Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Retrospective: Craig Hinton

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, April 1, 2013.)

I originally started doing these retrospectives for the Jade Pagoda mailing list, now sadly inactive; that was about ten years ago, and this retrospective was part of the reason I finally stopped. While Craig Hinton was alive, he was a member of Jade Pagoda and a frequent poster, and his presence greatly enlivened the discussions he participated in. I enjoyed talking with him about Doctor Who, and I didn't want to spoil the fun by admitting that his five Doctor Who novels (The Crystal Bucephalus, Millennial Rites, GodEngine, The Quantum Archangel, Synthespians) had always grated on my nerves when I read them. I knew it would hurt his feelings to read about someone not liking his work, no matter how I put it, and I didn't want to do that.

Then he died. He died far too young, and his passing was a shock to all of us in the (rather large) community of Doctor Who fans. If I'd had little taste for slagging off his novels before he died, I had even less taste for doing so afterward. Knowing that I'd have to skip Craig left me with little taste for completing the retrospectives, and the idea languished. But time gives us perspective on everything, I decided, and I disliked leaving something half-done; so despite the lack of a Jade Pagoda, I went back to re-reading Doctor Who, author by author... and Craig Hinton was bound to come up again. With not inconsiderable trepidation, I went back to re-read his books.

I was surprised to find that I liked them quite a bit. They're not High Art; they're very different in style and tone to the books around them. Hinton aimed for a voice closer to the epic comic book sagas of Doctor Who Monthly... or, to be more accurate, he aimed for the "cosmic" tone of many Marvel comics stories that DWM often imitated and sometimes duplicated. 'Millennial Rites' could stand next to The Tides of Time as a bookend, in some ways, but it feels more appropriate to compare it to Chris Claremont's X-Men comics. Not just because the plot bears some similarity to Claremont's "Inferno" storyline, either; like Claremont, Hinton has no interest in creating naturalistic dialogue or even naturalistic characters. Everyone is meant to be larger-than-life, filled with tragic secrets, shocking revelations and seething passions, waiting to be revealed as the novel progresses.

At the time, this felt like the worst kind of mistake. In retrospect (and this is, after all, a retrospective), Craig Hinton's biggest sin wasn't a lack of quality, it was that he was striking out in a different direction from everyone else writing at the time. The operatic sweep of gods and monsters in Millennial Rites, battling it out with magic as the Doctor battles to avoid becoming his darker self, reads more like a comic book translated into prose than it does like a novel. When read a few months after Paul Cornell's consciously literary Human Nature, and a few months before Ben Aaronovitch's transcendent The Also People, it sticks out like a sore thumb. But read on its own, or better yet next to other books steeped in that same atmosphere, it feels much easier to understand what Hinton was aiming for.

Even Hinton's least well-received book, The Quantum Archangel, makes sense when viewed in this light. It's meant to be a cosmic crossover, an epic "summer event" that features the return of the Chronovores, the true explanation of the nature of the Whoniverse, the Doctor and the Master teaming up, the Doctor gaining cosmic godhood and duking it out against a monstrous foe who nearly annihilated the Time Lords, the Daemons, the Exxilons, the Uxarieans, the Kastrians, the Sontarans, the Rutans... OK, at this point it's probably time to digress a bit and discuss the fanwank.

"Fanwank" is a term that Craig himself coined, and it's such a wonderfully vulgar, yet brilliantly evocative word that I think it will be remembered long after the Doctor Who novels are forgotten. It refers to continuity points inserted into a book for their own sake, digressions made by the writer simply to enshrine their pet fan theory into canonical print. When the Doctor suddenly says, in an aside, "Oh, and by the way, Jamie regained his memory after the Time Lords wiped it," that's fanwank. When a writer writes in a monologue that explains what happened to the second Zygon fleet, in a novel that features no Zygons, that's fanwank. And Craig Hinton wrote fanwank so grandiose and absurd that it almost transcended the term. His novels functioned in part as a sort of Grand Design for the Doctor Who universe, filled with explanations of how the different dimensions and the Time Vortex and the various cosmic entities we've seen over the years interacted. It makes sense, it forms a self-consistent whole... but I don't think it was ever particularly wanted or needed. That may have been the biggest reason why Hinton's novels were never accepted; Doctor Who is a series that never pays much attention to its own rules. Russell T Davies doesn't want to try to fit the Beast into the cosmology of the Six-Fold Realm, so he simply ignored it. (Assuming he was aware of it to begin with. That's the other thing that happens a lot in Doctor Who.)

And The Quantum Archangel sets out to be the ultimate triumph of fanwank, Craig Hinton's final statement on How It All Fits Together. It's about four hundred pages too short to contain its own plot, it makes obscure figures like the Celestial Toymaker and the Chronovores (each of whom appeared in exactly one story over the twenty-six year televised history of the original series) into major figures in the Doctor Who mythos, it is squarely aimed for an audience of obsessive fans that probably doesn't exist anymore, and it's been roundly ignored by subsequent creators. But on re-reading the novel, as part of Hinton's total works, I at least understand what he was aiming at.

I can't tell him any of that. I normally wind up these pieces by talking about what it would be like to see another book from this author, but we all know that this is one time it won't happen. Craig Hinton is gone, and it's just now hitting me that I finally got around to writing the piece I was afraid to publish during his lifetime for fear of hurting his feelings, and seven years too late I want to tell him that I was wrong and he did a great job with Doctor Who after all. Life is like that sometimes; we don't get to say everything we should say to the people who need to hear it. But at least I can let you know: Craig Hinton wrote some really great Doctor Who books. They were mad, they were melodrama, but they were glorious. Rest in peace, Craig.

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