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A sub-par effort from one of Who's best novelists
on 2 July 2004
Kate Orman is one of the premiere Doctor Who writers today, along with Lance Parkin. When I pick up a book with her name on it, especially a Doctor Who book, I know it's going to be special. She can adapt her style to whatever story she wants to tell. However, she's always written for the "new" Doctor, never a Past Doctor. So when I heard that she was writing a Sixth Doctor book, I was intrigued. When I was finally able to get it, I snapped it up. Blue Box demonstrates once again that Orman has a way with characterization that makes the author-wannabe in me cry. She's captured the regulars almost to a T. The problem is that the book...well, it's a bit dull, actually.
No sooner do the Doctor and Peri land in Washington DC in 1981, then the Doctor just disappears. Peri searches for a while, and then goes to a hotel room to wait for him (thankfully, the Doctor has a seemingly infinite line of credit, something I'm very envious of). When the Doctor finally gets ahold of her, he asks her to track down Bob Salmon, a computer hacker who helped him out. Together with an intrepid computer reporter, the Doctor and friends are trying to track down pieces of a valuable artifact, an alien device that could spell the world's doom if it falls into the wrong hands, hands like those of Sarah Swan. Swan is the ultimate hacker, not caring about world domination, but instead craving the power that computers will have over everybody. To Swan, this will be the ultimate computer, and will allow her to do anything she wants. That's not something the Doctor can allow. Blue Box is the story of the history of computers and hacking, and what one woman almost did to bring it all under one thumb.
Techno-thrillers are all the rage right now, but most of them are on the cutting edge, with fancy gadgets and computer power that makes something the size of a fingernail be able to run the world's computers. Blue Box isn't like that, though. It's the dawn of the computer age and the Internet, when only 200 computers were on the Net. The Doctor and Salmon do their hacking on an Apple II, for goodness sake! Orman has all the lingo down pat, pointing out how bulky the computers are, how slow they were. One of the benefits of setting the book in the past is that you can have the characters make a lot of "predictions" and you get to choose how far off-base they are. Orman seems to have a blast with this, with Salmon talking about how one day people will be ordering pizza online, and how you can't have the general public on the Net or it will go completely down the tubes.
Orman's characterizations are wonderful, especially the Doctor and Peri's. Peri's having a crisis of conscience, wondering what her place with the Doctor really is. She's completely out of her element in this environment, not knowing anything about computers. It gets incredibly boring watching him hack away at the keyboard, and she jumps at any chance to actually do something. The book seems to take place right at the junction between the two television seasons that featured Peri, as they still bicker like a married couple but it's not as harsh as it was in their first season together. The second season seemed to have wiped most of it away, which was too abrupt a change. Here, they have their tiffs but you can see the underlying friendship beneath the whole thing.
There are two major problems with the book, though. The first is the dullness. There's only so much excitement to be had out of people talking to each other on computers, threatening each other on computers, and breaking into people's computers. Orman tries to put some action into it, and there is the usual exciting climax, but much of the book consists of somebody typing away at somebody else. This can be effecting in character studies or books about relationships, but in a Doctor Who book it just falls flat. Orman tries gamely with the characterizations, but I had to plow through the boring parts to get to the good ones.
One other major problem is something I have never seen from Orman before, and that's sloppiness. The book is told as if it's an expose by a journalist. Yet there are scenes that there is no way the narrator could have seen. Perhaps some of it is "fictionalized," but even if that's the case, there are some perspective changes that don't match the style. When Swan is cursing the reporter out in her mind on page 254, he keeps referring to himself in the third person. It was quite strange. Even worse then this, though, is the sloppiness as far as where people are in relation to the story. There's one sequence where the Doctor's supposed to be alone, and we know where Peri and Bob are (back at the reporter's apartment). Yet it then says "Behind the Doctor, Peri and Bob were wincing." While I can't place any other specific incidents of this, I did get that feeling a couple of other times as well. It's almost like she wasn't quite paying attention, or perhaps something changed and she forgot to go back and erase all of the tracks.
The characterizations are what bring this book up to the level that I'm putting it. If they weren't spot-on, this would easily be a 3-star book. Because of them, however, I'm bumping it up to four. It's still one of the weakest books I've seen from Orman, though. Here's hoping her next one will be up to her usual level.