Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Mary-Sue Extrusion

Dave Stone The Mary-Sue Extrusion (1999)

Some may recall how when Doctor Who collapsed under the strain of its own increasingly desperate attempts to remain relevant back in 1989, Virgin publishing took it upon themselves to keep the wheels turning as a series of original novels. The New Adventures, as they were called, were for the most part decent, doing for Sylvester McCoy's version of the Doctor that which the screen version had never quite pulled off; and whilst there were a few duds, the range was as a whole pretty successful with books written as science-fiction novels that just happened to borrow from an existing mythos rather than simply trying to recreate a kid's telly show. The ambition, even if it wasn't always realised, was at least a bit more far reaching than what would happen if the Monoids teamed up with the Voord.

The BBC in their finite wisdom saw fit to take back all the licensing rights in 1996 when the advent of the Paul McGann film hinted at there being a previously untapped udder swinging somewhere beneath that big old Doctor Who cash cow; but only slightly daunted, the New Adventures continued minus the Doctor or Time Lords, shifting the focus to Bernice Summerfield, a companion introduced in one of the earlier Virgin novels and thus impervious to the machinations of the BBC legal department.

Bernice Summerfield was a character I never quite warmed to - a sort of archaeological Emma Thompson serving as conduit for wearisome jokes about hangovers and bonking, and actually using the word bonking just like in all those supposedly edgy 1980s sitcoms; but, with the emphasis still on a decent novel rather than a franchise, the better authors usually got away with it.

Of the eighty-four New Adventures that were published before Virgin decided they'd tried their best but it just wasn't happening - Doctor Who fans tending to judge quality in terms of whether or not it features a Doctor Who logo and is thus brilliantly brilliant and brilliant and stuff - Lawrence Miles' Dead Romance and Dave Stone's The Mary-Sue Extrusion were, I would argue, probably the best; and it's interesting that Bernice Summerfield doesn't feature at all in one, and is peripheral in the other.

The Mary-Sue Extrusion casually tosses out big ideas in quick succession, contains not one single clich├ęd or otherwise prosaic sentence, and even manages to examine itself without coming over all Grant Morrison. The term Mary-Sue refers to a semi-autobiographical stand-in, usually wish-fulfilment on the part of an author who wants to shag the main character of the novel. I sort of wonder if this story was an attempt to examine this aspect of a range with at least a few contributing Emmathompsonophiles and to get beyond the routine spacefaring archaeologist schtick. Whatever the case, it certainly made for better reading than some of the previous titles. The Mary-Sue turns out to be a personality transplant taken on by Bernice Summerfield after deciding she wants to be someone else for a while, thus becoming Rebecca. This in itself, particularly in diary extracts where Bernice discusses her relationship with Rebecca - still misleadingly identified as an individual in her own right - hints at a further level of introspection given how the range was faring under the editorial direction of Rebecca Levene. That post-modern stuff is rarely so understated as here, and The Mary-Sue Extrusion operates on more levels than most writers can juggle without looking like tits, and it does so with effortless grace.

Dave Stone has been described as a Marmite author - you either love his writing or you hate it - which I can't help but read as shorthand for you either love books trying something a bit more ambitious than pretending to be a 1970s TV show or you hate them; but different strokes and all that...

I tend to think a story stands on the strength of its telling over and above details of plot or whether there's a Doctor Who logo on the cover - yeah, I know that seems a wild and radical notion - and Dave Stone's writing is rich and expressive, a joy to read which elevates a very simple story - the private investigator on the trail of a missing person - to something greater than one might expect of a book published as part of a range and committed to furthering a continuing story.

The New Adventures range began with the intention of getting new authors in print, and I always imagined this implied a hope of one or two going onto bigger and better things. Miserably, this doesn't quite seem to have happened as it might have done, and it's a real shame because The Mary-Sue Extrusion is at least as good as Iain M. Banks' better novels, and it pisses all over what I've read of Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, Eric Brown and the like.

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