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Hacking in Need of an Extra Spark
on 23 February 2003
'Blue Box', a Doctor Who novel by veteran author Kate Orman, begins and ends with a myth, or fairy tale, about a princess and a white bull. In a novel which is grounded in the reality of early-eighties computer hacking, this is a flash of something fantastical, something working on a different level completely. But it is only a flash - Orman doesn't allow these brief book-ending tellings and retellings of the tale of the bull and the princess to spread into the main narrative. And this narrative is focused on the story of the Doctor's hunt for the missing parts of an alien artefact and the attempts of an ace hacker to possess, and understand, these parts herself. The Doctor doesn't want human civilisation to be exposed to this alien technology, and so from this, the conflict evolves. Orman is good at drawing out the characters involved in the intricate online battles across America in the chase for the alien 'things': there is the Doctor, mysterious man from nowhere; Sarah Swan, ace hacker who has made an art of holding a grudge; Bob, the young computer whiz who finds himself involved in wild adventures with the Doctor and Peri. The secondary characters come to life, dialogue and motivation and personality all skilfully evoked. Equally, the descriptions of the old, now out-of-date technology are cleverly written, capturing the sense of progress at the time, while also, perhaps, gentle laughing at the excitement caused by this sense. (Or it may just be that some readers can't help but chuckle a little, no matter how earnest Orman is in her loving recreation of stone-age era hacking and cracking). This is a good book - it is better than many Doctor Who novels, for various reasons that would be apparent to any reader.
But for some reason 'Blue Box' falls flat, with the Doctor a particular problem. There are several possible reasons. One is the absence (perhaps intentional) of a tangible threat, a reason for all the anxiety and tension, a motivation for all the running around. At no point does Earth feel threatened, and Orman doesn't seem compelled to introduce a threat. 'Blue Box' entertains the reader, but doesn't really grip them in the way this sort of thriller normally would. In some respects, 'Blue Box' is marvellous. The narrative voice feels well developed, and is refreshing. Peri, the Doctor's companion, is written with such care and complexity that it puts all of Nicola Bryant's (the actress who first played Peri in the Doctor Who TV series) screen time into shadow. Sarah Swan, is a living, breathing person, like everyone else, rather than just another 'bad girl': her angry rages are some of the most real, exciting aspects of 'Blue Box', because the reader almost fears she'll lash out between the lines. But I never worried about what would happen if the Doctor failed. Doctor Who is about winning, succeeding, pulling through, against all odds; about good defeating bad, about saving lives, not losing them. When the Doctor wins, we cheer, and when we read about the Doctor, we want to know how he is going about winning. And it is on this level that 'Blue Box' fell flat. The Doctor is distant, detached, and this is either a symptom or a cause of the problem. Going about his business saving the world, telling people of the terrible potential for disaster contained in the artefact, the reader often feels like asking: "what are you saving the reader from?" or "what is this terrible potential for disaster?" Like Peri, I felt locked out of the Doctor's mind, and so locked out of the tension and anxiety experienced by Bob, the Doctor, Peri, and Swan.
Orman's latest novel is by no means a bad book. In fact, it is a very good book in many respects: the quality of writing (her descriptions of the US landscape are fascinating), characters (a small cast, but one of the best to grace a Doctor Who novel), and action (the hacking scenes are masterfully choreographed). There have been few foes as intriguing as Sarah Swan, and few moments as funny as the big revelation that the narrator, Chick, is in fact... Well, I won't spoil it. But for this reviewer, it never fully came to life.