THE PARADOX CONSPIRACY Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal explores the Doctor Who connection in the alternate history e-book The Paradox Conspiracy.

One of the joys of the alternate history genre is that it can let you do some pretty crazy things with established events. Want to change the outcome of a war? Fine. What about a disaster suddenly hitting when it didn't? You can do that. Or want to write a thriller perhaps, exploring how things might have played out in such a universe? It's the latter that noted writer Stephen Baxter's The Paradox Conspiracy falls into, compiling two of his short stories featuring British government agents Jones and Bennet in this alternate 1960. The two stories make for an intriguing read.

The opening salvo, Project Hades, was the main reason I sought out the book. It started life nearly 15 years ago not as a short story but as a script for a company called Big Finish. Known even then for their range of Doctor Who audio dramas (now entering their 20th year), Baxter was commissioned to write the 100th release of the monthly range of stories. Intended to star Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor and given the title Earthstorm, it never made it beyond the scripting stage apparently due to issues once New Who started up. The 100th release became an anthology entitled 100 and Baxter reworked Earthstorm into what we now know as Project Hades.

In reading Project Hades, it was very hard not to be aware of its Doctor Who origins. Jones and Bennet, though they are agents of a shadowy department of the 1960s British government, read very much like the Sixth Doctor and his companion Peri (played on TV and audio by Nicola Bryant). Jones is the scientifically minded man of action, the voice of reason with a manner that makes it difficult for others to see the wisdom of his words. Bennet goes off, ingrates with the local people, and ends up getting caught up in events she has to get in and out of. They are the classic Doctor and companion team in everything but name.

That's without getting into the story itself. It's very much the sort of plot that Doctor Who has been doing for much of its existence: a government project connected to a local village, an idealistic scientist, a military commander who is likely out of his mind, and a threat that's awakened by the project. The main difference is the 1960 setting and the inclusion of perhaps more Cold War-centric elements (such as mentions of Suez or the lopsided nature of "the special relationship" between the US and Britain), which get featured here. The use of cliffhanger endings at the chapter breaks further reinforces the connection, making it a cracking good read in the tradition of British science fiction and most certainly lives up to its original title of Earthstorm.

The second story, Project Herakles, is a slightly different kettle of fish. It's the shorter of the two tales by a bit of a margin and didn't have an origin as a Doctor Who story. Perhaps as a result of that, it lacks the polish of the opening story despite being set in 1968. That piece of timing is key as the pair find themselves, still in government employee, investigating both another government project and coming up against a conspiracy that very much has a basis in real events (Google who the British Prime Minister was and read on). If Hades was a science fiction thriller, then Herakles is a political thriller with a science fiction element tucked into it. Though it doesn't have the depth or polish of the opening story, it is still a fun read nevertheless.

For fans of alternate history or Doctor Who fans looking for a piece of the long-running franchise they may have overlooked, The Paradox Conspiracy should make for a fun read. Baxter packs in two thriller tales, albeit in slightly different subgenres of science fiction, which have fun with the alternate history context he employees. They might not be the author's greatest stories but, if nothing else, they are eminently readable and of definite interest to those who enjoy a cup of very British science fiction.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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