The Scarlet Empress
|Authors|| Jonathan Blum
|ISBN||0 563 55576 9|
|Synopsis: The laws of physics in San Francisco have become warped and strange. The Doctor and Sam find their pasts catching up with them as time runs out for the city.|
A Review by Finn Clark 18/6/99
There's no delicate way of saying this, so I'm just going to come straight out with it. In my opinion, Unnatural History is pretty poor.
Believe me, I take no pleasure in saying this. Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman were once the mainstays of the 8DAs, never less than solid and dependable. Vampire Science is in its own way almost perfect. Seeing I is a magnificent failure, flawed in major ways but still a wonderful, complex story that deserves its poll-topping positions.
So what went wrong this time? We'll start with the story.
There are several interesting ideas at the heart of this book. Unfortunately most of them have been borrowed from other 8DAs and extrapolated in a rather plodding, lacklustre way. We're on Lawrence Miles territory, but without his flashiness. Lawrence dazzled you with his ideas, but Blum and Orman grind through them ponderously, reminding one of an earnestly dim child unsuccessfully trying to be cool. There are some horrible wodges of exposition at the beginning of the story that read as comfortably as a ball and chain round the ankles. It's the literary equivalent of a wodge of lard.
Certain persons return, but don't really contribute to the plot. We'd have been better off without them. The Doctor acquires a mysterious friend who knows all about him but never reveals his own identity. Am I supposed to be intrigued because I don't know his real name? Reader interest plummets, but that's only the beginning.
We meet Dark Sam... AND SHE'S DULL! Where's the nastiness? There's no bloody edge to her! This is absolutely typical of Unnatural History, picking up intriguing plot threads from previous 8DAs and watching them turn to mud under the authors' relentlessly earnest mistreatment. This character should have been absolutely electrifying, but instead she just comes across as a rather bland Sam substitute with one or two unhealthy habits. Something has gone very wrong when Dark Sam proves less interesting than the standard version.
These are just some of many story elements that don't live up to their potential. This book isn't terrible, but it should have been so much better.
What else is there to say? Well, Lawrence Miles isn't the only author whose work is reflected here. The Scarlet Empress also springs to mind, reading about magical creatures on the streets of San Francisco, mainly because one can't help reflecting that Paul Magrs did it so much better. Whether describing amazing ideas or fantastic imagery, the writing of Unnatural History has all the poetry of lead piping.
Blum and Orman write solid SF prose that isn't any good at painting fantastic pictures in the reader's mind. Where's the beauty? Where's the wonder? Everything is mundane and determinedly prosaic.
Unnatural History has strayed into the genre of magic realism, but its authors seem to fail to realise this. Jon Blum has said on the newsgroup that he opposes genre distinctions and reckons they're generally used by people wanting to define what they don't like. I guess I shouldn't be so surprised by what's gone wrong with Unnatural History, then.
Such genre confusion has further ramifications. It's written like SF adventure, but unfortunately the plot is slack. For ages, no one seems to do anything. The bad guys are rather low-key. Events drift without urgency, as if a mass of ideas can make up for lacklustre plotting. The book's basic scenario is wonderful, but the authors never make full use of its potential.
And there's more...
What the hell is the point of mentioning Dellah? Why allude to Benny? When authors make pointless references to the Voord or the Terrible Zodin, that's just the same and known as fanwank. It's gratuitous, bloody distracting and got on my tits. Of course, your mileage may vary.
Then there's the Doctor. I've praised the Orman-Blum eighth Doctor in the past and I'm apparently about to eat my words; perhaps I've changed, or perhaps the writing has. However I feel distinctly uneasy about the Doctor as portrayed in Unnatural History.
To use an acting term, he doesn't have enough "weight". Most of the time he's the feather-brained halfwit we've seen too often in the 8DAs. I can see where the authors are coming from, but the Congenital Idiot just seems far too lightweight to be an accurate portrayal of Paul McGann's Doctor. Even when darting off at silly tangents, McGann still made his character compelling. The Doctor of the TVM never came over as inconsequential.
At times, this Doctor seems like Basil Fawlty with less intelligence and gravitas. You'll see what I mean...
Of course the eighth Doctor also had his dark side in the TVM. Blum and Orman are aware of this and give him more impressive moments... but there's nothing even half as compelling as the opening of Vampire Science. It's as if the authors don't feel they need to put any effort into portraying Paul McGann's scary side, just blandly describing what he says and does. It's not bad and I quite liked it in the end, but I also feel it could have been much stronger.
There are positive things about this book. Some of the ideas and explanations are ingenious. There's a theme in which the authors lambast certain fannish views of the Doctor, Sam and the Whoniverse, which is interesting and vaguely annoying in roughly equal measure. I've just spent a while trying to decide why and I think it's because I felt patronised. This book spends a great deal of time putting the case against an argument that to me is fatuous. Perhaps other people believe this guff, but my intelligence is feeling a little insulted.
I don't know. Maybe Unnatural History just rubbed me up the wrong way. It's still a far more intelligent and worthwhile book than, say, Placebo Effect or Janus Conjunction. However I always try to judge a book by its own lights and on many levels this one fails.
Wow. This book is so much better out of context.
In 1999 we'd come fresh from Alien Bodies and The Scarlet Empress. We were still posting in the rec.arts.drwho threads that inspired Unnatural History, such as the endless continuity arguments or Michael J. Montoure's "Heretical Theory of Regeneration" (aka. the most mind-blowing online fan theory ever conceived; check it out via Google from 19 May 1998). Years later these things sleep in our mind and we forget, which really helps when rereading Unnatural History. It seems almost original.
You see, these are good ideas. It doesn't matter any more that other people did them before, and better. We know that Griffin is a patronising swipe at online monomaniacs, but these days that's water under the bridge and he's no longer irritating. I actually thought he was fun (and he gets a fantastic entrance).
Similarly I no longer minded the approximate stabs at magic realism. With The Scarlet Empress firmly in the past, the book no longer invited comparison and its bestiary just came across as a gaggle of monsters in San Francisco. There's still no sense of wonder, mind you. It's all explained. They're aliens, higher-dimensional things or whatever. They sweat and swear and call themselves tourists. It doesn't make much difference to the story, so you just accept them and get on with the book. And in fairness, at least the grey men were interesting aliens.
Faction Paradox seemed a bit off, but one can excuse much by arguing that they'd want people to hold luridly distorted perceptions of 'em. The exposition on p53 isn't objective truth, but merely what the Doctor believes. And of course it's the whole point of their appearance here to point out that their outlook is a bit childish, so making their representative a sniggering brat is perfectly in order.
Oh, and there's Professor Daniel Joyce. He felt weird. Presumably he was the OrmanBlum's attempt to create an ongoing character with a bit of mystery ("but that trick worked for Lawrence!") but unfortunately the guy's so boring that no one ever brought him back. He's a bystander, basically. We're given no reason to want to know more about him, unless you're a victim of the Unnaturalist fan urge to nail down and categorise for its own sake. Reread today Joyce feels like the opposite of a continuity reference, some kind of private joke that's stumbled into the narrative and somehow managed not to be excised in the rewrites.
(Taking of Planet 5 made me wonder if its hermit at the end was meant to be Joyce, but the physical description is wrong and he could just as easily be Control.)
The plot is a meagre thing, of course. Who's the villain? Everyone just sort of wanders through; the Unnaturalist does his thing and the Faction kid waves at the camera and says "hi mom!". At the end of the day, the real menace is a hole in the air and a giant calamari. In 1999, it came across as the novels' equivalent of those Daleks vs. Cyberman fanfics ("let's bring back the Faction, kewl!") but today it just seems like a relaxed character-based runaround with some nice writing and little urgency.
Which brings us to the TARDIS crew.
Fitz is pretty much his usual self. We're told that he's no longer the man we met in The Taint, but frankly he isn't one iota different from the Fitz who's adventuring with Anji. Random observations: apparently he can't read Chinese ("not properly": p73), and for some reason he's taken to saying "oh shag". This is possibly the single dumbest thing in any Kate Orman novel.
The Doctor is fine. He's not fantastic (as in Vampire Science) or pushed out of the box (as in Seeing I)... but he's competent, mostly intelligent and a significant character in the book. Given what was on offer in the 8DAs' early days, we should probably be thankful for that. He only looks like an idiot on p48, and of course there's another hint that he's Grandfather Paradox. Mad Larry thought he definitely wasn't. Steve Cole and Peter Anghelides had other ideas, and so we have a little unintentional foreshadowing.
And then there's Dark Sam. On the one hand, she's the novel's most important character and the vehicle for some of its wildest ideas and speculations. However on the downside she's basically Sam-lite with an identity crisis and dark hair. We're told repeatedly that she does drugs ("I do drugs, and did I mention I do drugs?") but this never really goes anywhere, except for a few alt-universe pages in a hotel bedroom. She gets so much screen time that eventually she can't help but become a strong character, but frankly I preferred the regular version. Blonde Sam's character had edges... accidental ones that were the opposite of what had been intended, but one could still have gone places with them. Maybe in twenty years' time we'll see the next generation of fans doing a Mel with Sam Jones? Fitz has a great line ("so bloody understanding") about his relationship with Blonde Sam, but the brunette version didn't even have that.
(We also get multiple speculations about how Blonde Sam first came into existence. I counted four, none of 'em nailed down, but for the last word consult Interference.)
Random observations: the death of the Volkswagen Beetle! Yay! There's also an unfortunate line on p137, in which a character from November 2002 thinks Lord of the Rings means Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated movie. Presumably Peter Jackson never existed in the Whoniverse, or perhaps Mad Dogs and Englishmen did strange things to Tolkein's timelines.
It's often said that only fans can fully appreciate certain Doctor Who books, but this is one of those rare instances where we should envy the non-fan. However putting it aside for four years has a similar effect. Unnatural History made some huge mistakes, but with hindsight one can put them in perspective and see a stylish, earnest, well-intentioned Doctor Who novel that's a cut above much of what was being published around it. I now think I prefer it to much of Kate's solo output, for a start. A pleasant surprise.
A Review by Dr. Terry Evil 24/7/99
Expectations weren't high for Unnatural History. The news that Jon Blum and Kate Orman had set another book in San Francisco lent a certain sense of weariness of their obsession with the TVM, whilst the generally poor reviews suggesting that Jon and Kate were remaking Doctor Who in their image did nothing to encourage reading. But it's usually the case that poor expectations lead to great rewards.
Unnatural History concerns events in San Francisco after the TVM. Quel surprise. Apparently, the Doctor's regeneration triggered off loads of fantastical gubbins which has taken him two years to notice. Meanwhile, San Francisco is being visited by all sorts of weird and peculiar wonders, from the unicorn muggers in the alleys to the rather large squid lurking in the bay and seemingly going unnoticed by any US sonar tracking stations. The fact that this last point is passed off without explanation is a feature of Unnatural History, as its authors, for the most part, dispense with explanations of the fantastical and just get on with showing you the things themselves; a good thing.
But that doesn't stop the OrmanBlum putting the most absurd and ridiculous expositional technobabble in the Doctor's mouth. For a novel which sets out from the rationale ‘if it happens, it happens - deal with it’, it is almost embarrassing the amount of incoherent guff the Doctor is required to come out with, even after Sam asks him not to do it on page eight. ‘Once the epistopic interfaces of the space-time continuum are properly alligned,’ he says at one point. ‘Regeneration is the moment when our biodata is rewoven in the fabric of space-time’, he says a few pages later. One can't help feeling that if this was an episode of the TV series, Paul McGann would read all these deftless snatches of dialogue, choke on his coffee and demand some rewrites. The reason why the OrmanBlum do this, one can easily suppose, is because the TVM script does that a lot - and that is their bible, despite being written by the equivalent of a 13 year old with a science thesaurus. It’s puzzling why the OrmanBlum continue to worship so much at the altar of the TVM, because their writing is usually so much better than Matthew Jacobs'. It's kind of like Beethoven having a brainstorm and wanting to write music in the style of Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
But what comes out of the Doctor's mouth aside, there is much to enjoy here. Orman and Blum can create characters which it is actually a pleasure to read about, rather than being mere plot functions on legs. In Unnatural History, they go to town on this aspect, creating myriad bad guys whose motives are gradually and pleasingly revealed. There is a feeling that the plot moves along because the writers realise that it would be pleasurable for the readers to do so. They've also created a version of Sam who is actually believable; a miracle in itself.
Unnatural History confounded the expectations I had of it. Tarred with the dreaded brush of self-indulgence - because of its prose seemingly taken from the pages of radw, although there is the odd cringe-inducing bout of soap boxing - it is thankfully revealed to be more than that; an enjoyably complex story about categorisations and assumptions. Unnatural History deserves to be enjoyed for what it is; a book from talented writers at the peak of their powers.
A Review by Dominick Cericola 16/5/00
Here it is, gang, my much-anticipated review of Unnatural History. Let me go on record as saying I am an ardent admirerer of Orman's stories -- the way she can work humor into an otherwise heavy, borderline-angst-laden adventure and make it work. I also happen to like Blum's light, often child-like approach to Who he offers. Together, their efforts soared to all new heights with Vampire Science. What happened in the two years since then???
Now, don't get me wrong, I liked the book; I just didn't feel it was as good as it should have been. At times, it seemed as if Orman were going in one direction, Blum in the other, hoping the two would meet, the ideas meshing together. Unfortunately, someone forgot to bring the Map along..!
For me, one of the major flaws of the story was the constant switching of the two themes: light and dark. One moment, it's humorous, almost a 4th Doctor air about it, then it jumps tracks, becoming a gloom 'n' doom, angst-laden tale!
Another disappointment for me was the depiction of the Faction Paradox. Since first learning of their existence in Lawrence Miles' Alien Bodies, I've always found them to be one of the most intriguing, kinda creepy/scary creations in the BBC's EDAs. Yet, here, they came off as.. I dunno .. goofy, less of a threat. Their sense of organization and conviction just didn't seem to be there. I hope this isn't the future of the Faction, for if it is, then they may as well fade away in a puff of Logic, for they will have outlived their usefulness.
And, finally, the biggest disappointment I found was the "deus ex machina" ending, wrapping the finale up in a way that seemed like: "Well..um.. How do we stop this anyway?" Even the Kate Orman written NA, Return of the Living Dad, often at the center of harsher criticism (No, not by me!), had a better conclusion. If I didn't know better, I would swear that Kate and Jon were victims of an overzealous BBC Books editor!
Now, don't get me wrong -- For, if I truly hated this book, I wouldn't have finished reading it. There were many scenes for me that were quite precious, etched into my subconscious in a way that only Kate and Jon could do it. The scene that comes to mind at the moment was when Dark Sam begins to question herself, as she realizes she is changing, warming to The Doctor and his alien ways, wishing she could join him in his travels.
Wait, there is one other positive point I would like to raise.. Many of the complaints I had heard prior to reading UH was the depiction of Dark Sam. Many felt that she wasn't.. well.. dark enough. Even after finishing it, I am still trying to figure that one out: "..not dark enough..". So, does that mean the fans were looking for a more of a Mortimore-esque bloodbath during The 8th Doctor and Dark Sam's meeting, maybe even have her take a bath in the blood?
I'm sorry, but I think that was one of the most unfair, poorly-constructed complaints. Through all the interludes and dream sequences we were granted, leading up to this novel, I think the pay-off was there. No where in any of the visions were we made to feel as if DS were a bloodthirsty killer/bitch extraordinaire/[use-your-own-term!]. As I saw it, she was meant to represent a flipside to the Sam Jones we knew, a "soiled representation" if you will. If any of us were led to believe she would be something more villainous than we have naught to blame other than our over-active Collective Unconsciousness...
So, in closing, it all comes down to one thought: Should you buy the book? Yes, by all means -- despite all its flaws, it is still worth of being considered Canonical. And, throughout out are subtle (and in some cases not-so-subtle) nods to events that happened in Virgin's NA novels. So, for that alone, it is for me most Who-like.. :)
Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing by Graeme Burk 3/9/00
Let's not mince words. Unnatural History was one of the worst Eighth Doctor Adventures of 1999, if not one of the worst novels of the range.
It's not that Unnatural History is a particularly badly written novel. In fact quite the contrary, there are flashes of genius that remind you you're dealing with the authors of Seeing I and Set Piece. But it's a hugely self-indulgent novel. And a not terribly original one either.
Let's deal with the last charge first. Much of what propels Unnatural History along is equal amounts of Alien Bodies (namely Faction Paradox, Dark Sam, the Doctor's history and biodata) and The Scarlet Empress (magic and magic realism). All well and good if you had the sense that Orman and Blum were putting an original take on things. But they don't -- they just hope that by using others concepts we won't notice that they're just pale reproductions of others' work. There's no adroitness in how they handle these concepts. In Alien Bodies, Faction Paradox were creepy and a bit strange and represented by a very creepy woman; here they're shrill and two-dimensional and represented by some kid that makes Beavis and Butthead seem like Mozart. Their use of magic seems to just be throwing in unicorns and Mandelbrot sets and some technobabble (magicbabble?) and screaming "Gee look, magic!". It's like they put the best elements of Paul Magrs and Lawrence Miles in a blender on "puree" -- the literary equivalent of making baby food.
And when they do a somewhat original take, they make serious missteps in doing so. The creation of Dark Sam is a case in point. She seems to be in equal measure points-scoring against critics of Sam (this writer included) and an attempt to 'flip the bird' at readers. The version we saw in Alien Bodies was the result of Sam not meeting the Doctor and becoming a junkie at the hands of the yobs in The Eight Doctors. Now she's an excuse for the writers of the range to wash their hands of Sam altogether. Claiming that the Doctor's biodata made her the bland, self-righteous companion we've been inflicted with for the past two years (and claiming that this Sam is actually the real one) is a bitter pill to swallow indeed, and it doesn't play fair with readers who have had to put up with creating, recreating and reconstructing the character for over two years.
The novel is hugely self-indulgent. Fitz surrenders any characterisation so that he can be scrunched into Orman and Blum's traditional tactic of pairing up any male and female companion and getting them to shag. It's even more contrived as the romance between Roz and Chris in Return of the Living Dad. (We should thank Pythia the authors never wrote a Fitz/Compassion novel!) The Doctor gets a back rub (and gets called a back rub slut -- an unnecessary vulgarism which should have been cut ages before the final draft). We're back into the same territory as Vampire Science and Return of the Living Dad, with cute, fluffy and erotic scenes being written seemingly for emotional kicks.
But even that doesn't answer why I feel it's a self indulgent novel. Mostly it's the need on the authors part to use the novel as a bully pulpit to answer rec.arts.drwho threads on canonicity and continuity. So we get a villain who is obsessed with the Doctor's continuity and seeks to make it completely internally consistent, only to find out that the Doctor is too big and too mysterious to be catalogued in such an ordinary way. As Daffy Duck would say in deadpan, hardee-har-har.
I object to novels being made as polemics to answer critics on something as parochial as an internet newsgroup. Not only does it seem like bad form, it makes for boring novels. My feeling after reading Unnatural History was one of incredible ennui. I'm simply not interested in books and books of trying to deconstruct the Doctor's history -- even, as was the case of Unnatural History, if the point was to say it can't be deconstructed!
In many ways, deconstructing Doctor Who has been done since the NAs (actually, you could argue that Cartmel was dabbling a bit with it in the TV series, viz. Remembrance of the Daleks or Curse of Fenric). I must say that I prefer the method of deconstruction used in, say, Human Nature, than what was used in Unnatural History. Perhaps this is because NAs like Human Nature or Love and War or even The Also People tried to explore what made the Doctor tick as a character, whereas the the recent BBC story arcs are to obsess over the Doctor's history (even if they decide that the Doctor is best left a multiple choice question). The former is a more interesting, and I would argue a more rewarding, pursuit because the Doctor has been the centre of attention of the series since the mid-sixties; the series hardly ever stopped to ponder the character's origins for more than a few minutes. Even the TV movie -- arguably the biggest source of information on the Doctor's past on television anyway -- relegated it to a few throwaway lines.
Curse of the Fatal Death writer Steven Moffat once said of the various aborted American TV scripts obsession with the Doctor's origins and Gallifrey, "There's too much fascination with the wardrobe and not enough with Narnia". Reading Unnatural History led me to wonder BBC authors would do in similar branches of litertature -- a gritty deconstruction of Aslan? A cynical dismantling of Santa Claus? An examination of Sherlock Holmes' confusing biodata? (Could Holmes be the reason why Watson's history is so contradictory?) All these provide a fascinating puzzle for intellectual exploration, but we also lose something central and I would even dare say magical by dwelling so much on it. Character deconstruction of this sort is a terribly adult game. Doctor Who is first and foremost a children's hero.
I came out of reading Unnatural History feeling that Douglas Adams and Graham Williams had done a far more concise job in the last minute of City of Death. The Doctor answers Duggan's question of where the Doctor and Romana are from by explaining that the best way of understanding where one has been is to find out where they are going. Duggan asks them where they are going. The Doctor responds, "I have no idea".
For me, that's sublime. So many pages of leaden, self-indulgent prechiness to come up with the same conclusion seems ridiculous.
A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 18/8/01
There are a lot of things going on in Unnatural History. The good news is that the great majority are wonderfully intriguing, appealing and well written. The bad news is that because there are so many, they come across at times as being superficial and not fully developed. This is indeed very frustrating although the overall effect isn't enough to take away from the book as a whole.
First of all, we finally get to meet the oft-hinted-at Dark Sam. While the regular (blonde) Sam Jones is a squeaky clean (and at times dead boring) defender of causes, the Dark Sam is an altered version who has had thoughts and experiences that the original would never have dreamed of. Unfortunately, not much of this seems to affect her, and the Dark Sam is soon blindly trusting the Doctor and being innocuous in exactly the same way that she would have normally. She smokes, drinks and has done drugs in the past, but her character isn't significantly different - she still speaks and acts in the same manner. I had to keep reminding myself that this was supposed to be a changed person.
Now I realize that one of the themes of the book is that the past is not as important to the present and the future as the present itself is. I get the impression that Dark Sam was deliberately made inoffensive to re-enforce this philosophy; Dark Sam can have a different and more dangerous, gritty past than Blonde Sam, yet she still is, at her core, the same person. This may indeed be an interesting train of argument (and it definitely works well in the confines of this story) but extending the theme into the Dark Sam subplot didn't seem to work as well. In fact, it took me almost the first hundred pages or so to figure out what they were doing with her. And coincidentally it was around the point at which I realized this that they started bringing some of the darker aspects into the foreground. Although this did begin to distinguish her from the Blonde Sam it didn't seem to quite do enough, though I realize that this was probably the point.
That said, I thought the rest of the story was quite enjoyable. There are some wonderfully written sequences that are a joy to read. The "Wild Hunt" effect when Sam's mind would react to her past being re-written was executed tremendous well. This section highlighted the things that I enjoy the most in Ormanblum books; it's slightly surreal, it's full of wonderful imagery and it's true to the character going through the experience. I thought that there was only a single piece of wasted potential and that was that we only saw the occurrence through Sam's eyes. Since it was a slightly hallucinogenic experience I would have been interested to see Fitz and the Doctor's reaction to going through the same phenomenon and how it compared to Sam's. But this is only a minor quibble and did not detract from my enjoyment of the sequences.
Unlike some of their previous books, there are not very many secondary characters in the story. Instead it focuses on the three regulars (well, two regulars and one altered) and gives more attention over to the plot. The only downside to this is that there seems to be too much going on to fully justify the inclusion of everything
Despite some imperfections this is a story worth reading and is the best book in the Doctor Who range since The Face-Eater.
An Underappreciated Classic by Sean Daugherty 7/9/01
All right, let us be clear on one thing: Unnatural History is not a popular book. The amount of vitriol directed at this book is, frankly, startling. It is dull, condescending, cynical, and self-indulgent, according to a staggering number of people. Its authors, formerly considered gods of the range, are attacked for their obsession with the TV movie, and their use of the book as a political soapbox.
However, having reread the book for the second time, I still do not understand precisely why. Maybe its Ms. Orman and Mr. Blum's opinions that put people off this book before they even read it. Moreover, they are rather blunt about it, to be sure. They play about mischeviously with the concept of continuity, as well as with our perceptions of what a Doctor Who story is supposed to be. Perhaps they are a little too confrontational in their approach. Lawrence Miles's books, even the oft-praised Alien Bodies, has a laundry list of complaints about Doctor Who and its format. So does Unnatural History, but its complaints are leveled perhaps a tad too close to him, and the character of Griffin may seem a bit too close to home for some fans.
On the other hand, maybe I am completely wrong here, and am truly in the minority. But one thing is clear to me: far from being "one of the worst Eighth Doctor Adventures of 1999, if not one of the worst novels of the range", this book is quite possibly the highlight of the entire run of BBC books. Its ideas are as intriguing as any of Lawrence Miles's, and it is, frankly, impossible to put down.
The skill of the authors in setting a scene has never been more apparent. A familiar, yet vastly different, San Francisco comes alive in the mind of the reader. An evocative and strangely beautiful backdrop, with the extraordinary mingling calmly with the everyday. Ms. Orman and Mr. Blum have a mastery of descriptive prose unmatched by any other writer in the range, and its never been more obvious than in this book. If ever a novel deserved screen treatment, this is it.
Then there are the characters. It was not at all unusual at this point in the history of the range for Sam to take on a role as the eyes of the reader. This is how we were treated to War of the Daleks, vast chunks of Alien Bodies, and a good deal of Kate Orman and Jon Blum's two earlier books, Vampire Science and Seeing I. The problem with this, of course, is that even in the hands of the most capable of writers, Sam just was not very interesting. She was ill defined, and seemed to touch a common nerve on just about everyone. Two years of books left ultimately left her as much of a cipher as she was when she premiered. Its impressive, then, that Unnatural History can take such an uninspiring character, and, in the space of 200 or so pages, create one of the most interesting characters ever to grace a novel. "Dark" Sam, recognizably torn from the same page as the Sam we had come to know and hate, has the same passions, and the same sense of justice and adventure as Ms. Jones. Nevertheless, she is emphatically not the usual Sam. She is much more human, imperfect, and serves as a perfect perspective with which to view the story.
People argue that "Dark" Sam lacked an "edge". I do not know what readers were expecting from the character. The brief image of this alternate Sam we had received in Alien Bodies did not suggest much one way or the other. Ms. Orman and Mr. Blum deserve kudos for not falling into the obvious stereotype that would suggest that this Sam, a drug user, was somehow "bad". She was human, and appropriately lacked the "edge" that blonde Sam had gained from her travels. Beneath her slightly cynical exterior, she was scared and uncertain.
This uncertainty leads to my favorite feature of this book: the amazing characterization of the Doctor and Fitz. Shown through the eyes of Sam, the Doctor is well and truly alien. And I don't mean "alien" in the rather unoriginal sense that the Virgin New Adventures employed the term, one where the Doctor was a bit of a cruel bastard. I mean a true unpredictability. He was kind and caring, but dangerous. Fitz, for his part, gains his first real development in the direction he would ultimately see head down. He truly likes the Doctor and Sam. The scene where he discusses his newly crafted "wholesome" image with a dubious Sam stands out as one of the best in the book. He cares for his fellow travelers as friends and family.
The villains do not stand out nearly so much, but this probably has more to do with the power of the personal aspects of the story more than any inherent flaws with the villains themselves. Griffin is interesting as a concept, even if he is suspiciously similar to Light from Ghost Light. The Faction Paradox kid is a bit silly, but intentionally so. He is a recruit, and simply playing around. If he doesn't come off as a major threat, its only because he's not. He's simply fooling around and taking advantage of circumstances.
The only true problem with Unnatural History, in my opinion, plagues the previous works of Ms. Orman and Mr. Blum as well, which is that others writers were slow to pick up on the developments within. However, one can hardly fault the book itself for that, and seldom has a book ever enthralled me so.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 12/3/02
This book is the biggest example of why nobody should play around with Lawrence Miles concepts except for Lawrence Miles.
Not only do the OrmanBlum make this fatal mistake, but they also decide to tread on Paul Magrs Territory and visit the TV movie one more time, while turning this book into a manifesto of what Doctor Who should be, in their eyes.
Lets list the problems, shall we?
0 out of 10
Uh... Um... Nice Cover! by Isaac Wilcott 17/5/03
I'm not a big fan of Orman. Her New Adventures I found to be both silly and dull (except maybe the first hundred pages of Set Piece), I avoided Vampire Science like the plague (I hate vampires), but gobbled up the excellent Seeing I in a single day. So I usually don't go out of my way to read her books, but after that one good EDA I decided to give this one a shot.
Unnatural History nicely encapsulates all that is bad about Orman's work -- and I suppose that applies to Blum as well. They're great stylists and the actual prose reads wonderfully. But the plot is silly -- a victory of style over substance -- laden with adolescent-level seriousness and inane angst-ridden philosophizing. All the characters run around like mad teenagers while trying to decide whether to shag or not (in accordance with their likewise teenage-level hormones), the Doctor/TARDIS get horribly tortured and mutilated, and characters from previous Orman books pop up making the reader stop cold and utter "Huh? Who? What?" Why does she expect us to remember stupid characters from her previous books?! Ah well, it's not like we're missing anything. The only one I actually do remember is that stubborn receptionist from the beginning of Seeing I...
So how fares the plot of Unnatural History? More space- and time-tearing shenanigans in San Francisco. Ho-hum... I didn't even like this plot the first time round, in that atrocious TV movie. Remember that? I sure wish I didn't, and that Orman & Blum would quit reminding us. And they're really not doing themselves any good by emulating it. The only time paradox story set in San Francisco I'd ever want a repeat viewing of is Star Trek IV, and considering my opinions on that particular franchise that's really saying something.
And for the second time in a row, the TARDIS is nearly destroyed. This sort of thing is exciting, but only when it doesn't happen every other day. It was a big mistake to put this novel and Dominion right next to each other. And the brief, out-of-the-blue solution to the hitherto insoluble dimensional scar problem left me blinking my eyes with little *bink-bink* noises, like Dee-Dee from *Dexter's Laboratory*.
And there's an incredibly stupid and insulting scene on page 156 where the Doctor buys a bottle of beer and pours it out onto the ground in memory of a friend who recently died. Doctor in da hood! "This is for my homies who got da cap in da head..." I can't believe they actually wrote this scene, and even more unbelievable is that it made it through the editing stages.
However bad the story and characters may be, there are several really good jokes. Highlights include the Doctor shouting "Sam, number fifteen!" and staggering across the alley to provide a distraction (p. 48), Fitz's thinking about "ley lines" (p. 61), and the Doctor taunting the Faction Paradox kid (p. 166).
Ah yes. Faction Paradox. I love these guys from Miles' books, but here they're reduced to a group of trick-or-treaters, or creepy in-bred retards from the backwoods of West Virginia, right out of a bad Lovecraft story. But I must say the whole biodata concept was better explained here than in any of Miles' books, and having strands of it lying around San Francisco was interesting and nicely used. The temporal duplication machine that runs on its own Blinovitch cancellation energy was quite clever and I enjoyed that. And I thought the Doctor's biodata being inconsistent and self-contradictory was a nice touch, emphasizing that time travellers suffer unusual side-effects.
This book explains (in part) the whole "Dark Sam" business that was hinted at in Alien Bodies and carried on in Interference, but it was annoying to have to wade through this ghastly book just for those bits. And even so, they weren't very good.
I never cease to be amazed by the obligatory massive acknowledgements page(s) in these Who novels. I counted no fewer than FORTY people mentioned in this one! I don't even know that many people! Much less people whom I could sucker into helping out with my book... (It's like one of these effects-laden movies, where the ending credits mention even the tea lady who came in to substitute for Sally -- who had the flu -- for one afternoon of filming.) And yet, with all this help and feedback, the book is still crappy! You'd think one of these people would speak up and say "Ah... you know, Kate, there are a couple hundred pages here that could use a little more work..." Apparently not. They're either sycophants or idiots themselves. What a waste.
Save yourselves the time, money, and effort by reading Cameron Dixon's synopsis at http://www.drwhoguide.com/whobbc23.htm. The only outstanding thing about this novel is the really nice cover. But remember: you don't have to pay money to look at it!
OrmanBlum run out of steam... by Joe Ford 14/4/05
Well, what a load of sweaty bollocks. I'm sure everybody has their personal book disappointments and this would claim my number one spot in that category, an abomination of a Doctor Who story that commits the cardinal sin. It's boring as hell. Worse than boring, it's irritating, childish and badly written. And coming from the hands of co-authors Kate Orman (one of the greatest Doctor Who writers) and Jonathan Blum it is a shocking let down. I am glad they never co-authored another book again as they were clearly running out of steam.
My one overriding memory of this book is the scene where Sam attempts to seduce the Doctor. This scene should have been cut the second it was read by the editor as it takes Doctor Who into territory I was entirely uncomfortable with. Basically she takes his shirt off, gives him a seductive back rub (she calls him a back rub slut) and pushes him down on the bed and snogs him. How old are these writers? This is infantile and sick, not only because it is such an obvious thing to do with the gorgeous eighth Doctor but also because Kate Orman has been slavering over McGann for far too long now and the loving and detailed descriptions of his succulent body/face reach their nadir here. This is Orman snogging the Doctor, not Sam and when the books start pandering to the authors' whims like this you have to question the ability of the editor. What's more unrequited love for the Doctor can work wonders (Alan Turing's pining for the eighth Doctor in The Turing Test is sensitive and sweet and Orman's later Year of Intelligent Tigers deals with the issue again far more interestingly with none of the icky sex stuff). The Doctor has far better things to do with his time than bonk drugged up teenagers...
Unnatural History really does feel like two writers fighting each other, the book tugs the reader in far too many directions and introduces too many ideas to deal with them in any real depth. It's strange because Vampire Science (OrmanBlum's first novel) was so smoothly plotted you wouldn't be aware that it was the work of two authors and Seeing I (OrmanBlum's greatest achievement together) was split into two equally good sections which the writers could use to define their personal strengths. I have no idea who wrote what scenes in Unnatural History but I could have a good guess... the book delights in compiling problem after problem but forgetting the ones they have already set up. What's worse is that it takes an age for any of these separate elements to linked up into any sort of collective narrative and some bits don't even bother. Does a book really need Faction Paradox, an Unnaturalist, a Kraken, a temporal Scar, Dark Sam, biodata issues and grey henchmen? These plot elements dance around each other, the regulars hopping from one problem and back again, giving the impression of a book that was made up as it goes along.
Dark Sam was one of the more intriguing elements introduced in Lawrence Miles' Alien Bodies and one well worth exploring (ANYTHING to make that Jones creature tolerable). I wish they hadn't bothered if this was the result. The only thing Dark about this Sam was her hair; she is practically a carbon copy of the original no matter how many changes she goes through in the book. I have friends who do drugs and I have friends who work in video stores... is this the best OrmanBlum could come out with? I wanted a conniving, evil bitch... a Trix/Anji mixture would be good except even cattier (if it's possible)... someone who made the book a challenge to get to like. This Sam is just a nobody who it is dead easy to sympathise with and the narrative takes the easy route forcing the Doctor and Fitz to get close to her and have doubts about "killing" her. Imagine the tension if they had to force Dark Sam into the scar at the climax instead of her yawn-inducing self-sacrifice? OrmanBlum are usually so good at punishing the Doctor but they seemed determined to give him a painless life here. Dark Sam should have joined forces with the Faction or Griffin, killed the unicorns or tried to aid the destruction of the TARDIS... something unforgivable that shocks us into realising this really is a different person. All the kissy-cuddles between the Doctor, Dark Sam and Fitz is vomit-inducing because it feels too juvenile and far too slack on the authors' parts.
And yet, despite all this, one scene actually works amongst all this sugary dreck, Chapter Fourteen (Hero In Use) is the best written of the entire book, an intriguing break from the action as Sam shifts from one history to another. The execution is rather wonderful, confined to one room with only the emotions of Dark Sam and Fitz to concentrate on and the result is an unexpectedly powerful interlude.
I thought the book would pick up once Griffin entered the scene to catalogue the bizarre creatures showing up in San Francisco but this is where the book went from being dull to being actively bad. Does anyone buy into the idea of the events of the TV Movie causing the Doctor's biodata to thrust into reality and be exposed for anyone to play about with? The scenes with Griffin twing-twanging the Doctor's biodata like a guitar string are interminably boring, far too much technobabble and not enough imagination. The highest criticism I can make is that these torture sequences reminded me of the confusing middle sections of The Quantum Archangel, where the action stopped making sense and the writer seemed to be speaking another language. I stopped caring about this book at this point. Griffin might have been playing around with the Doctor in a profound manner but it felt like the book was just stalling, adding another thread to keep the page count up so OrmanBlum can confine the disintegrating scar to the last few chapters.
Several people have commented on the book's Scarlet Empress-esque obsession with fairytale creatures. There are an incredible array of exquisite creatures turning up in San Francisco in Unnatural History, perfect for the writers to exploit the culture shock and magic of the situation. Instead it feels as though they are just dumped into the story, another factor but barely worth wasting time on when there's some serious Sam/Fitz shagging to be done! Did nobody see any of these creatures? Are the media not at all interested that unicorns are wandering the parks of America? When you think of Kate Orman's thoughtful exploration of the Tiger colony in her last eighth Doctor book and the wildness and beauty she exploits from the creatures, this can only multiply the dissatisfaction this book provides.
If I thought the Faction Paradox was an iffy idea in Alien Bodies this book convinced me it was a mistake. More childish scribblings come in the form of the small boy Faction agent who turns up in Unnatural History for no better reason than to taunt the Doctor and Sam. He is superfluous to the main plot for ages and supremely irritating to boot. His rabbit out of hat surprise at the climax left me cold... call this an explanation for the creation of bland... sorry, blond Sam? The amnesiac eighth Doctor would have strung the twerp up by his ankles and slapped him about for a bit. The only scene to merit any attention is when the boy duplicates himself and tortures the Doctor but even this was to be done a quadrillion (TM Craig Hinton) times better in Camera Obscura. Plus the kid has cod cool dialogue that older writers OrmanBlum cannot pull off, the kid sounds like an adult trying to be hip. How embarassing.
The biggest sin this book commits, though, is that the prose itself is disjointed and ugly and for a Kate Orman book that is unthinkable. One of her greatest strengths as a writer is her poetic, sensual prose style that allows you to get close to the characters and paint a seductive view of the story around them. Unnatural History feels as though it was written by a computer with some really basic descriptions, unattractive technobabble cluttering up the pages and none of the magical observations she usually makes. Some passages (go read pages 120/121) are hideously dull and most of the others seem to have been rush written and out of touch with the rest of the book.
This book is a firm indication of how bleah some of those early EDAs really were. Whilst we can all remind ourselves of how wonderful Seeing I, The Scarlet Empress, Frontier Worlds and The Banquo Legacy were, the truth is far too many of the first thirty or so EDAs were of the standard of Unnatural History. It's an unattractive book in practically every way and revisions in the regulars, the direction of the books and the standard of writing needed to be made, badly.
With its sex, swearing and confused science... this book reminded me of the worst of the New Adventures. I need an aspirin.