Monday, 8 February 2010

"Cower before my most supreme ejaculations!"

New Adventure novel written by Dave Stone, 1995

Dave Stone’s approach is quite marmite, but Sky Pirates! was a real relief, after reading a run of wishy-washy mid-period New Adventures. Coming across something this vibrant and individual was like, oh, I don’t know – getting home on a cold day to find a gang of furry animals had cleaned your house and made you a hot dinner (welcome, but slightly disturbing).

Though solo Bernice NA The Mary-Sue Extrusion might be the better book, benefiting from a tighter focus, this is an absolute blast. A big element of my enjoyment was the relief of getting to Chris and Roz (I’m a big fan – though sometimes it feels I’m the only one). The Chris and Roz New Adventures are ‘my’ period, coming after a run of po-faced wannabe-serious, tedious sci-fi runarounds; the series hit a particularly near-unbeatable run from Just War on (in my humble opinion).

Both Adjudicators are captured perfectly here, and are remarkably fully-formed considering this is only their second appearance. I love how atypical the xenophobic Roz is, while collectively they’re a great, complementary duo. Ben and Polly are a double act who could work equally well individually, but Roz and Chris’ effectiveness comes from the countering of his youthful naivety and enthusiasm with her jaded cynicism.

This is only the second time I’ve read this book, and, to be honest, I wasn’t hugely looking forward to tackling it again – but it is so much better on the reread (it seemed quite a slog first time, though reading it alongside Madame Bovary – a slightly ungodly combination – might not have helped). I really appreciate its vibrant ambition now; in fact, the more I read, the more impressed I was. I have a preconception that humourous approaches are inherently taking the piss out of their subject – which of course this book is, but not in a damaging sense – so it’s nice to just enjoy the humour and absurdity of it all. I expect Dave Stone to be very cynical, but that does him a bit of an injustice, because his writing isn’t lazy in that way. In fact, there’s some really lovely prose here, and his strong authorial voice helps make this a unique read.

Stone’s verbose style, with its self-deprecation and mockery of the genre’s clichés and limitations, is like a sleazier Terry Pratchett in its detail, delight in wordplay, obscure, archaic vocabulary, and broken English (ie, the villainous Sloathes’ speech: “Is dread and diabolical mutiny below the scuppers ahoy there matey?”). The frontispiece alone gives a good impression of his style: “A most Excellent and Perspicacious Luminiferous Aether Opera, Detailing the Strange and Very Exciting Adventures of The Doctor and His Trusty Companions amidst the Multifarious Perils of a System in the Foul Grip of the Hideous Sloathes!”

In a lot of Doctor Who books, situations feel familiar or fit into certain sub-genres and categories… But this doesn’t feel familiar. Here, we’re in a clockwork System with a smiley sun, a bouncing rubber moon, and planets including a wobbly blob of water, a giant tree, and a jolly snowman (where we encounter waiter-penguins, and the repulsive Snata – an ‘abhorravore’ that has evolved into a grotesque parody of Father Christmas, accompanied by crazed woodland animals in human-skin clothes who make perverse toys). There are also crocogators who breathe through stripy reeds, vampire chickens, and all manner of other insanity. However, though everything is shot through with Dave Stone’s trademark sense of ridiculousness, it doesn’t demean the plot; this is a big, epic story with high stakes.

I love environments you can really feel immersed in; the System of this novel is very ‘colourful’ (lots of brothels and drugs); big, bold and involving, and larger than life – it feels like a world with an existence beyond the confines of the book. I came to love the System because, for all its outrageous weirdness (which is justified by its not being part of the regular universe), it is grounded by recognisable styles or objects from an eclectic range of periods. There are Bakelite telephones, flintlocks, pig-iron manacles and India-rubber inflatable ocelots – and, admittedly, also living armour and a collapsible campaign table, but it doesn’t fall into the trap of being too ‘alien’ to be interesting. (Even the steampunk/clockwork technology makes a nice change from more typically flashy, soulless ‘sci-fi’ technology.)

As an aside, being a big fan of Mad Larry, I was surprised how comparable the prodigious imagination of this novel was to Lawrence Miles’ work (especially earlier stuff like Down, before he veered away from humour), considering Stone doesn’t get anywhere near that kind of kudos or status.

Stone’s take on the Seventh Doctor is rather wonderful too, encapsulating everything I love about the character: his capacity to move from imbecilic goofiness to melancholia, to calmly taking control and being all-knowing and goosebump-inducingly powerful. (“You have squandered any last chance of mercy I might have allowed you,” brings to mind the Tenth Doctor’s Family of Blood vengeance routine.)

He is also presented as hugely alien, unaffected by anything as trivial as local gravity; his hat never blows off, his suit remains preternaturally clean; food and objects appear around him at will (including a wind-dried amputated foot from his pocket); he can secrete electrostatically-active substances from his pores; and it is suggested that he is something monstrous in human form. (While anyone who notices any of this is likely to loose their train of thought…) Even the presentation of the TARDIS interior must be one of the weirdest takes: burning kites and whistling spiders, indeed.

While I do understand how people find Stone’s style off-putting, I skipped through this book in a few days, thoroughly enjoyed it, and am looking forward to Death and Diplomacy (which I don’t think I’ve read, although I do remember something about Roz grabbing a nude Chris’ cock, thinking it’s a doorknob… Ah, the impressionableness of youth!).

In the days of Doctor Who as a regulated global hyper-mega-brand, it’s refreshing to come across something so rampantly individual and unhinged. Fab.

Sky Pirates! fibrillates. And coruscates.

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