Doctor Who Reviews: Shadowmind

You know what’s interesting about Shadowmind? It turns out I’d never read it before. I skipped it when it came out due to a limited teenage book-buying budget and mediocre reviews. Much later I decided I wanted an obsessive-compulsively complete New Adventures collection, picked up a copy at a used bookstore… and immediately forgot about it.

You can’t blame me. By that time I was all too familiar with Christopher Bulis. Among Doctor Who fans the Bulis name is synonymous with “meh.” As I’ve mentioned before, Bulis’s trademark move is to take a really amazing, ass-kicking central concept and surgically remove the fun. I’ll bet his novels sound wonderful in outline–Space marines meet Dungeons and Dragons! A steampunk expedition to the moon! I imagine Bulis working far into the night on his outline. Sweating over it until it gleams. With sweat. Finally he holds the precious document to the light. It’s perfect. “This is the most brilliant idea I’ve had so far!” exclaims Bulis. “Now… how can I make it suck?”

(Mind you, John Seavey thinks Bulis has exactly the opposite problem. So what do I know?)

Shadowind is the least of Bulis’s novels but still features robot doppelgangers driven by squirrels hiding in their chests. The concept scores high in that ineffable quality geeks call “awesomeness” and would have been magic in the hands of, say, Dave Stone. It’s a tribute to Bulis’s peculiar talents that he came up with it, and that he managed to make it boring.

And Shadowmind is ever so boring. Although not quite boring enough to make me quit reading, which is somehow worse than mere ordinary boringness. It’s astonishing, after books like Love and War and Transit, how bad the writing is. Terrance Dicks’s prose is bland, McIntee’s is a bit clunky, but their work can’t be mistaken for juvenilia. Shadowmind reads like the work of an extremely inexperienced author. This may well be the second worst NA–only The Pit manages to outdo it. Bulis’s biggest achievement is the cover. He painted it himself. It has a kind of colorfully awkward charm, though his anatomy is as inexpert as his prose: Benny, shown kneeling as she tosses a tiny cracker barrel into some shrubbery, looks subtly unlike a human.

Maybe that’s deliberate. Shadowmind‘s dialogue sounds unlike anything any real human would ever say. Benny declares “Simple pleasures are wasted on the young: they’re not old enough to enjoy them,” as though it’s an aphorism rather than a tautology. Another scene features the worst dialogue ever to appear in any New Adventure: “Not good bon bons?” “No, better Boom, Booms!” Please trust me when I say that these sentences do not work any better in context. At times characters seem to speak in exposition, as though they’re aware of the readers looking over their shoulders–“Those pieces of oberonite, especially the large segment with the embedded faceted nodules, they were found like you said, weren’t they?”

Bernice is introduced, immediately gets “A deep feeling of timeless loss and regret,” and has a flashback to her missing father, at which point I had a flashback to the Anji era of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. The writers couldn’t get a handle on Anji. Instead of getting into her skull they settled for mentioning her dead boyfriend twice every book, as a kind of substitute for characterization; Shadowmind left me wondering whether Bulis had the same problem with Benny. The first time we see Ace, Bulis uses that old amateur’s technique of having her examine herself in the mirror. (“Medium-length dark-brown hair tied in a ponytail, that hadn’t changed,” muses Ace, as though she expected her hair to have spontaneously rearranged itself.) Six pages later, Bulis pulls the same trick with one of his own characters!

We meet at least ten indistinguishable characters (regular cast included) in the first 20 pages. I’ve mentioned before how most Doctor Who novels skip between plot strands the way a movie cuts from scene to scene. Shadowmind cuts so often and so gracelessly it left me disoriented. Shadowmind is set on two planets and at times I wasn’t sure which one I was reading about. There was a spaceship battle late in the book that I couldn’t follow at all.

So aside from the squirrels, does Shadowmind get anything right? Yes, a couple of things.

Shadowmind‘s characters are smart–smarter than in most Doctor Who novels of Shadowmind‘s (lack of) quality. Take the Doctor’s relationship with the locals. By the early 2000s most Doctor Who books had two approaches to this kind of thing: either the natives of Planet X placed instant and apparently supernaturally inspired trust in the Doctor (usually we’re told the characters “somehow just knew they could trust him”), or he spent the entire book getting chased and captured by multiple factions who all despised him. The New Byzantiumites try something that did not occur to a single person in any of those dozens of volumes: they check his credentials. Luckily the Doctor has for once been bright enough to bring some. And the TARDIS crew is smart in other ways. In some books the Doctor’s investigations amount to little more than running around and stumbling on clues. In Shadowmind he thinks about how and where to gather evidence, so can figure out where the hell the squirrel robots are coming from with a single phone call.

Shadowmind also has a sense of scale and timing that other Doctor Who novels don’t quite get. Some of these books rush from one action sequence to another; Bulis has figured out that a novel can slow down to spend several chapters with people in a board room talking to each other. And he’s one of the few Doctor Who writers who’ve figured out that space is big, and that even with some kind of magic FTL drive it takes a little longer to travel to another planet than it does to fly from New York to Chicago.

Of course, none of this makes Shadowmind any less dull. It just isn’t about anything below the surface. Christopher Bulis has never had much to say… just plots to run his cardboard characters through. He needs to team up with somebody who has something to say, but not much in the way of a plot.

Anybody up for a Christopher Bulis/Paul Magrs collaboration?