BBC Books
Atom Bomb Blues

Author Andrew Cartmel Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 48635 X
Published 2005
Featuring The seventh Doctor and Ace

Synopsis: Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1945. The Second World War is coming to its bloody conclusion, and in the American desert the race is on to build an atomic bomb. The fate of the world is at stake in more ways than one. Someone, or something, is trying to alter the course of history at this most delicate point. And destroy the human race. Posing as a nuclear scientist with Ace as his research assistant, the Doctor plays detective among the Manhattan Project scientists, while desperately trying to avoid falling under suspicion himself. As the minutes tick away to the world's first atom bomb blast, the Doctor and Ace find themselves up to their necks in spies, aliens of the flying saucer variety, and some very nasty saboteurs from another dimension.


Where it all began... by Joe Ford 28/3/06

Matt Jones once said in DWM that Andrew Cartmel probably doesn't like Doctor Who very much and during the first two thirds of Atom Bomb Blues I was fairly certain he was setting out to prove it. What he had written was not recognisably Doctor Who in any fashion I accepted: it was slow, it had no aliens in it, it barely had any kind of threat to it and it seemed to consist of the Doctor and Ace meeting up with a bunch of really nice people and having a good time.

Sounds boring, doesn't it? But it represents (for me) the best writing Cartmel has ever produced for Doctor Who. Much like Lloyd Rose's evocative stroll around New Orleans, Cartmel vividly depicts New Mexico during wartime. I was so enraptured in the atmosphere of the place I scarcely noticed that the plot was a little on the thin side. The ghostly-quiet desert landscape, the scented terror of the pine forests, the dusty heat-stroked wilderness, this is a richly written book that takes you away from your home and plants you right into the heart of one the most important events in human history, the creation of the atom bomb.

Even better than that, what Andrew achieves with the seventh Doctor and Ace is nothing short of a minor miracle. We are once again getting better material for these two than when they had their own series; this follows in the footsteps of The Algebra of Ice for showing the overused pair in a fascinating new light. I know I keep repeating myself but I loathed New Ace in the New Adventures; the writers took everything that was fun and lovable about that emotional teen and created a novel-destroying freak. She was so angry and bitter and hated the Doctor that there was little point in her sticking around, except to remind people that the companions could have real attitude these days and stick one finger up at the audience. Even Cartmel wasn't immune; he wrote Ace with an astonishing sense of realism in Warhead and Warlock but piled on so much angst that she was lost in a teenage wet dream of emotional issues.

So hurrah then for Atom Bomb Blues that reminds us of a time when the Doctor and Ace got on really well, worked brilliantly as a team and had unique and likable personalities. I was a little confused at first that this actually was an Andrew Cartmel novel because the Doctor and Ace are in practically every scene and he is notorious for keeping the big man out of the action and acting all mysterious and God-like on the sidelines. They are such fun here, a genuinely blast to spend time with and their chemistry has never felt stronger. There are too many great moments to mention, but let's just say it features the best ever interrogation sequence in a Doctor Who story, with Ace loving every second of getting her own back on a nasty psychologist. Even better is the moment with the knife, a mirror to the scene in Battlefield where the Brigadier steps forward to do the work the Doctor can't. When Ace steps forward and brandishes the Doctor's knife for him and tells Silk she will "gut her like a fish" I was shocked at how well these two understand each other. I just love that Ace has been written with a sense of humour, none of this PC shit that has plagued her character for so long; we see her enjoying herself, laughing at herself and making friends at the drop of a hat. It's one of her best-ever portrayals simply because I would genuinely want to travel with her were she always like this, a statement I never thought I would make.

With the title Atom Bomb Blues and a blurb that mentions dangerous projects, spies and aliens, I feared the worst. Were we in for more rape, abortion and bestiality? No, and I think that Justin Richards is the perfect editor to tame Cartmel's work. It felt as though Cartmel was being kept more a leash this time; sure there were mentions of drugs, women are slaughtered and there are some sexual suggestions but nothing as adult or off-putting as his last three novels. Indeed there seems to be a greater sense of fun about his work here, unleashing a fantastic entertainer who can certainly spin an addictive yarn without resorting to cheap tricks. The last third of the book is probably the most Who-ish stuff Cartmel has ever written but it was great stuff, as though he finally "gets" how the series works and the plot all locks together to create a satisfying conclusion. Some people will no doubt be put off by Cartmel's more pleasurable, crowd-pleasing tone with this book, expecting the horror and nightmares of his previous work, but I found it an unexpected delight, the author proving he is capable of great versatility. He is a wickedly funny man too; some of his gags are laugh-out-loud funny.

His greatest achievement with Atom Bomb Blues is how clever the git pulls the wool over our eyes for so much of the novel. There is a revelation in the last third of the book, which completely turns the entire story on its head. I laughed with joy. Not only did it tie this book to quite a few others in recent times by sharing a familiar theme but it does so with real cheek and wit, probably the best exploration of the idea because it is so unexpected and imaginative. It was then when I realised how sneaky the guy had been, scattering obvious clues around the first half of the book and putting me off recognising them with his striking atmosphere and sedate pace. What a bastard.

There's another goldmine of characters here, all of which impressed me. Andrew always was an excellent character writer and here he populates his books with a guest cast who rival the regulars for importance and charm. Butcher was my favourite by a square mile, the self-deluding policeman who is continually foxed by the Doctor. His determination to catch the little dude out was hilarious and his delight as the Doctor praises his novels and tricks him into thinking an alien visitation is a drug-induced nightmare only serve to add more depth to this rounded character. Oppy and his wife are introduced quick and make a good impression but it was quite a shock how little impact they have on the main action. Cosmic Ray and Lady Silk are a great pair, ridiculous names leading into, surprisingly, much deeper characters, especially Ray whose obsession with his music leads to a pair of surprises that caught me totally by surprise. Passion can create results it seems and this is just another detail that helped to make the book more involving.

Some people might be put off by the unspectacular nature of the conclusion, the front cover seems to suggest that the bomb will blow up in somebody's face (oh my, I'm such a comedian...) but the end result is pretty quiet and underwhelming. What it does though is prove what a clever dick the Doctor is, plans within plans to ensure he gets the results he wants WITHOUT seeming like an all-knowing smart arse Time's Champion. I have never had much love for that little guy and for one book only Cartmel has turned him into my all-time favourite. He's a funny, Machiavellian, relaxed little sod who loves every second of his adventures with Ace. What a delight.

Delighted pretty much sums up my reaction to this book overall, it might not be to everyone's tastes but I found it to be extremely enjoyable. The mix of the setting and characters gives this a remarkable "you are there" feel and the prose seductively soothes you through the leisurely two thirds before whamming you in the gut with some great surprises at the end.

The ongoing Doctor Who book range ends as it began, with the Doctor and Ace. Andrew Cartmel should feel proud as he has written one of the most pleasurable Doctor Who books in years.

A Review by Finn Clark 20/4/06

It's lightweight bollocks, really. 'Twould be inconsequential under any byline, but it's particularly disappointing from the author of the War trilogy. Andrew Cartmel's previous novels were thoughtful, complicated and thematically rich, but this comes across as a just another runaround.

Oddly, however, I have sympathy for Andrew Cartmel. Admittedly no one forced him to come up with this story, but equally no one forced BBC Books to commission it. Let me quote the back cover blurb...

"Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1945. The Second World War is coming to its bloody conclusion, and in the American desert the race is on to build an atomic bomb. The fate of the world is at stake in more ways than one. Someone, or something, is trying to alter the course of history at this most delicate point. And destroy the human race. Posing as a nuclear scientist with Ace as his research assistant, the Doctor plays detective among the Manhattan Project scientists, while desperately trying to avoid falling under suspicion himself."
Where do I start? Firstly Los Alamos is boring. Atom Bomb Blues has strong similarities with Cartmel's War trilogy, but its setting lets it down. 1945 New Mexico never provides any suspense or danger. I've said before that there are stories you can't tell with the NAs' Dark Doctor and the main kind is this kind of low-key historical. Hell, this problem even dragged down Lance Parkin's Just War. The 7th Doctor at the height of his powers here so completely outclasses everyone else around him that he smothers the drama. Problems that could have troubled Hartnell are hardly worth consideration here. The War trilogy's edgy near-future setting was a huge factor in its success and it's rather sad how much Atom Bomb Blues suffers in comparison.

Secondly, there's all that history-changing bollocks. The book's mere presence in a line of alternate universes bled the drama out of that from the beginning, but it got a thousand times worse when alternate universes reared their ugly heads here too. I don't understand. Were BBC Books on a suicide mission? (Obviously the answer's yes, but we're approaching the point where one almost wonders if it was deliberate.) It's horrendous. Apart from anything else I didn't believe for a moment that the bad guys' plan would work. So they're going to destroy an entire universe... gee, isn't that just what the Doctor himself has done repeatedly in the novels since 1993, isn't it? Assuming that this will work (not a watertight assumption), then apparently there's to be some kind of ripple effect that will make a specific change to history throughout the rest of the multiverse. Admittedly even the Doctor has doubts about the efficacy of this scheme, but I was snorting in disbelief from the beginning.

Even the internal logic is weird. Why should everyone in 1945 New Mexico have a counterpart of the same age from a 21st century alternate universe?

I suppose there's the theoretical possibility that some people might find all that nuclear bomb stuff chilling. "But the world didn't blow up in 1945, did it?" could theoretically have been sinister, but there's a problem with it even without the "I don't care" factor of alternate universes. Are we supposed to be happy or sad that Hiroshima and Nagasaki got nuked? Ace clearly thinks it's a bad thing, since she "had seen a documentary on Hiroshima once at school and she hadn't been able to eat kebabs for nearly a year afterwards." Yes, well. Ahem. Personally I feel that Japan with its wartime atrocities was asking for it. Lots of people died, the war ended and everything returned to normal. Now ain't that a shame? I'd say that if you can't get an emotional reaction with this material from someone who's actually living in Japan (me), it's probably safe to say that you're not having the impact you think you are.

The problems don't end there. This is another "manipulative 7th Doctor" story, but filtered through the later BBC Books' Doctor-centric obsession. Cartmel's War trilogy kept the Doctor mostly out of sight and thus made him seem more powerful, but here he's bloody everywhere. Doctor, Doctor, Doctor. We hardly see the effect he has on anyone, because we're always gawping at him. This is doubly unfortunate since the Doctor and Ace get nothing interesting to do. This book is about a manipulative Dark Doctor up against no one worth manipulating, partnered with Ace the explosives-loving hooligan on her best behaviour. They're undercover. They're bland. Even the oft-abused Perry-Tucker PDAs had better story roles for these characters.

The historical period feels thin and not particularly interesting. I don't care about paranoid Americans. Even Cartmel's own The Good Soldiers (DWM 175-178) wrung more atmosphere from a similar setting. There's some ill-directed misogynism and some vaguely amusing characters, but the villains in particular are fun and no more. They're not menacing, scary or even noticeably competent. I was happy to read about them, but I wouldn't have been surprised to find a twist where Cartmel unveiled the book's real bad guys.

There's something strange on p214, though. A Japanese person with green eyes?

At its best, this book is merely diverting. Essentially it's what you'd expect from an alliance of Andrew Cartmel and the dying days of BBC Books. The former contributes a McCoy-and-Ace book structured like his NAs rather than a conventional adventure, while the publisher waves a hand vaguely in the air without encouraging the author to do anything too challenging. It's as if they've been listening to the wrong fan complaints. The Cole era got bashed for continuity and sidelining the Doctor, so the Richards era has prioritised that while not having a problem with alternate universes. In an odd way these days I'm actually more forgiving of Steve Cole, who was incompetent instead of deliberately choosing to publish stuff like this.

This book isn't worthless. I quite liked some of its characters, thin though they are. It's also not as far removed from the rest of Cartmel's work as it looks, once you've allowed for the problems inherent in the plot and setting. However its author is capable of much better.

Eight Out Of Ten by Jamas Enright 18/5/06

The Seventh Doctor has this problem of being considered a master manipulator, especially in the later seasons with Ace. What then of a Seventh Doctor and Ace story written by the supposed master of all dark master planners himself: Andrew Cartmel?

The simple answer is: a bloody great read! The setting is the lead up to the first atom bomb test at Los Alamos and we are treated to exciting physics breakthroughs and are led along intriguing mathematical pathways that... okay, no. (In fact, there is a lot of hand-waving and just saying 'equations happened' rather than try to present anything.) We do get to focus on a few people at the test site, and follow them as a plot is uncovered that could change the outcome of the first bomb and change the result of the war in a very permanent way.

I have no idea if the people are written as true to type, but Andrew Cartmel makes them interesting to read and that's all that matters. Rather than follow the well known figures, the author only has them come in for cameos (the big one being the party that starts the book off), then they are left largely to their own devices. This works, as we could get a telling of the trials of the first test (which would be interesting in its own right), but instead look at a subplot that weaves and plays off the main goings on, so it doesn't matter if you know this era of history well as that isn't the point.

However (and you knew there was going to be a 'however'), once again we get the 'alternative dimensions' card being played (it's mentioned on the back cover so I'm not spoiling anything here). Do we need alternative dimensions? What's so bad about the one we've got? And why is travel between dimensions now as hard as popping across the road? (And as for the plot points involving Zorg and the fish oil capsules... were they a major cop-out or what?)

But anyway, we have Andrew Cartmel writing the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and doesn't he do it well? Well... no. The Seventh Doctor was fine (dark and mysterious), but I couldn't quite work out how Cartmel envisioned Ace. 'Cosmic' Ray Morita was a lot of fun (great motivation there) and Major Butcher was all right although he did seem to be played as a lot of a mislead at times. The other characters were also nicely done, even the ones that weren't famous historical figures. (Although I do have to admit I enjoyed the cameo of Duke Ellington.)

The ending, though, was anticlimactic. You could spot what was going to happen some time before it happened, so it became largely a matter of waiting for everyone else to catch up. Cartmel tried to build the tension, but, for me, it was already undercut.

Basically, thumbs up for Atom Bomb Blues. Not a hundred percent perfect, but what is? An extremely recommendable read.