Review: Borrowed Time by Naomi A. Alderman

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture review on 3 July 2018.

From a career perspective, the middle initial is the would-be sci-fi writer’s greatest asset. Especially if you also hope to maintain a career in the Literary Sphere, a good middle initial can demarcate your science fiction from the ‘real world’ stuff, while still reeling in your inbuilt audience. Hence Iain M. Banks, Jenny T. Colgan, and the subject of today’s review, Naomi A. Alderman. Now world-famous as the author of 2016 bestseller The Power, in 2011 Alderman was “only” a very successful and respected literary novelist, known for titles including Disobedience and The Lessons. Apparently at the request of her younger cousin that she ‘write something for him to read,’ Alderman donned the middle initial to pen a Doctor Who novel featuring Matt Smith’s Doctor for BBC Books. The result, Borrowed Time, is a thoughtful and exciting Doctor Who story about nefarious bankers and alien con merchants, seeing a re-release this month to capitalise on Alderman’s still-rising star. 

Given the commercial reasons behind this re-release, it is perhaps ironic that Borrowed Time concerns itself so heavily with late capitalism. The first chapter follows a day in the life of Andrew Brown, a harassed and overworked junior analyst at Lexington International Bank, as he oversleeps, forgets his sister’s birthday, and turns up late and under-prepared to a meeting. At peak frustration, he is approached by two sinister businessmen, Mr Symington and Mr Blenkinsop, who make him an offer he can’t refuse:

‘Mr Brown, we can loan you time.’
‘That’s right, Mr Brown. We can lend you as much time as you need. As much time as you can handle. As much time as you could ever desire.’”

But of course, this offer comes with a catch: 

“‘Now of course, Mr Brown, that time will have to be paid back.’
‘At what we think you’ll agree,’ muttered Mr Blenkinsop, just a little too fast for Andrew to fully catch, ‘is a very reasonable rate of interest.’

A few months later, the Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive to find strange goings-on at Lexington International Bank. Its employees are almost inhumanly productive, apparently spending more time at work than there are hours in the day, and its new boss, Rebecca Laing-Randall, seems to be hiding something… 

The novel’s basic setting and concerns have aged well. Borrowed Time came out three months before the start of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and the intervening years have seen repeated controversies surrounding bankers’ bonuses, austerity, Corbynism, and even Doctor Who itself explicitly fighting ‘capitalism in space’ in the 2017 episode Oxygen. There’s a maturity to the way Alderman deals with these concepts that feels refreshing for a Doctor Who book, not to mention being ahead of the larger franchise. That said, Borrowed Time is nothing as dull as ‘Doctor Who for Grown-Ups’. Alderman is unashamedly writing an all-ages action adventure with all the requisite monsters and chases (including a rather fun runaround with some giant cockroaches under the Millennium Dome). 

This all-ages remit is hard-wired into Doctor Who. Originally conceived as a family programme, intended to bridge the gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury in the BBC One Saturday evening schedule, its original cast consisted of two middle-aged schoolteachers, a teenage girl and an older man — designed to be as demographically diverse and thus broadly appealing as possible (within the limited range of people who could attain starring roles on BBC One in 1963). This family focus, always present to one degree or another in its subsequent 26-year run, meant the show was ripe for a revival in the early 2000s wave of ‘crossover’ children’s fiction marketed to adults. The standard-bearer for this wave was the Harry Potter franchise, and Russell T. Davies repeatedly cited J.K. Rowling as an influence over his 2005 revival of Doctor Who (at one point even speculating about casting her in an episode). This literary tradition was further played up when Steven Moffat took over in 2010, emphasising the show’s ‘fairy tale’ qualities, and it’s broadly this tradition that Alderman writes in here. The ostensibly ‘adult’ setting of the bank is made accessible to children through the familiar figures of the Doctor and his companions, while the abstract threat of financial disaster is made more visceral through the use of monsters. 

Everything about Borrowed Time points to a writer who fundamentally “gets” Doctor Who. The book has twenty chapters of near-uniform length, each containing an interesting set piece, from ‘our heroes are trapped in a confined space with alien crabs’ to ‘the Doctor attempts to blend in at a business meeting and fails utterly’. These keep the action nicely varied while still advancing the main plot, creating a brisk pace that ensures no idea outstays its welcome. It is by no means a revolutionary structure, but it does demonstrate that real thought has gone into shaping the story and making it engaging to younger readers. References to Doctor Who old and new are sprinkled throughout (seeing a Respected Literary Author reference The Masque of Mandragora is a rare joy for the long-term fan) and the basic idea of ‘aliens wreak havoc in contemporary London’ owes a clear debt to the 1970s iteration of the show, as well as its more modern incarnations. There’s even a revival of the show’s educational mandate, with the revelation that the book’s villains are exploiting the human race’s craving for time by lending it to them at impossibly high rates of compound interest, resulting in them owing more time than they could ever repay. This not only turns the novel into a sci-fi retelling of the 2008 financial crisis, it also leads to a pleasantly kid-friendly explanation of how compound interest works, through layers of icing stacked upon a slice of cake:

‘The interest goes up much faster than your actual borrowings. Once an hour, a slice of icing for every hour you’ve borrowed.’
‘That’s a lot of icing.’
‘That’s how compound interest works. Eventually, the icing you have to pay on the icing is thousands of times more than the cake.’
Amy stared at the soft sweet brown mass of icing. She’d never disliked icing before, but she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to eat it again now.

By making the villains’ scheme hinge on a real feature of the financial system, the book manages to highlight the potentially predatory nature of that system without resorting to raw didacticism. In this moment, we are not merely asked to contemplate the possible danger of compound interest — we are made viscerally aware of it, with the knowledge that Amy has herself been borrowing time and now owes thousands of years. By evoking the existing financial system, and subjecting a character we care about to a particularly brutal iteration of it, Alderman demonstrates the unfairness of that system while providing a moment of dramatic horror. 

On top of that, the book has a number of clever riffs on the idea of money in Doctor Who generally, and how the show tends to obscure concrete economics. At one point Rory gives a homeless woman money, musing:

It was funny how, living in the TARDIS and travelling with the Doctor, money began to feel less important, even meaningless. There were seemingly limitless supplies of all kinds of exotic alien currencies piled up in some of the TARDIS’s rooms… but they never found anything much to spend money on, and the things they did and saw couldn’t have been bought at any price. He’d brought loads of money, just in case, but now he only carried his wallet out of habit, and this woman needed its contents more than he did.

This is a clever observation, and one which naturally extends from Rory as a character. Not only is Rory a generally kind person, he’s also someone who notices and comments on the rules governing the world of Doctor Who — in series five, for example, he twigs how the TARDIS works before the Doctor can explain it to him. Amy is similarly well-served by Alderman, with an entire chapter dedicated to her over-borrowing time, which neatly demonstrates the seductive power of the villain’s offer. If anything, the Doctor is the one given the least attention in the character department, with relatively little insight into his emotional state as he dispenses jokes and exposition. Mind you, this is far from unusual for the series, and is made up for by a well-developed supporting cast, including three employees of Lexington Bank whom the Doctor and his friends help rebel against their corporate masters. 

Even with its shiny new edition, Borrowed Time is likely to remain a footnote in Alderman’s larger career. But as career footnotes go, it is far more interesting than it has any right to be; an imaginative, intelligently-structured Doctor Who story with lots of jolly anti-capitalism for the kids. Indeed, on the strength of this book, it’s easy to see why Alderman was tapped as one of the first authors to write for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in prose, with an as-yet unnamed story featuring the Thirteenth Doctor set to drop next March. One can only hope that story will continue in the vein of Borrowed Time; exciting, characterful, and unmistakably Doctor Who. 

Oh, and it contains the greatest thematic riff ever written on Attack of the Cybermen. 

Borrowed Time is re-released in paperback now. It is available here, RRP £7.99. 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s