By Kate Orman
Misleading title much? Kate Orman’s third book, SLEEPY, moves at roughly the speed of a rollercoaster in freefall. I’m a quick reader at the best of times – it helps with marathons – and I had to deliberately slow down to appreciate this one. That should probably bother me more, but after the lengthy exercise in self-dentistry that was The Man In The Velvet Mask I’m not about to look a gift horse in the proverbial.
It probably goes without saying that we skip the bit where the TARDIS lands and the characters get involved – that’s needless faff by most New Adventures’ standards, and Kate Orman is having none of it. The first chapter (there isn’t a prologue – pinch me) immediately has the Doctor psychically bewildered and confusing reality with a dream-state. This is excitingly disorientating, with snippets of the real world to make it clear how much this is distressing Bernice, Roz and Chris; that note of warmth is especially welcome after Warchild, or Andrew Cartmel Refuses To Play With Anybody Else: Part 3. It’s a sock-you-in-the-jaw way to open the proceedings, which involve a young colony world suffering an outbreak of psychic powers. The whole crisis feels somewhat lived-in before we even arrive, with divisions among the colonists and “powers” being received in different ways, and Orman’s absolute crusade to eliminate dead air means that by Chapter 3 the Doctor co. already have a pretty good idea whose fault the whole thing is. I don’t think a New Adventure has rollicked this determinedly since Exodus.
It would be fair to say it’s plot-driven, then, which makes SLEEPY a step up – in my estimation – from Orman’s earlier books. That’s not to deride The Left-Handed Hummingbird or Set Piece, as they’re both great works of character development, or at least really good character stories. (And if you want to compare them, I think character’s more important anyway.) I just felt that Hummingbird’s complicated structure made it less exciting, and Set Piece concluded a character arc beautifully using some pretty standard monsters. SLEEPY has an interesting problem (the psychic outbreak), interesting characters (including a significant number of Artificial Intelligences), interesting bits (including a quick recce thirty years into the past, told out of sequence) and best of all, hardly any villains. Which is a natty way to get around something that didn’t exactly light up the author’s previous books.
You need antagonists, and you get them: in paranoid sci-fi style, someone is either benefiting from the outbreak or will otherwise want it covered up, so a quartet of psychic operatives arrive to quarantine the colony. Orman makes clever use of first person with these characters, and gives them little lived-in quirks like the fact that their leader (White) has never actually made eye contact with the others. Nonetheless, despite White’s almost default villainy as he faces off against the Doctor, it’s apparent even to him that there is a larger game at play: anyone involved in the incident is likely to be expunged by the next team the Company sends, including him. White has an odd journey as he goes from powerful and in charge to utterly dejected and broken, largely because the Doctor has won over his team.
More obvious villainy comes in the form of a (mad?) scientist, Madhanagopal, whom Bernice and Roz encounter when the Doctor sends them away to gather intel. (In the past, because he has a… somewhat freer and easier relationship with time in this one?) An undercover mission goes quickly awry and leads to some experimentation – par for the course when running the Doctor’s errands, I suppose – but this in itself helps their cause. They also encounter GRUMPY, a computer with a human-ish mind, who sure enough sells them down the river rather than help them. But that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of growth. Madhanagopal isn’t a nice guy, but he’s keeping secrets from the Company, and it’s suggested we’ll hear more from him later. Orman makes the whole vignette more interesting by telling it retrospectively. Bernice, as ever, makes it more amusing.
There’s a general air of things seeming sinister which ultimately might not be. The psychic outbreak has damaging effects, leading to at least one accidental death, and there’s the underlying problem that sufferers are drawn somewhere by a voice that seems to know them. Your spider-sense should be tingling at this point: of course this is going to turn out to be some awful horror from the dawn of time, or else some new thing that wants control of the universe, unlimited rice pudding etc. And Orman sees you coming: this ain’t what it looks like. Disastrous events can ultimately be benign, ghostly voices can be friendly and bad people can change, or at the very least start over. There were numerous points where SLEEPY reminded me pleasantly of The Also People, another book that seemed ready to deflect expectations. That may also have something to do with its contained approach to plot, which in this case is not as “small” as The Also People, but is arguably as concise.
SLEEPY charges through its story, yet also fills it with character stuff. Bernice is quietly preoccupied by the events of Just War; it’s not a showy subplot, but it informs her actions and it’s entirely believable that what happened would stick with her. (Good continuity, have a biscuit. Frankly you should go and read Just War if you haven’t.) Roz is reminded of Ace’s place in the TARDIS when she goes looking for weapons, and occasionally ponders her future there. Chris seems to have a harrowing time of it, keeping a secret from Roz that causes a brief rift in their friendship, and he’s the most affected by the only death in the book. And then there’s the Doctor, who recalls a bet he made (with Death, or possibly the mad scientist from Original Sin?) to see if he can possibly save everybody, just once. SLEEPY makes a damn good go of that: the psychic officers are not to be harmed unless absolutely necessary, the approaching warship is to be dealt with in a way that also saves its (dangerous) crew, the terrified colonists are somehow to be kept from harming each other and rescued as slyly as possible (including just bundling them into the TARDIS, because thank you, that is clearly the safest option!), and the Doctor seems genuinely troubled by the risk of danger to the AIs – which he helpfully installs with self-awareness. (Or rather, more of it.) I’ve often moaned about how grim and cruel these books can be, and I’d be mad not to applaud a book that does the opposite, and accentuates the positive. It has that, too, in common with The Also People. But it still has darkness, especially with its one accidental death and the Doctor’s pointed realisation that he cannot truly foresee everything. (Unfortunately I know where this is going, though I don’t know how or why said awful thing is going to occur.)
The supporting characters are a little numerous and it must be said, something’s gotta give with a pace like this, and it’s them. But I just about kept up with the doctor (whom the Doctor charmingly greets, seemingly every time, with “Doctor”) and his soon-to-be-wife, another young couple, the various other colonists, the psychic officers, the generally unfriendly Smith-Smith family and most notably Dot Smith-Smith, a deaf character whose communications (via translator drone and sign language) allow Orman to get creative again. SLEEPY takes a thoughtful approach to deafness, especially in mixing it with telepathy; any knee-jerk assumption that any deaf person would love to hear voices is challenged head-on, as it’s noted that some people get along perfectly well without that sense and indeed, given a taste, would prefer to put the genie back in the bottle. We get some sequences from Dot’s point of view, which allow us to join the (ahem) dots about what’s happening just as she might. Along with some entertaining-rather-than-just-showy dream sequences, Bernice and Roz’s unhappy trip and numerous vignettes when the Doctor has dinner with White – which can be told either from his perspective, where he literally does all the talking, or from White’s as he wryly observes – Orman grabs every chance to make things more interesting. It can still be a little tricky juggling all the names, especially when “Yellow”, “Turquoise” and “Black” get names too, but the whole thing trundles along with such heft that I generally got the right idea from context.
With his bet to keep everybody alive, SLEEPY feels like a challenge for the Doctor. And possibly for Kate Orman. Can you have an exciting story when the Doctor is mostly just stringing the “bad guys” along until the real ones show up – even if we don’t really meet the clean-up crew at the end? Can you have high stakes if you get to the end and, now that you mention it, almost everybody lived? Is it still exciting when it’s basically just, y’know, nice? And can you make this many people feel like important characters, even if you don’t spend that much time with them individually? Broadly, yes. SLEEPY’s main failing is unfortunately part of its charm: it’s damn quick. I would have enjoyed a more patient version that dwelled more on the characters, which makes me wish more authors had the Jim Mortimore itch to revisit old novels. But I enjoyed it a lot as it is, executing a fairly easy-to-follow plot in idiosyncratic style. I was charmed, and I’ll be reading it again some day.