August 1st, 2013
Dead Romance is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and it’s a novel that will never, ever, reach the readership it deserves.
The problem is this — Dead Romance is a novel that was originally published in the New Adventures series. New Adventures was originally a series of Doctor Who spin-off novels, but when the BBC took their ball away, it continued as a spin-off of a spin-off, with stories featuring Bernice Summerfield, and sold almost no copies.
Dead Romance was one of the last books in that series, when almost no-one was reading them any more, and didn’t actually even feature Bernice Summerfield — it only featured one (named) character from the New Adventures at all, and that character was hardly portrayed sympathetically.
It sold almost nothing, and was then reprinted as an adjunct to another series, the Faction Paradox series created by its author, Lawrence Miles, which is another spin-off from another spin-off book series, and sells even less.
The only people who even know this book exists are Doctor Who fans, and Lawrence Miles has spent the last decade alienating Doctor Who fans by posting his opinions about the new series (which are not favourable) and its writers (which are even less favourable) on his blog.
If Miles had chosen to stand in bookshops and punch anyone who picked the book up in the face, he could barely have done more to make the book unsuccessful.
But despite all this, the book itself is absolutely magnificent.
It’s a story about memory, and about the end of the 60s. It has very much the same flavour as Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969, and is set shortly after it in 1970, in the aftershock of the moon landing and Manson, of Woodstock and Altamont.
It’s told in a series of short pieces, often only a paragraph long, written by Christine Summerfield, a fairly dull, normal, hippie pseudo-bohemian living in what seems to be our world rather than the world of Doctor Who. When she’s attacked by a serial killer, she ends up meeting up with Chris Cwej, a companion of the Doctor’s from the earlier New Adventures, who was last seen signing up to work with the Time Lords.
Here, Cwej is subtly different, and for a long time we don’t realise why. He’s working for an unspecified group of aliens, and he talks about how he was kidnapped by an Evil Renegade from their civilisation who takes human beings onto his spaceship and performs awful experiments on them.
We eventually find out that neither Christine nor Cwej are what they might appear, and we get a horrifying insight into the nature of Cwej’s employers and who they’re willing to ally with, which might also explain not only the nature of the threat that was being faced by Bernice in the War Of The Gods story-arc that was happening in the other New Adventures around this time, but also possibly the nature of the Enemy in the War storyline that Miles’ Alien Bodies had, possibly inadvertantly, started in the Eighth Doctor Adventures.
But none of that is the point of the book. The book’s not about the nature of the Gods of Dellah, or of Cwej’s employers. Rather, it’s about what it’s like to be a human being in a world that is much flatter and duller than it should be. The central scene of the book, thematically, is when Cwej expresses surprise that in Christine’s universe the pyramids weren’t created by ancient astronauts, but just by slaves. The world — our world — doesn’t make sense to him, because there’s no magic there, no mystery, no pleasure to be had.
It is, in short, a book about mental illness. It’s a book where people’s minds play tricks on them, where memories are never real, where the world is devoid of wonder and light, and where things are only ever going to get worse. Where your whole identity is false, where your best friend is actually working for aliens (and worse…), where the whole of reality is a shabby imitation of the real real world.
At times the book feels like it’s about depression, but more often it has the same schizoid detachment as some of Philip K Dick’s most interesting work, but with the cynical sense of humour of a Kurt Vonnegut. This is a book by someone (either the character or the author, it’s hard to know how much of it is Miles’ real view, though I suspect most of it is) who was promised a world of infinite variety and majesty, and who is instead presented with the Tom Jones show on TV.
Nobody in this book can be trusted — not Cwej, one of the most sympathetic characters from the series to this point, not his employers, not Christine’s friends, and not Christine herself. In the denoument, we even discover that Christine can’t trust herself. The world here is one where no matter how paranoid you are, the universe is worse than you imagine.
This may be the bleakest thing Miles has ever written, but even here there is hope. Christine does escape, and get to the next level of reality up — a level which, yes, is being destroyed by the same inter-universe conflict that caused the destruction of her — our — own world, but which at least has time and space travellers, liquid cats, and adventure. Even if her world doesn’t have a future, she does (and it’s strongly hinted that we see that future in the Faction Paradox audio series that Miles wrote for BBV).
Dead Romance is a book that could only have been done in the context of Doctor Who, but it’s a book that is as far from adventures in time and space as you can get, while still remaining recognisably part of the same aesthetic that produced Logopolis or Evil Of The Daleks. This is the limit — this marks the border between Doctor Who and everything else. Miles has pushed Doctor Who as far as it can be pushed.