Parallel 59.

Books  Parallel 59 is an adventure of two halves. On the one hand it’s a fairly standard tale in which the Doctor and Compassion are captured, interrogated then help to lead a revolution. On the other, at the risk of spoiling a surprise, it’s a wonderfully bleak tale reminiscent of Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil with Fitz in the Sam Lowry role which is eventually revealed to be an iteration of a certain other pre-millennium sci-fi adventure in which there is no spoon and the problem is that despite the two being so carefully entwined, it’s the latter which really draws in the reader leaving the former as something of a chore.

The problem is that for over two hundred pages the reader isn’t really given much to be interested in as the Doctor, pitched up in the planet Skale having guided a lifeboat there from a malfunctioning space installation is fingered as a spy, not believed and is dragged through cells and meetings and largely shouted at. He’s utterly charming of course in the Tom in City of Death sense of the word, bluff when required yet stunningly intelligent when that’s required. If anything he’s more Doctorish than he’s been for many novels and there’s a particularly exciting moment when suicide is the only escape option.

But surrounding him are a cast of military types who just seem so desperately interchangeable and unlikeable. They’re apparently fighting over one another to defend their world in their own way but it’s difficult to really get a handle on any of them so when the traitor is revealed much later it takes a page or two to actually remember who they were. Luckily said traitor is thinning out the ranks so actually a couple become slightly better defined towards the end but largely they’re defined to such a limited degree it’s difficult to be bothered about their fate.

Meanwhile, Compassion escapes and falls in with a fairly identikit group of rebels who are tying to break back into the installation and save the world or something. Compassion is really interesting in these passages, once again telling all of her new ‘friends’ exactly what they think they want to hear so that she can get them to do exactly what she wants. One of them keeps calling her space girl and it takes everything she has to stop herself from breaking his arm. We're also given more hints that there's something very wrong about her physical make-up -- making a body scanner explode spectacularly. At least authors Natalie Dallaire and Stephen Cole have a real handled on the main characters.

But like the military camp, there’s so many of the rebels and crucially we’re not given much of a description of them so they’re not too easy to empathise with. It’s the schism that has existed throughout these books between novelistic Who and the television version -- there’s not much between these characters and the visitors to The Impossible Planet, but those actors bring a presence to the wafer thin characterisation that’s just not possible on the printed page, and again even when one or two make the supreme sacrifice it lacks the emotional punch that say the death of Mr. Jefferson in The Satan Pit had.

Then, threaded through that, first-person Fitz is back, this time relating his new life through diary entries which very vividly and empathically create an alien world, with characters that are all carefully defined, make sense and actually make the reader interested about in their welfare. As the novel opens, the ex-Londoner is already ensconced on Mechta, a masterpiece society with predetermined roles, his being a worker in a care home for children. The city is an apparent healing zone for the sick of Skale who are slowly each given an order to leave for home by red taxi when they’re deemed in good health by a central control directive. The fact that everything is planned out and ordered gives the reader some hint as to what’s actually going, but it’s how Fitz interfaces with the society which is the real joy.

He has friendships -- think Renton in Trainspotting without the heroin and AIDS and whatnot with his best friends Serjay and Low Rez as the Sick Boy and Spud figures. He has relationships, sleeping his way around Mechta, from Anya to Denna to Filippa each of these women perfectly defined and totally realistic. He ponders (as I have) whether the TARDIS has created a much more pronounced version of his old self, doomed to have a girl in every time zone (or words to that effect) but I’d say his propensity for rebellion and questioning of authority are also a facet of that. And unlike Frontier Worlds it feels like a perfectly natural device, of the story in that they’re diary entries rather than simply bolted on for effect. But it’s the same voice as the earlier novel and since Peter Anghelides is singled out for special thanks in the acknowledgements I wonder if these are his work.

There’s a great sense of the city with its tram system and northern quarter and largely idyllic sense of community in which people hardly ever lock their doors because there’s not a lot worth stealing (sounds like a student hall in the early nineties) which makes the darkness and twisted version even more shattering when it inevitably arrives, as this society decays. Perhaps were supposed to see a comparison between the bombs and gunplay in the Doctor’s story with the mysterious doom infecting Mechta but it’s the bending of that reality that’s most scary with Fitz at the centre trying to make sense of it and wanting to save Filippa, the girl for him.

What ultimately stops to book from totally convincing is it’s length. I’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that many of these books don’t work because they’re too long and that some of the story ideas simply aren’t enough to fill the two-hundred and eighty odd pages that are expected of them. Sometimes that’s dealt with through a more relaxed attitude to line spacing and shorter pagination. But in some cases, such as this one, there just seems to be a lot of padding and far too many characters and stripping both back would have paid dividends instead of this thing which apart from the Fitz story drags horribly in the middle. As it stands, Parallel 59 is half a great book trying to break away from the average.

Great cover though …

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