Recently a couple of Torchwood books were recommended to me on the Jade Pagoda mailing list. I’ve now read Slow Decay, and decided to review it. I’m going to begin by talking about Another Life. I read Another Life, and tried to read Border Princes, not long after they came out. This is why I’ve only now read Slow Decay.
Torchwood is strange. It has moments of genuinely good drama, sometimes, but for the most part it’s fun for reasons the producers did not intend and will never fully understand. At heart it’s a series about dumb, horny college kids who somehow got the keys to the most powerful paranormal investigations agency in Wales… basically a Battlestar Galactica-style dark reimagining of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, except instead of a talking Great Dane it has Ianto.
Given that Another Life must have been written before Torchwood even aired, it’s amazing how well it captures the feel of the series. The Torchwood team have a video game room where they spend their time making surreptitious improvements to some kind of Second Life/World of Warcraft hybrid MMORPG, for reasons which supposedly have something to do with their jobs but seem mostly geared to allowing Ianto to walk around wearing a hologram of a giraffe. Jack stands on roofs. Owen sneaks an alien diagnostic scanner out of the Hub and hooks up with an old girlfriend from med school who turns out to be aroused by medical equipment. This is probably not someone who should be working in a hospital. And the Torchwood team—
You know, it occurs to me that the Torchwood team need some kind of snappy nickname. Torchwoodeers? Woodies? Maybe not.
Anyway, the Torchwood team are idiots. Just absolute dopes. This is how wonderfully, impossibly incompetent these people are: At one point, someone—I forget who, but probably Gwen—is in a suspect’s apartment, and she’s attacked by an alien in the bathtub. Jack kills it. Then they leave. They don’t post a guard or seal the apartment or clean the place; they just wander off, leaving a dead alien in the bathtub for anybody to come across. Much later, it occurs to them that, hey, maybe they should have searched the place.
And yet none of this is a problem, because this is exactly the kind of thing I watch Torchwood for. It’s like watching hamsters. Crime-solving hamsters. Hamsters who constantly screw up and get people killed, and have a Guantanamo Bay in their basement. But hamsters.
No, the problem is that Another Life is, improbably, very dull. I have to assume this is because it doesn’t manage to be about anything. There’s a parallel to be made between the video game thread and the villain, who hops from body to body—avatar to avatar, as it were—restarting with each death like Super Mario. But the book never quite makes it.
Slow Decay is in some ways like Another Life, though better written. There’s some very adolescent relationship material and Gwen smuggles yet another alien gadget out of the hub, and tries to use the thing to enhance her sex life. Also, Jack on a roof. And although the team isn’t as incompetent there’s still the sense that they’re not very bright—and, furthermore, that they’re intended to seem not very bright. At one point Rhys has ingested a dangerous diet pill. Gwen comes up with a cover story to explain why the pills are bad news, and asks him to take the antidote that came with it. Rhys wants to know why, if the pills are dangerous, he should take the second. And the book breaks to another scene, for all the world as though this is a cliffhanger, even though Gwen merely needs to explain, truthfully, that the second pill will neutralize the effects of the first. As, indeed, she does when the book switches scenes again. Yet we’re apparently supposed to be afraid she might not manage this.
The big difference is that Slow Decay has noticed that it’s supposed to be about something, if only on the most shallow level. This is an Evil Trend story: the kind of thing where the writer picks a trend and makes it evil… and generally stops there. Andy Lane picked fad diets, a topic easy enough that Doctor Who did an Evil Trend story about exactly the same thing a year later. I have a soft spot for “Partners in Crime,” if only because the Adipose were about the last thing I would have expected from a story like this. By contrast, Slow Decay is exactly what I would have expected from a Torchwood story about a weight loss clinic. I mean, exactly. In every detail. The diet clinic is handing out alien tapeworms. The victims become insatiably hungry and eat people. Some Weevils stand around looking nervous. (And, incidentally, what is up with the Weevils? There seem to have been dozens and maybe even hundreds running around Cardiff for years. And yet only Torchwood seems to notice them.) Torchwood tracks down the guy running the clinic—who’s been infested by a tapeworm himself—and shoots all the aliens. Toshiko, musing on pictures she’s found in some alien gadgets she’s been studying, sums everything up with a pat moral: “In the end, she thought, the slow decay of the body didn’t matter. We all continue on, renewing ourselves, through our offspring.”
And the moral has nothing to do with the main thread of the book! Nobody’s worried about getting older; they just want to lose weight. Nobody mentions or thinks about children. In fact, I’m not even convinced that this is something Toshiko would think in any circumstances; neither she nor any other member of Torchwood ever show the slightest interest in kids. Gwen is the only one who even seems ready to settle down. Slow Decay has noticed that it’s supposed to be about something, but it doesn’t quite manage to be about the thing it wants to be about. If that makes any sense.
The other recommendation was Almost Perfect by James Goss. I’ve only read about the first 25 pages so far, but I’ll probably review it eventually—if the rest is as good, it may turn out to be the best thing the BBC have published since shutting down the original series tie-ins.