Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the art of destruction

For some reason the title of this makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” but that really has nothing to do with anything.

And with this, I complete my readings of the entire series of the Ten/Rose books. Amazing! It’s another book from Stephen Cole, but most unusual in setting (though the later Snowglobe 7 resembles it in some ways). It’s the 22nd century in Africa, and you have to wonder if Cole himself had the axe to grind or was given a brief. Either way, it’s good that Doctor Who BBC book writers are being conscious about mass extinction (The Last Dodo), global warming/melting of the polar ice caps (Snowglobe 7), and other contemporary environmental concerns, explored in ways that nonetheless give some hope for the human race (Evan, you might enjoy reading any of these books for those reasons alone). The Art of Destruction also falls into that category, as it tackles (and quite intelligently, in my opinion) darkest Africa’s genocide/tribal warfare as well as global food shortages. Of the three “environmental” books (there may be more that I haven’t read yet), this one seems the most realistic and is therefore sobering and, with a little tip in one direction, could be bleak, bleaker even than The Eyeless. However, I see Cole actually offering solutions, though without giving away the end of the book, we may have to be reliant on un-earthly assistance should we actually try to bioengineer mushrooms to grow in the hearts of inactive volcanoes, fertilized by guano.

On TV, it’s not difficult to imagine the Doctor being cheerful in the fact of guns, or at least brushing them off. Somehow, in a novel, when the Doctor is at gun-point by African child soldiers, I wonder why they hesitate to blow his head off. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, I have difficulty believing in even the Doctor’s powers of persuasion. To be fair, Cole does have the volcano and the warring aliens intervene before the Doctor’s natural charm fades to his certain doom. It’s frightening, in some ways, to have the Doctor so close to actual danger. I know this is kind of what Pertwee meant about his Yeti-in-the-loo comment, but, then again, it’s a bit different. It isn’t the alien menace coming to Earth, it’s the human menace coming to the alien.
Cole’s finest hour was, in my opinion, Sting of the Zygons. He’d solidified Ten and Martha’s relationship. I liked The Monsters Inside and The Feast of the Drowned, though the former’s conclusion was a bit diffuse. The Art of Destruction falls somewhere between all these, for though I like the plot generally and find Rose well-written, his Tenth Doctor doesn’t quite convince at the level he does in Sting of the Zygons (he’s referred to as a gangly gazelle!). A minor quibble, I’m sure. For some reason I was thinking “Robots of Death” when considering the supporting characters here, though I will say, of all the fake-out opening scenes in Doctor Who books where you know someone is going to die, Cole had actually made me care about the relatively interesting agri-workers Kanjuchi and Adiel.

Cole is equal opportunity, allowing Rose to run around Mount Tarsus in a t-shirt and a short denim skirt, but the Doctor gets to open his shirt a number of times. The opening scene with the two tries a bit too hard for slapstick, though this did amuse me: ‘Allo, allo! Or rather, aloe barbadensis. Aloe vera!’ ‘Don’t call me Vera.’ The setting in some ways will be done again in “Fires of Pompeii”: heat, tunnels underground, magma monsters, etc. It must not be the first (or last) time a post-1989 companion has fallen and twisted his or her ankle (in fact I’m sure it happened in either Only Human or Wetworld), but at least it not only makes sense, but Rose also bravely soldiers through it (I hope she sought medical attention afterward). Like The Many Hands and The Nightmare of Black Island, this is full of molto creepy. A dead-seeming, gold-encased vulture comes back to life and attacks Rose; dead bats crunched underfoot on a cave floor in the same situation fly into her hair. It’s a bit like the ratcatcher scene from Phantom of the Opera: There were bats everywhere, burning with a fiery light. Something had sent them into a frenzy. The Doctor christens these characters golems, as in the Lovecraft version (not Gollum from Lord of the Rings, as Rose first thinks). Does anyone remember the flesh-eating ant scene from the newest Indiana Jones movie? I think Cole presaged that a bit when driver ants attack Fynn and Adiel in a jeep as they try to escape from Golems and warring alien factions. Cole also references a weapon similar to one that will be used later in The Eyeless.

Cole has created a similar character to the mad scientist in Nightmare of Black Island—Dr Fynn, who we’ll get to—but an even better alien, a bit of a Sil for the 21st century. I’ll let Cole do the talking here: The creature’s head was thin and spiked like a cactus. Its neck was fat like a giant toad’s, billowing out and then sucking back in. Two spindly arms stuck out on either side of the blobby body, each ending in a heavy-duty pincer like a crab’s. Its many legs were thin and clacked together like a bundle of dry sticks. This is Faltato, fussy, cowardly, and though he doesn’t eat Rose and her friend Basel like they expect, he does seek to cause their deaths—though only as an afterthought. Faltato is just an agent, though, for a truly disgusting race of war-making giant earthworms that shoot cannons of flesh-devouring filth—congrats on the gross-out factor, Cole.
If this wasn’t enough for you, Dr. Fynn, as I hinted, is involved in the trading of dead bodies that so enraged Rose about the Gelth. The Doctor, of course, shocked everyone in his alien attitude toward it. He thought it was okay—or if not okay, at least understandable—for the Gelth to use dead human bodies, ‘cause, who was going to need them? Rose was horrified, and the Doctor was in fact proved wrong. Fynn is condemned by Rose, Adiel, and probably the reader in this way. We don’t actually get to find out what the Doctor thinks. I personally feel a bit of sympathy for his position. ‘How many people have died in this conflict? Centuries of ethnic violence, of factions set on wiping each other out, on gaining power for themselves. The bloodshed goes on, how can it ever be resolved? And with the death and disruption comes disease, comes poverty, comes famine. More death. Death with no meaning on such a scale. But if the deaths must go on, I can give them meaning. No one should die in vain.’ (And it’s a bit classier than what happened in “Revelation of the Daleks”). Fynn’s dubious status is rendered okay by his sacrifice for the greater good. ‘Start a stopwatch and we can do a little experiment,’ the Doctor suggested. ‘Maybe they’ll publish our findings.’ Fynn activated the syringe. ‘Posthumously,’ he murmured.

In the end, the Doctor confronts two beings rather like the Axons, all gold, glittery, perfection and coldness (one is formed to look like Rose, as was the statue in The Stone Rose; I wonder if there’s a theme going on, or just a tribute to Billie Piper’s looks?). There’s more than a hint of Milton as they go off to populate, “Through Eden took their solitary way.” The theme of art theft, caching, and curation will amuse fans of “City of Death,” and there’s a great exchange to round us out: ‘I think they’ll be OK.’ ‘You hope,’ said Rose. ‘What’s wrong with traveling hopefully?’ He gave her a beguiling grin. ‘I’ve turned it into an art form .

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