by Stephen BaxterFeaturing the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe
Hardback priced £18.99
Review by Nicholas Fraser
I approached The Wheel of Ice with a degree of trepidation. What would be the outcome of an author of such fearsome sci-fi erudition as Stephen Baxter taking on the much-loved TARDIS trio? Would the whimsicality of Doctor Two survive the hard sci-fi concepts of the author of the Xeelee Sequence?
A confession at this point: I have not yet taken on the challenge of the Xeelee Sequence. Having enjoyed this book however I’m now inclined to do so, as Baxter creates a near pitch-perfect evocation of Team TARDIS, dealing with the dangers of life aboard the Mnemosyne Cincture, the titular Wheel of Ice - a frontier mining colony orbiting Saturn.
The story begins in classic “base under siege” mode, with the TARDIS crew arriving, not entirely by accident, at just the wrong time. They are quickly labelled the prime suspects in a series of sabotages taking place on and beneath the wheel. And so the threesome set about clearing their name, gradually gaining the trust and friendship of at least some of their captors along the way.
While The Doctor and Zoe work within the confines of the Wheel and the mine-workings below, investigating the cause of the mysterious goings-on at the base, the author takes full advantage of the limitless scale and budget afforded by the reader’s imagination, sending Jamie and a band of rebellious Mnemosynian teenagers across the expanse of the Saturnian system. Harking back to the original mission statement of the series to educate as well as entertain, Baxter provides vivid descriptions of rings and moons of Saturn; the icy surface of Enceladus and the smog-laden methane-rich atmosphere of Titan.
The author’s enthusiasm for his subject shines through, but not at the expense of character, with some finely-observed and consistent development for the three central characters and their interactions with the colonists. The main cast of the story is for the most part well-rounded and believable, the hard choices facing humankind having brought about a stratification of society with all the attendant tensions.
Mnemosyne is the Greek Goddess of memory and language, and at the heart of this story is an exploration of the concepts of memory and consciousness,. There’s a poignant contrast between the ancient, damaged construct (the “Arkive”) lying buried beneath the surface of the Mnemosyne moon – “The Enemy Within” – and the old and battered Wheel “caretaker” robot, MMAC. The details of MMAC’s origins, and his awareness of them in particular, provide a subtle but emotive distinction to the increasingly desperate efforts of the ancient, crippled Arkive, the embodiment of the Mnemosyne moon blindly striving to complete her mission at all costs.
And the actions of Arkive lead in turn to one of the most chilling aspects of the book - the blue dolls. It’s surely no accident that the author has chosen to cunningly subvert the sense of comfort associated with the colour of the TARDIS, evoking a creeping, skin-crawling sense of dread. The scenes featuring the Arkive’s silent blue creatures assembled on the floors, walls and ceilings of the mines and caverns below the moon’s surface and the descriptions of their collective movement sent a shiver down this reviewer’s spine. There’s also some sequences of genuine body horror, resulting from their actions en masse.
Even here though, the consciousness of the blue protagonists is explored with sympathy and a sense of pathos, proving that not everything in this story is black and white (or blue). This is a story securely anchored within a Doctor Who universe of bernalium and Z bombs, T-mat and taranium, with even a fleeting appearance of the Doctor’s recorder. A challenging, but ultimately highly rewarding read.
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