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.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Retrospective: Simon Bucher-Jones

(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.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

River Song: A Confession

(Originally posted to Fraggmented on June 8, 2011)

I know this is going to be a bit of a shocker, particularly to fellow Doctor Who fans, me, River Song gets less interesting every time she shows up in the series.

I obviously don't want to give anything away for "A Good Man Goes To War", which hasn't officially aired in North America, but suffice to say that Big Revelations about River are in the offing. And like all the other Big Revelations about River Song, it seems to me to diminish her in my imagination just a little bit more. When we first saw River Song, she was a larger-than-life human able to hang with the Doctor on his own level, a woman who may or may not have been his lover (or even his wife) who has her own tremendous, exciting adventures that only occasionally intersect with those of the Doctor...and those not necessarily in consecutive order at that.

Now? She's that woman who lives in Stormgate Prison and breaks out every once in a while when the Doctor needs her. She's someone who lives life backwards to the Doctor, not sideways and upside-down and at crazy non-Euclidean angles. She's someone who, not to spoil "A Good Man Goes To War", has a specific and finite character arc that we have already seen, in a sense, the beginning and end of. It's hard to see her as an equal to the Doctor in that light. After all, he's a man with an unlimited past and a wide-open future. River is anything but.

I miss the River who wasn't anything but. I miss the River whose story couldn't be told on television because you can't hire an actress to time travel fifteen years into the future to pretend to be her own younger self. I miss the River who might only have lived into her forties (assuming she wasn't from an era where someone could live to be two hundred and still look like they were in their forties...) yet spent those years full of life and adventure, crossing paths with twenty-seven incarnations of the Doctor in her career as archaeologist, smuggler, burglar, professional jailbird, and dozens of other professions in a rich life filled with incident. Like the Star Wars prequels, River fails for me not because of any failings of Steven Moffat, but because the River Song in my head was mine and nobody else's is ever going to be as good.

I know that a lot of people aren't going to agree with this. They like Moffat's River Song, and I don't blame them. But I think if you could meet mine, you'd like her better too.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Retrospective: Christopher Bulis

(Originally published June 11, 2003 on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)

On the surface, Christopher Bulis is an unlikely choice for the label of "controversial author". Yet, in his own way, he's become something of a focus for controversy just as polar opposites like Lawrence Miles and Ben Aaronovitch have. To fans who enjoy the ground-breaking efforts of the aforementioned "rad" authors, Chris Bulis' work stands as an example of exactly the sort of pot-boiler the range should avoid. Yet he's been commissioned more than any author save Justin Richards, with twelve novels (Shadowmind, State of Change, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, The Eye of the Giant, Twilight of the Gods, A Device of Death, The Ultimate Treasure, Tempest, Vanderdeken's Children, City At World's End, Imperial Moon, The Palace of the Red Sun) to his name. So why, if he's a bland and boring author as some (myself included) claim, does he have so many champions, both in fandom and at the BBC? And if he's good enough to get commissioned twelve times, why do so many people hate his books?

Fundamentally, I think a lot of people dislike his books because they don't seem like Bulis spent a lot of effort on them. The characters never really rise above their own one-sentence descriptions; The Eye of the Giant is about a Disgraced Scientist, an Alcoholic But Likeable Movie Star, a Disabled Person Who Gracefully Handles It, a Cold-Hearted But Pretty Movie Star, and a Father Who Just Wants the Best For His Little Girl going out to a mysterious island, and those brief phrases are about as deep as Bulis ever gets. All of these characters feel as though they should have a stat block under their names, and instructions to the Game Master on how to play the characters. Even the Doctor and his companions come off as remarkably generic.

His plots, too, come out of the "generic" school. State of Change, the world where Rome never fell. The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the world where magic works. The Ultimate Treasure, the quest for a mysterious treasure that throws together unlikely companions. It's all so generic and cliched that by his third or fourth novel, he's having the characters themselves comment on how cliched it all seems, as though he feels a subconscious need to apologize. (The ultimate example of this comes in Imperial Moon, where Turlough and the Doctor find the diary of one of the main characters and Turlough laughs at how bad the concepts within seem, even predicting major chunks of the rest of the book based on the excerpts.) The worst part comes when his characterization and his plotting interact -- after all, one of the usual concepts of Doctor Who is that the Doctor shows up and solves the mystery/ends the deception that the society, expedition, refugees, whatever, are trapped in. Since Bulis' deceptions and mysteries are so simple, his only option is to make his characters progressively more idiotic until they can't solve the simple mysteries he puts before them, then lets the Doctor come in and tell them what the audience already realized 200 pages ago.

So, given all his considerable short-comings, why do people still like him? Why did I not commit suicide rather than read twelve of his books in a row? Why, in fact, would I recommend him again for the range?

The answer lies in his prose, I think. It's not brilliant, world-beating, white-fire-across-your-soul stuff like the Paul Cornells and Ben Aaronovitchs of this world produce, but it's pleasant, comfortable writing that feels like that old, worn sweater that you wear on cold days. He's a breeze to read -- whole books pass by in less than two hours, and even though the plot is old, it's still entertaining to hear it again. He's a good raconteur, I think; even as you chuckle at the same old tricks, you have to admire that he continues to use them. He's also got a reasonable sense of humor about his work, which helps.

So, overall, I wouldn't mind seeing another book out of Chris Bulis. I don't think he represents a good model for the range, and I'd hate to see his style of unassuming pot-boilers become the norm, but as an occasional diversion, or a rest between Lawrence Miles world-shatterers, you could definitely do worse.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three Reasons Why Doctor Who Books Need To Come Back

(Originally posted to Fraggmented on December 29, 2012.)

Technically speaking, I should start by pointing out that Doctor Who books aren't actually gone. In fact, there's something like five lines of Doctor Who fiction out there--the basic novels, which have been a bit dormant but will see three new releases in April; a line of fancy hardcovers that have attracted jaw-droppingly good authors like Stephen Baxter and Michael Moorcock (I'm still holding out hope for a Harlan Ellison entry in this series, although I know it's not going to happen); a line of "Quick Reads" designed to be finished over a lunch-break; a kid's series of 2-in-1 novels; and a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque run of books. After all that, I can kind of understand why the BBC doesn't want a line of novels for the classic series cluttering up the works.

Nonetheless, I miss the books that were coming out before the TV series relaunched in 2005. Even though there was a fairly steep dip in quality during the changeover from Virgin to the BBC, the book series had recovered reasonably well by the end, and produced some really excellent work like 'The Tomorrow Windows', 'Camera Obscura' and 'Fear Itself'. It's a line that deserved to continue on its own merits and on the merits of its sales...but there are also three other reasons I'd bring back the Past Doctor Adventures book line.

1) There is a place for a line of Doctor Who books for older fans. I realize that this is a very fine line to walk, because Doctor Who is a family series and I don't want to see younger fans excluded...but at the same time, the genie's kind of out of the bottle, here. For a good fifteen years, the Doctor Who series was written with an eye towards the older fan, and we got to see stories written for a more mature reader...and I don't necessarily mean that in terms of sex and violence, either. 'Love and War', to choose a particularly excellent and seminal example, examines the Doctor's relationship with his companions and his ultimately alien perspective on the universe in a way that the TV series will never be able to do, simply because I don't think the TV series is willing to risk that kind of unsympathetic view of the Doctor. Not every book was that good or that mature (I'm looking at you, Chris Bulis) but there was a potential there that shouldn't be discarded.

2) The book line served as a laboratory for improving the series. Because the book line was for older fans, and because it wasn't under the pressure of being a flagship show on Saturday nights, they had a lot of license to experiment. The book lines came up with a number of interesting ideas, like a time-travelling archaeologist, or a human/Time Lord hybrid able to deal with the Doctor on his own level, or a view of the Doctor as a myth scattered throughout human history, or a Time War that would lead to the destruction of Gallifrey and the end of the Time Lords, or...basically, re-reading the books (like I'm doing here alongside my wife, just as a reminder) shows just how much of the concepts that became essential to the success of the new series came out of people trying new takes on a classic series and seeing what worked. That's the kind of thing that can and should happen again.

3) The book line gave a lot of excellent writers their first break. The Doctor Who book line had an open submissions policy, both in the Virgin and BBC era, and a lot of fans made the jump to pro through the book line. Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell (whatever you may think of his work) and Matt Jones all went from fan to novelist to TV writer, and even some of the already established TV writers (like Moffat and RTD) started their work for Doctor Who in the novels. It didn't always work--we got the occasional Neil Penswick--but it really encouraged a lot of talented people and gave them an opening, which is something that I think feels appropriate for the BBC to do.

There are more reasons, some of which really can't be done right now due to the narrative primacy of the TV show...but I think there's a place for a line of well-written adult novels in Doctor Who, even now. I just don't know if the BBC will see it my way anytime soon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What Is Doctor Who All About?

(Originally posted to on May 3, 2013.)

I’ve thought for a long while that any long-running series eventually stops being about anything other than itself. Each individual story might be about something; “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, for example, is about the absurdity of racial prejudice. But that’s not what ‘Star Trek’ is about. Other episodes of the series were about friendship, or about sexism, or about obsession…until eventually, all you could really say about the series was that it was about the Enterprise crew and the things that happened to them. Each episode was like a color transparency, laid over each other episode until all you could see was a character-shaped hole.

You could say the same thing about ‘Buffy’, about ‘Highlander’, about just about every long-running series…in the end, the changes forced on them by circumstance and the need to keep the show creatively fresh made them less about high school or the Gathering or the alien conspiracy or the fall of the Greek gods and more, eventually, about a person to whom things happen. A season might have an arc, an episode might have a point, but ‘Buffy’ is about a young woman named Buffy.

I’ve come to the conclusion, recently, that ‘Doctor Who’ is (as always, it seems, among science-ficton/fantasy series) an exception. ‘Doctor Who’ is about something, all the way through its fifty-year history, and it’s not the Doctor. In fact, the key to realizing what it’s about is to realize that the Doctor isn’t really what the series is about at all. It’s about the people around him. The Doctor is a catalyst, an agent of change, and the show ‘Doctor Who’ is about the way that people deal with him (and by extension, the monsters he fights and the strangeness of his universe) being thrust into their worldview.

Because everyone has a worldview, a collection of concepts and information that forms the underpinning to their mental existence. Things fall down, cars take you places, jobs pay you money, and the world works the way you’ve come to expect it to each day. We all form an opinion about the Way Things Are…and crucially, we all deal in different ways when that worldview is disrupted.
Some people become angry. Obama becoming President, for example, created a kind of hysterical rage in a certain type of person, because in their world black people did not become President. Obama wasn’t just a man who disagreed with them, he was a sign that their entire existence had come to an end, to be replaced by a strange new world where all their old certainties had dissolved. These people have to believe that he somehow cheated his way into the Oval Office, because they can’t accept the fundamental idea of his legitimacy.

Other people become elated by the change. The unexpected fills them with delight, tells them that there are still surprises left in a boring and predictable world. Seeing a paralyzed woman pick up a cup with a robot arm controlled entirely by her mind elicits a sort of giddiness, a sense that you’re taking a step into a bigger and stranger and more wonderful universe than you previously knew existed.

And many people, to quote the ‘Doctor Who’ story “The Face of Evil”, “rework the facts to fit their views.” Information that changes their worldview too much becomes false, even if the logic required to fit the lie into their head becomes strained to the point of absurdity. People are willing to imagine vast and shadowy conspiracies of government coups and secret shadow agencies if the alternative is accepting that a President can get his head blown clean off by a stranger with a rifle and a grudge.

This is what ‘Doctor Who’ is about. It’s about the ways that people deal with situations that challenge their worldviews. Each story establishes a world, whether it be 1960s London or an alien planet thousands of years in the future, and then it drops the Doctor–a tiny piece of impossibility–into that world. Just to see what happens. (This is one reason why the series can run for so long on such a premise…it’s inherently new-viewer friendly. Since you have to establish the world before you can change it, you’re constantly creating entry points for people who’ve never seen the show before.)
Sometimes people cope with the changes. The first two seasons of the series were about Ian and Barbara, two normal 60s schoolteachers, dealing with situation after situation that was entirely outside of their experience. Rose gleefully embraces the strangeness, Dodo freaks out and leaves the second she gets the chance, and Tegan treats it like a package tour until the point where it all gets to be too much for her.

Other people try to slot the Doctor into their worldview. The new show makes it explicit with the psychic paper–when the Doctor shows it to you, you see what you expect him to be reflected back at you–but even in the old series, the Doctor was always treated like what he was expected to be. Authoritarians saw him as a rebel, police slotted him in as a criminal, scientists expected him to be a kindred spirit. People have tried, desperately and endlessly, to make him fit. Only to find, to their frustration, that’s he’s exactly what he says he is, and nothing else.

The people who can’t accept that, in ‘Doctor Who’, tend to come to unpleasant ends. If you can’t accept that a Dalek or an Ice Warrior isn’t something familiar and acceptable, something you can fit into your worldview by negotiating with them or threatening them or ignoring them, they will probably kill you. The only chance you have to survive in ‘Doctor Who’ is to keep an open mind, to accept that the universe is bigger and stranger and more wonderful than you previously imagined, and to believe the facts when they’re right in front of your face, even if they’re not pleasant. And that’s a premise big enough to last fifty years and then some.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Retrospective: Ben Aaronovitch

(Originally posted on 5/5/03 to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)

It's truly difficult to do a retrospective on Ben Aaronovich without lapsing into full-on "gush" mode; after all, we're not only talking about the writer of Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield, two of the most influential (and best) Seventh Doctor TV stories, we're also talking about the man who novelized Remembrance and turned out something even better than what was seen on-screen, bringing up the first appearance of the Rassilon/Omega/Other trilogy along the way. Even before he wrote Transit, The Also People, and co-wrote So Vile A Sin, he'd already earned a high place among the creators of Doctor Who.

So what did his Virgin novels add to his reputation? For one thing, they cemented his status as an inspiration to the leading lights of Who writers. Paul Cornell, Kate Orman, Lawrence Miles, Marc Platt, Jim Mortimore, and Lance Parkin, just to name a few, are all playing the game that Ben Aaronovich wrote the rules to; he'd already defined the main elements of the Doctor's character before the New Adventures even began, and his novels showed that a greater level of stylistic depth was possible in the books. (At this point, I'd like to remind everyone that I did warn them about going into "gush" mode.)

Aaronovich's books are dense, complex works -- each sentence is pressed into double, triple, and sometimes quadruple duty in order to squeeze the maximum amount of story out of each page. This can sometimes bewilder first-time readers (Transit winds up confusing a lot of people on the first read-through because it's simultaneously an action thriller, a character study of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, a history of the Hundred Days War, and a tragedy involving Blondie and Zamina, and that's skipping all the ancient Gallifrey stuff worked in there as well.) But if you're patient, the results are incredibly rewarding; the prose is so rich that even on your seventh (or eighth, or ninth) read, there's still new things to discover and old things to enjoy. The Doctor getting buried in the sand in The Also People ("it could be part of some cosmic plan..."), the Angel Francine playing chicken with a Vulture missile over the skies of Mars, the thousands of Doctors swarming out of a hole in reality to assault the Brotherhood -- Aaronovich just seems to overwhelm you with intelligent writing, to the point where it sometimes seems like drinking out of a fire-hose.

Each of his two solo books takes a very different approach to style -- Transit, naturally, is about motion, with short, choppy scenes and lots of transition from person to person, place to place, flash-backs and flash-forwards giving a sense of speed and urgency to the work. (Again, this can disorient a first-time reader, part of what gives Transit its poor reputation.) The Also People, on the other hand, is languid, lyrical, almost casual in its pacing and revelations; it's about a vacation, and it gives that sense of restfulness even during its big events. Yet it's never dull, an achievement that almost seems paradoxical.

I can't leave off his characterization, either, despite my knowledge that it's going to be more gushing; he does a surprisingly good job with Benny, considering that she's possessed for most of Transit, and his portrayal of Roz in The Also People remains the definitive characterization, its background details and emotional resonance shading every subsequent appearance of the character. He even handles Chris, a fairly shallow (but likeable) character well, by bringing out the puppy-dog enthusiasm of the character. And, of course, he remains one of the few authors to ever pull off scenes showing how the Doctor thinks.

His final (and I hope sincerely only in the sense of "to date") effort for the Doctor Who range was So Vile A Sin, and most fans know that he couldn't complete it. When I first read it, I suspected that he had finally set before him a task too daunting, a book that pulled together the threads of the Psi-Powers series, while also working in the N-Forms from Damaged Goods, sequelizing Original Sin, and depicting an interstellar war and the collapse of an empire as well. However, reading it right after his previous two works, I don't think it was too much for him; instead, I feel that his "somewhat loose perception of linear time as it pertains to deadlines" was all that was at fault. (Of course, the official explanation remains a hard drive crash, and far be it from me to cast doubt on such an august personality; however, given his habitual lateness in the past, I think we may safely be as suspicious as we like.)

Kate Orman essentially wrote the novel based on his outline and using what material he had finished, but the result is more noticeably Orman's than it is Aaronovich's; Kate Orman is, of course, no slouch herself at writing Doctor Who books, and the result is eminently readable, but it doesn't quite flow with the seamless ease that Aaronovich's two solo works do. Orman even admits in the afterword that she can't duplicate Ben Aaronovich's skills, and must simply do the best she can.

Ultimately, I believe that Ben Aaronovich is the finest author the Doctor Who novel lines have produced; whenever anyone questions me about why I read a silly TV tie-in series like Doctor Who, I simply lend them a copy of The Also People. I've never had to answer the question from the same person twice.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: To the Slaughter

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide in May 2005.)

If you can imagine a story, any story, as a car, then you can imagine writers as auto mechanics. (I know this is a weird place to start, but work with me on this one.) The writer's job is to customize the story, trick it out with new features, improve its performance, streamline it, and give it a nice look.

If you can see To the Slaughter as a car, it's like it's one of those weird bullet cars they design just to see if they can break the world landspeed record. It might not always be pretty, it might not necessarily be elegant, and you probably wouldn't just cruise around in it to admire the way it handles, but man, that mother can move.

Cole starts the book with the Doctor, Fitz, and Trix hiding under a board-room table mid-meeting, and before you can say "interplanetary conspiracy" they're split up, on the run, in hiding, escaping explosions, racing against time, and cross-cutting from one thread to another at break-neck speed. The plot actually does hold together reasonably well under these stresses, and while characterization does suffer a bit, it's just because you're moving too fast to get to know anyone. (Trix, astonishingly enough, shows some signs of a personality shyly coming out to greet us, one book before she's written out of the series, but you'd still have a hard time caring if she wandered out of the book never to return.) There's some nice lines here and there, and I personally love the idea of realigning the planets to give the solar system better feng shui, but again, you're really just rocketing through the book for the adrenaline rush. And on that level it's fantastic.

Admittedly, it does steal some from '28 Days Later'... but then again, they stole their first big scene from The Dalek Invasion of Earth anyway, so we're owed payment.