Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 17: Kristin King

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011
by Kristin King

This year's Pleasures will be a time travel trio - a show, a book, and a trilogy.

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Wife

In this episode, Neil Gaiman introduces us to the one character we've always seen but never heard: the Doctor's ship. Her name is the TARDIS, which stands for "Time and Relative Dimension in Space." Like many other ships that men pilot, she's often described as a woman -- "old girl" or "you sexy thing" -- but she's never been allowed to speak for herself. Until now. When a malicious entity called "House" downloads her soul into a woman's body, we get to see who she really is.
Picture a woman who has never had to navigate a social scene of any sort. She has no self-restraint, no tact, and no social skills. But she knows what she wants and takes it. The first thing she does is bite the Doctor. "Biting's excellent," she comments. "It's like kissing. Only there's a winner!" The Doctor, who doesn't know the TARDIS has been downloaded, just thinks she's a "bitey mad woman." That's fair.

Shortly afterward, she debunks a canonical part of the Doctor Who story - that the Doctor, a renegade Time Lord, stole a TARDIS hundreds of years ago and has been adventuring ever since. Nope. Actually, she explains, "I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and I ran away."

We also find out why she hasn't spoken. Until she was downloaded into a flesh body, she existed (exists? will exist?) in all of space and time, and her perception of causality is a conversation-stopper. Even in a flesh body she can't separate the present and the future.

Most importantly, we find out who is steering. The Doctor has always claimed he could fly the TARDIS, and he sometimes lands at the correct time and place with perfect accuracy, but then again, he often ends up going somewhere unexpected. How much power does he really have to choose his destination?

This question goes to the heart of the Doctor's character. If he is the all-powerful hero who can just take his time machine back anytime he wants and rearrange events to his liking, then he can manipulate the other characters in creepy ways, and we will never know. I explored this question last year in a blog post A Feminist Take on Doctor Who's Amy Pond when I described a couple of TARDIS trips that could have been planned by the Doctor in order to groom a little girl to be a perfect companion. In general, the more power the Doctor has to steer the TARDIS, the more responsibility he bears for all the deaths and other tragedies that happen.

Gaiman canonically and definitively answered the question. And he did it right.

How much power does the Doctor have? None.

She steers herself, never taking him where he wants to go, but always where he needs to be. The Doctor is a "madman with a box," and she is a "bitey madwoman" with her foot on the accelerator.
Thanks, Gaiman. You nailed it.

The Entropy Effect by Vonda McIntyre

The Entropy Effect is a Star Trek novel by Vonda McIntyre. Every so often, I take a trip to a used bookstore and hunt for books I haven't read by my favorite authors, and that's how I found this one.
In this story, scientist Dr. Georges Mordreaux starts a chain of events leading to Armageddon when he sends his friends back in time. Spock goes back in time to chase Mordreaux down and stop him. Unfortunately, he only stops an older version of Mordreaux from stopping a younger version of Mordreaux. After that, it gets complicated and exciting as Spock and the older Mordreaux keeps trying and failing.

McIntyre takes the opportunity to explore the inner lives of the Star Trek characters, putting them in situations you'd never see in the show, and bringing in characters with more diverse shapes and sizes. I especially liked her portrayal of the junior officers who are trying so hard to impress Captain Kirk and prove themselves on the job.

What took this novel above and beyond for me was McIntyre's exploration of consciousness. If you are a character in one time stream, and somebody goes back and changes it, a person with your name and body and personality will still exist, but the "you" that you were has ceased to exist - or has it?
In other words, would you just vanish, losing all your experiences - in effect, experiencing death? Or does some part of your altered consciousness remain? This book is the first time I've ever seen that question explored.

The Gideon Trilogy: Gideon the Cutpurse, The Time Thief, and Time Quake by Linda Buckley-Archer

Two children, Kate and Peter, are thrown back into 18th century London when a scientist's anti-gravity invention turns out to be a time machine. The children are scared and want to go home, and Peter has unfinished business because he has just told his father "I hate you!" The children make a pact not to separate, but they are torn apart all the same. Worse, the machine has unexpected properties. Kate starts "blurring" -- making brief appearances in the present time before being suddenly thrown back. She also "fast forwards," moving so fast that everyone else seems like statues and not knowing whether she'll ever return to the proper speed.

Worst of all, it turns out that each time travel event creates a parallel universe. Each parallel universe has its own time travel events, which means that the number of parallel universes multiplies exponentially. Time travel thus becomes Armageddon.

In the middle of all this excitement, three characters from the Victorian underground act out their own dramas. Gideon the Cutpurse, a pickpocket, helps Kate and Peter. The Tar Man, a horrifically scary criminal, steals the time machine and rampages through present-day London. Meanwhile, Lord Luxon, the only irredeemable character, engineers the assassination of George Washington just as he is about to cross the Delaware.

This trilogy, like McIntyre's novel, asks the question of what happens to your consciousness when time is reset.

Kristin King is a writer, parent, and activist who lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Calyx, The Pushcart Prize XXII (1998), and other places. Now that her youngest child is in kindergarten, she is contemplating a mid-life nap.

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