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The Algebra of Ice

Doctor Who: The BBC Past Doctor Adventures #68
Finn Clark

It's official: Lloyd Rose is turning into Kate Orman! The Algebra of Ice is Lloyd's Blue Box, but I'm not just talking about that. More generally, both women exploded on to the Who scene with two impressively crafted debut novels but then drew in their horns somewhat for a less thrilling third visit. Kate Orman's NAs from Sleepy to Room With No Doors are pleasant, but almost deliberately mundane and more simply written than Left-Handed Hummingbird and Set Piece.

The Algebra of Ice doesn't have the evocative prose we saw in City of the Dead or Camera Obscura. Those books had exotic locations (New Orleans, Victorian England) and a more mysterious Doctor, but even so Lloyd Rose seems to have been taking Terrance Dicks pills. It's perfectly good prose, but precise rather than luscious. There's nothing wrong with that and there's much to like in The Algebra of Ice, but it's harder to imagine someone falling in love with it.

It's also like a Kate Orman book in its strong focus on the regulars. The 7th Doctor is scrutinised as a character in his own right instead of the generic Doctor with a few character traits on top. I liked that. He gets knocked about a bit in traditional Orman style and harks back to the NAs with his cream-coloured suit and Skaro angst, though Lloyd can't resist some 8DA foreshadowing. Perry-Tucker aside, yet again the BBC PDAs are using the 7th Doctor far better than the NAs did! In the meantime Ace's story is cosily familiar, both for the character and as another yet evocation of the Ghost of Orman. It's nothing groundbreaking, but Lloyd Rose impressed me by bringing alive this overused companion in such a well-worn story role.

This book has only one problem - it's kinda boring. There's currently a minor trend for un-Whoish Who books, set in deliberately mundane locations with very little action or excitement. Sometimes they've triumphed (Heritage, The Sleep of Reason and even The Deadstone Memorial, comparatively speaking) but it's also led to some big names coming a cropper. Blue Box and The Algebra of Ice are both efficiently told but dull. See nerds stand in fields! Lloyd's first two books were much more fun, giving us magicians, mirror men and carnival sideshow freaks. You know, cool stuff. This book's heroes never seem to be in danger (even when they are), as they investigate crop circles in Kent and do maths on computers. Even the bad guys don't feel threatening, with a plan for evil that could have enormous consequences but in practice mostly requires keyboard skills and wellington boots.

There's been criticism of the book's maths, but as a mathematician myself I didn't mind it. It's "maths as magic", like a next-generation Logopolis or Castrovalva. If the worst you can say about a Doctor Who book is that its technobabble is inaccurate... well, is that really so unfaithful to the TV show?

I should mention the character work, with a cast that transcends their apparent stereotypes. This is a sober novel that won't be popular with the action-adventure crowd who hated Blue Box and Heritage. It's slightly colourless, but there's nothing actually *wrong* with it and some bits are quietly very good.

Lawrence Conquest

Oh dear – what’s happened here? I was never one of those who fell fawning at the feet of Lloyd Rose when she first appeared on the Who scene – City of the Dead was reasonable, Camera Obscura better, but still flawed - but she did at least appear to have the makings of a great book within her if she could only find a decent plot to match her prose. Unfortunately, things seemed to have gone badly wrong somewhere in The Algebra of Ice, and while it’s not quite bad enough to rank as truly awful this novel is by far the worst thing Lloyd Rose has written.

Where does it go wrong? Well, to start with things seem encouraging – the 7th Doctor and Ace investigating mysterious ice-filled crop…err…non-circles, with UNIT and the Brigadier called in, Lovecraftian entities being summoned from ‘beyond’ and time-jumps centered around a young mathematician (one of which finally explains the I.M. Forman gaff from Remembrance of the Daleks). With time-jumps involving slight changes in history I was dreading another ‘someone’s interfered with the time-lines’ story again, but these end up being just the side-effect of an alien universe trying to puncture a whole into this reality to use the matter of this universe to stave off entropy in their own – in effect the whole story functions as Logopolis in reverse. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the central concept – but the execution is fairly dire.

With a book heavily leaning on mathematics I was expecting to have to furrow my brow through some hard-sf action – in reality this novel is so simplistic I had to check the cover to make sure this wasn’t a Terrence Dicks novel after all. The list of characters is minimal, making this almost feel like a rejected Big Finish audio – besides the regulars we have mathematician Ethan, webzine reporter Molecross, and the bad guy duo of Brett and Unwin – that’s it really. Brett and Unwin spend the first half of the novel attempting to get Ethan to help them summon the aliens through a ‘weak spot’ in Kent – the Doctor and Ace stop them. Then for the second half is exactly the same thing again – only in Switzerland, with a technobabble TARDIS ending tucked on the end. Throughout the aliens plans to breach this reality are suspect – we are told that as entropy defeating rational aliens they can only enter via straight lines, which leads to the Doctor stopping them by alternately drawing circles on the ground, and in one risible scene throwing a round saucepan lid in their way. If they can be stopped by the presence of a round lid, why doesn’t the curved ground underneath upset them, or the circular planet, or anything else ‘non-rational’ (are atoms square? Or blades of grass?). And never mind someone hacking into the TARDIS at the end, if the aliens are unable to reach through their universe to ours how come Brett has a bloody computer link up to their universe so he can Instant Messenger them?

If the plots rubbish, Lloyd does at least do better on characterisation, with Ace getting to have a slightly more realistic affair with Ethan than we’ve seen for some time (though the ridiculous ‘kiddies might be reading’ nature of Who books means that even though Ace actually has sex, she can’t actually use the word ‘sex’ – instead her thoughts always trailing off into girlish blushes instead – ‘I cant believe we just…he he he!’ ). Ethan also provides a strong character, a total loner beset by mental health problems who is forced by his contact with the Doctor and Ace to venture out into the wider world. Unfortunately the ‘bad guy’ Brett is awful – there’s no real justification for his motivation to destroy the entire universe, he’s just a run of the mill Mad Evil Villain. Molecross, the nerdish webzine editor is better, but unfortunately the whole angle of the nerd who uncovers the reality of the Doctor’s adventures behind UNIT cover-stories has already been used in Kate Orman’s Return of the Living Dad. The biggest disappointment when it comes to all the characters is Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart – not because he’s out of character, but because he shouldn’t even be here at all. The story is set post-Battlefield, so Lethbridge-Stewart is brought out of retirement again, so you might expect that he has some large role to play in saving the planet – in fact he get almost nothing to do (secure the crop circle site, track down a missing person, make the Doctors tea) - not only could this have been handled by Bambera (or her replacement if you loathe the character as much as I), but the local police could have been as much use as UNIT. I love the Brig, but brining him back for no reason would be the same as making the unnamed UNIT Doctor here Harry Sullivan and then not giving the character anything to do – utterly pointless.

Ultimately The Algebra of Ice is very readable, with mostly interesting characters – but the thin storyline soon becomes repetitive, boring, and unbelievable. A huge backward step for Lloyd Rose – I just hope the fawning adulation hasn’t resulted in a ‘bung out any old thing’ mindset – let’s hope she can turn it around next time.

Michael Adams

For me personally, The Algebra of Ice was the most eagerly awaited Doctor Who release of the year. Lloyd Rose has offered detailed plotting and quirky characters to immerse the reader in during her last two novels so it was to be expected that there was a great deal of pressure to live up to her reputation with this release. From the outset there is nothing original here. It is the standard ‘unkown alien force trying to enter earth and take it over with a couple of humans to assist them’ type of story we all know so well. Yet this is not a problem, many Doctor Who novels recycle the same plot over and over. However, Rose manages to interweave appealing cameo characters with an ingenious mathematical twist so the plot sounds far more complicated than it actually is.

The opening scenes featuring the Doctor and Ace don’t do any justice to the rest of the novel and read as exceptionally rushed and amateur. But don’t judge the book on the initial chapters. I got the impression that Rose was so caught up with what she wanted to create in the main body of the novel that she forgot the importance of a powerful introduction. The TARDIS is having its usual issues and the Doctor finds history is being altered etc. As we zoom past (getting the quintessential introduction over and done with) there is a lot to like here. The mathematical and somewhat psychologically disturbed genius Ethan offers wonderful reading. His humor and nonplussed nature makes him a joy to read about and his relationship with Ace provides the highlight of the novel. He definitely supplies the comic relief to the novel which helps to break the tension. Ace’s sexual relationship with Ethan also provides nod to the New Adventures and Ace’s many sexual escapades she had within them. Although Rose thanks the authors of the NA’s, this isn’t written in the style of the New Adventures; after all it’s a BBC PDA, yet Rose deliberately attempts to tie the novel in with NA continuity. Various references such as the Doctor’s house in Kent can be seen throughout. This is a welcome change and I’m glad such references were not edited out as many 7th Doctor PDA’s have ignored and deliberately contradicted the long run of the Virgin NA’s. Lets embrace them people!

The Doctor in contrast does not fair well. To put it plainly, he is unrecognizable. His mannerisms and particularly his vocabulary is unfamiliar with the established 7th Doctor. I often appreciate various interpretations of each Doctor since it is inevitable, however there must be some sense of familiarity too. It isn’t here. With such detailed and accurate portrayals of the 8th Doctor in Rose’s EDA’s, I expected more from her 7th Doctor. This is a huge dent in an otherwise great novel. Ace on the other hand returns to her immature and happy-go-lucky self that was often seen in the very early New Adventures. Sexually charged and bull-at-a-gate, Rose demonstrates why she was such a different companion for the Doctor with a freshness that has long since departed for many other authors.

With the inclusion of UNIT, the Brigadier also finds himself involved, but I don’t exactly know why. I found that his appearance bothered me. He did not have a vital purpose in the proceedings and was thus completely irrelevant. So why did Rose feel the need to include him? I don’t see much point when an author introduces a vital character from Doctor Who’s past without actually using them to further the plot. I believe it’s been dubbed ‘fanwank’.

Being reasonably familiar with mathematics Algebra of Ice was an unusual twist on an old story. It is true that all matter breaks down to mathematics (I’m not sure about simple mathematics) and it was quite credible to draw on the existence of crop circles and their scientific following to provide an explanation as to how the ‘other’ may enter our world. I could just imagine the hours of research Rose did on crop circles and chasers. I also enjoyed the fact that for the majority of the time the ‘other’ was kept behind the metaphorical curtain. I often wonder if Rose draws inspiration from Lovecraft in her work. Invisible creatures or presences are far more eerie than those that can be visualized and Rose works this to her absolute advantage.

Whereas the introduction to this novel smacks of a rushed job, the finale is breathtaking. A touching reunion between Ethan and the Doctor provides a bitter-sweet sense of closure to the proceedings. An ending I won’t detail here but which left me quite content. It was also fantastic to see the return of the mysterious and powerful Doctor who’s telepathic ability was always somewhat of a mystery. His final revelation to Ethan also proves the point that the Doctor constantly knows so much more than he ever lets on. He is certainly a powerful and knowledgeable creature, surpassing anything human… would I be pushing it if I said he was Godlike? I wonder if the 8th Doctor has any awareness of his inherent abilities?

The Algebra of Ice is a well constructed piece of writing. It uses tension, humor and plotting to its optimum level with fascinating cameo characters the reader wants to keep reading about. Where it falls short of being a brilliant novel is the characterization of the Doctor. As I mentioned before, it’s simply awful. Rose and the 7th Doctor at this stage, do not mix. Maybe it was because the 7th Doctor is one of the most challenging incarnations to date. I really wanted to fall in love with Algebra but the Doctor provided a huge dent in an otherwise breathtaking novel. I am disappointed that this is the case. I would recommend The Algebra of Ice as it is one of the better PDA’s for plotting and one off characters but this novel did not live up to its full potential as an adventure for the 7th Doctor. Maybe it would have worked better for the 6th Doctor instead.

Marcus Salisbury

On the basis of two 8DAs, Lloyd Rose has become known as one of the best Who-writers around. Her previous works ‘Camera Obscura’ and ‘City of the Dead’ lurk somewhere near the top of most fan polls, and rightly so. They’re incredibly well-written, ‘gothic’ in a way, and are true ‘character pieces’ in a manner that most 8DAs only aspire to be. Rose writes brilliantly, and has adopted the same philosophy as that espoused by the great Mad Larry Miles—that the writing of an absolutely ball-tearing 8DA every few years is far preferable to grinding out twice as many that are half as good.

So what’s a Lloyd Rose PDA like? From first principles, this isn’t really a 7DA. It’s a Rose NA, as suggested by her acknowledgement of that series in the book’s afterword. Seventh Doctor PDAs usually fit (like Dale Smith’s ‘Heritage’) into the ‘Season 27’/NA hybrid mode created by Perry and Tucker, in which we still have Ace basically fitting the televised version and a Doctor only hinting at the capacity for amoral artifice seen in ‘The Also People,’ ‘So Vile a Sin,’ and all those classic Virgin NAs from a decade ago now. Rose dispenses with these formalities by completely overhauling the ‘Season 27’ Doctor and replacing him with a Seventh Doctor who is truly startling, unsettling and sinister. This might just be ‘The Algebra of Ice’s’ most noteworthy achievement. It’s certainly its most disturbing one.

‘Algebra’ is a character piece in the usual Rose fashion. The action hinges around a half-dozen or so characters, including the regulars, and each of them is developed, tried, tested, and made to grow before our very eyes. Sad to say (and this is the only major criticism I could make about the book) the Brigadier is not on this list. He’s under-worked and under-used here, and I’m still wondering why he was included here at all when some lesser UNIT minion (Mike Yates, for instance) could easily have made a cameo appearance and given more bang for their buck, so to speak. Readers expecting a kind of ‘Shadows of Avalon’ Brig-fest may be disappointed. This isn’t really a UNIT novel, or even an ‘alien invasion’ novel. It’s a true ‘character piece’.

Of far more assistance to the regulars are Ethan, the maths genius-cum-Ace’s love interest, and Molecross, an initially irritating webzine publisher and conspiracy theorist who undergoes a tragic accident and emerges as the novel’s truly heroic figure. I realize that this doesn’t sound like much, but the interactions between the Doctor, Ace, Ethan and Molecross form the emotional heart of the novel, and the denouement is a tear-jerker that makes the conclusion to ‘Curse of Fenric’ look like the last thirty seconds of a ‘Scooby-Doo’ episode—and redeems the Doctor in Ethan’s eyes, given that the relationship between him and the Doctor is defined ultimately by a moment that will have NA fans crying out in nostalgic admiration and disgust toward the ‘little monster’.

Ace is also moving toward the NA version here. She’s growing up, realizing that ‘the Professor’ is as much a manipulating murderer as a nice little cosmic do-gooder. I don’t know if Rose had Mark Gatiss’s classic NA ‘Nightshade’ in mind when she wrote this book, but that’s the NA that’s closest to ‘Algebra of Ice’ in its overall ambience and Doctor-Ace relationship. And that’s no bad thing at all.

It’s also good to see a bunch of aliens who are, well, alien. Their Earthly minions are suitably screwed-up and nasty, and Ace gets to bite one of them on the ear. The ‘alien invasion’ aspect of the plot is simply a ‘MacGuffin’ in the classic Hitchcock sense of the term, however—‘Algebra of Ice’ is a character-based book, with the Doctor-Ace relationship being explored in terms above and beyond the usual Perry-Tucker context. Imagine ‘Loving the Alien’ done a hundred times better and without the continuity references lurking around every corner, and you’ll see what I’m getting at here.

‘Algebra of Ice’ is a fantastic book, one that is depressing, uplifting, saddening and affirming by turns. It’ll be interesting to see how the Lloyd Rose version of the Seventh Doctor catches on—I’d like to see her write a Big Finish audio for the character—but ‘Algebra of Ice’ is probably the best Seventh Doctor PDA, and certainly one of the best two or three books in the PDA range. Lloyd Rose has done it again. Buy this book as a matter of urgency—it is truly brilliant.

Joe Ford

How on Earth do you follow up on City of the Dead and Camera Obscura without disappointing your audience? A question I have been posing ever since I heard Lloyd Rose was to be penning September’s Past Doctor Adventure earlier in the year. Fortunately she has found the answer…to try your hand at something entirely different so comparisons are just not valid. Rose’s previous works both played about with the luxury of horror, both psychological (the Doctor’s mind in the first book) and visceral (his missing heart in the second) but here she tries her hand an altogether different genre, a very human character drama with very few players who are explored in extraordinary depth.

Don’t let the cover, the blurb and the first few chapters fool you, this isn’t really about aliens and their intentions no matter how much the writer tries to convince you, it is about the lives of five people who come together in extraordinary circumstances and their reactions to each other.

The Doctor: I have never seen the seventh Doctor dealt with so brilliantly before and I have read a hell of a lot of seventh Doctor books. It is something of a minor miracle that any writer can still get some leverage out of this character who has been written to death over the years but if anyone could look at him, the quietest and scariest of incarnations in a new light, then it is Lloyd Rose. I truly appreciate the effort that goes into exploring his mind (without popping in their in some horrible metaphor land) and his way of dealing terrible situations. In Rose’s hands he is a dangerous imp, resting in the shadows and watching the pain of his friends, the pain of the universe and stepping in when he feels things must change. His fake cheerful personality is ripped away throughout the book, just a smoke screen to hide his real emotions, his fear of how far he will go to save the day.

There are some seminal seventh Doctor scenes here, especially with Ethan. How he obfuscates and avoids telling the human the truth about himself despite needing his help, finally Ethan snaps and forces him to reveal his intentions. When he asks Ethan if he loves Ace, Ethan reverses the question and forces the Time Lord to confront his feelings. In a moment of startling drama Ethan realises exactly what the Doctors plan is and screams “You little monster!” and you can only agree with his assessment.

I loved the fallout from his actions during Remembrance of the Daleks, it is about time somebody questioned his damnable act at the climax to that story. To hear the Doctor justify his genocidal actions but to agonise over them in his mind proves how volatile he is inside. It takes an alien race devoted to killing to see who the Doctor really is inside, at least in this body.

He’s got a smile on his face and a knife behind his back…he’s not a man to trust and I like that. Rose has given the seventh Doctor back that unpredictability that made his previous incarnation so fascinating, he almost seems like a spanking new character again.

Ace: Justin Richards is right, it is Ace’s story, primarily an exploration of her relationship with the Doctor without any of that horrid NA angst that sabotaged her character so much. Ace in The Algebra of Ice is spot on, a child inside despite her protestations to the contrary. She swears and shouts and bullies her way into people’s lives, getting off on the adventure and bruising herself along the way. It is marvellous to see her innocence again, trusting so completely in the Doctor and not seeing what he is up to in the shadows. It is hysterical to see that both Ace and the Doctor think of each other as a child to be looked after; they truly have a symbiotic relationship. And it is heart-warming to hear them both admit how much they need each other but more importantly, why.

However Ace’s relationship with Ethan is even more interesting and easily the highlight of the book. He’s a computer geek, she’s a well’ard chick…it’s a recipe for disaster isn’t it? But there in lies the fun, their bitchy dialogue is great fun and how they continue to fight each other even when it is so obvious how much they like each other keeps their scenes sparkling throughout. It’s rare for the books to capture a relationship between a regular and a non-regular that captures your emotions so totally but this is a roller coaster of surprises I never wanted to get off. Their inevitable parting is supremely touching.

Ethan: The star of the book as far as I’m concerned, a schizophrenic, neurotic, grumpy genius who just wants to be left alone! You’ve gotta love how the Doctor and Ace barge into his life and turn it upside down and his constant attempts to escape them. He is almost unlikable to a point but therein lies the charm, on page 102 there is a delightful shift in his character that impressed me no end.

I loved how the book looked at mathematics, an especially dry subject through the eyes of this angry child. His relationship with numbers borders on insanity and encapsulates why he is such a loner, numbers are predictable, safe. As soon as Ace enters his life and sets off a nitro nine of emotions flowing he is unable to cope with matters and watching him grope about helplessly is what makes him so memorable.

Two scenes highlight his special-ness. There is a beautifully quiet moment with Ace at the piano, two people who are so totally different and one sharing a passion of theirs with the other, the way you only do with someone you care about very much. And the final scene that brought tears to my eyes, as Ethan admits his true feelings to the Doctor.

Molecross: Who can’t identify with this total loser? There is something dreadfully appealing about a hanger-on, somebody who everybody wants to bugger off but always turns up unexpectedly. Everybody hates an investigative journalist (unless your initials are SJS), especially one who writes for an alien investigations/government cover up webzine! Molecross is so delightfully in his element with his window into the Doctor’s world, to have all his silly opinions confirmed is the result of a lifetime!

Brett: I have now discovered a trio of villains who should gang up and become the vilest crime team the world has ever known. Wife beater Basalt from Timeless, mind fucker Guardin from Emotional Chemistry and now razor fists Brett from the Algebra of Ice. What a total and utter bastard! I felt nothing but contempt for the guy before I heard his motives for his actions but afterwards I wanted to kill him myself. He is the epitome of why the Doctor is around, to bring down manipulative bullies like this.

When Ace finally gets to have a go at him I was cheering all the way. There is an astonishingly brutal scene between the Doctor and Brett that made me feel sick, I’m certainly glad it was never televised. His eventual fate was freaky beyond words and makes for an impressive climax as he hijacks the safest of safe houses.

Mix these five with a little alien interference and let the drama boil over. It’s a good thing to because the idea of a book that is built around maths sounds like a total bore, trust Rose to never let the novel get dry and despite the discussions of formulae, equations, algebra, etc there is always a very human element to keep you gripped.

Its strange I was expecting something quite different from this book, an epic tale of alien invaders but what you get something much more intimate and involving. For long periods of time there appears to be no great danger at all but with all the emotions flying between the characters you never get a chance to notice. To scale a Doctor Who novel down to such an extent, concentrating exclusively on the characters and one problem (the crop circle) sounds a total drag but the writing, the prose so special it draws you in. It might take you to the end to realise how special this book is but it hit me about halfway through where I stopped caring about the science fiction ideas and was absorbed into the drama.

BBC books are having a fantastic year. This is another top notch piece of fiction from an increasingly impressive PDA range, after last years disappointing efforts it looks as though the sister range is finally delivering the goods.

Not at all what you are looking for and all the better for it.