Ship of Fools
The Book of the War
Of the City of the Saved...
|ISBN||0 97259 594 5|
|Publisher||Mad Norwegian Press|
|Synopsis: The City of the Saved is the place where every human being who ever lived has been recreated at the end of time. And everyone's immortal. So when a murder occurs, the whole of society is threatened. And it's up to Laura Tobin, the first Compassion, to solve it.|
A Review by Finn Clark 22/10/04
The Book of the War didn't make me like the City of the Saved. I disliked its neo-theology and I disliked it as a story setting, being even more of a fantasy SF utopia than the sodding People. After reading this follow-up novel I'm still not completely sold on the place, but I'll grudgingly admit that Philip Purser-Hallard has done impressive things with it in this particular instance.
The novel's length helps, of course. Like Telos, Mad Norwegian Press have distinguished themselves from BBC Books not only by commissioning good books, but also by making them a distinctive length. Telos went for novellas. Mad Norwegian Press publish paper-bound bricks. It took me forever to get through this thing. Fortunately all of their releases so far have done well with their bookshelf-buckling length, but if a future novel turns out horribly then readers everywhere will know true pain. Of course this hasn't happened yet! Philip Purser-Hallard handles himself well (and I'll also be interested to see if people start reappraising the allegedly over-long Interference now we've got a line of similar-length novels).
In this case, the book's length lets the author include a world of detail. The City of the Saved is a rich work of imagination, easily outclassing the People in its evocation of mankind's history, multiple universes and a city the size of a galaxy. Many of my problems with the City as a story setting were circumvented, so for instance the theological side of things becomes merely metaphorical and the utopian side is coloured by the fact that this community has been assembled on purely racial lines. Even child-molesting deviants will get resurrected in the City if they have the right ancestors. The resulting community is infinitely colourful and far more interesting than Banks-a-like smug anarcho-liberals.
Though having said that, I still don't like the City's presence at the edge of the Whoniverse (though these novels' relationship with Doctor Who isn't a straightforward issue). How many Doctor Who stories would be undercut if we knew that their human characters would be resurrected in indestructible bodies to talk out their problems to their hearts' content? Personally I'll be quietly pretending that the City doesn't exist and/or has no relationship with anything else I read, which isn't exactly a comfortable position.
Faction Paradox are cool, streets ahead of the versions in any other book. Theoretically there's nothing here that wasn't in The Book of the War, but there's a difference between being told something and seeing it. The Compassions also impressed me. For the first time since Interference we actually meet the woman Lawrence Miles created, as opposed to the entirely dissimilar character who travelled with the 8th Doctor in subsequent 8DAs and said "obviously" a lot. Making Compassion the book's heroine is a nice touch, actually; it gives a happy feeling of familiarity. It's also confirmed that the original Laura Tobin was indeed Alison's sister from Ship of Fools (p73).
There are odd little references, e.g. the word "corniche" (see my review of Down) or what looks like a nod to John Peel's Evolution on p9. I quite liked those, actually.
The story is a big one, with plenty of revelations and significant events. Inevitably we discover that (gasp) someone's worked out how to kill indestructible people, which is handled well even though a particularly obtuse tree stump would have known in advance that the book would make a loophole in the City's invulnerability protocols. I'm trying to imagine a Who-like story about characters who can't even be scratched and it's making my head hurt. I have no problems with the plot, the characters or anything else about the story in general. That's all good stuff.
As an aside, writing about a story this enormous carries the risk of drowning your characters in the sheer scale of things. I suppose there's a bit of this (no single character ever sees more than a piece of the puzzle), but by and large this feels like a tale of people rather than SF concepts. That must have been a harder trick to pull off than the author makes it look. However having said that, Laura Tobin isn't the world's greatest detective. She wanders around aimlessly meeting people and occasionally being shot at, then out of nowhere suddenly delivers an Agatha Christie speech and tells us who committed the murder and why. Huh? Where'd she get that from, eh?
There's stylistic experimentation, which is fun. It helped break things up a bit (as did the footnotes), which matters more than you'd think in a book this size.
The ending feels a little odd, but it worked for me. On first glance it feels abbreviated and almost sequel-hunting, but I think the point is that the status quo has changed rather than the precise details of who's taking power and who's fighting whom.
Footnote: after this and Sometime Never..., could authors stop ending their titles with three dots? It looks awkward in the middle of a sentence when you're reviewing it. (In fact, I've avoided mentioning the title throughout this entire review.)
Overall, this is an enjoyable, well-written book that could easily have been a catastrophe. It could have been smug utopian bollocks. It could have been a Huge SF Story (TM) in which the human characters were insignificant ants. It could have been a theological minefield that just pissed everyone off. It could have been a guided tour of the author's lovingly created world at the expense of its story. I don't know if Philip Purser-Hallard realises just how many risks he took in choosing this tale to tell... but he pulled it off. Be impressed.
I Will Never Feel Clean Again by Jamas Enright 3/4/06
Oh ye gods. I have read some terrible books in my time, but this one was one of the more painful I've had to struggle through. I tend to only have time for reading books when traveling to and from work, but I normally enjoy those few moments. Whenever I opened this book up, I would give a mental sigh and brace myself for whatever was going to be inflicted on me next. It wasn't until I took a trip to Sydney that I actually had a chunk of time I could devote to plowing through this, and it wasn't until about the last fifty pages that I started to begin to like it.
I suspect the main problem is the characters. We are presented with a fair few of them and none of them, to me, were likable, or even interesting. It's very hard to read a book when you just don't care about the people involved. But another basic problem with this book is the setting...
The City of the Saved is almost the ultimate expression of human hubris. At the end of time (between this universe and the next... don't ask), the City of the Saved was set up and contains every human that ever was or will be (determined by genetic standards). Think about this. Every proto-human caveman through to every post-human genetic derivation. That's more than a lot of people. And they are in one City (which is admittedly very big. People live in districts and for an idea of the size of the City, think of one district as a city block compared to the size of, say, the planet. Only with the City being bigger). Oh, and they are all immortal, and have now been living for about 300 years. Philip Purser-Hallard takes this premise and goes from there, setting up the political and social structure. There are a number of issues I'd like to take up with Philip about this (are abortions or miscarriages Ressurected?), not the least of which is that the City has one government and a mayor. Erm, no...
But the story is about a murder. Just above I mentioned that the City people are immortal, so it's hardly surprising that a murder would have for an unusual event, but events spring from there to change the nature of the City forever. (At least, I think so. The ending isn't entirely clear as to just what the final state of play is. Hopefully the next City-based book will pick this up and clarify matters.) And, while the murder is being solved, various details about the City itself, such as how it came to be, are revealed. Which is a shame, because the explanations are annoying. Why have that as the answer? We didn't really need to know, and the answers just make me want to slap the author more.
So, clearly not my favourite book, and I can't help wondering why the hell it's in the Faction Paradox universe anyway. It's not about the War, and barely about the Faction Paradox, even an conceptual influences as in This Town Will Never Let Us Go, so this book seems more an exercise in enabling the author to write about some cross-human concept he had, and ultimately comes across as an excuse for self-gratification.
A Review by Neil Clarke 24/5/08
It might be uncharitable to note this, but the fact that I read crashingly mundane "filler" NA White Darkness prior to Of the City of the Saved... could be seen as doing Purser-Hallard an enormous favour. But, to be honest, he doesn't need it. Of the City of the Saved... is a fantastic novel. And I use that word strategically: the density of information and imagination it contains is comparable to Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. In other words, the book is considerably more of a literary achievement than the majority of Doctor Who related books. It fact, it seems rather tragic that, arguably being part of a niche within a niche, so few people relatively speaking will come to read it.
In its sheer invention, the book threatens to out-Miles Lawrence, as well as having much in common with the wittier style of Miles' earlier books like Christmas on a Rational Planet and Alien Bodies - a sense of humour defuses the potential here for the novel to become mired in its own creativity, and enhances rather than defuses enjoyment of the book. The City itself is such an endlessly fascinating concept, with a level of information constantly maintained that I at least found fascinating and highly enjoyable (although I realise this could have easily become self-indulgent; something it was saved from by a prose style that is both intelligent and humourous) - that I found the experience of reading the book enormously compulsive, finishing it in little over two days. Compare and contrast with the equivalent enjoyment derived from Interference.
If there are ever further series of more adult-oriented Doctor Who books, I'd love to see Purser-Hallard's name on one of the spines. The couple of explicitly Doctor Who-related references that I noticed (to the series, as opposed to the EDAs) - the half-Androgum cook, and the appearance of a Mechanoid in the attack at the end - suggest something of an abiding love for the series, and any new series of books with a bit more complexity than the current BBC offerings could do far worse than commission PP-H.
Speaking of complexity, one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel was its great numbers of twists - several of which served as red herrings - the majority of which, satisfyingly, I had in no way predicted, the bombardment of general information being somewhat helpful to the whodunnit set-up.
As noted in a couple of other reviews, the sheer amount of information, though undoubtedly one of the novel's strongest points, and part of its uniqueness, is something of a double-edged sword in that it does have a slightly negative impact on the novel's characters. Which is not to say that they aren't likeable, etc, but does perhaps hold the novel back from absolute greatness. Nevertheless, it's definitely up there with the best of Doctor Who fiction, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, although any fans of White Darkness out there might want to locate something with a little less originality.
P.S. Can't wait for the new Faction Paradox book! Daniel O'Mahony + Faction Paradox: fab!)
River Phoenix is back! by Robert Smith? 1/5/18
These Faction Paradox books are huge affairs. Coming in at 280 pages of tiny print in trade paperback format, these novels are no small investment for your time. Fortunately, Of the City of the Saved... is utterly fantastic. It takes a derivative idea introduced without much lustre in The Book of the War - namely, every human who ever lived is recreated at the end of the universe, which is basically the plot of Riverworld - and breathes life into the concept. Plus, it links back to Doctor Who through the use of Laura Tobin and Compassion. Obviously.
You'd think a story that spanned the Roman Empire, Neanderthals who speak in experimental dialogue, far-flung posthumans and a city of a hundred undecillion human beings would simply be too big to get a grasp on. Fortunately, Philip Purser-Hallard never forgets that what we really want to read about are characters we can identify with and their very human struggles. And this novel is all about humanity, in more ways than one.
The murder mystery plot, in a realm where murder is impossible, allows us to grasp the concept in all its mind-boggling permutations, as well as understand the dangers posed by taking it all away. Along the way, there are some familiar faces, some deliciously executed revelations and beautiful writing, making this one of the must-reads of Doctor Who spinoffery.
It's a big investment, but this one is more than worth it. These books are proudly standalone, so you can sink your teeth into it with reckless abandon. You won't regret it... and the future you who's been reincarnated in the city will probably thank you as well.