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The Also People

Doctor Who: The Virgin New Adventures #44
Finn Clark

A joy to read, from beginning to end. This book is delightful even for someone like me who came to hate the People in the later Benny books. Okay, so it's a rip-off of Iain M. Banks and his Culture novels, but it's not plagiarism. It's more honest and loving than that. No, it's a playful "what if"... "what if the Doctor met the Culture?". That's a pretty slender thread on which to hang a novel, but (against all expectation, now I come to think about it) the results are wonderful.

Plotwise it's almost on a par with Happy Endings. The TARDIS crew goof around in an advanced super-civilisation and when they can't think of anything better to do, play at being detectives. None of that matters. The book isn't trying to be action-adventure, with the usual villainy and brushes with death. Instead it simply has fun following the Doctor, Benny, Chris and Roz through their encounters with endearingly human People of varyingly biological or mechanical origins. This is where subsequent People novels fell down. Eventually they became a bunch of charmless smug gits hanging on to God's coat-tails and needlessly cluttering up the Benniverse. However here they're people. Not People. Just people. You'll like them and want to keep reading about them.

What's more, they're funny. This book has a wonderfully light touch, such with the way our heroes become reluctant celebrities. ["You're that Roz Forrester, aren't you? I'm your greatest fan."] Once we get past an ugly wodge of continuity in Chapter One, things settle down to some lovely characterisation of the regulars with one or two interesting touches. Near the start of the book I was tickled to see the way in which Chris kept seeking permission from Roz to do things. There's also a strong African sensibility to the book, realised through Roz, Kadiatu and more, which made a nice change from Doctor Who's usual lily-white Englishness. We need more of that.

An oddity struck me. I can see why the People's machines find the term "robot" insulting, but I'm surprised that they prefer the word "drone". As a real-life experiment, try calling someone a drone to their face tomorrow and see how they react. Oh, and there's Dalek poetry on p199.

This is an intelligently written book, but at its heart is a comparison that's pure kiddie playground. The Doctor versus the Culture... who's badder? Of course this book is far wittier and more playful than my deliberately childish question, but Aaronovitch is still having fun making the Doctor look awesome by comparing him with people who can basically do *anything*. What's more, both sides come out looking cool from the book's light-hearted games of one-upmanship (as opposed to, say, Sherlock Holmes in All-Consuming Fire or the Sean Connery character in Trading Futures).

This is a lightweight book, almost candyfloss... but it's delightful. I never wanted to stop reading it. You know how normally one has half an eye on how many pages are left? No matter how good a book might be, there's always that tendency to rebellion of the attention span... "still another 200 pages, bloody hell, let's take a break for a moment". The Also People never made me think that. It's just charming and fun from the first page to the last, and one of very few Doctor Who books where I was slightly disappointed to reach the end and have to stop reading. I can't think of a higher compliment.

Edward Funnell

Once in a while along comes a novel where one is astounded by the breadth of creativity and the sheer imagination that has been forced into play to get it on the page. These novels are secure in their delivery of quality and, by association, the reader is hooked. In so far as one can have a "classic" NA then The Also People stands as a testament to how writing exceptionally to character can provide sufficient impetus to carry a basic plot. It is also an object lesson in ensuring that before a plot can develop the worldview that the protagonists are encapsulated in needs to have grounding in pseudo-reality. Or, to put it more simply, you place the Doctor and crew in a wholly ordered imagined scenario because you want to write about the concepts and people specific to that scenario rather than wishing to solely write because on page it is Doctor Who.

Aaronovitch is not so much an experimental writer as a damn good one. In other hands The Also People would be palmed off as a bit of whimsy. On face value the notion of talking parachutes and suchlike sound like poor attempts at conceit. God could easily have been a fop to our own religious worldview. Instead, God is the ultimate repository of uber-evolution. The notion that machines can develop beyond the barrier of sentience is ham sci-fi. This is developed by Aaronovitch in a society that is so far up the scale that its impressiveness is not arrogance simply "how it is". This ensures that the idiosyncrasies of ships and droids become not only acceptable but also fascinating. Their sentience is less important, therefore, than what they give to the bigger picture.

The novel is suffused with topicality - even today. The idea that Chris has his sperm stolen by Dep reeks of an invitro-fertilisation and genetic manipulation agenda. Here it is a "crime" to not tell the father that he will be genetically replicated purely because of a selfish need (i.e. to hold that which will not stay). This is pure pseudo reality. That this can lead to exile from a society where the ultimate punishment is that no-one will speak to you is a cry to all those eccentric and non-conformists out there who buck the trend, at risk to themselves, in order to achieve their own inner sense of satisfaction.

Yet for all its evolutionary progress the Dyson Sphere inhabitants are prone to faddish behaviour cultivated by their own ennui. Roz can become a product of the media simply because she is different - even for a Barbarian. This difference is picked up and promoted as much your pop or film star might be in today's media inrush. Money is redundant in this society because they have reached a utopian plateau where all are more or less equal in their financial status. Therefore, the pleasure of shopping is not acquisition but instead is treated as a mark of respect - someone wants something that you create. Any artiste would agree that this is the greater pleasure.

The fact that Gallifrey has a peace treaty with this world is indicative of how much of a threat they could be - at one point the Ships almost promote a war which needs the Doctor's diplomacy to diffuse. Yet apart from back history references the idea of this threat is only credible because they are so evolved that you wouldn't want to try your luck. Parallels with Gallifrey exist in that the ships behave to their crew in much the same way as TARDISes do - even to the point of revenge when they are lost

Away, however, from the conceptual and actual "thought" that Aaronovitch displays in holding his novel together there is an underpinning murder/mystery plot. Refreshingly this is secondary to the environment. It allows dynamic and an excuse for the Doctor et al to involve themselves further in the culture but this is purely a route so that the author can widen the canvass and show us more of his creation. That said, on the occasions when the book decides to stick to the genre in terms of "under threat" narrative the execution has hardly been bettered - past or present. One only has to read the segment on the beach with the generated "piranha worms" to understand how "threat" can add value to a novel if handled carefully.

The Also People is, without doubt, a people book. Anyone who wanted to pick one book and understand the relationship between the Doctor, Benny, Roz and Chris (and, incidentally, why this is still to this day the best TARDIS combination in the history of the novels) need only look here. All are enthused with clear characteristics and motivation - not only that but they have a rationale of behaviour that is often lost in the BBC range. They act the way they do not because they push the narrative along but because they are people in their own right. Aaronovitch does not swamp this characterization as he has a lightness of touch and a humour that, unthinkably, can have the team sitting around simply talking for much of the novel and still end up adding value. On a personal note, Chris just makes one swoon.

There is so much to say about The Also People that a review barely does it justice. It is a rare treat. It is polished, thought provoking, entertaining and intelligent. It is also a book one finds it hard to imagine BBC Books commissioning as it belongs to a time when creative freedom was more in abundance and writers did not always have to have an agenda in order to write perfect Who.

Shane Welch

Wow! This book is as vast and as stimulating as the environment it is set in. The idea of Dyson Spheres is an excellent one, and although an old idea (I've been fascinated with the concept since reading Larry Niven's 'Ringworld', and Colin Kapp's 'Cageworld' series years ago), it is a new concept for Doctor Who. I'm surprised it has never been explored in the series until now, or for that matter, since.

Saying this book is a murder mystery is an understatement, yet at it's simplest The Also People is an old-fashioned who-dunnit. Where this book surpasses the ordinary is the fact that the author also seizes the opportunity to create a convincing, fresh environment, a unique, interesting culture and then populates it with numerous appealing, 3-dimensional characters.

The TARDIS crew are extremely well handled here. The foursome of the Doctor, Benny, Roz and Chris are 'real people' in this book. Benny is just being Benny. She does things because, in that situation, that is how Benny would react. The same is true for the others; their actions are true to their character. They live their lives and the plot flows naturally from this.

Racial tolerance is one of the main themes explored by this book. A theme very current today, and I fear for a long time into the future. The People are a civilisation consisting of both organic and non-organic (sentient machines) people. All types are recognised as 'human'. It is impossible to denigrate someone in this culture by sex or colour (for example), when simple things like sex and colour are a preference and can be changed at whim. In this culture, things like sex, sexual preference, colour, body shape and even race have become irrelevant.

I have only one (extremely small) difficulty with this novel. The idea that The People are so advanced that they have a non-aggression pact with the Time Lords is a compelling one, but I find it hard to believe that any civilisation without time travel could hold it's own against an enemy with time travel.

A unique experience. Easily one of the best Doctor Who novels yet written. The People are long overdue a return visit.

Douglas Westwood

Am I the only person who didn't like The Also People? Mr A is fond of using Blackadder quotes in this book. Well, I also have a relevant one which hits on its main problem: No one gets into a tricky situation over so much as a pound note! Considering the length of the book, I just didn't care about one murdered robot. As Roz says to the murderer at the end, 'You just don't get it, do you?' Well, I'm afraid I didn't either; I want more excitement in a book. At least some of the 'people' could have died as well to sustain some interest!

As for the People themselves, yes they were very technologically advanced but see, in a sci-fi novel, this doesn't do more than make one's eyebrows twitch ever so slightly. Otherwise, they're all as bland as their own surviving robots. Chris has yet another baby (this book was before Happy Endings, wasn't it?) that has been somehow altered inside the womb. Well, who cares?! Gripping stuff this isn't.

Oh,the book has some amusing moments and characters, its light years better than Transit (what wasn't?) and so long as you don't take it seriously it can even be enjoyable. 'Why should it be apple trees?', indeed. But do not think this one is a compulsive page turner. Five out of ten, perhaps?

Lawrence Conquest

Talk about a book of two halves! The Also People is simultaneously one of the most inventive yet laziest Who novels I have ever read. My guess is that other readers enjoyment of this novel will largely rest on the baggage they bring with them, both on what constitutes an 'exciting Doctor Who adventure', and on whether they've recognise the material the author is plundering.

Lets tackle the good stuff first - the characters. This is without a doubt the best treatment of any TARDIS team seen in print. The Doctor himself is on fine form, being both ridiculously powerful whilst retaining a whimsical charm, but Benny, Roz and Chris all share the limelight, and for the sheer enjoyment of seeing this team interact I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. However, in order to make room for this level of focus on its cast, the novels plot has had to give way - so there isn't any.

OK, so I'm being facetious, but only slightly - what plot there is could easily fit on the back of a postage stamp, and elsewhere would form barely enough material for a short story. What we are given is ostensibly a 'who-dunnit', but the details are so slight that it's difficult to give a damn about either the victim or the murderer. To add insult to injury, the big emotional climax when Roz confronts said villain at the stories close is rendered impotent by the authors ham-fisted decision to play the scene as a complete lift from The Maltese Falcon - complete with swathes of replicated dialogue. Roz doing a bad Humphrey Bogart impersonation emphatically does not make for a dramatic ending...

And talking of lifting material - on the first page Aaronovitch states "New Adventure writers get it off the back of a lorry, no questions asked". The author certainly hasn't been shy in hiding the material he has 'borrowed' here - the entire novel is basically a blatant rip-off of Iain M Banks 'Culture' novels. This is far more than a subtle nod here and there though, and with only a few names changed to protect the guilty it occasionally reads as though Aaronovitch has gone through one of Banks novels with a bottle of Tippex and inserted the Doctor and co. To often the word that comes to mind isn't 'homage' but 'plagiarism'. There are some fantastic ideas in The Also People - its just a shame that so few of them are the authors.