Imagine if the Cold War really happened - if it had really escalated beyond the confines of posturing and suspicion. Then imagine it didn't happen on Earth, but on another planet instead. That seems to be the thinking behind Parallel 59.
It's a world divided into power bloc segments, called Parallels. Each mistrusts the others, and each believes that the solution to their many problems lies in controlling the space above the planet. Conveniently, land war is now impossible - presumably due to missile defence systems.
It must be said that telling people you come from the Great City of Parallel 6 is not exactly the most romantic of origins - it doesn't have the same ring to it as New York, Venice, or even Blackpool. But to be fair to the authors, it's probable that a militaristic culture wouldn't have much use for extravagance anyway since all their effort would no doubt be focused on their long term goals.
So, the novel begins with a failure aboard a top secret orbital facility. The finger's pointed at the Doctor, but he insists it was an accident. He and Compassion escape to the surface of the planet, while Fitz gets stuck inside a capsule that jolts him into an artificial world (though he doesn't know it.)
As is wont to happen when the Doctor encounters the military, there's a clash of ideals. The Doctor's trying to help, but no one believes his story - they're all paranoid so they think he's a spy from another Parallel. Meanwhile, Compassion gets in with the inevitable rebel group.
The characterisation is really strong here, although Compassion's sympathetic approach does seem to contradict her statement at the end of Frontier Worlds. Fitz shines in his virtual world, taking every opportunity to enjoy its various... pleasures, and fighting the system when he realises something is amiss. Towards the end of the novel, Fitz's sections become even more tense than the real world stuff, because all the other 'inhabitants' are disappearing in mysterious red cars, no one knows where or why, and there's... something else encroaching on the world too. There's a genuine sense of worry permeating proceedings, simply because you don't know what the bloody hell is going on.
The Doctor himself is something of a reactive bystander, but that's not really a criticism. It makes a change from him striding into a situation and wrapping everything up by teatime. In fact, by the end of the novel, he's managed to save very few people at all. This reinforces the fact that he's fallible.
The best thing about Parallel 59 is the secondary characterisation. More or less every single character that commands a fair bit of dialogue is given some sort of backstory, whether that be a relationship with another character, a hobby, a lifelong desire etc. Some are fleshed out more than others, but even so it's nice to see that a fair bit of thought has gone into the characters' backgrounds and how they might influence the plot.
The prose is competent enough, although rarely exceptional, but despite that I didn't get bored of reading or struggle to get through it, and there are one or two funny moments to balance out the doom-laden finale.
Looking on the negative side, it would have been nice to see more of a sense of adventure, rather than a trudge around another military base. If you add in the textbook mental director of the facility and the often stupid names, then it's easy to see why Parallel 59 is a good, but not great novel.
Review by Tom Hey
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