Sunday, November 07, 2010

Then October adds a gale, wind and slush and rain and hail

Why, it's nearly summer!

Doctor Who - The Myth Makers, Donald Cotton
The Iliad, DW remix, told in the style of a 1920s English socialite - yes, Donald "Whodehouse" Cotton is back. A compare-and-contrast between this and The Gunfighters, below, offers one or two interesting points. This book suits Cotton's overall style better, largely because no one expects the characters in a story set in ancient Troy to speak with Trojan or Greek accents or in an appropriate idiom - it's essentially a blank slate that Cotton can fill in as he sees fit. So Homer flits about the Plain of Scamander as though he were darting semi-soberly between two cocktail parties, occasionally making decidedly un-Greek (but definitely reactionary early 20th century) observations on the proceedings.
This is only a problem if you come to this book expecting a serious work of historical fiction. And quite frankly, etc etc. No, my dears, if it's authenticity you want, better stick to the definitive works - Tony Robinson's Odysseus books. This is another lively and entertaining novelisation from Cotton, and again I suggest that the DW range could have been improved enormously by having him take a few off Terrance Dicks' prolific hands.

Doctor Who - The Ark, Paul Erickson
This is probably the "outer space" Hartnell DW novelisation that's stood the test of time the best. It has its problems, but the scope of the basic story is so grand, and its key moments of spectacle so great on paper as well as on screen, that it has an immediate advantage over its competitors. The embellishments that Erickson makes to his own script thus improve its strengths rather than compensate for its shortcomings.
As an SF examination of race relations - the dark-skinned Monoids, second-class citizens on humanity's Ark, prove to be even more despotic rulers when they overthrow the (as it turned out in 1966) white-skinned humans - it's not likely to win any awards, but as plain old skiffy entertainment it holds its own.

Doctor Who - The Gunfighters, Donald Cotton
Or "Whoopee, we're in a Western!". Cotton makes a valiant effort to add some high-falutin' Wild Westese to his prose, but the old Cotton style shows through the same. The other point of comparison with The Myth Makers is that in both books Cotton unfortunately uses the phrase "a coon's age" - in this book, coming from a turn-of-the-century deep Southern narrator, it at least fits the context.
It's been a... an age since I saw the TV episodes, which have survived where better-loved '60s episodes failed to, so I don't honestly recall whether the humour in the script carried the story along, or whether the infamous Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon that served for an incidental score really was as annoying as others think, but I dare say the book is better for having the former and not the latter. Unrestrained by script editors and producers, Cotton is able to push the comedy even further, having the Doctor take down vicious sharp-shooting hoodlums with every accidental discharge of his shotgun, and giving self-important gunman Johnny Ringo a taste for the Classics that extends to fully-fledged joke references to Caesar's Gallic Wars. Nice.
Apparently the only other book Cotton wrote, or at least the only one that I can find any information on, was a children's book about a parrot called The Bodkin Papers. Heigh-ho.

This seemed an opportune point at which to put the DW books on pause - I just had to read something else. The something else was going to be a Maori coursebook called Te Matapuna, which a work colleague had lent me, but that turned out not to be very reader-friendly - clearly designed more for classwork than for home tuition - so I'm back on the novels instead. The DW reading is likely to resume some time in December.

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall
Eric Sanderson wakes up with amnesia and discovers the contact details of a psychiatrist on his hall table. He also starts to receive post-dated letters from himself. His psychiatrist believes his relapse - the eleventh so far - is part of an extended post-traumatic fugue caused by the death of his girlfriend; his past self believes he's being hunted by an abstract predator that feeds on his sense of identity. The letters lead him into a conflict between a strange community of conceptual biologists that wants to help him destroy his shark and a 150-year-old viral personality that wants to use him as bait.
This is one of those novels that sits on the borderline between SF and yer regular fiction. It's been carefully not marketed as SF, and the first chapter (but only the first) has been written with enough pretention to put it in with a chance of winning a literary award or two (on which front, it's succeeded), but there's no doubting the author's SF fan credentials. This is one of the novels I've been waiting for, the sort of novel China Mieville might write if his prose were less ornate and his tendency more towards the action thriller, or perhaps the sort that a mainstream thriller writer (I don't know... Alex Garland??) might write if he spent a month beforehand reading nothing but Jorge Luis Borges. It's about the narrator's loss and grief, but it's also very much about the narrator being chased through semi-real urban spaces by a lethal shark-shaped idea. A new addition to the list of favourites.

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