Friday, May 03, 2013

Review: The Wheel of Ice

'The Wheel of Ice', by Stephen Baxter, is the latest in the untitled series of "hardcover Doctor Who books by Proper Science Fiction Writers" that began with Michael Moorcock's 'The Coming of the Terraphiles'. It's interesting, really, how little difference there is between the Proper Science Fiction Writer books like 'Wheel' and the better parts of the existing Doctor Who series--this isn't a knock on Baxter so much as it is a paean to the way that the Doctor Who novels have produced quite a few stellar science-fiction writers who've gone on to have excellent careers of their own. Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Russell T Davies, Ben Aaronovitch...there's no shortage of people who made their mark as a Doctor Who writer and went on to bigger and better things.

Many of them, in fact, were writing Doctor Who in the period that Baxter first began his own career, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine that 'The Wheel of Ice' was a novel whose genesis was as a Missing Adventure that Baxter didn't wind up publishing. It might sound like more of a stretch to those unfamiliar with Baxter's career, but he did wind up having a short story in one of the later, non-Who Decalogs for Virgin, so he was clearly aware of them as a market. And as this book shows, he's clearly also a huge Doctor Who fan. This story is so filled with kisses to the series' past that it reads much like the first-time work of a Cornell or a Gatiss, someone utterly filled to the brim with talent but desperately afraid that this will be their only Doctor Who book and they'll have to fit in every single continuity reference right now or they'll never get another chance to bring up T-Mat and the Ice Warriors and the Karkus and and and--

Despite the slightly intrusive nature of the fan references, the Doctor Who aspects of this Doctor Who book are handled excellently. Jamie is wonderful, accessible and interesting and funny and resourceful all at once, while Zoe is written by someone who clearly gave the character's background actual thought instead of just treating it as a reason for her to act "smart". One of the other reviews I read of this book disliked the fact that she spends time near the end babysitting someone else's kid, but I liked the way that we saw Zoe doing something she never did on television...heck, maybe something she never thought she would do...and being very interesting while doing it. The Doctor isn't entirely Troughton--there are times he feels a bit Pertwee--but he's very recognizably the Doctor, in a wonderful way.

And the plot is exactly what you'd expect from Baxter, a hard sci-fi story that excellently synthesizes the genre with the humanist elements of New Wave science fiction. The characters are all sympathetic and interesting (especially MMAC, the robot raised as a human to calibrate its AI, who could sustain a novel all by himself) and the Big Idea at the story's heart is suitably big. And because this is Doctor Who, the series without a formula, you really can't be sure how things are going to go until the final page. Really, the only flaw is that Florian Hart, the human villain of the piece, can't decide whether she's a heartless mining tycooon or a comic-book supervillain. (Once you drop lines like, "You may have defused the bomb, Doctor, but you won't find it that easy to escape my wrath!" you've pretty much closed down the first option.)

On the whole, I'd happily recommend this one, and I think it's great that they're doing books like this again. Classic Series stories, written by great sci-fi writers, with appeal to's almost like the Virgin years all over again.

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