Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Wet and Sick (but happy)

Time to face the unpalatable truth. Doctor Who books in 2007 no longer have the slightly overweight, slightly balding late thirties man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Jon Pertwee years as their chosen demographic.

Cards on the table - they're not writing for me anymore. The great swine.

Where once (admittedly amongst some horribly earnest wastes of perfectly good paper) we had talking poodles, human Doctors, psycho companions and a cartoon world, now we have Justin Richards' or Trevor Baxendale's latest routine potboiler or whichever Raynor (Rayner?) it is that writes novels dribbling on in dull, uninspired monotony.

In truth, it doesn't matter that the books aren't aimed at speccy fanboys at the moment (well, it doesn't matter
much) but it does matter that the only speck of originality or thought in the first dozen New Series Adventures came from Gareth Roberts Only Human, while every other novel gave the impression of having been written by a committee of earnest young Christian music teachers, each carrying a clipboard and checklist. Worthy, competent and devoid of all thrill, this succession of books contrasted horribly with the sheer quality of many of the Target novelisations I grew up reading.

But it's been getting better recently. First off Steven Cole proved that his woeful first NSA was a glitch only. Sting of the Zygons was a big improvement and introduced some much needed humour back into the range, even if it remained a bit of a runaround (not that there's anythig wrong with that).

Then Mark Michalowski stuck the two best jokes since Who came back in his Wetworld, and managed to turn out a fun, exciting book at the same time. The long trip back from Las Vegas in the company of American Walmart retirees would have seemed even longer without the solace of Mr Michalowski's latest opus, but I don't think that's the only reason I enjoyed it.

I had heard it described as a rip-off of/homage to the Power of Kroll, but that's only true if you accept that The Daemons was a rip-off of Quatermass - i.e. not true at all. It is set on a swamp planet and does feature a Very Big Bad, but the similarities end there. This is a book with actual science in it, for a start.

Kroll, the story hangs together very well, with a decent central idea, consistent characterisation and an interestingly realised baddie. The colony and colonists could be seen as a bit generic, I suppose (crooked, self-serving administrator, kooky young female rebel, hard faced scientist with unexpected adventurous side), but I suspect that's entirely true to (what) life (will be) in space colonial times and it certainly didn't strike me as at all off when I was reading the book.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the book is this - when asked to list three negatives about it the best I could come up with was an odd tense shift on pages 128-130 where a character starts off thinking in the past perfect that a group were easy to manipulate and finishes in the simple past tense as he talks to them in real time. It jarred a bit, but it's a pretty minor complaint and one you'd expect the editor rather than the author to have caught in any case.

The follow up to Michalowski's alien planet in the future is Mark Morris' American town in the past, Forever Autumn, which I haven't gotten round to finishing yet, but which starts in suitably creepy manner. More on that when I get the time to finish it off.

Best of all, though, very very best of all - they've let Paul Magrs do another Who book.*

Fair enough (to link things back up to the beginning in a vaguely competent reviewerly manner) even a Magrsian NSA was never going to have the depth of The Blue Angel or the playfulness of Verdigris, but Paul's mainstream books for young adults have always been worth reading. Unlike some YA books, they never talk down to the reader, have unsuitable bits in them and have even been known to have the supposed Reader Identification Figure (copyright the first dozen BBC NSAs) turn out not to be perfect after all. My eleven year old daughter loves them.

In Sick Building, the Doctor and Martha come to Tiermann's World to tell the inhabitants that the Voracious Craw**, a much bigger version of the sandworms from Dune with an appetite to match, is on its way to destroy their planet. To their surprise, the only people on the planet are a family of settlers, living in their sentient Dreamhome, designed and built by the erratic genius father of the family, Professor Ernest Tiermann.

Sick Building (not as good a title as the original Wicked Bungalow, but blame Cardiff for that) is actually pitched a little bit younger than Magrs' Young Adult books like Exchange, being more on a par with something like Hands Up or the recent Twin Freaks. The human characters are slightly less complex, the situation a bit less subtle and the interaction less nuanced. But it's still a fantastically imaginative story, a fast-paced fairground ride of a book in which the Magrs' equivalents of Mrs Potts and Lumiere from Disney's Beauty and the Beast rebel against a genuinely unfeeling and wholly selfish creator. Magrs imbues the two main Servo Furnishings - Barbara and Toaster - with genuinely heroic personalities and if there's occasionally a little too much of the Mad Scientist about Tiermann, it is only occasional. Magrs even finds time, like Michalowski before him,to slip one or two tiny meta-textual jokes into the book.

Finally, the ending is brilliant - the kind of thing which in the hands of the TV series would be rubbish (see the Slitheen, for instance) but which in Sick Building seems like the
only way in which the Craw could be seen off.

As ever, this is highly recommended - and the same goes for
Wetworld and, I hope, Forever Autumn. And one of the next lot of novels to be announced is by Paul Dale Smith, who wrote the second best Who short story ever, and is set in Edinburgh, the world's most beautiful city.

Maybe the book range is less sick than it seems?

* While Justin Richards appears to be commissioning my wish list, can we have Phil Purser-Hallard next please, followed by anyone called Simon and Ian Potter** *.
** Although the cover artist obviously never bothered reading the book since the Craw has no teeth in the book and demonstrably has loads on the cover.
*** If he's decided he could do a whole book. Bet he could.

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