All I’ve been posting lately have been Interactive Fiction Competition reviews, which have a limited audience. So I’m posting this book review I had on hand. Which is about a Doctor Who novel, and therefore also has a limited audience, albeit a completely different limited audience. Sorry.
When, in Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s Vampire Science, a villain sneeringly refers to Sam as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” it’s hard to remember that in 1997 most people thought of Buffy as a crappy Paul Reubens movie. Vampire Science slipped in at the beginning of a vampire tsunami. Anne Rice started it; Buffy and Laurel K. Hamilton built momentum; today the healthiest marketing category in SF is “paranormal romance,” the genre of hot love between vampires, lycanthropes, and assorted psychics.
Vampires usually represent one (or both) of two things: disease and sex. “Disease” is the older metaphor. For the longest time, how disease got around was a mystery. So a town had some mysterious deaths, and people dug up a corpse for some reason, and it seemed very well preserved. And it looked like the fingernails had grown, and weren’t those canines longer? So they staked the thing. Problem solved! This school of vampirism’s most famous representative is Nosferatu’s ratlike Count Orlok.
The other strand of the mythology portrays vampirism as… ah, intimate contact (a phrase which describes both subtext and text). These vampires are hypnotically glamourous. Usually literally. It’s most famously represented by the novel Nosferatu plagiarized: Dracula. Jonathan Harker hardly has time to unpack before he’s surrounded by lovely women with interesting dental work, and I’ve never seen a version of this story in which Lucy and Mina’s trysts with the Count aren’t sexualized.
Over the past couple of decades an army of stories forcibly evolved modern vampires from seductive psychopaths into the heroines’ boyfriends. Sex has won the Vampire Metaphor War. What’s remarkable about Vampire Science, then, is that Orman and Blum found something else to do with their vampires.
In Vampire Science, vampirism is about stagnation. This was one element in the TV episode “State of Decay,” with its eternally unchanging vampirocracy, but in Vampire Science it’s the big theme. The romantic angle is still there—but mostly in the mind of main villain Slake, who delivers a thundering, Byronic paean to the simpleminded-parody-of-Nietzschean virtues to his henchmen… as they listlessly lounge in the moldy basement of an old theater, watching daytime television on a twelve-inch screen. Romantic children of the night, they ain’t.
Vampire Science, alone among Doctor Who’s vampire stories, demythologizes its monsters. The focus is on their ordinariness. These are average—or sub-average—people who happen to be vampires. Orman has used this tactic more than once to good effect: Blue Box’s villain is a nasty little internet troll made profoundly dangerous by alien technology. These aren’t supervillains. They’re everyday bastards, driven by real and recognizable flaws, who’ve crossed paths with something weird and unearthly that lets them really do some damage.
Forty years after his transformation Slake is still at the level of mental adolescence where Nietzsche and Ayn Rand seem like the greatest writers ever. Also, in a sense he’s living in his parents’ basement. Most vampires stagnate as they age, eventually taking no interest in the world at all, moving only to feed. A few vampires are, in the Doctor’s eyes, salvageable. The difference is that they’re learning biology, attending law school. They’re still growing as people. This gives them a slim hold on life.
Doctor Who often equates immortality with stasis— “The Brain of Morbius,” “State of Decay.” But unlike, say, the Sisterhood from “The Brain of Morbius,” vampires do not stagnate quietly to themselves off in a corner. They actively make certain that other people will never change again. We’ve come back to the disease metaphor: “State of Decay“‘s Three Who Rule kept their power to themselves, but in Vampire Science vampirism spreads. It’s a mental and moral deadness that might infect any life that comes near it—killing, or making more vampires, or maybe just spreading fear, depression, or superficially glamorous ennui. The thing that makes the Doctor dangerous to Slake is that the Doctor spreads life more powerfully than the vampires spread death: by the end, he’s turned one vampire back into a human.
In 1997 Doctor Who went through some changes itself. It had a new Doctor and a new publisher. Vampire Science was the first proper Eighth Doctor Adventure—The Dying Days was an ending, the last book from Virgin, and The Eight Doctors seemed a bizarre aberration—too childish for adults, too uncool and too continuity-obsessed for children. It was up to Orman and Blum to really kick off the series.
So Vampire Science cemented the eighth Doctor’s persona. It took the Doctor in the opposite direction from his last incarnation. The seventh Doctor was a planner; the eighth would be an improviser. The seventh saw the big picture; the eighth focused on details. (It’s significant that this Doctor thinks fixing guest companion Carolyn’s relationship is as much a priority as stopping the vampires.)
The results were mixed. These were good ideas, yet many later authors took the wrong lessons from them. The Doctor’s lack of planning is a danger to himself and others—the first thing he does in 1997 is let Sam wander off in a vampire nightclub, where’s she’s attacked. He has no idea what will happen after he forms a telepathic link with his main vampire ally and is totally unconcerned about the apparent side effects. Orman and Blum used this to give the Doctor a dangerous, unpredictable side; later he was sometimes just written as dumb. And his happy, lively, attention-deficit persona is occasionally laid on a bit too thick. This is a Doctor with no cynical streak at all (which turns out to be a disadvantage when he tries to talk a suicidally depressed man out of vamping himself; he just can’t connect with the guy). In subsequent books he was almost insubstantially fluffy.
Unfortunately Vampire Science was saddled with Terrance Dicks’s brilliant companion idea: Sam Jones. It was unlikely that the series’ twenty-to-thirtysomething audience would identify with a teenager in the first place, but Sam was a teenager as seen through the eyes of an elderly aunt who likes to show her nephews how hip she is by asking if they’re into Vanilla Ice.
Vampire Science does its best. After she’s bitten Sam discovers a vindictive side that she hadn’t known was there—and, more importantly, that the audience wouldn’t expect from the stereotype in The Eight Doctors. She questions whether she made the right decision in traveling with the Doctor. It’s an interesting attempt to add complexity, and suggests one direction the character could have been taken: not a condescendingly stereotyped teen activist, but a kid learning just how big and complex the universe can be, and building on her world view as she goes.
And yet… Two pages in, we learn that Sam is the kind of person who says “Pop quiz, hotshot” to someone she’s just met in a bar. Okay, so the book is establishing that she’s cocky, and not as cool as she thinks she is, but it’s hard not to really, really hate her (and it’s incomprehensible that Carolyn finds this line of conversation intriguing). The fundamental concept of Sam seemed to warp everything it touched.
One last thing. Some readers may be thinking, “Isn’t Vampire Science an unusually lame title for the author who came up with The Left-Handed Hummingbird and The Year of Intelligent Tigers?” Nah. It’s a great title. There are vampires, and one of them does science, so the book is Vampire Science. Which is awesome. It’s like “Spearhead From Space” had been called “Auton Smash!”