Superior Beings is what happens when an author has a adrenaline burst writing a novel without stepping back from the picture to take the time to pull out the themes that are desperately drumming underneath for a hearing. As a novel it satisfies the current PDA requirement to be about event and adventure and, as such, sacrifices the relationship between power and higher evolution. Nick Walters seems to want to say that higher evolution is not necessarily the pinnacle of existence. Broadly the Eknuri are the developed dilettante so absorbed in their cultural development that they are completely ill-equipped to deal with a threat that is basic and instinctual. The Khorlthochloi are gods that develop beyond the stage where they can get back to the physical and fizzle out on a higher plain. The Valethske are defined only by purpose - the hunt. They are on a mission to destroy the gods as punishment for their involvement in their race history - the lower species having evolved enough in order to strike out at evolution. Therefore, presumably, the question at the end of the novel is 'who are the superior beings'? To give Walters his due there is no single answer to this question by the time the novel ends. The problem is that neither the Eknuri nor the Khorlthochloi are developed enough in the piece to give either a fair hearing. The former are there to be fodder and food for the Valethske, the latter there to be a mystery that can only be visualised in the form of giant insects and to provide a wake up call for the Valtheske missionaries. Only the Valethske are given any opportunity to leap, jump and pounce from the page and they are constrained in this by their own nature. So it is that one is curiously dissatisfied with the end argument - the author enjoying himself on a killing spree of epic proportions wrapped up in set changes and adventure play keeping TV land well and truly alive.
If it is tigers in the EDA's then the PDA's in the same month deliver foxes. This propensity in the novels to link books by animal, vegetable or mineral is enough to get on any readers nerves. What impact do the Valethske make? Not much, in truth. There is little difference between the Valethske and any number of feral monsters that have made their way across the pages of BBC Books. It is still compelling to have creatures that are devoid of any moral code but it is not new. The idea of humans (and others) being prey reminds one strongly of a certain group that turned up in Star Trek: Voyager. It is also a bit of a leap to have a race that has very low evolutionary requirements to suddenly up tails and fling themselves in a mission to punish their gods (another old idea). The race live for the hunt - would this race really subsume its nature to go on an epic Greek voyage to effect revenge? They seem to bother about very little else, so why the mission? There is an attempt by Walters to suggest that this dichotomy of opinion is one that the Valethske themselves have had to deal with on their long voyage (Veek) but one cannot help thinking that Kikker might have had more of a rebellion on his hands long before his sole dissenter made her play. If one thing is in the Valethske favour then it is that Walters does capture the sense of pack interest. In terms of foxes this holds shakily together.
The book deals with the relationship between hunter and prey in a very basic way. The true horror of the Valethske is underpinned by each horrific and violent death. Whilst this reinforces a type it soon becomes tedious. Many, if not all, of the ancillary characters are introduced to be killed. This is probably a deliberate effort on behalf of Walters but it does remind one of sub-standard fan fiction where the preference is to see what amusement can be gleaned from dispatching characters with scant motivation by the most hysterical means possible.
Walters drives forth the pace by changing the scene almost as quickly as one can get used to it. Not enough time is spent examining place, which serves to further push focus on the characters. This is fine, but the characters are such a pointless lot that they fail to drive ones attention away from all the to and fro. Captain John Melrose is the worst offender here - introduced to play out the part of cliché and dispatched as if the author had little idea what to do with him. Aline, a character that should have been the bridge between the human and the higher evolutionary, instead spends much of the time being a liability in desperate need of further counselling.
The Garden of the Khorlthochloi is the first time that a Nintendo game has made it to the page of the PDA's. Introduced because it plays with Peri's botany associations it is nonetheless crowded with gardeners, beetle like fodder carriers and spiny defences. It is perfectly possible to imagine computer generated Valethske bouncing about the place as one presses A and Z to fire. On page it becomes contrived - a garden of remembrance for gods that remain a mystery to the end.
Once again we are faced with a fifth Doctor and Peri pairing in the PDA's that does not work. Not quite sure what it is about these two but every time they are placed in the big bad TV universe that the PDA's are so fond of visiting they fail to stick to character. Peri is the Peri of early Sixth Doctor (all whinge and no substitute) whilst the Doctor is ripped of all power forced to be carried along by circumstance, lost in a sense of moral vacuity that involves more navel staring than judgement or resolution. This reviewer is not a fan of continuity so it may be a bit hypocritical to say it but anyone that watches Caves of Androzani and then reads Superior Beings or The Ultimate Adventure may wonder who these characters are.
Through it all, however, Walters seems to be having a good deal of fun. There is a real sense that Walters zipped this one off the computer whilst tearing torn flesh from itinerant visitors. Unfortunately Superior Beings is ill considered; rushes where it should take stock; and jumbles elements that are neither complimentary nor particularly well conceived. As ever, there is something more than what one gets in the novel, but the current story convention completely fails to let it come to the surface and Walters is having too good a time to let it happen.
Superior Beings could have been so good. It has an interesting "monster," nice interplay between the Doctor and Peri (a pairing that I'd like to see more of), and an interesting concept.
Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be much point to the whole thing. It's a very violent novel, but there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for that, other than to show bloody violence. The Velethske are an interesting race, but they deserved a better book. The "Superior Beings" of the title originally seems to be referring to the Eknuri, but then they turn out to be nothing much of interest. Then it turns out that it might be referring to something else (no spoilers), but that turns out to be anti-climactic.
The main story doesn't even seem to begin for at least 150 pages, if not longer. The prelude to this main story does nothing except establish how vicious the Velethske are. Humans and humanoids are nothing but prey to them. Fine, Nick, we got the point after the first 10 iterations of it. Could we move on now? Thank you.
I do have to say that the Doctor and Peri are characterized very well, though. I saw a review somewhere that said that anybody who has watched Caves of Androzani would not recognize these characters. I don't quite agree. Yes, Peri is a bit whiny, but she was in Planet of Fire, too. Even in Caves she was. Here, she does whine a little bit, but she's also strong, carrying on when a lot of weaker people would have just given up.
Peri's jealousy of Aline is well-portrayed. Here is a girl who has just joined up with the Doctor (you get the idea that this book takes place shortly after Planet of Fire), who's still new to this adventuring thing and has only the Doctor as a lifeline to any kind of normalcy. It's only natural that she would be jealous of Aline moving in on this. I found it completely understandable.
One other bad thing about this book, though, is the Doctor's almost complete ineffectiveness. He really doesn't have anything to do with the resolution. The only thing he does do is make sure that Peri stays alive (and he doesn't even do that, in the end...it's someone else). Why do the BBC books continually have a Doctor who doesn't do anything? Isn't he supposed to be the hero of the book?
I don't think you'll regret reading it, but only if you're a Fifth Doctor fan. Dominion, Walters' first novel, was decent. His second, Fall of Yquitane, was wonderful. And then there's this. Is there such a thing as Junior Jinx?
In brief: Fantastic setup, mediocre payoff.
Halfway through this book I was grinning like an idiot. All the talk of the demise of the PDAs has been greatly exaggerated. Nick Walters was going from strength to strength - this was even better than the underrated Fall of Yquatine. Here we had actual interesting characters, a confident writing style, a gripping potboiler of a plot. In Finn Clark's Head to Head on rec.arts.drwho, I claimed that this was the book which assured Nick Walters as the breakout talent of the BBC novels.
And then I read the second half.
It's not that Superior Beings is bad. Not at all. The pace certainly doesn't drop, for which I was grateful. It doesn't even nosedive as badly as it might. But the second half certainly can't live up to the promise of the first -- and that's a real shame.
After a fairly inconsequential TARDIS scene (which doesn't justify the amount of space devoted to it on the back cover), the action kicks in to high gear. In quick succession, we're introduced to a variety of quite interesting characters, all of whom actually feel like real people - and then the Valethske appear. This reminded me quite a bit of the structure of Year of Intelligent Tigers, with idyllic events shattered by the arrival of intelligent animal hunters. However, it's much more frenetically paced and we're deep into the action before we've really had a chance to stop and think.
The pacing is heavy on characterisation and often low on action - whole scenes go by with characters looking for fruit, or thinking to themselves while walking through fields... yet these scenes don't drag in the slightest. We're highly invested in these characters, because we come to know them in a very intimate way. It's not an unusual technique, but it's been a long time since we've seen it done this well in a Doctor Who novel.
All the setups are fascinating ones: Aline is great, almost on the edge of collapse and recovering from a mysterious Encounter that's referred to so often that we're thoroughly intrigued and can't wait to find out all the details of it. Taiana is an intriguing mystery. She's obviously much more powerful than she appears and the way she takes the events mostly in her stride sets her up as the quiet one of the first half who will become a major player in the second. When Melrose breaks down and leaves the group, you just know it's going to turn out to be vitally important later on. Freed from her commander, Meharg takes on a more relaxed attitude to the military, which is definitely going to play into events to come. Ruvis is a fascinating anomaly in the Valethske, who is far more cunning and intelligent than the rest of the hunters and will almost certainly be the true nemesis behind the Valethske mission that the Doctor has to face. The Valethske are clearly being manipulated to believe in their great mission by outside forces, because every time any of them other than Veek points out how ridiculous it is, something forces them to accept it.
And yet, not one of the above expectations is fulfilled. As soon as Aline enters the big plant, then characterisation crashes and burns. We stop seeing anything from Aline's POV (or indeed much of her at all) and everyone is summarily killed off, for no real reason other than to demonstrate the viciousness of the Valethske, in case we missed it the first five hundred times.
I'm honestly not sure if this was deliberate or not. Written out like this, it seems like Walters was trying to break the rules and subvert our expectations. However, to do that, you have to replace our expectations by something even more interesting... but not a single one of these characters gets to do anything of interest or importance in the second half. This is incredibly frustrating, because by this point I'd invested a lot in the characters, only to have it all taken away. There might be reasons for this, but the pointlessness doesn't seem to fit. Characters fulfil some minor plot function and are then conveniently killed.
I'm sorry, I should let this go, but I can't. Why set up the central question of just what mysterious Encounter Aline had if you're not going to answer that question? It's true that the fact that she had it has a plot function, but that's no excuse for cheating the reader. Why leave Taiana alive for so long when she does absolutely nothing whatsoever? Why does Melrose accomplish nothing at all? Why set up Ruvis only to kill him off at the very first opportunity? Most damning of all, why sow the seeds of doubt about the manipulation of the Valethske mission if you're not going to do anything with it?
In fact, my real suspicion is that Nick Walters is a far better writer than he realises and in trying to write an action potboiler, he's shown that he's more suited to character pieces. It's tough to do a series of quiet character studies when the characters in question keep getting eaten, though.
In the second half of my review, I was going to discuss the spot-on characterisation of the Doctor and Peri, opine about the way I think you really shouldn't have characters knowing all about the Doctor in advance (did the Psi Powers arc teach us nothing?), despite the fact that it very nearly works here, discuss the plot itself, which is quite tight on account of everything else having been sacrificed in its honour, talk about the Valethske in some detail, especially Veek, and muse about the Paul Leonard-inherited propensity to create a variety of fascinating and quite alien aliens. But time was short (or something), so instead I've decided to kill all those topics and just end everything in as perfunctory a way as possible. But trust me, it would have been pretty good.