Monday, January 2, 2017

Doctor Who - The Wheel of Ice - Stephen Baxter

   2012; 339 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Episodic Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Times are tough at the Mnemosyne Cincture, a mining operation on one of Saturn’s moons.  The parent company, Bootstrap, Inc., is not pleased with the falling profits, nor at the delays in getting the precious Bernalium ore from there to Earth.  Equipment keeps coming up missing, and sabotage is suspected. Then there are the hallucinations that the younger children claim to be seeing, which they’ve labeled the “Blue Dolls”.

    But something down there has attracted the attention of the TARDIS, and that means that the police box that is not a police box, along with its passengers - Doctor Who and his sidekicks, Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Heriot - are about to be  transported there (and then), and get drawn into all the strange events and politics.

    Maybe our protagonists can straighten everything out there.  Or maybe they’ll bring about the end of the world.

What’s To Like...
    Full disclosure: While I’m vaguely aware of the (British) television series “Doctor Who” and its cult following, I’ve never watched an episode of it, and had no idea exactly what the TARDIS was when I bought this book.  It caught my eye primarily because its author, Stephen Baxter, is one of my favorite sci-fi writers.

    The three protagonists – the Doc, Zoe, and Jamie – are all well-developed and fun to meet.  This apparently is set in the “Doctor Who #2” timeline, which will mean something to fans of the series.  The pacing is brisk, and the storyline sufficiently complex to keep my interest.  The chapters are short and there are some kewl “Interludes” interspersed throughout the book.  Doctor Who – Wheel of Ice is written in English, not American, and I'm always partial to that.

    The main storyline – the mystery surrounding the Blue Dolls – was engaging, although not particularly twisty.  Beyond that. there were a couple of interrelated themes running  through the book.  The first – when is a species sentient enough to where we coexist with them instead of eating them? – is fairly common for the sci-fi genre.  But the other – does Artificial Sentience have any inherent rights? – was a new (to me, at least) and fascinating concept.

    The ending is good enough, although I found it to be a bit too convenient when the Ultimate Evil got her just desserts.  I liked the tip-of-the-hat to one of my favorite classics – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  I also enjoyed the catchphrases – “Resilience, Remembrance, Restoration”, “Community, Identity, Stability”, and my personal favorite “It’s good to be a B!”

Kewlest New Word ...
Cludgie (n.) : a toilet or bathroom (a Scotticism).
Others: Nous (n.; British); Swotting (v.; British); Allohistorical (adj.); Kettling (v.).

    “Surely this ship has an automated defence system!”
    “Oh, Zoe, of course it has.  But if it wasn’t disabled, don’t you think I’d have activated it by now?”
    “I have been meaning to get around to looking into it ...”   (pg. 13)

    Every day started with a decision: which end of the makeshift colony’s shabby little recycling plant to visit first.  The plant was a rough row of hoppers and processing machines, white boxes joined end to end by pipes and ducts, all the components pinched by Sam and his cronies from Utilities up on the Wheel.  You did your personal business at one end, and then let the engines process the waste, extracting nutrients and adding Titan meltwater and tholin chemicals to flavour.  And out the other end came breakfast, things like biscuits that weren’t biscuits, bowls of stuff like mushroom soup that wasn’t mushroom soup.  It was a little factory with a cludgie at one end and a soup dispenser at the other.  Charming.  (pg. 179)

“Isn’t this what life is for, granddad?  Skiing on a moon of Saturn!”  (pg. 91 )
    Although he did a creditable job in penning Doctor Who – The Wheel of Ice, I don’t think anyone is going to call this Stephen Baxter’s finest literary effort.  This is not his fault; it is inherent to the nature of the undertaking.

    Overall, the story reads like a television script.  Think of any episode from, say, one of the Star Trek series.  Fun, entertaining, but hardly epic.  And the makers of the Doctor Who series certainly would want nothing that would outshine their BBC series.  So perhaps these sort of constraints were imposed upon Stephen Baxter going into the project.  I felt the same thing when I recently watched the “Rogue One” Star Wars movie.  It was enjoyable, but I felt like it was taking care not to steal the spotlight from Episodes 1-7.

     This is not a complaint.  I came away with a better understanding of the Doctor Who cosmos, and DW-TWoI kept my interest from beginning to end.  But it can’t compare to some of Baxter’s major novels, such as Evolution or the Manifold trilogy.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 Star if you’re already familiar with the Doctor Who universe.  And even if, like me, you’re a Doctor Who newbie, it's a nice way to learn the basics of the series.

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