Ah, yes, Transit. The book that caused the Great Fan Freakout of 1992.
When this thing was published a great pained howling arose from the fans, or at least from a few of the louder ones. You’d have thought that Ben Aaronovich had personally broken into their homes and relieved himself on their Target novels. Gary Russell wrote a mildly hysterical review in Doctor Who Magazine1 calling it, in addition to “convuluted [sic] and self-referential,” “the most purile, non-Doctor Who book it has ever been my misfortune to read.” And the letters pages were flat-out crazy. I’m embarassed to admit this, but at the time DWM actually dissuaded me from buying Transit. My book budget was limited as a teenager, and the magazine was my only contact with the collected wisdom [sic] of fandom, and I skipped several early NAs when the buzz wasn’t good. Not until I got on the internet and read the opinions of sane people did I go back to it.
I couldn’t figure out what everyone was so upset about. I mean, yes, there was that single reference to a precious bodily fluid, which shall remain nameless because I don’t want my server logs full of people searching for you-know-what. Apparently Doctor Who needs to preserve its essence. As one correspondent2 put it, “It is fairytale world, where no one goes to the toilet.” Which is more disturbing than anything in Transit. Oh, and I guess there were a lot of four letter words, too. DWM readers hated that. (Swears make baby Rassilon cry!) There was general agreement that this sort of thing made Transit somehow Not Doctor Who. (More on this later.)
But when I read it last month, even when I read it a little over a decade ago… it was so tame. Less prurient then Genesys, even. And for something that’s Not Doctor Who, it looks an awful lot like a traditional Doctor Who story, with a fine and venerable Doctor Who premise: the villain is an artificial intelligence for whom people are hardware components—whose goal, we learn, is to incorporate the Doctor himself into its program. It’s the Cybermen, isn’t it? And the Wirrn, and WOTAN, and the computer running the Land of Fiction. One the one side, we have diverse, eccentric, individual people. On the other, a conformist force who thinks of people as things and uses them as tools. This is the basis of just about every other Doctor Who story ever made.
Also, Transit’s Doctor is the kind of Doctor that the traditionalists who hated Transit should have wanted to read about. He’s a master improvisor, a maker of complicated devices lashed up from random junk. He’s funny. Not the mannered, clownish kind of funny that a lot of lesser writers go for (cf. the EDAs, a lot of which made me wish someone would kick the Doctor very hard in the groin until he shut up). The real thing. When he shouts at guards in a foreign language, he takes advantage of the opportunity to say “Make Way! For I am the official keeper of the Emperor’s penguins and I must hurry because his majesty’s laundry basket is on fire.” It’s just cooler that way. Yet you get the sense that he wouldn’t be clowning around if he’d thought it was a risk… because he’s funny, but he’s also a grownup, something else the EDA writers didn’t always get.
There’s one major oddity: the Doctor seems unconcerned when Benny disappears in an explosion as soon as she steps out of the TARDIS. For a couple of chapters he appears to forget she exists. (Maybe he thinks she can take care of herself?) It’s especially jarring because this is obviously a Doctor Who cares about his companions. He’s dealing with the fallout from Love and War. He’s very protective of Bernice—well, once he remembers her—and he’s questioning who he is and what he does. At one point, a 3-D representation of his travels “remind[s] the Doctor unpleasantly of the fungus on Heaven.” Which is a bit subtler than the usual Nietzsche quotations about how when you fight monsters, the abyss also gazes into you.
Of course, ever since “Remembrance of the Daleks” we’ve had two Doctors. There’s the old, ordinary Doctor, the guy who flunked his Time Lord exams out of half-assedness, can’t run his TARDIS properly, and is special mostly because he knows so damn much regardless. And there’s the Ka Faraq Gatri3. The Big Scary Doctor. As the new series puts it, in hit-the-audience-over-the-head style, The Lonely God. Transit explains how these Doctors can be the same guy.
Transit plays with the concept of emergence, what Steven Johnson in his book by that title defines as “what happens when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organizes to form more intelligent, more adaptive higher-level behavior.” (Actually, that’s how his dust jacket defines it. I just needed something succinct, you know?) One of the characters is an AI that spontaneously emerged from the workings of Earth’s Transit system. Stations are its neurons, trains its neurotransmitters. (That’s the difference between it and the villain; it’s made of trains instead of people.)
Here’s the thing about the Doctor: he travels. He travels a lot—mostly to Earth, and mostly to places where something interesting is happening. And he insists on getting involved; giving history a little push. And another little push, and another… and he doesn’t tend to leave obvious traces behind, and most of these interventions aren’t anything you’d notice, particularly. But a lot of little pushes add up to a massive, godlike effect on human history. The Doctor himself, in person, is by Time Lord standards an ordinary guy: not omnipotent, not omniscient. The Big Scary Doctor is an emergent phenomenon created by the Doctor’s centuries of travel through human history, a history-bending force more powerful than the Doctor is in any single moment.
According to Transit a force like the Big Scary Doctor is bound to provoke a response, just by random chance. That would be Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, the product of genetic tinkering, who’s unusually strong, and fast, and smart enough to figure out the principles of time travel. And has a reason to be interested in the subject, since she’s descended from the Brigadier by adoption. The Doctor is not thrilled. This is, as much as anything, a reflection of the state of his self-esteem, post Love and War. When he looks at Kadiatu, he’s looking at his mirror image.
“You won’t like it,” he tells her. You get the sense he’s speaking from experience.
Which reminds me. A lot of people don’t like Transit. Still.
Take a look at the reviews at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide. The most recent one is six months old, and calls Transit “macho, illiterate nonsense, pumped full of poison and hatred, a world full of sex and drugs and hate.” Which is silly. This is in a lot of ways a traditional Doctor Who story. It’s got a possessed companion and a relative of the Brigadier shows up and the Ice Warriors are just offstage. And it’s one of the many, many stories in which the Doctor defends human individuality against a conformist, homogenizing force, with this kind of story’s traditional moral—that everybody is important. And I wonder whether that’s part of the problem.
When I read the Ratings Guide page for Transit, I noticed one complaint that turned up in something like two out of three reviews. Here are a few sentences that popped out at me:
“What I know for certain is that this is a thoroughly repulsive society, filled with thoroughly repulsive people.”
“The New Adventures were taking me into a world I hated — full of people I had no desire to be around.”
“The rest of the characters are a bunch of horrible, horrible nobodies called Dogface, Old Sam, Blondie, Mariko and Ming. Well there are a few more but those are the ones I can bother to remember. Who were these people? Why should we give damn about them?”
“Characters now, well…erm. They weren’t very likeable let’s put it that way. I mean they were all called odd names. Credit Card, Blondie, Lambada, Ming the Merciless, Dogface, so sometimes you simply couldn’t tell who was who.”
Now, with the understanding that I am irresponsibly engaging in the amateur psychoanalysis of people I know only through their online reviews of Transit… I think I see a pattern here. And, with the further understanding that I’m probably about to bore everybody to death with serious frowny-faced talk, it looks like it has a bit to do with social class, and a lot to do with “nice.”
Doctor Who has always been a middle class series. I have to admit that, being a middle class data-entry drone myself, this was for the longest time invisible to me; the people on the show just seemed to be… well, the way people just seemed to be, y’know? But once you notice it, it’s striking that the Doctor just has to step out of the TARDIS and within ten minutes he’s tight with whichever locals act most like middle-to-upper class Londoners—most likely the local elites, if they’re not evil. If we see anybody lower on the local totem pole, they’re rustic poachers, mummerset villagers… comic relief, mostly, or the guys who get killed to show how the monster works. Even when the Doctor travels to an alien planet. Like the one in “The Pirate Planet,” where the first people he meets look like they drove in from a suburb. No one says so, but I’m pretty sure Kimus works in the insurance industry.
In other words, we’re used to the Doctor hanging with nice people. Not good people. Not that they aren’t good, but I’m talking about nice. And, as any Sondheim fan knows, nice is different than good.
Nice is a hard thing to explain. Mostly, it means “like us,” or at least the prevailing societal expectation of what “like us” ought to be. The “right sort of people,” maybe. In practice, “nice” means a lack of signifiers—clothes, accent, whatever—that might mark you as “different”… foreign, or part of some kind of weird subculture, or a holder of strange opinions. And sometimes it’s a class thing: especially here in the U.S., there are people who, once they’ve labeled someone as lower class, can’t see that person as “nice.” The key, I guess, is that if you seem “nice” you will not make a hypothetical statistically average person—someone with 2.5 kids and an SUV who works in an office, say—feel awkward, because said person will assume you also have 2.5 kids and an SUV and work in an office, and will think they know how to act around you.
(It’s worth noting at this point that I don’t know anyone who consciously thinks this way. And yet it just seems to me that the “nice” concept is somehow built into our society on some deep level, like we all—and I have to include myself in this—subconsciously assume that we ought to believe it, and behave accordingly. I have no explanation for this, but it’s worth pointing out that I may just be nuts, in which case this entire argument would be total crap.)
Nice has never entirely left us. The Virgin books were something of an exception—everybody was different, and everybody felt real, and that’s one reason why they’re my favorite era of DW—but at times the BBC books backslid; think how often the eighth Doctor travelled to some alien planet in the distant future and found blandly pleasant office workers who must have wandered in from a dot-com. Even in the new series, we see mostly “nice” people (with occasionally odd results, as in “The Long Game,” a cyberpunk-type episode that got the “cyber” part but was distinctly low on “punk”).
Into this environment came Transit—the first working-class Doctor Who novel. The cast are mostly maintenance workers and soldiers with a side order of prostitutes and underworld types. The highest status characters of any importance are a middle manager (Ming) and a broke student (Kadiatu). A couple of spoiled rich kids and a president of something or other put in an appearance, but they’re only around for a couple of pages before the villain eats their brains. Transit’s crisis is solved by the kind of people who were victims and comedy double-acts on TV.
Which goes some way towards explaining how those Ratings Guide reviewers could get so freaked out by… well, a bunch of perfectly normal guys.
Blondie, Dogface et cetera are the repair team assigned to hunt down the faults in the transit system. A couple of them have had hard lives—before landing the maintenance job Blondie resorted to prostitution to drag himself out of desperate poverty, and Old Sam is a combat veteran with the SF equivalent of PTSD—but they’re otherwise unremarkable and non-repulsive. They’re skilled, they look after each other, and they put themselves in harm’s way to fix a problem that puts other people’s lives at risk.
These are good people. I have a hard time believing that anyone could finish this book and not like them, and I’m a misanthrope. But they’re not “nice” people. I think Blondie, Zamina, Old Sam and the desperate poverty of the Stop are the real sticking points; if Transit just starred maintenance workers that would be fine, but the Transit-haters seem to resent reading about anybody, y’know, unseemly. At least, that’s the impression I get when I read something like this (from the Ratings Guide again): “I shall hold on for dear life and hope these capable writers (Aaronovitch wrote Remembrance of the Daleks!) start to remember how to put there unquestionable talents to something that actually enriches your life rather then dragging you down into a ditch, stripping you nude, smearing you in shit and leaving you to fester in poverty.”
“You’re just as important as anyone else,” the Doctor tells Zamina. Doctor Who says this a lot. Transit really means it. The general freakout of 1992 says less about this book than it does about the congenital childish prissiness of a certain segment of fandom.
A couple of random observations that didn’t fit elsewhere:
From the Department of Interesting in Retrospect: When the TARDIS crew, in “The Parting of the Ways,” channeled the TARDIS’s energy to smack the villains around, Rose nearly died and the ninth Doctor sacrificed a regeneration. On page 229 of Transit, the seventh Doctor pulls the same trick and comes out fresh as a daisy. This is because the seventh Doctor is badass.
From the Department of Smacked By The Future: “CORDUROY had rented ten gigabytes of memory from the Europa Chamber of Commerce at a ruinous hourly rate.” I should introduce CORDUROY to my web hosting company; they offer 160 gigabytes for ten dollars a month.
1. Which I can quote because I found while cleaning the house that I still had a bunch of old DWMs. I’m a damn packrat, is what I am. Look for my obituary in thirty years; the cause of death will be an eight-foot pile of old books collapsing on my head while I pick my way through the narrow passage I’ve cleared to the kitchen.(Back)
2. A Nick Walters, although presumably not the Nick Walters who wrote Superior Beings and The Fall of Yquitaine. I hope. (Back)
3. Invented by Ben Aaronovich himself, Ka Faraq Gatri is Dalek for “That jerk with the hat.” Or something. (Back)