April 25th, 2010

This is one of the better academic books about Who that I have read. Hills is a sympathetic fan and also a media studies lecturer in Cardiff. In this book he has sensibly not tried to provide a global guide to Who, but instead has taken a small number of (big) issues and tried to illuminate them in detail. Looking mainly at New Who up to early 2009, he basically has seven things that he wants to say and takes a chapter to say each of them:

1) New Who is strongly authored (by RTD and now Moffatt) which makes it very different from Old Who; NB though that the credit for this authoring is shared by others (notably Phil Collinson and the BBC's upper hierarchy)
2) New Who's writers are themselves long-term Who fans; but this does not mean that they have a harmonious relationship with the fan base.
3) Time travel, though obviously central to Who, is not really used in an sfnal way in New Who (the weakest of the chapters, I thought)
4) Monsters are even more central to New Who, both as spectacle and as moral lessons.
5) New Who cannot clearly be categorised as 'quality' or as 'non-quality' TV (includes a very interesting passage on how Christopher Ecclestone's comments on the show undermined RTD's attempts to mark it as 'quality').
6) Murray Gold is one of the key creators of New Who (also the occasional use of pop songs in the show is mildly interesting).
7) New Who has managed to become both 'cult' and "mainstream' (NB this is quite a different distinction to 'quality'/'non-quality').

I thought the two best sections were on Christopher Ecclestone and Murray Gold, but there is lots more here too.

By writing this book, Hills appears to have hoped to update Tulloch and Alvarado, but I think has done a better job. It's not quite as magisterial as the Time and Relative Dimensions in Space collection (to which Hills contributed the chapter on Big Finish) but way better than the books I've read on Who by Robb, Newman, Chapman, Couch, etc.

I was a bit annoyed at first at yet another book which banishes footnotes to the end - why, with 21st-century typesetting technology, is this still considered an acceptable way to publish? - but fortunately most of the footnotes are simply references to other work, most of which I have already read (though I am still irritated by the handful that do have substantive content, marooned hundreds of pages from the statements they are illuminating). So that turns out to be a minor gripe.

Two books by Neal Barrett, jr

A few weeks back I confessed my ignorance of Neal Barrett, jr, who has been named this year's Author Emeritus by the SFWA. I'm generally prepared to expand my horizons, so ordered a couple of his books from Bookmooch and read them in transit this weekend. I have to say that my ignorance has been replaced by some puzzlement; I did not think that either of these was a particularly good book. I hope that his other work has demonstrated the excellence that SFWA has chosen to honour, but there is little sign of it from what I've read.

April Books 23) Stress Pattern

A story of a bloke who crashes on an alien planet where strange creatures live, some of them formed by his own thoughts and desires. (Solaris meets "A Martian Odyssey" only nothing like as good.) His fantasy woman is created for him and it doesn't work out. Only 160 pages, thank God.

April Books 24) Judge Dredd (the book-of-the-film)

I've never more than skimmed 2000 AD but was aware of the basic set-up of Dredd's world; I have not seen the 1996 movie starring Silvester Stallone. Difficult to, er, judge what Barrett's input to the final product is (he did not write the screenplay) but I felt that I missed the broad sweep of scene-setting which is necessary in a novelisation of this kind; no real sense of landscape or background. There are some nice inserts from a future historian commenting on the story as past history, including one (perhaps despairing?) piece near the end complaining that it is all made up. Barrett also wrote the novelisations for the Dungeons and Dragons movie and Barb Wire, but I will not rush to acquire either.

There must surely be numerous other authors of similar prominence and age to Barrett who would qualify as Authors Emeriti (or Emeritæ). Maybe I was just unlucky; I will concede that a book's availability from Bookmooch may not be a good indicator of quality.
Yet another book on religion where I basically agree with the author but found the book itself really unsatisfactory.

Basically, McGrath seemed to me to be asking the wrong question. His argument identifies "atheism" as a collective identity more than is really warranted by his own evidence; towards the end he seems to almost criticize atheists for not being as well organised as the Church, which sort of misses the point. More widely, he never makes it clear whose atheism or belief is under discussion, though I felt that in the present day he really just means Oxford dons. Non-Christian faiths are barely mentioned; there is an anecdote about the triumph of Christianity in Korea in the 20th century which simply does not refer to other religions practised by Koreans. This really isn't good enough.

The internal structure puzzled me as well. I would have preferred a more strictly chronological organisation. But instead we have a chapter on Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, followed by one on the sciences post-Darwin, followed by an examination of atheism in classic literature from the Enlightenment on (that last being one of the better chapters in the book). It is as if Freud knew nothing of Darwin, and Darwin knew nothing of Keats. (I confess I had not preeviously heard of Feuerbach, but that may just be my ignorance.)

Other irritations: James II was not Charles II's son (p 14). I was surprised to read (p 264-265) that "The role of religion in creating and sustaining communal identity has been known for some considerable time, and has become increasingly important since about 1965"; I think it's just possible that religion played an important role in creating and sustaining communal identity for quite a long time prior to that date.

I suspect that this book was intended to be in part a rebuttal to Richard Dawkins, who is very briefly dissected, but unfortunately it is too full of its own complacency to be effective.


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