‘Doctor Who’: ‘The Silent Stars Go By’ by Dan Abnett book review

Blatantly targeting the Christmas book-buying market, The Silent Stars Go By is as traditional a slice of Who storytelling as you’d expect from the festive season, pitching the Doctor, Amy and Rory into the snowy landscapes of a future colony world.

Prolific science-fiction author, Dan Abnett, is an old hand at Doctor Who fiction, being the pen behind The Story of Martha for BBC Books, The Harvest for Big Finish, and, back in the day, several comic strips for Doctor Who Magazine. So it’s no surprise that he wears his sci-fi influences on his sleeve, channelling The Thing in some of the early chapters.

But it’s in his depiction of the hardy settlers of the planet Hereafter that the book really excels, with echoes of The Crucible or, if you prefer, the pioneer community of M Night Shyamalan’s The Village. It was certainly the latter movie that most came to mind when reading this book, as the settlers of Hereafter are tormented by unspeakable creatures that live in the woods, which may or may not be all that they seem.

You don’t have to know your Goody Proctor from your Abigail Williams to see the conventions of American frontier stories at work. There’s the audible swish from long, bustle skirts, as well as the inevitable conflict between logic and pragmatism on the one hand and superstitious devotion to the Old Ways on the other.

Among the settlers, the matriarch Old Winnowner is most devoted to The Way of The Guide – and if her talk of the systems of the Guide evokes for you thoughts of mad super-computers, you won’t be alone. For a long period, Abnett tempts the Whovian reader with a Face of Evil scenario – evoking, through language, the way technospeak has devolved to a more primitive idiom. For a Who fan, this is comfortable territory.

But as the cover shamelessly reveals, there’s more to this world than degenerated computer systems, because stalking in the snow – brutish in their manner and ceremonial in their methods – are the Ice Warriors.

Amy may have significant difficulty in thinking of them as warriors, finding herself unable to look past the essential image of giant lizard men; but, for the reader, there is no difficulty. As the Ice Warriors abandon guns in favour of swords and axes, their depiction as honour-bound war veterans, equally devoted to their Old Ways, is complete.

They make for a fine villain in what is a taut and readable book that exploits its isolated outpost setting to good effect. The Silent Stars Go By is certainly as solid a slice of Who storytelling as you’ll find this year.

Published on Thursday 29th September 2011 by BBC Books.

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