Only Human

I shall begin by saying three words.

Comedy Cockney cavemen.

If you think you can stomach the concept of comedy Cockney cavemen, then chances are you'll love this book. If the idea leaves you cold, chances are you won't.

I will confess that I was worried about this book before I got to it. Many have said that Only Human was the best of the six NDAs published to date... however, past experience has shown me that it's not uncommon for my opinion to deviate markedly from that of the majority (for example, I think that The Unquiet Dead was awful, the 3rd Doctor was the poorest incarnation of our Time Lord hero, and that The Adventuress of Henrietta Street was a turgid mess that represents the very nadir of Lawrence Miles' Who fiction contributions). True to form, I don't think that this book is the best of the NDAs. I don't think it's the worst either, but it's a book that veers wildly between being very good and very poor depending on which parts you're looking at.

Firstly, the plot - such as it is. Tissue-thin and full of logical inconsistencies and the sort of wacky non-science that wouldn't seem out of place in a Lexx episode. I have no real problem with wacky non-science, but I do like it to be internally consistent. In this case we have an advanced future society 438,000 years in the future with no computers because they were all wiped out on Earth when an alien weapon misfired hundreds of lightyears away and nobody thought to build any new ones, so they have a steam-driven time machine and very, very advanced chemistry and biology but no physics or electronics ("analogue" sciences - a description that I found to be rather amusing for reasons I could write a whole dissertation on). They use typewriters operated by "note-techs" to keep records, have chemically removed the need to ever go to the toilet, and most of the population wander around as zonked-out zombies as they use drugs to regulate and control and remove their emotions. For reasons that are not initially clear a band of people from this time period have used this time machine to travel back 28,000 years before the present day, to the time when Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon cavemen are existing side-by-side in an area that one day will become southeast London. Of course, the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack don't know any of this to begin with - the first sign to them that something is going wrong is when a young Neanderthal materialises out of thin air in a nightclub in early 21st century Bromley and opens a can of stone age whup-ass on some poor unsuspecting young chav who decides that the smelly bloke in rags has been looking at his bird in an inappropriate way. Leaving Jack behind to look after the Neanderthal, the Doctor and Rose go back to 28,000BC to investigate and discover Osterberg, a subterranean city full of people from the far future, run by Chantal Osterberg, your bog-standard mentalist in-charge type secretly hellbent on world domination. She's been breeding monsters called Hy-Bractors, which then go on to wreak all sorts of havoc. I have two issues with the Hy-Bractors - one, the description immediately put me in mind of the Violator in its true form from the Spawn comics; and two, the odd hyphenation of the word makes me mentally pronounce the word in a curiously Zaroffian exaggerated manner as "Hy-BRRRAK-torrr", something not helped with lines like "I shall let the Hy-Bractors do what comes naturally and tear her limb from limb" that almost parody themselves. Chantal also expresses a great deal of interest in the TARDIS and plans to use it to spread Hy-Bractors around the universe, though why she wants it I'm not entirely sure; she already has a time machine and the Hy-Bractors are clearly dimensionally transcendental since there's only a handful of them, they aren't described as being particularly large, and the book goes to great pains to show that they can eat hundreds of humans and Neanderthals so completely that the bones are picked clean and yet not put on vast amounts of weight in the process.

Then there's the comedy Cockney cavemen. I was reading these sections with increasingly arched eyebrows as they were coming across like some sort of bizarre cross between a Carry On film with Monty Python-esque overtones when I was set totally boggling by the Doctor even explicitly stating that it's like something out of Carry On Cleo. I'm sure these bits were supposed to be charming, even funny, but to me they came across as utter gittishness that had it ever made its way into a televised story would have been met with howls of derision from fans and casual viewers alike.

While all this is going on, Captain Jack stays with the Neanderthal, whose name turns out to be Das, in the modern day to try and acclimatise him to the 21st century, since by dint of a convenient plot device Das cannot be returned to his own time. Das has learnt to speak English courtesy of the TARDIS, and these sections are related to the reader as a series of diary entries, Das's first and Jack's second, which throw an interesting light on both characters as they comment on recent events from totally separate viewpoints. Compared to his first NDA outing in The Deviant Strain Jack's characterisation is handled very well, and you can almost hear John Barrowman's voice reading his journal entries. With Das, Roberts manages a good trick of having an intelligent and sympathetic character who is at the same time quite alien - for example, he doesn't grasp the concept of lying at all, as where he comes from people either Tell The Truth or are Mistaken; and he also finds hairy bifters to be maddeningly sexy, which leads to some interesting lines from Jack. It's just a shame that these parts of the book, which are by far the best bits, are almost totally divorced from the main action and don't really impact on the main plot at all.

Meanwhile, back in the past, Rose get decapitated in a non-lethal way by something called a kinetic lock which feels suspiciously like Roberts forgot temporarily that his far-future humans weren't supposed to have any electronics or advanced physics. The Doctor lets himself into Chantal's medicine cabinet and whips up an infectious agent that makes humans belch fire for a few minutes; just long enough so they can take out the Hy-Bractors. Which is good because it's not the trademark NDA "there was a bang and suddenly it was all over" ending, but it feels horribly like a deus-ex-machina to me. In fact the whole ending, with the Hy-Bractors eating everyone in Osterberg, Chantal throwing herself into her time machine and disintegrating due to the same convenient plot device that keeps Das stuck in the 21st century, and then the Comedy Cockney Cavemen incinerating the Hy-Bractors, feels more like a whimper than the customary bang, and I'm not sure such contrived convenience is an improvement over the latter ending style.

To be honest I was very disappointed in this book, especially given the praise that's been heaped on it elsewhere. The three regulars are characterised well, as are some of the secondary characters - most notably Das and TP Quilley - but there's some unnecessary exposition on behalf of the Doctor's general motives, and he seems all too willing to interfere with someone's lives one minute and then loathe to do so the next for no immediately obvious reason other than that for him to do otherwise would be detrimental to the story. Chantal is a poor villain as it's difficult to understand her point-of-view, much less sympathise with it - yes, you want to wipe out the human race and prevent it from ever evolving because you're going to replace it with something biologically superior, but won't that make it rather hard for you to actually exist in the first place to start the whole crazy scheme? And why are the Hy-Bractors so stupid if they're supposed to be superior to humans? They have to keep consulting a picture whenever they meet anyone to check if it's the Doctor, and they ask everyone if they're human so they know if they're allowed to eat them or not. The problem is that the book has some good ideas and good writing, but the plot itself is illogical, full of holes, and relies rather heavily on science that Roberts clearly has no understanding of. Note to the author - people can't happily chat to someone with their chest cavity open no matter how drugged up they are; if you open the chest wall the lungs collapse and this makes conversation tricky. And Neanderthals look a lot closer to modern humans than they are portrayed as doing here, at least according to modern reconstructions, to the extent whereby one could dress in modern clothes and wander down the street without drawing so much as a second glance. As I've said elsewhere, I have no problem with wacky science if it's internally consistent and handled well, but when biology plays such an overt and important part of a story I think that it's only fair it should be made vaguely accurate. The annoying this is that I can see why other people think that Only Human is great; it's just that for me the issues with the plot and the science get in the way. Although far from being the worst NDA it's not as good as The Deviant Strain (although it does have a far more sensible title) or The Monsters Inside. It's enjoyable enough, but I found it extremely lightweight and it might be best if you don't subject the plot to close scrutiny. Big ideas and good characters marred with bad monsters and dodgy plot. It's average, but in its defence it is one of the better-written average novels I've read of late.


Review by Valedictorian


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