Monday, July 8, 2013

Retrospective: Ben Aaronovitch

(Originally posted on 5/5/03 to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)

It's truly difficult to do a retrospective on Ben Aaronovich without lapsing into full-on "gush" mode; after all, we're not only talking about the writer of Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield, two of the most influential (and best) Seventh Doctor TV stories, we're also talking about the man who novelized Remembrance and turned out something even better than what was seen on-screen, bringing up the first appearance of the Rassilon/Omega/Other trilogy along the way. Even before he wrote Transit, The Also People, and co-wrote So Vile A Sin, he'd already earned a high place among the creators of Doctor Who.

So what did his Virgin novels add to his reputation? For one thing, they cemented his status as an inspiration to the leading lights of Who writers. Paul Cornell, Kate Orman, Lawrence Miles, Marc Platt, Jim Mortimore, and Lance Parkin, just to name a few, are all playing the game that Ben Aaronovich wrote the rules to; he'd already defined the main elements of the Doctor's character before the New Adventures even began, and his novels showed that a greater level of stylistic depth was possible in the books. (At this point, I'd like to remind everyone that I did warn them about going into "gush" mode.)

Aaronovich's books are dense, complex works -- each sentence is pressed into double, triple, and sometimes quadruple duty in order to squeeze the maximum amount of story out of each page. This can sometimes bewilder first-time readers (Transit winds up confusing a lot of people on the first read-through because it's simultaneously an action thriller, a character study of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, a history of the Hundred Days War, and a tragedy involving Blondie and Zamina, and that's skipping all the ancient Gallifrey stuff worked in there as well.) But if you're patient, the results are incredibly rewarding; the prose is so rich that even on your seventh (or eighth, or ninth) read, there's still new things to discover and old things to enjoy. The Doctor getting buried in the sand in The Also People ("it could be part of some cosmic plan..."), the Angel Francine playing chicken with a Vulture missile over the skies of Mars, the thousands of Doctors swarming out of a hole in reality to assault the Brotherhood -- Aaronovich just seems to overwhelm you with intelligent writing, to the point where it sometimes seems like drinking out of a fire-hose.

Each of his two solo books takes a very different approach to style -- Transit, naturally, is about motion, with short, choppy scenes and lots of transition from person to person, place to place, flash-backs and flash-forwards giving a sense of speed and urgency to the work. (Again, this can disorient a first-time reader, part of what gives Transit its poor reputation.) The Also People, on the other hand, is languid, lyrical, almost casual in its pacing and revelations; it's about a vacation, and it gives that sense of restfulness even during its big events. Yet it's never dull, an achievement that almost seems paradoxical.

I can't leave off his characterization, either, despite my knowledge that it's going to be more gushing; he does a surprisingly good job with Benny, considering that she's possessed for most of Transit, and his portrayal of Roz in The Also People remains the definitive characterization, its background details and emotional resonance shading every subsequent appearance of the character. He even handles Chris, a fairly shallow (but likeable) character well, by bringing out the puppy-dog enthusiasm of the character. And, of course, he remains one of the few authors to ever pull off scenes showing how the Doctor thinks.

His final (and I hope sincerely only in the sense of "to date") effort for the Doctor Who range was So Vile A Sin, and most fans know that he couldn't complete it. When I first read it, I suspected that he had finally set before him a task too daunting, a book that pulled together the threads of the Psi-Powers series, while also working in the N-Forms from Damaged Goods, sequelizing Original Sin, and depicting an interstellar war and the collapse of an empire as well. However, reading it right after his previous two works, I don't think it was too much for him; instead, I feel that his "somewhat loose perception of linear time as it pertains to deadlines" was all that was at fault. (Of course, the official explanation remains a hard drive crash, and far be it from me to cast doubt on such an august personality; however, given his habitual lateness in the past, I think we may safely be as suspicious as we like.)

Kate Orman essentially wrote the novel based on his outline and using what material he had finished, but the result is more noticeably Orman's than it is Aaronovich's; Kate Orman is, of course, no slouch herself at writing Doctor Who books, and the result is eminently readable, but it doesn't quite flow with the seamless ease that Aaronovich's two solo works do. Orman even admits in the afterword that she can't duplicate Ben Aaronovich's skills, and must simply do the best she can.

Ultimately, I believe that Ben Aaronovich is the finest author the Doctor Who novel lines have produced; whenever anyone questions me about why I read a silly TV tie-in series like Doctor Who, I simply lend them a copy of The Also People. I've never had to answer the question from the same person twice.

No comments:

Post a Comment