Thursday, 26 March 2015

Who, Who? Random thoughts on sci-fi

I first heard of Doctor Who in school. This was back in the 80s, when I had the reputation of being a 'great reader of books'. It was Woody who asked me if I'd read any Doctor Who.
I understood it was science fiction.
When I was in school I was 'literary'. Which meant I sucked at science. I envied the guys who found physics easy. And I always had a sneaking feeling that I wouldn't understand science fiction. When Star Trek came on Doordarshan, I avoided it, until Narendran told me it was great fun.
Narendran was one of the smartest guys in school - and this was the first time he'd made a recommendation that was outside, well, lessons.
I watched Star Trek. I liked it. I remember Amok Time - where Spock goes nutso, not just because of its Vulcan mating season, but because Kirk is alive. But still, I never went crazy. Never watched the show obsessively.
Any way, it was Sci-Fi. The Sci was a put off.
It took a long while to get over the block. It was Star Wars that helped me through. The effects. The Star Destroyer. "You can't win, Darth" (that scene cracks me up now, after all the mythmaking about a Darth being the embodiment of Sith power. So essentially, Obi Wan says, "You can't win, evil overlord!". Of course, you could go for the Rakata origins - but I don't think Palpatine would suffer another emperor when he was around.)

In the meantime, India has lost, badly, to Australia.

It was in 2006 when I really turned on to Who. I'd been travelling to England quite a bit and I'd caught The Girl in the Fireplace while on one of my trips. I knew David Tennant from the Goblet of Fire movie, and one of my co-workers said that I should check out the series - and that Christopher Eccleston was the better doctor.

This was early on in Tennant's tenure. It was the fourth episode in series 2 - and his fifth full episode if you take the Christmas episode. People were still pining for Eccleston, and the 10-Rose shippers were still few. (Oh God, how I hate the shippers). This was before Turn Left and The Waters of Mars and Blink, before Tennant was the gold standard in Doctors (who the fuck are Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee, anyway).

I think I torrented Rose.

It was - unexpected.

The impression I had of the doctor from The Girl in the Fireplace was a jumble. The scene shifted from the court of Louis XV in 18th century France to a spaceship in the far future. Rose and Mickey were mostly bystanders and seemed to be comic relief. There were definite moments of tension, of course. The clockwork robots taking over the court. The wait for the doctor. The badass moment where the mirror shatters and the doctors rides into court. But still, without context, it was confusing.

The thing about Doctor Who was, at some level, was the weight of mythology behind it. Every comic writer worth his salt - Grant Morrison! Dave Gibbons! Alan Moore!!! - had written for Doctor Who magazine. The fandom was legion. The royal family. Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Patrick Stewart and Stephen Fry. Peter Jackson. Matt Groening. Douglas Adams had actually written for it - and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was a recycled Doctor Who script. What else could Reg be but
a Time Lord, and what else could his his study be but a TARDIS?

You know that there are things you "like" before really experiencing them? You like them just based on peripherals, by things associated with them. If your favourite author becomes a gushing fanboy when talking about someone else, you want to check that person's stuff. If several people you like - across a variety of media - keep talking about the same writer or show or movie, the effect gets amplified.

But even so, seeking the book or show out takes a little push. It can be as simple as picking a book up in a library or store and flipping through the first few pages - and finding yourself thirty pages deep, reading. Or it can be sitting on a bed and flipping channels, jet lagged and tired, and watching something you've heard so much about come up on the screen.

Watching the first few minutes of Rose was comforting. Time and place, obviously London, the present day. Person - a shopgirl who gets up at 7:30 am, takes a bus to work, spends her lunch with her boyfriend, goes back afterwards, and goes through some kind of security check as she leaves.

And then the fun begins.

There's the basement, with ranks of half clothed mannequins standing silently around. There's Rose searching for Wilson (C.E.O, and it took me a while to figure out that it stood for Chief Electrical Officer) and then the door slams locked behind her - and the mannequins start moving.
Looking back, on rewatches, it isn't particularly scary, but when seeing it for the first time, it was creepy. The tension builds up, especially as the first auton starts moving slowly, jerkily and inexorably towards Rose.
We all know what happens next. Rose is backed up against the wall and someone grabs her hand and says "Run!"

And then there's the flight through the elevator and the exposition - the mannequins are made of living plastic, and they are controlled by a relay on the roof. And the Doctor - it is he, of course - has a bomb. He tells Rose to go back to her life of "beans on toast" and heads back into the shop ("Henriks" as per the signs, "Henricks" as per news reports) - then popping out for a minute for the introduction.
"I'm the doctor, by the way, What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life"

Eccleston was a surprise. No costume as such - just a functional leather jacket and a jersey. No ruffled shirt or scarlet lined cape - no crazy hat and ten-mile long scarf. Hair cut short, almost military. And the features. A big forehead. Big ears. A huge wedge of a nose. And that grin. That crazy-madman-having-the-time-of-his-life grin.

Series One was lovely. The Long Game isn't very good, Simon Pegg notwithstanding. The Dickens story was nice. There were the Slitheen in a particularly noisome two-parter. But that was all right - because immediately after that came one of the best fucking Doctor Who stories ever.


Im not going to go into the sheer brilliance that the episode was. Suffice to say that now you understood how exactly those metal bins could be terrifying - and everyone involved - Rob Shearman, Joe Aherne and most of all Eccleston himself - really got to show you what exactly a Dalek could be.

The episode also introduced the Time War - and why the Doctor was the last of the Time Lords (YANA notwithstanding)

The relationship between the Doctor and Rose was well done too - initially, its clear that she thinks that she is a child - obviously, given their ages. A smart child, but a child. He's like the adult having fun, showing off to the kids. But they both mature, and by the time the Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways rolls around, the relationship has become sweeter - and more balanced.

From series one, the adventure continues, past Christmases and regenerations, past silent libraries and weeping angels and Martian waters, of 11th hour rescues and doctors' wives and cybermen and zygons and Masters.

In the end, Doctor Who is hardly science fiction.

Its just great fun.

And now, my re-watch begins.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Saying Goodbye to Terry Pratchett

So Terry is dead.
I was walking home when I saw the email. It was from Penguin Random House and it began “It is with immeasurable sadness that we announce that author Sir Terry Pratchett has died at the age of 66.”
I didn’t read any further then.
Terry is dead.
It’s funny. Sir Terry Pratchett wrote books a continent away, and he was my friend. He was Terry. Not pterry, though I know that story.
It was 2000. I was in Hyderabad, and I was tripping on Harry Potter. On the Potter newsgroups, I came upon a thread asking for recommendations for other fantasy authors. Terry’s Discworld novels were the most frequently mentioned. There were wizards, one poster said. And there was a University full of them. Another recommended that the books be read in chronological order, from The Colour Of Magic on.
I bought The Colour Of Magic at a shop in Secunderabad. It was near Kamat, if memory serves me well. I think it was the Book Selection Centre. The shopkeeper had a shelf full of Pratchetts, and I thought, “That’s good. If this series works out, there’s plenty of stuff for me to read.”
As it turns out, there wasn’t nearly enough, but that’s another story.
I read TCOM. I was … underwhelmed. I could see that it was a parody of existing fantasy literature – I caught the D & D references and that Hrun was obviously Conan. I’d heard of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though I hadn’t read any Leiber. It was also obvious that Bel Shamharoth was Lovecraftian. But I hadn’t read any Anne McCaffrey and only knew of Stormbringer from Nethack. It seemed that the author was trying too hard.
It was still better than most other stuff I was reading then. I bought The Light Fantastic a couple of days later.
The book was better, but still not wow! Ymper Trymon was a satisfactory villain, and I was getting used to the idea of a cowardly hero. And I loved Cohen the Barbarian, especially the quote about the best things in life being “hot water, good dentishtry and and shoft lavatory paper”.
I liked Equal Rites even better. But it took me long time to realize that Pratchett’s books weren’t always funny – not in the Wodehouse sense, which was what I had been expecting at some level. There was serious trope deconstruction, which was always good for a laugh, provided you understood the trope existed. But there was always a kernel of commentary there – about people, about attitudes, and traditions and ideology. And it always made me stop and think.
Take Guards, Guards – this was still early on, when it’s Carrot who is the hero, and Vimes is still a secondary figure, not the determinator-asskicker he would become with the later books. But even here, there’s this: “Down there - he said - are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don't say no”
Or take the entirety of Small Gods, one of the finest meditations on faith I’ve ever read. “Fear is a strange soil. It grows obedience like corn, which grow in straight lines to make weeding easier. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.” Or “Every five years someone was elected to be Tyrant, provided he could prove that he was honest, intelligent, sensible, and trustworthy. Immediately after he was elected, of course, it was obvious to everyone that he was a criminal madman and totally out of touch with the view of the ordinary philosopher in the street looking for a towel. And then five years later they elected another one just like him, and really it was amazing how intelligent people kept on making the same mistakes.”
Or this one:
““Humans! They lived in a world where the grass continued to be green and the sun rose every day and flowers regularly turned into fruit, and what impressed them? Weeping statues. And wine made out of water! A mere quantum-mechanistic tunnel effect, that'd happen anyway if you were prepared to wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of vines and grapes and time and enzymes, wasn't a thousand times more impressive and happened all the time”.
By the time I got to Small Gods, I was hooked.
It wasn’t that all of Pratchett’s books were equal. There was the early instalment weirdness – the Granny Weatherwax of Equal Rites is nowhere near the Granny Weatherwax in Carpe Jugulum.  Vimes in Guards Guards is very different from the His Grace Sir Samuel in Snuff, character development notwithstanding. I found Pyramids weak among the early books. Among the later books, I’m not a fan of Monstrous Regiment or Snuff. But dear God, there were so many fantastic books inbetween.
There was Night Watch, my personal favourite – along with another book that I will come to in a bit, which has this quote about people who want to change society:” People on the side of The People always ended up dissapointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people. As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up.”
Since he’s gone now, there won’t be any more lines like this.
But Terry had Alzheimers. He was failing. He wanted to rid himself of his embuggerance by drinking a Brompton cocktail and “with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.”
He didn’t need the cocktail.
The other favourite book is Reaper Man, where Death comes to terms with his own mortality – while Windle Poons, Unseen University’s oldest wizard hasn’t died properly. After the adventure is over and Death is restored, he comes for Poons, who has been quite busy living in his un-life.
Poons and Death have a brief conversation.
Poons says “One lifetime isn’t enough”
“And, with great relief, and general optimism, and a feeling that everything could have been much worse, Windle Poons died”
I can see something similar playing out when Death came for Terry earlier today.
He was always angry. His best characters were angry. His characters were at their best when they were angry.
I don’t want to say “I hope he has no more need for that anger”.
I will miss the anger.
I will miss him.
I will miss the fact that I don’t know what the patrician will do to get Moist Von Lipwig to sort out the problem of tax collection in Ankh Morpork.
I don’t know how Salacia Von Humpeding will shape up in the watch
I don’t know what Tiffany Aching will grow up to be
But it’s OK.
There’s enough stuff in his existing books to keep me happy for a long long time.