Poll: Should Readers Care About Characters?

I had an interesting encounter on Reddit’s /r/books subreddit this week. The topic of discussion was Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (which, incidentally, we’ll eventually be covering in the Great Reddit Reading List). This book famously–or perhaps infamously–saw publication in two different forms; in the UK, it was published complete, but the American version omitted the final chapter. That chapter (21, if we’re keeping track) represents a crucial difference, because it is in that chapter that protagonist Alex chooses redemption from his previously terrible ways. The well-known Stanley Kubrick film adaptation follows the American version, leaving Alex unrepentant and unchanged after his experiences. (This issue is famously divisive; even Burgess himself was on record as saying that he wished he had not written the book, largely because of the version that made it to film.)

 

In the comments, the issue was raised of whether it’s possible to care about Alex if he experiences no growth, no change. This quickly devolved into an argument as to whether a character–and for our purposes, we’ll specify the protagonist–should be cared about. One individual made the claim that characters aren’t there for us to care about:

The ‘point’ of a character is not necessarily to be ‘cared about’.

Or, put another way:

The point of literature as a “whole” is not to produce sympathetic characters for you.

This makes for an interesting question, and I’m curious what you, as readers, think. I think it’s a given that not every character–not even every protagonist–is or should be sympathetic; the history of film, for example, is littered with protagonists that are evil and despicable (though, perversely, they seem to gain sympathy as they become more iconic–think Norman Bates, for example–but that’s a topic for another time). But it’s not a question of whether they are sympathetic, so much as a question of whether we should care about what happens to them. Darth Vader was intended to be a dark, evil, and merciless villain, but we cared very much about what happened to him, even back to his first appearances in A New Hope. (He’s since received a redemption scene, of course, and also benefits from a history of badassery, but my point predates all of that.)

I think we can agree that the production of characters we care about is not the ‘point’ of literature; but is that care necessary? My argument is that care, in this sense, is a necessary part of interest in the character. If we don’t care what happens to this person, why are we reading about/watching/playing him or her?

I’m tempted to look at this from the perspective of a writer; but this isn’t about me as a writer, it’s about us as readers. Therefore, I’m doing something I haven’t done on this blog before: I’m posting a poll. Cast your votes below! Should protagonist characters be someone we can care about, or does it not matter at all?

Thanks for voting, and as always, thanks for reading!

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TGRRL: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

When I was a teenager, I was introduced by way of school assignments to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which we’ve already covered. This terrifying little novel–terrifying to me, anyway; there may have been novels–is certainly the most well-known dystopian novel; but it’s hardly the only one, or even the first. It’s a bit debatable which dystopian novel is the first of its kind, but certainly one of the most influential is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brave New World first edition

First edition, as far as I can establish. Not mine.

 

(In fact, the novel has been noted to have directly influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four; making it even more interesting is the fact that Orwell had been, some years early, a pupil of Huxley at Eton, though not in any political or writing-related subject, but rather, in French. The historical connection, however, seems to have little to do with the writings; one novel influenced the other, without much regard for the past history of the authors, as far as anyone can tell from their commentary on the subject.)

It is unfortunate that Brave New World, today, is usually discussed only in the context of comparison to Orwell’s novel. And yet, that comparison does provide the easiest way to understand the book; it’s easier to define what it isn’t than what it is. I find myself wishing I had read Brave New World first, so that I could have appreciated it solely for itself.  Nevertheless, I expect I’m inevitably going to find myself pointing out comparisons as we look at the novel here. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

From this point forward, expect spoilers; although, the book is nearly ninety years old, so perhaps it’s not even fair to call them spoilers.

Here we have the story of a world where most human problems have been resolved. That’s what we’re reaching for, isn’t it? Health, happiness, peace, prosperity? Of course we are. Brave New World supplies those things; its people have every need met through a very efficient system of production. Workloads are light and easy. Happiness is practically ensured through use of a consequence-free drug called soma (why is it conventional to italicize non-traditional words like this? I’m doing so here for emphasis, but I’ll drop it henceforward).  This focus on happiness, however, has required the upending of certain social conventions: marriage and monogamy no longer exist; childbirth is mostly nonexistent, having been replaced by birth control and birthing centers with artificial wombs; crime is mostly eliminated–certainly a good thing–by way of a rigid caste system–not so good. However, no one feels the loss of these things, due to conditioning and the effects of soma. Our initial protagonist, Bernard Marx, doesn’t quite fit in; but he is mostly a catalyst for the story rather than a major character. His situation introduces us to the true protagonist, a man named John. John is the illicit offspring of two rather normal and compliant citizens, but through a twist of fate he is raised on a “savage reservation”, a place where the conventions of society are not in effect, and people live as they have lived for years prior to the new order–though admittedly impoverished by their isolation. John is then brought back to civilization, but he is unable to cope or adapt; and in the end, he hangs himself.

This matter of absolute happiness–but at a hidden cost–is common enough in dystopias today. It was unheard of when Huxley wrote; utopian novels were common enough, and indeed he started this project as a parody of utopian novels of his day. The idea that happiness could be obtained, but that it would in turn cost us something fundamental, was new and disturbing. It’s not new anymore, but it is still disturbing, and rightly so. The desire for happiness is deeply ingrained in us, possibly even as a part of our survival instinct. Dystopias like Brave New World acknowledge that, but then counter with a more frightening idea: the idea that we need challenge, pain, difficulty, in order to really be human. If we truly get what we’re chasing, we’ll become less instead of more.

This is a radically different form of dystopia from Orwell’s vision (and here we go!). Orwell predicted a dystopia of fear–one in which the government’s power becomes so absolute as to crush all resistance, inspiring obedience by fear. The problem with that kind of oppression is that it requires endless vigilance; and endless vigilance translates into endless resources. Just how many people does it take to monitor a population of billions twenty-four hours a day, I wonder? How much infrastructure? And that’s on top of the apparatus required for punishing infractions, providing for needs, and other aspects of government. Huxley’s version is much simpler, because it makes every individual complicit in their own oppression. As John’s mother Linda graphically illustrates, people want to be compliant; they don’t have to be pushed to it. After all, they’re endlessly happy; they don’t feel the loss of less tangible things such as challenge or morality. They only feel the soothing of soma.

It’s popular to make comparisons to modern society, and try to decide what kind of dystopia we live in. I’ll be blunt: We don’t, at least not yet. However, I think that if we were trying to make projections about the real world, both versions would be too simplistic. A real-world dystopia would more likely be a blending of the two; it would have some form of enticement for the public, combined with some form of invasive monitoring and enforcement. Carrot and stick, if you will. While I don’t believe our society is at dystopian levels yet, I will say that we have elements of both in place already. We’ve had enough issues with governmental elimination of privacy over the years, and especially with the proliferation of technology and the internet; and we have the same internet serving as our soma, to some degree. (And here I am, posting on the internet! Irony, much?)

But that’s just it: we’re not there yet, and in a purely Huxleyan sense, I don’t think we ever will be. The challenges we face as a species are too great for that. Death is always going to be a thing. Suffering is maddeningly hard to eliminate. Poverty has a way of returning over and over again. Diseases adapt to accommodate our treatments. A Huxleyan dystopia requires that all of these challenges be overcome; we’ve made great strides, but I doubt we’ll ever have the kind of success required for his vision to be true. Nevertheless, we should keep trying. We should work at overcoming those challenges. We exist in a strange space, where we can’t win this fight, but neither is our striving pointless, because we can still improve–even if we never reach the end of the improvement.

This is the second dystopia we’ve examined, and I want to point out something that, in my opinion, distinguishes classical dystopias from the young-adult dystopias that are so popular today. (Not that I’m disparaging those stories; they may be common, but they’re not bad, or at least not by definition.) The YA dystopias usually result in a happy ending for most; the ruling party is overthrown, chaos reigns briefly, then something better takes its place. I think that’s a wonderfully optimistic outlook, but it’s very different from the classics, where the protagonists inevitably lose. A classic dystopia will grind the rebellious protagonists down, and keep on moving without breaking stride. In the end, nothing changes. I find this strange; with the political and social climates we face today, I’d have expected it to be the other way around.

Still, Brave New World is the more hopeful of the two. While one protagonist dies, the others don’t; nor are they greatly changed in outlook–they’re simply sidelined. And in the meantime, millions aren’t being ground down; they remain obliviously happy, but they remain. It may not be much of a chance; but perhaps that’s better than much chance at all. As Huxley never wrote a true sequel (Brave New World Revisited is a non-fiction critique), it’s open to conjecture.

How’s your reading goal coming along? I’ve set a goal of 50 books in 2018 via Goodreads; you can join me here! So far I’ve finished three books: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, and Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. You can see my to-read list here.

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Is Enough Ever Enough?

Years ago, Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about Yoda. Yes, the diminutive, green Jedi master with the Fozzie-Bear voice. If you’re familiar with Weird Al, this shouldn’t surprise you; this is the same guy that wrote a song accurately predicting the plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace months before it was released, in a day when Internet leaks weren’t a thing yet. At any rate, it’s a fun song, set to the tune of The Kinks’ Lola, about Luke Skywalker’s training relationship with Yoda. I bring it up because of a line in the last verse; when Luke is preparing to go to Bespin and rescue his friends (as in The Empire Strikes Back), he says:

But I know that I’ll be coming back someday; I’ll be playing this part ‘til I’m old and grey.

The long-term contract I had to sign says I’ll be making these movies ‘til the end of time,

with my Yoda.

Well, as it turns out…

old luke and yoda

Couldn’t find a single screenshot from The Last Jedi that included both of them. Use your imagination.

Yeah. Nailed it!

This post is not about Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, from which those screenshots come. I find it necessary to bring it up here at the beginning, because the controversy surrounding this movie sets up nicely for the question I want to ask. That question is: When is enough, enough? Specifically, when should we say “enough is enough” to our favorite fictional franchises? It’s a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple.

My early years of fandom—not just with regard to Star Wars, but with regard to any franchise—could be summed up with three words: I want more. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing! I loved these characters, and the worlds they inhabited. I wanted the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. I wanted to know what happened to E.T. after he went home. I wanted to know the backstory of He-Man and Eternia (I’m an ‘80s kid, if you hadn’t noticed yet)! WHAT HAPPENED WHEN REN GOT ALL THIRTEEN TREASURES OF RULE?! WHAT ABOUT—

the pirates of dark water

I loved this show way too much.

Okay, we were getting a little obscure there, sorry. (That last reference was to a cartoon called The Pirates of Dark Water, which ended before its premise could be fulfilled, and I’m still a little bitter about it.) At any rate, it wasn’t unusual to want to know more. That’s the motivation for all the sequels and prequels of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s the reason She-Ra exists, and is getting a reboot in 2018. It led to the release of E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, which sadly never even made it to an animated film. And it has led thousands of fans, myself included, to write fanfiction over the years. Why, though?

When fiction is well-written, the characters and settings become real to us. We read, or watch, or play (yes, video games count), or listen, and we get to live for awhile in another person’s world, and even in their shoes. Like family or friends, we want to know those individuals personally. When the story is enjoyable, we want more of the same. Sometimes we even get it, though sequels are commonly known for a dip in quality. This is all perfectly legitimate.

book of the green planet

This really was a thing, and it was exactly as trippy as the cover would have you believe.

Still, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Now, from this point on, what I’m saying is my own view, and I’m NOT trying to pass it off as a rule of any kind. Everyone’s threshold of tolerance is their own. You may read this and think “well, that isn’t me at all!” That’s fine. I was you for a long time, and I was happy that way. I’m also happy where I am now. You can love what you love, and you can show that love however you like! That’s the beauty of living in a world with so much variety.

Using Star Wars as an example again: For many years, Star Wars fans had what we referred to as the Expanded Universe (sometimes rendered as “Extended”), or EU. This was anything beyond the original movie trilogy and, later, the prequel trilogy. It’s a little unclear exactly where it started; early novels include Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (considered the first EU novel, and dating all the way back to 1978!) and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures (1979 and following). I can also remember comics or early graphic novels dating to at least 1986, and possibly earlier, though I haven’t researched it. The EU really took off in 1991 with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and its sequels, and the twenty-plus years afterward were packed with novels, comics, video games, and—later—cartoons. If the original trilogy was the stuff of my childhood, this was the stuff of my teens and twenties, and I absorbed it as fast as I could lay hands on it. I loved every minute, including the controversial New Jedi Order novels. All of that came crashing to a halt, though, in late October 2012, when Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney; shortly thereafter, Disney announced that it would be continuing from the end of Return of the Jedi with its own canon stories, not related to the existing EU. The EU stories were redubbed as “Star Wars Legends”, and new Legends material ceased to be produced. That’s what brings us to today, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and various novels and comics in the new continuity.

splinter of the mind's eye

The original EU novel. Worth noting: Luke and Leia had not yet been revealed to be siblings. Hindsight makes this book a little uncomfortable, which is too bad; it’s a great story.

Fans, being fans, did not go quietly. Up to and including The Last Jedi—which has raked in the money anyway, of course—there has been constant debate and controversy. We’re fans; that’s what we do. I, for one, have watched all three new movies, though I haven’t read any of the books or comics; I think they’re a fair take on the series, but I’m curious to see where they go. I don’t hate them; I don’t love them, either, not the way I loved the original trilogy. Perhaps my kids will; certainly the studio has taken pains to make these movies appeal to a new generation, and that’s not a bad thing.

Still, this change in continuity has given me time to look back at the EU and think. What I’ve found in the interim is that—to my surprise, and if I may be honest, dismay—I was kind of tired of it already. You see, the EU has covered nearly every possible time period, if not place, in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s exhaustively catalogued the lives of our original heroes, both before and after the movies, and in some cases including their deaths, although writers are understandably hesitant to kill off a major character. (Actually, it’s not just the authors; the EU always had considerable oversight, and such a decision would have to be approved. Lucasfilm wasn’t fond of killing off its cash cows, and that’s no surprise.) It shows us their descendants. It explores the galaxy, and gives us side stories. It looks deeply and exhaustively into the past, back to the very origins of the Jedi and Sith and beyond.  There may be stories yet to be told, but there isn’t a lot of room left to tell them! That’s why, at the end, the EU was delving further into the future; but in science fiction, that’s always a risky proposition. The further you get from your baseline date—in this case, the original movie trilogy—the more conjecture is required, whereas when delving into the past, you have a predefined period with which to work. It was at this point that I started to get tired of things, in large part because the series began to recycle its original plots again. After so much investment into eliminating the Empire and the Sith, and changing up the characters’ understanding of the Force, and expanding the character roster beyond the Skywalker-Solo family, we ended up with an evil Empire, led by a Sith lord from the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, with an underground rebellion involving another Skywalker. Sound familiar? It did to me, as well.

Fate of the Jedi

This is what a sigh looks like in print.

There comes a time in every long-lived franchise where you begin to think that the creators are being less creative and more money-oriented. That accusation gets tossed around a lot, and I don’t want to use it lightly. Still, recycling of plots seems to me to be a good indicator that this sort of thing is happening. I have no problem with giving money to a franchise that is earning it; but simple quantity of effort isn’t enough to earn it, if that effort is not coming from a desire to do the job well. Money may be an effective motivator, but it’s not a good one; it will always tend toward the minimum necessary effort, toward quantity over quality. And, as I’ve hinted, you can drown in quantity.

Let’s look at a more literary example. Frank Herbert’s Dune is widely regarded as one of the finest masterpieces in science fiction history. Its early sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, are regarded nearly as highly; the next three books in the series are also well loved, though less so. Unfortunately, Frank Herbert was in the midst of writing the final volume when he died, and we never got a proper ending to the Dune series. Enter his son, Brian, and established sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson (who, perhaps not coincidentally, had already written for the Star Wars EU). This duo set out, allegedly, to finish the series, working from Frank Herbert’s notes and unfinished work, much as Brandon Sanderson would later do for Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy series. If that was all they had done, it would have been fine; but they didn’t begin there. Instead, they started with a political-intrigue prequel trilogy, and then wrote a distant-past trilogy based on the nearly-mythical Butlerian Jihad. That event had been mentioned in the original series as the reason why humans were so heavily against artificial intelligence, or “thinking machines”, but it had never been properly described. Only after completing those six volumes did they write the conclusion to Dune, which itself was split into two volumes (and thus two sales). In the end, their conclusion had much more in common with their Butlerian Jihad series than with the original Dune series—a turn of events that I find hard to imagine having been in Frank Herbert’s plans. We may never know; but we DO know that Brian and Kevin have gone on to write more Dune novels—a total of thirteen as of 2016, which is more than twice the number written by Frank Herbert.

Dune Collection

Pictured: Too Much

We’ll leave the question of whether a fictional universe belongs to its original creator for another post; but I want to point out that Brian and Kevin’s books are almost universally regarded to be inferior to the original series. (Personally, I greatly enjoyed the Butlerian Jihad books, but they are very different from the originals; and the other entries have been mediocre at best, including the two concluding volumes.) So, was it just a money-grab? Maybe. I suspect that Brian Herbert originally wanted to do justice to his father’s legacy; but in the end, the money was just too attractive, and they couldn’t stop.

Maybe they should have. Maybe we, fans, should have, as well (though it’s more the burden of the authors than the fans, I think; we vote with our dollars, as it were, but only after the fact). Maybe, in the end, we only need so much of a good thing; and anything else becomes too much. There’s nothing wrong with wrapping up an unfinished tale; on that note, mystery writer Sue Grafton recently died, with only one volume left in her Kinsey Millhone/Alphabet Mystery series (Z is for Zero would have been the title), and I’d be thrilled if her family would let that last volume be ghostwritten. (They aren’t.) I would hate to have invested countless hours in The Wheel of Time’s twelve (at that time) volumes, and never get the conclusion Brandon Sanderson gave us later. But beyond that, there’s nothing wrong with letting a masterpiece stand on its own. The original Dune series (aside from the question of a conclusion) was a masterpiece. So was the original Star Wars trilogy. We don’t need every gap filled in, every era examined, every character’s every moment written out.  We don’t—heaven help us—an Episode X, XI, or XII. Too much cheapens the original, and dilutes its impact. Sometimes, enough is really enough.

a memory of light

This is how you continue another author’s work.

 

(I feel I should say, in passing, that there are some very rare series that have built-in safeguards against this very phenomenon. The best example I have is Doctor Who, of which I am a lifelong fan; those who have followed this blog for a while already know that, and for those that are new, you can find much more of my material about that series at my companion blog, The Time Lord Archives. That series has built-in mechanisms for constantly renewing itself; it has no single monolithic era, and has always been a sort of shared universe, with a multitude of contributors and a horde of characters and settings. It was designed that way, and has proved surprisingly resilient over five and a half decades. But, this sort of situation is rare; that format doesn’t lend itself well to most series. And even with a series like Doctor Who, it’s easy to get overwhelmed or burned out, just based on the volume of material.)

That’s where I am in my own life as a fan. I’ll always love Star Wars and Dune and The Wheel of Time and many other franchises; but I’ll love them with the fondness of memory, rather than the fanaticism of the future. If I do watch or read or play any future installments—and I will; I watched The Last Jedi, and Lord willing I will watch Episode IX when it’s released—I’ll try to appreciate them for what they are, but I won’t chase them the way I did in my teens. And if I miss them, that’s okay as well. It’s been a good exercise for me, this form of letting go; it has let me enjoy these things without the burden of comparing them to what’s gone before, and therefore prevented me from hating things that don’t merit that level of investment. In the course of doing that, it’s saved me from the trap of trying to get my children to be as invested in these things as I was at their age; they’re not me, and I don’t want them to be me. They deserve their own memories, even as they learn to appreciate a few of mine. After all, there’s only so much time, and there’s a lot to experience in it. We short ourselves when we expend all our effort on one beloved franchise—and life is too short for that.

But if they ever go back and write an ending for The Pirates of Dark Water, I’m in! Just kidding. Mostly.

 

TGRRL: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

Whenever a recommendation post–and they are fairly common–appears on Reddit’s book-oriented communities, certain books inevitably float to the top. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in comment threads discussing science-fiction and fantasy recommendations. I’m being completely anecdotal here–I haven’t tracked it in any formal sense–but my observation is that today’s book, Orson Scott Card’s famous Ender’s Game, is likely one of the top three science-fiction novels recommended, at least in the past few years. (The others would be Dune, which we’ve already covered, and Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut, Ready Player One. I’ve been hearing about that book since I joined Reddit in 2013, but have yet to read it. Certainly to beat out so many classics of the genre, it must have something going for it; and it’s definitely on my to-read list. It is also on the extended portion of the Great Reddit Reading List–that is, the entries after #200; I suspect it only missed being on the original list by virtue of being very new while compilation was taking place.)

enders game

Ender’s Game, first edition. Not mine, unfortunately.

 

The problem with being such a highly-recommended book is that its reputation begins to supplant the actual book. I would not be surprised to learn that there are many science-fiction readers who know the basic premise of Ender’s Game without having read the book. The 2013 film certainly helped in that regard, but I suspect this was already true prior to the film’s release. I was one such reader; I was loosely familiar with the book long before my friend Cyndera persuaded me to read it (she had recently participated in one of Card’s writing workshops, and was a bit of a Card enthusiast at the time, so I can’t blame her). What I found when I did read it, was not what I expected.

The Ender series, as well as its companion Shadow series (Ender’s Shadow and its sequels), are far less concerned with the science-fiction conventions they portray, and far more concerned with the effect those conventions have on the characters. Many of us–most, even–know by now that Ender’s Game is the story of children fighting a war when they believe they are simply playing a war game. Ender Wiggin’s tactical genius is impressive, but he believes he is only using it for games and training, when in fact he is commanding real fleets in a very real war. That’s clever, and makes for a great twist at the end; but the euphoria of discovering that twist lasts about ten seconds. That’s about how long it takes for the reader to realize that this child has been exploited and nearly destroyed by all the adults in his life, and can never have a normal life in any meaningful sense. Meanwhile, the Shadow series follows Ender’s right-hand man (boy?), Bean, who is a product of genetic engineering. That engineering gives him an amazing and ever-increasing mental capacity, which in the end causes him to far surpass Ender’s accomplishments–but it also condemns him to a painful and early death, as his body continues to grow in pace with his mind. No one gets off easy in this series, and everyone pays the price for their advancements.

I have wondered what Card meant to say in this series. It seems to me that, at least in the first few novels of each series, his goal was to expose the horrors of war by taking them to absurd extremes (there’s little more extreme than child soldiers, after all, whether in the real world or in fiction). The message that comes across, however, is a bit different: It’s a statement of the dangers in rushing into technology, into the future, without looking and counting the cost first. Card doesn’t make the argument that these things are bad by definition; his ships, his weapons, his ansible (a communication device borrowed from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World, and a contraction of the word “answerable”), his gene tech, are all legitimate technologies, but they are used recklessly and without thought for what they will do to those in their sphere of influence.

With all that said, it’s still a good book. It’s a sort of coming-of-age story, though certainly different from most; it’s a good sci-fi war novel; and it does portray a future that is as fascinating as it is frightening. Reading Ender’s Game is a coming-of-age ritual of its own for sci-fi fans, despite the fact that I was nearly thirty when I read it. I would simply recommend reading it for yourself before getting too involved in its reputation–and that, I think, is good advice for any book and any reader.

How’s your reading goal coming along? I’ve set a goal of 50 books in 2018 via Goodreads; you can join me here! So far I’ve finished Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, and have begun reading Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. You can see my to-read list here.

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TGRRL: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I will confess that, in my reading preferences, I lean toward genre fiction. By default, that means I lean away from mainstream or literary fiction (although, when genre fiction vastly outsells literary fiction, can we really say that literary fiction is “mainstream”?). My view is not so simplistic as to say there is no good literary fiction out there, or that genre is by default superior; there is a lot of fantastic literary fiction on the market. Rather, I think that literary fiction has a tendency toward pretension and absurdity that genre fiction—being mostly driven by plot and motivated by finances—lacks. It’s only a tendency, not a hard-and-fast rule; but it explains my personal preferences. A significant portion of the literary fiction out there, essentially, is just terrible.

slaughterhouse five first edition cover

The first-edition cover, as far as I can identify it.

 

With that said, it always comes as a surprise—especially to me—when I come across a literary novel that I really, truly like. Such was the case with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Vonnegut is one of America’s literary darlings, and this book is certainly nothing new to many readers; I would confidently bet that it’s the first Vonnegut that most people read, as it was for me. The book remains popular, and has been consistently in print since its 1969 publication. So, perhaps it’s not surprising to anyone else that I would find it enjoyable; but it surprised me. After all, it has prominent qualities which I usually find irritating in books and movies alike: a non-linear structure, a distinct lack of action, a somewhat nebulous and ambiguous ending, an unreliable narrator. I like things to be straightforward, and this book is anything but. So, why would it appeal to me?

The book was years in the making; the first chapter, rather than diving into the narrative, gives Vonnegut’s perspective on the writing of the book and, more importantly, the experiences upon which it is based. Vonnegut fought at a young age in World War II, and was present as a prisoner of war for the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, an event which was little known in America for decades. By some calculations, the destruction in Dresden was worse than that in Hiroshima. Vonnegut’s fictional protagonist follows the same steps, for the most part, as Vonnegut himself (though, to be fair, Vonnegut doesn’t mean for his protagonist to be him; he casts himself in a bit part of the novel, claiming to have been there along with the fictional Billy Pilgrim). These experiences are framed in a mild science-fiction story; Billy Pilgrim has had two remarkable sci-fi experiences. He has been abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who placed him in a zoo for an extended period before returning him to the same night in which he left; and, more importantly, he has become “unstuck in time”, meaning that he has out-of-body experiences in which he lives moments from his own past and future. The two situations are unconnected, but are vital to the story; the “unstuck in time” scenes allow the non-linear telling of the story to develop organically, while the alien abduction gives Billy a motivation for changing his outlook on life, death, and war.

My first, rather shallow, thought upon first reading the book was that it was the sci-fi elements that attracted me; and indeed, I’ve seen this novel billed as a science-fiction story. I assure you, though, it isn’t; and the sci-fi elements aren’t even particularly strong or well-developed. They seem to affect only the inward aspects of Billy Pilgrim; they have little effect on events, and even seem to be actively insulated from affecting events. They exist to move the story along, and to allow Vonnegut to obliquely tell what must have been an incredibly difficult story for him. The story is anti-war, but not overtly so; there’s a clear undertone that war is bad, but mostly inevitable. Still, it’s clear that the firebombing of Dresden—not to mention the entire war—was a troubling and formative time for Vonnegut, and he seems to need the frame story to get it down on paper.

In the end, that’s what I liked about the story. One could argue all day about the message Vonnegut wanted to get across; but what I saw in the story is that he hadn’t yet worked it all out. Dresden was troubling, yes—as a massacre should be, and that’s the understatement of the year—but Vonnegut had not in fact come fully to terms with it. He dances through and around the issue, taking a peek into one viewpoint or another—and in the end, he’s still disquieted, and still not sure, and that strikes me as a very honest take. The lessons of such a terrible event shouldn’t be easy to process. It takes an entire lifetime, whether in or out of order.

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TGRRL: Dune, by Frank Herbert

If you’ve made it to adulthood and haven’t heard of Dune…what’s your secret? I have to know! Few science-fiction classics have permeated public consciousness the way that Frank Herbert’s famous novel has. Sandworms, spice, and spacefolding—the words and the concepts alike have been borrowed and recycled time and again. The book, to put it plainly, is popular.

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This is the cover of the copy I read, some eighteen years ago; and I am sitting here kicking my own ass, because I just discovered it was a FIRST EDITION! Which was subsequently destroyed. I am truly a monster.

 

It may come as quite a shock, then, to learn that the book was rejected by more than twenty publishers. When it was finally accepted, it was by Chilton Books, whose bread and butter consist of auto repair manuals. (Full disclosure: I’m referring to publication as a novel here. The story was previously serialized in Analog magazine; in a just world, that would instantly guarantee that some publisher would snatch it up, but this—like Herbert’s Arrakis—is not a just world.) Its themes may be tropes now; but in the early 1960s, this ecology-driven work was new and unfamiliar, and very much a hard sell. Herbert didn’t shy away from that or compromise in any way—with his own history of ecological work on the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, he unashamedly dedicated the book to the ecologists engaged in such labors. It would be two more decades before saving the world—from an environmental standpoint—would be fashionable.

Dune, however, is not about saving the world. The story simply assumes a world where conservationist measures are an absolute necessity. That’s the backdrop; the story is political and religious. Wait! No! Don’t run! Frank Herbert had a gift for taking those themes and making them intriguing. The desert world of Arrakis, colloquially called “Dune”, sits at the center of every major power conspiracy in the known universe, and for a very good reason: its ubiquitous spice, melange, is the source of the mystical prescience that allows faster-than-light travel, as well as a host of other powers in various special-interest groups—and it can be produced nowhere else. Melange is a waste product of the planet’s enormous, building-swallowing, man-eating sandworms, which live nowhere else in the universe. The story begins when the galactic emperor, Shaddam Corrino IV, displaces the noble family in charge of Dune—the Harkonnens—and replaces them with their ancient-but-weaker rivals, the Atreides. It’s a trap, however, designed to destroy the Atreides, who have long been a thorn in the side of the Emperor as well. The Atreides heir, Paul, was secretly bred by a religious group, the matriarchal Bene Gesserit as a step toward their long-awaited messiah figure, the kwisatz haderach, the “one who shortens the way”; but unknown to the Bene Gesserit, he is the Kwisatz Haderach. In the end, he upends the empire, seizes power, embarks on a bloody jihad (a term that likely had less political weight in the real world when Herbert wrote the book), and sets the galaxy on a long path of predestination and fate.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I read Dune, and my memory required a little refreshing before writing this entry.  Prior to that first reading, I was only loosely familiar with it via the David Lynch film adaptation, which I had watched as a young child, and which famously took some notable liberties with the story. (It IS David Lynch, so of course it did—but then, his experience here eventually gave us Kyle MacLachlan in the role of Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, so I cannot complain.) It’s hard for me to look back on this volume without filtering it through the lens of what came after; and by that I mean both Frank Herbert’s incomplete Dune saga, and his son Brian’s supporting and concluding novels (written with Kevin J. Anderson, and based at least loosely on notes left by Frank Herbert). A word of caution, should you wish to continue the series: those two categories are two very different animals. Frank Herbert’s novels are nearly universally revered, and justifiably so; Brian Herbert’s novels are nearly universally reviled, at least by fans of his father. I personally think that’s a bit unjust; I found them to be great books on their own, but a bit deservedly overshadowed by the original series. Nowadays there are more books by Brian and Kevin than the original series contains; but quantity doesn’t make them superior.

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Kyle MacLachlan is my hero. Also this tweet is 100% accurate. Read the book!

 

The later entries cover thousands of years of future history, and greatly expand on the themes of predestination, fate, and prescience (that is, future-sight, a hallmark power of those who use the spice). Herbert was setting up for some kind of titanic conflict at the end; some unknown enemy still waited, of which the readers had only received hint. Compiling various sources, Brian and Kevin posited in their novels that the true enemies were the thinking machines against which humans had once fought, now returned in great strength and power. Frank, unfortunately, never got around to telling us; he passed away before he could write the final volume. At any rate, there is none of that in the first volume, which is limited to the life of Paul Atreides on Arrakis, and not even all of that. With that limitation, the book can be notoriously confusing to some, as it simply hurls its readers into the morass of intrigues without a life preserver. I, myself, find it to be the least interesting book in the series; but don’t let that discourage you; we’re dealing with a high bar here. The entire series is good, so to call this one the least interesting is no insult at all.

The bottom line: Dune is a fantastic classic science fiction story in its own right; a great political novel; and, perhaps most importantly, it kicks off one of the truly great series in sci-fi history. Its effect on the course of science fiction has been profound; of all the series out there, perhaps only Asimov’s Foundation series, which we will cover in a few months, is its equal. I feel compelled to hold back any more details of plot and character, for the simple reason that this is not an obscure book—if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? You may struggle through it sometimes, but you won’t be disappointed.

Note: Unfortunately, unlike Foundation—which appears as an entire saga together—none of the other Dune novels made it onto the Great Reddit Reading List. That’s a pity; and if you have opportunity to continue the series, I highly recommend it. God Emperor of Dune is my personal favorite, though the others are great as well. ~Timewalkerauthor

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TGRRL: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

It’s been a very long time since I last read George Orwell’s most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I admit that I didn’t reread it for my progress through the reading list, and so I may not be as specific in this review as in some others. Still, the book is famous; and in the era of the NSA, it comes up often enough that it gets revisited frequently in some form or another—therefore I think we’ll manage.

1984 cover

I’m attempting to include the covers of the editions that I read, wherever possible.

 

I find it fascinating how, in the past, this book was universally considered to represent the most horrible form of dystopian society. That’s still true, but only on reputation; when people begin to delve into the book, they’re inevitably faced with the fact that we’ve already allowed many of the invasions of privacy that are commonplace therein. Orwell’s ubiquitous screens have been upstaged by smart televisions; the microphones live in our homes nowadays and have names and personalities (hello, Alexa!). We know the NSA and other government agencies are monitoring much of our electronic communications; they’d monitor every bit if they could, and they’re very open about that. It’s for our own good, right? Big Brother said that, too.

There are three reasons why we don’t care, I believe—or at least, we don’t care very much. First, we love the convenience. There’s no question that Alexa and Cortana and our laptops and cell phones and smart TVs make our lives easier, more convenient, and—let’s admit it—more fun. I like the convenience of streaming television when I want it, even if everyone in the chain of provision knows what I’m watching.

Second, we didn’t receive this all at once. The book shocks us because it hits us at once—we didn’t grow up in the dystopian Oceania, and we’re discovering it in a moment. In the real world, our reduction in privacy was a gradual process. It was a very slick move to show us the convenience before we became widely aware of the universal vulnerabilities—like getting us all addicted to heroin before telling us it will destroy our lives. Now, I’m drawing a pretty extreme comparison there; I don’t think having our emails pass through a government net is literally going to kill us all. But, don’t let my hyperbole distract from the fact that there are risks involved.

And third, we aren’t—as a general rule anyway—being oppressed by means of this technology. To that, I am obliged to add an enormous “YET”. Nineteen Eighty-Four protagonist Winston Smith’s life was regulated down to the smallest minutiae, and he was actively punished for any deviation, but that isn’t happening to us. Our choices are certainly manipulated, but we aren’t feeling much pain for it.  However, the potential exists for that to change, and a less benign government—which is really saying something when we’re talking about the US government—could easily take advantage of it. It’s in our best interests not to let that happen.

One can find mountains of material treating this subject, so I won’t get any deeper into it here. If you’re reading it, you came for my thoughts on the book, not the political climate. The bottom line is that I found the book terrifying at the time I read it, about twenty-five years ago; I had actual nightmares, and not for the infamous scene with the description of the face-eating rats. I had nightmares about losing such a battle against the world and against the shapeless-but-omnipresent powers represented by Big Brother. Today, though, it’s lost much of its punch, and that is tragically unfortunate. The book has often been compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—mostly unfavorably, if I remember correctly, which is odd as Nineteen Eighty-Four is by far the better-known work in the popular realm. At any rate, we’ll perhaps look more at the comparison when I cover Brave New World, which is also on the list.

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TGRRL: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

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And so begins one of science-fiction and comedy’s most highly prized works: Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s a rather unassuming beginning; it’s clever, but unremarkable. The first sentence is long and not particularly catchy, which is exactly how all the writing guides tell you not to do it. It gives no real hint of what it to come, or the many, many scenes and lines for which this book is famous. If you stopped here, you’d never know.

And that, friends, would be a shame. The Great Reddit Reading List was ordered according to the number of votes each book received, and there are good reasons why this tiny, once-obscure volume comes in at number one. I can very nearly guarantee that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard of it; or at least you’ve heard of one of its adaptations. And all of this is for one simple reason: Douglas Adams was a comedic master.

Truthfully, there’s not much I can say about the book, and its subsequent “trilogy” of five books total which hasn’t already been said. (I’m not counting And Another Thing, the alleged “book six” by Eoin Colfer; it’s certainly entertaining, but it’s no Adams. That’s not at all an insult; no one else could be Adams.) I don’t really intend to try, at any rate; you’ll find that with these reviews, I’m less interested in critiquing the book and more in giving an idea of what it meant to me. After all, it’s our experiences with books that make us passionate about them, and that make other people want to read them. This book has been dissected at great length in more reviews than I can count, and justifiably so. And so:

I won’t say that this was my first work of science fiction or comedy. I had been reading for years before I discovered Hitchhiker’s Guide at about the age of nine or ten, and had been into science fiction for most of that time. In fact, the first “big thing” for me in science fiction was Doctor Who (and if you’ve delved deep into this site, or its sister site, The Time Lord Archives, you know it’s still a big thing for me!), which coincidentally was also instrumental in Adams’s life. He wrote three successful serials for the Fourth Doctor’s era (one of them, Shada, only failed because of a workers’ strike, not because of anything about the story) and a few more unused pitches; and he served as script editor for the 1979 season of Doctor Who. His character of Professor Chronotis, from the unfinished Shada, went on to feature in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which has recently been adapted for television by the BBC.

Still, Hitchhiker’s Guide was a formative work for me. Everything is new when you discover it for the first time; looking back, I’m sure I wore out my sci-fi-loving dad with “42” jokes that he had known for years. From this book I learned that science fiction doesn’t have to be Star Trek serious; I learned that adventures don’t have to be as grand as Star Wars to be fun. I learned to appreciate wry and subtle humor (and I know what you’re thinking: Adams, subtle? Never! But consider his comedy against most American televised comedy, which would have been my only point of comparison, and I think you’ll see my perspective). I’m not accomplished at writing it myself yet, but I try to incorporate a little as I can. I leaned that absurdity in literature doesn’t have to equate to pointlessness; it can tell a story just as well as earnestness, or drama.

The fun in Hitchhiker’s Guide is in the sharing. This was the first book that ever became a social activity for me—the first book with jokes so widely known that I could laugh about them with, well, nearly anybody. They were certainly fun to read for myself, but they were so much more fun when passed around with a wink and a nudge and—sometimes—a guffaw. Now that I’m older, I’m passing them on to my children; my oldest daughter is eleven, about the same age as I was when I read the book, and we find ourselves passing Guide jokes over the dinner table while my wife (her stepmom) rolls her eyes at us. (She’s in on the joke, too; she mostly rolls her eyes when we get the jokes out before she does.) My daughter and her younger brother, age 9, are both math aficionados in school, and secretly I think it bugs them both that the answer (“42”) doesn’t match the question (“What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”, which we don’t discover until The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)—but that’s the beauty of the absurdity in Adams’s work.

And that’s that. For personal reasons, I’ll be cutting off here for today; but if you’ve never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, give it a shot! And while you’re here, check out the rest of The Great Reddit Reading List. Next time: We’ll take a look at a particularly famous dystopian novel, George Orwell’s 1984. See you there!

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Short Story: The Light of Her Phone

This short story was written in response to a prompt on Reddit‘s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit. This particular prompt is an image prompt; I’ve borrowed my title from the title of that post, and the original image is included and linked below. Credit to DeviantArt user TomTC (Tommy Chandra) for the image, and to Redditor /u/Syraphia for the prompt. I’ve posted this story on Reddit in response to the prompt, as well.

I’ve opted to set this story in a larger fantasy world on which I’ve been working. Consequently, there’s a bit at the end that may sound like an infodump; I try to avoid that as much as possible, but as this piece is tied into that larger world, I found it necessary to include some of that linking information here. Still, I hope this story is enjoyable. Thanks for reading!

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Paranormal Girl (practice sketch) by TomTC

It was only when the sun set that she began to worry. Rather, she assumed the sun had set; it was getting dark, but the patches of sky that she could see were hazy and grey, and no glowing orb was visible. At any rate, the trees obscured her view.

Her name was Olive Parker, and she was thirteen years old. She’d been wandering for several hours. She didn’t know how she had come to this rather strange place; she only knew it had happened suddenly. One second she was stepping out her own front door; the next, she felt a strange tugging sensation throughout her body, and suddenly she was here, under these ashy grey trees. That was strange enough, and troublesome—to put it mildly!—but she had recovered quickly enough, and started walking. There were paths through the trees; she had found herself on one upon arriving. Surely they must lead somewhere.

Surely not, it seemed now. For the hundredth time, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and checked its GPS. As every time before, it searched the skies for a signal, and then came up blank. NO SATELLITE DETECTED. How could that be? There were always satellites in the sky, right?

She paused and looked around. The woods were dark now, and the light of her cell phone didn’t help her night vision. She pointed it toward the ground. In the dimness around her—there! Was that movement? Yes. Something… it was gone, whatever it was. Nothing too large; maybe a rabbit?

She resumed walking, using the cell phone’s screen to illuminate the ground at her feet. The roots of the trees didn’t seem to encroach on the paths, but one couldn’t be too careful. At the rate she was going, if she tripped, she’d cut herself, and get an infection and die, all before she got out of these woods. Well, that was a morbid thought. Anything, though, to divert her mind from one small but frightening truth:

There hadn’t been any wildlife around during the day.

Something dashed through the undergrowth to her left. She whirled toward it, bringing the phone up, but saw nothing. The light didn’t penetrate far into the trees anyway. She kept walking.

The woods at night were scary enough if vacant. No thirteen-year-old would ever want to admit that, but anyone would feel it. Worry turned to anxiety. She picked up the pace, though she still had no idea where she was going.

A sound brought her up short, and she froze in place. No; two sounds. Something was moving, pacing her, on the left; and something else was to her right—and moving closer.

Olive had reached the end of her endurance. She broke and ran. The light from her phone swung wildly as her arms pumped in counterpoint with her legs. The creatures on either side exploded through the brush, passing her and weaving—were they going to cut her off? She changed directions, darting down a side path to the right, heading downhill now. Ahead, she could see the faint glimmer of water—a pond, maybe? She crashed toward it.

Something huge and dark leaped onto the path ahead of her. She screamed, and darted left; she felt the wind of its massive paw swipe past her face, just missing. She blundered through the undergrowth, branches tearing at her clothes. Another creature appeared before her, all eyes and teeth; she spun to the right and ran toward the pond again, breaking out onto another path.

Ahead she could see the water, and an old wooden jetty that tilted out into the center. Something in the back of her mind registered that the water level was down from its original level; the jetty sat at an odd angle. A few feet from its end was a long, muddy rock that ordinarily (she guessed) would have been underwater. With the jetty, it made a passage across the narrow waist of the pond; she’d be able to run straight across with only a couple of hops.

She broke into the clearing around the pond and raced onto the jetty, feet thumping on the old, rotting wood. She risked a glance back as the two creatures burst out behind her; one was tall and wolfish, with matted fur and freakishly long limbs; the other was stumpy and reptilian, but with abnormally powerful legs and too many teeth and eyes. Both skidded and came up short at the water’s edge; neither seemed willing to risk the jetty, as they split and started around the sides of the pond at a run.

Olive leaped onto the rock, nearly falling into the water. She raced across and leaped onto the opposite bank, and glanced left at the reptilian creature—just in time to see the woods on that side fill with fire, engulfing the creature. The light dazzled her, but she could hear it howling in pain as it caught fire and burned. The source of the flames couldn’t be seen—what could cause that outburst? A flamethrower? Where was this place?! She scrambled up the hill away from the water.

The wolf creature bounded after her—and still there was nowhere to go, no place of safety. She could hear it getting closer, panting and growling. Any second now…

She raised the brightness on the phone screen as high as it would go. If only this one had a flashlight setting… At the last second, she spun and thrust it toward the creature’s face. The sudden brightness stunned it, and it stopped short and yowled in pain, clawing at its face. While it stood there, she turned and ran again. She made a dozen paces before it shook off the pain and came after her.

That trick wouldn’t work again. She wouldn’t get away this time. She could feel it closing the gap: nine paces. Eight. Seven…

Something—no, someone—caught her and shoved her past. She stumbled and nearly fell as the man wrenched the phone from her hand. There was no time to scream; she only managed to look back. She saw the light from the phone blossom in the man’s hand, illuminating his form; he wore a dark cloak with the hood up, but he glanced back just long enough to reveal his face, which was set in determination—but very human. Then her attention jerked back to the phone, for it was growing.

In the man’s hand, the phone expanded, blooming out as new panels unfolded from it. It became a shield of metal, glass, and plastic, pointing toward the onrushing creature. Then, it exploded with light, catching the monster in a beam of sunlike brilliance that spilled out to light the forest all around. The creature yowled and twisted, caught in the light as in a net; and its fur began to smoke. Its thrashings grew more intense; and then, finally, it burst into flames. When the light faded, and the creature’s remains fell to the ground, little remained besides charred bones.

Olive stood, dumbfounded, thinking only that she was glad to be alive. And then, the man turned to her.

“You’ve had a terrible night, haven’t you?” he said.

***

It was never easy to have one’s world expanded—and so much the more, when it was being doubled. The man walked Olive out of the woods, joined along the way by a woman in roughspun clothes, leather boots, and red gauntlets that covered her forearms and hands but left her fingers bare. “I’m Alric,” he explained, “and this is Joanna.” Then they had proceeded to upset everything she knew about the world.

When learning that she had arrived under such mysterious circumstances, Alric had explained that the Earth she knew was only one of two worlds. The forest in which they walked existed in its twin, which he called the Drylands. He explained that the two were very similar, but that some things—like the land around her home, and this forest—didn’t match up exactly. Stranger still, some people—but only from Earth, never from the Drylands—had the ability to pass between the two worlds. “That’s what you’ve done, it seems,” he said.

When Olive asked how they knew to find her, he grew chagrined. “We didn’t,” he said. “That was an accident, though a lucky one. We were on a mission.”

“A mission?”

Joanna took up the story. “We were sent to capture a rogue Zoomancer.”

While Earth produced the magic to travel between worlds, she said, the Drylands produced a different power. The Five Magicks, she said, existed in a scattering of the population, and in different proportions. By far the most common was the power that she herself wielded: Pyromancy, the mastery of fire. It was she who had set the reptilian creature alight; and she had stayed behind afterward to keep the forest from burning. As a result, she hadn’t been on hand to stop the wolf creature. There was Enviromancy, those who could control plant life and the weather; they were still common, but tended to die young, as their powers would spiral upward in strength until they became impossible to control. There were Psychomancers, the rarest form of all; these incredibly rare men and women could control the minds of those around them, and were almost universally to be feared, as their power corrupted them. Then there were Zoomancers, those who controlled and manipulated life. Not as rare as Psychomancers, but far less common that Enviromancers, these mages had the power to change and control living creatures, creating wonders…or abominations. This Zoomancer had gone a bit crazy with power, and had begun to attack the surrounding towns; and so they had been sent to deal with him. He had yet to be caught, but they were close now. It was his creatures that had chased Olive in the forest.

“But what about the fifth magic?” Olive said. “That’s you, isn’t it?” she said to Alric.

He nodded. “My magic is called Technomancy. Not long ago, there were thought to be only four magicks. Technomancy was discovered by a man we call the Engineer; or rather, rediscovered, as it was lost long ago. He taught it to many of us with the aptitude, and we teach others. It is the power to work with machinery; to understand it instinctively, and change it, and use it for our purposes. Like when I took the thing you carry—a telephone, I think it is called?—and changed it into a weapon to burn the abomination.” He smiled. “It’s a good thing you had it in your hand. My powers need something to work with—I can’t create machines from thin air. I expected some machines in the Zoomancer’s stronghold, but I wasn’t expecting to need to carry any on our journey. Without your machine, I would have been left to face the monster with knives only.”

They had reached the edge of the forest; and now they stepped out onto a track of beaten dirt. Above, the clouds had broken, and a nearly-full moon cast a silvery light. “So, what do I do now?” Olive said. “Can you get me home?”

The duo exchanged a look. “No, we can’t,” Joanna said. “If we had the power to travel between the worlds, we could take you home. But, only people born in your world can possess that power.”

“But, you can get yourself there,” Alric said. “This may have been your first time, but the fact that you got here means you have the ability.” He paused. “I don’t know how to walk you through it. I only know you have to intend to go. Perhaps think about it.”

“Like Dorothy,” Olive said. Seeing their blank looks, she added, “The Wizard of Oz? ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like…’ Never mind. Anyway, I’ll try.” She looked at each of them in turn. “Will you stick around until I see if it works?”

“Of course,” Joanna said. Olive nodded, and—thinking it would help her concentration—closed her eyes.

After a moment she looked up. “What if I come back here? What if I can’t help it?”

“Then you’ll be able to go home again,” Alric said. “Each time will make it easier. And if you are here and in need of help, head for the town of Ashdale, in that direction,” he said, pointing down the road. “Anyone there can point you to us, and we’ll help you.”

“But you should try not to come back,” Joanna added soberly. “This world is not a safe place for those who can travel between the worlds. Not now, anyway.” She exchanged a grim look with Alric.

Olive, for her part, let that go; and a moment later, she winked out of existence.

***

“Do you think she’ll listen?” Alric said. “That she’ll stay in her world?”

“No,” Joanna said as they started back into the forest. “They never do, especially when they’re young.”

“And you know this because you’ve met so many travelers?”

“No!” she said. “I mean, only one before this girl. But I hear it’s that way.” She grew serious. “Alric, if she comes back, and is captured, they’ll kill her. You’ve heard the rumors.”

“I know,” he said. “Joanna…we saved her life. We’re responsible for her now. If she comes back… we have to try to protect her. And you know the trouble that might cause.”

“I know.” There was nothing more to say after that; and they each walked alone with their thoughts.

***

Olive arrived, disoriented again, on a bare patch of paved street. It took a moment to get her bearings; and then she realized she was about three miles from home. Her parents would be worried sick…

She stopped in the light of a streetlamp and pulled out her phone. Alric had changed it back so thoroughly that she could almost believe none of it had happened. Still, here it was, nearly midnight… and a quick check of her GPS confirmed her location. She was most definitely back on Earth.

Strange as this excursion was, it was over now. Time to bite the bullet… taking a moment to compose what she hoped would be a believable story about getting lost, she dialed her mother’s number to ask to be picked up. As it rang, by the light of her phone, she started to walk.

Short Story: Chasing Humanity

A few years ago, Big Finish Productions–which produces the many wonderful Doctor Who and other audio dramas I review over at The Time Lord Archives–unexpectedly lost one of its own to illness: Paul Spragg, a man who wore enough hats that just giving him a proper title is all but impossible.  In tribute to him, Big Finish conducts an annual competition in which participants contribute short stories in the classic era of Doctor Who (that is, between the First Doctor and the Eighth Doctor’s appearance in The Night of the Doctor).  The winning entry is then produced as a “Short Trip” audio drama.  (For a great example, you can download last year’s winning entry, Joshua Wanisko’s Forever Fallen, here.)  I didn’t become aware of the contest in time to participate last year; but this year I made a submission, and…

…I didn’t win.  Oh well.  There were hundreds of entries, so that’s no surprise.  Still, I was surprised to have received a response; the contest rules make it clear that there will be no correspondence (unless, of course, you’re the winner).  I’ve jokingly said that it’s the most polite rejection letter I’ve ever received.  There’s some truth to that, though–and as the letter indicated, the story was well received.

At any rate, the winner has not been announced yet, so I can’t shed any light on that.  You’ll find out at the same time I do, if you’re interested in Big Finish’s work (which I highly recommend).  What I can do is post my entry here, for your reading pleasure (I hope!).  I’ve also posted it on The Time Lord Archives.  This Third Doctor story is titled Chasing Humanity, and takes place during season nine of the classic television series, between The Sea Devils and The Mutants.  (I feel I should mention that the Third Doctor was a rare choice among the entries; according to Big Finish, most entries were for the Seventh and Eighth Doctors, with only a scattering of the others.)  For those who keep track of such things, it’s about 5700 words in this draft.

Third Doctor and Jo Grant

Chasing Humanity

It was only a hotel lobby; but from the way the Doctor looked at it, one would think it was a battlefield. His lips were a thin line, and his eyes, though alert as ever, were narrowed. Jo Grant caught the look, and took his arm. “Come on, Doctor, it’s not that bad. At least try to enjoy yourself!” She paused and looked around. “I should think this symposium would be your type of thing. What was it the Brigadier said?” She lowered her voice and assumed a haughty accent. “It’s the peak of military technology at stake here, Doctor! Who better to send than you, my scientific advisor?”

The Doctor arched an eyebrow at her. “Very talented, Jo. You’ve missed your calling; it’s a pity you were born too late for vaudeville.” His scowl deepened, and he started into the room, drawing her in his wake.

Jo sniffed. “Well then. If that’s the way you’re going to be, perhaps the Brigadier was right. He also said that it would do you good to get out and, you know, interact with people. Spend a little less time in the laboratory.”

“The Brigadier employs me specifically for what I do in the laboratory.” He steered her around the worst of the crowd.

“Yes, and that’s exactly why we’re here. You have a lecture to make regarding that work.” Specifically, he was to speak on the progress made in the field of emotional manipulation in the wake of last year’s tragedy at Stangmoor Prison. The lecture was to concern the efficacy of suppression of emotions in battlefield soldiers. However, that was tomorrow night; and Jo wasn’t sure how she was going to make it through the next twenty-four hours with the Doctor.

“Yes, well…” the Doctor muttered. “I suppose we’ll have some dinner, then. Where is Sergeant Benton?”

“He’s checking in with security and discussing the security arrangements for the symposium. Doctor, this is unlike you–you already knew where he was. Won’t you at least try to relax?”

The Doctor, of course, did no such thing. At dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, he became increasingly more dour, and even grew short with the waitstaff. The situation was not helped by an encounter with one nervous waitress; glancing around as she crossed the room, she failed to see the Doctor, and stumbled, dumping a tray of canapes into his lap. Fortunately, there was no great mess; but the Doctor’s unkind glare sent the mortified waitress scurrying back to the kitchens the moment the wreckage was collected.

The Doctor’s mood brightened, however, when they were joined by a short, bearded man in a tweed jacket. “Doctor! So good to see you here! I was quite surprised to see your name on the agenda–care if I join you?”

“Absolutely! Come, sit down!” Suddenly the Doctor was effusive. “Geoffrey, this is my assistant, Miss Jo Grant. Jo, this is Doctor Geoffrey Chambers. Geoffrey is a geologist with Oxford. We met some time ago, when he took a temporary assignment with UNIT in the wake of Project Inferno.”

“Yes, quite interesting, it was,” Chambers said. “I understand that Ms. Shaw has returned to Cambridge since then? A pity; I was hoping to see her here. Ah, well, we can’t have it all, I suppose… Miss Grant, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance! I will say, if you can keep up with this man, you are an extraordinary individual. So tell me, Doctor, what can we look forward to from your presentation?”

***

In the kitchen, the waitress dropped her tray into a dish bin, and ran out the back door to the alley behind the hotel, ignoring the shouts of the head chef. Shaking, she leaned against the wall, catching her breath. That had been a close call; and she began to wonder, not for the first time, if she could really make this work. Humans were never quite what she expected… still, there was little to be done about it, and less in the way of options. She lifted the hem of her blouse, exposing a square, yellow box on a tight belt around her waist. She regarded the box, which had a thin crack across its surface; she made a minute adjustment to a slide switch on the top, and then covered it again. Setting her nerves, she returned to the kitchen.

***

Jo was beginning to think that not even the chatty Doctor Chambers could lift the Doctor’s spirits for long. As dinner progressed, his scowl, and its attendant rudeness, returned; until finally Jo kicked him beneath the table. “Doctor!” she hissed. “Show a little dignity, please!”

The Doctor set down his napkin and pushed back from the table. “Jo, my dear, I am the very image of dignity. It’s this function that is undignified by its very nature!” He stood up. “Geoffrey, it’s been a pleasure, and I hope to catch up with you again during our stay. In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me…”

Whatever Chambers might have said was interrupted by an odd sight: the waitress who had dropped her tray came running out of the kitchen and past their table, heading for the door. “Well,” Jo commented, “at least I’M not the only one having a bad night.”

***

The chef met the waitress as she came in the door. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured, “I don’t know what happened to me out there, but it won’t happen again, I swear.”

“Just see that it doesn’t,” he said. “We are not some diner on the corner, you know. We have a reputation to maintain! I’ll not have you making us all look foolish, and especially in front of these military types. If we weren’t in the middle of this conference, you would be out the door already! Do you understand?”

She nodded and started to walk away. He scowled and grabbed her hand. “Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you! You still have work to do!”

She yanked back her hand. “No, I don’t. It’s six o’clock, and my shift is over. Just leave me alone!” She turned and ran out into the dining room; as the door swung shut, the chef saw her narrowly miss bumping into the same man on whom she had dumped the canapes. Scowling again, he shook his fist in her direction… and then winced. He opened his hand, and saw that the palm was red and covered in blisters. Now, how had that happened?

***

Sergeant Benton was no happier than Jo to share the Doctor’s company; but as the lone representative of UNIT’s armed service, the role of bodyguard fell to him. Not, of course, that there should be a need for a bodyguard here; but UNIT was not in the habit of taking chances. The trio sat in the audience of a lecture on new techniques in small arms production, as near the exit as the Doctor could manage. The Doctor spent the bulk of the lecture muttering irritated remarks about the subject matter, while Benton and Jo exchanged longsuffering looks behind his back. Only when the Doctor’s comments began to draw the attention of others in the audience was Benton able to get him to subside.

“Sergeant Benton, if we must endure this interminable lecture, we should at least be treated to accurate interpretations of the data!” the Doctor insisted, not for the first time. “If I wanted to engage in half-baked theories, I would find a coffee shop and take up the social sciences. This is supposed to be a scientific symposium!”

“Doctor, please,” Benton said, and raised a hand to forestall interruption. “Your mind might be centuries ahead of us mere mortals, but bear with us while we get there. You’ll have your chance tomorrow night, won’t you?” The Doctor gave him a withering look, but Benton pressed on. “People are starting to stare. The Brigadier won’t be happy with me if I let you get yourself ejected from a seminar. So, please, settle down and just… be in the audience, alright?”

The Doctor drew in a long breath, gave a half-hearted smile, and then nodded. “You’re right, Sergeant, of course. I will attempt to…rein in my temper. Such as it–” He stopped, and cocked his head. “Hmm?”

“What?” Jo spoke up from his other side.

“Shh.” He raised a finger. “Listen.”

Behind them, two security guards stood at the door, one to each side. Over the low drone of the lecture, voices could be heard from their walkie-talkies. “There’s something going on in the kitchens,” Benton murmured for Jo’s benefit. “They’re being cautious about what they say, but it sounds serious.” At that moment, one of the guards turned and rushed out the door.

“Well,” Jo said, “I hope everything will be alri–oh, no,” she said. Benton pulled his gaze back from the door, and saw what Jo was seeing: a speculative look of interest on the Doctor’s face. “No, Doctor! It’s not our problem!”

“Jo is right, Doctor,” Benton said. “Let security handle it, whatever it is.”

“Handle what?” the Doctor said. “I, for one,” he said, standing up, “could do with a bit of refreshment. Care to join me?” He pushed past Jo and strode out the door. Jo and Benton exchanged looks of resignation, and followed.

***

A circle of the conference’s security guards stood near the ovens in the kitchen. A second circle–more of an arc, really–surrounded them, composed of the kitchen staff, and a third arc –the wait staff– stood near the opposite walls. The atmosphere was one of confusion, dismay, and distress. The Doctor strode in as though he owned the place, cape flaring dramatically, and slipped deftly through the outer arcs to the inner circle. “Gentleman,” he said, “what do we know so far?”

As one, the guards looked at him incredulously; and then something curious happened, something which Jo was coming to regard as standard procedure for the Doctor: as one, they nodded, and began to explain. She had seen this happen on several occasions, and it never ceased to amaze her; the Doctor would step into a situation armed with nothing but an air of confidence, and people simply… accepted him, as though he belonged there. It was not new, but it remained exceptional.

One guard took the lead. “This is,” he said, gesturing down at the body on the floor, “or rather, it was, the head chef, a Mister Richard Farley. He was perfectly fine, as far as anyone can tell, right up to the moment he fell out on this spot. No one saw anything, and nothing strange has been reported. One of the other chefs made some attempt to revive him, but there was nothing to be done.”

“A heart attack?” Jo suggested.

The guard was about to answer, but the Doctor beat him to it. “No, I don’t think so.” He knelt down and turned the body over.

Jo gave an involuntary gasp. “But… he’s… he’s burned!” Every visible inch of skin was covered in mottled red burns.

“Yes,” the Doctor murmured. “Third degree burns, at that. But there’s something curious about it. Sergeant, what do you notice about this man’s condition?”

Benton knelt down beside him to examine the body. He frowned at the extent of the damage– and then his eyes widened. “His clothes aren’t charred. These burns are fresh, and some of them have to have bled, but–”

“Yes,” the Doctor agreed. “If he had these burns prior to his shift, well, he wouldn’t be here. And he wasn’t dressed after the burns, either; if he had been, there would be much more in the way of bloodstains. No, he was wearing these clothes when it happened– but they aren’t burned at all.” He straightened and returned to the guard. “And you say that no one saw this happen?”

“That’s right,” the guard said. “He’d been working, giving orders, just like always; and then suddenly, he was dead on the floor.” He shrugged. “We assumed it was an equipment accident.”

“An equipment–” Benton began, and then stopped. “There’s no way that this could have been the result of any of the equipment in this kitchen.”

“Then what do you think it was?” the guard said. His tone had gone cool. “Listen, this hotel is full of representatives from every military and scientific establishment in Europe. We will not allow any kind of scandal to interrupt the conference. In a few days, we can go back and revisit the situation, but for now, this is an accident. And that is what we’re going to tell the police when they arrive.”

The Doctor gave him an even stare. “I see.” At that moment a commotion could be heard in the lobby. “Well, then, we’ll leave you to it. It sounds like they’re arriving now. Jo, Sergeant, come along.” He turned and strode out through the dining room, carefully taking the entrance furthest from the incoming policemen.

“Are we just going to let it go?” Jo said, tugging him to a halt in the corridor. “Doctor! You know that was no accident!”

“Of course it wasn’t,” the Doctor agreed. “The question is, what was it?”

“Well…” She faltered. “I don’t know. But you have an idea, don’t you?”

“Not yet,” he said. “But there is a detail we’ve overlooked. Or rather, we didn’t have time to address it. Come and see.” He led them back toward the dining room, stopping in the doorway. From here, there was a clear view into the section of kitchen where the waitstaff still stood, now gathered in a huddle. “Look at them. Do you notice anything strange about them?”

Jo got it this time. “They’re all red in the face! Like they were–”

“Sunburned, yes,” the Doctor said. “But it’s late, and the sun has been down for a few hours. And why would all of the staff, who don’t come and go together, have the same burns? Except, of course, for the head chef, who certainly got the worst of it. No,” the Doctor declared, “there’s more at work here, and I want to know what it is.”

***

The next morning’s breakfast brought no answers; but it provided more questions. “The kitchen staff is short this morning,” Jo said as she joined the Doctor and Benton at the table. “Four workers called in. Doctor, what do you make of that?”

“I’m not ready to make assumptions yet,” the Doctor replied. “Though I suspect–”

“Doctor,” Benton interrupted. “People get sick all the time. Maybe it’s a virus. We should probably wash our hands once in awhile, but I don’t see how this could connect to what happened last night. Or even more likely, they just called in because of the trauma.” He glanced at Jo, who shrugged.

“It makes sense to me,” she said. “Though I trust the Doctor’s hunches, when he has them.”

“Well, it’s not going to matter this morning,” Benton said before the Doctor could recover the conversation. “Doctor, you’re due to participate in a panel discussion in ten minutes. Look, I know you aren’t happy about it, but the Brigadier said–”

“No, no, it’s quite alright,” the Doctor said. “I’m looking forward to it, actually. Besides, the tedium will give me time to mull over our situation.” He smiled at them, and got up and left the table.

“Was that sarcasm?” Benton said. “Or was he being serious?”

Jo tossed her napkin onto the table. “Oh, who can tell with him?”

***

An hour into the panel discussion, Jo struggled to stay awake. She found these events more difficult than the lectures; at least those gave interesting new information. This was just debate, and she could get her fill of that in the UNIT offices. The Doctor seemed to be enjoying his part; but here in the audience, the heat and the droning were making her drowsy. Finally, she whispered to Benton and excused herself, and headed for the washroom to freshen up.

***

In the kitchen, the waitress’s hands shook as she listened to her coworkers talking about the death of the head chef. It simply wasn’t going to work, she feared. If the local authorities turned their investigative eyes on this place, soon enough they would begin to look into the staff, and then… well, her cover was good enough to get her the job, but she doubted it would stand up to real scrutiny. Perhaps it was time to move on.

The problem was that she would need a new form. It would be best to change now, before slipping out of the hotel; if anyone saw one of the staff leaving when she should be working, they might become suspicious, and she wanted no trail to lead to her. She might not have committed a crime, but she certainly would be a person of interest. That presented a problem, however; it had taken her weeks to prepare this form, using composite features from several individuals. There was no time for that now; she would have to simply copy someone. Well, there was no time like the present–even her world had that cliché–and so she excused herself and headed to the washroom.

***

The washroom door opened as Jo reached for it on her way out. “Oh, sorry,” she said, “I didn’t see you there–” The rest of her words were cut off. The door closed on the sounds of a brief struggle, and then there was silence.

***

Doctor Geoffrey Chambers stepped out of a conference room and into the lobby. If only there had been time to say goodbye to his friend, the Doctor…ah, but here was an answer! “Oh, Miss Grant, it’s so good to see you!” he called out, and stopped the young woman with a touch. She gave him a glance that, had he noticed it, would have been taken as bewilderment; but she stopped. He paid no mind, and kept talking. “I was hoping to say goodbye to the Doctor, but I see from the schedule that he’s occupied at the moment. I wonder if you could convey my greetings to him? You see, I have to leave early– my daughter is, well, expecting– I received a call that the baby is on the way… she’ll be expecting me at the hospital eventually, you see–”

The young woman was caught off guard by the torrent of speech, but she managed a nod. “I’ll– I’ll let him know, yes.”

He gave her an effusive smile, and then unexpectedly embraced her. “Splendid!” Abruptly, he realized what he was doing, and pulled back. “Oh… er… well, you must forgive me and my scattered brain today. It’s been quite the pleasure to meet you, Miss Grant! Do take care of the Doctor, please. Ah, if you’ll excuse me, I must gather my things.” He turned and made his way to the elevators.

Jo gave the man a final, long look, and then turned to complete her own exit. She made it ten paces before she was interrupted again, this time by the Doctor and Benton as they exited the panel discussion. “Ah, Jo, there you are!” Benton said. “Ready for lunch?”

“Lunch? Oh… I, ah…” she stammered, but the Doctor took her arm. “Oh, well, that won’t be… necessary…” she trailed off as he started toward the dining room.

“Nonsense, Jo,” he said, “we’ll all do better with a good meal. And then we can begin to look into last night’s events.” At his side, Jo stiffened, but he didn’t seem to notice. She glanced away, but Benton was on her other side. There was nothing for it but to go along.

Jo said little during the meal, and only picked at her food. Finally the Doctor stood up, and Benton followed suit; Jo did likewise. At the door of the dining room, the Doctor stopped her. “Jo, are you feeling alright? You look unwell.”

A way out! Suppressing a smile of relief, Jo glanced up at him and quickly shook her head. “I– I think I’d better go lie down. Headache,” she added by way of apology.

“Oh, alright,” Benton said, “We’ll take a look around and try to piece together what we can about last night–” Jo gave him a startled look before she could stop herself–”but first, we’ll walk you to your room. Right, Doctor?”

“Oh, no, that won’t be–”

“Absolutely, Sergeant!” the Doctor overrode her. “Truth be told, Jo, I must admit I was rather rude to you last night. If you’ll allow me, I’ll make it up to you in courtesy now.” He was already starting toward the elevators. Irritated, she followed, with Benton bringing up the rear.

***

The Doctor and Benton saw Jo into her room, and heard the lock click before turning away. “She’s acting odd, isn’t she?” Benton said as they made their way down the hall.

“Quite. But she isn’t the only one acting strangely in this hotel… nevertheless, she should feel better after a nap.” They rounded the corner toward the elevators. “I would think– eh, what’s this?”

Ahead, a small crowd consisting of the concierge, two security guards, and a housekeeper had gathered around an open door. A third guard poked his head out of the doorway as the Doctor and Benton approached. “Call for a doctor!” he instructed the concierge.

“I’m a doctor,” the Doctor interjected as they reached the crowd. “What’s going on?” The concierge gave him an odd look–too much good fortune, perhaps, that a doctor would already be on hand–but he allowed them in. “The front desk received a call from this room, asking for help,” he said. “He sounded as though he was in pain.”

“Indeed he was,” the Doctor said as he knelt. There, on the floor, lay Doctor Geoffrey Chambers, who was covered head to foot in severe burns, burns which left his suit and tie untouched. Unlike the unfortunate head chef, he was still breathing.

“Geoffrey,” the Doctor said gently, then more forcefully: “Doctor Chambers! Can you hear me?”

Chambers’ eyes opened, revealing bloodshot whites and darting irises. “D-Doctor? Is that you? Oh, what’s happened to me?”

“Lie still, Geoffrey. We’ll get an ambulance.” He motioned to the concierge, who nodded and went for the room phone. “Geoffrey, I need you to tell me what happened to you. How did you get these burns?”

“They… they just… erupted, all over me. Very quick. So… painful. Doctor, I… I’m dying. And my… grandchild… I won’t see…”

The man was slipping away. “Geoffrey,” the Doctor said, “who have you seen in the last hour? Who did you see last?”

Chambers looked puzzled. “Why… the last… it was your lovely assistant, Miss… Miss Grant.” He exhaled then, a final breath that lasted too long, and was gone.

The Doctor exchanged a dark look with Benton. “The ambulance can see to Doctor Chambers. Sergeant, I think we’d better get back to Jo. Come on!” They leaped to their feet and ran from the room, leaving the startled staff behind.

“What’s going on, Doctor?” Benton said as they ran. “And why Jo?”

“Because,” the Doctor said as they reached Jo’s door, “I fear Miss Grant is not herself at the moment. Listen, I don’t have time to explain it now; we’ll save it for later.” He pulled a short, silver rod–his sonic screwdriver–from his pocket, and aimed its circular head at the door. The screwdriver buzzed, and the lock clicked open. Benton threw the door open, and they burst inside.

Jo was nowhere to be seen. The window on the far side of the room stood open, curtains blowing in the breeze from the alley below. They ran to the window and leaned out. Two window ledges over, a fire escape snaked down the back of the building; Jo Grant was making her way down the iron stairs. Already she was nearly at the bottom. “Sergeant Benton,” the Doctor said, “go downstairs and find Jo, the real Jo. If I’m right, you’ll find her somewhere in the building, unconscious. I’ll retrieve the imposter. Go!” Not waiting for an answer, he climbed out the window.

***

Benton searched the lower floors with military efficiency. Storerooms, offices, conference rooms, lecture hall– all proved empty. He stopped by the front desk, fists on his hips, and looked around, pondering. If she was nowhere to be found down here, that meant searching the guest rooms… which would take time and manpower that he didn’t have. There had to be something he’d overlooked.

A thought occurred to him. Deliberately, he set aside his own thoughts, and tried to put himself in Jo’s shoes. She had to have been taken during the panel discussion, when she left the room… where would she have gone? When he realized the obvious answer, he kicked himself, and then turned and ran for the ladies’ room. Fifteen seconds later, in a locked stall at the back, he found a very disgruntled Jo Grant, wearing a waitress uniform and just beginning to awaken. Her face, he noticed, was red with what appeared to be a sunburn.

***

By the time the Doctor reached the bottom of the fire escape, the woman who wore Jo’s face had reached the open end of the alley. He pounded after her, calling out Jo’s name– for he didn’t know what else to call her– but to no avail. She gave him a single look, and turned left onto the crowded sidewalk.

He was in better shape than his appearance would suggest, and he narrowed the gap; but it wasn’t going to be enough. Soon she would reach a more crowded public plaza ahead, and there he would lose her. He poured on as much speed as he could muster– and then skidded to a halt. Just ahead of her, a fire hydrant stood on the sidewalk. It was a dirty trick, perhaps, but any port in a storm…

At the carefully-aimed buzzing of the sonic screwdriver, the cap popped off of the hydrant; and then, as the woman passed, the valve spun. A torrent of water knocked her from her feet, leaving her dazed in the street.

The Doctor caught up as she began to pick herself up. He shut off the water, and turned his attention to her… and saw that ripples were spreading across her skin, like waves in a pond. “Careful now,” he said, “let me help you.” He pulled off his cape and draped it over her, careful not to touch her directly, and then helped her to her feet. “Come on, let’s get you back to the hotel.”

“No!” She started to pull away, but his grip on her arm through the cape stopped her.

“My dear,” he said, “I assure you I am not trying to harm you–but in a matter of moments, everyone on this street will see you in your true form. I can’t say I know what that will be, but I suggest you may want to prevent that outcome. If you’ll come with me, I can help you.”

She looked as though she still intended to bolt– until another ripple ran across her form. Finally she nodded, and started walking with him.

***

The ripples were coming faster as the Doctor and the woman entered the lobby. Benton and Jo waited in chairs near the dining room; they leaped to their feet as the bedraggled duo entered. “Doctor!” Jo shouted. “What– What’s going on here? Who is she?”

“Patience, Jo, we haven’t time to talk just yet. If the two of you will come with me…” Still leading the soaked imposter, he escorted them into the kitchen, and quickly sent the staff out. “A minute or two, that’s all I need,” he said, “and you can all get back to work.”

When they were alone, the Doctor stepped back from the woman. “Jo, Sergeant Benton, allow me to introduce Lorana Sitel, of the Charidzi people. Lorana, you should turn it off now, I think. You’re safe here.” The woman nodded, and reached to a box hanging from her– or rather, Jo’s– belt. Her form rippled again, and changed, flowing like water from head to foot. Where a perfect duplicate of Jo Grant had stood, there was now a much taller figure, taller than Benton or the Doctor, slender and willowy, with a high forehead and a bald skull. Her skin glinted in shades of blue and silver, and– most strikingly– she had four eyes, two on each side of her face, each pair aligned vertically. Her fingers were long and bore more joints than human fingers, but had no nails. She still wore Jo’s clothes, but ill-fittingly on her long frame.

“A… shapeshifter?” Benton murmured.

“Quite. Lorana, would you care to explain why you’re here on Earth? If it isn’t too painful, please,” he added gently.

She nodded. “My planet is a lot like your Earth. We have some technology that exceeds yours, but culturally, we’re not that different.” Her voice–which was similar to that she had used in her waitress form, but with a reedy lilt–became wistful. “I am nothing special. On my planet, I was perfectly happy. I was… what would you call it… a travel agent? I arranged holidays for people. I had a husband, and two children. My life was quiet.” She paused. “And then, my family were lost. They were coming to visit me for a meal one day while I worked, and their vehicle lost control and struck another. The other driver survived… my family did not. I was suddenly alone.”

“The Charidzi,” the Doctor said, “have an empathic power. They sense the emotions of others. It’s not as invasive as telepathy, but it can still be overwhelming at times. It may sound strange, but as a result, sympathy is not a strong trait for the Charidzi. After all, it’s hard to be sympathetic when you feel every pain, every awkwardness, every moment of judgment.”

“I couldn’t take it,” Lorana said. “I couldn’t stand watching them all look at me, and feel the things they were feeling, and not be able to stop it. So, I left. I scheduled a trip for myself, to several planets. And when I reached yours, I decided it would be a good place to disappear.”

“But, what about the deaths?” Jo said.

“The Charidzi are not biological shapeshifters,” the Doctor said. “It is not a natural ability, but a technological one. It takes advantages of some unique genetic traits, and allows them to change form.” He indicated the device Lorana still held. “The power source of that device emits an unusual form of radiation, which also is found in the light of the Charidzi sun. The Charidzi are quite immune to its effects; their bodies soak it up without harm. Humans are not so fortunate. And as you can see, Lorana’s device is damaged. She was not aware of the risk, of course; it’s quite harmless to her Charidzi DNA, even in human form. Unfortunately, she’s been emitting a low dose of radiation to everyone around her.”

“The sunburned faces,” Jo said.

“Yes, Jo, including your own. But this type of radiation can be communicated through touch, as well, assuming the one doing the touching has absorbed enough of it. Lorana, I am going to guess that you touched the head chef last night, didn’t you?”

“He touched me,” she said. “He grabbed my hand after I dropped my tray on you. I’m… I’m sorry about that.”

“No matter there,” the Doctor said. “Unfortunately you had no way to know what would happen to him. Nor did you know what would happen to Professor Chambers. I am going to guess that he accosted you when you were trying to get away. And the reason you were fleeing is because you feared suspicion in the wake of the first death. Am I right so far?” She nodded.

“I didn’t know,” she murmured. “I never meant to hurt anyone. I came here to not be hurt. When I’m in human form, my empathic sense is dulled. It seemed safe.”

“And so it is.” The Doctor straightened. “The question, though, is what to do with you now? We can’t have you running around exposing people to radiation. As it turns out, I too am not of this world; and I imagine my people could get you home. But that would be to return you to veritable torture. A dilemma, eh?”

“Doctor,” Jo said. “There could be another way.”

***

Jo and Benton sat in the audience, listening to the Doctor’s lecture. “What do you think, Jo?” Benton said quietly. “Did we make the right choice? More importantly, I suppose: Did Lorana?”

Jo gave it a moment’s thought. “I think she did. And I think we did too.”

“Well,” Benton said, “now that the Doctor repaired her transformation device, she won’t have to worry about hurting anyone. On the other hand, I suppose she’ll have to learn to be human.”

“Well, she was already on her way to that,” Jo said. “Besides, that’s not such a bad goal, is it? To be human?”

“Not at all.” Benton pointed to the stage. “When do you think our resident alien will understand that?”

“Sergeant Benton,” Jo said, “if there is one thing the Doctor will never be, it is human.” She said it with a smile, though.

Onstage, the Doctor was beginning to wrap up his presentation. “While the research indicates that full emotional suppression is possible,” he said, “I feel obligated to recommend against its use, in soldiers, or in any other profession. In addition to the long-term risks that I’ve already noted, I’ll simply say in conclusion that emotions are a vital part of what makes a person human. Of course too much, in the wrong place and time, can be a hazard–as some of you may well know.” For a moment, he caught Jo’s eye. “We must of course have every aspect of ourselves in its proper context. But, regardless of the effect on our performance, to eliminate our emotions would make us something less than we are– and far less than what we should be.”

In the audience, Jo turned to Benton with a smile. “Maybe,” she said, “he’s learning something after all.”

Third Doctor party