Book Review: The Wheel of Ice, by Stephen Baxter

(Originally posted on Amazon 2/3/2013)

 wheel of ice

One of the things I’ve always wanted to see in the various Doctor Who novel ranges would be for an established, so-called “hard” Science Fiction writer to tackle the Doctor and his universe. Some of the past novel writers, most notably Christopher Bulis and Justin Richards, have at times attempted to dabble with marrying hard science with Doctor Who‘s whimsy, but in the past their attempts have always seemed to come off as half-hearted and not entirely thought through, as if the writers became afraid of losing their readers with scientific speculation and opted instead to concentrate on the characters. So when it was announced that Hugo/Nebula/John W. Campbell Award winning novelist Stephen Baxter would be penning a Doctor Who novel, I was very intrigued. And having now read The Wheel of Ice, I am pleased to say that I am not disappointed.

The Wheel of Ice takes the cast of late 60s Doctor Who — 2Doc, Jamie, and Zoe — and plops them squarely among Saturn and its rings. But this a Saturn that no writer of the 1960s could ever have imagined — populated by moons that spew water-lava out of ice volcanoes, have orange-tinged atmospheres and lakes of liquid methane, rings that resonate in waves and “spokes”, and all the myriad of wonders that make up the Saturnian system. But what makes these wonders all the more impressive is that much of them are not idle fantasies made up by the writer, but scientific fact observed and verified by the latest science (most notably the Cassini mission currently orbiting Saturn). And Baxter does a wonderful job of putting the Doctor and his companions amongst these wonders, without ever letting the setting overwhelm his characters.

The plot? On the Saturnian minor moon Mnemosyne, a human colony is busy mining the moon for a rare metal, one essential for the developing space industries of the inner system. Of course, something mysterious is happening on the moon – missing materials, strange sightings of blue baby-like beings, and most recently, puzzling deaths. Meanwhile, the TARDIS alerts the Doctor and his companions to a potentially dangerous time anomaly that seems to be centered on Mnemosyne, and they go to investigate. You can pretty much see where this is going: the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe get blamed by the authorities for everything that’s going wrong, an alien entity begins to awaken, and before long a struggle for survival is underway between an ancient being, the Doctor and his friends, and multiple groups within the colonists.

Granted, a lot of this we have seen a zillion times before, both in the series and in its spin-off material. But Baxter keeps the story going with some very fluid writing, some fun and absorbing characterization (Zoe particularly comes off very well in this book), and a plot that is both interesting and engaging. The only complaint I have is that some of the plot digressions, particularly those involving Jamie’s adventures around the Saturn system, seem unnecessary and tacked on simply as an indulgence by Baxter. But that’s a minor quibble, and one that even if its accurate, still make for some fun reading. As an added bonus, if you’re familiar with Baxter’s regular SF work, see how many references to them you can pick out; both the Xeelee and Manifold series’ get near-blatant shout-outs.

Oddly enough, this is not exactly the first time Baxter has entered the DW universe — his acclaimed novel The Time Ships started out as a proposal to Virgin’s old New Adventures line of Doctor Who novels — and hopefully, it won’t be his last. It is very clear from the writing that Baxter has a deep love for this particular era of Doctor Who, and the enthusiasm with which he tackles his story shows. I for one hope we see more Baxter-written Who. Maybe he can get rid of those infamous mind-wipes…

5 Stars out of 5 Stars