs on this basic idea: the time traveller as occasional visitor in a more stable, conventional timeline. This is most obviously present when encounters occur wildly out of order: River and the Doctor are both time travellers, so their relationship isn't so much like Henry and Clare, but two Henrys.

    The Doctor's presence in Amy's childhood is more akin to the Henry-Clare relationship, but more specific in that the Doctor has skipped so much time from his first encounter until her young adult life. When I first saw The Eleventh Hour, I saw it as an alternate riff on the Doctor's mess in Rose's timeline in Aliens of London (for me, the most interesting part of that story). In 2005, we saw the worldly and familial consequences of the Doctor accidentally taking Rose out of her life for a year when he intended to return after an evening. In 2010, we saw the personal, psychological consequences of the Doctor disappearing from Amy's life for 12 years when he aimed for 10 minutes.

    TTTW seems like a more explicit model for all the Doctor's companion relationships through the 2012-3 season. He visits Amy and Rory, then Clara, to pick them up for trips that last an indeterminate amount of time (there's a wonderful novel to be written of the Doctor and Clara's journey to the south pole to pick up the TARDIS after the events of Cold War), then returns them to their lives fairly accurately with little interruption.

    I wonder how Peter Capaldi's Doctor will handle the relationships, but I'm looking forward to finding out late this year.

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  18. jane
    January 1, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

    Literary fiction certainly doesn't have the sort of broad appeal of other genre fiction, and much of it can be pretentious and boring, but not necessarily so. Your John Irvings and Joyce Carol Oates, their prose isn't stultifying or desperately ornate, while their characters and plots are plainly straightforward. They're praised for their storytelling skill, for mastery of language without flaunting it, for addressing ordinary contemporary life, and for the rich layers of symbol and metaphor they lay into their work. The literary genre still has its bestsellers and, most importantly, its tropes. The organizing tropes of TTTW are resoundingly literary — not with the impeccable craftsmanship of Irving or Oates, but with workmanlike competence nonetheless.

    And, like Doctor Who, and other sorts of hybrid storytelling, it's not limited to those tropes. "Paranormal romance" might qualify, but I'm not so sure that I'd call Henry "non-human." Trans-human, perhaps, but not "non-human"; he isn't a different species. His condition is specifically linked to his genetics, not to some supernatural event — hence the more SF classification — but this is played in the same way that someone with any kind of genetic "syndrome," a medical/disease model; his likening to an angel is metaphoric, not literal.

    And, as mentioned, the book plays out more like a tragedy than a romance; the ending isn't "happy" except for, as Sally Sparrow might put it, "deep people." The other literary quality it's concerned with is problem of contemporary living. Almost half the book is devoted to an infertility issue, and particularly to the emotional ramifications of it as it pertains to the relationship between Clare and Henry. That's definitely in the wheelhouse of literary fiction.

    Because it dabbles in the SF/F genre, and the Romance genre to a lesser extent (more like Melodrama at times) it probably isn't treated as seriously as other literary works. And because it's so literary, it probably isn't as lauded in the ranks of genre fiction. Yet it was a big hit, and a financial success for both Niffenegger and her publisher. Perhaps we "outsiders" are more numerous than the mainstream thinks. 🙂

    Reply

  19. David Anderson
    January 2, 2014 @ 12:21 am

    Literary fiction is I think largely an institutional genre. That is fiction is literary if and only if it is treated as literary fiction by the institutions, publishers, reviewers, booksellers, prize awards, that decide whether something is literary or not. It's difficult to see what Life of Pi and The Gathering have in common other than they both won the Booker Prize. But Gene Wolfe is probably never going to be up for the Booker Prize. Neil Gaiman just might as he has sufficient following that he might be co-opted.

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  20. Anton B
    January 2, 2014 @ 2:17 am

    ….and of course custard is made from eggs. One of the most popular brands in the UK and a favourite with children being 'Bird's Custard'. Amelia thanking Santa for the fish I took as a reference to Douglas Adams' So Long and Thanks For All the Fish the title of which is a self referential quote from the first Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy book and is the last message from the dolphins as they leave the earth. (one assumes they developed the ability to fly into space) This is obliquely referenced again in the very next story with the space whale assisting the Starship UK's exodus from Earth's destruction.

    Praying to Santa is mirrored in Time of the Doctor when the Eleventh Doctor becomes a very Santa Claus type figure on Trenzalore making wooden toys for the children and also of course in Christmas Carol where he literally comes down Sardick's chimney. His reference to knowing Santa as Jeff is a feint. He has been hinting that he's Father Christmas since Ecclestone and Rose.

    As to Niffeneger's other work. I'm surprised you haven't read Her Fearful Symmetry with its themes of twins and mirroring and its Blake referencing title. I haven't either so looks like that's another one to add to my list.

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  21. Anton B
    January 2, 2014 @ 2:34 am

    Yes Amy's mirror is Clare. River is more like Henry's daughter Alba. Who can also Time Travel but has more control. He first meets her in a museum. She tells him he is already dead. Of course Moffat cleverly keeps the Doctor's temporal chastity intact by making River's 'real' father Rory. Her metaphorical and alchemical parents though are clearly the Doctor and his 'wife' the TARDIS.

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  22. jane
    January 2, 2014 @ 4:45 am

    The Doctor was called "Father Christmas" all the way back in The Feast of Steven. What a remarkable episode!

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  23. jane
    January 2, 2014 @ 4:50 am

    Girl in the Fireplace is also a TTTW story — but not as wibbly, as the Doctor's path through Reinette's life is always a matter of skipping forward. Again, the Doctor meets someone as a little girl. She grows up having known him all her life, though from his perspective they've barely met.

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  24. jane
    January 2, 2014 @ 5:06 am

    Those institutions are looking primarily at the quality of prose, its lyricism, its metaphor, what it has to say about being human, and even what it has to say about storytelling. That is what Pi and Gathering have in common. Not all literary works partake of all these conventions — Pi is heavily symbolic, while Gathering is more lyrical — but they are both very concerned with the art of story itself.

    And it's those qualities that often keep genre writers out of "literary" conversations. Not always — Kurt Vonnegut is properly recognized as a literary writer despite playing with SF genre conventions. But Slaughterhouse-Five is only tongue-in-cheek about its Tralfamadorans; it's really about the trauma and senselessness of war, as well as functioning as existential criticism. Vonnegut's use of language is impeccable, from his choice of repetitions to his dry wit.

    So, I guess what distinguishes "literary" fiction from "genre" fiction is that the latter categorizations derive from setting and plot and story "elements," while the former is recognized first and foremost through craftsmanship.

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  25. David Anderson
    January 2, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

    The Casual Vacancy is literary; Harry Potter is not. But none of the reviews have said that Rowling's craftsmanship in the former is significantly greater than in the latter. Left Hand of Darkness is beginning to be counted as literary, but I don't think it's characterisation, prose quality, or use of symbolism are significantly greater than, say, Canticle for Leibowitz. Wolfe's Peace is not a literary novel. Hogfather is at least as much about storytelling than Life of Pi, but it's not literary. Use of Weapons is not literary and Crow Road is; the craftsmanship is the same.
    Saying literary novels are recognised through craftsmanship is just to say that literary novels are good; which is not a useful genre quality (a genre should have both good and bad members), and also implies that novels that fall into other genres aren't good, which is untrue.

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  26. storiteller
    January 2, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

    In terms of the distinction between SF and literary fiction, I think the better distinction is between classical science-fiction (emphasis on "what-if" puzzles, like Phil describes "golden age SF" as being), fantastical fiction (emphasis on world building), literary fiction (emphasis on characterization and style), and action-adventure (emphasis on set pieces and plot). I think most of what we consider modern-day science/ speculative fiction is a combination of two of these genres. The most common and stereotypical combination is fantastical fiction and action-adventure. However, a lot of the SF authors who are considered "literary" fiction as well, like Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ursula K. LeGuin, combine golden age tropes with literary emphases. That's why to me The Lord of the Rings is much closer to The Avengers movie than it is to Left Hand of Darkness, even though the Avengers has aliens.

    Another "literary" time-travel story that I found absolutely fascinating is How to Survive in a Science-Fictional Universe. It flips all of the romantic notions of time-travel on their heads to be about an intensely personal, claustrophobic meditation on memory and life experience. It also features a magical box that is anything but bigger on the inside.

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  27. Dave
    January 2, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

    )?<~)~>?)

    Boo

    Excellent stuff. Happy New Year, folks.

    Reply

  28. Daru
    January 2, 2014 @ 10:50 pm

    Thanks Jane. Good thoughts. I agree with Nyq Only, don't apologise for rambling. I think of it as taking our thoughts for a walk and seeing where they go.

    I love your picking up of the symbols of the combining of the circle and the square – the four elements and the material world combined with the cycle of life and the wheel of time. I have also seen (& explored via my own drawing work) the symbol of the interwoven circle and square used to represent the Bard or Bardism – the musicians, poets, storytellers – perfect for The Big Bang as the arc finishes with the Doctor becoming both the story and the teller of the tale.

    Keep rambling.

    Reply

  29. Daru
    January 2, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

    Thank you very much for such a wonderful reading of the text Alison! I had read he book a couple of years back and was very moved by it. I had heard about its relationships to Moffat's Who, but just tried to read it on its own terms, which I was able to do. After reading your essay it would certainly be an interesting experience to read it again – and also I feel that your essay would be a work I could return to read numerous times, so thanks again.

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  30. Daru
    January 2, 2014 @ 11:02 pm

    And Happy New Year everyone!

    Reply

  31. Galadriel
    January 3, 2014 @ 7:16 am

    Exactly, David. As an English major, I've had professors tell me that writing literary fiction is the best way to learn how to write anything, while writing genre fiction only teaches the rules of that genre. There can be works of literary genius in any genre; craftsmanship alone is not the mark of literary fiction.

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  32. grace crawford
    October 13, 2014 @ 12:00 am

    If I could give one piece of advice to someone picking up this book for the first time, it would be the advice I was given before I started reading it–pay close attention to the chapter headings and to the MANY subheadings that indicate the year and the ages of Henry and Clare at each point in time. It will help you keep track of the timeline and be less confused. 🙂
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