Tuesday, 6 September. Unity of place and time. In Javier Marías’ novel All Souls the narrator says at one point that he forgot about the existence of his son. He was imagining the future, making travel plans, and it didn’t occur to him that he had an infant son that would affect these future plans. When we imagine the future we can forget the present and the past. The narrator of All Souls says that the capacity for imagining the future is a quality of the living, those living with the knowledge of their impending death lose the ability to imagine the future because they will not be players in that future. The living dead have no futures and are then stuck with the present or adrift in memories.
When reading All Souls at one point I was struck by the idea (a vision, a sudden fear) that I didn’t want to be the living dead. I don’t want to be passing the time, waiting for death to arrive. But how do any of us avoid falling into the trap of a living death? Perhaps there is no formula, but having a future is at least one element. Or maybe living the moment (the Biblical injunction to live one day at a time) is the surer path.
Really when I started writing a few moments ago, I thought I would just reference the experience of forgetting related by the narrator of Marías’ novel and compare it to my own forgetting: forgetting yesterday that I’d written all these pages on Wolford and my family history before I left on our fortnight long trip through England and Wales. The pre-trip text breaks off with what appears to be an excursion into the details of my father’s life. After two weeks and amassing a body of experience that I need to record, the events and thoughts of the last two weeks while traveling, I can’t continue with that account of my father’s history. I can return to that in the future, as a plan delayed until some appropriate time, perhaps in a few months, early next year? Will I keep putting the task off?
The other reason I wanted to start today with Marías’ novel is that it provides a model for a proper story, a model that I could use for the novel I am trying to write, the novel that will be born out of these notes. Is that novel Without a Trace?
Two important characteristics of a proper story are unity of place and time. Marías confines the action of All Souls to Oxford and to the two year period that the narrator spent as a lecturer there. There are excursions to various locations in southern England (London, Reading, Brighton, etc.) and the narrator is looking back, remembering the events from a space-time distance of Madrid and almost two years.
Yesterday, while trying to keep myself awake by typing notes (the text of this book) and thinking about the novel I will write, I tried to construct a framework with these qualities of unity of place and time. The reluctant narrator of Without a Trace is an accidental bookseller, perhaps with an antiquarian inclination. He’s also an unemployed academic, a specialist in French literature. The details don’t matter really. I can change those to suit the framework I decide upon.
Of course, because of the time I spent in Cambridge, memories now added to the time I spent in Oxford five years ago, I am interested in attempting to set my story in Cambridge, perhaps a two month (year?) stay. The narrator is on sabbatical, in Cambridge for research purposes. Is the narrator single or married? Does he have children? A son perhaps? Are these details or central to the story?
Before you set foot on the streets of a city like Cambridge, you are hooked into a fictional narrative. —Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough
Studies. While in Cambridge, I had an instantaneous vision of myself standing in front of an audience of my peers giving a lecture on the history of physics, or the history of some episode in physics. The vision excited me. I could return to an academic track by reinventing myself as a historian of science, and perhaps something of a popularizer, a writer of simple books for the masses. This was my original idea, hatched some twenty years ago when I decided to study physics. Physics was something to write about, a subject that interested me sufficiently so that I could write books. I always thought of myself as more a philosopher of science than a historian, but now after nearly a decade of working as an editor of an academic journal, I’ve lost the drive to study the philosophy of science with the aim to making contributions of my own to that field. Instead, now I feel content to learn about and document the history of my field as something to occupy me professionally, to engage my interests again in physics. Trying to convince myself that the years I spent studying physics were all preparation for securing a paycheck (and nothing else) depresses me. I don’t think I was ever happy with the idea that my career in physics was over and that now I would be a beer writer and novelist. These past nine years on Long Island have been well spent, I’ve written a lot and I certainly intend to keep writing fiction and my beer novels, but adding to that a program of reading and study that will result in short readable books on current developments in condensed matter physics.
The vision of myself as a historian of physics came in single moment, not as the result of deliberation. As I watched a colleague unfold a story of superconductivity and how it has driven technological development and is helping to solve real problems associated with energy storage and delivery (important technological issues), I thought, “I could do that. I could do what she’s doing. I could put together overviews of how a field develops. I could tell stories about physicists and what they do and discover.” Then in the next moment I thought that such an activity would be a wedge to work my way back to some kind of academic life. In the future, I might need to have some part-time arrangement with a university, teaching history of science courses. But to do that, I will need publications in the journals, and I will need to write books. Will I have time for all that? At the moment, the prospect of having a project to work on that will be of interest to someone excites me. (Having an audience is what keeps bringing me back to writing about beer.)
Naturally, after this revelation (insight, vision), I began to imagine my narrator, the narrator of my as-yet-to-be-written novel, as a working historian of physics who is in Cambridge to do research. Like David’s summers in Poitiers, I (my narrator) could spend my (his) summers in Cambridge, perhaps as series of summers. The story could begin in Oxford, a stay at Queen’s College for research purposes, and that opens the gates for return visits, each summer, and then to Cambridge. The narrator tells the story of the people he knows in Cambridge: the time traveler and his wife.
The time traveler and his wife. I had heard of this novel by Audrey Niffenegger before my recent trip to England -- I was vaguely aware of it, the same way I’m vaguely aware of anything happening in pop culture --, but despite the title, I hadn’t developed an interest in learning more about it. Only after I saw the reference to the novel in the Radio Times spread on the return of Doctor Who’s sixth (new) series did I think I should research the novel. And a couple of days later while browsing in a bookstore in Bath I saw a copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife on a display table and so had an opportunity to read a few pages.
When we left Cambridge, on our drive to High Wycombe, my son started asking questions. He was thinking about the future (the privilege of the living) and wanted some advice about what he should become. He wasn’t satisfied with “you can be whatever you want to be, son; it’s your choice.” He insisted, “No, make some decisions for me.”
I told him a little story about how I (probably) became interested in physics: the TV show Doctor Who. And the British TV shows rebroadcast on PBS had a lot to do with my anglophilia -- something I’d been thinking about a lot on this trip, the roots of my interest in England and then how my cultural interests shifted to France in the late 80s.
Of course it wasn’t only Doctor Who that inspired my interest in science, it was Carl Sagan and his show Cosmos that captured my imagination. However, my intense interest in the subject matter of Cosmos was probably strongly correlated with my interest in Doctor Who.
Doctor Who wasn’t the first science fiction TV series to capture my childhood imagination. And I’m not going to attempt to list all the shows that I remember watching, but I do remember what I would pretend to be on the playground in elementary school. My father had allowed me to watch Logan’s Run on television, perhaps it was the series (1977-78). I don’t remember much about the show, but I do remember that my favorite character on the TV show was Rem, the android. I think I liked Rem because he seemed to know everything. I wanted to know everything, so I naturally identified with know-it-alls. The Doctor was the arch-know-it-all and so became the focus of my adoration. I wanted to be the Doctor.
I was probably 10 years old when I started watching Doctor Who. The show transformed my play. On the playground I would pretend to be the Doctor. (And it didn’t matter that no one else had any clue who the Doctor was.) I remember distinctly how I mapped out the interior of the TARDIS onto the playground at Will Roger’s Elementary School in Stillwater. There was a spot by the fence that was the entrance that led to the console room. By the time I entered sixth grade, I was seeking out and reading books on the physics of time and relativity.
Wednesday, 7 September. Doctor Who. One of my planned projects (a book started, but unfinished) is a memoir about watching Doctor Who and how it affected my life. The largest factor that shaped my obsession with the show was the lack of information available about it in the US. When I started watching the show in the late 70s, Tom Baker played the Doctor; he was the fourth actor to play the role. Slowly I became aware that the show had an amazing history and I wanted to know that history. Today, since the show is so huge in the US and because of the Internet, a boy can gorge themselves on information about the show, there’s no end to easily obtainable information, including access to all the television episodes themselves. Thirty years ago, I had to rely on the information I gleaned from the monthly newsletter of the North American Doctor Who Appreciation Society (NADWAS). When I was a teenager, the Target novelizations and the magazine, Doctor Who Monthly, did a little to feed my obsession.
When I was thirteen I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I don’t know if I was aware that Douglas Adams was the script editor for one series of Doctor Who (the 17th series or season broadcast in 1979). That series was truncated by a production strike that prevented the completion of the filming of a serial penned by Adams called Shada, a story set (partly) in Cambridge and features a well-known scene with Tom Baker and Lalla Ward (the second Romana) punting and Tom Baker falling into the Cam. This scene was later lifted and recycled as part of The Five Doctors special. Years later, Douglas Adams recycled Shada into his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. In Adams’ story there’s a character named Professor Chronotis, an eccentric Cambridge don whose rooms are the interior of his time machine. The mysterious, but apparently earthbound and non-time-traveling Dirk Gently is a stand-in for the Doctor.
While in Cambridge, you can imagine that I was thinking about Shada and Dirt Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. My time traveler bears some resemblance to Professor Chronotis, I suppose, but only inasmuch as they are both Cambridge dons and have some experience of time travel.
Serials. I’ve invented serials of my own. Since Doctor Who played such a large role in my childhood imaginative life, I naturally conceived of stories which resembled (in form) Doctor Who. A box containing my juvenile writings features a number of stories which feature a thinly disguised Doctor, a know-it-all time traveler.
When my son was born, I started thinking about possible stories to write that would interest him. The only one I’ve written (to date) is a story called Into the Vortex which features a time traveler and two kids that go along for the adventure. I’ve written outlines for several more stories in that (potential) series, but have yet to follow through.
Paralysis. The trick to writing a story is summed up nicely by the current Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffat. This advice appeared in the issue of Doctor Who Magazine that we bought on our trip. Here’s what Steven Moffat says about the writing process:
“Well in a very basic way, there’s Starting, Keeping Going, and Finishing. The world is full of people who say they want to be writers, but never get around to writing anything. So you’ve got to START, and that’s always hard -- cold and bleak, like a Monday. And the world is only slightly less full of unfinished stories -- so you’ve got to KEEP GOING, even when it’s grim and endless (Thursday afternoon) and then, on some lovely day, FINISH. Which is Friday, obviously.”
And he goes on to give further advice about the rewriting stage:
“Also -- in common with all writing -- you have to be your own first and harshest critic. Don’t wait for somebody else to tell you it could be better. Decide that for yourself, and improve it. And then improve it again, and again. And then somebody else tells you it could be better.”
Moffat’s advice is essentially the same as Tobias Wolff’s: finishing is important.
I’ve developed some bad writing habits over the years. I’m getting better, but I tend to get bogged down in the rewriting process. I’ve “finished” about a dozen books in the last nine years, but being my own harshest critic means that I tend to take a finished story and regress it to an unfinished state during the rewriting process.
I started this section with the word “paralysis” for a reason. I’m starting to feel that paralysis that comes when I lose focus and start thinking about everything at once. This book is starting to feel like a waste of time. It’s not a proper story. This is (or has become) a diary. I’m supposed to be writing about my trip England, but instead I’m palavering. But Moffat’s advice is that I have to KEEP GOING. Especially now that this book is starting to feel grim and endless. Where is the finish line? Will Friday never come?
Storytelling. This book (referring to Red Neck) began (in part) out of desire to respond to McMurtry’s reflections in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. I recall how important stories were to me when I was growing up, and they still are. Also, I remember my grandfather telling me stories. He never made up his own, but he told me stories that he had read. Most of the stories were Biblical or had some religious message, like the stories from the book Bird Life in Wington (I have the copy of this book still). I remember the story about the young owls who decide to fly to the moon, but then mistake the headlights of a car for two approaching moons. The story had a moral: don’t try exceed your lot in life or you’ll get hurt. Not a very inspiring story, and now I can understand why Nietzsche thought Christianity was an uninspiring religion, for so many centuries it was used as a tool to palliate the masses, to keep them in line, to make them comfortable with their servitude. And I remember my grandmother’s warning: “Don’t get too big for your britches.” Well, it’s too late, I got too big for my britches and wandered away from home, and now I reside in a foreign land, far from where I started out.
I think about John Hall who left Wolford and came to New York. Did he get too big for his britches too? He left his home to settle in a foreign land, to start a new life. What stories did he bring with him of life in the Wolfords? Why did they stop telling the stories? Leaving home and not returning means suffering a discontinuity.
That afternoon two weeks ago when I wandered over the ground that my ancestors knew so well. I imagined something: people connected with me. I didn’t imagine my ancestors. I couldn’t possibly imagine them, but characters who bear no resemblance to them. I have no pictures, no stories, just a landscape and some buildings.
Being imprints itself on reality. The extended self is an idea that has been with me since I encountered it in the writings of C.S. Peirce. He was offering some possible explanation for how immortality might work. We have the capacity for perception which is extended, that is it resides in the world outside our body, in the things we use and the people we know.
Thursday, 8 September. Personal identity. Given that our purpose for traveling to Cardiff was to go on a Doctor Who-themed tour of filming locations for the show, and that series six resumed the evening after we went on the tour, it seems inevitable that I would be thinking about stories about time travelers.
(Perfectionism is a handicap. It leads to paralysis. Real things, beautiful things are often messy.)
Cambridge, too, (with its connection to Doctor Who and Douglas Adams’ story about the time traveling don) contributed to the persistence of the idea that my story should have a time traveler. Perhaps my story could be a first person account, a confession, a meditation on living a life discontinuous in time.
Also, each morning I read a bit of The Philosophy of Doctor Who. I didn’t expect the exercise to lead to anything profitable; I imagined that (at most) the articles would be amusing, but one of the first articles introduced theories of the self (and personality) by Derek Parfit (a philosopher at Oxford). As I grow older, my ignorance surprises me less. I’d never heard of Derek Parfit, not that that really matters. It’s just that I didn’t realize that this fun book exploring the philosophical problems posed by a TV show would introduce me to “the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world.” The quote is from The New Yorker, the 5 September 2011 issue; a copy of which was in my mailbox when I returned from England. (The comment above about perfectionism came from my reaction to Parfit’s account of his father’s intellectual (creative?) paralysis.)
I couldn’t have written All Souls. Javier Marías’ novel contains a trick (a coincidence or connections) that I would have discarded. The coincidence is presented in a story told by the narrator’s lover, Clare. She tells the narrator about the tragic end of her mother’s life, the result of an affair with a man named Terry Armstrong. The narrator already knows about Terrance Armstrong, aka John Gawsworth, from a tenuous literary connection involving his interest in the obscure writer Machen and penchant for lingering in antiquarian bookstores. The coincidence is incredible; it’s missing something and as a result feels forced on the reader by the author. I admit that the coincidence works inasmuch as it provides a unity to the novel that wouldn’t be there otherwise, but the lack of elegance in this solution would have forced me to discard it, or to attempt to fix it with even more baroque connections (such as revealing that Rylands was actually Terrance Armstrong, a connection which would have required another linkage to put the narrator onto John Gawsworth’s trail, perhaps a hint from Cromer-Blake about the author Machen who provided the preface for one of John Gawsworth’s books -- you see, I would have reengineered the whole edifice and my tampering would probably have weakened the book further).
Coincidentally, Derek Parfit is a fellow of All Souls, the college where he wrote his breakout masterwork Reasons and Persons (1984). Parfit, in his book (which I haven’t read, yet), articulates a version of the extended self idea that intrigued me when I first ran across it in Peirce’s writings.
The article in The New Yorker (by Larissa MacFarquhar, titled “How to be Good”) begins with a thought experiment intended to demonstrate that our concept of the self isn’t as well-defined as we might think. The thought experiments involve breaking down the physical components of the self to show that personal identity is not a single, indivisible thing. These examples are more concise expressions of my more amplified text about a subject, Fred, who is (atom by atom) duplicated by a fantastical machine I call the atomaswap. (Note: This is a reference to a story I wrote in 2003 or 2004 which suggests that the self is a persistent pattern and as long as we can sustain that patter, we can sustain the self. I make use of this idea of self again in my novel, Sleepers, where Arthur Legrand’s father becomes an immortal simulation.) Assuming that we can slice and dice a person’s body without killing them, then we can manufacture fanciful situations which seem to undermine our commonsense ideas about the self.
Parfit might be right, but I’d like to point out a few things about wonky thinking. Modern physics, the quantum theory and relativity being the prime culprits, has produced an unexpected consequence in the thinking of those in the general population. Popularizations of quantum theory and relativity emphasize that our commonsense notions about reality are flawed -- nature (they say) is stranger than we ever imagined. (The word my professors used to describe quantum theory was counterintuitive.) Einstein accomplished his breakthrough insights into the nature of motion by thinking clearly and setting aside assumptions that were not supported by observed fact. The theory of relativity was made possible because of experimental observations about the real world. Thought experiments, by themselves, do not necessarily lead to knowledge of the existing world. (This, in part, was the Galilean “revolution.” Galileo insisted that physical thinking begin with experimentation. Later, I'll write about Robert Laughlin and David Pines and their ideas about complex adaptive matter, quantum and classical protectorates, and emergent phenomena and how true knowledge of the world must begin with experimentation. Working from theory alone will lead us to what Gombrowicz called “the Land of Abracadabra.”)
What I’m trying to suggest is that thought experiments that involve supernatural agency (like an atomaswap) should not necessarily tells us anything real about nature. We humans are skilled at imagining impossible things. And the incremental replacement of one person’s atoms with another person’s might not tell us anything more than that our thinking is wonky. So I don’t have an answer, only a gut reaction that tells me to be suspicious of thought experiments that aren’t rooted in real world experimentation.
Identification. I am at the age now when I began to know my father. He turned forty-two on 16 November 1988. That was just six weeks before I boarded a 747 bound for Rome. I am at the age now that my father was when I became an adult. My mental image of my father is of him being in his forties and fifties. And when I look in the mirror I see an outline of my father’s face. Marías in All Souls references this repetition of features through the generations when his narrator sees his lover’s features repeated in her father and in her son: three faces, essentially identical, but time (and gender) shifted. When I look in the mirror and see my father staring back at me, that moment of recognition is accompanied by a feeling that is like a visceral knowledge that for a moment I am my father -- I bear the imprint of my father. And to a certain degree (but lesser) I also carry the imprint of my grandfather. Near the end of my father’s life, as he approached his mid-fifties, he did resemble more his own father, and how he looked when he was in his fifties. Each of us are recapitulations (modified) of the previous generations. What connects us is this imprint. And it’s not just an accidental physical resemblance, but an ontological resemblance. Many times during this recent trip to England, especially when I was wandering the streets of Cambridge, I had the strong feeling of the presence of my father, like I was carrying him inside me and for a moment he surfaced, manifested himself, and I knew that my emotions and thoughts at that moment were my father’s. And then the sensation would recede, fade away, like an illusion that disappears when you focus your attention on the source. It’s only when I am least myself that I feel the presence of my father.
Regeneration. The Doctor (the principal character in the TV show Doctor Who) is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords are special in that they are symbiotic with their magical technology. They have fantastic powers like the ability to completely regenerate their bodies.
The phenomenon of complete bodily regeneration was a result of the show’s success. The original actor who played the role of the Doctor, William Hartnell, was, after nearly three years, not able to continue. He wasn’t particularly old, but he wasn’t physically capable of keeping up with the production and its (evidently) grueling schedule. So the producers of the TV show had to find a replacement actor to play the Doctor. Thus a younger man, Patrick Troughton, was introduced into the role. The way the producers accomplished the swap was to film William Hartnell’s version of the Doctor growing tired (approaching death), and then through the magic of film, replacing William Hartnell’s image with that of Patrick Troughton’s. When the new actor got up he was wearing the old man’s clothes, but he didn’t act like William Hartnell. He had his own personality, very different from how William Hartnell played the role. The audience was asked to accept that the character known as the Doctor (through some transformation) now looks and acts different, but he is in reality still the Doctor, the fugitive Time Lord and pilot of the TARDIS. The Doctor’s companions gave voice to the natural incredulity of any person when asked to accept despite a complete physical and personality change, that the person known as the Doctor is still the same. The article in The Philosophy of Doctor Who that introduces Derek Parfit’s concept of the self suggests that such radical transformations are not necessarily violations of the continuity of self.
If we are so connected with our surroundings, then leaving home and journeying into the wilderness (or a faraway land) is like a regeneration. In moving (or traveling) our physical context changes, we can reinvent or redefine ourselves by taking up a new job, forming relationships with new friends, imprinting ourselves on new objects (a new house), etc. Leaving and relocating is a kind of mild transformation. It’s a phase transition, but not perfectly discontinuous. In leaving Oklahoma and wandering until settling on Long Island I have regenerated; I am the same person, but I look different and act different. Because the transitions and transformations were not so abrupt in time and space, we hold to the idea that there is continuity between the person I was thirty years ago and the person I am now. Of course, I’m the same person, I have the memories of me in the past -- what’s more I have the impression of actually being the same person (that idea of me in the past). That is a sense of identification that I don’t have of other people. Not only do I remember what happened to Donavan thirty years ago, I remember those events as if I were the one they happened to. This sense is essential to our understanding of ourselves as being the same person even though external circumstances change.
Friday, 9 September. Many body theories and protectorates. Yesterday evening, I finally finished reading the article about Derek Parfit in The New Yorker. I didn’t learn much more about his moral philosophy. The author of the piece appeared more interested in writing an outline of Parfit’s biography (perhaps as a prelude to getting a commission to write the actual biography?). Parfit’s life, in form, reminded me of Isaac Newton, a secluded genius living a cloistered life where not much happens. What I did learn at the end of the article was that Parfit’s next project is the metaphysics of time. Here is a quote from the article:
“When people describe time’s passage, they often say that we are moving into the future, or that future events are getting closer, or that nowness, or the quality of being Now, is moving down the series of events like a spotlight moving along a line of chorus girls. These claims, though they can seem deeply true, make no sense.”
At the moment I’m reading Igor D. Novikov’s The River of Time, so I’ve been thinking about the physical theory of time as part of my project (writing a story about a time traveler). Two things are immediately obvious: the laws of motion are time reversible, and systems made up of many bodies are not (in practice) time reversible. The second assertion might not be obvious to everyone. What I mean is that systems that involve many particles, like a sugar cube dissolving in a cup of tea, will never behave in a way that would lead an observer to be unable to deduce the arrow of time’s flow. That is to say, once dissolved, the sugar cube will never reassemble itself. This tendency for physical systems to move from ordered states to disordered states we call entropy.
Motion and time are inseparable. If nothing is moving, then we naturally think that time has stopped. Motion involving simple objects (a rolling ball, for example) do not suggest a direction for the flow of time. Uniform motion can be time reversed and we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. However, as the system we are observing becomes more complex, we can see the effects that provide our intuitive sense of the flow of time.
After I hung up my soldering iron and turned to more theoretical pursuits I became interested in a idea proposed by Robert Laughlin and David Pines: the physics of systems involving large numbers of particles features phenomena that are not deducible from a microscopic description of the system. What I mean by a “microscopic description” (this is physics-speak) is a description of how the individual particles in a system move and interact. Laughlin and Pines assert that there are states of matter which emerge as a result of the fact that so many particles are in the system. If you start removing particles, you’ll eventually destroy the state of the many body system. The physics of many body systems are “protected.” In the language of Laughlin and Pines, a system of many particles exhibiting collective effects is a protectorate. Protectorates can be either classical or quantum. A protectorate is a state of matter than can only be described by many body models; the properties of a protectorate cannot be deduced beforehand by reasoning about the motion and interactions of few particles alone. This idea might not sound like anything very useful to the working physicist since it is an articulation of a limits to the predictive power of “first principles” calculations, but for someone interested in thinking clearly about how real world systems work, knowing that many body problems won’t be solved by knowledge of fundamental particles alone is a big deal. In more popular terms what it means is that there can never be a “Theory of Everything.” There can only be physical theories that describe the various protectorates.
Saturday, 23 November 2013. Remembrance of the Doctors. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the initial broadcast of the British science fiction television show Doctor Who. Fifty years of traveling in the TARDIS! It’s with not a little bit of pride that I say that I was one of the original American fans of the show. Why should I be proud of an accident of history? I can’t even determine exactly what the year was when I watched my first ever episode of Doctor Who. My inauguration into the mysterious world of the traveling Time Lord was the adventure called “Ark in Space” featuring the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker and his companions Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). According to the exhaustive information that fans of the show collect and post on the web, I’ve learned that Doctor Who premiered in Oklahoma on the 7th of October 1978 with “Robot.” The package purchased by OETA included the first 23 stories of the Baker era running from “Robot” to “The Invasion of Time” (Series 11 through 15). It’s possible that I didn’t begin watching until the second showing of this run of episodes which by my calculations means that the latest I could have started watching the show is the summer of 1979 when I was ten years old. This seems about right. By the time Series 16 (the famous “Key to Time” series) began airing in May 1981 I was already an obsessed fan.
These details of personal history are only important to me. They can be of no possible interest to anyone else, except that the fact that as an enduring (suffering?) fan of (what is now called) “Classic” Who, I occupy a slightly higher rung in fandom hierarchy. That and twenty-five cents... Compared to others though, I remain a novice.
Being “a fan” of Doctor Who is like admitting that one is a follower of a religious faith. In this world the three great science fiction religions are Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. It’s tempting to force some identification between these shows and the world’s great religions, but that’s not the essay I want to write. Doctor Who is most decidedly the modern version of Christianity (and I’ll leave it at that). The Doctor is certainly a savior and his companions are devoted disciples. Under the leadership of the shows first modern showrunner, Russell T Davies, the Doctor was transformed into something resembling a god. The work of Davies’ successor, Steven Moffat, has been to attempt a rehumanization of the Doctor, to divest him of his god-like powers and recover him as a character that us mortal viewers can identify with. But to do that, Moffat has had to push the Doctor as god-savior idea past its breaking point. The entire universe needed a reboot and guess who was there to usher in the new creation — the Doctor. This Doctor-Creator had to be killed off at the end of Series 6 to give way to a secret and hidden Doctor of Series 7 (and beyond?). Or perhaps this analysis is all just rubbish. Doctor Who is a spectacle, not high drama.
Recently I watched “The Ribos Operation” (the first story of the Classic Series 16 “Key to Time”) with my son and I loved the slow pace of the story. Classic Who is full of characters who talk a lot. All this talking is what allows a viewer to get to know the character on the screen. While the pace of Modern or New Who is electrifying, dizzying, palpitating, there’s no time for the characters to talk, really talk. One liners and jump cuts are what we get anymore. I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m complaining and getting nostalgic for the good ol’ days — I’m not really complaining or being nostalgic. The times have changed. I like New Who. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back to the old style of Classic Who. If I want to slow the pace down, I’ll reach for my copy of À la recherche du temps perdu.
Sunday, 20 September 2015. Last Wednesday, we (my family and I) went to the 3D theatrical showing of “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven”, the two episodes which comprised the series 8 finale for Doctor Who. After the screening of the episodes (edited together into a feature length film that worked seamlessly), there was a special screening of a prequel for series 9. The prequel was shot at Caerphilly Castle in Wales. A few years ago, we traveled to Wales for the Doctor Who tour of Cardiff which took us to many of the locations used for filming the series. After the tour of Cardiff, Alice, Patrick, and I spent an afternoon at Caerphilly. That castle has been used many times as a location for Doctor Who. Somehow, the fact that I have real experience and memories of Caerphilly (and other locations around Cardiff) imparts a feeling of being connected to the show. I might have thought that seeing real world locations in an otherwise fictional story would jar me out of a sense of being caught up, or fooled, by the fiction. But in reality, the opposite is the case: because I know these locations, have visited them, my sense of the world of the Doctor, his companions, his adventures, is expanded and solidified. The show becomes more real.
Last night, the first episode of series 9, “The Magician’s Apprentice”, was aired on TV. This evening, we have friends coming over, fellow Whovians, and we will all watch the series premiere together. For the past week or so, I’ve been re-watching the episodes of series 8 and a few select episodes from earlier in the series. This is by way of preparing for the new series which will be running for the next twelve weeks.
When the inmates run the asylum, or missed opportunities? When Doctor Who (in its classic form) ceased production in 1989, my interest in the show had already waned. I’d left home, gone to college, and was learning about the big wide world. No longer was I bound to the farm in Oklahoma where I grew up and dreaming about such fanciful things as traveling through space and time. In college, I was becoming an adult and it was time to put childish things behind me: time to be serious. So I started studying the poetry of John Milton, reading Shakespeare, and working on a degree in physics.
My early love of Doctor Who inspired two things: the desire to become a writer and the determination to become a physicist. The Doctor, even though I knew he was a fictional character, was my role model. He was the smartest, coolest, nerdiest guy in the universe, and I wanted to be him. I didn’t want to be his companion and travel in the TARDIS with him; no, I wanted to put on his floppy hat, don his ridiculously long scarf, and be the guy on the run. My plan was to go to college, earn advanced degrees in physics, and then I too would be (nearly) as smart as my idol Time Lord. The desire to become a writer had to do with my understanding that the universe of the Doctor was fictional and that to truly enter that fictional world, I would have to be capable of inventing stories.
In 1992 or ’93 I learned that my friend and fellow graduate student, Ed, was a massive Doctor Who fan. Ed had recently discovered the show, watching the reruns on PBS. Ed’s Doctor was Sylvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor. My Doctor was Tom Baker, the Fourth incarnation, and I’d carried on watching the show when Peter Davison succeeded Tom Baker, then Colin Baker took over for Davison. I told Ed that I hadn’t, in fact, ever watched any of Sylvester McCoy’s run as the Doctor. Ed said encouraged me to get back into it. And I did. Ed also encouraged me to read The New Adventures, a series of books which carried on where the series left off. At first, I was excited by the idea that a series of original novels by various writers was carrying on the tradition of the show, but after reading a couple of these books, my enthusiasm for them dropped. What disappointed me was that the books (at least the ones I read) didn’t seem like proper Doctor Who, they were pantomime fantasies.
For about a week after talking to Ed, my brain was buzzing with ideas. He’d said that the publisher was taking submissions from fans. If you had an idea for a Doctor Who story, now was your chance to write your own addition to the ever growing mythology of the Gallifreyan Time Lord. Quickly, I drafted an outline for a story called “The Lords of Titan” and wrote the first quarter of the book, up to the point of the first major cliffhanger at the end of chapter three. I’d grown up reading the Target novelizations of the Doctor Who teleplays, so those stories were my model. For the most part the Target books were made up of twelve chapters with each three chapter block corresponding to a 25 minute episode. I was pleased with the opening of “The Lords of Titan” and was poised to begin work on the middle chapters when I lost my faith in that project.
“What am I doing?” I said. “Why are you writing fan fiction! What’s the point? Where is this going to take you?” After all, I was supposed be on my way to becoming a serious writer, and serious writers don’t write fan fiction. That’s what I told myself in 1993. Because of this moment of disillusionment, I abandoned the folly of writing Doctor Who fan fiction.
But what if I had stuck with it? What might have happened? If I had a time machine, maybe I could go back in time and tell myself… Run! Just run with it. In 1993 I had no idea that the series would ever come back to the TV screen. And I certainly had no idea that the show would, gasp!, become popular. So I thought back then that Doctor Who had no future. But others like Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, and Peter Capaldi, all fans of the show, focused their fan-energy into getting into the television industry. These guys let their fandom propel them into the position where they could take charge and bring Doctor Who back.
Realistically, being an American, being located in the States far from the BBC, even if I had written a series of thrilling and entertaining Doctor Who novels for The New Adventures, it’s not likely that I would be called upon today to write for the new series. But, then again, if I’d managed to become a successful writer like Neil Gaiman, my Americanness might have not proved to be an obstacle to my writing for the New Who.
An unfolding text. Even though I decided in 1993 that writing Doctor Who fanfic wasn’t the path for me, I couldn’t give up on the Doctor’s influence on my understanding of and appreciation for stories. What I loved about the story of the time-traveling Doctor was that there was no end to it. The stories could go on forever. And even though each story cycle spanned a handful of episodes, the Doctor’s story continued to grow and develop with the passage of the years. It’s this sprawling, enduring unfolding story that intrigued me.
In the summer of 2004, with a Ph.D. in physics, a successful research career, and now (at last!) time enough to devote to writing, I began developing the premise for an unfolding text of my own. As I described to Alice at the time, my idea was that I would write a series of of stories, in installments, parts of an ongoing adventure which would (could) go on without ever coming to an end. The title I selected for this series was The Angler after the hobby of the main character, Adam, who was an enthusiastic fisherman.
When I came across the writings of César Aira and learned about his principle of the constant flight forward I understood instinctively that his imaginative approach was similar to the one I’d formulated in 2004. It’s taken me some time to arrive at the point of beginning the writing journey that I mapped out over a decade ago, but I have not been idle. The books I’ve written in the last ten years are the foundation; they will serve as the runway from which my constant flight forward will begin.
Monday, 21 September 2015. Last night, we gathered in the front room where the TV is and put on the premiere episode of series 9 of Doctor Who, “The Magician’s Apprentice.” When the Doctor emerged from the cloud of smoke wearing Ray-Bans with a strapped on faux-Stratocaster, I just had to laugh. I laughed so hard that tears started streaming down my face. I haven’t laughed like that in ages and it felt so good to laugh. I wanted to laugh and this silly show gave me and excuse and a moment of pleasure.
After series 8 ended and after the annual Christmas special was broadcast, I took a little break from the show. I didn’t watch any reruns. I didn’t read any Doctor Who Magazine, didn’t even check the Doctor Who news website. This silence, or time of retreat (a period of meditation), wasn’t a result of any disappointment in the show and how it was going, but just a necessary step in the process of keeping my fannish enthusiasm fresh. I really don’t see how these uber-fans manage to keep up their unremitting attention on the show all year ‘round. Actually, now that I write that sentence, I do understand. I remember when I was 15 years old and the only thing that mattered, really mattered to me, was Doctor Who. Perspective comes with age, I suppose. Thirty years later, my life is full of other things that really do matter to me, and the televised adventures of a certain Time Lord from Gallifrey are a welcome relief from the relentless ordinariness of the daily cycle.
On Friday, I listened to an episode of the Reality Bomb podcast. One of the hosts said that he’d had a rough month, that he’d been going through a particularly dark time in his life (or something along those lines). He didn’t go into any details, but he did say that the antidote to his suffering was watching one of the classical Doctor Who serials, “The Sunmakers.” (I remember well that story and its humor and social commentary.) The podcast host said that it was the humor of the episode that gave him relief. The antics of the Doctor were an excuse to laugh and laughter is good for the soul.
Now that Doctor Who is back on the screen with new episodes, I’m looking forward to the next three months leading up to the Christmas special. I can count on 46 minutes of relief and entertainment each Sunday evening.
Daleks, Nazis, Mein Kampf. When I was 15, I started reading the series of Doctor Who novelizations published by Pinnacle. (I think there were only ten or at most a dozen titles in the series. They were an American publication of the Target series which later became available in full in the US.) One of the books was Terry Nation’s The Genesis of the Daleks. That particular serial was one of my favorites and when I read the novelization (penned by Terrance Dicks, of course), I started to think about Doctor Who not only in its visual form, but as existing as a text to be read. My father always teased me (gently) about my fanaticism for Doctor Who. I desperately wanted my father to like Doctor Who, but he wasn’t into “sci-fi” he said. When I started reading the novelizations, I wondered if the books, the fact that they existed, might somehow legitimize Doctor Who in my father’s estimation. If Doctor Who was more than a TV show, if it was also literature, then would it not be a subject worthy of serious contemplation?
In order to convince my bookish father that Doctor Who was worthy of my devotion and possibly a subject that might interest him, I wrote an essay / review of The Genesis of the Daleks, which was published in one of the many Doctor Who fanzines. A copy of this bit of juvenilia may still exist somewhere in a box, but the actual text of that essay isn’t important. The point is that I took as my subject for the review the question of the morality of genocide and murder in the context of war. In that story, an evil mastermind, Davros, has created a race of tank-encased mutant soldiers whose only desire is to kill. Davros was the chief scientist of the race of Kaleds who were locked in a perpetual war of attrition against their enemies, the Thals. Davros does not look like the other Kaleds; he looks as if he should have died years ago, but he’s being kept alive by technology and machines even as his body appears to be in an advanced state of decay. Somehow Davros is the leader of a group of elite Kaleds led by a Nyder. Nyder and the other elites are patterned after the Nazi SS. And so Davros himself stands in as Hilter figure. The parallels between Davros, Hitler, the Kaled elites, Nazi SS, are underscored by all the talk of racial purity and how the Thals are degenerate “mutos.”
The climax of the story comes when the Doctor is in a position to destroy the Daleks. The incubation room for the Dalek hatchery is lined with explosives and wired for detonation. All the Doctor has to do it touch the two wires together and he would completely destroy the Daleks before they were unleashed on the universe. While this situation plays on a classic time-travel paradox, the moral question is clear: is genocide allowed under certain circumstances? Is genocide ever justified? In the Doctor’s speech prior to making his decision about whether to commit genocide or not… rather than describing it, I’ll quote it here:
The Doctor : “If someone who knew the future, pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives... could you then kill that child?”
Sarah Jane Smith : “We're talking about the Daleks. The most evil creatures ever invented. You must destroy them. You must complete your mission for the Time Lords!”
The Doctor : “Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear... in peace, and never even know the word ‘Dalek’.”
Sarah Jane Smith : “Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria you were destroying, you wouldn’t hesitate.”
The Doctor : “But if I kill. Wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.”
—from the BBC’s Doctor Who Episode Guide
The Doctor decides in the next moment that he cannot justify genocide under any circumstances. Some acts are so morally reprehensible that to perform them, even for the best of reasons, is wrong. The parallels in the real world are obvious, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fire bombing of countless other cities by conventional means, the Holocaust, the ethnic-cleansing campaigns in the Balkan wars, the Israeli effort to wipe out the Palestinians… the list goes on and on.
During “The Magician’s Apprentice” a clip of the Doctor’s speech on Skaro becomes the central question of the drama: does the Doctor have the moral right to go back to a point in time when Davros was a boy and kill him? The question of why a time-traveler just doesn’t pop back in time and kill Hitler has come up many times in the history of the series. And here we are again, facing the same question.
I don’t recall how I concluded the essay I wrote thirty years ago about the Doctor’s moral choice and what his example teaches us about how to behave, but I know I wanted to convince my father that Doctor Who wasn’t just a silly, sci-fi TV show; it was more than that, something capable of moral instruction, something that showed us how to be good. The Doctor’s central question since the beginning of last season was “Am I a good man?” Perhaps we’ll find out in the next episode just how good a man the Doctor is now.
Wednesday, 14 October 2015. Whose Reality? This morning I stopped by the tire store in downtown Long Neck to get a puncture repaired. I discovered that the tires on my car were rotting. They’d rotted to such an extent that they weren’t holding air properly. Which explains why I ended up sitting in a waiting room for two hours.
Luckily, I had with me my copy of volume 7 of About Time, “The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who.” This ambitious project written (largely) by Tat Wood is a structured commentary on every episode of Doctor Who ever made. Additionally, there are essays which serve as a critique of various aspects of the show and sometimes these critiques range into the realm of social criticism.
One of the essays I read (while killing time in the waiting room of the tire store) was about why Rose Tyler’s mother, Jackie, was able to watch the fictitious 24 hour American news channel, AMNN, hosted by anchor / talking-head Trinity Wells. When I initially watched the first series of New Who and regularly encountered these TV news blurbs always on AMNN and always narrated by Trinity Wells, I just accepted that this was part of the reality of the show. Whether AMNN actually exists or whether someone living on a counsel estate in London would have access to such a channel did not trouble me. I understood that the news blurb was a narrative device, an information dump which serves the purpose of telling part of the story.
Reading Tat Wood’s informative essay in About Time I learned all sorts of things about the development and history of cable and satellite TV in Britain. And I also learned that (gasp!) Jackie Tyler is a two dimensional stereotype and not a fully realized character.
Another essay touched on the various continuity problems throughout the history of the show. The underlying complaint (if I can call it that) is that the writers / producers of Doctor Who appear to be (gasp!) making it all up as they go along. Yes, and so what? Why should I demand (as a viewer) that the show be internally consistent? Isn’t is sufficient that for 45 minutes each Sunday evening that I am entertained?
If I’m treating Doctor Who as light entertainment and trying not to think too much about the plot problems and continuity inconsistencies, then why am I purchasing multivolume structured commentaries which dissect every aspect of the show as if it were the subject of academic study? Either one accepts it as light entertainment and accepts all the logical inconsistencies this entails, or one doesn’t and becomes frustrated. Or can attempting to disentangled all the snarled plot lines be a form of light entertainment itself? In which case, working out the UNIT timeline is a prime subject for debate in the pub over a succession of pints.
As I read the essays in Tat Wood’s book, I kept thinking to myself, “Doctor Who is a made up story, for crying out loud. It doesn’t have to make sense.” Though my own attempts at floating a ship of story have often run aground on the sort of nitpicky obsession with consistency and logic that drives Wood’s essays. Russel T Davies (the showrunner for series 1 through 4) wrote by the seat of his pants. This is well documented in the doorstop he published a few years ago, Doctor Who: A Writer’s Tale. Davies was more concerned with the individual episode, the 45 minute ride, and whether that was entertaining. Logic and consistency are often enemies of the dramatic. But if all logic and consistency goes out the window, then just how seriously are we viewer / readers suppose to take the show?
Friday, 16 October 2015. The Fisher King. In the episode of Doctor Who broadcast last week, “Before the Flood,” a new monster was introduced into the series — a tall, angel-of-death skeletal creature with a cleft face known as “the Fisher King.”
Who? Say again. The Fisher King, from the Arthurian legend? It seems not. This new monster is just some alien warlord (an Arcateenian) with the same title. At the risk of anticipating Tat Wood’s once and future essay on the invocation of the legend of Arthur in Doctor Who, I’m compelled to write a few words about this, if for no other reason than I go by a handle which is related: the Angler.
If I were a Time Lord (and I’m not saying that I’m not — there is a strange pocket watch-thingy in my dresser drawer which I feel compelled to ignore), I would be called “the Angler.” (Donavan Hall being equivalent to John Smith as some kind of earthly secret identity.) So when a baddy named the Fisher King shows up on my high definition screen, I am immediately alert.
My first thought was that this monstrous Arcateenian is the actual Fisher King, or some kind of futuristic version which somehow gets sent back in time and incorporated into the set of stories which grew up around the quest for the Holy Grail. But the more I learned about this on-screen Fisher King, the less I was sure that he had anything to do with the lonely man, the lord of the grail castle who spends his days fishing in order to distract himself from the wound in his creative region (which is near the inside of the upper thigh, incidentally). By the end of the episode, “Before the Flood,” I could only conclude that this towering, cleft-faced warrior had nothing to do whatsoever with the legend of the Grail and King Arthur.
I suppose one could map the title, Fisher King, onto this monster in some analogical way. The suspended animation chamber in the church might be the grail and the Fisher King’s body is under the lake and the ill-fated O’Donnell becomes the Lady of the Lake… no, that interpretation isn’t really working. So why did the writer of the episode, Toby Whithouse, elect to name this monster after a character from the Arthurian legend? Or perhaps it was showrunner Steven Moffat’s idea? But who’s responsible really isn’t the point. Why freight this character with the title of a well-known mythological (legendary) figure? Does the association mean something or not?
Years ago, when I started writing my cycle of novels, I populated my cast with characters whose names derived from Arthurian legend: Arthur Legrand, Gwen Pallas, Wayne Greene, Marilynne Ambrose, etc. all of whom I met at the Center. Franz found this pattern annoying. Why this Arthurian overlay? What are you doing with it? At the time, the only plausible answer I could give was that my principle character, Adam, was in some way associated with the Fisher King. In fact, my plan was to eventually send Adam to Fisher’s Island where he would be given a new name.
While it’s possible that Moffat and Whithouse are setting us up for more of the Fisher King in future episodes and the Arthurian associations will become clear eventually, I can’t help but think that this is just another instance of the writers of this series playing fast and loose and having a bit of fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that either if it sparks endless speculation and debate amongst the show’s adoring fans.