Random Thoughts on Recent Doctor Who

(I’ve expanded this post from some thoughts I had on Twitter. If you don’t care about Doctor Who, it probably won’t interest you.)

Earlier this month Doctor Who aired an episode called “Can You Hear Me.” Afterwards the BBC thought they had to apologize for it. See, at the end of the episode Graham tells the Doctor he’s scared his cancer might come back, and she replies “I’m quite socially awkward, so I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something. And then in a minute, I’ll think of something that I should have said that might have been helpful.” And a lot of viewers hated that was the best she could come up with.

I thought this line was inept, but not in the way most fans thought.

Yes, the Doctor’s response is disappointing, but that’s clearly intentional; anyone who thought it was meant to be cute or funny missed some cues. (For instance, look how the episode juxtaposes this scene with Ryan’s fears that traveling with the Doctor means not being there for his friends.) I sometimes feel like modern audiences have trouble interpreting fiction that doesn’t explicitly, unambiguously spell out how they’re meant to feel.

Instead, I was struck by two things. One points to a change in how the writers of post–2005 Doctor Who think about the Doctor. The other points to a weak spot in the show’s writing under the current producer, Chris Chibnall.


First: is the Doctor socially awkward? Most of the time the 13th Doctor’s distinguishing feature is that she’s more in touch with her companions’ feelings than usual. And I think that “usual” is new. The Doctor’s social awkwardness is a creation of the post–2005 series. The original series Doctors were eccentric and alien to ordinary day-to-day life. But they understood emotions, were usually empathetic, and charmed people more often than they offended them. They comforted their friends in times of distress on a regular basis. In the same situation, any classic Doctor–even the often abrasive 3rd or 6th Doctors–would have come up with something helpful to say.

The idea that the Doctor isn’t competent at people skills is new, and, I think, entirely a product of the modern cultural assumption that thought and feeling are opposed, and smart people necessarily bad at emotions and empathy. This assumption makes it hard for contemporary writers to see certain characters clearly. Take modern depictions of Sherlock Holmes, who is not nearly as cold or thoughtless in the original stories.


The other interesting thing about the “socially awkward” line is that it isn’t a line so much as a description of what the line is meant to do. If “Can You Hear Me” had come out under Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat, the Doctor might have said something that demonstrated she wanted to help but didn’t know how, but without coming out and saying so. By contrast, a fair amount of Chibnall-era dialogue has this… let’s say schematic quality.

For instance, “Praxeus” has its guest character baldly diagnose his own mental hangups to Graham. In a real person this would be a great psychological breakthrough and probably the first step to healing. As drama, it’s perfunctory.

Ryan’s confrontation with his father in “Resolution” is also literal. They don’t reveal their motivations and feelings through their dialogue, they just come right out and lay them on the table. Again, in a real conversation this would be healthy, and I don’t think it’s impossible to make a good story from it. But here it’s all text and no subtext. There’s nothing for the audience to interpret or dig into.

This brings up another point. It’s strange that this subplot is resolved when Ryan rescues his father from a Dalek. The emotional question at the heart of this plot is whether Ryan can trust his father to be there for him; it seems obvious that to really resolve this thread Ryan’s father needs to save Ryan. The emotional closure doesn’t logically follow from the action. There’s a series of exciting action set pieces, and then the resolution you’d conventionally expect at that point in the episode, and it’s sort of implied the latter happened because of the former. But that’s only because they happened in sequence, not due to any actual causality.

This is an occasional problem with the show’s plotting that I think relates to the dialogue problem. Events happen because we’ve reached the part of the episode where they should happen, even if they weren’t properly set up. It feels like they’re nodes in an unfinished plot outline the writers didn’t quite finish connecting, just like the “socially awkward” line feels like a utilitarian placeholder for finished dialogue that was never written.

Relatedly, “Can You Hear Me” is resolved when Tahira, a guest character, learns to “control her fears,” thus controlling the fake monsters the villain had pulled from her nightmares. But we never see how Tahira learns to control her fears–she spends most of the episode standing in the background, until at the right time the Doctor just says she’s learned it. It’s like the writers knew that was how the episode needed to end but weren’t sure how to get there, so they just sort of said that’s what happened. It’s a description of what the plot is meant to be doing.

I hate the common writing-advice doctrine of “show, don’t tell.” It’s badly overused and taken far too literally, especially in written fiction; too many novels drag on longer than they need to because their writers think they’re forbidden to summarize. But I have to admit it has its place. The last couple years of Doctor Who is the rare case where “show, don’t tell” might be good advice.

Margery Allingham, The Mind Readers

A well structured novel isn’t the same thing as a good novel. The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham’s last Albert Campion mystery[1] is a case in point.

Cover of The Mind Readers

By the standards of the novel-writing advice industry, The Mind Readers is a lean-to made of tinkertoys and string. The plot is disjointed. Characters drop in and out. The scene that feels like the dramatic climax comes before the actual climax, in which Campion passively watches a lengthy TV broadcast that functions as extended infodump and deus ex machina in one. But The Mind Readers is weirdly compelling. A less idiosyncratic novel wouldn’t have the same effect.

Allingham was one of the best golden age mystery writers and also one of the most underrated. She’s a better writer than Agatha Christie (though no one beats Christie at constructing puzzle plots) and I’d rate her best work alongside Sayers. She was always trying something new. The Campion books ranged from pulpy adventure to straight mysteries to character studies of criminals. She was still experimenting in her last book: The Mind Readers is science fiction. And though the iggy-tubes aren’t remotely plausible this is actual SF, not a detective story with a sci-fi MacGuffin: the exact properties of the SF element are tied to the novel’s themes.

The plot kicks off when Campion’s wife Amanda’s nephews[2], Edward and Sam, come home from school for a visit. They’ve brought a gadget they call an “iggy-tube” that, placed against the jugular, makes them telepathic. It’s not clear where they got the thing. There’s some suspicion it came from the island-based government research facility where Sam’s father works. (As anybody who’s read The Men Who Stare at Goats knows, in the 1960s governments were genuinely investing in ESP.) Well, where else could it have come from? It’s a breakthrough.

We learn why a scientist might have handed the iggy-tubes over to schoolchildren when Campion’s colleague Sergeant Luke tries one out. It’s traumatizing, overwhelming mental chaos, a tangled forest of thoughts and feelings, not all happy: “I thought they were all mine and it scared me stiff.” The kids don’t have the same problem. They don’t have the life experience to recognize the more difficult parts of the subconscious, or associate fraught emotions with painful memories. They haven’t yet learned to draw back from the forest; they’re not too panicked to weave their way through to the thoughts they want to receive. “The less you know the less you are afraid of the unknown,” as one character sums up.

There’s one problem: Sam has kept his iggy-tube connected too long. Without it, he turns vague and uncommunicative, and it’s a couple of days before he’s back to normal. Sam has temporarily forgotten how to function as an individual instead of a relay point in a grammar-school gestalt. Amanda’s nephews are turning alien.

Meanwhile, the adults are anxious. What does it mean for privacy when anyone can read your mind? (Only kids can use iggy-tubes now, but it’s early days; whoever built them will come up with an improved model.) More to the point, what does it mean for the intelligence community? Won’t someone think of the spies? Edward and Sam are nearly kidnapped by a politely nameless foreign power. Meanwhile a peer named Lord Ludor puts the island lab on lockdown. Ludor is the kind of man who’ll torpedo your career if he thinks you haven’t shown him proper deference. Telepathy could help Ludor control people or put them beyond his control entirely, depending on whether he’s the mind reader or the mind getting read.

Campion is on the island when it’s closed and is stuck there for a large chunk of the novel. Looking for a way out, Campion runs across an old acquaintance, an ex-crook and surveillance expert turned “lonely old man of the sea” surrounded by young technicians. He seems desperate for Campion’s company, which reminds him of when he felt relevant. But Campion feels extraneous himself. Not for the first time in the series–he makes not much more than a cameo appearance in Hide My Eyes. But this time the narrative focus stays on Campion while the real action is elsewhere–Edward has now disappeared entirely. Both Campion and the readers are sidelined together.

Here the murderer waylays Campion on the road. A lot of modern genre novels feel like attempts to recreate Hollywood summer blockbuster thrillers on paper, but a suspense scene can be a quiet conversation instead of a breathless set piece, and in a book that often works better. The confrontation with the culprit is the best written part of The Mind Readers, and it functions as exposition and suspense at the same time. It’s exposition as chess match: Before the culprit puts Campion out of the way he needs to know what Campion figured out, and when, and who else knows. Campion needs to put his death off as long as possible while learning everything the culprit knows about the plots surrounding the gadgets. Every line of dialogue is a calculated maneuver. Campion never gets the upper hand; when the confrontation turns physical, his enemy is younger and stronger. He’s rescued because Sam telepathically overheard his panic.

Unlike Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe, Campion aged in real time; according to Allingham he was “the same age as the century.” The Mind Readers was published in 1965, which puts him at retirement age. Campion’s ankle hurts and he’s exhausted. He’s old, and for the first time he feels it.

It’s a great scene; whatever flaws The Mind Readers might have, Allingham is at the top of her game. Which raises the possibility that the flaws aren’t really flaws. Keep that in mind during the last two chapters which, judged by the current consensus on how stories are supposed to work, are very weird.

The book ends with heroes and villains alike gathering to watch a television program on Amanda’s advice (delivered through the surveillance Ludor has put on her house). It’s a talk show. The guest is Edward. The host proceeds to deliver two chapters of exposition about everything that’s gone on in the background while Campion was on the island. Most of these two chapters are a transcript of the broadcast, which the reader watches along with Campion.

In short, no one gave Edward the iggy-tubes–he developed them himself. (It’s a long story involving some weird transistors found in a batch of ordinary radios.) Before the book even started he was testing the tubes with his classmates and writing up his findings for a junior science magazine (the TV host reads his letter out in full). After the kidnapping attempt Edward arranged his own disappearance, again coordinating with his classmates as well as Amanda. Then he went to a newspaper and demonstrated an iggy-tube to the editor, who set him up with the TV host.

What’s notable is not just that Allingham has ended her novel with a two chapter infodump. It’s that the broadcast takes the patient, reassuring tone of children’s television, like an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. (“Above all, do not be afraid. Your secrets are safe for a very long time.”) But it’s not the kids who need reassuring; they handle ESP just fine. The host is reassuring the grown-ups, who have discovered they’re irrelevant.

Two nations’ intelligence services spent the entire novel on a wild goose chase. The murder of the scientist achieved nothing. Campion, Sergeant Luke, and Lord Ludor were looking in every direction but the right one. Edward was in charge all along, and everyone else can only watch while he announces the fact on live television. Ludor is defeated by learning the situation is just plain out of his hands. His one last stab at relevance is to try to get the kids on side, offering them a job as soon as they’re out of school, but Sam shoots him down: “‘It’s very kind of you,’ he said seriously. ‘But do you think you ought to promise? There’s going to be a lot of change in the next ten years. You may not have anything for me to do.’”

And, yes, I know this sounds massively unsatisfying. The threads we were following never mattered and now they’ve been suddenly, neatly severed by a deus ex machina. It’s like everything we cared about for the last 150 pages was a waste of time. But it’s the perfect ending for this book, because it puts the readers in the same position as Campion. The rug’s been pulled out from under us by a clever kid who never meant us any harm but inadvertently left us feeling irrelevant and foolish.

The point of a novel isn’t to tell a clockwork-perfect story, with a well-crafted structure and all the beats in the right place. The point is to get the reader to experience certain feelings and think about certain ideas, which as far as I’m concerned Allingham manages here. Sometimes a weird and ramshackle novel has tools that aren’t in a well-crafted but conventional novel’s toolbox. Weird tools, with neon paint jobs, unexplained dangly bits, and racing stripes.

What Allingham is feeling here, the theme she’s grappling with, is how time and change seem to accelerate with age. When Allingham published The Crime at Black Dudley in 1929, television didn’t exist. Neither did the atomic bomb. Everything was getting stranger. If she was still finding new things to do with Campion it’s partly because so many old stories–the boys’ own adventures of the early novels, the polite high-society crimes that followed–didn’t make sense in this new world. In The Mind Readers she ushers Campion into a future that may not need detectives at all, much less detective-story novelists. Allingham’s husband completed one more book and wrote a couple of sequels of his own, but this feels like Campion’s last adventure–no big final act, just life overtaking him and leaving him behind. Maybe it’s time for the kids to start running things.

And maybe that’s okay? Again, that two-chapter infodump feels reassuring, like a trusted parental figure talking her fellow parental figures down from a panic. The sixties were a decade when a lot of older creators started getting cranky about The Kids These Days. Margery Allingham has seen the future. It’s bewildering, and she’s not sure she has any place in it. But she also seems to think the kids might be all right.

Allingham doesn’t have a simple message to impart. She’s working through ideas and feelings she isn’t sure about. I love novels that explore ideas without being sure where they’re going, and try to do too much, and seem to be doing some of it accidentally. They’re often more interesting and powerful than novels that know exactly what they want to say, and say exactly that. The Mind Readers is not a great book, and in some ways not even a good one, but it sticks with you. It’s good for stories to be a little messy.


  1. The novel she was working on when she died, Cargo of Eagles, was completed by her husband.  ↩

  2. Apparently by different siblings; the relationships feel as vague as Donald Duck’s relationship to Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  ↩

Perceval Landon, “Thurnley Abbey”

Perceval Landon is one of those writers remembered for a single story, the ghost story “Thurnley Abbey.” He was a journalist, a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, and travelled the world as a special correspondent for the Daily Mail and The Times. He accompanied Britain’s 1904 invasion of Tibet and wrote a book called The Opening of Tibet. Otto Penzler in his brief bio of Landon for The Big Book of Ghost Stories calls him “powerfully British in his attitudes and judgments,” which is probably a diplomatic way of calling him an enthusiastic imperialist. If so, his attitudes aren’t obvious in “Thurnley Abbey” beyond the assumption that a stint in India is a normal thing for a gentleman to have in his background.

Landon’s fiction was pretty much limited to a 1908 collection called Raw Edges. Apart from reprints of his one famous story it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.

Generally I think criticism ought to minimize the time it spends summarizing plots. But sometimes working through a summary is the simplest way to pick apart what a story is doing, so that’s how I’ll organize this post. I’ll try to keep the description-to-analysis ratio within reason.

Like a lot of Jamesian ghost stories “Thurnley Abbey” has a framing narrative. The narrator is on his way to India, waiting for his ship to sail, and the prologue captures the feel of a tedious journey: “We slept after luncheon; we dawdled the afternoon away with yellow-backed novels; sometimes we exchanged platitudes in the smoking-room, and it was there that I met Alastair Colvin.”

Colvin is an obvious gentleman–later he gives his club as a reference–and makes “the usual remarks in the right way” but seems preoccupied. After dinner he makes a strange request: he asks to sleep in the narrator’s cabin on the ship. “And he coloured a little as he said it,” says the narrator. That flash of deeper feeling seems out of place in Landon’s polite, orderly prose. Gentlemen exchange pleasantries and platitudes. This puncturing of reserve–admitting weakness to a stranger–just isn’t done.

Colvin explains. His story begins as leisurely as the narrator’s; it’s not slow, it just doesn’t feel hurried. In India Colvin made a friend named John Broughton, who inherited a large estate and returned to England. Eventually Broughton decides to move into his manor, Thurnley Abbey. It’s rumored to be haunted; supposedly the ghost is an “immured nun.” Further details are thin on the ground.

Broughton thinks a former tenant spread the rumors to scare trespassers; certainly, he was known to enhance them by playing tricks with lights. He and Colvin agree that if one ever did see a ghost, one ought to talk to it. Broughton has workers in, laughing at their nervousness, and fixes the roof and installs electric lighting. He gets married, and Colvin goes back East. When Colvin returns to England Broughton asks him to visit, and do him a favor.

Colvin arrives to find a standard country house party of the sort Hercule Poirot detects murders in. A couple of guests trot out the standard lines about how they wouldn’t live in the Abbey for any amount of money. A woman at dinner goes on for a while about how wit is vulgar and all truly great art is melancholy and tragic.[1] Broughton can’t bring himself to tell Colvin what the favor is–he keeps putting it off until morning. He seems “somehow ashamed of himself,” trying to bring the conversation around to ghosts but changing the subject when Colvin asks directly. The most Broughton can manage is an odd joke as he drifts off to bed: “‘Mind, if you see a ghost, do talk to it; you said you would.’ He stood irresolutely a moment and then turned away.”

Colvin tells the first half of his story lightly but with emotional reserve. The prose maintains a polite distance from the reader. Colvin calls Broughton “a light-hearted soul” but “steady and capable” and steady is high praise. Gentlemen keep their upper lips stiff. They talk in bright pleasantries and banter (“‘Good old nun!’ said Broughton”). They’re undemonstrative, uncomfortable with and embarrassed by strong emotion. Broughton avoids asking Colvin for a favor because the favor is bound up with a shock. Talking about it would break the rules.

So it’s a big moment when Colvin wakes in the night and feels something: “I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat shut automatically.” And the feeling comes before we learn what the feeling is about. That Colvin feels anything this strongly is more shocking than the shock that caused it. After 4,000 words of calm Englishness, this is the story’s first moment of heightened emotion.

Then another unusual thing happens: just for a moment, we return to the frame story. Everyone else is in bed and the narrator and Colvin stare out over the water into the night. The story decelerates to a moment of absolute stillness. Colvin continues his story, and because Landon wrote this bit extraordinarily well I’ll quote the next paragraph in full:

Leaning over the foot of my bed, looking at me, was a figure swathed in a rotten and tattered veiling. This shroud passed over the head, but left both eyes and the right side of the face bare. It then followed the line of the arm down to where the hand grasped the bed-end. The face was not entirely that of a skull, though the eyes and the flesh of the face were totally gone. There was a thin, dry skin drawn tightly over the features, and there was some skin left on the hand. One wisp of hair crossed the forehead. It was perfectly still. I looked at it, and it looked at me, and my brains turned dry and hot in my head. I had still got the pear of the electric lamp in my hand, and I played idly with it; only I dared not turn the light out again. I shut my eyes, only to open them in a hideous terror the same second. The thing had not moved. My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated. Another cinder tinkled in the grate, and a panel creaked in the wall.

I’ve rarely come across a fantasy or horror story that better depicts a certain kind of fear or shock, the kind where time seems to stop for a moment while your brain processes what’s happening. “Thurnley Abbey” has been anthologized a lot, and some editors call it one of the most frightening ghost stories in the English language. If so, it’s not because the events of the story are particularly frightening (the same plot could just as easily be turned to comedy). It’s just particularly good at convincing us its narrator is afraid.

This paragraph is, again, very still. Colvin’s description is precise and clinical, and the slow cataloguing of detail reads like one of those moments when absolute shock slows time to a crawl. His playing with the dangling lamp-switch is perfect, the kind of thing people do when their minds haven’t caught up to their situation. And again there’s a new intensity to his reactions, a previously unsuspected emotional range: “my brains turned dry and hot in my head,” “My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated.” These are palpably physical states the reader might have been in, or can at least imagine, and they’re more vivid for the contrast between this scene and the story’s earlier reserve. The emotional contrast and Landon’s masterful control of pacing make Colvin’s awakening feel like a night terror or fever dream on paper.

Then, from a dead stop, “Thurnley Abbey” floors the gas pedal. Colvin decides the figure is a dummy set up as a practical joke. Like a switch his utter terror flips to white-hot rage. He leaps forward and punches it in the face. When it doesn’t resist he pulverizes it, pulling it apart, stomping the skeleton, leaving not a single bone in one piece. It’s sheer mindless frenzy.

Colvin grabs a skull fragment and bursts into Broughton’s bedroom, screaming something-or-other, but Broughton doesn’t react as Colvin expects. Broughton is too terrified to speak, only shrieking when he sees the bone. He grabs it, makes for the door, but trips and drops it. Everyone hears shuffling footsteps coming down the hall.

Here the story takes another unexpected emotional turn. Broughton and his wife hide their faces in the bedclothes and after a moment Colvin joins them. This is awe, in the old-fashioned sense. What you’d feel if a god descended from the sky. It’s not just that no one wants to see the Nun, it’s like they’re not even worthy to gaze upon her. She comes softly into the room and gently picks up her bone. Then she just leaves. “At the end of the corridor I thought I saw something that moved away. A moment later the passage was empty. I stood with my forehead against the jamb of the door almost physically sick.”

These emotions feel vivid partly because of the contrast with the story’s first half. Another reason is that “Thurnley Abbey” pays attention to the fallout. A common ghost story strategy is to stage the climax, then get out while the reader is still reeling, but “Thurnley Abbey” covers the next few hours of Colvin’s life. He and the Broughtons are explicitly traumatized–in modern terms, they may have actual PTSD. They sit up together until dawn, barely speaking; “we all three knew that our reason had gone very near to ruin that night.” They have to negotiate what to do in the morning because no one can stand to be alone. Eventually Mrs. Broughton thinks she might be all right alone for five minutes, with the windows open, while Broughton and Colvin check Colvin’s room. They do, and apart from some blood where Colvin cut his hand there’s no sign of the mess. Broughton only says “half as a question, half as a reproach, ‘You didn’t speak to her.’”

It’s an intense story. On my first reading it didn’t even occur to me to wonder: why has Broughton never spoken to her? Living with her as he does, he must have noticed the Nun is benign. At no point does she do anything but watch and endure. There’s no sign that she’s even offended at being torn apart, which, given the speed at which she reassembles herself, has got to be a minor inconvenience. She’s quiet, curious, and patient, and Broughton and Colvin’s reactions seem to have almost nothing to do with her. She seems to unconsciously carry an aura of terror, harmless in herself but a catalyst for loss of emotional control in the living.

I’m not a strict death-of-the-author adherent, but writers often really do write more than they intend. I don’t know Landon’s intentions; probably he just wanted to write a scary story. But it feels like something deeper is going on here. People don’t run from the Nun, they hide their faces. “Thurnley Abbey” feels suffused with shame.

Maybe it has to do with those “powerfully British” attitudes. Remember, Broughton came back from soldiering in India to accept his inheritance. Colvin still travels back and forth and reads himself to sleep with a volume of Kipling.[2] So maybe it’s significant that Broughton has taken possession of the Abbey, become its master, and rebuilt it to his liking… but the place has a prior inhabitant. One he can’t subordinate, kill, or move along. No matter what, she endures, an undeniable fact he has to confront. Is it any wonder he can’t bear to speak to her?

Then again, maybe it’s about the destruction of Colvin’s self-image. Colvin thinks of himself as a gentleman. He belongs to the right club, knows the right things to say and to do. He’s cool and steady; his honor and dignity are unimpeachable. He’s above everything. Until he encounters something he thinks is mocking him, at which point he discovers his reserve and honorable deportment are a thin veneer masking his chaotic, animalistic, rage-filled true self. In the Nun’s presence, he’s no gentleman. What’s worse, his tantrum doesn’t even accomplish anything. His rage is impotent. The victim of his violence can’t actually be harmed, and won’t go away; she pieces herself together and reproachfully continues to exist.

Either way, the Nun is a mirror. Colvin and Broughton can’t look at her because she shows them things they’re ashamed to recognize in themselves—most importantly that the world, and their own lives and selves, aren’t as much under their control as they like to think.

“Of course I am much better now,” says Colvin, “but it is a kindness of you to let me sleep in your cabin.” Now that Colvin knows himself, it’s hard to sleep soundly.


  1. This is a common attitude even today; a lot of people think only morbidly grim stories are truly Serious.  ↩

  2. An advocate of empire whose stories are still reprinted mostly because they seem so uneasy about their own imperialism.  ↩

Doctor Who, Celebrity Historicals, and Meddling

Fair warning: unless you watch Doctor Who this post will probably be of no interest to you whatsoever.

Recently news leaked about an upcoming story from the next season of Doctor Who. It’s a spoiler, I guess, although not much of one as it’s not the most original idea. The word is that Mary Shelley will meet the Cybermen, who will give her the idea for Frankenstein. In reality Frankenstein, like most great novels, was the result of a whole array of ideas and influences. Apparently in the Doctor Who universe Mary Shelley just saw a Cyberman. (This blog post assumes the description of the episode is roughly accurate. It could still turn out to be more complicated than that.)

I commented on Twitter that when SF stories explain a historical event was really caused by time travellers and/or aliens, they usually pick something that isn’t actually mysterious and come up with an “explanation” less interesting than what happened in real life. Doctor Who doesn’t often base entire stories around this concept. It’s usually a joke; an allegedly funny tag scene or name-dropping anecdote in an story about something else.[1] This is partly because the TV show rarely visits specific historical events at all. (The TV series, specifically–it’s more common in the books and audio plays.) At least, until recently. Between the Shelley rumor and season 11, the first produced by Chris Chibnall, it looks like the way Doctor Who uses history is evolving. This lets it tell different types of stories, but they’re story types with potential pitfalls.

You can divide historically-set Doctor Who stories into two categories. (Parenthetical caveat #3: Not the only possible groupings, just ones I’ve chosen for the purposes of my argument.) Type 1 stories have a historical setting, and may deal with historical themes, but aren’t about specific historical events–“The Pyramids of Mars,” “Black Orchid,” or “Thin Ice” (which uses a real event as background but isn’t about it).

Type 2 stories throw the Doctor into a specific, real historical event. This was more common in the 1960s when the show did what fans call “pure historicals”–stories with no science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS. (The only post–1960s pure historical is “Black Orchid,” an odd Peter Davison two-parter.) After the show went all SF, all the time, it’s hard to come up with examples. “City of Death” involves the Mona Lisa, but we never meet Leonardo. “Mark of the Rani” has Luddites but isn’t about them; they’re just background for bizarre Master hijinks. Before season 11 the new series had “The Fires of Pompeii” and… well, “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Day of the Moon” take place while history is being broadcast on television, but the Doctor is in the audience watching, just like us.

Most Type 2 stories are about the Doctor landing in trouble and trying to survive long enough to escape in the TARDIS. The historical event is usually wide-ranging enough to keep the Doctor away from the center of the action–the Reign of Terror, say, or the Parturition of India. You see why when you watch “The Gunfighters,” one of the few Doctor Who stories centered around a small-scale, local historical event. When we reach the big climax in episode 4, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, the Doctor is absent. There’s nothing for him to do there.

When the Doctor gets involved in real history there’s only two ways the story can go: she can observe, or she can intervene. First, Observation: the Doctor stands to the side and observes history without affecting it. This keeps historical figures at the center of their own stories, but reduces the Doctor to a supporting role in her own series. She isn’t participating in a story, she’s an audience member who has a closer seat than we do.

One variation on Observation is the story where someone travels back in time to change history, and must be stopped. It’s a popular idea but is almost never used in Doctor Who. The only time meddler stories in the original series are “The Aztecs,” “The Time Meddler” (both Hartnell stories), “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (in which the villains never manage to leave the 20th century), and “The King’s Demons” (another oddly old-fashioned Davison two-parter). “Rosa” is the only one I can think of from the new series. It rubs against the grain to have the Doctor working to keep everything the same; meddling is what Doctor Who is about. In fact, after the Hartnell era the show rarely mentions the possibility of changing history at all. In the new series “Father’s Day” and “The Fires of Pompeii” explain for the new audience what the Doctor can and can’t interfere with, but otherwise it’s assumed that changes, as the eleventh Doctor puts it in “Hide,” “mostly work themselves out.”

Another kind of Observation story sends the protagonist back in time to witness a famous disaster or injustice. Often it’s an event society is still processing–Quantum Leap used this model a lot and was specifically set up to take stock of the Baby Boomer audience’s experiences. The time traveler can’t make a big difference in what happens, though they might help a few people. The traveler learns more about history and the story follows their emotional journey as a proxy for the audience’s. “Witness to history” stories can be problematic. They’re often stories of privileged people[2] having feelings about things happening to marginalized people. That’s less of a risk the more distance there is between the audience and the history; for instance, an inoffensive literary example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. This is another plot Doctor Who almost never uses. The only one in the entire classic series[3] is “The Massacre,” and two things are interesting to note: first, it’s not an especially fraught tragedy for contemporary audiences, most of whom wouldn’t feel a strong personal connection to the persecution of Hugenots. Second, the witness is the companion; the Doctor disappears for most of the story. It’s as though this plot isn’t compatible with the Doctor.

The other way the Doctor can interact with real history is Intervention: let the Doctor, or the aliens she meets, inspire or intervene in history. This lets the Doctor be active but diminishes the agency of real historical figures, giving fictional characters credit for their accomplishments.

Which brings us back to Mary Shelley. Assuming the description is accurate, the Shelley idea works according to an inanely reductive theory of art and invention where every idea can be traced to a specific incident from the author’s life. (There’s a lot of this among the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd: Shakespeare must have been noble, because only a noble could or would have written so much about nobles.) It’s a condescending, teleological version of cultural and technological evolution. Our ancestors weren’t sophisticated enough to come up with their own ideas–they needed help from us, the smart future people!

Doctor Who has flirted with this attitude before. Seventies Who got a lot of mileage out of Chariots of the Gods?, with aliens boosting ancient cultures a la von Däniken. And it tends to agree with Star Trek that low-tech cultures—including present-day Earth, from the Doctor’s perspective—need to be protected from anachronistic technology they’re not ethically developed enough to handle. Which I find dubious inasmuch as not everyone can handle the technology we have in real life. Let’s go for the edge case and consider nuclear weapons. If you showed a nuclear missile to random medieval people and explained what it did clearly enough that they really understood it, would they really be any less likely than people today to ask “Why the hell would you even build that?” By contrast, plenty of moderns assume we could survive a nuclear war and on more than one occasion in the last century we actually almost blew ourselves up. We have more information than our ancestors. In many ways, on average, we’re more enlightened. But that doesn’t mean we’re smarter. And it’s important to remember that our descendents will consider us ignorant and morally deficient in ways we can’t predict.

The time traveller who hands a historical figure their big idea is an inane gag, but scriptwriters never tire of it. Doctor Who has “explained” H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and even Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording himself. On Quantum Leap Sam Beckett invented everything from the lyrics of “Peggy Sue” to the Heimlich maneuver. Back to the Future had Marty McFly writing the music of Chuck Berry, which was not only insulting but, inasmuch as it gave an average white kid credit for the work of a black man, also racist.

In classic Doctor Who, once you’re past the Hartnell era historical celebrities rarely appear onscreen at all. After “The Gunfighters” in 1966, the first historical figures who weren’t illusions or robot duplicates didn’t appear until 1985’s “Mark of the Rani” and “Timelash.” Modern Doctor Who invented what fans call “celebrity historicals”–stories where the Doctor visits the past and teams up with a famous historical figure. Charles Dickens or King James I wander into a standard Type 1 historical Doctor Who story and act as a one-off companion, with the Doctor and the guest sharing the role of the hero–or anti-hero, in James’s case.

But it sounds like in the Mary Shelley episode the Doctor is going to be at the Villa Diodati while the Byron-Shelley circle are writing their horror stories. This is a Type 2 historical story. What’s more, after a decades-long post-Hartnell dry spell season 11 has two of these stories: “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab.” And they’re different from previous historical stories in other ways.

First, these stories put the Doctor into segregation-era Alabama or the Parturition of India, history that’s both emotionally fraught and within living memory. Generally Doctor Who has stayed away from events that might be connected to painful family history for some of the audience. “Rosa” and “Demons” avoided trivializing their subjects, but it was a risk.

Second, these are exactly the kinds of stories Doctor Who hardly ever tells. “Demons” is a witness to tragedy story. Luckily it’s a good one–about as good as these stories can get, in fact. The writer is himself British-Indian and it’s a story about Yaz’s family that’s focused on her feelings, not the Doctor’s. And “Demons of the Punjab” is about witnessing and remembrance. The aliens of the week and the story itself are both memorializing the dead.

“Rosa”, meanwhile, is the first time meddler story since the Davison era. The script, co-written by a black writer, avoids most of the potential pitfalls of grafting a time meddler story to Rosa Parks’s most famous moment of activism. It doesn’t soft-pedal the racism or romanticize mid–20th century Alabama, which feels appropriately unpleasant. (I liked Quantum Leap but, steeped as it was in Boomer nostalgia, it presented a theme-park version of the past[4] even when it wasn’t appropriate.) “Rosa” doesn’t focus on the Doctor’s feelings and manages to avoid looking as though Parks needs the Doctor’s help. On the other hand, to offset the meddler’s work the Doctor does a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulation and stage managing, which is still not a good look. And the episode’s “Sound of Thunder”-style butterfly effect theory of time travel, in which small changes can rewrite history, has unintentionally problematic implications. The premise of the meddler’s plan is that just having a different bus, or a different driver, on the day Parks refused to give up her seat could derail the civil rights movement. This is different from how any other Doctor Who story has handled changes to history.[5] For one thing, if every episode worked on these assumptions just stepping out of the TARDIS to buy a newspaper might shred the web of time. More to the point, the idea that some asshole messing with a bus schedule could stop Rosa Parks from making her mark on history is at odds with the fact, which the episode itself acknowledges, that she was a committed activist. The butterfly effect model of time travel suggests progress is fragile. All human achievements, large or small, are the products more of random chance than of human effort. A time traveler steps on a butterfly and decades of social progress are undone.

There’s a progression in Doctor Who’s use of time travel. The classic series used it mostly as a way to move between settings and genres. Russell T. Davies introduced the celebrity historical. Steven Moffatt brought in twisting, achronological storylines in the tradition of (albeit much simpler than) Primer. And Chris Chibnall is introducing traditional time travel premises that haven’t been seen much in Doctor Who.

“Rosa” and the upcoming Mary Shelley episode are celebrity historicals mixed with the Type 2 historical story: the Doctor makes a guest appearance in the historical figures’ own stories and gets involved in the events that made them famous. This is new. I mean, sort of new, in a not-actually-new-at-all sense. The spinoff media, the books and audios, do this all the time (Big Finish, as I mentioned above, has even used more or less this exact Mary Shelley idea). But in the actual TV show it’s rarer than you’d think.

There’s a reason for that: again, there are only two ways a story centered around the event that made the celebrity famous can go. The Doctor can be involved in the celebrity’s big moment, but then it’s going to look like the show’s giving her partial credit for their achievements. Or the Doctor can stand off to the side and watch the celebrity do their thing, in which case she’s not the actor but the audience. In either case, somebody’s probably going to be Poochie.

That’s Poochie as in “Itchy and Scratchy and.” The Poochie is a character who shows up partway through a story, encroaches on the cast’s narrative roles, forces them to react instead of acting, and looks cool and super-competent mostly because when the Poochie is around everybody else is less cool and competent. When the Doctor gives H. G. Wells the idea for The Time Machine in “Timelash,” he’s the Poochie–turning up in Wells’s biography and inserting himself into Wells’s most famous books. On the flip side, in “Marco Polo” the Poochie is Marco. He steals the TARDIS and the central narrative role from Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor. For seven episodes the show becomes the Marco Polo show, guest starring Doctor Who.[6]

I have one firm opinion on how Doctor Who ought to use history: if you’re going to do a celebrity historical, the celebrity should guest star in a Doctor Who story instead of the Doctor guest starring in the celebrity’s story. An original Doctor Who story can make room for more than one hero without shortchanging any of them. But the celebrity’s biography is an existing story and it’s hard for the Doctor to insert herself into it without to some extent hijacking it. I’m not interested in watching the Doctor become Forrest Gump, wandering into the frame whenever someone else does something interesting.


  1. There are exceptions; see the paragraph on von Dänikenism.  ↩

  2. If nothing else, the time traveler is temporally privileged in that they’re going back to the future as soon as the story ends.  ↩

  3. The original 1963–1989 series. It feels like the distinction may be meaningless soon, inasmuch as the new series is pushing 15 years old, but it’s what everybody calls it.  ↩

  4. I kind of cringed at how weirdly ignorant the TARDIS crew are of the dangers of Alabama in the 1950s; despite everything, they start the episode acting like they’re wandering around Disneyland. Later Graham turns out to be so well informed about Rosa Parks that he even knows the name of the bus driver, so why is his reaction to landing in the 1950s “Can we meet Elvis” and not “Hey, maybe this isn’t the safest place for my grandson?”  ↩

  5. With the possible exception of “Turn Left,” although in that case Donna’s left turn didn’t change real-world history.  ↩

  6. “Marco Polo” is one of only two missing Doctor Who stories I would not be excited to have back; the other is “The Celestial Toymaker.”  ↩

W. F. Harvey, The Double Eye

M. R. James was unusual among ghost-story writers in that every story he wrote was at least mildly interesting; most weird writers of his vintage aren’t as consistent. But many have a handful of good stories and sometimes I even find one that hasn’t been reprinted to death.

W. F. Harvey is one of those writers. The Double Eye collects most if not all of his weird stories and it’s a mixed bag. Some of his stories are brilliant, the rest you’ll forget as soon as you read them. They’re all very short–my two favorites are both under 2000 words. Harvey is jocular without writing outright comedy. He’s sometimes ironic but only mildly so; for instance, a potential murderer might be reported to a psychiatrist by the accomplices he’d tried to recruit. Harvey usually avoids outright ghosts and it’s often unclear whether something supernatural is going on or his characters are having mental breakdowns. (He wrote at least two stories about a man thinking he’d been cursed by a woman who might merely be upset with him.) The worst story in the collection is mildly racist, has a mild racial slur for a title, and would have been better buried and forgotten. At the other end of the quality scale are the two stories most people will have heard of, “August Heat” and “The Beast With Five Fingers.”

“The Beast With Five Fingers” is the ur-story of the disembodied hand subgenre. “August Heat” is weirder. (And takes hardly any time to read, so you might as well do so.)

One hot morning, James Withencroft, an artist, draws a picture of a prisoner on trial. He has no idea why–it just popped into his head. Withencroft has never seen the man before in his life but he’s distinctively large, so when Withencroft goes for a walk and passes that exact man Withencroft spots him at once. Mr. Atkinson and Withencroft are immediate friends. Atkinson is a monument-carver, carving a sample tombstone for an exhibition. Withencroft’s name is on it, and today’s date. Atkinson has no idea why–it just popped into his head. The coincidence creeps Withencroft out, so Atkinson invites Withencroft to stick around until midnight, just to make sure nothing happens to him. As the story closes, Atkinson is sharpening a chisel while Withencroft reflects with an odd detachment that the heat “is enough to send a man mad.”

“And it was only the day before yesterday,” he said, “that I told Maria there were no such things as ghosts!”

Neither of us had seen a ghost, but I knew what he meant.

“August Heat” has been reprinted in a lot of ghost story anthologies–not just weird stories, ghost anthologies specifically. Which is interesting because it doesn’t have a ghost, or anything supernatural beyond two extraordinary coincidences and the implication, putting them side by side, that something is about to follow from them. But why? It’s the obscurity of the story that’s disturbing. There’s no Twilight Zone irony, the characters haven’t brought them on themselves through character flaws. There’s no suggestion that Atkinson is a hidden psychopath, or anything other than the genial man he appears to be. Withencroft and Atkinson have had premonitions of a murder which is about to happen only because they had premonitions of that murder. The event has no beginning; the effect is its own cause. The story feels haunted not by an apparition but by a strangely meaningless future.

My favorite W. F. Harvey story is “The Clock.” It’s one of his less anthologized stories, but googling turned up the text online. It is, again, short but effective.

“The Clock” is an excerpt from a letter to an old school friend. The unnamed writer is asked by a friend of her aunt to go to her shut-up house and retrieve a travelling-clock. She agrees. The story vividly conveys the uncomfortable feeling of being the only person in a dark, silent, deserted house where she’d normally have no legitimate reason to be: “I did in fact feel rather like a burglar, and I thought that if anyone did happen to see the front door open, I might have difficulty in explaining things.”

The writer heads upstairs and finally finds the clock in a back bedroom. It’s still ticking. Which is weird, because no one has been in the house, so who’s been winding it? “Then, without quite knowing why, I shut the door on to the landing, locked myself in, and again looked round the room.” Then she hears something coming up the stairs. Not walking, but “hopping up the stairs, like a very big bird would hop.” Then it pauses, and starts scratching at each of the doors in turn. The writer flees out the window, and as she looks back she sees the window has shut behind her.

Another book I read recently was Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. I found Fisher’s ideas an interesting lens through which to look at Harvey’s work. Fisher identifies “Weird” and “Eerie” as modes often used by weird fiction.[1] The Weird is easy to describe: it’s something alien and out of place that intrudes on the mundane world, like the crawling hand in “The Beast With Five Fingers.” The Eerie is trickier. It’s an impression of meaning, intelligence, or agency out of place–either present where it shouldn’t be, or absent where it should. Fisher gives the example of an “eerie cry” for the first type, as in the cry of an animal which seems to carry some unusual intelligence or meaning. An example of the second is a mysterious ruin which once had a context and purpose that’s now entirely forgotten. Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is.

W. F. Harvey’s main interest is the eerie. He does tell weird stories–“The Beast With Five Fingers” is a good one. Another is one of his rare outright ghost stories, “Account Rendered.” But Harvey is less fond of ghosts and monsters than most weird writers–he likes coincidences that might not be coincidences, delusions that might not be delusions, and people or animals who might be more than they seem. “August Heat” is both his most famous story and the one that best represents his work; its paradoxical tangle of precognition and predestination is thoroughly eerie.

In that light, “The Clock” is an interesting case. It’s certainly weird. But unlike the Beast With Five Fingers, the whatever-it-was in “The Clock” is never seen and has no hint of backstory, and the purpose of its behavior is obscure. The complete lack of context makes the story feel as eerie as it is weird.

That sense of the eerie doesn’t have anything to do with Harvey’s prose–not all his stories are alike, but like I said earlier, most are breezy and jocular, specializing in a sort of light detective-novel style. He only occasionally dips into stream of conciousness[2] or varies his tone or pacing much. When Harvey’s on form his plots are inherently disquieting even when baldly and simply described, and the lightness of tone contrasts ironically. Contrasting horror and wit is a common strategy in weird stories of Harvey’s era, especially in stories by British authors. It’s often very effective.

Look, for instance, at “Account Rendered.” A Mr. Tolson hires a doctor to put him under anesthesia for half an hour around midnight. While Tolson is under an old man like “a timid but inquisitive tortoise” opens the door, sticks his head in, and observes that Tolson is busy but there’s no hurry and he’ll come back another time. Later the doctor investigates and discovers Tolson hires a different doctor every year on the same night, and no matter where in the world he is, at midnight the old man puts his head into the room. The premise of this story is memorable in itself–I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and among the less inspired ones ideas repeat, but this is new. And there’s something disconcerting in the mundanity of the ghost and its polite relentlessness.

“The Follower” is one of Harvey’s less successful stories. A writer, like Harvey himself, lives near a couple of academics named Canon Rathbone and Dr. Curtius who are researching ancient manuscripts they brought back from overseas. One night while gazing at their house he gets an idea for a story based on them. The next day the academics happen to drop in. The protagonist’s sister suggests he could write about Canon Rathbone’s work and the Canon gets flustered, stammering out that he’s really not into fiction–it’s too sensationalistic. As the academics leave, the writer feels obscurely that he’s been warned off.

The outline of this story has a lot of eerie potential, but in Harvey’s style it doesn’t work. It’s too ambiguous. If “The Follower” had been written by (for example) Robert Aickman it would have been suffused with odd details suggesting something weighty moving under the surface of things. In Harvey’s story Dr. Curtius makes a few odd gestures–nodding at odd moments, stirring his tea in a way the writer thinks is strange–but nothing he or Canon Rathbone do seems all that unusual, and they aren’t in any way menacing. Rathbone seems more embarassed than anything. It feels like the writer is getting worked up over a mundane coincidence.

W. F. Harvey’s weird tales are at their best when the overt events are undeniably strange. When they could be just funny coincidences… well, then, they probably are just funny coincidences. The voice he uses in most of his stories encourages me to assume the least extraordinary explanation for everything. It’s reliable, sincerely friendly; I compared it to a detective-story voice, and it feels like, as in a fair play detective story, it’s not palming any cards. When Harvey’s working, though, he really works. The Double Eye feels padded, but Harvey wrote enough great stories that you could fill at least one volume of more modest size.

(Other stories not mentioned above that I’d include in a notional Best of W. F. Harvey include “Midnight House,” “Across the Moors,” “The Tortoise,” “The Ankardyne Pew,” “The Tool,” “The Dabblers,” and “The Flying Out of Mrs. Barnard Hollis.” “The Star” and “The Man Who Hated Aspidistras” are also good, but are comic stories with no weird content and would be an odd fit.)


  1. Fisher doesn’t claim these are the only two modes or effects weird fiction has; they’re just the ones he’s concerned with.  ↩

  2. There are exceptions; for instance, “The Sleeping Major.”  ↩

Catherynne M. Valente, Space Opera

1.

Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera gets compared to Douglas Adams a lot. That’s not because it’s an Adams pastiche. Space Opera and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have different agendas and preoccupations, and are written in different styles to fit. Hitchhiker’s has the polite, straight faced, reassuring voice of a travel guide. Space Opera is extravagantly glittery, with sentences you can get lost in carrying you through unexpected scenic routes. The one similarity is that both have plenty of phrases that make you imagine something vividly or see it in a new way, Space Opera having at least one per page as good as Adams’s “hung in the sky like bricks don’t.” “Watching a kebab slowly revolve in front of a space heater like a sweaty meat planet,” say, or “mumble-crooning artificial grit,” which is as good a description of a currently popular style of folk-rock as I’ve ever seen.

The reason for the Adams comparison is that Space Opera is absurdist space opera. Adams is the best known example of that subgenre, though there’s also Robert Sheckley, and Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries and The Cyberiad.[1] The comedy isn’t the point of the exercise. It’s an excuse to go full Jonathan Swift. These books can have aliens who embody human failings and foibles, and wild ideas that wouldn’t fit logically world-built, internally consistent universes whose realities refuse to be rubbery or loopy. Space Opera has, for instance, a viral strain of space-zombie gentrifiers and a planet of screw-ups that becomes an important trading hub because wormholes are alive and feed off regret.

There’s real political and philosophical scaffolding under the humor. These books use their license to be weird to play with serious ideas and some on the less jokey end approach Borges or Calvino territory.[2] The best ones–Space Opera included–are grounded enough to deal with real emotion.[3] Unlike Duck Dodgers’ 24th-and-a-half century, you can imagine living in these worlds.

Science fiction on the Adams-to-Borges spectrum is an under-appreciated and underserved subgenre. Space Opera is the best addition in years.

2.

The disastrous Sentience Wars are over. Now the galactic community settles its differences with the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a Eurovision-style song contest. It’s time for Earth to enter, or else. See, the Great Octave judges new species’ sentience on whether they can cooperate well enough to pull off a decent musical number. If humans place last on their first attempt the Octave will declare us non-sentient and render us extinct so Earth can evolve someone cooler. Due to the vagaries of alien taste, Earth’s least implausible representatives are the two surviving members of glam one-hit-wonder Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes: Decibel himself, a has-been with the aesthetic of early David Bowie but not the talent; and Oort St. Ultraviolet, an undramatic session musician with two kids, a cat, and a divorce. Unfortunately Mira Wonderful Star, the deceased member of the trio, was the one who kept them working together.

Space Opera is a celebration of music and theatre and glamor. A couple of passages have been repeatedly approvingly quoted online and it’s easy to get the impression they sum up the book’s Message. First, the end of the chapter explaining the galactic community’s justification for the Grand Prix:

Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that…. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play?

Do you have soul?

And Decibel’s philosophy as stated in an argument with Oort:

“Because the opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater. When the world is fucked, you go to the theater, you go to the shine, and when the bad men come, all there is left to do is sing them down.”

And if this were really all this book were saying, it would merely be self-congratulations for smug hipsters. But Space Opera is more complicated and ambiguous than that. Yes, Valente is sincere in celebrating music and theatre and glamor, and why not? They’re genuinely wonderful. But it celebrates music and theatre for the wonderful things they really are, without ascribing to them superpowers they don’t posess. Glamor isn’t everything. And music isn’t the only thing the book celebrates.

3.

The first thing you notice about the Esca, the big blue bird who makes first contact with Earth, is that it looks like the Roadrunner. Y’know, the one the Coyote is after. One of the first things we learn about Decibel is that, as a serious young person, he was frustrated by his grandmother’s insistence that Dess’ “serious and meaningful” science fiction films were not as good as Looney Tunes: “mine is bright and happy and makes a colorful noise, so I put it on top of yours that is droopy and leaky and makes a noise like the dishwasher.”

Which is interesting. Both pop music and Looney Tunes are “bright and happy and [make] a colorful noise” but they’re otherwise opposites. Pop music is cool and glamorous. Looney Tunes are goofy and corny, descended from vaudeville and slapstick. Their mascot is Porky Pig, who is the exact opposite of cool; you feel for him because he tries so hard but he’ll never not be awkward.

Space Opera loves goofy cartoons as fiercely as Eurovision. Decibel wants to be David Bowie, but he’s really the Coyote, chasing things he never catches and not noticing the cliff until he’s already over it. Not that this is a problem; SF is glutted with super-competent heroes and we need more books about awkward, mediocre people (who are, after all, us). Anyway, it might not be a problem if he’d just embrace it:

“That is what Mira and Oort forgot, having been, if not popular, always cool. No matter how mad, bad, and dangerous to know a civilization gets, unto every generation are born the lonely and the uncool, destined to forever stare into the candy-store window of their culture, and loneliness is the mother of ascension. Only the uncool have the requisite alone time to advance their species.”

This kind of bright happiness requires a willingness to risk looking stupid, a vulnerability that’s incompatible with cool but sometimes necessary if you want to be open to new experiences or new people. One of Space Opera’s refrains is “Life is beautiful and life is stupid.” If you can’t be beautiful being the Coyote kind of stupid is nothing to be ashamed of.

4.

Douglas Adams wrote a lot of jokes, but one of his sharpest was the Golgafrincham B Ark.

One day the leaders of the Golgafrincham announced their world was doomed. So they built three big arks. The A Ark would take the leaders and scientists and artists. The C Ark would take the workers, the people who do and make things. And the B ark would take the people in the middle: account executives, security guards, management consultants, telephone sanitizers. And the B Ark would go first, because it was important for morale that the new world be well managed. As the B Ark warped away, the A and C Golgafrincham shared a laugh and congratulated themselves on getting rid of their useless middlemen. Although not for long, as the whole species was shortly wiped out by a disease spread by unsanitized telephones.

It’s an ingenious bit of sleight-of-hand. When you read comedy you assume it and you are on the same side, sharing the jokes. So you laugh at the clever trick the Golgafrincham pulled on their consultants and middle managers and ambiguously useful tradespeople. Aren’t those people annoying? Don’t you wish you could just launch them into space? And Adams is making fun of them; most of the B Ark people are in what David Graeber calls “Bullshit Jobs” and the ones we meet are “useless bloody loonies.” But once you’re lulled into your smug sense of superiority, Adams drops the real punch line. The Golgafrincham are all dead, because bullshit jobs are a real phenomenon but you’re probably not as good as you think you are at identifying them, and there sure as hell aren’t any useless people. Incidentally, the B Ark people are the ancestors of the whole human race, you included.

This is an unexpectedly angry joke, and all along the target was you. What Adams is really doing here is asking you to consider whether you might be an asshole.

Pay attention when Hitchhiker’s fans bring up the B Ark, and it’s amazing how often they miss the point of the joke.

5.

Some background on Eurovision is in order. Every year, every European country submits a new pop song. They’re all performed on live television, and the audience votes for their favorite. It started in the 1950s, around the time international live television broadcasts first became practical. At the time Europe was still recovering from World War Two and Eurovision was meant to bring Europe together and promote international understanding.

There’s one important difference between Eurovision and the Metagalactic Grand Prix. The Metagalactic Grand Prix is how the galaxy distributes “communally held Galactic Resources.” Even if you’ve passed the entrance exam coming in last does a number on your economy, and it’s a very low number. And according to the rules, “If a performer fails to show up on the night, they shall be automatically disqualified, ranked last, and their share of communal Galactic Resources forfeited for the year.”

Which explains why the minute Decibel and Oort step out onto this year’s host planet someone shoots at them.

The fundamental question every war is asking, according to Space Opera, is “Which of us are people and which of us are meat?” Eurovision was created to encourage Europeans to see each other as people. The Metagalactic Grand Prix is a different way to sort out who’s the meat. The participants maneuver and strategize. They try to knock out the competition, usually not fatally. They downvote planets they don’t like to mess with their economies. The dodgy backstage deals certain people offer Decibel and Oort are deliberate tests, to see if the humans will betray each other. But meanwhile the established species are scheming for real.

Music, here, is war by other means. And Earth might be a casualty, because just before he has to go on a Smaragdin gives Decibel a potentially terminal case of laryngitis.

6.

“I never did say we were good; just sentient,” apologizes the Smaragdin.

Which raises the question of what sentience is, exactly.[4] The Great Octave has exterminated a few species. The one we learn about in detail is Flus. You can understand why they offed this one, actually; it’s legitimately self-defense.[5] Flus is a totalitarian hive mind that assimilates other life forms like the Borg.

The same chapter introduces us to the Voorpreet, sentient Galactic Family members in good standing, who are… um, a zombie virus that assimilates other life forms like the Borg. Who everyone bends over backwards to accommodate as best they can while still staying safe, or safe-ish. Space Opera introduces Flus and the Voorpreet together and explicitly asks “how different was a Flus infection from a Voorpret infection?”

The Voorpreet are cool. They’re the creative class, wealthy Silicon Valley gentrifiers: “Yes, yes, they obliterated the natural biodiversity of any region they touched, but wherever their infection took hold, they opened a lot of delightful bistros and shops and start-up tech companies with whimsically casual workplace environments and fusion food trucks and artisanal blacksmithing co-ops and performance-art spaces.”

The lyrics to the one song Flus knows go like this: “It is awesome to be Flus / If you are not Flus, you are not awesome / and will promptly be consumed / also your children and pets.

The difference between Flus and the Voorpreet is that Flus says the quiet parts loud.

Flus is a group mind–not a species so much as a single threatening individual–so this chapter doesn’t deal with the fundamental problem with the idea of destroying an entire species–humans, say–for their cruelty. You are by definition destroying the victims with their oppressors. The inherent cruelty of some humans is proven by what they do, and the inherent cruelty of the rest is proven by the things the first group did to them. It’s in the tradition of destroying the village in order to save it, or, more recently, freeing Iraqis by bombing the hell out of them.

You get the impression the Octave is looking out for opportunities to just flat out take somebody’s stuff, like the fine old human tradition of liberating nations that coincidentally happen to have something you want. On first contact, the Esca assures Earth that if humans must be exterminated, “all memory of your collective existence will be lovingly collated and archived, your planetary resources tenderly extracted.”

When the Esca entered their first Grand Prix they called their song “Please Don’t Incinerate Us, We’ll Be Good from Now On, We Promise.”

Being declared non-sentient is a lot like being declared a rogue state, or part of an Axis of Evil. It’s not that these places are not at least sometimes genuinely dangerous. But our condemnations are arbitrary: Pinochet was cool, Saddam Hussein was not. We talk about protecting freedom and democracy, but in practice a lot of American foreign policy is just about keeping the oil flowing.

The galactic community is the Nixon/Reagan/Bush/Trump U.S.A., splashed across the heavens and wearing a shallow dusting of glam. Space Opera’s aliens embody our own human failings; they’re us. If any readers actually thought the Metagalactic Grand Prix was a great idea, or that theater was incompatible with fascism, they may have missed the point.

“But galactic society is still… well, society. And society is rubbish,” says the Smaragdin. “Good lord, the Grand Prix is the best thing we’ve ever done, the utter best, and it’s just a bit of song and dance, isn’t it?”

7.

If you read the premise way back in section 2, you might think you have some idea how this story is going to go. The unlikely misfit who overcomes all odds to become a celebrity is one of Hollywood’s standard narratives. Decibel and Oort will settle their differences at the last minute, give a kick-ass performance that also symbolically resolves their emotional arcs, and prove humans can rock, right?

Oh, hell, no. Decibel can’t even pull himself together enough to manage the minimal obligation of writing a song. Also, the laryngitis. The Absolute Zeroes manage not to lose, but the reason is more interesting than just having talent.

What saves Earth is that Decibel has a mutually agreeable one-night-stand with an Esca. (Yes, this is a novel where the Coyote sleeps with the Roadrunner.) And that Oort meets an alien who resembles a hyperactive red panda and forms a real friendship. And on the night of the Grand Prix their actions bring about a pair of miracles that elevate their performance from a disaster to… well, not a disaster, anyway.

What proves Decibel and Oort’s sentience–and in this they’re considerably more sentient than most humans and most of the Extended Galactic Family–is that they don’t divide people into people and meat. They don’t divide people into those like us, the special shiny people and the other ones, who we can do what we want with. Strangers and foreigners are not threats, not prey, not lesser beings they can steal from or forcibly remake into versions of themselves. Decibel and Oort can look at people nothing like themselves and see them as people. They open up to people who are utterly strange to them and risk admitting they’re not starmen at all, just stupid useless bloody loony tunes like everyone else. Acknowledging your own non-specialness and uncoolness–your inner Coyote or your Porky nature–is the first step towards accepting strangers as equals, or even friends. The friends Dess and Oort are able to make help them create a performance they couldn’t manage on their own.

At this point it’s relevant that Decibel was born Danesh Jalo and Oort was once Omar Calișkan and the Absolute Zeroes are the children of immigrants in a long-past-Brexit England. Xenophobia and fascism are constant threats running through the background of Space Opera. After yet another wrong government comes to power, Mira’s Uncle Takumi dies in a racist riot and Dess’s grandmother, the one who tried to show him the beauty in a cartoon rabbit, is deported. This is a near future in which we have not learned much of anything.

On the whole, it’s just as well the best representatives Earth could come up with were two thirds of a one-hit-wonder glam pop trio.

The real test of a civilization isn’t how it treats its musicians. It’s how it treats its Others–more precisely, whether it even has Others. Foreigners, immigrants, asylum seekers. The real test of sentience isn’t whether you’re shutting someone’s rhythm down, it’s whether you’re keeping children in cages.

It’s tough to say what the long-term critical perspective will be on a book that’s only been out a year, but my guess is that Space Opera will become a classic. It has something in common with most great comedy: underneath the jokes, it’s angry.


  1. On the fantasy end, Terry Pratchett and Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher are close cousins.  ↩

  2. i.e. some of Lem’s work, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes.  ↩

  3. Not something Adams is especially associated with, but I find much of his work–Marvin’s death in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is one example–genuinely affecting.  ↩

  4. What happens if the Octave finds a species that doesn’t even have a sense of hearing? Will they be allowed to be sentient?  ↩

  5. This is a smart move; a straightforward mass murder would have made a mess of the novel’s tone.  ↩

J. U. Nicolson, Fingers of Fear

This is an odd book. Not a good enough odd book to recommend to everybody, alas, but it’s stuck in my memory.

Fingers of Fear is an Old Dark House story. Not just a story about an old dark house–a story in the gothic subgenre typified by James Whale’s The Old Dark House (which is great) and its source, J. B. Priestly’s novel Benighted (which I haven’t read). The whole story takes place in an isolated mansion inhabited by an eccentric, fractious family on the edge of disintigration. An intrusion from outside kicks off the inevitable breakdown, and by the end everybody’s either escaped or self-destructed.

It’s the Great Depression, and Selden Seaverns is broke. (Blurbs on some editions call him Selden Seaforth; I have no idea why.) Luckily his old friend Ormond Ormes hires him to catalogue the library at the Ormes mansion, Ormesby, and write a history of New England literature. At Ormesby Seaverns meets Ormond’s sister Gray, the only person who can control the vicious dogs roaming the grounds. In the morning he discovers a red mark on his neck, like a vampire’s been sucking at it.

Seaverns is smitten with Gray until she has a weird psychotic episode and tries to bite him, leaping for his throat like a wolf. (Seaverns is a little confused as to exactly what supernatural creature the Ormeses resemble.) Soon it looks like she’s killed one of the servants and Seaverns sees her standing naked and bloody in the library. Seaverns angsts over this for a while before discovering the murder was in fact committed by Gray’s previously unmentioned twin sister Grayce, who was also the one who went for Seaverns’ neck. So that’s all right then, aside from the part where Grayce escapes and kills again.

Ormond comes home with Seaverns’ ex-wife Muriel, who he hired to help him with a blackmail scheme. This is a total coincidence; Ormond had no idea they knew each other and Muriel didn’t know Seaverns would be there. Ormond starts to act unstable himself. Seaverns learns Ormond’s parents’ bodies are in the old cistern. They got there courtesy of Aunt Barbara, who has a pipe in her closet she dumps bodies into. She also slides down it herself when she doesn’t feel like taking the stairs. Also, there may be ghosts. Or maybe not. I haven’t covered every weird thing in this book, just the main points.

Fingers of Fear is narrated in first person and Seaverns does a lot of ruminating. The book gets into a rhythm where a weird thing happens and then Seaverns spends paragraphs theorizing about what it means, what other people’s motivations are and what they’re up to, and what he ought to do next. He spends more pages reacting to what happens than describing it.

This is the novel’s main weak point, and the reason I’d only recommend it to someone who really likes Old Dark House stories. Seaverns’ rumination sessions tend to drag, and sometimes the story slows to a crawl when it ought to speed up. This wouldn’t be a problem if Seaverns were a deep thinker but Nicolson is not exactly Melville and Seaverns is no more interesting and philosophical than your average suspense novel hero. Fingers of Fear would be paced better if it were 10 or 15 percent shorter.

On the other hand, I have a lot of time for novels where the characters spend a lot of time thinking things through. And it creates a feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia. We’re stuck in Seaverns’ point of view, and he’s stuck in his present, his rumination focused almost entirely on the Ormeses. We learn the bare minimum about his past. His life is divided into before and after Ormesby. Ormesby is an inescapable parallel world–Seaverns and Muriel are there for months and after a while they start thinking they need to get away, but they don’t. Ormesby sucks them so far in they seem to lose any other frame of reference. By the end Seaverns decides to protect Gray from scandal with a complicated plan to disguise Grayce’s killings as dog attacks. It’s a drawn out and nightmarish operation and he sort of wonders why he’s doing it, but he does.

“This depression in business is having strange results,” says Muriel, which is an understatement. “We can’t blame it directly, of course, and yet, if it hadn’t brought us here, we wouldn’t have become involved in such things.” Fingers of Fear isn’t a deep book, but it’s not without a theme. As wrapped up as it is in Ormesby it never forgets there’s a Depression going on. “It’s changed something in the lives of everyone in the country, maybe even in the world,” says Seaverns. It’s changed him into someone who covers up murders.

The Ormeses spend the book looking for a hidden stash of bonds. When the hiding place is finally tracked down the contents turn out to be… well, not bonds. The Ormeses are a cursed bloodline. You get the sense their wealth and their curse are linked. Maybe cursedness is the natural state of people of the Ormes’s class. The natural corruption of the rich led to the depression, and the depression corrupted people like Seaverns who hadn’t had all that much money in the first place. When he finally gets away he declares “I would not return to the city and the ways of cities for all those fellows’ collective wealth.”

The rich are different from you and me. They’re vampwolves.

Robert Sheckley, Options

Robert Sheckley’s Options is a novel that disassembles itself as you read it, and it’s amazing.

Space pilot Mishkin discovers he can go no further without an engine part. He lands at a depot looking for a replacement. Unfortunately, in the spirit of decentralization the authorities spread the parts all over the planet. Fortunately, they left a robot to guide Mishkin to the right part. Unfortunately, the robot was programmed for some other planet.

Robert Sheckley was one of SF’s great comic writers, and this looks like a recipe for a quick, funny space opera adventure. Except something’s off even before he lands: Mishkin has to argue with his equipment, browbeating his radio and control board into playing their assigned roles. The tools of science fiction are rebelling.

Mishkin trudges cross-planet. His path crosses alien monsters. They think Mishkin is a hallucination, or their multiple heads argue in Brooklyn accents. They’re neurotic and anxious. (“It would be good to remember that when making any strange contacts: The monster feels anxious.”) Mishkin’s picaresque encounters get stranger. What’s with the Duke of Melba, dumped into the story because his wife stopped believing in him? Or the guys playing poker on a narrow bridge, who think they’re in a hotel room?

We cut to a starship whose square-jawed captain and aw-shucks engineer confront a threatening alien. Luckily the captain remembers the “Martins-Turner Interpersonal Equations, which were part of the hypno-training of every human beyond Intelligence Level IV,” and is instantly rational and objective. This bit is a piss-take on A. E. Van Vogt, who loved giving his characters super-powered philosophical systems. Also John W. Campbell, whose conviction that human psychology could be solved like a math problem led him to fall hard for L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. It’s a jargon-heavy expression of hard SF’s susceptibility to Engineer’s Disease–the assumption that with a little scientific know-how a Competent Man can solve any problem, even problems of human behavior or ethics. Certainly the minor problem of finding an engine part.

When a novel introduces a new premise readers assume the new plot strand will link back to the old one. The Captain’s situation is relevant to Mishkin’s, right? It’s an implicit promise on the part of the author, practically a contractual obligation. Not this time, though. We cut again to a gaggle of godlike alien observers who decide they can’t get involved in these plots “for reasons which become apparent to you if you take a moment to do some tenth level Fournean rationalizing.” We never hear from any of these guys again.

Meanwhile, Mishkin is wandering through short, sometimes koan-like chapters. He comes upon a line of people listening to a radio saying, very quietly, “You only live once.”

The Author, “The Man of a Thousand Disguises,” is bored. The reader isn’t. The Author’s boredom inspires an ever-shifting parade of surreal scenarios, wordplay, and comic dialogue. (Sequence, he’s realized, doesn’t have to imply causation.)

The Author has written too many stories to the same expectations. He can’t make himself fulfill them anymore. He’s tired of the expectation that stories ought to follow certain structures–a three-act structure, the Save the Cat formula, whatever. And that his prose style shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic. And that his initial premise (Find that engine part!) can’t mutate or veer off in weird directions if the whim strikes, and that he must always show and never tell. Then there are the genre-specific expectations. A science fiction story must have certain elements–Sheckley is taking the piss out of Campbellian SF, so here we have xenophobia, an obsession with IQ, and engineering problems. Everything must work according to a certain kind of plot logic (No anxious monsters!). Your hero is a Competent Man who knows his Martins-Turner Interpersonal Equations.

Not all of these expectations are always bad.[1] Structures, styles, and tropes can be tools, and some tools are used a lot because they’re actually often useful. A three-act Hollywood thriller structure can be a good skeleton on which to build a unique and idiosyncratic vision, if the writer’s vision fits that skeleton.

Sheckley is not, I think, suggesting we throw out the whole concept of genre. His point is more that genre is no excuse for complacency.[2] Tools used too often can become conventional wisdom, devices used by rote. The resulting stories look like cheap mass-produced products made from interchangeable parts. They’re what the editors are buying right now. Or what the audience expects. Or what all the online writing advice says stories should look like. (Or even what all the MFA workshops say stories should look like. Preconceived expectations aren’t just for pulp fiction.)

In Sheckley’s day these stories might have been written to fill out an issue of Astounding or Worlds of If while baffling or annoying the fewest possible subscribers. These days subcultures exist dedicated to churning out “minimum viable product” space opera for Kindle Unlimited. Stories in which “for all questions there are only a small number of answers, infinitely repeated, typically banal.” Tools become clichés, clichés become sedatives. The Author doesn’t want to write another “ballet for catatonics,” demanding so little imagination from writer or audience that they could write or read it in their sleep. (Mishkin likes “story lines that you could follow while thinking of other things.”)

This isn’t a Kafka-style call for stories to “wake us up with a blow on the head.” Awakenings don’t have to be painful. All a story needs to be engaging is something unique, unexpected, to show the author was an irreproducible individual and not a committee working to a blueprint. Why not an anxious Brooklynite monster? A Duke of Melba? Some guys playing poker on a bridge?

Why tell exactly the same story again, in exactly the same style, when there are so many other options?

At this point I have caveats:

  1. I don’t want to criticize “golden age” SF exclusively. It’s not an era I enjoy–the SF I like started with the new wave. But every genre and era has tics; they’re just different tics. In some ways contemporary SF is much more diverse. In others–prose styles, structure, and types of stories and protagonists–it feels as conformist as ever.
  2. I started this review last year and never finished it. I think it was because it felt like I was restating points I’ve made in other blog posts. Everybody loves irony, right?

Anyway. Disgusted as he is, as much as he wants to blow everything up, the Author is obliged to finish his story. He can’t stick to the premise… but he’s so used to writing by rote that every other premise he tries is equally tired. Tired from his perspective, I mean; from the readers’, they’re still funny. The engine part drifts through a clichéd hard-boiled noir[3] and a clichéd scientific detective story. The Author replaces Mishkin with a conventionally heroic hero, who doesn’t last a chapter.

Discovering that “the Interstellar Space Flight Premise had been suspended,” Mishkin’s Uncle Arnold consults a company called Continuities, Inc., which promises to “create connections between incompatible assumptions… provide a link between these two different realities without doing violence to either.”

The company sends a Kasper Gutman-type agent to search a generic foreign country for the engine part. We actually catch a glimpse of the damn thing. But it’s embedded in another string of bad pulp clichés, a secondhand protagonist wandering a generically “exotic” landscape. The story comes to another abrupt halt when the agent falls deathly ill. Mortality puts the story in perspective: “It has taken us many years to pay attention to what is important.” The engine part isn’t important. Mishkin’s last option has run out.

Options is a cry of frustration with generic extruded fiction product designed to fill time as frictionlessly and forgettably as possible. Pulp fiction, light reading, comfort fiction, whatever you want to call it–it’s art, as much as even the most avant-garde litfic. Not great art, but it’s an expression of a particular person’s unique point of view. Or it ought to be. Even “just entertainment” has to be, fundamentally, not a waste of its author’s or its audience’s time. Is entertainment doing its job if it isn’t surprising and engaging–in other words, if it isn’t fun?

Well, I’m still having fun–when I find the right books. Sheckley’s Author isn’t so lucky; he’s stuck writing the wrong ones. He can’t find a way out except to “walk away, simply leave a situation unresolved, its riddles unanswered.” (Sometimes the unanswered riddles–the ones that leave you with something to ponder–are the best kind.)

The only option the Author has left is to reimagine Mishkin as a kid playing pretend, whose story ends suddenly and happily when he’s called in to dinner by his mother. It’s an ending that hints at what makes Sheckley’s work great, and what the Author needs to rediscover to get out of his rut: a sense of play.


  1. Although the toxicity of the Campbellian Competent Man is never-ending: It’s the default philosophy of 21st century tech-dudebros, who never met a problem they couldn’t fix with blockchain, VR, and Soylent.  ↩

  2. It’s like mystery novels. They’re almost all written to exactly the same template–kill someone, scatter clues, wrap things up with an explanation. I still read piles of them. But the ones I finish are always the ones where the writers had something new to try, or something they wanted to express beyond “I need the money.”  ↩

  3. Featuring a “Johnny Allegro.” There was an actual movie by that name; it starred George Raft.  ↩

Shirley Jackson, The Sundial

1.

If you follow the news it’s hard not to spend time thinking about the end of civilization as we know it. An Australian think tank recently speculated that climate change might end it by 2050. I recently felt like reading Shirley Jackson and immediately thought of The Sundial.

The Hallorans are the wealthy patrons of a nearby village. They’ve just buried the heir. His mother, Mrs. Halloran, may or may not have pushed him downstairs. Mrs. Halloran is getting ready to rid the Halloran mansion of the family and their increasing collection of houseguests and hangers-on–everyone but Fancy, her only grandchild, who she’ll raise to be another Mr. Burns-esque tyrant like herself–when her sister-in-law Aunt Fanny receives a vision from Fanny’s dead father, the Halloran patriarch: in a few weeks the world will end. Only the people in the big house will be saved.

2.

People who’ve never read Shirley Jackson remember her as the author of that haunted house book and that story about the woman who’s stoned to death. They forget she’s funny. Shirley Jackson is one of the greatest comic writers of the twentieth century and The Sundial might be her funniest novel.

There’s a concept called “passage of disbelief.” I thought it was a common genre-criticism term, but I Googled it and the only reference I could find was on the website of a writer I’m not familiar with, so now I don’t know where I heard it. Anyway, the passage of disbelief is the part of a weird story where the characters go from disbelieving the weirdness (Aunt Fanny has lost her mind) to accepting it and dealing with the consequences (Okay, so the world is ending, what now?). As Aunt Fanny is prophesying, the uncanny appearance of a snake in the library gives the family a physical manifestation of weirdness to hang their faith on. And Mrs. Halloran is too proud not to go along: if the end is coming, she’s going to manage it. So The Sundial’s passage of disbelief is mercifully short.

This lets the book get on with things–it’s paced like a screwball comedy. And it lets Jackson milk plenty of humor from incongruity. The Hallorans receive a grand prophecy of doom and react as though the apocalypse is an momentous and inconvenient but basically normal event to plan around. The tone of their dialogue clashes with its subject. Like Arthur Dent, seeing Earth destroyed and asking if there’s any tea on this spaceship.

“Evil, and jealousy, and fear, are all going to be removed from us. I told you clearly this morning. Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.

The Sundial’s other comic strength is voice. Sometimes writers trying to be funny give every character interchangeable Whedonesque banter. That’s the wrong way to do it: great comedy is about individual voices and incompatible world views running into each other. Mrs. Halloran talks to everyone like she’s talking to a disappointing servant. Essex, the sycophantic young man hired to catalog the library, never misses a chance to show off his education. Miss Ogilvie, Fancy’s governess, is uncertain and timid, panicking at odd moments. Aunt Fanny switches between surface-polite cattiness to Mrs. Halloran and oracular profundities.

Any two characters are most likely talking past each other. Get everyone into the same room and you’ll be reading three overlapping conversations at the same time, not so much playing off each other as bouncing.

But The Sundial also has an air of menace. Shirley Jackson works in the liminal space between real and unreal and it keeps you constantly off-balance. It’s often unclear what’s possible in her stories, what’s metaphor and what’s literal. Even when they’re funny, they feel eerie. Didn’t we see some of these moments in earlier flashes of prophecy? As the climax approaches, isn’t the weather growing ominous? In Jackson’s world, prophecies of doom might come true.

3.

What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, with-outen any companye.

The Hallorans’ sundial is inscribed “What is this world?” It’s a line from Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” and a good question. We use the word “world” in a couple of ways. There’s the literal world (the one that’s ending, everyone’s pretty sure) and then there’s my world, or your world, or Wayne’s or Christina’s world.

Mr. Halloran created a world of his own, self contained–when Julia, one of the guests, decides to leave she wanders through a fog only to end up back at the front gate, as though the outside world has already gone. Inside the Halloran house is a dollhouse Fancy rules with a grasp as tight as her grandmother’s. More ambitiously, Fanny has recreated the four-room apartment where her parents lived when she was a child, before her father struck it rich and built the walled estate near the village. Worlds nest in each other, each shutting out another layer of unwanted reality.

A Babbity businessman who had to be talked out of plastering his mansion with slogans like “You can’t take it with you,” Mr. Halloran wanted to be lord of the manor, philanthropic patron to the villeins. Fanny just wants her parents back. Recreating their apartment is as close as she can get. The Hallorans create worlds where they can imagine living the ideal versions of their lives, and shut out whatever reminds them of the suboptimal versions. Carving out your own smaller, more manageable world can be an act of self-definition. When you’re in charge of your world you’re in charge of your life.

4.

There are a lot of apocalypses in science fiction. Like, a lot. Everybody wants to blow up the world. Standing in the bookstore skimming the blurb of this year’s dozenth zombie nightmare, you may ask: what are all these apocalypses doing here? Good things, often. Some post-apocalyptic stories explore character in extremis. Some speculate on plausible if-this-goes-on disaster scenarios and ways to survive them. Some stories are about rebuilding society and finding new (hopefully more humane) ways to order it.

But some stories just sweep the world away to give their heroes a cleaner stage to act out their fantasies. A complex, uncontrollable, frustrating world is pared down and in the new, smaller, more manageable world the survivors’ true selves are free to blossom. Which may not be that different from their old selves: the stereotypical “cozy catastrophe” follows nice middle class people muddling through the collapse of civilization with middle class niceness. But sometimes the end of the world allows some previously ignored or undervalued person to express their true heroism. Unfortunately this is often a survivalist asshole who was previously ignored because he was an asshole.

Basically, these stories are fantastical echoes of J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. So are many of their close cousins, portal fantasies and unexpectedly-tossed-into-space SF. The fantasy is that we’re not really the ordinary mediocre people we appear to be. Given the right environment–a desert island, a fantasy kingdom, a post-atomic wasteland–the flaws and virtues conventional society keeps repressed would manifest in everyone, and our own true, presumably better, selves would break free. That’s not necessarily an unhealthy fantasy! People’s environments do affect them. It can be fun to imagine finding one that fits you perfectly.

As long as you’re not a survivalist asshole. The failure mode for new-world stories is the hero who confuses being their best self with being better than everyone else, or being in charge. If your true excellence is only visible after some sizable chunk of the competition has vanished, how excellent can you truly be? Maybe there are limits to how radically a sudden change in environment can transform your character. Sometimes a confused man in a bathrobe, plopped down on a spaceship, is still a confused man in a bathrobe.

One of the Hallorans’ guests does some scrying with a mirror. Her first session isn’t reassuring, but the second time she sees people dancing in a garden, carefree. She’s seeing what everyone expects her to. Fancy isn’t impressed; she thinks the apocalypse won’t change anything, and after the Hallorans have their new world they’ll just start pining for the old one. After all, the Hallorans already have an oversized garden, and if they wanted they could dance in it: the villagers do when Mrs. Halloran throws them a goodbye barbecue. If the Hallorans aren’t dancing in this world, why would they in the next?

5.

The Hallorans don’t mix with the villagers. They’ll throw a festival, sure. They’ll fund the villagers’ schools and libraries and send the brighter ones to college; the lord has obligations to the villeins. But they don’t mix with them. That’s the root of Fanny’s split with Mrs. Halloran, who “came in through the servants’ entrance” to marry the heir.

In Mrs. Halloran’s dreams she lives alone in a cottage. That would be enough as long as no one intrudes to threaten her, like the obnoxious Hansel and Gretel who invade her nightmares. To stay in control of her own life Mrs. Halloran made herself into one of those people who control everyone else. She has it down perfectly; she condescends even to her oldest friends. By the end of the book she’s typing up rules for the new world. (“Mates will be assigned by Mrs. Halloran. Indiscriminate coupling will be subject to severe punishment.”) You’d think the Hallorans were the products of a feudal system going back as far as the land itself, that Mrs. Halloran hadn’t come in through the wrong door, and that Aunt Fanny hadn’t grown up in a four-room apartment. Mr. Halloran’s world insulates the Hallorans from any hint they might not be a superior class of people.

Although for superior people, the destined masters of the new world, the Hallorans seem singularly unprepared to survive. The supplies stockpiled in the library include such necessities as a gross of corncob pipes and a carton of tennis balls. They burned the books to make room; Fanny thinks they’ll be able to get by with a boy scout manual. She also picks up a random guy to help repopulate the earth:

“Captain Scarabombardon,” said Aunt Fanny unexpectedly.
“At your service,” said the stranger, who was clearly extremely bewildered.

See, Fanny has to name him because he needs a proper identity. The Hallorans can’t save just anybody. They’re also still keeping Essex (they probably don’t need him to catalogue the boy scout manual, but we never saw him working in any case) and Miss Ogilvie, but they’re sending the ordinary servants home the night before the event. Nobody thinks they’ll be needed.

6.

Douglas Rushkoff was once invited to talk to a half-dozen hedge fund executives about the future of technology. He was caught off guard by what kind of technology they were interested in:

Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”… The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

For certain wealthy and powerful people, especially the libertarian, tech-savvy types, preparing for the future doesn’t mean making the future better or working to keep the worst possible futures from coming to pass. It means letting the disaster happen, surviving, and making sure they’re still the ones in charge.

Mr. Halloran was the beneficent lord only as long as his villagers played their roles, performing gratitude and staying in their places. If they dropped dead while building his house, he’d be angry about having to move the body. If he needed some farmer’s land for his grounds, he’d wall it off, and good luck finding a lawyer who didn’t work for him. He’d send the farmer’s son to college afterward. It wasn’t generosity. He needed to be the one who did the rescuing, the excellent one, the one who made the rules.

7.

If you’re ever feeling bored you might decide to sort apocalyptic stories into two groups. Or maybe you wouldn’t, I don’t know. Either way, one possible division is challenging and comforting stories. Comforting apocalypses are not all bad. Vonda N. McIntyre’s post-apocalypse Dreamsnake is comforting because it shows people trying to build a saner, kinder world. But other kinds of comforting apocalypse–cozy catastrophes, triumphalist survivalist stories–are about domesticating existential threats. They reassure the audience that the world can end without their personal worlds having to fundamentally change. Which is still not terrible if your personal world is modest. The problem comes when you need to be superior.

Mrs. Halloran can’t afford to ignore Fanny’s prophecy because she can’t imagine a world without Mrs. Halloran at the top.

“It is my house now, and it will be my house then. I will not relinquish one stone of it in this world or any other. Everyone must be made to remember that, and to remember that I will not relinquish, either, one fraction of my authority.”

If it were merely the end of the world, Mrs. Halloran could call Fanny crazy and put it out of her mind. But she can’t risk the possibility that the world might stop being about Mrs. Halloran.

Which it will, inevitably. She’s the center of her own world, because that’s everyone’s world looks from inside. But everybody dies, and eventually Mrs. Halloran’s world will just… stop existing. It’s the inevitable existential threat and it’s impossible to imagine. What is it like not to exist? It’s not like anything. But Mrs. Halloran also can’t imagine a world where she exists, and isn’t in charge.

Douglas Rushkoff ended his visit with the hedge fund executives by giving them some advice:

I suggested that their best bet would be to treat those people really well, right now. They should be engaging with their security staffs as if they were members of their own family. And the more they can expand this ethos of inclusivity to the rest of their business practices, supply chain management, sustainability efforts, and wealth distribution, the less chance there will be of an “event” in the first place.

They weren’t buying it. Which is odd, because in reality most people respond to disasters by coming together to help each other–pooling resources, rescuing neighbors, working together to clean up. That is, in fact, the surest way to survive. By contrast, an underground Bond-villain bunker patrolled by shock-collared security guards is absolutely the most harebrained fantasy in the world. But for Rushkoff’s hedge fund managers, it’s at least imaginable. The end of the world is one thing, but Rushkoff’s inclusive and less unequal world would be the end of their world.

Hallorans and hedge fund managers have something in common with the people who like survivalist aspirational apocalypses: they have more fun imagining the apocalypse than imagining how to prevent it, or recover from it. It’s easier to give up the world we all have to live in than to give up their own superiority.

The wealthiest people in the 21st century–the Jeff Bezoses and Mark Zuckerbergs–have a lot of money. Like, a lot. So much money it’s hard to conceptualize exactly how much money they have. They have social capital, too; everybody listens to them, even when they’re Elon Musk. A few billionaires, if they were willing[1], could fully fund a moon-landing level plan to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately there’s a small but non-zero chance this would result in a world where, instead of basically owning everything, they were merely very rich. So instead of doing necessary maintenance on the world our billionaires spend their resources on stuff that won’t rock the boat. Or, at most, come up with goofball comic book survival schemes like seasteading, private mars colonies, and underground bunkers in New Zealand.

Good books have many possible interpretations. As time passes they take on new, unintended interpretations in new cultural contexts, sort of like the way those Admirable Crichton-story characters show new sides to their personalities in different worlds. From a 21st century perspective, The Sundial looks like a takedown of billionaire disaster-prep fantasies. If we do come to the end of our civilization–from climate change, pandemics, rising fascism, whatever–it will be at least in part because our real-life Hallorans were more frightened by the end of their world than the end of ours.


  1. Even if they were unwilling, if we just made them, y’know, pay enough taxes to pull their weight.  ↩

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dirk Gently

“We have in our police reports realism pushed to its extreme limits, and yet the result is, it must be confessed, neither fascinating nor artistic.”
– “A Case of Identity”

I might be laughed out of Sherlock Holmes fandom for this, but I think Inspector Lestrade is a good detective when we’re not looking.

I mean, he must be. He’s reached the rank of Inspector without getting fired. Most of the time, when Holmes isn’t around, he’s probably not getting the wrong guy. My theory is that Lestrade is a perfectly good detective as long as he’s investigating crimes that make some kind of sense.

Lestrade’s mistaken arrests are based on sensible assumptions. Take “The Norwood Builder.” Holmes’ client, the unhappy John Hector McFarlane, is a lawyer. The Norwood builder of the title hired McFarlane to make out a will leaving his fortune to McFarlane himself. So when the builder turns up dead of course Lestrade is going to arrest McFarlane. I mean, who else would it be?

What Lestrade doesn’t realize is that he is in a Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t police procedurals. They’re melodramas with improbable plots and feverishly heightened emotions. Realistically no ethical lawyer would make out a will to himself; in “The Norwood Builder” it’s unusual, but not unprofessional. Realistically a creep wanting revenge on the woman who turned him down is unlikely to wait twenty years, then fake his own death to pin the murder on her son. In “The Norwood Builder” it’s just one of those things that happen. Procedural detective stories follow the laws of realism. Holmes’ cases follows the laws of melodrama. These are the times Lestrade needs Sherlock Holmes to swoop in and point out the trifling incongruities that reveal something weird.

“How often have I said to you,” says Holmes in The Sign of the Four, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Douglas Adams wrote a couple of novels about a “holistic detective” named Dirk Gently. Dirk has a fundamental disagreement with Holmes. As he explains in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul: “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that.’”

They’re both right.

Sherlock Holmes lives in a world where improbable things happen: seriously, that kid is a terrible lawyer. But never impossible things: no ghosts need apply. In Dirk Gently’s world, apparently impossible things turn out to be true: why yes, that elderly professor does have a time machine in his rooms. But never improbable things: even in the face of deep weirdness, people have everyday motivations and emotional reactions (a lot of Adams’ comedy is based in bathos).

Sherlock Holmes and Dirk Gently are great detectives because they firmly grasp the true range of what is possible in their respective worlds. This is often not true of detectives in real life. In a different way it’s also not true of Inspector Lestrade, whose down to earth detecting style might work reasonably well in the real world but fails in the world as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. If Lestrade has a fault, it’s that he doesn’t always know his own genre.