The Dark Tower Book 1: The Gunslinger

Overview

This year I made a commitment to pick a fantasy series and read my way through to the end. I would like to do this every year in my attempt to fill the hole left by the currently unfinished Song of Ice and Fire. The only criterion for this goal is that 1) the series must be finished (the main series, not peripheral stories), and 2) it must be a series I have never finished reading. There are quite a few fantasy series that I have started but not finished, for one reason or another (lack of time, apathy, the series was on-going). So, I decided that the inaugural series would be Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

I have read the first three books in this series (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Waste Lands) before. In fact, the first time I read them, book four (The Wizard and Glass) had just come out. I tried again a few years later, and stalled out after book three once again. I have always enjoyed The Dark Tower in concept, but not always in execution. But these previous readings had occurred at very different times in my life when I have had very different tastes. The major difference between then and now is that I have come to have great respect for Stephen King as a writer. I do hope to complete my King Reads King goal to read (if not read AND write about) every Stephen King book. In my time working through his bibliography, I have loved Salem’s Lot and The Shining; I have immensely enjoyed 11/22/63 and much of The Stand. And there are a few books that I thought were middling or in the fine-but-not-for-me category. Admittedly, I haven’t read very far in his oeuvre yet. But, it seemed time for The Dark Tower, and I looked forward to seeing how I felt about the book this time. The Gunslinger is a collection of short stories about Roland Deschain’s pursuit of The Man in Black. Roland is a gunslinger, a type of knight in this world that has moved on and may very well be dying. The Man in Black is an evil wizard, and Roland pursues him much as Harmonica Man pursued Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. But, when this inevitable meeting finally happens, Roland discovers a bigger, deeper mystery that will shape his destiny. In the past, I haven’t enjoyed every story in this collection. They seemed to decrease as they went along, for my younger self. But again, I have grown to appreciate King more, and I eagerly anticipated my reaction as I once more entered Mid-World and Roland’s dying world.

Personal Enjoyment: 4

I can’t tell you how many times I almost gave up reading this book. Interestingly, “The Slow Mutants” and “The Gunslinger and the Man in Black” were my favorite chapters in this read through. In the past, they were my last on my ranking of the chapters. My interest in the stories seemed strongly connected to how much The Man in Black appeared. I found him far more interesting than Roland or Jake. His control and manipulation of Roland was far more interesting than Roland’s need for revenge. My wife challenged me to at the very least get through book four this time. But I wasn’t sure I could get through this one. I did, however, and I enjoyed the final story so much that I was looking forward to The Drawing of the Three, so kudos to King for turning things around in the end. But the stories in this book would, I think, look great on film (if done well), so maybe the upcoming movie will work better for me. Oddly, in the past I would have said this was my favorite of the Dark Tower books. I’m not sure that bodes well for the rest of this journey, but we shall see. For the time being, I am staying with this journey.

Characters:  7

I’m not going high on this one because there are few characters, and they aren’t quite up to King’s standards. None of the characters in this story are typical for him, though. He’s taking a risk and stretching himself, which I can’t fault him for. But, as stated before, I didn’t connect to any of the leads outside of the Man in Black. He was the most interesting to me. But, as I recall, Roland will get more character to play off of in the next book, and all of them fit more firmly into King’s wheelhouse. I’m holding out hope that I just started in a lull or in the wrong mood.

Story:  7

I’m giving this a seven because, while it isn’t bad, it doesn’t currently do much. As stated before, this is a typical Western revenge story with some setting twists thrown in. And these twists are interesting. But King walks a precarious line here between Western and fantasy. The first story falls firmly in Western, but starting with “The Way Station” it starts to meander into fantasy. This meandering wasn’t quite what I was going for, despite knowing it was coming. I think the cowboy-confronting-his-nemesis trope broke apart because of that meandering, and the genre mixing loses a bit of focus. Roland becomes less a gunslinger than just a man from an elite order than uses guns. The story moves from Western to post-apocalyptic, even though it is the apocalypse of a world similar to, but not quite, ours. It doesn’t quite work for me in this read through.

Setting: 8

I’m almost surprised by the higher score here, but despite the unfocused genre bending, King builds his world well. It is intriguing, especially as Roland wanders through the remains of what was. The flashbacks don’t quite work for me, because I imagine European-based high fantasy with gunslingers, but I totally buy the image of a gunslinger walking through an apocalyptic wasteland. It fits because of the desolation of both the West and the apocalypse. Fantasy is often less desolate (though, as with G. R. R. Martin, it can be bleak). But empty landscapes where, after days of seeing no one, you see a stranger on the horizon, and you don’t know if this person is friendly or not, naturally falls into both Western and apocalypse. It is the breakdown of social order; it is the rule of the gun in a world of limited resources. It is heat and sand and mirage. As I recall from previous readings, The Waste Lands leans heavily on this, and I think it could potentially work better for me. But the places where we moved from Western to Fantasy just didn’t work for me this time. But the ground work is set, and I think King can (and does) build upon what he set up here.

Vision: 7

What was it trying to do?

I think The Gunslinger was trying to pay homage to Westerns (specifically those by Leone) while delving into fantasy and horror to put a new twist on the genre.

Was it successful in doing it?

Not for me, no. Again, Western + apocalypse works for me. Western + high fantasy, not so much.

Was this worth doing?

Absolutely, yes.

To Sum Up

The Gunslinger was an ambitious start. I’m not sure I think the younger Stephen King was up to the challenge quite yet, nor do I think the ideas had solidly manifested by this point. I think this story took greater form as time went on, and I would argue this point because he was compelled to lightly update the book to match where the series eventually went. There are certainly good ideas here, and there are some very good passages. But each time I visit this book, I like it less and less. But I look forward to The Drawing of the Three, oddly, because I think King stuck the landing with The Gunslinger. He ended the book on a high note that made me want to read more, and in the end, that is a type of success.

Final Rating: 6.6/10

Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi

Overview

Heir to the Jedi is a canon Star Wars novel by Kevin Hearne. It takes place after Star Wars: A New Hope and follows Luke Skywalker as he goes on two missions: meeting with Rodian arms dealers and smuggling an Imperial code-breaker out of Imperial employ. Joining him on this mission is Nakari Kelen, a pilot who is the daughter of the founder of Kelen Biolab and a liaison between her father and the Rebel Alliance. She is also Luke’s love interest in this book.

From what I read in my extremely brief research on this novel, it was originally part of the Empire & Rebellion series of novels that is now part of the Legends line. I guess Hearne lucked out.

Also, the novel is in first person, told from Luke’s point of view.

Heir to the Jedi cover

Character: 5

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I think the first-person perspective hurts the book a bit because I never quite felt Hearne captured Luke’s voice. This is the risk an author takes when using an established and popular character from a franchise and writing from his or her perspective. Maybe if the narrative was third person, Luke would have come across as plausible, but since we spend the entire novel in his head, it never quite worked for me. I realize that the Luke of this novel is the wide-eyed idealist of A New Hope, but the characterization just felt off for most of the novel.

The new characters of Nakari Kelen and Drusil were interesting and distinct. Nakari, however, had a major flaw in that she had never appeared in another Star Wars story, yet it was clear that she was influential to Luke’s journey. Teachers in Star Wars don’t fare well. From the moment she became important (well, from the moment she was introduced) I figured she would either die or be outed as a traitor, thus leaving Luke with the baggage of betrayal. The latter option would have been the more interesting one, and could have been explored in more stories set between Hope and Empire. Unfortunately, this was not the option the story took.

Story: 6

Similar to Tarkin, the story is a bit light. There are two distinct parts to the novel: the arms deal and the smuggling. I thought the arms deal was interesting in that is showed an aspect of the Rebellion that would have been a real need: supplies. It’s a strange Star Wars novel where the administration and organization of the Rebel Alliance is the more ground-breaking material. But along with that, the arms deal led Luke to investigate a shrine to a long-dead Jedi master on Rodia. I guess I’m just a sucker for pilgrimage in any form because I enjoyed Luke’s brief interlude to the gravesite and his internal uncertainty of what it means to be a Jedi and use the Force, questions for which he has precious few answers with Obi-Wan’s too-short tutelage. While these ideas recurred throughout the novel, most of the time they were addressed with Nakari being generally encouraging. While this wasn’t particularly satisfying to me, I guess it emphasizes the degree to which the Empire had purged access to information on the Jedi.

Vision: 4/10

What was it trying to do?

Apart from showing how Luke started to develop his skills in the Force without a teacher, I’m not sure.

Was it successful in doing it?

If I’m not sure about what it was going for, then it didn’t succeed for me.

Relevance to New Canon?

This story is the most disposable story of the few I’ve read. If I’m correct in my assessment of the main point of the story, I don’t think it was needed. It doesn’t add to or take away from my experience of Star Wars. This is mildly annoying because when the word “canon” is invoked, an authenticity and importance is imparted on the work. Perhaps unfairly, “canon” causes my expectations to rise. Given how many amazing novels are in the Legends line, anything that isn’t significantly above average feels like a letdown. It’s unfair to Hearne that his novel could be held up to any of Timothy Zahn’s novels as an argument for the superiority of the Legends line. This is unfair because, first of all, Hearne isn’t Zahn and no one should expect him to be, and, second, there are some Legends novels that I think rank well below Heir to the Jedi. Unfortunately, Heir to the Jedi is placed early in the Canon line (from a publication standpoint) when many people are ravenous for Star Wars content in the lead-up to The Force Awakens. I read Heir to the Jedi after TFA, so I wasn’t particularly disappointed in my search for clues. But I also wonder what in this novel might have important in the new canon:

  • A New Dawn was obvious in is telling of the Kanan and Hera’s first adventure.
  • Tarkin told us how Vader and Tarkin first worked together and reintroduced Tarkin to set up for his appearance in Rebels. It also showed us that the Rebel Alliance was still a long way off.
  • Heir to the Jedi showed us that Luke could use the Force to move a noodle.

Personal Enjoyment: 6

Ok, even though I think I’ve been a bit hard on the novel, I never actually came around to disliking it. Much like Tarkin, I never got tired of reading it. Unlike Tarkin, however, I rarely had moments of, “That was good.”

Style/Craft: 7

Very easy to follow, but again, I never really felt like I was reading the words and thoughts of Luke Skywalker. I’m not sure the first person perspective worked for this story since the voice didn’t feel right to me.

Final Rating: 5.6/10

Book Review: Jhereg

Cover for the Book of Jhereg omnibus
Source: Goodreads.com

Written by Steven Brust

Published by Ace Books

Motivation

A friend has been raving about Brust. He decided to loan me the omnibus of the same name. While I will read all of three of the books in the collection, this review only pertains to the first book.

The Pitch

Vlad Taltos is an assassin who has a fairly well off organization. However, he finds his position at risk when a council member for the House of Jhereg makes off with 9 million money units (my term). The council needs the thief taken out quickly, before anyone outside the council discovers the theft, else the House will find itself vulnerable. Unfortunately, the fastest way to kill the thief could also cause an incident between two Houses that have a fragile peace.

The Good

Brust did something I did not expect: He crafted a good mystery. The background and motivation of the thief made sense once Brust had built his world. I could follow the clues, and it felt gratifying to figure things out along with (or a page or two before) the characters. I didn’t expect a well-plotted mystery in this book, so that was a pleasant surprise.

The Bad

First person narration can be hit or miss. If you like the character, it is fun. If you don’t like the character, however, it can be tedious. I didn’t like Vlad as a character or a narrator. He wasn’t an unpleasant or despicable character; I just didn’t like him. I never believed him. He felt like a player character from a game, which is not what I’m looking for in novels. On some level, he fits a type of iconic hero trope in that he doesn’t really develop as a character. He is the same in the end as he was in the beginning. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but I just wasn’t in the mood for it. As a result, spending 170+ pages in his head was not engaging. I was far more interested in other characters, such as Morrolan, The Demon, Aliera, and Sethra.

The Ugly

The idea of a wise-cracking, snarky assassin doesn’t sit well with me. Vlad comes across as someone for whom killing is a light thing. I am personally far more interested in the acknowledgement of how killing diminishes the individual or how it causes emotional pain. A character who comes across as carefree about killing as Vlad would not, I think, be as pleasant to be around. You could argue that with the reincarnation and revivification in this world, killing isn’t as traumatic, but I’m not entirely convinced. If it works for you, great, but it doesn’t for me.

Closing

I will continue on with the omnibus for two reasons: It was recommended by a friend and I want to see if Brust’s writing develops more. Although, it is sometimes hard to tell with first person narration if it is the author’s style or the character’s voice that is at play. Regardless, there is a good start with the main plot, but I would have preferred a third person narrative. The humor didn’t really work for me either. From a craft standpoint, I would give Jhereg a solid 3/5, but from a personal preference standpoint, I’d give it a 2.

A Dance with Dragons and Brief Thoughts on Identity

A Dance With Dragons cover
“A Dance With Dragons US” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A_Dance_With_Dragons_US.jpg#/media/File:A_Dance_With_Dragons_US.jpg

I made the mistake of finishing A Dance with Dragons this morning before church. The way George R. R. Martin ended this book left me in mild shock, which wasn’t helpful when interacting with people. I’m starting to wonder if support groups need to exist for people who finish Martin’s novels.

With the completion of this book, I am now caught up. With previous books, I was comforted by knowing I could pick up the next one at any time. Not so with book five of this series. Like everyone else who has been reading these novels, I must wait. I finally understand the anxiety of fans who fear Martin may die before he finishes the series. These books are brilliant, and I question if anyone can effectively weave the layers of plot, scandal, and characters the way Martin does. He is a master craftsman. I don’t begrudge him the time it takes to write these books. If the amount of time between books is what it takes to produce works of this quality, then I want him to have the time he needs. I just want the patron gods of literature to keep him alive and in good health long enough for him to finish.

One dynamic that impressed me in A Dance with Dragons was the concept of shifting identity. This concept was in A Feast for Crows to some extent, but I noticed it more fully in ADwD because of how many people had identity crises, experimentation: Reek, Arya, and Ser Barristan. Each of these characters had point-of-view chapters, as is the format of the series, but each of their POV chapters had a different name. Arya’s chapters were “The Blind Girl” and “The Ugly Little Girl,” Barristan’s chapters were “The Discarded Knight,” “The Kingbreaker,” and “The Queen’s Hand.” And I’ll avoid Reek’s chapters since I have at least one friend who hasn’t read this book and who may read this post. Suffice it to say, he also has multiple POV chapters with different names.

These three characters struggle with identity. They try to figure out who they are and what they are supposed to be, whether a knight who is trying to make the right decisions in uncertain circumstances, a young girl wanting revenge but who needs to abandon her identity so she can learn the skills necessary to enable that revenge (and letting go of the person who wanted revenge), and a man tortured and told to be someone he isn’t, but struggling to please his master while playing a role to enable his master to gain power. Martin signals with these three characters that identity is uncertain, but that it can be a cloak (or a skin-mask) that can be put on and taken off. In fact, rejection of a previous identity may be useful for progressing in a more positive, effective way.

In some ways, the Song of Ice and Fire series is an exploration of how children live in and shape the world their fathers created. The parents are systematically dying, leaving their children to determine who they are in this world. Should they embrace their family heritage and live up to what their fathers expected of them? Do they reject that heritage, becoming something else not connected to the heritage? Or do they take the positive parts of that heritage and emphasize those things, shaping a new legacy from the broken, old one. Much of the time, these characters are only responsible for the choices they make in the moment, whether they play the game of thrones or not. This isn’t a world that rewards compassion, honor, or duty, but neither does it reward deception, selfishness, and manipulation. All men (and women) die. What do those who are left behind choose to do?

I have no idea how Martin will end this series. I’m not sure what the endgame is. I have many theories, but they have never felt as uncertain as they do right now. Martin has proven that even if he overturns all my ideas, his ideas will fit with what he has created, and they will fit with everything he has written up to this point. I admire this author and I eagerly await The Winds of Winter.

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible Part 3

Cover for Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

In my continuing read through of Doctor Who: The New Adventures: Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, I hit chapter, which has some significant throwbacks to the early days of Doctor Who.

Chapter 4: Inside Information

Synopsis

The Doctor and Ace are questioned by the police. The police are concerned about the Doctor’s well-being. Is he ill, drunk, having an emotional breakdown? Ace is aware of the surreal landscape morphing around them, and realizes that the police officers cannot see it. The Doctor insists that he just wants to get in his TARDIS, to get in the police box. Unfortunately, neither of the time travelers can enter the ship because the door keeps moving. The TARDIS has gone into self-defense mode as it attempts to keep something dangerous from entering. That includes the Doctor and Ace, unfortunately. Ace tries to get the police to find the door to the TARDIS, but that fails as well. She then tries to get the police to call UNIT to confirm the Doctor’s identity (and thus, sanity), but that fails as well since the police have never heard of UNIT. The Doctor theorizes the only way to find the TARDIS door with this particular defense mechanism is to happen upon it by accident, with no deliberate attempt or thought.

Then the TARDIS phone rings.

The Doctor answers it, confirms his identity, grabs Ace’s arm, and they are yanked into the TARDIS. From inside the TARDIS, they can hear a “scrabbling” sound. Something is just outside the door and it is trying to get in. The TARDIS scanner shows a normal Earth landscape, further reinforcing that the surreal images were put in their heads by the TARDIS as a warning. The fault locator registers everything as normal, which is good.

“Unless there’s a fault in the fault locator,” says the Doctor.

But the next clue they notice is that the door controls are gone, an empty space on the console. All the while, the scraping of claws on the door continues.

The Doctor decides to flush the creature out of the space between the TARDIS door and the dematerialized world. The Doctor searches through a trunk in the console room and pulls out the TARDIS manual. Pages have been consumed. The effects of the TARDIS’s defenses have caused time to echo. Basically, the creature hasn’t yet entered the TARDIS, but at the same time, it already has entered the TARDIS. As a result, the creature is both inside and outside the TARDIS at the same time. The Doctor fears it could be a datavore, a creature that consumes information and knowledge.

Then Ace notices that all the TARDIS coordinates are set for zero. The Doctor checks the console circuitry and sees the fluid links are malfunctioning. All power is being slowly drained away. The Doctor needs to find the secondary control room. Unfortunately, with the TARDIS malfunctioning like it is, the interior dimensions of the ship are uncertain. He gives Ace the TARDIS key and tells her to “trust us. Don’t leave home, Ace.” He then grabs a bicycle and rides off into the dark corridors of the TARDIS.

Commentary

This chapter had a strong vibe of “Edge of Destruction” to it. In that story, the TARDIS was malfunctioning because of a broken spring. The defense mechanism gave surreal clues to the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara. It even altered their perceptions. At one point the crew theorized that something had entered the ship and was influencing them. Platt seems to have taken that red herring and applied it as the actual threat here. He gives us some throwbacks to the First Doctor’s first season in this chapter: the fault locator, fluid link. Ace even mentions that the Doctor built the TARDIS, which echoes Susan from those early days of Doctor Who. It is a bit of an odd statement considering we know that the TARDIS is a piece of Gallifreyan technology. Does Ace not realize this? Is it a continuity error? Is it a result of the defense mechanism?

So, full confession: I’m not a big fan of “Edge of Destruction.” While David Whitaker is one of my favorite of Doctor Who’s early writers, EoD is probably my least favorite of his stories. Combine that with 1960s art-house surrealism, which I also don’t much care for, and you are left with a story that I am glad is mercifully short (two episodes). I love the ideas in it, I just don’t care for the journey.

And since this chapter draws so heavily from that story, I am just a bit ambivalent to it. Too much attempt to obscure, too slow at revealing things. It is odd that I’m engaging more with the chapters that don’t include the Doctor and Ace.

Timewyrm: Revelation

The Doctor dances with Death on the cover of Timewyrm: Revelation

Where to Find It?

Physical copies can be found at Bookfinder.com.

A detailed synopsis can be found at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Story By

Paul Cornell

Book Copy

The parishioners of Cheldon Bonniface walk to church on the Sunday before Christmas, 1992. Snow is in the air, or is it the threat of something else? The Reverend Trelaw has a premonition, too, and discusses it with the spirit that inhabits his church. Perhaps the Doctor is about to visit them again?

Some years earlier, in a playground in Perivale, Chad Boyle picks up a half-brick. He’s going to get that creepy Dorothy who says she wants to be an astronaut. The weapon falls, splitting Dorothy’s skull. She dies instantly.

The Doctor has pursued the Timewyrm from prehistoric Mesopotamia to Nazi Germany, and then to the end of the universe. He has tracked down the creature again: but what trans-temporal trap has the Timewyrm prepared for their final confrontation?

We’re like characters in a book he’s continually rewriting.

When I stared my Doctor Who project I had the stated goal of watching every episode of the classic series in broadcast order. I had never done this before and I wanted the experience. My other goal, less frequently stated, was to determine why there was often such discontinuity (in tone, theme, and scope) between the classic series and the new series. My theory was that Doctor Who is a work that evolved over time, the tone, theme, and scope changing with technology. In some ways this was true in that technology changed the types of stories told, but it is ironic that the truly paradigm-shifting medium was print. Timewyrm: Revelation changed Doctor Who. The new series owes much to this novel.

But Revelation isn’t without its roots in the classic series. In many ways, this novel expands on ideas that were present in the Seventh Doctor era, particularly those in Remembrance of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric. The Doctor is a manipulator. He plays chess with his enemies with his companions the people they encounter as the pawns. Paul Cornell applies this idea to Revelation and asks two very important questions: How does this manipulate affect Ace? What does this manipulation do to the Doctor? And so, the explicit conflict in Revelation is that between the Doctor and the Timewyrm, but the implicit conflict is between the Doctor and himself. Cornell cleverly portrays the Timewyrm as a biotech virus (which isn’t much of an extrapolation from what we had seen so far) that doesn’t so much make people ill as rewrites their personality. The Timewyrm has buried itself in the Doctor’s consciousness. In his attempt to battle the creature, he has chained his conscience (portrayed as the Fifth Doctor) so that he can do whatever it takes to destroy the Timewyrm. But doing so has changed his personality. In essence, the Doctor had become the Timewyrm internally, and it was only a matter of time before his entire personality would succumb.

And so most of Revelation takes place in the Doctor’s mind. Cornell introduces the idea of the various Doctors being extensions of the Doctor’s personality. Cornell offers a type of critique of each in doing this, but it is curious that the Sixth Doctor is missing. Could this itself be a critique?

I am integral with his experiences. I have read all his memories, and become part of them also. He has fought me and will fight me wherever he goes.

Doctor Who since 2005 has often emphasized the Doctor’s guilt. It has dealt with the surreal landscape of the Doctor’s mind and as recently as last year introduced revised an old villain (The Great Intelligence) and inserted it into the Doctor’s time stream similar to how the Timewyrm had encountered previous Doctors in the waking world and the subconscious world. Even Ace’s last words before her perceived sacrifice on behalf of the Doctor were “Remember me,” although Ace is not likely to call the Doctor a “clever boy.” In truth, why wouldn’t new series writers mine this novel for ideas. It is out of print and probably not likely to be read by the new generation of fans. No idea is completely new in Doctor Who, only explored in a different way.

Timewyrm: Revelation, then, is the pivot point in modern Doctor Who. It is the first story to establish a new direction for the New Adventures novels, and I look forward to seeing how this plays out. As stated before, Revelations falls firmly into the Rad camp rather than the Trad camp. I’m happy to get a little of each, so long as the stories are well told. There is much more that could be said about this novel, but I think I will end it with saying I am happy to have finally found the missing link between the two series. I enjoy that Doctor Who is an evolving continuity. In some way, it fits.

The Long Walk as Allegory

Line of soldiers walking.
(Source: AP)

“It was nine o’clock. they had been on the road twelve hours. It didn’t mean anything. The only thing that mattered was the cool breeze blowing over the top of the hill. And the sound of a bird. And the feel of his damp shirt against his skin. And the memories in his head. those things mattered, and Garraty clung to them with desperate awareness. They were his things and he still had them.”

Frank Darabont has a fascinating interpretation of The Long Walk.

According to a 2007 interview with the writer/director whose best-known Stephen King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Long Walk is a war allegory:

“To me, it’s an existential metaphor for our mindless obsession with war — kids being sent off to die for no reason other than ‘just because.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that King wrote it in the shadow of Vietnam, though we’ve never really discussed that part of it, that’s just my interpretation.”

I’m inclined to agree with his interpretation. The Long Walk involves young men being promised the glory of The Prize, essentially a better life and all their dreams come true, if they survive The Walk. Very few of the boys have any real indication of what they have agreed to do, and the horrors of The Walk become apparent as time drags on. The conversations the boys have are similar to what you would see in war movies as soldiers contemplate the meaning of war, life, and love. All the while, the Major urges them on and the spectators cheer for them, protected by their barrier of comfort. Many spectators wave flags or are dressed in patriotic colors. One farming couple is directly compared to the “American Gothic” painting. As he starts out, Garraty passionately kisses a female spectator (taking a warning for doing so), which conjured images of the V-J Day in Times Square photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photograph of the sailor kissing a nurse.

But in the midst of The Walk, strength isn’t found in The Prize; strength is found in life and memories and camaraderie. Unfortunately, since only one person can win The Prize, even camaraderie is suspect. You don’t want to get too close to your fellow Walkers if they are soon going to die.

The Long Walk, Introduction

Cover for The Long Walk

With The Long Walk I return to the writings of Richard Bachman, which at this point in Stephen King’s career means I am reading works written prior to Carrie. Basically, these are pre-Stephen-King novels. You know, Stephen King before he was STEPHEN KING.

The Long Walk was first published in paperback in 1979. According to his afterward in Full Dark, No Stars, The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote. It is a dystopian science fiction novel, although from where I am four chapters in the science fiction elements are minimal. The dystopian aspects are highlighted by the central concept, which is an endurance test undertaken each year by 100 teenage boys. This test, called The Long Walk, is pretty much what it says on the tin—a walk to see who is the last boy standing. Or walking, in this case. They have to maintain a four-mile-per-hour pace. Three strikes and they “get their ticket,” a King-esque euphemism for execution. The entire event is a national past-time. People take pride in rooting for boys from their state. Not every leg of the Walk is broadcast, but parts are. Presumably, places where boys are likely to get their ticket are less likely to have spectators.

Even though it was written much later, think of this as The Hunger Games but with walking.

The protagonist, Raymond Garraty (#47). I don’t know why he is Walking. I get the impression that Walking is a type of choice. Most of the first four chapters consist of build-up, so apart from being introduced to the basic concept and a few additional characters, I don’t have much more to report on the plot or world building so far.

The book is short by King standards: under 400 pages. In truth, I’m wondering how he maintains the pace for what may be a limited time scale for the novel. I expect at some point the boys may turn on each other, unless there are specific rules against this. Even if it is against the rules, I’m sure the pressure will build.

Doctor Who: The New Adventures Series 1.03 – Timewyrm: Apocalypse

Cover for Timewyrm Apocalypse

Where to Find It?

Physical copies can be found at Bookfinder.com.

A detailed synopsis can be found at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Story By

Nigel Robinson

Book Copy

The end of the Universe. The end of everything.

The TARDIS has tracked the Timewyrm to the edge of the Universe and the end of time — to the lush planet Kirith, a paradise inhabited by a physically perfect race.

Ace is not impressed. Kirith has all the appeal of a wet weekend in Margate, and its inhabitants look like third-rate Aussie soap stars.

The Doctor is troubled, too: If the Timewyrm is here, why can’t he find her? Why have the elite Panjistri lied consistently to the Kirithons they govern? And is it possible that the catastrophe that he feels impending is the result of his own past actions?


 

I appreciate your concern, Doctor, but the facts are simple: Ace must die so that the rest of creation may live.

I suppose the place to start is reputation. Timewyrm: Apocalypse is not well regarded and has even been called the low point in the Timewyrm cycle, if not the entire New Adventures range. This reputation is undeserved as the novel’s greatest crime is placement, being slotted between the action-packed, highly engaging Exodus of Terrance Dicks and the mind-bending, era-defining Revelation of Paul Cornell. Thus, a perfectly average Doctor Who story that doesn’t really stretch the bounds of the concept stands out, and not necessarily in a good way. And I admit, when I first read Apocalypse a few years ago I couldn’t stomach it. When I picked it up this past weekend I was a bit apprehensive. However, of the three Timewyrm books I have re-read, Apocalypse was the most interesting to me because it was the one I had forgotten. I didn’t remember a thing about it. Contrary to expectations, my experience with this novel was deeply satisfying.

Nigel Robinson, like Terrance Dicks and John Peel, was a Target writer. In fact, Robinson was editor of the Target range as it drew to a close. As a result, he is familiar with the tropes and style of the classic series. He can replicate it quite well, and that is on display in Apocalypse, which puts the novel firmly in the Rad/Trad debate that surrounded the New Adventures. Essentially, the debate was whether the New Adventures should stretch the concept of Doctor Who into new territory as could only be accomplished in the written word, with no dependence on budget, BBC oversight, or strong boundaries of what is and is not proper Doctor Who (the rad or radical position) or whether the New Adventures should tell the types of stories that were told on television, adhering to the formulas and goals of the original series (the trad or traditional position). The entire debate falls into the same trap as all progressive/conservative debates in its assumption that the answer is either/or. Experimentation aids evolution, but tradition helps cohesion. In practicality this balance can be difficult to achieve. In a shared universe such as Star Trek, the novels were mere tie-ins. They didn’t supplant or influence the main corpus in any way. They were additional adventures which could be slotted in between episodes. With the New Adventures, there was every belief that this could be the future of Doctor Who, and whatever happened in the novels was cannon. Thus, the nuance interactions between rad and trad could be difficult to maintain, much like a mythology heavy story-arc in The X-Files being followed by a monster-of-the-week episode, the fan wants to know what happens next, not experience this stand-alone story.

Personally, I tend to think of the trad stories as a type of rest between complex or intense measures. They become moments of introspection and meditation. And even if the plot itself is fairly traditional, the characters have grown and changed, and they sometimes respond in different ways.

Apocalypse, then, is largely of the trad mold. It is a thematic sequel to Logopolis as it takes place during the Big Crunch when entropy cannot be reversed and the universe is contracting in on itself. This knowledge ultimately drives the Panjistri since their goal is to reverse entropy. The Logopolitans of the Fourth-Doctor Era tried to do this using math; the Panjistri try to do it by creating a god. It takes us a while to get there, but the ultimate revelation of the attempt to genetically create a god is interesting. The Panjistri view is that a being with every possible experience of every possible creature in the universe would essentially be a god. They essentially are attempting to create an autonomous, pantheistic god—an all-encompassing entity that is at the same time personal and distinct. For the Panjistri, if the divine word of math—a force mortal minds can understand—is unable to prevent entropy, then an immortal mind is required. Only an immortal mind can defeat death. The Doctor refutes this, saying all things must die, even the universe.

At the center of this genetic conspiracy is the Grand Matriarch. The Matriarch has been possessed by the Timewyrm, who hopes to inhabit the god once it has been created. Doing so will allow her to re-incarnate, something she needs to do since the Doctor destroyed her physical form. After he extracted her from Hitler’s mind, the Timewyrm hid from the Doctor in his timeline, transferring into a young girl named Lilith when the Second Doctor repaired her doll. The Timewyrm hid in Lilith for five thousand years, manipulating the Panjistri’s genetic experiment to her own purpose. It is fitting that a being that lived among and manipulated the ancient Babylonians would be drawn to a child named Lilith.

Beyond these elements, Apocalypse follows a fairly standard Doctor Who set-up: The Doctor and Ace arrive in a utopian society, discover a group of elites who provide everything to the people while at the same time discouraging certain questions or scientific development, and in the investigation foment rebellion. Philip Sandifer rightly observes that the revolution actually fails, which is a reversal of Doctor Who tropes. The people don’t succeed as the Doctor confronts evil. They are subdued. It is only after evil has been defeated that all parties are reconciled, including the Panjistri elite to the people they manipulated.

While Timewyrm: Apocalypse didn’t push the format of Doctor Who, it still provided a solid story. The Timewyrm’s appearance, while not surprising, at least made sense. Her physical form had been destroyed and this experiment at creating a god would have been appealing to her. The Timewyrm possessing Hitler never quite worked for me, and I think Exodus would have been far more interesting as its own story rather than using the Timewyrm as the MacGuffin. Stretching this cycle of novels over four books is starting to feel a bit drawn-out and I look forward to Cornell’s conclusion in Timewyrm: Revelation.

Doctor Who: The New Adventures Series 1.02 – Timewyrm: Exodus

Cover for Timewyrm Exodus

Where to Find It?

Physical copies can be found at Bookfinder.com.

A detailed synopsis can be found at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Story By

Terrance Dicks

Book Copy

The pursuit of the Timewyrm leads the Doctor and Ace to London, 1951, and the Festival of Britain — a celebration of the achievements of this small country, this insignificant corner of the glorious Thousand Year Reich.

Someone — or something — has been interfering with the time lines, and in order to investigate, the Doctor travels further back in time to the very dawn of the Nazi evil. In the heart of the Germany of the Third Reich, he finds that this little band of thugs and misfits did not take over half the world unaided.

History must be restored to its proper course, and in his attempt to repair the time lines, the Doctor faces the most terrible dilemma he has ever known…


 

The fabric of time was badly torn, Ace. You can’t stitch it up like repairing an old shirt.

While John Peel had become a regular hand at writing Target novelizations, Terrance Dicks had a much more intimate résumé where Doctor Who was concerned. He was script editor during the Pertwee years. He wrote televised stories for the Second, Fourth, and Fifth Doctors (possibly more uncredited). Having this second original novel in the range written by Dicks is a great way to bridge the two series, lending credibility and blessing, passing the torch as it were.

In Exodus we travel to the heart of the Nazi Reich at its beginning stages. And it struck me as I read about Hitler, Himmler, and Goering that up to this point, Doctor Who had not really dealt with Nazis in their context. The first time the show overtly portrayed them was during the Seventh Doctor story Silver Nemesis, and even those Nazis were 1980s exiles, war criminals trying to recapture the glory of the Reich. The show had often drawn parallels between the Daleks and Nazis, but the human figures themselves were almost never portrayed. Had Doctor Who been an American creation, there is no doubt in my mind that the Doctor would have gone up against the Nazis as soon as possible, but this was one era of history that the show never really covered. On some level, I can see why. Doctor Who debuted in 1963. The war had only been over 18 years. The memory was too fresh and too painful. The narratives of the war in the U.S. and England are very different. For the U.S. it is a story of foreign citizen soldiers coming into the fight to do what needs to be done to defeat the enemy. For England, it is a story of endurance and survival. These are generalizations of course, but the narratives are there. For the U.S., defeating the Nazis was a given, a divine destiny. For England, it was hoped for but not necessarily a guarantee. And it is into this uncertainty that the Doctor and Ace track the Timewyrm.

The novel opens with the two arriving in 1950s England. They find that the Reich won the war and England is under German rule. This emphasizes one of the major themes of the novel, that the outcome of WWII was not a certainty. Any number of factors could have changed the result, and in the case of Exodus outside influences were present in the form of the War Lords (a primary interference) and the Timewyrm (a secondary interference). The War Lords reappear after their defeat in the Second Doctor story “The War Games,” which was a collaboration of Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke in 1969. The War Lords attempt to create the perfect soldier, typically by removing armies from different points in history and making them fight one another. Their scientific advisor in the process is a renegade Time Lord known as the War Chief. The War Chief now has an added goal: to get revenge on the Doctor. What is particularly interesting (and gruesome) in Exodus is the revelation that the War Chief wasn’t killed as was portrayed in “The War Games”; he regenerated—almost. The damage to his body caused the regeneration to fail, so the process aborted partway through, creating a monstrosity of bodily horror. Ultimately, the War Chief wants to transplant his brain into the Doctor’s body. Dicks is also mining “The Brain of Morbius” for ideas, it would seem. Added to the mix are internal Reich politics, Himmler’s obsession with the occult, and the Doctor’s struggle to insert himself into an unstable historical situation in an attempt to rectify two types of interference that the result of previous adventures.

Along the way Exodus tries to avoid explaining Hitler’s Reich in terms of alien interference or the supernatural, but never quite succeeds. All the elements that led to WWII were present; the Timewyrm and War Lords magnified what was already there, but I was still left with a distinct impression that Hitler only came to power because of the magnification, not because of his own human attempts. This is a bit of a problem, I think, because it can serve to undermine the horror of WWII and the Holocaust, events which are arguably the worst of humanity. So often WWII is portrayed as a grand adventure (typically in American film) rather than the morally complex and horrifying war it was. Making Hitler a puppet of aliens doesn’t really feel right to me, especially since some of the attitudes held by Hitler and his followers were not as extreme in the 1920s and 1930s as they seem to us now. We look back on these attitudes with our perceived modern enlightenment and typically see them as fringe and aberrant, but they weren’t. They were popular and common. The Nazis were merely the end result of Western existential angst that coalesced around a nation that no longer had anything to lose and everything to gain.

This particular failing aside, the novel is still quite good. It is an easy read, likely the result of years of Dicks writing the Target novelizations. It is fast-paced and engaging. It is plotted extremely well. It deals with things the classic series probably couldn’t have pulled off with a great deal of success. It doesn’t fall into the excesses of Genesys where “adult” means sex and nudity. In the case of Exodus, “adult” means exploring ideas that may be inappropriate for children’s television: anti-Semitism, black magic and occultism, human sacrifice, torture, and Nazi zombies—although, it would have been interesting to see some of the larger moral complexity lurking underneath the alien puppetry. The secondary characters are memorable and interesting. Dicks humanizes Hitler, Goering, and Himmler without ever making them less atrocious than they were in real life. And despite the science fiction elements, there is an air of historicity to parts of the novel.