When I first bought this book, I expected an anti-American screed, a thinly-veiled critique of George W. Bush's Iraq catastrophe. After all, it's about the Manhattan project; it's got a dead Japanese face on the cover with a mushroom cloud where the mouth should be. "The Green Death" thinks this cover is subtle. The author's dedication to someone who "redeemed America in my eyes" certainly didn't make the book sound fair and balanced. I remember Andrew Cartmel's earlier "Who" novels, the War trilogy from the 7th Doctor New Adventures, as in-your-face and politically edgy. While I appreciated the scope of Cartmel's earlier novels, I never considered myself a fan.
Much to my surprise, then, "Atom Bomb Blues" did not read much like any of the books in Cartmel's War trilogy. Nor did it read much like the stories Cartmel oversaw during his three years as "Doctor Who" TV script editor. The most common feature was Cartmel's ethnically diverse take on the Whoniverse. Our look at the Manhattan Project is initially through the eyes of J. Robert Oppenheimer's Mexican cook, the first character the Doctor befriends. Later, the Doctor sneaks off campus to commune with three Apache Indians: in the desert, they build a campfire, share peyote, and sing "The Ballad of Ira Hayes". All right, they only did two of those three things.
What struck me, though, is that this book is structured more like one of the six-part TV stories from the Barry Letts era. Maybe I caught the resemblance only because I watched the DVD release of "The Claws of Axos" the same week that I read "Atom Bomb Blues". But there's also this: the book opens in Los Alamos, where the Doctor poses as an eminent scientist, and lectures the other nuclear physicists on responsibility to mankind (Edward Teller is a bad guy, here). I can imagine Jon Pertwee doing a lot with this material.
Of course, Barry Letts would never allow such a setup to last much longer than Episode Two. He'd get bored with the straight science, much as Cartmel gets bored with the Wikipedia.org data dumps on Oppenheimer's boyhood and previous marriages. So, halfway through, time to bring out psychedelic sets and over-the-top villains. The Doctor detours out into space, to visit a day-glo UFO with strange organic creatures lurking inside. Again, maybe I shouldn't have read this the same week I watched "Claws of Axos". There is a celebrity cameo by an American musician that is simply not to be believed. Finally, the action concludes with a wacky shootout in a stately Los Angeles manor.
I enjoyed "Atom Bomb Blues": it defied my expectations, and made a few clever plays on words. The historical atom bombs in question were named "Fat Man" and "Little Boy". The book's main guest star is an (intentionally) anachronistic physicist, Ray Morita, who is both a fat man and a little boy, in appearance and motivation. Another neat play on words is the book's fictional Los Alamos security chief, Major Butcher. You'd expect that an American assigned to the atom bomb project, with a name like "Butcher", to be rather an obvious caricature. Instead, Butcher gets a lot to do, and doesn't end the book in the manner I expected.
As it stands, this may be the last in a line of paperback "Doctor Who" novels that began life in 1991 as the New Adventures. DW books are still published, but now as hardcover novels based on the Russell T. Davies series, and aimed at a younger audience. As a book with both a high camp factor and a serious moral message, "Atom Bomb Blues" is not the worst way to conclude 15 years of novels too broad and deep for the small screen.