Tag Archives: Past Doctor Adventures

Recent Reading

I have several half-finished book reviews sitting on my hard drive, all of books I liked quite a bit. They’re unfinished partly because my attention span for writing hasn’t been great, but mostly because of impostor syndrome: I’m having a hard time convincing myself these potential posts say anything intelligent or interesting. Since I ought to be getting some practice in, I’ve written a few paragraphs on books about which I have much less to say:

Agatha Christie, Appointment With Death and Murder in Mesopotamia

Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and she often accompanied him on digs. Occasionally she worked her archaeological experience into her novels by sending Hercule Poirot off to stumble on murders in random middle eastern countries. She didn’t use nearly enough of her experience for my taste–for all that she knew her stuff, the settings of these novels read like a generic archaeological dig and foreign tourist site and could have been set anywhere in the world.

Trevor Baxendale, Fear of the Dark

This Doctor Who tie-in novel was first published in the years before the current series began. At the time BBC Books published one or two Doctor Who novels every month. I skipped this one at the time because Trevor Baxendale’s novels were always terrible. This one is a short story’s worth of secondhand ideas padded out to a 300 page novel. Here we have all the laziest clichés of late 1990s-early 2000s Doctor Who: Grimdark cynicism. Corporate space marines. Incessant deaths (all so grotesque I’m surprised the BBC republished this book in this more family-friendly era). An alien planet in the far future inhabited by people who talk and think like they’re from 20th century London (and who include, between a starship crew and a mining expedition, exactly one woman). A half-assed monster that is literally called “The Dark” and does evil things because it’s evil.

There used to be a Doctor Who novel just like this almost every month. So much nostalgia. I almost enjoyed it.

Various authors, “Time Trips”

The BBC has been releasing Doctor Who novellas as ebooks under the name “Time Trips.” They’re all very weird.

“Into the Nowhere” is about a planet of traps and walking skeletons controlled by a grotesque nerd caricature who turns out to be guarding all the knowledge in the universe, man, which manifests as the tree from the Garden of Eden because it pulled the image from Clara’s mind. The Doctor, while bleeding from his palms, tells Clara not to eat the metaphorical apple because “the entropic chronicle of perpetuity” would depress her.

“The Death Pit” is a fourth Doctor adventure on a golf course with a deadly alien sand trap. It’s perhaps trying just a little too hard to be Douglas Adams, but it’s charming and at times genuinely funny.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about a sentient time war weapon that turns the interior of the TARDIS into a temporally indeterminate English village with occasional giant monsters. The strangest thing in the book is that the owner of the bed and breakfast is patterned after Lady Christina from “Planet of the Dead,” for all the world as though the Doctor might have had her on his mind. Or even remembered her at all. (When I wrote this review for a post on a mailing list I had to Google the episode to remember her name.)

These novellas are the product of writers who are doing their own thing rather than delivering a “standard” Doctor Who story. That’s fine by me regardless of the quality of the results (not that these three are bad). We have all the standardized, formulaic Doctor Who stories we need at this point.

Avram Davidson, Masters of the Maze

Like a lot of SF, this is the story of a young man discovering he has a hidden destiny and saving the world from an alien invasion. Because Avram Davidson wrote it, it is much better than that description makes it sound. Also much weirder. There’s an other-dimensional maze that runs all across space and time. At the center the hero has a philosophical discussion with Lao-Tze, Apollonius of Tyana, and Benjamin Bathurst. A villainous John Birch Society-type teams up with the aliens to take over the United States, cut taxes, destroy the welfare state, and outlaw milk pasteurization; he has the idea that he might then use them as contract labor to keep wages down. We get chapters from the point of view of the aliens themselves, humanoids who live and think like hive insects. Plus Ambrose Bierce turns up. It’s all as well written as you’d expect from Davidson. The most significant flaw is a lack of important female characters, but that’s sadly common with older SF.

David Edison, The Waking Engine

Portal fantasies have been out of style for a while but I’ve seen a few new ones lately. This is one of them, as well as an afterlife fantasy–the idea is that when you die you’re serially reborn on a series of China Miévillesque worlds until you finally reach the place that offers True Death.

I found this novel paradoxically both too weird and not weird enough. Too weird because the afterlife world seems like a collection of grotesque and baroque images that give very little idea of how people in this world would actually live their day-to-day lives. Not weird enough because the hero is almost as bland as an everyman can get. It was several chapters before I even had an idea of what he looked like, or what he was wearing. (The book described him lying down after work and waking up dead; I assumed he was wearing a suit and had to rapidly readjust my assumptions when the book mentioned a heavy metal t-shirt.)

The Waking Engine also suffers from a problem common to afterlife SF, the temptation to pack the story full of celebrity guest stars–here we get Richard Nixon, Cleopatra and Walt Whitman, with a cameo by Kurt Cobain. The end leaves plenty of plot threads hanging, so I’m sensing yet another series; I’m not sure whether I’ll try the next one.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Like Masters of the Maze this is really good, but not in a way that inspired me to try writing a full review. I read it a few months ago and at the time I was finding most novels hard to get into, but this one eventually built momentum and I finished the last hundred pages in an evening. It’s a discursive, essayistic novel, which is something that’s appealed to me lately.

It’s published as mainstream but is arguably SF in that it plays with scientific concepts in support of a sort of magic realist narrative, and would probably have been a better Hugo award candidate than most of what ended up on the ballot.

Possibly the Strangest Doctor Who Novel Ever

A recent post at Tor.com on weird SF novels reminded me of Atom Bomb Blues by Andrew Cartmel. It may well be the weirdest Doctor Who novel ever. Also a very bad novel, although I can’t accuse it of a lack of imagination. Atom Bomb Blues is packed with ideas, practically all bad. It read like Cartmel just threw in anything that came into his head, and every other page there was something that made me blink and go “Huh?”

So… the Doctor is hanging around the Manhattan Project. In an alternate universe. And this alternate universe has been infiltrated by people from our own universe in the 21st century, who just happen to look exactly like people from this other universe’s 1940s. And the infiltrators plan to destroy the world because they think it will change history in other universes, causing Japan to win World War 2. Already we have reason to suspect that Andrew Cartmel has been snorting raw sugar. But wait! There’s more! Ace is taking fish oil pills that give her superhuman mathematical abilities! And she’s wearing a cowgirl outfit because she thought the Doctor was going to the Alamo! And she’s really, really dense! And one of the infiltrators is some kind of beatnik who talks like Maynard G. Krebs! Crazy, man!

And then there’s the alien. Named Zorg. Who keeps adding a “z” to the start of people’s names. And writes poetry. He’s not there for a reason. Cartmel just threw him in. Why not? And the Japanese agents in bright, color-coded Zoot suits. And the random encounter with Duke Ellington. And the stereotypical Indians. And Major Butcher, the Los Alamos security officer, who is heavily and obviously based on Dashiell Hammett for absolutely no reason I can determine at all. What’s up with that, Andrew?

And then the story stops dead for a bizarre chapter in which the Doctor, for no reason in the world, convinces Major Butcher he (Major Butcher) has been drugged with peyote. This is the chapter with Zorg, and the Indians. It has dialogue like “That was very dapperly done, Doctor,” and “Don’t be so literal-minded, Bulldog Bozo.” The whole chapter has absolutely nothing at all to do with anything else in the novel. Put it all together, and you’ve got something that left me staring at the book in my hands, muttering “what the hell was that?

Finally, I’d like to note that I can’t read the phrase Atom Bomb Blues without thinking of “The Wedding Bell Blues” by the Fifth Dimension. It makes reading this thing even more surreal when, every time you look at the cover, you hear a choir of carousels.

Doctor Who Reviews: Palace of the Red Sun

This is another old Doctor Who tie-in review, written years ago and revised only slightly.

Why do we always come here?
I guess we’ll never know.
It’s like some kind of torture
To have to watch the show.

–The Muppet Show

Reading Palace of the Red Sun, I had occasion to think of Statler and Waldorf. They were the two old guys who sat in the balcony in “The Muppet Show.” Whenever anyone did anything, their response was a derisive comment and a forced laugh. This took a serious toll on everyone’s self esteem. Eventually Kermit had to keep a therapist on call backstage to prevent some of the less stable Muppets from slitting their wrists.

Obviously Messrs. S. and W. thought the show was crap. Yet for some reason, week after week, they kept coming back. You see, Statler and Waldorf led empty, hollow lives. The dreams of their youth had withered, leaving them unfulfilled. Their families had long since died or moved away. If not for the Muppets, they would have spent the evenings in their tiny, dingy rooms at the nursing home, drinking themselves into a stupor and reminiscing about their glory days before the war. I think on some level Kermit understood this, because he never had Animal drag them out behind the theater and beat them to a bloody pulp.

Palace of the Red Sun brought this to mind because it parallels my own relation to the literary works of Christopher Bulis. Not the drinking and the empty life–just the fact that, no matter how bad his books get, something keeps me coming back.

Maybe it’s the ideas. Bulis does almost nothing right, but there’s one thing he’s good at: coming up with interesting ideas to build his novels around. Palace of the Red Sun has a planet of fairy tale holograms and gardening robots, surrounded by a temporal anomaly and placed under siege by a megalomaniac who’s granted an extended interview to a mediocre journalist. In an alternate universe, a place of sunshine and lollipops, somebody like R. A. Lafferty or Philip K. Dick might have taken this stuff and turned out a quirky, interesting, exciting novel.

Unfortunately, this is the real world. It is frequently cloudy. The lollipops fell on the floor and are now covered with lint and crud from the avocado shag carpet, which hasn’t been shampooed since the late seventies. In the real world, this novel was written by Christopher Bulis, and Christopher Bulis could not write his way out of a wet paper sack with a sharp pencil. His characters are cardboard. His prose is flat. His dialogue is inane. He can’t even make a decent plot from the great ideas he managed to pull together. The Doctor and Peri spend 280 pages wandering through a morass of stupid cliches. They run around, get captured, escape, and meet rebels. The Doctor patronizes the secondary characters with shallow “wisdom,” and Peri is sexually harassed. There’s even a subplot about an intelligent robot learning what it means to be human. I looked in vain for some sign that Bulis was trying for irony–apparently he just doesn’t realize how stale this plot is. (You know an idea is past its sell-by date when it turns up on Star Trek. Multiple times, even.)

Palace of the Red Sun sucked. Yet I could not turn away. Perhaps someday Christopher Bulis will write another Doctor Who book. If so, I will buy that one as well, and read it. Because it feels so good when I stop.