The Winning Side
1-903889-36-7 (deluxe hardback)
|Featuring||Honore Lechasseur and Emily Blandish|
A Review by Finn Clark 29/1/04
The Winning Side is a deceptive little book. At first glance it seems to be a slickly written piece of easy reading with an ingenious plot, an unconvincing alternate future and some wannabe philosophical discussion. However it's actually History 101, but squared. Mags L. Halliday's 8DA debut was a dense thesis on the meaning of history, starring George Orwell and set in an old stamping ground of his. (He fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.) The Winning Side addresses similar themes and ends up taking a look at Orwell-land.
If you're wondering what I'm on about... check out pages 35 and 45, then put two and two together. In case your maths isn't all it might be, the answer's on the front cover. That's right; Lance is doing George Orwell's 1984. This is exactly the kind of thing that irritates me in a mainstream Who novel but works perfectly in the semi-detached Time Hunter novellas. One doesn't find oneself considering the Whoniverse ramifications and can simply go with the flow. Coincidentally, the native era of Honore and Emily (1949) is also the year in which 1984 was published. The following January, Orwell died.
Once I realised this, everything fell into place. (Lance even quotes Orwellian terminology on p73.) I couldn't believe in the trigger event which created this world, but it's as convincing as anything else that could bring about the required end result. It tickled me that this totalitarian regime owed its existence to left-wing idealism, anyway. Incidentally Lechasseur is totally out of his tree on p63, but at least he realises this on p77.
There's much discussion of the meaning of history, reality and truth which feels similar to History 101, except that here it's coming from the author of A History of the Universe. In a way, this comes across as more explicit metafictional Doctor Who commentary than the similar material in Lance's Infinity Doctors. It's Orwellian, but it's science-fictiony. The real-world points about history being artificial can be read as having parallels with the fictional reality of our favourite TV series. [In fact history isn't the only intellectual construction we tend to believe is realer than it is; arguably things as fundamental as time and mathematics fall into this category too.]
It's a strong story too. It skates dangerously close to being a alternate universe tale, but in the end it felt more like a literary crossover. The resolution of the story's big question was infinitely better than I'd feared (though I'd expected extreme pain). The 1949 setting is well portrayed, with Lance picking up slightly on O'Mahony's prose in The Cabinet of Light; this book contains skewed observations that add up to a vaguely surreal experience. One might call it the Ramsey Campbell school of fiction-writing, though of course it comes nowhere near the intensity of Campbell's work.
As a post-Who spin-off, it's interesting to compare it with the Benny series. An SF setting would seem more naturally aimed at Doctor Who fans. The Benny books gave us spaceships, Terrance Dicks, Ice Warriors and Time Lords, with lots of future history and Virginesque plotting. Once you'd taken into account the People's time-travelling abilities, there was hardly any Doctor Who story type that couldn't be translated into the Benniverse.
Time Hunter is different. It's more specific, with Honore Lechasseur and Emily Blandish being too distinctive to fit comfortably into the cut-and-pasted Who plots to which the Benny regulars were so well suited. What's more, its setting isn't SF. Theoretically Honore and Emily could end up almost anywhere, but at the moment this is essentially a series of historicals. Remember those? Fortunately these first two novellas are written with enough density and detail that postwar London feels real, in a way that should theoretically put it one up on Dellah and the Braxiatel Collection. Personally I'd like to see Telos get down and dirty with the historical aspect, really digging down into the period instead of hustling its heroes offworld to tell SF stories instead.
This is a well-written book. It's a good pilot for the Time Hunter series and it's a good read in its own right. Check it out.