Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: Blue Box

(Originally posted May 24, 2003 to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)

The tremendous advantage of setting a story in the past is that you can drop hints about the future and make them as accurate or as inaccurate as needed, given the knowledge of the characters involved; the even more tremendous advantage of setting it in the recent past is that, having personal memory of the period, you can make it authentic while still taking advantages of the "time travel" conceit that powers Doctor Who. Blue Box does exactly that by setting its story in the early 1980s, giving author Kate Orman the chance to evoke quite precisely the early period of computer evolution while showing just how far we've come in twenty-one years. To be honest, next to the vivid portrayal of early hacker culture and capabilities, the plot was relatively unimportant -- unimportant, but not uninteresting.

The Eridani computer functions as the MacGuffin of the plot -- it's a suitably world-threatening device that we understand that everyone concerned wants it, and wants it badly enough to do seriously dangerous things to get it. However, it's really nothing we haven't seen before. "Alien technology perverting the course of human history" is an old saw in Doctor Who, even if it is handled well here. What's important is the people who want it and the ways they're trying to get ahold of it, and that's where Blue Box shines.

Sarah Swan, the villain of the piece, is quite possibly one of the best-drawn character portraits we've ever seen in Doctor Who. She's not an evil megalomaniac (well, not until the end when things are getting way out of control), she's not a madwoman (well, not until the end, again), she's the sort of petty tyrant, control freak, and revenge-monger that anyone who's frequented the Net has run into on one occasion or another. She's not nice, she's not sympathetic, and she's the sort of person you just want to slap if you ever meet, but she's fully-realized and excellently developed over the course of the novel. She's also not the cliched "one step ahead of the heroes" villain... most of the twists involve the Doctor out-maneuvering her, and her increasing desperation to stay on top of things. She's a villain who just cannot accept that she's out of her league.

The other characters are well-done, too. Chick Peters gets a lot of development "hidden in the shadows", and Bob Salmon comes off as a great pseudo-companion. And Ian Mond... well, it's a trifle unfortunate that a relatively major part was given to a fan namecheck; like M. Night Shaymalan or Quentin Tarantino, these cameos pull the reader out of the story a bit and might be better off with very small parts. Of course, after Vampire Science, I can't complain too loudly about fan namechecks.

The regulars are well-done here, too, with the Doctor seeming to revel in playing with our antique, human technology. (If the stakes are as high as he says, I do wonder why he doesn't use something more advanced, though. As it is, by using contemporary technology, he does seem to be levelling the playing field with Swan a bit. Still, since his whole goal is to keep anachronistic technology out of human hands, he must have decided it wasn't worth the risk.)

The point where the novel shines, though, is in its careful, loving descriptions of hacking and hacker culture. Every plot point hinges on some clever use of computers, and it's fascinating to get glimpses of how the hackers of the time could make the systems sit up and beg. I'm of the optimistic and hopefully not too naive opinion that these days, security has caught up a bit with hackers -- the period described here was a sort of Wild West time, before anyone realized the damage that could be done -- but it's still amazing to read about this stuff. The style chosen fits perfectly with the material, too -- Chick Peters' journalistic writing reminds me a lot of the unnamed (but always, in my mind, Bernice Summerfield) historian who set down The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. Considering that a lot of my non-fiction bookshelves contain history books, this was right up my alley.

In sum, I loved Blue Box, with all the fervor of an 80s nostalgia freak; I recommend it as probably Kate's best book since Set Piece.

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