There’s a moment in Cat’s Cradle: Warhead when Ace comes across a turtle crawling onto a highway. She picks it up, carries it to safety, gently sets it down–and it turns around and crawls patiently back into danger. This moment says everything about Warhead’s view of humanity–as does the moment later when Ace, in danger, comes upon the turtle’s crushed body and picks it up to use as a weapon.
I hadn’t read Warhead–the debut novel from TV script editor Andrew Cartmel–since it was published almost 15 years ago. I remember liking it a lot at the time. It’s a well-written book, with precise, intense prose and lucid imagery, something I’ll write more about later. I didn’t remember it was also such a sour, humorless and self-righteous book. Warhead is an emotionally underdeveloped teenager that thinks it’s the first person in the world to learn about evil. Warhead has decided that it just knows best. I can understand why I was impressed by the writing. I can’t think why the hell I didn’t mind the attitude. Of course, in 1992 I was an emotionally underdeveloped teenager. I don’t know what Cartmel’s excuse was.
Let’s take a look at the point where I got really, really pissed off at Warhead: chapter three. Go back and read it, if you like. It stands on its own, almost a short story. Here we meet Maria. She’s been poor all her life. She escaped from Los Angeles just before the inner cities became virtual prisons. She works as a janitor for the Butler Institute because jobs are scarce and it’s her only chance to make a living. She almost has enough money to buy her son a better life in Canada. Sometimes she has trouble heating her apartment in the winter. She’s dying from the chemicals her employers give her to clean their toilets.
One night Maria finds the Doctor hacking into the computers. He trips an alarm. She helps him out. And then, having risked everything to rescue the Doctor from his own incompetence–not only her much-needed job, mind you, but her life, because those security people are armed and crazy–she asks him to take her with him. And he says no. Why not, Doctor?
“The fifty-first floor of this building. You know what goes on there…. You’ve known for years, and you’ve let it happen.”
Yes. Of course. Because a desperately poor single mother clinging precariously to the only job she can find by her melting fingernails has so many options.
(Warhead is muddled on this point. On page 195, the Doctor says of the impending environmental collapse, “Ordinary people don’t have the ability to alter the course of events. Only the big corporations and the very rich have the power to do that.” So do ordinary people have a responsibility to act even in hopeless situations? Or are they helpless sheep? Which is it, Doctor?)
You know what chapter 3 reminds me of? This casually oblivious condemnation from a man who’s never had to worry about money, the owner of a time machine full of comfortable furniture and good tea and cool gadgets, a man who, if in trouble with the local authorities, can simply pick up and move anywhere else in space and time? It reminds me of the nice privileged middle class people watching hurricane Katrina on their big-screen plasma televisions, who asked in vague puzzlement why all those unseemly poor people didn’t just walk out of New Orleans before the disaster. Congratulations, Warhead. You’ve just made me hate the Doctor.
But that’s not fair, really, because this isn’t the Doctor we know. He’s been bent out of shape to deliver a Message. You can tell a book’s gone wrong when the characters act strangely to prop up a Message. This comes up again in chapter 16, when pompous pseudo-pagan Justine announces “It can be devastating to have your view of reality challenged… And now you’ve made me angry. So that’s what I’m going to do to you,” and, with lines like “You have your necessary illusions as well. But in your case they involve science,” and “You don’t believe in magic but you believe he’s from another planet and you’re his girl companion,” sends Ace into a violent screaming panic. Which is ridiculous. Because, unlike Justine, Ace has seen other worlds, and travelled in the TARDIS, and in just the previous book met a bunch of guys from the Doctor’s home planet who were testing the prototype, for God’s sake. By the third paragraph of this drivel, Ace should have collapsed on the ground in helpless giggles, just like Porky Pig watching Daffy Duck play Robin Hood. But Andrew Cartmel–or the Andrew Cartmel of 14 years ago, anyway–is terminally humorless as Justine, and he has a Message: that a “person’s belief system is their world.” Which probably sounded terribly sophisticated in 1992. Today, when thousands of people have been killed or maimed in a war that started because the White House thought they could create their own reality by cherry-picking the evidence that supported their world view, it’s just obviously vile and stupid.
After a few chapters I got paranoid and started wondering if random details were propaganda. Like the Butler Institute’s habits of harvesting organs from prisoners and experimenting on unwilling human subjects. I got the impression that Cartmel included this less because it made sense than because anyone who would research uploading minds into computers must be Evil. In an era when most SF is busy expanding the definition of human–treating cyborgs, AIs, clones, the genetically modified, and uploaded minds as just different kinds of people–this has begun to look a bit old fashioned. BI’s plan doesn’t make sense, anyway–if they’re going to upload the whole human race, then who’s going to maintain the computers? Silurians? Even the Doctor’s plan doesn’t make much sense. The simplest thing to do if he really wants to help Earth’s environment would be to help BI finish the upload program without hurting anyone else. Once the people who weren’t interested in fixing the environment were uploaded and out of the way, the rest of the world could get on with things. Then again, maybe Cartmel doesn’t think that ordinary people, working together, can get anything done–see that quote from page 195 again. Does he think things will go all Atlas Shrugged once the rich guys are uploaded?
And yet… Warhead’s philosophical assumptions may have lodged deep in my craw, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable read, just because there’s so much there to at least potentially enjoy. Starting with the worldbuilding.
This was the New Adventures’ first attempt at any kind of credible near future. “All too near,” says the blurb. Which is true, in more than one sense. Warhead’s future is our present–Lance Parkin’s Ahistory places it c. 2007–and futures don’t often age well. Which is no problem, because most SF isn’t really about prognostication, anyway. Still, there’s a certain pleasurable schadenfreude in the pedantic cataloging of all that some hapless decades-old futurist got wrong. Even some good stories have grown unintentionally comedic… like the ones where humankind made it into outer space but all the women are nurses and secretaries and telephone operators. Actually, that was Star Trek, wasn’t it? But there are also those stories which don’t look like the future we have, yet still work as plausible sort of alternate universes. And that’s what we have with Warhead. Our environmental problems are more subtle than Cartmel’s day-glo toxic pollutants, it’s still illegal in the U.S. to take organs from prisoners, and even in the big cities youth gangs rarely mount massive attacks on libraries, but on its own terms Warhead’s world is still among the most vivid and credible in Doctor Who.
The difference is in the details–specifically, in that Warhead has them at all. For comparison I grabbed a random EDA off the shelf–Coldheart, as it turned out–and skimmed the first few pages. The Doctor was in a cave. Not any particular cave, mind you. We’re told it’s a bit chilly, but otherwise it’s a stock set pulled from the BBC warehouse. It’s a side effect of the Stephen Cole/Justin Richards era’s conflation of novels and big-budget Hollywood movies. A scriptwriter can write “cave” and the set designer will come up with a fully realized environment… so, heck, why not a novelist? And the writer types the word “cave” and expects the reader to fill in the massive, gaping blanks.
Cartmel is big on specifics. The thing that makes Warhead a joy to read is his particular talent for choosing exactly the right details to build a complete, vivid mental image in the reader’s mind. When Ace visits an airport, he tells us how sound echos in the large tiled spaces, and what the other travelers are doing, and what the duty-free shop sells. We learn what the nameless soldier who tries to strike up a conversation looks like and what magazine he’s carrying. The plastic chairs aren’t just plastic chairs in general, they’re specifically plastic Eames chairs. All this for a location we only see for a couple of pages. The most important thing is that so many of these details mean something–like the fact that the duty-free shop sells cheap computer memory alongside the booze and cigarettes. It’s “incluing” again–c.f. my Time’s Crucible review, from ages ago. Cartmel picks out details that both set the scene and have implications beyond it, giving the reader a way into his world, a way to infer some of its history and culture.
Warhead is a densely packed story, so it comes as a surprise when you realize how simple its plot is. It’s the story of how the Doctor brings two people together for a specific purpose at one specific moment, and how that moment doesn’t play out as expected. A particularly efficient writer could cover it in a few pages… but Warhead is 262 pages long and doesn’t feel padded at all. A lot of the BBC Books-era novels have plots just as frail, but bulk themselves up to the standard 280 pages by making the characters run back and forth a lot to no purpose, smoothing over everything that might have made them unique with a fine plaster of meaningless digressions and authorial cul-de-sacs, until what was left was indistinguishable from the other busy but forgettable installments to either side. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened, you know?
Where those books are straight lines, Warhead is a branching diagram, examining every implication of the Doctor’s plan, taking up the threads he brings together and following them back to their sources. It leads us through the histories of everyone affected by the Doctor’s actions, showing us how their lives are connected and how they reached the point where they tripped over the Doctor’s plans. Often when a Doctor Who book starts in on the biography of a secondary character it’s a sign that, five paragraphs from now, he’s going to be eaten by the monster. Warhead isn’t like that. In a sense, it doesn’t even have secondary characters, because in Warhead, everybody’s important. These aren’t just supporting players in the Doctor’s story, but the central figures in their own stories in which the Doctor himself plays a minor role. It’s significant that parts of Warhead could stand on their own as short stories.
And it’s also significant that none of the book–at least, nothing that I recall–is told from the Doctor’s point of view. And that this is one of the few books in which the Doctor’s actions really are almost as morally ambiguous as the fanboys always complained they were. The typical mediocre Doctor Who book is about its plot. Warhead is about what its plot means. The secondary characters are at its center–weirdly, even Ace comes off as one of the locals rather than the Doctor’s companion. To these people the Doctor looks weird and incomprehensible and scary, and for once we’re thinking about what his plans mean for them. And here is where Cartmel, for once, outgrows his adolescent certainty. He’s not delivering a pat moral, but asking a question, and it doesn’t have a simple answer.