Oh dear. And it started so well...
St Anthony's Fire is one of the lesser NAs, rather forgettable even in 1994 and completely off the radar today. It's not *bad*, but it's not good either. I enjoyed much of it, but it's one of those books that's always struggling to overcome its problems - the biggest of which is the plot.
It starts off as a 'Two Warring Alien Factions' story on the planet Betrushia. Yikes! In those days we were less battle-hardened, but since then we've learned from the mistakes of Escape Velocity, King of Terror, The Space Age and more. Two Warring Alien Factions = bad sign. Gee, who will win? We don't care! However, believe it or not, the Betrushia sections are actually the book's best. Gatiss has other plot elements up his sleeve (the Chapter of St Anthony, the yellow vomit monster) and the book takes a downward lurch whenever one of 'em appears. Nothing is integrated with what went before. It's as if a new story starts each time. Plot threads are chopped or dropped as the new threat takes centre stage, pushing all else aside. By the end, the book's overstayed its welcome by a good forty pages and turned into a Star Trek episode.
I can see why many people didn't care about the Betrushia chapters. It's a religious war between the Cutch and the Ismetch! Well, strike me pink. Normally I couldn't care less about two lizard tribes shooting the hell out of each other... but fortunately Mark Gatiss gives us Grek. Grek's a dude. He's an Ismetch commander and a competent, sensible, level-headed guy. I liked him! Okay, we don't care about the war... but Grek doesn't either. He thinks it's all bollocks and just wants to stop fighting and go home. I can see where he's coming from! Admittedly his subordinates are a bit thick, but Grek carries his book. He kept me interested and reading.
But then come the Chapter of St Anthony, led by the Two Stooges (Magna Yong and his stunted sidekick De Hooch). They're bloodthirsty! They're sadistic! They torture kittens! Presumably I was meant to be horrified, but alas that was just funny. These jokers ain't even remotely threatening, instead being squabbling bitchy pain-obsessed nutters and the embodiment of high camp. If this was a TV episode, Magna Yong would be played by Julian Clary. What's more, they're goddamn stupid. Admittedly some of the Cutch and Ismetch were short of brains too, but Yong and De Hooch couldn't outwit a toasted cheese sandwich. By the time we reach p211, even Mark Gatiss has decided to play Magna Yong explicitly for laughs.
Mind you, I had to admire the political incorrectness that accompanies De Hooch. You'll never see so much dwarf-battering outside a Troma movie.
And *then* comes the Star Trek ending, in which our heroes rewire starships to defeat some technobabble. This just goes on and on. There's a comedy confrontation between De Hooch and Magna Yong, but otherwise it's just more of the capture-escape that's been dragging on throughout the book.
Some might suggest that there's a theme of faith (Cutch-Ismetch are fighting a religious war and the Chapter of St Anthony are religious loonies) but if so it's hardly sophisticated. "All faith is bunk and all religion leads to bloodshed," would be the message. Well, that was deep. However religion isn't even a particularly big deal for the main characters, most of whom are motivated by other factors (pragmatism, greed, ambition, revenge). This book simply isn't coherent enough to be an anti-religious polemic on any level above the most trivially simplistic.
In fairness the regulars are good. The NA Doctor and Benny are always fun but even New Ace is handled well. She's shoved offstage for most of the book (good move!), but even after returning to the narrative she gets stuff to do and some decent motivation. This isn't Psycho Ace but a calmer, more sensible character that one can actually enjoy reading about.
There's some interesting future history, though I cringed at the reference on p157 to the Doctor's "specially adapted, vacuum-resistant, propulsion-powered cricket ball which had got him out of that spot with the Urbankans". The year is 2148 and the Chapter of St Anthony's Fire has been on its genocidal crusade for about a century (p187) since Hong Kong took over China. Apparently it formed after the dissolution of the High Catholick Church (sic), which combined all the Earth's faiths with the idea of creating peace (p180). That failed, duh. Meanwhile Holland sank into the sea and its people moved to a land which rose from the Atlantic following seismic shifts (p259) - the New Dutch Republic. [By the way, this can't be related to Stewart Ransom's New Atlantis from Colony of Lies, since that was in the Pacific.]
There's even a reference to Urrozdinee (p195), the sprawling city based on EuroDisney which ate the remains of Paris and appeared in Mark Gatiss's story for Marvel's 1995 Yearbook. (That's from 2134.)
Overall, this isn't a dazzling book. The plot is rather random while the characterisation sometimes gets clunky. Nevertheless I enjoyed reading it and even ended up thinking better of it than I had before. It's no classic but it's no disaster either. Mark Gatiss's BBC Books (The Roundheads, Last of the Gadarene) were highly variable Terrance-a-like romps through the show's past, but this feels like something upon which effort has been expended. It's far from perfect, but it tries.
Also known as: "No One Expects....""
Best known for: sadism galore, bitter satire on religion
Importance to the range: showed that Mark Gatiss was capable of producing flawed work.
My opinion: I generally really enjoy Mark Gatiss's work. However, this is the exception. Religion is a sensitive issue, and I'm sure that my status as a religious person biases my opinion of the book. However, that said, the book does not seem well thought-out at all. In an interview in DWM, Mark Gatiss said that he was concerned about religious fundamentalism. He's not religious himself and he sees religion as dangerous. That was his motivation in writing the book: to show the dangers of religion.
However, when you're going to tackle a subject as complex as religion and religious dogma, you really need to have a proper understanding of it. I don't think Mark Gatiss does. It strikes me as a "I saw some fundamentalists on TV saying rude things and I saw a documentary on the Spanish Inquisition, so religion just must be horrible and I'm going to write a book about it." What's even more sad, is that the religious commentary is the only interesting thing about the book.
The plot is simple. The Doctor and Benny drop Ace off on a holiday planet. They then go to Betrushia, a planet inhabited by anthropomorphized lizards who are in two factions: the Ismetch and the Cutch. They are fighting a war, although we never really find out what it's about. There's a mysterious force connected to their old religion that is awakening and consuming everything in its path. At the same time, the Chapter of St. Anthony is heading towards the planet. The Church of St. Anthony has forced conversions and their latest "convert" is Ace....
And that's it, really. The first half of the story, building things up on Betrushia before the Church arrives is just dull. The lizards may as well be totally humanoid. Their reptilian nature really doesn't add anything to the story. None of the characters are that likable or sympathetic, despite Gatiss's best efforts to give them personalities and histories. It's hard to get involved in the story. The sections involving the Church of St. Anthony are more entertaining, but are flawed for entirely different reasons.
For one thing, there's the sadism. The only comparable work I've seen are novels by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho. Kittens are dismembered, babies' body parts are consumed, and there really is just a sheer amount of sadism and torture just for the sake of it. Of course, this is presumably to show how sadistic religion is. Whatever. The Church of St. Anthony is obviously based on the Spanish Inquisition period of the Catholic Church. The text of the story says that the Church of St. Anthony is directly descended from the Catholic Church. I'm not even Catholic, yet I found this horribly offensive. The current Catholic Church bears very little resemblance to Torquemada's Inquisition. Considering there are current world religions and sects that do practice torture and sadism all in the name of cleansing the soul (I'm thinking the sort of Islam practiced by the Taliban or the Saudis), the story might have made more sense if the religion had been based more on one of these. But we wouldn't want to be politically incorrect, would we?
And that's what really angers me about St. Anthony's Fire. In the New Adventures, other religions have been treated with a lot of sensitivity. Pagan beliefs were held dealt with sensitivity in Love and War. Lucifer Rising showed a sensitive understanding towards Muslim beliefs. Buddhism was embraced in No Future. But, so far, when it comes to Christianity, it seems that it's no-holds-barred. Granted, it's not Christianity per se in St. Anthony's Fire, but the imagery, the iconography, and so on are clearly based upon Christianity, and the text mentions Catholicism. When you factor in various stereotypical characters and snitty one liners that have been popping up (which I mention in other reviews), it does appear that the NA's had an anti-Christian agenda. Only Kate Orman, a non-Christian, made an effort to include decent, normal Christian characters in her books. And I'd like to thank her for that.
The other elements of the book are adequate. The Doctor, Ace, and Benny are all written well. Admittedly, Ace's predicament is done very well, and I enjoyed reading these sections as she struggles to overcome her brainwashing at the hands of the Church of St. Anthony. The writing style is decent and quick, but nothing outstanding. Outside of the religious discussion, I have nothing really to say about the book. The religious parody is the thrust of the book and that's done very poorly. An honest attempt to look at religion and fundamentalism would have been interesting, but St. Anthony's Fire comes across merely as an all-out attack that hits way below the belt. The whole story suffers as a result.
ST ANTHONY'S FIRE is another one that I read shortly after its release, but which I later remembered virtually nothing about. Thinking back on this story years later, the most that I could recall was something about a guy torturing a cat, and that there were some sort of gigantic spaceships involved. So imagine my surprise when I began to reread this story recently, I found myself quite enjoying the beginning. Unfortunately, this euphoria was not to last. As the inoffensively entertaining opening began to wear off, I saw less and less to be thrilled by. By the time I reached the end, I was actively willing the story to end, so that I could move onto something else. I fully expect that five years from now, if pressed to recall something from this story, the only thing I will be able to add to my list of two vague items above is that there is an absolutely ridiculous religious satire in the novel that I had thankfully wiped from my mind on my initial perusal.
The book does begin relatively strong. There's a war-torn planet in a distant star-system engaged in a genocidal war to the death between two sets of virtually identical aliens. So far, so good -- not exactly groundbreaking stuff here, but it's told enthusiastically enough to bring my interest along for the ride. The battle sequences are told with a good bit of flair and revolve around giant reptiles reenacting the trench scenes from PATHS OF GLORY. But this does bring us to the first place where the book starts to fall apart. Gatiss goes to a lot of trouble to describe how physically alien these creatures are, and the descriptions of these reptilian people go a long way towards redeeming the book. But the visual aspects to their alienness are as far as the book develops them, as the way these creatures talk and act make them human for all intents and purposes. They even use human figures of speech in their everyday conversation. It almost feels as though Gatiss had finished writing the novel with humans in the lead role, but then went back and made a few cursory changes to the narrative in order to make the monsters seem otherworldly. There is just too little effort shown though; these aliens just aren't alien.
Anyway, as one could guess, the Doctor and Benny (Ace has been left to vacation on another planet) soon arrive and become entangled in the local politics. Not to get into spoiler territory, but the arrival of what the back-cover blurb describes as "an unknown force" seems to render inconsequential a lot of the earlier running around. It's this unknown force that brings the bulk of the unfortunate religious aspect to the story, which drives ST ANTHONY'S FIRE down from being merely an uninspired, unoriginal runaround to the depths of serious Deep Hurting.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a good bit of satire, but unfortunately the religious/fundamentalist theme to this story is the least subtle thing this side of that master of understatement, THE GREEN DEATH. It's as subtle as a bright pink poodle. As subtle as being hit by a bus. As subtle as Jim Carrey dressed as a bishop and preaching out of his bottom. In short, subtlety is not this book's strong point. The religious persons shown here are all varying shades of evil; some are evil in greedy ways, others are evil in self-preservationist ways, while still others are sadistic purely for the reasons of being sadistic. The only religious characters who aren't actively evil are just stupid. I'm would not consider myself a deeply religious person, but this sort of boneheaded sledgehammer moralizing just strikes me as being vapid and lazy. It's trying to say something profound, but because of its shallow nature, it ends up saying absolutely nothing at all.
The conclusion to the story is simply unsatisfying on almost all levels. Instead of having the religious satire taken to its logical conclusion of fundamentalism being rejected in favor of some good old-fashioned peace and understanding (or at least something that at least seems aware of the themes that were running through the novel), we get an ending where the forces of the evil religion are defeated by a load of technobabble and people pushing buttons and pulling levels. The story itself relies on too many information dumps where huge portions of the plot are spelled out by people making long speeches. It's a pity because there are elements of the plot that were quite interesting, and would have been more effective if introduced in a more engaging way.
To be fair, I did like several of the (non-satiric) characters in the novel, and what Gatiss does with Ace I found to be genuinely shocking and disturbing, in a good way. The Ace subplot is probably something I should have guessed in advance of its revelation, but the author had me completely fooled. Still, these positives can't save a story that simply doesn't seem to be fully thought through. The only nice thing left to say about this book is that the cover is quite a good painting, even if the Doctor looks more like a Cardassian than a Time Lord. Definitely not a memorable or engaging book here.