May 11th, 2008

doctor who

Extracts from Doctor Who and the Dæmons: what the Master thinks of the Doctor

Two nice extracts from Doctor Who and the Dæmons, for all you Doctor/Master shippers out there (the viewpoint character is the Master in both cases): a moment, he would be witness to the fulfilment of one of his lesser ambitions—the death of his old enemy, the Doctor.

Funnily enough, he was experiencing a twinge of regret. They had not always been enemies. In the early days at school they had been playmates. Even later, though their paths diverged, a friendly rivalry had been as far apart as they would allow themselves to go. If only the Doctor weren’t so abominably good! All this claptrap about morality, integrity, compassion and the rest! If only he had seen sense, together they could have ruled the Universe... But there it was. The Doctor had chosen. It was his own fault that he had to be killed.
...his mind was full of memories of his sometime friend. The time they played truant together, ‘borrowed’ the Senior Tutor’s skimmer and went on an unauthorised visit to the Paradise Islands; the time he fooled the High Council of the Time Lords into thinking it was the Doctor who had put glue on the President’s perigosto stick; the time the Doctor saved his life by... He shook his head fiercely. This was no time for weakness.

May Books 15) Kosova Express

15) Kosova Express: A Journey in Wartime, by James Pettifer

I've met James Pettifer half a dozen times on the Balkans conference circuit, and corresponded with him occasionally; he was kind enough to send me a copy of this book shortly after its publication in 2005, since when it has sat accusingly on my bookshelves. But I was planning to go to Kosovo next week (in the event, my plans have changed and I will go only to Montenegro and Albania) and so picked it up a few days ago.

It is an autobiographical account of what it is like to be a reporter of conflict; the physical difficulties of transport and communication in the field, the problems of getting copy into the paper, convincing sceptical editors, and overcoming opposition and interference from the British foreign policy apparatus. It is also the political story of the movement of Kosovo from miserable subjection to the verge of independence, and I don't think I have read a better account of the 1991-99 period; I really regretted that apart from a couple of vignettes from 2001, he does not take the story further.

Pettifer is a romantic. His story is full of geography, both human and physical; his Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia are steeped in history. This is both good and bad. I found myself in roughly equal measure deeply impressed by his insights into the interconnections between key figures and events across the region, and frustrated by his paranoia about continental western Europe (the "Euroids") and the British intelligence services (though if even a quarter of what he alleges is true, there are some very serious questions to answer, for instance about the Macedonian arms plot of 1993). His sympathies, like Rebecca West's, are absolutely clear, but that certainly does not make this a bad book. (I do wish someone had proof-read the Slavic names for him, though.)

Pettifer can be a difficult personality. I have seen him walk out of a conference before it began in protest at the presence of another participant. One wonders to what extent his difficulties with his various editors in London and elsewhere were personality clashes as much as professional issues. Having said that, I am impressed by the nice things he says about many people who I also count as friends, both in the region and among the foreign correspondents.

Anyway, if you want an insight into Kosovo that gives a very different perspective than the usual diplomatic histories, you could do a lot worse than start here.

May Books 2) Template

2) Template, by Matt Hughes

I actually read this book a week ago in Burgundy, but am following up on james_nicoll's suggestion that we all blog about it today - Hughes has kindly been distributing it electronically to anyone who promises to review it on-line.

In style, it is a conscious homage to Jack Vance, whose Tales of the Dying Earth I enjoyed a couple of years ago. There are three notable differences. First, Hughes' hero, Conn Labro, is a naïf rather than a man of smug sophistication like Cugel: he comes from a planet where all transactions are based on economics, so that (as another character describes him) he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The novel therefore becomes a quest on several levels as he explores the universe, discovers the truth about his origins and gets the girl and his inheritance. Second (though this may just me my lack of appreciation), it is much less funny. The worlds and cultures that Conn Labro encounters on his journey to enlightenment tend to be monolithically organised around a single principle, but the effect (for me anyway) was sinister rather than humorous, and presumably intended to be so.

Those two differences with Vance are matters of authorial choice, and I think Hughes deliberately takes his story in a direction Vance didn't go, and on the whole navigates well. The third difference I noted, unfortunately, is not to Hughes' credit. The women of Hughes' universe are much less visible than the men: there is the central character's love interest, a slightly comical police detective, and another character who stands and watches her brother gambling (why does she not gamble herself?) and is then horribly murdered. Vance's women are much more interesting, and on occasion get the better of his hero. If Hughes' hero doesn't always win the argument, he makes up for it by saving his lover's life.

One other small point I regretted in Hughes book - a road not taken, perhaps - is that there is a hint in an early chapter that the somewhat two-dimensional cultures described are each intended to represent one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This is a neat idea, and would have brought an interesting extra set of structures to mesh with what is a fairly standard hero's quest narrative; but Hughes doesn't quite do it. Still, I enjoyed the grand narrative sweep and general sensawunda. Good fun.