This is another old Doctor Who tie-in review, written years ago and revised only slightly.
Why do we always come here?
I guess we’ll never know.
It’s like some kind of torture
To have to watch the show.
–The Muppet Show
Reading Palace of the Red Sun, I had occasion to think of Statler and Waldorf. They were the two old guys who sat in the balcony in “The Muppet Show.” Whenever anyone did anything, their response was a derisive comment and a forced laugh. This took a serious toll on everyone’s self esteem. Eventually Kermit had to keep a therapist on call backstage to prevent some of the less stable Muppets from slitting their wrists.
Obviously Messrs. S. and W. thought the show was crap. Yet for some reason, week after week, they kept coming back. You see, Statler and Waldorf led empty, hollow lives. The dreams of their youth had withered, leaving them unfulfilled. Their families had long since died or moved away. If not for the Muppets, they would have spent the evenings in their tiny, dingy rooms at the nursing home, drinking themselves into a stupor and reminiscing about their glory days before the war. I think on some level Kermit understood this, because he never had Animal drag them out behind the theater and beat them to a bloody pulp.
Palace of the Red Sun brought this to mind because it parallels my own relation to the literary works of Christopher Bulis. Not the drinking and the empty life–just the fact that, no matter how bad his books get, something keeps me coming back.
Maybe it’s the ideas. Bulis does almost nothing right, but there’s one thing he’s good at: coming up with interesting ideas to build his novels around. Palace of the Red Sun has a planet of fairy tale holograms and gardening robots, surrounded by a temporal anomaly and placed under siege by a megalomaniac who’s granted an extended interview to a mediocre journalist. In an alternate universe, a place of sunshine and lollipops, somebody like R. A. Lafferty or Philip K. Dick might have taken this stuff and turned out a quirky, interesting, exciting novel.
Unfortunately, this is the real world. It is frequently cloudy. The lollipops fell on the floor and are now covered with lint and crud from the avocado shag carpet, which hasn’t been shampooed since the late seventies. In the real world, this novel was written by Christopher Bulis, and Christopher Bulis could not write his way out of a wet paper sack with a sharp pencil. His characters are cardboard. His prose is flat. His dialogue is inane. He can’t even make a decent plot from the great ideas he managed to pull together. The Doctor and Peri spend 280 pages wandering through a morass of stupid cliches. They run around, get captured, escape, and meet rebels. The Doctor patronizes the secondary characters with shallow “wisdom,” and Peri is sexually harassed. There’s even a subplot about an intelligent robot learning what it means to be human. I looked in vain for some sign that Bulis was trying for irony–apparently he just doesn’t realize how stale this plot is. (You know an idea is past its sell-by date when it turns up on Star Trek. Multiple times, even.)
Palace of the Red Sun sucked. Yet I could not turn away. Perhaps someday Christopher Bulis will write another Doctor Who book. If so, I will buy that one as well, and read it. Because it feels so good when I stop.