New Adventures Reviews: Lucifer Rising

In their first couple of years the New Adventures covered surrealism, cyberpunk, high fantasy, space opera, a Quatermass pastiche, and even a right-wing religious authoritarian mystical horror novel (The Pit, which arguably took Doctor Who into places it should never have gone). Lucifer Rising was the NAs’ first Big Dumb Object novel.

Big Dumb Objects are one of your standard SF tropes—what Rudy Rucker calls “power chords,” the ideas that are to SF what the hooks are to a pop song. BDOs are the coolest gadgets in science fiction—both artifacts and environments. Rendezvous With Rama’s vast wandering starship is the canonical example. (And one of the blander ones, to my mind… although it’s been years since I read it and if I went back I might have a different experience.) My favorite is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (from Solaris, natch). It might be stretching a point to class a living planet as a BDO, but Solaris does the same thing: injects Sense of Wonder straight into the novel’s jugular and gives the characters something mind-blowing to explore and react against.

For a series that can go anywhere it’s surprising how little exploration there is in Doctor Who… and the TARDIS’s trips farther afield are often the work of writers who can’t do them justice. Witness the career of Christopher Bulis, who set his novels in any number of potentially amazing environments and sucked the wonder out with bland writing and cardboard characters.

What makes Lucifer Rising amazing isn’t just the Big Dumb Object—an engineered planetary system, a gas giant inhabited by cryptic aliens and orbited barbell-style by two moons tethered by a space elevator, concealing a reality-altering machine. It’s that Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore have the writing chops to get that sense of wonder across. We understand why the Belial staff came to the place. It’s like the Statue of Liberty came to life, wrapped the Great Wall of China around its head, and used the Eiffel Tower to carve Mount Rushmore into the Grand Canyon. Only better. And with frosting. Lucifer is mind-blowing, and when I say “mind-blowing” I mean that in the course of this novel minds are actually blown. Doctor Who characters often go nuts for no obvious reason beyond plot; the story needs a distraction, or a villain… some stock megalomaniac who wants to take over the whole universe, man for no particular reason. Lucifer catalyzes Miles Engado and Alex Bannen’s different, temporary insanities by kicking their minds open in ways they weren’t prepared for.

The atmosphere, particularly early in the book, is very 2001; Lane and Mortimore get across the hugeness of everything and how many mysteries are there to be solved. On TV, constrained by budget, even environments meant to look large sometimes come off looking about the size of a strip mall. Bad Doctor Who books—the ones that follow the TV model too closely—seem just as cramped.

Oddly, one of the things that illustrate the difference is an action sequence: the bridge collapse in Chapter 7. Compared to some Whoish action scenes it’s striking how slowly this one moves. “Slow” is, of course, a relative term. The dangerous bits take minutes, but entire TV action scenes take seconds, complications piling up in a breathless staccato. Here the characters have space to plan. This is an industrial accident on a planetary scale. It makes sense that it should happen at a novel pace, not on an action-movie timeline. The pace makes the bridge accident a different kind of action sequence than we’re used to lately from this series: a slow-motion, low-pyrotechnics disaster, handled with competence and professionalism rather than a lot of rushing around and getting lucky.

Speaking of professionalism… an early chapter sees the Belial researchers deep in the great bane of modern life, and great joy of Captain Jean-Luc Picard: a staff meeting. Alex Bannen is as usual a pain in everybody’s neck. “Not everything has to be done in seven days, you know,” snaps a colleague.

As Bloom County once said: “Foreshadowing… your key to quality literature!”

You won’t get far into Lucifer Rising before you suspect someone in the Ministry of Naming Things After Other Things had a Bible on their desk the day they handled the Lucifer system. Lucifer, Belial Base, Moloch… oh, and the ethereal aliens living in the clouds of Lucifer have been nicknamed Angels. The scientists staffing Belial Base are there to open communication with the aliens in the hopes of taking home certain exotic elements the overstressed Earth needs to get by.

In other words, the Belial staff are talking to Angels to find salvation for Earth. Symbolism… your other key to quality literature!

(Not that Lane and Mortimore stuck to Christian symbolism. They quote a Tewa myth off and on throughout the book: “Yonder in the north cloud beings rise. They ascend unto cloud blossoms. There we take our being.” Paula Engado, whose early death drives the book, merges with the Angels and, having looked at clouds from both sides now, delivers the needed elements.)

This is where the symbolism gets interesting. Because as far as the Angels are concerned… they’re not angels.

Late in the novel a mining company arrives with plans to use artificial black holes to strip Lucifer’s atmosphere. But the Angels have been manipulating things all along, and exercise eminent domain on the holes. The humans have been prodding at a higher power to save the Earth, but the Angels are looking for a higher power themselves: they think God lives in the singularities of the black holes, where physical laws break down.

The place we’ve been led to think of as heaven is really just another layer: the Angels are looking for a higher power themselves. Everybody’s scrambling for something to save them. Maybe they’re all looking in the wrong place. It brings to mind the quotation from Genesis that begins Part Three:

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending it.

And nobody knows which side of the ladder is which! The map to paradise is an Escher print. The confusion is highlighted by the revelation (ha!), late in the book, of the Angels’ cosmology. The humans have, thematically speaking, been treating Lucifer as Heaven: it’s the source of salvation and the place Paula goes when she dies. As far as the Angels are concerned, Lucifer is their Earth. Lucifer’s core, where they fall after death, is Heaven (differentiating it from the place where their God lives; see above). The outside universe, the humans’ metaphorical “Earth,” is the Angels’ hell.

It’s at about this point that Belial base turns into a Bosch painting, scientists and mining company goons alike becoming crazy B-movie mutants. Alex Bannen has managed to activate the “mushroom farm,” an eight-kilometer-wide metal forest inside Belial. It turns out it can rewrite reality (remember the foreshadowing? This is what the foreshadowing was… uh, foreshadowing) by manipulating “morphic fields.”

Some explanation is in order. “Morphic fields” are a pseudoscientific notion of famed crank Rupert Sheldrake; he proposes that living things have fields determining their shape and instincts. In reality the morphic field hypothesis is new age crankery of a high order, conveniently untestable and entirely unscientific… but in the Doctor’s universe, it makes some kind of sense. Shapeshifting is common in the Doctor’s world. A lot of aliens do it, and many more can alter other species just by contact—the human who becomes biologically other is among the most-recycled ideas in Doctor Who, the basis of what fan critics often call “body horror.” And then there are all the improbably humanoid aliens; Lucifer Rising explains this as influence from the Time Lords’ morphic field.

Fans sometimes call Lucifer Rising hard science fiction. It isn’t, quite… but it looks like hard SF because it would be hard SF in a universe that played by different rules. (To be fair, some people define any story that logically extrapolates from its premises hard SF, even if a few premises aren’t scientifically valid.)

One hard SF characteristic Lucifer Rising shares is the relevance of technology and scientific speculation to the plot. It doesn’t focus on technology; as with the best hard SF, this is a story about people (though “people” can sometimes be defined rather loosely). But events are sometimes affected by technical points. At one point a murder accusation turns on the interpretation of something called a “simularity.”

The simularities are worth noting as a metafictional device, and because of their oddness. They’re holographic cameras—used here for surveillance—that simulate a psychological point of view and reinterpret scenes, actions and dialog according to theories of mind. This is a metaphor for prose fiction, always written from a particular point of view. You get a hint of this when the Adjudicator is unable to select the Doctor’s POV, just as the writers were discouraged from using the Doctor’s POV in their novels. (And yet the sequence begins in the Doctor’s POV anyway. Peter Darvill-Evans in his afterword to Deceit explains he’d decided to ditch this idea.)

Here’s the odd thing: Simularities are also an example of a metaphor pulling away from the story. Within the fiction, they’re a minor failure of extrapolation. I can imagine simularities becoming an art form, if they existed, and they might have some use in the psychiatric field. But people would not use these things for the purpose they’re used on Belial Base. Why not go for ordinary cameras, and let the viewers see and interpret the speaker’s real intonations and body language?

I don’t have a good transition to this next bit, so here are three asterisks. If you’re getting bored, perhaps you can pretend you’re reading a very old novel, and have reached an implied sex scene:

***

A lot of Doctor Who Ratings Guide reviews of Lucifer Rising complain about “fanwank,” because of the continuity. During the books era continuity was the subject of one of fandom’s odder continuing arguments. One side thought continuity was confusing, self-indulgent, and generally bad. At its most extreme the idea seemed to be that each story should refer to nothing from any other story; anything else ran the risk of confusing casual fans and encouraged bad writing.

This is, of course, silly. From a casual fan’s perspective a reference to a book they haven’t read is functionally identical to the moment in “Talons of Weng-Chiang” when the Doctor references some never-written adventure “with the Filipino army when it marched on Rekjyavik.”

Continuity isn’t a spot-the-reference game for fans. It’s a tool for creating the illusion of a coherent universe. The alternative is seen in the BBC Books, which were, apart from an “event” EDA every six months, almost entirely self-contained. The Doctor might as well have travelled to a new universe every book (for a while he literally did). And nothing seemed to matter. The beginning of each new book reset everything to zero. This is the real problem with parallel universes: we need to have some sense that the characters can affect their world… but what if they’re never in the same world from book to book?

The New Adventures were in one sense also isolated. Story arcs in the BBC Books were about plot. The New Adventures focused on character arcs; plot events in one book rarely influenced the plot of the next. But the consistent universe and continuity references gave the impression that the Doctor’s actions mattered—that when the TARDIS doors opened, they opened onto another part of the same universe, where actions could have consequences for good or ill.