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SLEEPY

Doctor Who: The Virgin New Adventures #48
Andrew McCaffrey

(Although no one will probably be interested in this little view into my reading habits, it was such a relief to read SLEEPY immediately after reading Neal Stephenson's CRYTONOMICON and Andrew Cartmel's WARCHILD. SLEEPY actually had strong female characters! What a joy! Not that SLEEPY is some kind of radical feminist manifesto or anything, but it was a much needed change of pace to see women characters as more than just a) items to be rescued and b) sperm-banks. Hallelujah.)

I liked SLEEPY. I didn't like it as much as I did THE LEFT-HANDED HUMMINGBIRD or SET PIECE, but it has a lot going for it all the same. It seems to be the most straightforward of Kate Orman's first three NAs, and is much more focused on plot and story than on the intricate character explorations that were the highlights of those other two novels. While this made the book seem a little less special, it didn't detract from what is a good, solid, entertaining piece of science fiction.

I liked the way the book opens. Instead of having us first meet these Earth colonists and then going through the obligatory long introductions where the Doctor and companions are met with suspicion, locked up, escape, get locked up again, escape, and gradually gain the trust of the local rebels/leaders, etc., Orman forgoes the usual Doctor Who beginnings and launches us straight into the story. Yes, sometimes those slow introductions can be insightful and enjoyable, but there are times when one prefers to just get on with it. And since SLEEPY was so plot-oriented, I was happy to jump right into the middle of the action.

In any event, the story concerns an Earth colony, and in the spirit of those old Pertwee-era novelisations (I'm thinking specifically of THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE here), the explorers are looking to get away from the solar system and its overbearing governments/corporations. They've settled on what appears to be a hospitable planet and have hopes of raising a large community. But what the Doctor and company discover is an unknown virus that is suddenly activating strange psychic powers in whoever becomes infected. The community is understandably alarmed when a significant number of its membership can now read minds, levitate objects, or set things on fire just by thinking about it.

I mentioned that the story begins quickly. Well, it also moves quickly. The pace is smooth for the most part, but there also seemed to be places where it jerked ahead violently. It had the effect of keeping me on my toes, but I also found it a bit disorientating a times. I really had to pay attention to keep track of what was going on.

To be honest, I found most of the colonists to be a bit faceless. There's a fair amount of detail concerning each of them, but I just couldn't tell them apart without flipping back to reread the relevant sections. On the other hand, the commander of the company forces, Colonel White, was an intriguing and interesting villain.

I don't have a lot to say about this one really. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but not too much struck me in any particular way. I think of SLEEPY as a good engaging read that isn't overly demanding. I'm glad that most of Kate Orman's books are more involved than this one, yet this works well as a relaxing change of pace.

Lawrence Conquest

I don’t know if there can be said to be such a thing as ‘3rd book syndrome’, but as with Paul Cornell before her, Kate Orman’s third book suffers from a huge drop in quality from her earlier novels. While I have absolutely no idea as to the background of this novel, it certainly feels like a professional but joyless work.

The central concept is frankly ludicrous – the conceit being that if psi-powers are the natural end result of human evolution, the same will inevitably occur in advanced artificial intelligences. While the one may follow logically enough from the other, the fact that at no time are we given any scientific (or even psuedo-scientific) explanation of exactly how these humans manage to effect their physical environment solely through the use of their minds renders the whole thing unbelievable.

The supporting characters are also wafer-thin, most of them consisting of simply a name with one dominant characteristic. Added to this is a main ‘bad guy’ whose brief appearance is unmemorable in the extreme. The completely anti-climactic nature of this confrontation suggests a future return, but if so its not one I’m particularly looking forward to.

Its not all doom and gloom of course, the regulars are well written, and the novel starts with a bang, but unfortunately everything is so leaden and lifeless that I found it a struggle to finish. Ultimately I didn’t care about any of the characters, and found the situation completely devoid of drama. Oh well…

Shaun Lyon

It is a very popular thing on the Internet and online services to praise without condition a select group of Doctor Who writers who traditionally put out good material. Although I think she managed to capture the essence of the Doctor and Ace very well -- not to mention wrote one of the all-time greatest farewell sequences when Ace left the Doctor's company in her novel "Set Piece" -- I have never been that big of a fan of Kate Orman's books. Indeed, one of the most popular Who novels of all time, Orman's first, "The Left-Handed Hummingbird," I found to be very much in the vein of the proverbial "fan wank," the, ahem, technical term for a story rife with in-jokes and/or fannish fantasy. (Those of you who read the New & Missing Adventures will understand "fan wank" in such books as "Conundrum" and "Head Games" quite well.)

That said, I'd like to say that I very much enjoyed Orman's latest, "Sleepy," my vote for the best of Orman's three novels. Though Orman doesn't quite get the motif down on the Doctor, who spends far too much time in the novel doing the traditionally mysterious things but not saying terribly much, she manages to capture the companions beautifully. Bernice Summerfield has never been better, Chris Cwej is acting like the post-teen angst-ridden rookie cop he really is, and Roz Forrester... well, she's no-nonsense and never puts her foot in her mouth. It is a very rare thing when an author of the New Adventures can not only get down the characters of these companions -- who have never been seen on television -- but nail all three down quite well.

"Sleepy" is one of the books that ties into the current "psi-power" series via a single character named Madranagopal, working for something called the Brotherhood. It's mentioned in passing, of course, and only at the end does the Doctor call it a loose end (which you know means he'll tie it in later down the series). Madranagopal was one of the creators of an incredible artificial intelligence named GRUMPY, which, for all intents and purposes, developed a life of its own. Before they were able to shut it down, GRUMPY had escaped, sent its intelligence and memories all over the cosmos, and finally fled in a shuttle which was blown up over the surface of a distant planet called Yemaya and destroyed. Or was it?

GRUMPY, you see, had a plan, and that's where we start with the Doctor. He and his companions have arrived on Yemaya thirty years later, where a human colony has innocently found this world and settled as a new home. The book opens in the thick of the action -- the Doctor's mind has been invaded by a psi-virus, a little bug that's ravaging the colony and giving many of them psionic abilities like telepathy, telekinesis and, gasp, pyrotechnics. With the aid of several characters including a scientist duo (Byerley St. John and Cinnabar Flynn), a deaf researcher (Dr. Dot Smith-Smith) and a female couple (Zaniwe and Jenny, who are never explicitly defined as a lesbian pairing but nevertheless are a couple; I'm very pleased about the chances on this topic that the Doctor Who novels are taking), the Doctor and his companions are able to nail down several pertinent facts. One, the virus was genetically created and introduced through the vaccinations the colonists received. Two, someone or something is calling the psionically gifted -- including Chris -- into the forest. And three, if they don't stop the brigade of soldiers that have just arrived on Yemaya -- color-coded, unnamed, faceless soldiers led by a half-crazed visigoth called White -- this could all mean certain doom for the rest of humanity.

That's where the fun begins.

Toward the middle of this book, we start to get bogged down in a lot of stylish play-by-play, including several "dinner" scenes between the Doctor and White that don't reveal much information and instead almost lose the reader in unimportant detail. Nevertheless, whenever I seemed to be just reaching the point where I lost interest, there was another hook... a good thing for a writer, yet a place he or she should never visit. In this book, that hook was the Doctor's plan to send Benny and Roz back thirty years in the TARDIS to Dione, Saturn's moon, where the whole thing began. I can honestly say, I don't quite remember the reason why it happened, but that it was very important... and eventually, that part of the story played out with Roz and Benny kidnapped by Madranagopal and learning about the ultimate fate of GRUMPY.

Actually, the Roz/Benny sequences were a lot more interesting than the stuff back on Yemaya, which developed into nothing more than a lot of posturing on the part of the soldiers and the Doctor and fellow colonists, until everything was sorted into place when a third player entered the game (another ship, which arrives in the last quarter of the book). By then, the Doctor has discovered exactly what's going on and what it is that ties all of this together. I won't reveal the big hook at the end, but let's just say this: GRUMPY is obviously not dead, there's a reason why Chris has wanted to go into the forest, and everything comes together when the Doctor psychically contacts another artificial intelligence. An intelligence called SLEEPY....

The most fun in this book was the AI concepts, something that really hasn't been done in a Who tome before. The Doctor spends some significant time dealing with several AI creations that do a lot of his dirty work -- CONNECTICUT, WATCH OUT! and BAR B, three AI's that safeguard the colony. There's another one, LEONARDO, in orbit. Another, FLORANCE, that plays a very significant role. They develop personalities of their own throughout the novel, even though they're not featured all that much. What I really enjoyed was Orman's resorting to emoticons and shortcuts we computer users know so well... communication between AI's with at's and &'s and little smiley-faces like :-) They've become as important to computer culture as the Internet itself. "Sleepy" becomes, by book end, a tribute to the Internet and the online community, especially in its depiction of how vast that "information superhighway" is in the future... and how easy it is for GRUMPY to proliferate itself into the universe.

It's not my favorite of the New Adventures, but it's by no means a dog. I found the writing to be consistently good, if not for the dips in attention span I suffered a few points along the way. I'd recommend it for the devious plotline and for the attention to detail on the companions more than anything else.