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Book Review – Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter

Who-WheelofIceTitle: Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice
Author: Stephen Baxter
Publisher: Ace Books
Genre: Science Fiction

Although this was published in 2012, it is a story of the second Doctor with companions Zoe and Jammie. The story is reminiscent of the Doctor Who adventure in which Zoe first appears, The Wheel in Space, which aired in 1968. The recordings of it, unfortunately, were ‘misplaced’ by the BBC and it now exists only in fragments. It, too, takes place in the future, in space, and features the rare element ‘bernalium.’

In Baxter’s tale of the Doctor, the TARDIS detects a ‘Relative Continuum Displacement Zone’ and interrupts their journey in order for the Doctor to investigate. They materialize in the rings of Saturn where a mining colony is harvesting one of the gas giant’s icy moons for bernalium. This is annomalous. Beranalium is almost unknown in our solar system. Why such a concentration of it exists here and why there are indications of time travel are the mysteries the Doctor must solve.

The second Doctor was my first, the one I first watched on TV, and I could picture him and his companions in this story. If I had not already been familiar with them, I doubt Baxter’s characterizations in this book would have been sufficient, though. This may have been intentional. If you did not already know these characters, you would not be reading this book, and any development the author tried to do, might conflict with your already established mental images of them.

The other characters were also sketched just enough to get an idea of who they were. Perhaps the one developed most was MMAC, an artificial intelligence embodied in a large construction machine. I found the idea of this gentle android with a heavy Scottish accent endearing. His backstory about having been raised to believe he was human was intriguing.

The villain in this story is a beautiful but otherwise loathsome corporate lackey, whose only goal is the efficient extraction of bernalium. She’s a bit one-dimensional and not easily believable, but she suffices for the sake of the story.

The setting is, I think typical of Stephen Baxter, at least judging from the few books I’ve read of his. It goes into detail about aerospace type science elements of the story, especially about Saturn’s rings and moons, in this case. There are other similarities with his other science fiction, too.

I’ve read a few books by Baxter, and I’ve always found his prose it a bit, well, ‘stiff’ for my taste. I also noticed the inclusion of something called skinsuits, clear, lightweight spacesuits, which I’ve seen in at least one of his other books. I imagine them to be something like cellophane but with amazing thermal properties. They don’t make sense to me, so much so that I find them distracting from the story.

Other than that, I found this to be a well-done Doctor Who tale. It held my interest and I found the read enjoyable. But then, I’m a fan of the Doctor. He’s a kind of anti-action hero in that violence is never his first and best solution to a problem. I find this refreshing.

I recommend the book to all Whovians, especially those who remember the second Doctor.

Book Review – The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

This is a different kind of novel. It could be said that the setting is the story, but what a remarkable setting — a multidimensional string of planets, each one slightly different from our own unique Earth. And, after a missing scientist discloses the trick for stepping from one dimension to another using a potato and some common electronic hardware, we learn how unique. Our home planet is the only one of the countless earths upon which Homo sapiens have evolved. Not that the others are empty. Many contain many familiar and not so familiar species, but ours is the only one with people like us.

The story is related from multiple points of view with no clear protagonist or antagonist. Instead, we are treated to several interesting characters trying to deal with this new multidimensional reality in their own ways.

The primary character is Joshua Valienté, an orphan from Madison Wisconsin who has a rare talent. He can step between Earths without the help of a potato-powered stepper. This attracts the attention of the Black Corporation, a powerful, influential, and extremely wealthy organization, and especially the attention of Lobsang, one of Black Corp’s part owners. Lobsang is the character I found most interesting and entertaining. He is either a delusional artificial intelligence or a dead Tibetan motorcycle mechanic reincarnated as a computer program. Once we get to know him, it hardly matters which. If he has a heart, it’s a good one, although, true to Pratchett form, he has his flaws that only seem to make him more charming.

Joshua and Lobsang travel the long earth and discover that… well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? You’ll have to read it yourself to find out. Let’s just say they learn much more about our sister earths and discover a mystery that could threaten the whole string.

There is one thing I found a bit off. The character of Joshua Valienté is an American but he speaks British. Not intentionally so, I’m sure, but his word choices in a couple places are clearly from that green and pleasant land, and, at one point, he chooses fried slice for breakfast. I’m sorry, but I doubt may Americans even know what is meant by that. (For those of my countrymen who do not, imagine a thick slice of bread fried in hot oil and then, for the brave or foolhardy, topped with butter. If you really want to be traditional, you can fry it in bacon or sausage fat. It’s actually quite delicious but instantly causes the consumer to gain five pounds and increases their likelihood of heart attack by about five percent.)

This is an easily forgivable flaw, if flaw it is. The authors may simply be translating American into English for their readers, much as if they might translate the words of characters from Ankh-Morpork from Morporkian into English and, in the process, make them sound like they’re from Liverpool. That’s fine because we all know they are really speaking Morporkian. Of course, this doesn’t explain the ‘fried slice’ thing.

I enjoyed this book, and I would like to spend some more time in the company of Lobsang and some of the others. I look forward to a sequel, or an infinite string of sequels that further explore this remarkable setting.

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