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Iceberg

Doctor Who: The Virgin New Adventures #18
Finn Clark

That was an odd little book. Iceberg isn't bad at all, but it's remarkable more for what it is than for the words on its pages. If you don't count Harry Sullivan's War, it's the only original Who novel written by an actor from the show. A few Virgin authors (and more from BBC Books) had worked alongside Sylvester McCoy in other production capacities (writer, script editor, etc.) but this is the work of someone who'd performed with Pertwee, Davison, Colin and McCoy, both on screen and stage. (And if you're being pedantic, Hurndall and Troughton too.) The Cyberleader is giving his take on the 7th Doctor. This is Bad Joke McCoy, rarely seen in the books but definitely entertaining. It's quite interesting, actually.

It's also the first futuristic NA with which history is about to catch up. (I still remember being disappointed when Cybermen failed to invade the Earth in 1979 as my Doctor Who Weekly had promised me.) One might argue that Head Games (published 1995, set in 2001) or Eternity Weeps (published 1997, set in 2003) were futuristic, but I see those more as "not quite contemporary" like the UNIT era. Iceberg is more like The Tenth Planet. Like Cat's Cradle: Warhead before it, this was the *future*. [The Hollow Men, published 1998 and set in 2008, is probably a borderline case.]

This is a book published in 1993 but set in 2006 with all kinds of cyberfuture details. Ruby Duvall, investigative journalist for the Sunday Seeker, tries Virtual Reality and carries around a Holocam and a Nanocom. The environment is failing, with population levels falling due to the "plague" and scientists worried about a reversal of the Earth's magnetic field. International terrorism is a significant concern (which is almost spookily prophetic). We'll have to reread this in 2006 of course, but in 2004 as a snapshot of our impending future it stands up rather well. The only bit that needs rationalising is the currency of "ecus", which I seem to remember was the 1993 equivalent of euros and so perhaps implies that Ruby Duvall thinks in terms of continental Europe.

The plot is incredibly slight. The Doctor and the Cybermen don't turn up until we're over halfway through. There's a rather silly secret on p247 which goes absolutely nowhere and is more likely to provoke mirth than anything else. The Cybermen just sort of turn up then go away again. In the hands of anyone else, this plot would be a subplot.

But to my surprise, this doesn't really matter. Iceberg's big revelation is that David Banks is a rather good writer. The first half is great, keeping one's attention throughout despite a no-show from the notional selling points. Ruby Duvall is a strong character, apparently filling the "temporary companion" role except that the Doctor sometimes seems to be *her* companion rather than the other way around. Also the FLIPback team in Antarctica are fun to read about, even when not much is happening. Give David Banks a crash course in plotting and I'd be keen to see another novel from him. He has a knack for character and a more interesting prose style than some authors I could name.

He also finds the Cybermen fascinating and communicates his enthusiasm. He's on-theme even when the Cybermen aren't around, often counterpointing sweaty physicality with intellectual machine logic. Iceberg is essentially a rewrite of The Tenth Planet, right down to its Antarctic base being commanded by General Cutler's daughter, but for my money does its snowbound horror better. There's something spooky about the glimpses we catch of things in the ice, while back at the FLIPback base there's eventually a touch of Carpenter's Thing chills. There's body horror, as is seemingly inevitable in Cyber-novels, but Iceberg still holds up well in that department despite being the first to do it.

There's a Wizard of Oz thing going on (the Tin Man wants a heart, remember?) which might have felt fresher if we hadn't had Dorothy Gale etc. in the Perry-Tucker books recently. This book wasn't particularly well received back in 1993, but I reckon it's far better than its overly simple plot might lead you to think on first reading. Not at all bad.

Edward Funnell

The Cybermen are, if anything, a product of their time. The concept in the Sixties of race that discard the flesh in favour of the efficiency of cybernetics must have been chilling in that it pandered to the disquiet of those who viewed any form of automation as a step toward the science hell depicted in early genre movies. Even in the Nineties, the concept of "robot men" based on cool, often brutal knowledge seems to have had its day. The Cybermen are now caught a world that is blas‚ about artificial limbs and controlled technology. They have degenerated into fondly remembered foes who, on each successive outing, become lesser in threat and interest. Twenty years from now, the concept of genetics and genetic engineering will similarly become dispossessed of its sense of urgency and threat.

If a Cyberman book is to succeed the requirement is much more to reinvent the threat than to celebrate what it was. Iceberg has little to add in this respect. Banks' novel is retroactive to the whole spirit of the NA's. It's purpose is steeped in cyber-continuity (something for which Banks had a reputation for at the time). It is set in a window of history that curtails any interesting development - the aftermath of the Tenth Planet. For example, it appears more important to stress the development of the Cyber Controller than it does to give a credible explanation for visiting this abandoned arm of the original invasion force. The Cybermen want to rebuild their numbers and are sufficiently interested in one (necessarily) large cruise ship which will, with a little interference, pass by their iceberg of the title so they can nab the passengers. They also intend to sabotage the FLIPback project in order to give them a fighting chance at conquest. The sense of nostalgic retread is heavy. Tieing this further in by having the daughter of Cutler as one of the main protagonists whilst throwing in an explanation as to why the Invasion story passed history by starts to put Banks' agenda on rocky ground. He appears to be unable to let continuity go so that, save for the minimal inclusion of the Seventh Doctor (who more than ever resembles a surrogate Troughton) this book could easily have passed for an MA and been done with it.

The main character is Ruby Duvall and we are presented with a detailed history which, at the time, had many speculate that Banks was looking to create a new companion (even down to the Tegan-esque "just missed getting into the TARDIS" at the end). The problem with Ruby is that she is not sufficiently interesting to hold the book. An investigative journalist reporting on the maiden voyage of the "escape society" SS Elysium she is there to give the Doctor something to react to when the threads start to synch up. The length of time this takes is presumably meant to echo the length of time it takes for the cruise ship to reach the said Iceberg, but it reads like padding and is dramatically slow. The inclusion of Mike, the misguided pop star, and two dreadful cruise ship performers with a hopeless penchant for The Wizard of Oz (the Doctor?) do little to add pace. The takeover and subsequent mind control of the FLIPback team is not only par for the course with the Cybermen of the sixties, but is a plot device which is left hanging when the Doctor arrives. The narrative thrust no longer requires the author to treat the FLIPback project as anything more than he originally intended - a cipher for the "return" denouement. Only Duvall is accorded any real development (with the possible exception of her Nanocom). The rest of the characters just go through their oft cliched motions - even Mike's sign posted part in Duvall's history is wasted in a paragraph.

Banks throws into the bundle a little incomprehensible Chinese philosophy and extends this to have the Doctor travel in a Jade Pagoda. There are better ways of explaining what the Doctor was up to during Birthright rather than this mystical apparition of a quasi-TARDIS. For the book to be classed as a bona fide NA it needs to have its adult content. Apart from Cutler's sense of guilt over her relationship with her father (which leads an artist to become a soldier .), Banks tries to satisfy this with the customary "schlock" nature of cyber-surgery and the horror of conversion.

It is also worth mentioning that even allowing for the "old hat" feel of the story; a better writer may well have been able to construct it to at least make the effort of reading the book a jaunt rather than a long exercise in patience. Banks style is dry and technical (almost like his on screen creations). He splits the narrative in two - slow build up followed by action packed finale. The problem is that his build up is too protracted and written without any colour and his finale is limp, lacking that all important "oomph" factor.

Banks may have written Iceberg with the specific intent of it being an important addition to cyber-continuity. It fails on that count because it appears too familiar. It also fails to be an entertaining read. In the end, it convinces its audience that not only are the Cybermen difficult to write for, but, as a product of a specific time, they should probably be left well alone.