Doctor Who
The Slow Empire

Author: Dave Stone
BBC Books
5.99, US $6.95, Cdn $8.99
ISBN 0 563 53835 X
Available 02 July 2001

The TARDIS enters a peculiarly warped region of space-time, whereupon it is invaded by hostile Vortex Wraiths. The ship makes an emergency landing on Shakrath, one of a thousand worlds that comprise a curiously insular "empire". However, escaping the Empire will not be easy...

During this rather episodic novel, the TARDIS sets down on four different planets, of which Shakrath is just the first. The disparate worlds of the Empire are connected by Engines of Transference, portals that can transport individuals across vast distances of space, though not instantaneously. Depending on the distance involved, a journey can take centuries, hence the "slow" in Slow Empire. Upon entering such a portal, the body of the departing traveller is destroyed, and a new one is created at the soul's eventual point of arrival. Each traveller is painfully branded by this decidedly sick and twisted kind of stargate, so that he or she can be identified as such.

Fortunately, none of the TARDIS crew have to use any of these devices, although they are accompanied by one such traveller, Jamon de la Rocas. A wily and foppish merchant, Jamon narrates intermittent segments of the story, representing an aspect of the author's personality in trademark fashion. This particular authorial spokesman takes Stone's convoluted yet conversational prose style to extremes, frequently using ten words where one would have done, lampooning Daniel Defoe and other early novelists.

Each of the four worlds that is visited demonstrates further stocks in trade of Stone's eccentric writing, including gruesome body horror, sadistic science, a blobby alien who spouts gibberish, and a nightmarish subconscious realm straight out of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. All of these elements are standbys that we have come to expect from Stone, making this novel something of a pick-and-mix selection, but showing a disappointing degree of repetition. For instance, the author has previously had his characters acting out Orwellian fantasies in his Doctor-less New Adventure, Oblivion, and had featured a similarly mind-altering spatial warp in Return to the Fractured Planet.

Virtually every new Stone novel brings with it a different pseudo-scientific reason for its level of weirdness, in order to fit the author's outlandish style into the relatively rational universe of Doctor Who. On this occasion it is a symptom of "sprained time", caused by the use of the Engines of Transference. One wonders if it might not be a bad idea for the author to set all of his future Who books within the same twisted region of the continuum where the usual physical laws cease to apply.

This book is not without its charms - it features, for instance, an amusing appendix of explanatory notes - but the narrative plods plotlessly for too long before reaching a significant level of cohesion. Up until that point, it's slow going.

Richard McGinlay