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. 

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Review: The Basilisk Murders by Andrew Hickey

As premises go, ‘stranded on an island with the alt-right’ is surely one of the most nightmarish in recent memory. The Basilisk Murders, the new (ish – this review being a bit fashionably late) novel by Andrew Hickey, makes a savvy move in playing this premise for sick comedy more than outright horror. The alt-right, Lesswrong, techno-libertarians and their assorted fellow-travellers comprise a fundamentally ridiculous ideology, and Hickey mercilessly skewers them over the course of this murder-mystery-cum-satire. The result is a fun book, one that intelligently breaks the mould in key places, but which may not play to people who aren’t aware of why the title image is so funny.

The plot starts out conventional enough – our hero, freelance journalist Sarah Turner, receives an invite to a conference on a remote island, of which she is at first apprehensive, but accepts out of sheer curiosity. What’s less conventional is that she is entirely right to be apprehensive, even before the murders begin. The invite is to “the 1st International Conference on Controlling Existential Threat Through Humane Artificial Intelligence”. Organised by “The Safe Singularity Foundation”, and guaranteed to be swarming with neoreactionaries, it is an environment unlikely to welcome a self-described “bi poly woman” with no regard for ethics in games journalism. Sarah is the ideal character with which to explore the basic bigotry of this ideology, but the scenes of her being condescended to, and at one point even sexually assaulted by one of the conference speakers emphasise the very real danger Sarah is putting herself in by even attending. Sarah’s narration is intelligent and droll, allowing Hickey to entertain the various obsessions of neoreactionism (immortal AIs, matriarchy, “race realism”) without coming close to endorsing them, and this dynamic of exploring a toxic ideology from a radically different perspective is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Another of its great strengths is humour. Hickey is not shy about the ludicrousness of the psuedo-intellectual right, and gets in some hilarious swipes at silicon-valley libertarianism in particular. A personal favourite moment comes in chapter three, as Sarah attempts to check in to her hotel room:

“A man (of course) a few years younger than me – I’d guess twenty-four – with a trimmed goatee beard, round little glasses, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with white writing on it saying “The singularity is my retirement plan” was in front of me. This man had a point to make, and was going to continue making it no matter how futile his attempts were or how much inconvenience it was causing anyone else.

“What do you mean, you don’t accept bitcoin?””

This passage is particularly cathartic if, like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of Bitcoin/Blockchain hype in your line of work, and the book is full of delightfully sardonic asides about the foibles of neoreactionism. (Another highlight is when Sarah attends the “AI vs SJW” panel, “in which various people discussed how to make sure that if they created a machine god it would be just as racist and sexist as them”).

Most of the jokes work well, and anyone familiar with this vile little subculture will probably get a kick out of them. But I do wonder how much of the novel will even be comprehensible to people who don’t at least have a basic grasp of the various alt-right movements. The book assumes a certain level of knowledge about LessWrong, Peter Thiel, Reddit, and Roko’s Basilisk, at least enough that the reader can grasp what it’s parodying in any given scene. I already knew far too much about this subculture from reading Elizabeth Sandifer’s work, and even I felt there were one or two references I wasn’t quite getting. The book is an effective piece of satire, but in getting as specific as it does, it may have blunted its broader appeal.

Absent the satire, the novel falls back on its murder-mystery mechanics, which are something of a mixed bag. The structure feels arbitrary, with sections set over individual days sometimes blurring into one another, and the pacing meanders a bit in the middle. Some of the supporting cast feel interchangeable (one of the problems with having so many of them be white male alt-righters) and there were a couple of murder revelations that made me go ‘which one was he again?’ It’s a shame, because the final reveal of whodunnit is rather clever, hinging on one of the most memorable parts of the book so far, and the villain’s motive is literally chilling. There’s also a fantastic twist to Sarah’s family-drama subplot, and some clever little details to the investigation itself. Moments like receiving a red herring death threat from a Tumblr Anon, or Sarah tweeting out the killer’s identity as she tries to escape give a pleasing ‘of the moment’ vibe to the more Agatha Christie-ish parts of the plot.

The Basilisk Murders is a cathartic little romp, provided at least some awareness of what it’s sending up, and feels like a natural response to the world of 2017. An interesting companion piece might be Sarah Pinsker’s And The There Were (N-One), a more overt Christie pastiche about a conference of all the multiversal versions of a single woman. The basic image, of being surrounded by strangers, any one of whom may wish death upon you for largely inscrutable reasons, feels rather appropriate for this particular cultural moment.

The Basilisk Murders is available to buy on Amazon, RRP £3.77, or free via Kindle Unlimited.

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

CONTENT WARNING: This review discusses industrial and animal abuse, as well as detailed descriptions of cancer symptoms. It also discusses the book’s ending, if spoilers are a big deal for you.

Science fiction these days seems to be intractably stuck in both the past and the future. Which is to say, the present. Brooke Bolander’s new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, embodies this generic mandate. Set in both the past and the near future, it nonetheless speaks to our chaotic cultural moment. While the execution occasionally falls short, the book is most fearsome, and most timely, in its depiction of solidarity among the oppressed, even as it is unflinching about the reality of that oppression.

The novella reworks the historical stories of both Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls, respectively an elephant publicly executed on Coney Island and a group of women systemically poisoned in an effort to save money. This does involve fudging the dates slightly Topsy was electrocuted in 1903, while the Orange New Jersey factory opened in 1917, yet the novella depicts these events as happening simultaneously. This allows Bolander to create a general commentary on the early twentieth century, and her version of events, in which Topsy’s electrocution causes a nuclear explosion off the coast of New York, is open about the cruelty and exploitation on which modernity was founded.

The narrative shifts between multiple protagonists, both before after the Topsy disaster, as well as media cuttings, commemorative songs, and a Kipling-inspired fable about an ancient mother elephant. This might sound like information overload, and the cacophony of voices is very much part of the novella’s effect, but Bolander manages her transitions impeccably. Every narrative jump feels natural, and each one either helps the story progress, or injects fresh perspective on what has come before. Pacing overall is absolutely flawless; the book is precisely the length is needs to be, building ruthlessly to a telegraphed ending that still manages to shock.

The book in general is long on horror, as befits its heavy subject matter. The novella opens with a description of a mountain contaminated by nuclear waste, long after humanity’s extinction, and the irradiated elephants who live there.

“At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.”

The problem of nuclear waste lasting longer than human civilisation is a real and terrifying thing, but this abstracted horror soon gives way to more visceral nastiness, as we meet the character of Regan, an elephant handler poisoned by radium paint. Regan spends most of the novella slowly dying, and Bolander describes this in agonising detail:

“The ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle. Even now, trying to teach this cussed animal how to eat the poison that hammered together her own rickety stairway to Heaven, it’s throbbing and burning like Satan’s got a party cooked up inside and everybody’s wearing red-hot hobnails on the soles of their dancing shoes. She reminds herself to focus. This particular elephant has a reputation for being mean as hell; a lack of attention might leave her splattered across the wall and conveyor belt. Not yet, ol’ Mr. Death. Not just yet.

These metaphors may feel overwrought at first, but they effectively convey Regan’s overwhelming pain, the sentences carefully modulated so that they never feel monotonous. The subtle, jerking moves this paragraph makes towards describing Regan’s interactions with Topsy help convey the conscious effort Regan is making to concentrate on her work. Her pain may be enormous, but she literally cannot afford to dwell on it.

These lengthy, painful descriptions are a clear, and even affecting, part of the book’s point, but there are moments which risk tipping over into simply aestheticising that pain. Worse, though, is the occasionally crass depiction of Regan’s fellow workers. There’s a rather clumsy attempt to sympathetically characterise her abusive foreman, and at one point Regan receives a letter from fellow Radium Girl Jodie that feels a little patronising in its efforts to demonstrate how these women have been denied education.

“Regan,

Just want you to no, aint no hard feeling about the way things paned out. You all did best you cood lookin out for me like blood kin when you no I never had no body since Mama past away. Even yor own mama used to give me a seat at the tabell when holy fokes sooner feed scraps to a stray tomcat than a big uglee plain mannerd girl like me.”

Jodie clearly *can* write she is not illiterate ­ so to have her misspell every other word like this seems like overkill, and the sentences are a bit too lucid to suggest the misspellings are a result of mental deterioration. It’s a small slip, but it is a shame, especially given the novella’s overall success in depicting the humanity of these workers who have effectively been poisoned for profit.

It’s also odd given the savviness of the book’s politics overall. Bolander is heartbreaking in her portrayal of reckless industrial and political elites. Particularly striking are Regan’s long, awkward confrontation with her boss in Part Two, and an early scene where political negotiator Kat realises she is effectively asking a group of elephants to do something for nothing, because it simply had not occurred to her to offer them anything.

“The translator stares at Kat for a little longer than is necessary. She glances back over her shoulder at the matriarch, then back at Kat.

“I just want to make sure I’m hearing this correctly before I translate,” she says, in a lower register. “Did you seriously just show up to what is basically a diplomatic meeting with no bargaining chips whatsoever?””

Moments like these are subtle, yet savage in their portrayal of a system which would not only allow, but encourage this disregard for marginalised groups.

But it’s the ending which takes The Only Harmless Great Thing from savvy and well-crafted story to essential-feeling political statement. Topsy is being marched to her public execution, with both the reader and the main characters knowing it will result in nuclear disaster. At first, she refuses to move. “She smells her ending, and her feet plant themselves, bending-parts senselessly locking.” But then Regan emerges:

“Another human pushes out of the mass the dead girl, still moving, still somehow on her feet when every part of her stinks of corruption. […] She turns, asking in the language of twisted trunk-paws: Are you well? Can you walk? It’s just a little further. We’ll go together.

And even this much We is enough to drive the fear back into the high grass. Her mind stills. Her legs unstiffen. Together they cross the overwater, men flytrailing behind. Together they go to sing the song of their undoing, the joining, teaching, come-together song.”

This final act of compassion, this insistence on solidarity in the face of fatal oppression, is fundamental to the book’s success. The Only Harmless Great Thing is bold, cutting, and exactly what science fiction needs to be right now.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available to preorder from Tor.com, in ebook and paperback editions.

Steven Moffat: A talk at the Oxford Union

This article first appeared on The Cherwell website on 14 November 2016.

“I am rubbish.” This was the opening statement of Steven Moffat’s talk at the Oxford Union on Monday, and it’s an assessment most of the audience presumably disagreed with. Best known for helming Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat’s career stretches back to 1989, and covers such varied genres as children’s TV, sitcoms, feature films, as well as the BBC One dramas which helped make his name. In his brief address before a general Q&A, Moffat stressed the importance of self-awareness.

“I am rubbish. I first became aware of my rubbishness when I overheard my wife on the phone to some camera-people. ‘Don’t get him to take the lens back to Cardiff,’ she said. ‘Why? Because he’ll lose it. I know he’ll lose it. Because he’s rubbish.’ I heard her say that. I took the lens. I lost it.” But rubbishness is a universal trait: “everyone is in disguise as a competent human being.” Diligence is an important factor in success: “you can’t control how rubbish you are… but you can control how hard you work.”

Moffat has been called many things; showrunner, creator, executive producer. But the title he really cherishes is ‘Writer’. “It’s great to be a writer, because we make it up! It’s like you’ve done all the homework, and everyone else copies it.” Moffat was playfully resentful of directors. “They’ll say ‘my inspiration for this movie was this or that moment in my life or this or that artistic vision… and not the 120 pages of finished script my screenwriter gave me! Who else has that, in their job? Oh look, here’s exactly what I need to do.”

The talk then moved into an interview, starting with Doctor Who. Moffat has no patience with the idea of ‘overloading’ the audience. “Children nowadays, teenagers nowadays, are some of the cleverest audiences in history – they’re keeping up with television while texting and tweeting each other, and they’re all getting it. We try never to have a dull moment on Doctor Who.” Catering to adults is fairly straightforward – “it’s like when you go into a restaurant and you eye the children’s menu, and you wish you could order from that instead – it’s the same principle.” There are challenges – “you have to be ringingly clear” – but Moffat was adamant that “to write for children is to write better… everybody likes children’s stuff.”

As well as executive producing Doctor Who, Moffat is co-producer on Sherlock. They’re two very distinct shows, but Moffat finds the differences easy to manage. “I’ve spoken to Mark [Gatiss] about this; we’ve just got to pretend that we don’t work on both. They’re both part of the same landscape, so when a similarity crops up we just try and go with it rather than getting anxious.” It’s not a difference that keeps either writer up at night: “The Doctor is a sort of space Sherlock Holmes anyway.”

Sherlock and Doctor Who are both prestige BBC shows; how does Moffat view the corporation and its future? “The BBC is an unequivocal good – that doesn’t mean every decision it makes is good, or that it’s above reproach, but there’s nothing else in the world like it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The circumstances which produced it are never coming back.” Moffat is not totally enamoured of the beeb; “Mark says: ‘you love the BBC, but you don’t expect the BBC to love you back.’” Governments naturally go after the corporation; “no-one likes being criticised. If I had power over every TV critic in the world, I’d have them all executed!” Nevertheless, Moffat hopes that the BBC “remains the powerhouse that it is.”

Returning to Doctor Who, an audience member asked if there was anything Moffat could tell us about the next series. There was talk of a return of the Cybermen, perhaps even an origin story, but Moffat seemed reticent. “Anything is possible… but it’s not an idea that I’m aware of. It’s kind of been done, and I’d be hesitant to return to it. But then I generally speaking lie, so you never know”.

Conscious of potential spoilers, Moffat ended with a tease of series 10: “The Doctor will reliably save the day. There will be big speeches and evil monsters. There will be an epic amount of urgent standing. And you’ll all fall in love with Pearl Mackie as Bill.”

Review: Baker’s End — The King of Cats

In a year marked by celebrity death after celebrity death, it’s hard not to look at Tom Baker’s latest project — a trilogy of audio dramas about the death of Tom Baker — without going ‘yes, of course’. It’s not just a matter of being in tune with the zeitgeist. Tom Baker has displayed a morbid sense of humour before now, and he’s worked on audio projects with Paul Magrs since 2009. But while Baker’s End follows from what’s come before, this first episode, The King of Cats, crackles with a strange energy of its own. Magrs takes a constant delight in wrong-footing the listener, and Baker plays along gleefully; whatever one might expect from the premise, you can be sure you won’t quite be getting it.

Our story centres on actress Suzy Goshawk, played by the wonderful Katy Manning, who we meet on the train to Tom’s funeral in the quiet village of Happenstance. This is Manning’s show as much as Baker’s, and she’s pure charm; the plot throws tarot readings, sinister villagers, dancing dragons and twerking pensioners at her, and she sells them all with conviction and wit. She makes an excellent straight woman to the bizarre plot, as well as to Tom Baker himself, who makes his grand re-entrance at the halfway mark. Baker plays the whole thing with a darkly manic glee, relishing the wordplay of Magrs’ script, and generally overacting the hell out of everything. He’s clearly having the time of his life, and for all the sombre background the script never lets him become melancholy.

Baker’s star power is formidable, but the rest of the cast are great fun too. David Benson is delightful as a nervous stereotype of a vicar, and Susan Jameson is effectively sinister as Tom’s disgruntled housekeeper. Simon Barnard’s production is subtly creepy, solidifying the slight wrongness of the whole thing, even if the musical cues get a bit repetitive. The plot structure, typically of Magrs, is shambolic; things take a while to get going, and the conclusion feels awfully rushed. But that leisurely pace also gives the performers plenty of space to breathe, and lends the audio a pleasingly introspective feel. Magrs gets in some lovely jokes, including several pitched firmly at the Doctor Who crowd, but they all carry subtly dark undertones. The scenes of Tom Baker trashing a celebrity cooking show and falling off a rooftop in the nude are grimly whimsical, and the audio presents a strange melange of images that never quite sit comfortably. The conclusion naturally sees the baddies defeated, but the tone is one of menace as much as celebration. There’s a finality to this audio, a sense of bedding down for the winter, even with the promise of further adventures.

We all know why this is, of course. It’s there in the title. Despite the cast of Bafflegab and Big Finish veterans, the work Baker’s End most closely resembles is Blackstar; a closing note with all the energy of what came before. A refusal to go out quietly. But where Blackstar was intense and enigmatic, Baker’s End is playful and generous. It invites us to share in its twisted joy, even as it wilfully refuses to explain itself. Paul Magrs delivers a funny, beautiful, and deeply touching play on that shared knowledge, and Tom Baker throws himself into it with aplomb. This audio could only have come from their unique creative partnership, and it will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. Wherever it is, we can be sure it won’t be boring.

Baker’s End— The King of Cats is available from Bafflegab Productions, for £9.99 on CD or £6.99 as a download. 

Oxford’s Final Frontier: a chat with Oxford TrekSoc

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 3 June 2016.

They say Oxford is another world, but for many students that simply isn’t enough. Some want to seek out new friends, new experiences, to boldly split infinitives that no man (or indeed woman) has ever split before. Hence the existence of the Oxford Star Trek Society, a group of Trekkies who meet every Monday to watch the show, discuss its nearly fifty years of history, and generally appreciate what lies beyond the final frontier. Heading them up is the newly-elected Captain Rose Atkinson, who was kind enough to meet with me to discuss Star Trek, ropey special effects and the social life of the society.

We started by discussing her role within the society. “I’m the Captain of the Star Trek Society, so I’m responsible for organisation the weekly meetings, arranging the themes of the episodes we pick, keeping the society finances in order, and organising events. There are four of us on the society committee – we’ve got the First Officer, who assists me and helps out with food, that kind of thing. Then there’s the Morale Officer, who also does events, and the Technical Officer, who’s responsible for showing the episodes we watch during the meetings.”

So what does a typical meeting involve? “Usually beforehand we have a poll on the Facebook page, so everyone can pick some episodes that they want to see. Then we turn up, watch a couple of episodes of Star Trek, maybe share some fun Star Trek-related information, but all in a very light-hearted sort of way. Then we go to the pub, usually. It’s quite a nice, easygoing time.”

Star Trek fandom often involves a high level of commitment. How did Rose get involved in the society, and how did she first get into the show generally? “Well, being a lifelong (almost) Trekkie, I went looking for them at the freshers’ fair, because I had heard about them on the offer group, and signed up from there. In terms of how I first got into the show, I think my mum showed me it when I was about ten, or something. I’m a big fan of the original series, and I liked its outlook. It’s a very hopeful show, a very forward-looking show, and also one with a lot of fun in it. The whole Star Trek community is one that enjoys the flaws of the show as well as its selling points, I think. And it has some very good stories, as well.”

What’s the social dynamic of the society like, and what sort of crowd does it draw week to week? “Well, there’s about fourteen or fifteen regular members, so we’re quite a small and close-knit bunch. But to be honest, it’s quite a wide selection: we have grad students, undergrads, all sorts of sciences and humanities. It’s not a stereotypically “nerd” society, really. There’s a lot of different types of people within the group.”

What are the challenges of running a society like this in Oxford specifically? “I think that does have a dint on numbers, because I’m always meeting people who say they are interested in Star Trek, or they signed up at freshers’ fair and they’re still getting emails, but they just don’t have time. And I think maybe it’s perceived as more of a fun society, one that’s not going to look good on your CV, like for instance being a committee member of the Oxford Union or whatever. So it’s perceived as being a sort of frivolous society. I mean it is frivolous and fun, but I think it’s a good way to relax from the Oxford lifestyle. It’s a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously for the most part. I mean we all very much love it, but we can appreciate the silly side of Star Trek, the terrible low budget, the silly costumes and so on. I think it’s a show that lends itself to good-natured fun, really, and the small size of the society means that we all know each other. I mean, we had a contested election this year but it was never in the slightest bit aggressive, or a “hacking” election – there’s nothing to hack for, really, which is why it’s so much fun.”

Having been made Captain this term, does Rose have any grand plans for the society? “Well at the moment I hear this year’s batch of freshers has been bigger than previous years. In previous years the society has been down to about five people, I believe. So we would like to increase from the fourteen, fifteen members. We’re probably going to the fiftieth anniversary convention later this year, and organising a few more social events, because it is very much a society for friends with a similar interest, and getting along with each other. So we’d like a few more social activities to cater that. We’re hopefully going to have a crewdate with another nerdy society. We’d like to get in touch with maybe the Harry Potter society or something later in the year, and we’d like to try and go for a Star Trek picnic, and try and make some of the food that they have on the show. Off the top of my mind I think I’ve seen some recipes for Klingon worm dishes which I’d like to try. Though not using any actual worms, I hope.”

What are Rose’s favourite bits from the half-century of the Star Trek franchise? “I’m an original series Trekkie. My First Officer is more of a Next Generation fan – we tend to watch a lot of the Next Generation in the society, but I think we get quite a good balance of all the series’. It’s always the same people who suggest the episodes of a particular season. We’ve got some people who are very keen on one series and not on the others, so there’s a bit of a split there, but it’s entirely amicable.”

In that spirit, where does Rose stand on that great Trekkie debate, Kirk or Picard? “Well, personally, I don’t think my Captainhood is much like Captain Kirk’s [William Shatner], but he will always be my favourite captain, because he’s just a lot more fun than Picard [Patrick Stewart]. Picard is rather more realistic, but he’s not half as bombastic.”

Finally, how would Rose try persuade someone to come along to the society? “We’re not a society for “hardcore fans”. Some of us really love the original series, know all the different battleships, all the different cruiser classes, or whatever, and some of us have watched them once or twice, and think they’d like to get into it more. It’s a very welcoming society, there’s not a certain level of knowledge you need about Star Trek in order to get in. You can just turn up and give it a go, even if you’ve never seen it before. It is, after all, a cultural icon, turning fifty this year. It’s such a popular culture reference point that it’s worth coming just to understand the influence it’s had – if you look for it, you start seeing Star Trek everywhere.”

 

Review: The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler

A secret lake, containing a beast known only to myth. A species made of smoke and shadow, capable of following you wherever you go. An orphan on the run from fate itself. Whatever its faults, The Kraken Sea can hardly be said to be short on ideas. It’s a rapid-fire story with the guts to be weird, almost every chapter introducing a strange new concept. Sadly, concepts alone do not a good story make, and Tobler’s prose and sense of pacing leave more than a bit to be desired.

The story centres on Jackson, a mysterious orphan taken in by a Catholic order in late-1800s New York. The novella opens with him on a train to his new adoptive home in San Francisco, but a stopover at a sinister carnival unleashes a disturbing secret. Jackson is not truly human, but is in fact a tentacular monster struggling to maintain a human form, watched over by a Sister who may be a literal embodiment of Fate. Once he arrives in San Francisco he finds himself embroiled in a turf war between two rival gangs, with mysterious creatures lurking beneath the streets.

The novella’s key strength is that it manages to make Jackson sympathetic without being heroic as such. He’s broadly relatable, asking mostly the same questions as the reader at any given moment, but occasional glimpses of his childhood reveal a much less human side to him. We’re told throughout that he bullied his fellow orphans, and at one point it’s revealed that he ate a largely unthreatening child, “broke him and swallowed him because he could”. Moments like this are genuinely chilling, and create an interesting tension over what, exactly, Jackson will become at the end of the story.

But the rest of the characters are nowhere near as interesting. The supporting cast features a generic femme fatale, a generic sinister nun, a generic female gang boss who doubles as a femme fatale, a largely mute henchman and a few more femme fatales to make up the numbers. There’s a late subplot about Jackson trying and failing to fall in love with an ordinary human, but it’s under-developed and goes nowhere. The overall structure is a bit of a mess; the novella feels like a string of barely-connected episodes, oscillating between tedious over-explanation and cratering leaps in time and logic. The last third of the novella jumps from a normal encounter between Jackson and his girlfriend to all-out apocalyptic war, with absolutely no explanation for how we got there. It’s a jarring transition, and Tobler provides almost nothing in the way of buildup.

On top of that, the basic prose style is mediocre at best. Tone wavers all over the place, right down to individual sentences, such as this late moment where the Kraken emerges: “There was a curiosity, perhaps a respect, which sent a chill down Jackson’s spine. The kraken knew what the man was about and weren’t intelligent monsters the worst?” The text is also riddled with typos, and cringeworthy similes abound, my personal favourite being “It was clumsy the kiss, like learning to tie his shoes, like riding a bike down a steep hill, like throwing himself into boiling ice water.” Weird fiction can often get away with clunky wording in the name of creating an uncanny style, but this goes beyond alienating into actively sloppy. While the ideas here are frequently interesting, the execution is extremely sub-par. Tobler’s novella is daring and ambitious, but feels at least four or five drafts away from the finished product.