Saturday, 15 June 2013

WHO REVIEW: Harvest of Time by Alastair Reynolds

BBC Books continue their occasional series of Doctor Who novels by big-name authors with this third Doctor story by respected, bestselling hard-sf author Alastair Reynolds.  There seems to be a distinct subset of science fiction authors who work in their own universes and would never deign to enter a shared world or tie-in… unless it’s Doctor Who.

Reynolds is a fantastic author, gifted with the ability to create vast, mind-boggling universes that nonetheless embrace the human element. I’ve read a number of his books, and have several more waiting to be read (causing an inevitable filing issue – do I shelve Harvest of Time with my Reynolds book s or my Who books?) On the whole, I am less keen on his expansive ‘Revelation Space’ sequence than his more eccentric, one-off novels like the sf-noir Century Rain and the steampunk-ish Terminal World. It’s unsurprising, then, that his take on the Pertwee years of Doctor Who is a winner for me.

Like Stephen Baxter with The Wheel of Ice, Reynolds here delivers a heartfelt love letter to his favourite period of Doctor Who. He has stated that he considers the Master to be the greatest villain ever created, and while I love the old bastard, I can’t say I’ve ever thought he was as good as all that… until reading Harvest of Time. While the novel is a brilliant evocation of the Pertwee era as a whole, where it triumphs is in its presentation and deconstruction of the Master. Reynolds nails the love/hate relationship between the Master and the Doctor, stemming back to their friendship and rivalry at the Time Lord Academy (something we even get a flashback to, and a period that was more important to the future of the universe than we ever realised).  While for much of the novel the Master is confined to an oppressive prison, submerged and irradiated to keep others from reaching him and falling under his influence, he nonetheless dominates proceedings, even more so after his inevitable escape.

The evil genius’s plan in this story is both brilliant and arrogant even by his own insane standards. Knowing that his incarceration will end one day, he co-opts his enforced involvement in a secret communications project (using neutrinos, a good example of former ESA scientist Reynold’s use of cutting edge physics in his work) to send a distress call to his own future self. While the Ainley or Jacobi Master turning up to rescue Delgado’s incarnation is a wonderful image, this isn’t what we get here (not to say that there are no other Masters on offer during the course of the novel). Instead, the message in intercepted by the Sild, an invasive species of alien life so dangerous and morally corrupt that the Time Lords imprisoned them in a vast spaceship of horrors, the Consolidator (presumably used for the villains too nasty to even get into Shada).

The result is a work that spans history from the familiar “five minutes into the future” of the Pertwee era to the deep future. For the most part, Reynolds creates a perfect evocation of the best of the Pertwee era, combining the grungy, industrial feel of much of his earliest serials with the cosiness of the UNIT family setup. A good deal of the action takes place on an oil rig far out in the North Sea, under the management of one Eddie Macrimmon (no relation), a dirty workplace peopled by resilient Scots and usurped by slimy government sorts with few charms and even fewer scruples. Eddie is herself a finely drawn character, and while her eventual twist of fate is well signposted, it works well in the context of the story.

Meanwhile, the UNIT team is well-drawn, with only Benton missing out on a decent share of the action. Yates is recognisable without being the prig he sometimes was on TV, while both the Brigadier and Jo are perfectly recreated. We see how difficult life is for the Brigadier, forced to make decisions of a life-or-death nature concerning his friends when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The gradual erasure of the Master from time, a symptom of the Sild’s attempts to abduct him for their own purposes, leads to memory loss, with the Brigadier worst affected. Cleverly, this allows Reynolds to play with the more buffoonish, easily confuse Brig of the later serials without damaging his credibility as a soldier. Jo is equally well-served. On television it was sometimes hard to see how she ever got a job in UNIT, influential uncle or no, but here Reynolds makes clear how resourceful the young woman is, and how well she can use her cuteness and youth to get the big men around her to do things her way and get away with bending the rules.

The Doctor, of course, is the centre of attention much of the time, and Reynolds succeeds in evoking Pertwee’s patrician charm, and occasional boorishness, very well. We’re afforded glimpses into his thoughts, but never enough to spoil the mystique of the character. The essential actions scenes are handled very well too, often a tricky thing to pull off. However, the best moments for the Doctor occur when he is paired with the Master, either at loggerheads or as uneasy allies. Indeed, in the novel’s final third, when events move billions of years into the future, the Doctor/Master pairing becomes a sparring double act that it would have been a joy to watch on TV with Pertwee and Delgado. There’s the inescapable feeling that, however much they distrust one another, the Doctor and Master need each other. The one is incomplete without the other. There’s also the fundamental tragedy of the Master’s existence, highlighted in an astonishing sequence in which the Master, distant from his own native era, feels his escape from the influence of his scattered other incarnations. There is the suggestion that each version of the Master is part of a larger, gestalt being, driven to acts of evil by its very nature. It’s a fascinating exploration of the character that adds him depth.

Reynolds is also clearly having fun writing for the huge, busy Whoniverse. While alien life exists in his other works, it is generally rare, inscrutable and distant. Here, though, he creates a busy and bustling cosmos, full of varied creatures, from the body-snatching shrimplike Sild to the peaceful Praxilions, far-future caterpillar people. He throws in references to beings such as the Blind Watchmakers, whose “clocks made pulsars look slipshod,” and aqueous creatures whose organs float visibly in their watery bodies. We learn that the familiar universe of humans and Time Lords is part of the Era of Mass Time Travel, and that the deep future is altogether more dangerous and malleable. It’s an altogether more fun style of world building to his usual meticulous approach.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all about the Master, a man of many, many parts. Reynolds acknowledges the existence of other Masters (there are numerous cheeky references to the revived series), but his love of the original, and best, version of the character shines through. This is a triumphant novel, a treat for any Pertwee fan and a must for any follower of Delgado. Masterful.

Placement: Somewhere between The Daemons and The Sea Devils.

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