Sunday, 9 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #16 – Shadowmind by Christopher Bulis

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Christopher Bulis

What's that ominous note of thunder?  Ah yes, Shadowmind: presenting yet another New Adventure that fans generally do not like.  Consensus is never going to account for everybody, of course, but we're basically talking Time-Flight or The Invisible Enemy here – in Doctor Who terms, it might as well give off stink-lines.

As it happens, I've read one of Christopher Bulis's later books, or should I say tried to read as I literally couldn't finish The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  A mixture of sci-fi and fantasy every bit as bog-standard as Witch Mark, studded with flat characters boasting godawful names like Nyborg, it did not make a good first impression.  And he wrote Shadowmind years earlier.  I read this one peeking through my fingers.

About a third of the way through, I wondered if I was reading the same book I'd been hearing about.  Over halfway, I was in a near-constant state of alarm that any minute now it would all turn to mush.  By the end, I assumed I'd gone completely mad and dreamt the whole thing.  This is Shadowmind, right?  Godawful, out-of-character, stab-it-stab-it-make-it-die Shadowmind?  Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle: it's actually pretty good.

The first thing to strike me in a positive way was the pace.  It's Ace's birthday, and along with the Doctor and Bernice, she wants a holiday.  A proper one this time.  They settle on the bright, clement world of Tairngaire, and to my surprise as well as theirs, Ace and co. holiday their brains out for an entire day before trouble (inevitably) starts.  Tairngaire, or more specifically the city of New Byzantium, is nicely realised.  It calms Ace in particular, who now seems well adjusted to life with the Doctor and Bernice.  Her rapport with the latter is coming along quite organically; at one point, they both agree that the TARDIS is their home.  Quite right.  After the tumult of Lucifer Rising and the violence of White Darkness, it's good to see Ace mesh with friends.  And it's nice to have characters exit the TARDIS without stumbling immediately on a pile of corpses.  (Like in the previous novel, for example.)  The first 40-page chunk is fun.  The characters breathe.

But this is not What The TARDIS Team Did On Their Holidays, nor should it be, and trouble shows up in the form of a man being chased.  Ace intervenes too late to save him, but discovers he is not a person at all: there's something smaller living inside him.  Something that made a duplicate of the man she's seeing.  There are more duplicates on Tairngaire, and that's putting it mildly.  A full-scale coup is staged, as duplicates in key positions sabotage and steal technology, and even a few spaceships.  Suddenly there's a tremendous feeling of oh-my-god-what-just-happened?!, and the pace roars up a gear.  Moments before it all goes nuclear, there's a splendid scene where the Doctor deduces which of his colleagues are duplicates – it's like Agatha Christie with a stun gun.  Then, when the fun starts, Ace is ambushed by duplicates and ends up fleeing naked except for a Dalek-style helmet.  (Hmm.  There's your mental image for the day.)

There are quite a few exciting and very visual scenes in this.  Bulis is a designer and illustrator, which no doubt helps.  He's also a massive Doctor Who fan, evidenced by the brilliant bit where the Doctor is cleared of all the usual (tedious) suspicion heaped on him when he's only trying to help by, er, getting them to look him up.  And hence find loads of records on how helpful and face-change-y he is.  Brilliant!  Good lord, why doesn't he do that every week?

After the duplicates make their move, there's another change of pace – a calm between storms, as the Doctor and the Tairngaire survivors figure out their next move.  I enjoyed the ebb and flow of the book.  I was aware, just from glancing at the cover, that it would take on a fully militaristic bent at some point, but there is plenty of lead-up to that, and the enormous-yet-intangible threat of the duplicates totally earns it.  And it's here I want to address one of the criticisms I've come across for Shadowmind: that the book, in particular the Doctor, takes on a pro-military slant.  Ahem: no.  The Doctor goes to considerable lengths to clarify his position on that.  Here he is on war:

'I hate war.  I will do everything I can to avoid it.  But sometimes there is a dreadful inevitability about it.  And then you know that good people are going to die for the lives of others.  And all one can do is try to build something worthwhile from their sacrifice.'

And on weapons:

'I understand your unwillingness to use weapons, but–'
'Oh no, Lieutenant,' the Doctor interrupted bitterly.  'You do not understand at all.'  He sighed.  'I wish I was as pure as that.  My problem is that I have used entirely too many weapons ... I once triggered a weapon that destroyed an entire world.  And knowing it "had to be done" does not make the memory any easier to bear.'

I mean, yes, the Doctor adopts military gear in Shadowmind, even carrying a gun – the local military rather insist that he and his friends can defend themselves, and in any case, it's under protest.  But he's quite clear that this is not something he's keen to do.  He makes numerous attempts to contact the intelligence behind the duplicates.  He even stops short of destroying Umbra, the force behind it all, and not before it kills a load more people for fun.  People die in Shadowmind, and it matters.  It is felt.  In an almost unbearable climactic scene, Ace must gun down new friends to buy time.  At no point is death celebrated.  Admittedly, duplication is painted as a boon to rival regeneration, but even that has its limits, since if you're not duplicated before you die, you're toast.

In a nutshell, Shadowmind is a violent story and its heroes must be violent in it, but it's about people struggling against a sudden, horribly expanding force that absolutely does not want to co-exist.  To borrow a line from Aliens, what were they supposed to use?  Harsh language?

As for the people themselves, there are a lot of characters – and to get the critic ball rolling, characterisation is a bit thin on the ground.  But the action spans several planets and spaceships, so it makes sense to cast a wide net.  That's not to excuse spotty characters like Santony, a man Ace connects with whose sad past comes via info-dump, or the rather odd Robson, one of the "main" duplicates who spends most of his time hanging around with a marsupial.  But I get why there are a lot of people here, and I didn't have as much trouble remembering who they all were as in White Darkness.  Everyone has some element of interest to them.  You feel for the Marshal and his bright starship-captain granddaughter, you can't help sympathising with duplicates like Gerry who are more or less innocent in all this, and of course there's Sorren.  A colonist unwittingly trapped within the duplicates' plans, she doesn't really connect with many other characters, but she reflects poignantly on what this all means for her, and to the fallen pastoral world of Arden:

Lyn knew she should have cared more for this senseless destruction of the ancient woodland, exactly the thing the controlled colonization of Arden was intended to avoid.  But every so often she caught sight of Holly Freyman, working like a zombie, dead-eyed, uncomprehending.  And then she would see Liam Freyman, almost eagerly wielding a cutter ... to trim the branches of another tree, and then see his face go blank when Holly looked at him.  In the midst of such madness, she could find precious little within her to pity the trees.”

I think it's only fair to back-track here, because the duplicates are worth discussing.  These are not your average possessed-people or robots, spouting "I must obey", not remembering their childhoods and generally doing a good impression of wood.  The duplicates in Shadowmind don't know they're not real, and are generally in control apart from short, disorienting lapses.  There's a memorable (and tragic) sense of befuddlement to them, and inevitably some guilt for those who survive.  It's a very memorable and eerie take on a familiar trope.

‘Everything seemed so bloody reasonable ... I think you can get people to do anything to anybody, as long as they think it's the right thing to do.  Not having any doubt and uncertainty, just knowing.  Believe me, it's easy to go along with.’

And controlling them, the Shenn.  A hive of rodent-ish creatures that don't particularly rate individual life (calling Ace a "hive-of-one"), they're utterly memorable – and cute!  And... with the usual SPOILER ALERT to anyone who hasn't read Shadowmind and is considering it, that's a SPOILER incoming... even the Shenn aren't fully responsible for what's going on here.  Umbra, an emergent intelligence on a nearby asteroid, wishes to grow at all costs.  The Doctor can, and does understand that impulse, but unfortunately Umbra is petulant and irresponsible; it revels in revenge when it does not get what it wants.  "Emergent life = childish" is, perhaps, a simplistic view, but it was a lot easier to follow its goals than the similar malevolence in Transit.

And anyway, there is some moral greyness here.  An irresponsible creature wants to expand, so it convinces a lot of harmless creatures with no individual values to steal and murder to achieve that.  The whole thing comes off with a disquieting lack of understanding, particularly as the duplicates blank whenever they try to understand why they're killing (or worse, why they shouldn't kill), and that makes the violent reaction from Tairngaire all the more understandable.  You cannot reason with shadows.

I'm probably making it sound like a heavy and miserable book.  It isn't, although there are moments like that and swathes of action once we reach Arden.  More importantly the Doctor, Ace and Bernice are well captured.  Bulis has a knack for the companions in particular; I’ve no qualms with the Doctor's morals, but he does spend a lot of time helpfully spouting exposition.  Meanwhile Ace and Benny have fun, funny moments.  Benny's astute and learned wit is just right.  Ace's sense of responsibility, re violence, is well-earned and judged; she feels just as dangerous as Ace 1.0 (is that a thing?), but lacks the sheer recklessness.  I loved her self-reproachful running commentary on armament:

"The Doctor disapproved of her fascination with ordnance in general and explosives in particular, but even he (she was sure) would agree that this time there had been no choice.  The opposition had been packing some pretty severe hardware of their own (she would point this out) and didn't mind using it.  And she had resisted the quite reasonable impulse to fragment the murdering pair of... somehow, she knew the Doctor would still not approve.”

Look, I'm not barking mad.  Shadowmind has flaws.  As above, some of the characters don't make a big impression.  Bulis doesn't have a great ear for names.  Some of the description is rather leaden, especially in an early scene where Ace and Bernice stare at each other and make note of their appearances for no particular reason.  Shadowmind is an Ace-heavy story, and it works well in that regard, but right now I'm struggling to recall much input from the Doctor (besides fact-gathering) and especially Bernice, who seemed mostly to be cracking wise in the corners of rooms.  There is an unfortunately large supply of typos and layout snafus which, okay, are a general problem with the New Adventures, but they really seem to pile up in this one.  (One character is alternately spelled "Khan" and "Kahn" every time they appear.  FFS!)  It clearly wasn't ready for the copiers, which is a pity; it reflects badly on Bulis and Virgin.

Honestly though, I'm drawing a blank.  I flat-out liked it.  This is neatly paced, and its so-called villains had enough layers to keep me curious and entertained.  The prose bobbed along, alternately reflective and exciting, and at least one of its main characters had what you'd call a life-altering experience.  That goes a long way to making Shadowmind, for my money, a substantial and exciting read.


1 comment:

  1. Wholeheartedly agree with you on this one.

    Overall I enjoyed this novel. Certainly the first hundred pages were excellent. I was fascinated by the alien race of hive-minded squirrels who use biotechnology. I very much enjoyed the fact that Ace could fully interact with the aliens, so we could get a clear view of their nature and society: they were not just scary plot devices. The carboniferous telepathic Shadowmind was less interesting, but its revelation made for a wonderful twist in the plot.

    It read like a classic television episode, with numerous mysteries and predicaments solved by numerous clever tricks and flashes of insight. The Doctor, Ace and Benny were all fairly good in this (with the caveat that Ace is still a super-soldier). There are a few zany Doctor moments, to which I always look forward.

    The downside of this novel was the overly long descriptions and discussions of military hardware and tactics. At first it is exciting to see the Doctor and his allies figure out how to defeat the seemingly overpowering alien threat, but after several chapters it becomes a little tedious. Not sure why so many New Adventures so far always stumble after the mid-point and limp along with boring fire fights and explosions. (Deceit, White Darkness, Lucifer Rising... more unfortunately Transit and Warhead are violent throughout.)

    The ending is all right, and at least Ace does not go off in a huff. I give this one high marks simply for the achievement of making a non-historical readable for me.