Monday, 7 July 2014

Warlords of Utopia

Lance Parkin Warlords of Utopia (2004)

Older readers may perhaps recall how when the Doctor Who television show was cancelled in 1989, never to return, Virgin publishing took it upon themselves to continue the series as a range of novels; and I'm almost certain I remember reading some suggestion of how this was also supposed to be a means of bringing exciting new voices to the field, new writers who might go on to greater things in the wider field of science-fiction. Sadly, it didn't really happen like that, given that those who went on to do anything in the wake of the New Adventures mostly ended up churning out yet more Doctor Who, which doesn't really count as greater things in the wider field of science-fiction.

No it doesn't.

Happily though, there were exceptions to this sweeping generalisation, Lance Parkin being one of them, which was nice given his having written some of the more interesting bits of post-televisual Who fiction. Warlords of Utopia was apparently formulated as a vehicle for yer man in the phone box, but ended up as part of Faction Paradox mythology as mapped out by Lawrence Miles and others, and I suspect may be the better novel for it. Whether by accident or design, it amounts to the biggest, most stupid idea you could possibly conceive hammered into a novel and forced to behave itself, with a premise rating at least eleven on the Destroy All Monsters scale: there are hundreds of alternate versions of history in which Rome never fell, all of which have teamed up for a massive multiversal pagga with all the versions of history in which Hitler won the war, happily allowing for at least one scene featuring the Council of Hitlers, hundreds of iterations of Chaplin's stunt double all ranting away beneath one of those impossible domes that Albert Speer never quite got around to building. If it isn't immediately obvious why this alone should qualify Warlords of Utopia as a wonderful thing, you may be dead and should consult medical advice at your earliest convenience.

Actually, it could all have gone horribly wrong, particularly when you consider the dog's dinner that is All New Doctor Who Adventure Time with those tales of similarly preposterous ambition which may as well have been episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe for all the dignity of their telling, Billie because we want to, because we want to Piper turning into Q from fucking Star Trek and all that bollocks; but no - the golden rule is, I would suggest, if you're going to do something really stupid, then it's best to take it extremely seriously, which is what we have here.

Apparently homaging Robert Graves' I, Claudius - which I really must get around to reading - Parkin writes with the tremendous weight and authority of an historical novelist whilst maintaining a perfect balance between keeping it moving along without tipping over into anything too lurid, no mean feat given the presence of the Council of Hitlers. Not only this, but on top of everything he even instils the novel with purpose beyond narrative acrobatics and gratuitous adventure. Although unfamiliar with Graves, I briefly wrestled with Thomas More's Utopia, at least enough to recognise shared themes and related devices; except this one's a lot more interesting than Utopia, planting its ideal society on firmer ground in acknowledging that there can be no such thing as a truly ideal society, only an approximation; and at least offering a consistent rationalisation of the more contentious aspects of slavery, criminal justice, and expansionism of such a society allowing us to read without too much wincing. By comparison, More's book occasionally has the tone of a small boy insisting he saw a dinosaur.
This world has fallen to the barbarians.

I realised this with such a start that Angela asked what was wrong. That had been Rome's ancient struggle. We had triumphed against the tribalism, intolerance and illiteracy of those around us. Provinces like Britannia had been given cities, roads, and a written language. We had lifted them from savagery. What would have been left behind if Rome had ... gone away? Ruins. These Britons had tried to comprehend the grandeur that was Rome, they had done their best. They had innovated in places, but this had led to the creation of dangerous vehicles and ugly buildings. They had embraced the Christian religion which teaches that the world is a broken, sinful place but the next life will be better.

References are well made without labouring any point so much as to suggest anyone winking at the reader - Plato's Republic, which is of course pertinent to the notion of an ideal Rome surrounded by variations on its theme, Monty Python's Life of Brian and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle at the other end of the scale, and of course the Doctor Who and the Iron Legion comic strip to at least give the majority of folks reviewing this something upon which to focus and make tee hee noises before deciding that it took too long for us to find out who the baddies were.

Sorry. Did I sound a bit dismissive there?

I remember this novel being good, and it has improved with each reading. This is my third time, and I would say that Warlords of Utopia is exceptional - one of the best and strangest and yet most convincing alternative histories I've read - a narrative pie fight at a chimp's tea party which dares to take itself seriously, and comes through without so much as a hair out of place.

1 comment:

  1. The main thing I found really "off" was the one iteration of Hitler who was a communist, and yet still an anti-Semite... and the lover of Rosa Luxemburg, who was herself Jewish. That was a real bum note and failure of research.