‘Vanderdeken’s Children’ by Christopher Bulis is an odd book. Part of me enjoyed a lot and felt that the general ideas behind it were some of the best seen in the EDA range thus far. However, these aspects were somewhat dulled by weaker ones- passages that struck me as too slow, aspects of the plot that seemed relatively poor, bits that just struck me as too confusing.
The plot concerns two warring factions (the Nimosians and the Emindians), a lot of distrust from both sides and a very mysterious alien ship that both sides wish to claim as their own. The Alien Ship turns out to contain ‘ghosts’ and rather unconventional attitudes towards both gravity and time- the latter of which leads to a memorable bit where Sam Jones finds herself considerably younger than she should be (but, bless her, she still trusts the Doctor- it’s all in the eyes…)
However, I must admit that the parts I found more interesting took place on board the Cirrandaria, a Passenger Liner belonging to the Emindians. It is here that the Doctor and Sam find themselves, and it is their activities on board it and the vast assortment of characters on board that gripped me the most.
The Doctor and Sam get to show themselves to be expert at the whole time travel game; they forge documents to prove their ‘credentials’ as Moderators, pretty much force themselves upon the crew in order to explore the Alien Ship, and pretty much save the day single-handily since no one else really wants to listen.
The characters on board are varied and interesting. A celebrity couple- Don Delray the actor and Lyset Wynter the photographer- both undergo some nasty ordeals and some nice character development, with their relationship being put to the test and the eventual outcome showing them both to be pretty decent people.
Another couple to suffer but also be well catered for are the dominant Rhonda and her subservient husband, Lester. In fact, this plot strand was the best thing about the book by a country mile in my opinion, partly because it was well written and engaging, but mainly because it totally confounded my expectations. The set-up seems simple enough- husband is in an unhappy marriage (his wife has taken all the joy out of it) but then he meets an attractive, humorous and interesting girl…. I thought that, despite being interesting, it was pretty much a predictable affair, but then it all changes when Rhonda, in a fit of jealousy, murders the other woman- albeit ‘accidentally’ or subconsciously at any rate. This totally shocked me, but not as much as what followed: Lester firstly hits Rhonda many times so she is left battered, bruised and broken; he then tries to escape only to be haunted by a ghostly image of Rhonda, after which he is promptly killed.
In a fitting way, after his death no more is said about Rhonda, since it is not needed. The plot strand was Lester’s story- he was a character that suffered at the hands of others, and his death marks the end of Rhonda’s story too: without a husband to dominate over, there is no need to tell her story. Her story, like his life, is over.
Unfortunately, not all of ‘Vanderdeken’s Children’ worked for me. I must admit that I found the first eighty-odd pages quite slow paced and difficult to get in to. After this, the pace only slows occasionally, but still enough to be distracting and hack away at the overall enjoyment of the novel.
A rather large flaw to me was that the main plot- the Alien Ship and its secrets- was the least interesting of them all. Added to this, the complexity of aspects contained within the main plot strand was at odds with other parts of the novel- for example, just compare the aforementioned tale of Rhonda and Lester to the very ending of the novel and its explanation of time, ghosts and the Alien Ship: in style alone they are dissimilar, but in terms of comprehension, its like they were taken for two entirely different sources. However, I suspect that this is perhaps the point- on the one hand you have the Alien Ship with all its technical ins and outs, confusing approach towards chronology and its ghostly inhabitants, and yet something as simple as a domestic tiff between a married couple still plays out amid all the chaos. Despite this possibly being the case, I still felt that it was not as successful as perhaps it ought to have been.
A smaller part- literally taking up all of two pages or thereabouts- that irritated me slightly was the mention of the Doctor using his ‘real’ name to convince people of his authority. It seemed a bit unnecessary for a start, but also bizarre: why would the Doctor use his ‘real’ name now and never before in the history of the programme? Conversely, there was a nice touch concerning this: as a nod towards the TARGET novelisation of ‘Terror Of The Autons’, it is mentioned that the Doctor’s ‘real’ name is pretty much unpronounceable, as was the Master’s.
Another nod towards the TARGET range in some ways was the inclusion of a diagram at the start of the novel; however, unlike those seen in such novelisations, the one here was pretty much essential to the story, as without it the entire keypad sequence later on in the novel would have been largely incomprehensible.
In all, I am in two minds about ‘Vanderdeken’s Children’; on the one hand, it had some really good ideas, nice characters and it was, in parts, an enjoyable read. On the other hand, parts of it were just too slow, or too complex, or at worst just plain uninteresting. Overall, I have to admit that I would only rate it around the average mark, which is a pity as parts of it are great, but there was just not enough to make me feel like it deserves to rank any higher.
Oh, dear. I had rather hoped never to use this word about a Doctor Who novel, but the word that springs to mind is... dull. The plot as described on the back cover takes place in the first few chapters, but on reading them I had to wonder if Christopher Bulis could maintain such a plot through the remaining thirty-odd chapters. Although it is rather nice to start the story with Sam and the Doctor, instead of the usual chapter or so to introduce the setting, it does mean we are plunged headlong into the situation, with a mysterious wreck squabbled over by two (medium-sized) stellar powers on the verge of war... thus giving the two factions, Emindar and Nimos, the chance to come out with such lines as:
"You're acting like a typically paranoid Nimosian."
"And perhaps you're acting like a typically devious Emindian."
This isn't so much deathless prose as prose that ought to be buried at a crossroad with a stake through its heart. The point of this not-quite-war is that Bulis can get away with character shorthand (Sho has absolutely no features except for manic xenophobia) and later making a heavy-handed attempt at the futility of war (Emindar's deserted, Nimos is spacedust). At least this latter feature isn't too greatly alluded to, except in the last few chapters. C'mon, lads, Paul Cornell's 'Human Nature' did it so much better.
Having said that, such plots are staple DW fodder and it has to be said that the Doctor seems very much at home in this scenario, effortlessly faking ID, and mingling with the passengers. Posing as a Moderator obviously suits his ego, and it's worth noting that Sam can carry it off quite convincingly now. There's not much of a challenge offered to our two heroes, and at times it feels as though they should be sleepwalking through the book the way the reader is. It's to Bulis' credit that they manage to stay awake through the inevitable hijack, and deeply standard working-together-to-beat-the-odds.
At any rate, the plot ponders on happily to itself, for example when an entire chapter is wasted. We all know technician Kervan isn't in for a smooth ride, especially since Bulis has him thinking about his future plans. By the end of the chapter, the reader is more than happy to kill the unlovable creature themselves, if only so that Bulis would get on with something more interesting. Until the last third of the book, the plot drags unforgivably, and then goes completely bizarre.
Confession time: I didn't get it at first. There seem to be several different theories as to what the ghosts are, and just when the reader thinks it's finally sorted, the Doctor suddenly announces that they weren't really like that at all!
Part of the problem is that the plot really requires a more visual medium then a novel. The reader is presented with a diagram for the keypad on page 65 opposite the first chapter, which is just as well, since the Doctor's explanation would make no sense whatsoever otherwise. And although the wreck is lovingly described, it simply doesn't sit in the mind the way the cover illustration does.
It's a pity a similar drawing wasn't done for the temporal diagram at the end, as you really need two reads, and possibly pen and paper, before you truly understand the remainder of the plot. With it's assorted paradoxes, and circles in time, traced by the Emindar ship, the Cirrandaria, its ghostly counterpart, the Nimosian ship... It's impossible to tell whether Bulis has thought this all through properly, or if he suddenly thought "Oops, always helps if I finish this."
Another problem is the characters. The actor playing an action hero, the brave photographer, the general who knows more then he's saying... the list goes on. A little thought within two pages of their respective introductions, and the reader can pretty much guess what will become of them. And there's even a token child for Sam to get protective over (is this really the same woman who ran an eco-terrorist group on Ha'olam!?) the reader is supposed to emote with these characters, but with the possible exception of the actor's agent, these people are very obviously two-dimensional. Thier little plots are mostly concerned with an abortive expedition to the wrecked ship, and again, it takes absolutely no imagination on the reader's part to guess that this would not be entirely sucessful. This further example explains why the plot feels so much like DW-by-numbers.
But it's not all bad news. One character that's perfect is the Eighth Doctor, all knowing with a nice line in reassuring grins. And the subplot of the married couple is actually far more interesting then the cold war going on around them, even if it does peter out pointlessly towards the end.
So, am I right in thinking that Sam, and some unnamed guard (yes, there are lots of unnamed guards and soldiers. What do you mean, you didn't see that coming?!) now know the Doctor's real name? More really should be made of that.
And credit should be given for (at last! at last!) not resurrecting old monsters, although I challenge any reader to convince me these are really monsters at all... Ghosts, certainly, but future echoes? Off-beam reflections? LSD in the drinking water? Frankly, convincing arguments might be made for all three options.
All in all, a good author appears to be treading water with this book,which is a shame, as there are lots of good ideas here in search of a less well-trodden plot, and possibly a new medium as well.