Doctor Who: Harvest of Time is a novel about the third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee between 1970 and 1974. Now, I’ll admit it from the get-go – I’m not a dedicated fan of the TV show. I like it quite a lot, but I haven’t seen a single episode of the old series and I have watched less than two seasons of the new. Some episodes I loved as a child loves, others bored me senseless. OK, it’s out there, whew. Harvest of Time is also a novel by Alastair Reynolds. I love Alastair Reynolds novels. So my thinking was as follows: if I absolutely love the best parts of the show, then a writer whose work has not let me down has a damn good chance of hitting just the right notes with this one.
Well, he did, and I loved it. Harvest of Time could easily have been an on-screen episode (a double one most probably, there is a lot going on); can’t say how well the characters of the Doctor and Jo Grant echo their TV incarnations but it all felt just the right amount of zany. The number of actively used SF tropes scarcely drops out of the absurdly extreme end of the spectrum; the tropes themselves are also extremely absurd, as is only proper. The action oscillates from Earth to planets far away in space and time, there is tons of time travel, plenty of gizmos and gimmicks, the fate of the world and more hangs in the balance, the good guys must battle not one but two ruthless enemies… You only need a writer capable of translating the spirit of the show into good writing, and then you have three hundred pages of light-hearted, mind-bending, cosmic-scale fun.
Not all the show’s idiosyncrasies can be preserved over the transition, of course. Most of the hallmark tics of the characters that are conveyed visually, especially the Doctor’s, had to go; and I think it is the physical quirkiness of the on-screen Time Lords, even more so than their verbal extravagancies, that so often salvages the show from lapsing in monotonicity. Eccleston and Tenant are both great in this respect, I imagine Pertwee had his arsenal as well. The good news is Reynolds does a decent job of compensating through witty dialogue. It’s not enough to turn character into a major strength of the story, but I think it should suffice to keep the fans happy. Especially successful is the juxtaposition of the Doctor and his life-long enemy and friend the Master – a genius Time Lord who, for some reason, has it in his bonnet that being the avatar of chaos is such a cool thing (for those like me who need some explanation of the mythos). Character development is not in focus either, but nor is it in the show where it mostly emerges as a side-effect. Here this is slightly awkward for the uninitiated readers, as characters such as Jo Grant never come off as more than plot-furthering agents. But hey, what a plot!
Another thing that inevitably feels different is the sense of setting. Imagination almost always trumps special effects, even when we’re talking cinema. Doctor Who has a history of being slightly silly in that respect, which I think is often a plus for it. In a book though, the decors all feel somewhat more realistic, so that particular aspect of the show is definitely toned down. Mind you, the central ideas of the novel are just as goofy and over-the-top as one would expect, and I loved them from beginning to end (“I will grant you this. You have always had an idiotic attachment to style.”). The science, unsurprisingly, is of the “chronosynclastic infundibulum” kind. It is occasionally invoked with respectable phrases such as “neutrino emissions”, etc., but mostly it is masked under long streams of semi-invented geek talk they only teach in the Time Lords academy. Again, the Doctor-Master interactions are pretty fun when it comes to bickering how best to configure some arcane gadget.
As the TV show, Harvest of Time is very meta. It’s inevitable, once you remove all restrictions to what can possibly happen in the fictional universe. The unique way goofy and awesome are often combined in the show (and here) is a winner on its own, but I’ve always seen this approach to tinkering with SF ideas as a deeper comment on the genre itself. On the one hand, going in that end of the plausibility spectrum allows the writers to be very honest about certain decisions they make:
“Never mind. If the driver had learned one thing in his military career, it was that there were some things you just weren’t meant to ask too many questions about,”
thinks a random soldier in the novel. Swap the military semantic field with that of science fiction readers, and you have much of the modus operandi assumed by the writers.
“When the Vortex did at last release the TARDIS, it was with another series of lurching jolts and bumps.”
The show, and the book, move in jolts and bumps – they have so much territory to cover and they can’t waste time to carefully color between the lines. It’s no small sacrifice, especially in this genre where, I’d argue, suspension of disbelief can be even frailer than in mainstream fiction.
On the other hand, the perks! Once the mind is habituated enough to let go of those time paradoxes and just flow, well, then it can be engaged in all sorts of incredible stuff:
“The day time travel stops astonishing you,” the Doctor said, “is generally the day something ghastly goes wrong.”
Which is essentially what this series is all about, to me. Teaching the waking mind to overcome the walls of overfamiliar logic, even if only for brief lapses of reason, and how much fun that can be. Other SF stories do that in subtler ways, by undermining the walls, or training the mind to climb over them. The Doctor just tears them down and does as much crazy shit as possible, before they reassert themselves. A simple lesson, but a hard one to get through.
There is also the slightly more sentimental core missive:
“Was that, ultimately, the Doctor’s greatest achievement – not the deeds he himself did, but the deeds he inspired in others? The Doctor was one man, but he had touched countless lives.”
That’s valid as well, as it targets the reader who tags along the Doctor in the shoes of his companions. In the novel the need for an audience surrogate is diminished, as we have access to the Doctor’s thought process. Indeed, Jo Grant spends much of the time apart from him, which is fine because, really, the best parts of the novel center around the Doctor and the Master. In other respects that have to do with techniques of showing though, Reynolds has been very true to television. Point-of-view switching, for example, often conforms more to TV than to established literary practices – the “camera” hops around main, supporting and random characters to give the reader a more comprehensive idea of what is going on. And that is perfectly all right, for velocity is key!
The bottom line is that there is a lot of cool stuff in Harvest of Time. Usually, Alastair Reynolds spends much time in his novels to set the ground for grand scale imagery and conceptual dazzlement. He is meticulous like that. He didn’t have to be here. And he has plenty of writing skills he can show off:
“And then an eruption of billowing bright light punched apart the hall in a kind of cone formation, dragging fire and gas and dirt in its wake, and an instant later there it was, the incipient mushroom cloud, hauling itself into the sky like a vast swollen cerebellum, propelled upwards on the piston of its own monstrous knotted spinal column.”
There is a lot of this in the novel, some of the imagery being far more bizarre. And then there is the pretty cool alien invasion. And the Master. And it’s all packed in less than three hundred fast-paced pages. It’s not exactly like the show, but it’s close enough, and in a good way. Pretty decent means to having some fun, and an appetite-whetter before I get my hands on Poseidon’s Children #2 (which should be any day now; for a review of the first installment, click here).