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Doctor Who: Reckless Engineering Paperback – 7 Apr 2003
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The history of the planet Earth has become splintered, each splinter vying to become the prime reality. But there can only be one true history. The Doctor has a plan to ensure that the correct version of history prevails - a plan that involves breaking every law of Time. But with the vortex itself on the brink of total collapse, what do mere laws matter? From the Bristol riots of 1831, to the ruins of the city in 2003, from a chance encounter between a frustrated poet and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to a plan to save the human race, the stakes are raised ever higher - until reality itself is threatened.
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We see the effects of Sabbath's interference in Time Zero, yet unlike in recent books the story isn't bogged down in excessive, convoluted arc details, thus giving us the best of both worlds. The arc is advanced, yet the book also has a very strong plot of its own. It's also interesting to see Fitz opposing the Doctor, which creates the intriguing argument of whether or not the Doctor has the right to place the lives of those living in the alternate reality under those living in 'our' world.
The final few chapters have a real sense of urgency, though perhaps there's a little too much technobabble. Overall, though, the book is one of the best EDAs in ages, and leaves the reader waiting in anticipation for the next installment in the arc.
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Several books into it now, it's become slightly less clear what exactly the problem is beyond the obvious "we're in a universe where everyone is wearing insect heads", what the stakes really are and if anyone is behind it, or if the Doctor is doing anything other than putting out fires as he goes along. Even good ol' bwah-ha-ha standby Sabbath gets only a token mention of this book and little else. So what the heck exactly are we doing here?
If we're the author, we're taking a jumbled mess of an arc and attempting to do our best with it, which to his credit he acquits himself well, or as well as can be expected. And if you think that's easy to simply coast on the good vibes this show gives us you can look as recently as, er, the last book in this series to see how the ball can be utterly dropped, as if down the side of an endless mountain.
Here, at least someone is trying. The Doctor and stalwart companions Fitz and Anji wind up in another parallel universe where civilization has utterly crashed. Some people are living in settlements, weird naked savages are running around and technology seems to have become frozen. Meanwhile a weird wispy poet is living in an impossible house which is so amazing that time can literally standstill for you. Impressively, it takes a while before the plot requires everyone to separate, which at least is somewhat a thumb in the eye to the shadow of predictability.
As it turns out, something called "The Cleansing" has occurred, which means that everyone aged like forty years in two seconds, which stinks if you're at all over, say, forty, and really stinks if you're five and suddenly learn what hemorrhoids are. As the Doctor investigates, Anji falls in with people who have exotic eating habits, Fitz has qualms of conscience about the morality of deleting parallel universes and the wispy poet composes absolutely no poetry at all (probably good if the author wasn't so hot at creating his own) but feels really bad about something.
The world itself is interesting and as the mysteries pile on top of mysteries that seems to be enough. Unlike the last few parallel earths, it brings the crew into uncharted territory and keeps them off balance, even if the scenario isn't anything we haven't seen on Earth-like worlds. So it's not totally original but its well-handled and the author handles the details of the new world quite well, unspooling the various surprises and shocks in a way that unveils the local color and keeps us reading. His prose is nicely precise as well, at least in parts, he has a way around a description, so well in fact that it's extremely noticeable in the scenes when he's coasting because those instances feel far plainer.
The book, however, wouldn't be able to sustain itself based on sightseeing and eventually we have to get to something resembling a plot. Unfortunately, this is where things start to fall apart. Not to any catastrophic degree but enough so that the flaws are obvious. For one, pretty much all the supporting characters exist to deliver exposition, not a one of them seems to break out of their initial character mold and while their insights are useful to understanding the world that the team finds themselves in, it doesn't exactly make me care a lick about either of them. The author does his best to give us that emotional angle through Fitz, who has some serious misgivings about replacing an entire world with their own, even if this world is wrecked, but with the world itself not having any grasp on our hearts, it becomes more a hypothetical issue than an actual one.
But at least Fitz gets a point of view to run with. Poor Anji mostly finds time to suffer and run around, if nothing else this book marginalizes her contributions to a somewhat ridiculous degree, almost writing her out for a chunk of it for dramatic purposes, even as Fitz seems to be starting to pine for her as more than friends (the series has danced around with a toe in the water about considering it, probably testing it to see how people would react, though its come up often enough now that I wonder if they're really going to go for it). The interactions between our main principals is entertaining on its own and makes me realize how much fondness the series has built in for me with these people, to the point where I would have loved to see a televised version of these people acting around shoddy sets. Alas, twas never to be.
In the meantime the author tries to make it all tie in with famed civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but since he's not that famous unless you're English or a student or architecture, he winds up being a guest star with no real import. I give the book credit for not going with one of the big historical names but his inclusion seems to mostly be about Walters proving how much research he did about his life. As the book starts to shed the mystery that kept it going initially, the plot can't quite pick up the slack, especially when parts of it seem liberally cribbed from Asmimov's "The Gods Themselves" and the solution winds up being so obvious in a "really, that's it?" kind of way you wonder how it took the Doctor two hundred and fifty pages to get around to it. The only scenes that come close to the strangeness I've come to love about the series is in the pocket dimension sections, where we get the eerie sense the rules may have floated away. But even then it barely lasts and except for a brief dream sequence with Anji that hints at the metaphorical symbolism the series can employ when it gets half a mind, we're back into standard, if capable written, territory again. It makes the whole affair seem fairly rote, as if the scenario was conceived and they wrote half a plot around it, with no real sense of urgency other than trying not to get killed. Even all the hand-wringing about slaughtering a parallel universe, even in the abstract, seems to fade away as Fitz has to readjust to being himself again.
It's more readable and entertaining than it has any right to be, but you alternate passages of fascinating situations with ones that feel completely by the numbers, giving you at best an average experience. It's not the complete misfire the last book was (thank goodness) and shows the hand of an actual adult behind the wheel, but the truth is the bones of this arc aren't clearing the heights this series was able to for a brief moment. But maybe it'll wrap up nicely eventually.
I found much to enjoy in RECKLESS ENGINEERING, but character development was not one of those pleasures. I wouldn't have minded so much (I'm perfectly capable of appreciating a plot-intensive story which exists at the expense of character), except that the book kept making half-assed efforts at injecting life into these people. There's a bizarre love-triangle subplot handled so clumsily that I wondered why the author bothered including it. The supporting characters are uniformly bland, with the sole exception of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. IKB is, of course, a historical figure, although one which I don't know a lot about, so I'm unsure how faithful this portrayal is. However, he works well here; the grumpy engineer is exactly what the story needed.
Despite not caring much for the characters, I found myself racing through the book's second half much faster than I expected. The reason for this was that I was completely engrossed in the plot and shot through it intent on finding out what was coming next. The TARDIS crew has landed in an alternative, post-apocalyptic 21st century, where the last remains of humanity have been slowly rebuilding their world for the past hundred and sixty years. There's a lone mansion that seems to hold the key to the mystery of how history became corrupted, and there's apparent alien influence in that situation. There's a hell of a lot going on, and while it's generally presented very well, I felt the ending was a bit short. Careful reading and going back to reread earlier passages suggested to me that everything necessary was actually there, it was just a bit rushed. It could have benefited from an extra ten or so pages, hopefully without unduly disturbing the pacing.
Another thing I enjoyed was the fact that we are not shying away from the consequences of the Doctor's actions. Putting the timeline (or space-time continuum or whatever it is) back to its proper state means having to wipe out these alternatives that are springing up. Remember how this was hand-waved in the final few pages of BLOOD HEAT, way back in the New Adventure days? Thankfully, we are getting a little more discussion concerning these side effects of the alternative universe arc than we did the last time. Walters puts the argument in favor of fixing the universe in the mouth of the Doctor (as it should be), while leaving the "what about...?" and "doesn't that mean...?" questions for Fitz to ask. This arrangement seems to work quite well. The audience realizes that the Doctor may be ultimately correct in his assessment, but that doesn't stop us from thinking the same questions that occur to Fitz, and it's only right that the book should address them in this way. I quite like how Walters handled this.
There are some wonderful descriptive passages detailing how Bristol has changed in this alternative timeline. Walters wipes out a huge percentage of the world's population in the 19th Century, and then flashes forward to the 21st to see what the world would look like after that amount of time had passed. He spends a lot of time mapping out this universe, describing what the population has become and how the physical world has decayed. And he balances out these lovingly written pieces of very effective prose with violent scenes that are almost cartoonish in their banality. I think this strange counterpoint sums up my opinion of the book as a whole: stunningly great in some places, but truly painful in others.
I liked Nick Walter's prose style, something I don't remember being particularly tickled by in his previous books. I was taken by his ability to create a genuinely oppressive and depressive atmosphere, and then to momentarily break the mood with a clever joke. Not to give away any punch lines, but I loved the bit near the end about the poet who isn't famous.
Despite some fairly serious problems, I did ultimately enjoy RECKLESS ENGINEERING. The pacing is just right. We leave events just before they can become tedious. For example, the storyline concerning the settlements is relegated to the sidelines in the book's second half (prior to it become stale) and the plot then becomes a series of time-travel hops. Since so much of the book's successes revolve around its plot, I wonder if I'll care for it as much the second time I read it when I'll already know how things unfold. Perhaps it won't be a book with much longevity, but it's a bit too soon for me to make that judgment. On my first reading though, I thought it was a pretty decent book.
It has a very dark side to it as well, and when the book ends, I couldn't help but feel a bit depressed. While I will not give the ending away here, I will say that Fitz learns a bit about the Doctor that he wishes he didn't, and the possibility of more unhappiness in future novels seems to loom ahead.
Though I came away from this book a touch saddened, I feel that the better qualities of this installment made up for it. Four out of five stars in all, that last star simply for the great plotline.
I didn't care so much for the setting: 19th century Bristol, but I'm eager to read more Doctor Who books.