It Came From Uranus

I finished reading Stephen Baxter’s Doctor Who novel The Wheel of Ice today.  The novel had its moments.  There is one description of an attack upon Zoe by a group of ‘blue dolls’ – fabricated avatars of an ancient artificial intelligence – that is rather well done.  The blank black eyes and needle teeth are fairly routine but there is something oddly disturbing about the descriptions of their paddle-like hands.

On the whole, however, I found the book rather uninspired.  The phrase I just used – “ancient artificial intelligence” – says a lot about the book’s use of somewhat familiar tropes.  There seems to have been an attempt to evoke the ‘base under siege’ / ‘humans in the future’ formula so often said to be typical of the Troughton era… but with the ‘siege’ coming from within the colony.  However, Baxter is perhaps a little too interested in the technical details of the solar system.  We get an awful lot of scenes where the action stops dead so the characters can explain neutrinos to each other, or describe the chemical composition of Titan’s atmosphere.  There’s also a lot of stuff about how a space colony would actuallly work in technical terms, but it’s not terribly relevant to the story.  So, once again, the action tends to pause so that people can talk about waste recycling.

There is an attempt to adapt the characters of Zoe and Jamie to new situations that also causes a slowing-down of the action.  It would be okay if they had genuinely interesting things to do… but Zoe gets to tell bedtime stories about the Karkus to a toddler and Jamie falls in with a bunch of naff ‘rebellious’ young people who say excrutiating things like “Cowabunga, granddad!”.  I shit you not.

There’s a rather likeable Scottish robot called Mac who gets developed only so far before being sidelined and then brought back for a rather twee ’emotional’ bit at the end.  It’s characteristic of the novel that this cathartic final scene for Mac is bordered by lots of technical talk involving him being sent to Uranus to mine tarranium (it came from Uranus, I knew it did!).  There are lots of continuity references in the book, if that’s the sort of thing that spreads your marmite.

The book also has a go at being political… and that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about.  There is a nasty corporation called, rather amusingly, Bootstrap… as thought it was set up by Norman Tebbit or someone like that.  The representative of the corporation is a nasty woman who is nasty because she’s nasty, and a woman because she’s a woman.  She does nasty things in a brusque, rude manner, because she’s nasty and brusque and rude.  Everybody else in the story seems to be well-meaning, if equally characterless.  Some are delineated by being Spanish or Welsh.  The rest blur into one indistinct melange even as you read.  (So quite like a mid-Troughton space base story in fact!) …

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