(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on September 23, 2003.)
Retrospective: Simon Bucher-Jones
Many of the authors who have contributed to the various lines of Doctor Who novels (and their spin-offs) can be summed up in a single word. For Paul Cornell, it's "charming"; for Christopher Bulis, it's "comfortable"; for Ben Aaronovitch, it's "brilliant". For Simon Bucher-Jones, author or co-author of The Death of Art, Ghost Devices, The Taking of Planet 5, and Grimm Reality, it's "challenging". In fact, frequently the challenge implicit in his novels has turned off many a reader; that's a genuine shame, because he's got a lot of wit and style to offer to those who are willing to undertake those challenges.
Most of the challenge to Bucher-Jones' works comes from his plots. Bucher-Jones is a devotee of "hard science fiction", and virtually all his novels concern themselves with the intricacies of quantum physics and their implications. From the Quoth of The Death of Art, sub-atomic life-forms that feed on the psychic potential of the living mind, to the budding universes that breed from the super-structure of even larger universes in The Taking of Planet 5, a lot of Bucher-Jones' work requires a physics degree to comprehend on the first read. Failing that, one can simply read and re-read the book until it all makes sense, or take notes, but to the casual reader (myself included), it can wind up being downright impenetrable.
It doesn't help that Bucher-Jones doesn't slow down for the faint of brain. The Death of Art explains how the Brotherhood evolved from your bog-standard Masonic order into a group of powerful psionics that would go on to manipulate the galaxy's politics for centuries to come, but it's kind of shoe-horned in with the explanation of the breeding of the Quoth and the development of the Shadow Directory and the plots of Montague and Chris impersonating the Fifth Doctor and it never slows down for even a moment. Didn't catch any of that? Read it again, is the implied answer. The book's not going anywhere.
However, like Lawrence Miles and Ben Aaronovitch, two other controversial authors, being too clever isn't the problem it seems. What was a tough, incomprehensible read the first time around melts into a sharp, wickedly witty novel the second, and Bucher-Jones shows a flair for the poetic in his prose style that complements his gifts for plotting. Whether describing the Vo'lach, aliens ensnared in a temporal paradox that tricks them into racial suicide, or creating a monster that rips ideas out of people's minds (and for a truly inspired piece of writing, read page 223 of The Taking of Planet 5 -- my apologies in advance to Mark Clapham if that turns out to be one of his bits) -- Simon Bucher-Jones dazzles the reader with wild imagination coupled to a beautiful writing style.
Really, Simon Bucher-Jones is the complete package as a writer, even if it does behoove the reader to take notes (and, possibly, a class on quantum physics) before reading his novels. He's remained active in Who circles, and it'd be nice to see another novel out of him in the not too distant future. I just plan to read it very, very, very carefully.