Doctor Who Reviews: The Slow Empire

It’s been a while since I’ve posted much on this blog. I should do something about that. To get things going, here’s a review of a Doctor Who novel which originally appeared in the second issue of Shooty Dog Thing, a fanzine edited by Paul Castle.

Of course, if you’re not a fan this won’t be of any interest. Feel free to skip it.

If you are a fan, let me recommend The Slow Empire by Dave Stone.

You may have come across The Slow Empire. If so, its profound ugliness probably discouraged you from picking it up. When I say The Slow Empire is ugly I don’t mean it’s unpleasant or somehow immoral. I’m saying it’s physically ugly, as an object. BBC Books’ chronically maladroit designers managed to top themselves with this one. On the cover, a dull arrangement of planets and electrical arcs in the colors of unpleasant bodily fluids haloes the head of a half-blurry, bile-filtered stock photo of Paul McGann. Inside, whole sections of text are laid out in Comic Sans MS, the font that turns everything it touches into an amateur garage-sale flyer. This thing looks like it was vanity-published by a high school dropout.

In short, The Slow Empire needs a little love… the more so because Dave Stone is an acquired taste. Honestly, he’s kind of weird. But it’s a grounded weirdness. Stone has a deep grasp of human nature; characters react to freakish and strange plot twists in ways that seem just somehow right. There’s an aura of conviction here that many Who writers can’t manage. He’s also digressive, tossing ideas around like cheap salad, following wherever they lead. His books are as much about his digressions as about plot, and The Slow Empire has less plot than most. It’s there, but it’s not the point so much as an excuse to have a novel.

The Slow Empire is a picaresque. Which these days is an episodic story–one damn thing after another, with no plot arc. These days, anyway. Originally the term came from a Spanish genre that featured roguish heroes, or “picaros.” And, hey–damned if The Slow Empire hasn’t got one of those, too: Jamon de la Rocas, local adventurer turned one-time companion. One suspects that Stone knew what he was doing.

So The Slow Empire doesn’t have the narrative drive that some fans expect. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t narratives. The Slow Empire is about narrative–about stories, and what we use them for. Anji’s favorite TARDIS room is the stellarium, which provides a “window” into the vortex. Not a literal window. It translates what’s outside the TARDIS into an image that makes sense to the human mind. Kind of like the way we translate chaotic, confusing events into narratives. Plots with heroes (usually ourselves) and villains; sometimes true, sometimes misleading. Stories allow us to make sense of our lives.

The most important parts of The Slow Empire are two adventures that have nothing to do with the plot. On the planet Thrakash traveling entertainers shelter the TARDIS crew. In return they want stories–not to pass the time, but as social currency. It’s unspoken but understood that what’s needed are stories that express something about the teller. (And here’s where you start to notice Dave Stone’s gift for characterization. He sees straight through this bunch. If you want an introduction to Fitz and Anji, you couldn’t pick a better book.) Fitz tells the story of Gawain and the Green Knight, a tale of good intentions sabotaged by personal failings. (And that’s Fitz–a hero and a star in his dreams; a chronic underachiever in reality.) Anji tells of the Hindu goddess Durga pretty much going out and smashing stuff. (Anji is the responsible, adult member of the TARDIS crew, and wants a sense of control over her environment–hence the goddess–but she’s also impatient with stupidity, and when frustration gets the better of her sometimes has momentary childish outbursts.) Jamon tells a version of the story of Siddhartha. The connection isn’t immediately apparent, but by the end of the book he’s gone to rescue the people caught in transit when the Empire’s teleporters were destroyed, returning them to reality.

And the Doctor… well, he’s distracted by the crazy descendants of the local ambassadors, who’ve built their identities around the stories of their ancestors. And somehow he doesn’t get around to telling a story of his own. Which tells us something in itself, as we’ll see.

Next the crew visits Goronos, a planet whose people long ago wired themselves into a huge and pointless machine. The machine creates virtual lives, stories for their minds to live in while their bodies are stuffed in cubicles and made to press buttons. On Thrakash the locals tell stories to express inner truths about themselves. On Goronos, people lie to themselves through stories that appear to make sense of their limited lives. As the Doctor says, “All these people, just so many hot-swappable processing units, fed through tubes and doing nothing except press one button or another, are being fed the product of their collective work–a life which they think makes them content.” (It’s a vicious circle–they spend their lives sitting in cubicles pushing buttons to make virtual lives that they wouldn’t need if they didn’t spend their lives sitting in cubicles pushing buttons.)

In the machine, the crew experience inversions of the stories they told on Thrakash. Anji loses control of her life, turning from the hero of her own story into a victim. Fitz becomes a star and an anti-authoritarian icon only to self-destruct spectacularly. Jamon is subsumed in illusion, happy in the limited life Goronos provides. Again, we don’t hear the Doctor’s story.

At this point some context might help. The previous year, the BBC books had made a few changes to the Doctor Who status quo, among other things giving the Doctor amnesia. The idea was to make a fresh start–turning the Doctor back into the mysterious wanderer of the 1960s, cutting down on continuity. It’s debatable how well this worked. Many of the books told the same kinds of stories they would have had they been published beforehand, with the new developments barely taken into account. (As an example, look at the way the Doctor–with no personal memories from before his hundred-year stint on 20th century Earth–continued making his usual confident pronouncements on galactic history without stopping to question where that knowledge came from, or whether any of it was even accurate.)

The Slow Empire was one of the exceptions. There’s a reason we don’t hear the Doctor’s stories. He’s got over a hundred years of memories, but he still doesn’t know himself. He’s afraid he doesn’t have a story. So he’s decided to make one.

Anji realizes at about the same time as the reader that, in terms of the plot, the Doctor’s trips to Thrakash and Goronos were beside the point: “[Y]ou’ve been prodding us around, prodding us out of the TARDIS and making sure we have an appropriately exciting adventure, with rescues and explosions and running through corridors, and all of it means precisely nothing.” But it does mean something to the Doctor, who’s had an intimation of who he’s supposed to be. He’s exploring the role he believes he needs to fill by putting himself into an adventure.

Forget the ostensible plot. The real story of The Slow Empire is the story the Doctor tells himself to make sense of his identity. If you’re willing to look for it, it’s pretty good.