Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Retrospective: Lawrence Miles

The thing that's most difficult, when reading through the work of Lawrence Miles (Christmas on a Rational Planet, Down, Alien Bodies, Dead Romance, Interference Books One and Two, The Adventuress of Henrietta Street and This Town Will Never Let Us Go) it determining whether he actually means anything he says. On the one hand, most of his works are highly polemical and charged with arguments guaranteed to infuriate his reading audience. On the other hand, his work is so densely packed with irony that it's hard to determine whether he's actually saying what he believes, or whether he's just enfolded his beliefs in yet another layer of deliberate controversy. When Sam Jones is swayed by the arguments of the Remote, is that because Miles legitimately believes that there's no underlying ethical structure to the universe and we all follow our cultural programming? Or is he just implying that Sam Jones has always been written as a straw woman by every other author, so why not take that to its logical conclusion and have her completely convinced by Compassion's eighth-grade debating tactics? How seriously can you take a man who suggests that pain and suffering is a necessary part of the universe when the story ends with Benny almost literally shoving the argument up the arguer's ass sideways? When dealing with someone who resolutely refuses to take anything entirely seriously, including himself, it's hard to say.

On the other hand, it's possible to be so sharp you can cut yourself. At this point, Miles is as famous for being "Mad Larry" as he is for any of his books; he's managed to alienate pretty much everyone in a position to get him more work, whether in 'Doctor Who' or anything else. His books are notorious for containing thinly-veiled cheap shots and insults towards his fellow authors, and his public statements are, if anything, even more controversial. Even if he is taking the piss, he's never managed to do so in a way that makes it clear to the people he's talking to or about. If your irony is so fine that the only person who knows it's ironic is you, you have probably failed at the task of communication, if nothing else. Even if Miles isn't sincere, he fakes it so well it hurts.

But then again, it's impressive to read someone who commits so fully to their narrative. Miles does an excellent job of getting inside the head of his characters, writing them with absolutely no efforts to impose his own views onto their narrative frame. The ending of 'Christmas on a Rational Planet' is absolutely brilliant in that both the Carnival Queen and the Doctor are fully committed to their respective worldviews, even though they're mutually incompatible and even though they're both entirely unreliable as narrators. The important thing isn't which one of them is "right", it's how they react to their beliefs. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Sam and Compassion, of Christine and Chris, of Inangela and Valentine. Miles' books don't so much take a side as they throw the arguments up into the air and let you decide where they come down. As a result, you wind up thinking about his books long after you've finished them. (Even if one of the thoughts is, "Seriously, Sam? 'You don't care about people who die in car crashes'? You couldn't come up with an answer to that?")

Of course, all of these polemics and arguments and debates and philosophies would be boring if they weren't written in Miles' prose; for all that he's an infuriating and frustrating human being, he's at the top of the pack when it comes to writing style. 'Alien Bodies' is a fabulously well-written romp with some of the best jokes in the series, and a clear influence on the new 'Doctor Who' TV series. (In fact, I'd argue that it's the last truly influential Doctor Who novel.) 'Dead Romance' is one of the all-time best written novels in the entire range of 'Who' and its spin-offs. His prose drips wit, power, fury, sadness, and horror, sometimes all in the same sentence. Given that, it's no wonder that he was commissioned at least once even after he managed to piss off every single person he's ever worked with. (Although some of the blame for that should rest with the editors. Did Steve Cole never think about cutting the lines that were clearly aimed at other writers? Did Rebecca Levene never say, "No, we're taking out the cheap shot about 'Walking to Babylon'"? But I digress.)

Ultimately, reading Lawrence Miles is both an immensely frustrating and amazingly rich experience. It's difficult to read his books without getting upset, simply because so many of the points he's making are wrong-headed or insulting or insultingly wrong-headed (or wrong-headedly insulting). But at the same time, I've not read a 'Doctor Who' book that's done such a good job of making me re-examine my ideas; Miles has a way of getting under your skin, poking at you and asking if you've really thought about what you've been saying all this time. You wind up looking at the world a little bit differently after reading his books, and that's high praise for any writer. I may not agree with everything he says, I may not agree with anything he says, and I may not even be able to tell you if Miles agrees with anything he says...but it's well worth listening to him say it. It would be nice if, some day, he managed to focus and control his talent for irony and got back in the good graces of the BBC long enough to do another 'Doctor Who' book, because they are well worth reading.

Then again, maybe there isn't any irony at all and he means all the stupid things he's said. That's the problem with irony; there's always the danger that people will start seeing it even when it's not there.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read any Doctor Who book, but Lawrence Miles name came up in a Den of Geek list and so I Googled him. I came across this excellent essay about him and I now cannot wait to read his Doctor Who novels. Thanks