Tuesday, 21 August 2012

WHO REVIEW: The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter

Oh my giddy aunt, I’ve been looking forward to this one!

Stephen Baxter is one of my favourite authors, and one of the finest science fiction authors writing today. He’s known for taking cutting-edge science and exploring its effects on large casts of characters to create tales that are somehow both epic and personal. He’s branched out a little lately, producing some interesting works; just last month, his collaboration with Sir Terry Pratchett, The Long Earth, hit the shelves (and very fine it is too), and now comes his first Doctor Who work.

It’s not before time. Baxter was down to write a sixth Doctor audioplay for Big Finish several years ago, but this came to nothing. His love of the series is no secret; he’s even penned articles on the TV21 Dalek comic strips for SFX. To finally have some genuine, Baxter-authored Who is a joy; not only that, it’s the first totally original, official ’past Doctor’ novel since 2005, and it’s my favourite Doctor too! I admit, my expectations for this one were very high.

I’m both very satisfied with The Wheel of Ice, and a touch disappointed. It’s wholly satisfying as a Doctor Who adventure; as a Stephen Baxter book, a little less so. For him, it’s quite small-scale; this may seem a strange thing to say about a novel that crosses the Saturnian system and reaches back in time millions of years, but such is the scale of Baxter’s usual work. There’s certainly plenty of his trademark cutting-edge astrophysics to enjoy. There’s nothing too complex for the more casual sci-fi fan, but it’s fascinating nevertheless, although there’s a point where Baxter resurrects a classic example of David Whitaker pseudoscience.

The novel is set in a haphazard space habitat (the eponymous Wheel of Ice), constructed from ice and the hulks of old space capsules around Mnemosyne, one of Saturn’s smaller moons, embedded within the famous ring system itself. (Not a genuine name for one of the moons, as far as I’m aware, unless it’s a recent suggestion that hasn’t yet been ratified by the IAU). From there, the Saturnian system is explored, both from the viewpoints of the regulars and the Mnemosyne base’s inhabitants, taking in other locales, including a breathtaking exploration of Titan (a favourite haunt of Baxter’s).

It may be rickety, but the Wheel is a pioneering effort by humanity, in an age in which we’re only just reaching out beyond the Earth’s protection. It’s the late 21st century, some time before Zoe’s native era, although the exact date is understandably unspecified. The Troughton-era on television often explored the 21st century, safely from its 1960s vantage point. Now that life has begun to catch up with this far-flung future era, some oddities to appear; it’s very hard to imagine the rather Luddite second Doctor saying things like “quantum theory” and “conference call.”

Baxter’s love of the Troughton-era of Doctor Who is apparent throughout. The second Doctor is notoriously hard to capture in print, but Baxter gets him down pat (sorry). Much of the story is told from Zoe’s point of view, and her character is explored eloquently; simultaneously trying to explore her more adventurous side and hold onto her logical training, she is thrown by the setting’s close proximity to her own time, and its relatively primitive conditions. Jaimie is also portrayed perfectly, with Highland dialogue that never quite tips into parody, and his underrated intelligence and compassion shining through.

Indeed, there’s a significant Scottish presence in the book. Not only Jaimie, but also the Laws family, the primary set of supporting characters, who are of Scots descent, and the bizarrely, wonderfully over-the-top MMAC, a spider-like AI from “Glasgae.” The supporting cast is strong throughout, with the exception of Florian, the amoral commander who descends into “boo, hiss” villainy for the later parts of the story. The obligatory monsters, the Blue Dolls, are interesting and unsettling, a good example of Baxter’s knack for creating unusual alien life forms. The novel explores a number of the author’s favourite themes, from space travel, high-energy physics, time travel, human evolution, and the young rising up against the old. However, he never goes into any subject too the depth we’ve come to expect of him; he’s more interested in getting the adventure underway. Quite right too, really, for a Doctor Who book, but it would have been interesting to see what Baxter might have done with Who if he really let rip. Nonetheless, judged as a Doctor Who tie-in or purely as a sci-fi adventure, this is fun, fascinating read. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait so long Baxter‘s second voyage in the TARDIS.

Title Tattle: The Wheel of Ice is an obvious reference to the 1968 serial The Wheel in Space, the story which introduced Zoe. It’s not inappropriate, considering how the Mnemosyne base is a stage in the development of Zoe’s own space-faring culture.

Links and References: Beyond the title, there are numerous references to classic Doctor Who serials, mostly ’60s -flavoured but with a good few from the ’70s and the odd ’80s one as well. Baxter leaves the reader in no doubt of his fan credentials, and even manages to reference his own Manifold sequence of books; the Bootstrap company, founded by a Mr Malenfant, is straight out of this series.

Placement: Given the references to other second Doctor adventures, this has got to take place pretty late on in his tenure, probably between The Space Pirates and The War Games.

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