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Review of Burning Heart by PalindromeRose

2 May 2024

Virgin Missing Adventures

#030. Burning Heart ~ 10/10

◆ An Introduction

I’m always surprised to come across stories that have very little in the way of reviews. One might assume that the stories in question are dreadfully written dross, or that the publisher’s summary is just painfully generic. The former appeared to be the case for ‘Burning Heart’.

Based on my previous experiences with his work, Dave Stone seems to be someone who specialises in the utterly deranged yet magnificently funny. Let’s not forget that he got Bernice Summerfield to perform a song about butterflies and cake… a song that will get stuck in your head weeks after you’ve finished listening to ‘The Worst Thing in the World’.

Colour me curious when I discovered his name attached to a cyberpunk novel, one that appeared to be wearing the skin of the Judge Dredd franchise! One of my favourite Tardis teams coupled with a writer whose bread and butter is barmy storytelling. Despite its current average rating – a measly 56% – I’ve got incredibly high hopes for this one. Here’s hoping I wont be disappointed.

◆ Publisher’s Summary

There's a god in the machine — and the god is insane.

In the self-contained Habitat on Dramos, things are getting out of control. Twenty million humans and aliens are at each other's throats, the lid barely held on by the Church of Adjudication, who through their OBERON systems wield absolute power. And we all know what absolute power does.

Other things have been corrupted too. People, human and alien alike, are changing – mutating into something that, if left unchecked, could consume their entire enclosed world.

Arriving in this disintegrating cosmopolitan society, Peri falls in with the charismatic leader of Human First, a movement dedicated to bringing order out of chaos. Meanwhile, the Sixth Doctor is powerless, imprisoned and put to the Inquisition by a church that really thinks its God is coming back.

If somebody doesn't do something, and do it soon, nobody's getting out alive.

◆ The Sixth Doctor

BigFinish have gotten me so used to the Softer Sixie that I’d almost completely forgotten what a pretentious cretin the character used to be. Luckily, I happen to be one of those weird people who actually liked the televised version of Sixie. Dave Stone isn’t afraid to make the Doctor an overbearing rotter, whose personality is almost as painful to endure as his coat of many colours. Good Old Sixie is my favourite incarnation of the character, and ‘Burning Heart’ gives him some fantastic material.

Far from being out of his element in the chaos, the Doctor seemed utterly relaxed and at home, surveying the scene with a cheerful, even gleeful interest, as though it were giving him something he was hungry for. The Doctor had been winding his companion up again, from the moment they left the Tardis, but he actually had a reason for doing so: the anger he had instilled in her had countered and overridden the severe culture shock that might well have threatened to tear her mind apart. He’d hoped it would protect her for a while yet. Humans were probably his favourite species, but you could have too much of a good thing. The Doctor has always been known for his debonair sartorial taste.

◆ Peri

‘Burning Heart’ takes an interesting approach when it comes to Peri. Impulsive and almost entirely driven by her emotions, she ends up falling in with a gang of xenophobic criminals who believe that all non-humans should be eradicated. Dave Stone gives the character some incredible and complex material, and I hope this isn’t the last time he will write for her.

Once again – yet again – Peri felt that edgy mix of disappointment and annoyance. Once again, on some deep emotional level, she had expected to turn and see the friendly and engaging, utterly decent and trustworthy man she had once known – only to find that it was, well, him. The Doctor. It always slightly disorientated her, kept her on the wrong foot. The fact that she had known this version of the Time Lord longer than the original just seemed to make it all the worse. During her degree course at Boston U, Peri had learnt the important part that scent played in the differentiation of biological matter – and she had also learnt about the effects of secondary ketones, esters and pheromones, the complex molecules that triggered receptors in the olfactory nerve, plugged directly into the brain, microscopically re-engineering it without conscious awareness. The receptors triggered recollection, chemical keys unlocking whole cascades of memory and association so that, for example, the recollected wet crunch of your leg under motorwheels could leave you pretty much unaffected, while the smell of dust and dried oregano could have you remembering some summer’s day, long ago, with such an intensity that it could have you bursting into tears. The process was subconscious. It took something on the cruder level to make you consciously aware of it, in the same way that one might drift towards a man one likes, and not really be aware one likes him until he turns to you, and looks at you, and smiles. Peri recalled a field trip to Madagascar, a year before she had met the Doctor. There had been a frightening, formless, seemingly sourceless sense of dislocation – until her eyes and mind had registered the specifics of the jungle around her, and she had realised that she was in an evolutional environment unlike any she had ever known. This was like that. When she had walked out of the Tardis, the receptors in her brain had been hit with smells she couldn’t smell and didn’t know, had never known, and it was only now that she could consciously recognise why. In her travels with the Doctor, Peri had come to notice that, in a particular place and time, while people might not wear uniforms as such, their clothing had a kind of uniformity, a certain cut that stamped them. Peri hadn’t held a gun since the age of seventeen when, living away from home for the first time, a fit of paranoia had her investing in something with nine millimetres that she couldn’t even remember the name of, no questions asked, from a pawnshop, for personal protection. She had never used it. It was probably still lying, forgotten, in a Boston U dorm drawer a thousand years ago. It had just felt wrong in her hand.

◆ Story Recap

The Habitat was the outpost surrounding the Dramos Spaceport. It was strategically located for intergalactic travel, with power supplied by automated energy-mining rigs orbiting the gas giant of Titania.

As Dramos Port had established itself, the Habitat had grown: a pressurised, geodesic canopy extending itself step by step across the flat terrain. Originally the site of the Port Authority and minimal layover facilities, it now covered fully a third of the planetoid’s surface area and tunnelled through a third of its mass.

Thousands of cubic kilometres of interconnected modules that had been built, and built over again, and again, and then again; intestinal towers rising up under the dome in an unchartable tangle. A three-dimensional maze crammed with a myriad of different species.

By the 32nd century, the collapse of the Earth Empire led to many of its colonies and outposts being abandoned, including the Habitat. The Doctor and Peri arrived at the outpost during 3174, when unrest had reached an all-time high!

The Adjudicators are losing their grip over the outpost, as its twenty million inhabitants go to war with themselves. Meanwhile, the charismatic figure in charge of Human First – a xenophobic organisation that believe in human supremacy – has taken advantage of the chaos to recruit members.

Events are spiralling out of control inside the Habitat, with many of its citizens experiencing unexplainable mutations and bouts of psychosis. If nobody takes action, then everybody will surely perish.

◆ Dave Stone Welcomes You To Bizarro World!

Dave Stone has a propensity for the deranged, and I worried that this signature element of his stories would be absent from something more serious like ‘Burning Heart’. Thankfully, every depressing bit is followed by something that will give you a little chuckle.

There’s an early scene in the book where Adjudicator Craator is attempting to deal with some civil unrest – two brothers squabbling over an ancient VR headset – when he is interrupted by a large exploding Jersey cow landing in front of him!

Apparently the Piglet People of Glomi IV had latched onto the idea of the Hebrew scapegoat – that is, an animal taking on the sins of the tribe, which then die with it upon its slaughter. They had then confused it with that Ur-scapegoat, Jesus Emmanuel, who had been born in a stable with a lot of animals around him. They had then, for some obscure reason, confused it all with the Terran English tradition of Guy Fawkes night.

The practical upshot of this was that every Earth year, wherever they were at a date and time calculated to be eight thirty in the evening on 5 November, Greenwich Mean Time, they stuffed high explosives up assorted livestock, catapulted them a hundred feet in the air and exploded them!

Stone has rapidly become one of my favourite writers, because he can be writing something utterly serious one moment, and then just decide to take us all on a trip to Bizarro World the next.

◆ Good Grief! Who Put Nick Griffin In Space?

Human First were an organisation on Dramos whose publicised purpose was to protest the excesses of the Adjudicators. They believed that it was time for humanity to break free of the chains that bound them. Convinced that for too long they had laboured under the yoke of their oppressors.

In actuality, Human First were a social movement and pressure group whose core ideals revolved around “human supremacy”. They were dedicated to eradicating all non-humans from the planetoid.

I’m somewhat hesitant to bring up political topics in my reviews nowadays, after getting into a heated argument with a far-right moron on social media because I critiqued the dated and harmful views present in ‘Flip-Flop’. But someone has got to speak about these things, rather than just sit on the political fence and remain impartial.

There are quite a few obvious parallels you can draw between Human First and real-world groups focused on xenophobia and idiotic ideas such as white supremacy. Nick Griffin made a career out of spreading such hateful views through the far-right British National Party, who are some of the most disgusting human beings you could ever possibly encounter!

The frightening thing about the Human First movement is that Peri actually gets sucked in by their propaganda, not realising what their true intentions are. She was completely culture shocked seeing the Habitat for the first time, and the pressure tactics and well-rehearsed rhetoric of their political protest managed to dig their claws into her.

◆ Peace Through Power

The Guild of Adjudicators were an organisation dedicated to enforcing the law across the colonies of the Earth Empire, and have been an important part of the Doctor Who canon for many years now. Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester – two companions of the Seventh Doctor – started out as members of the Guild before hopping aboard the Tardis.

The Masonic elements in the police forces of the 20th century cohered and evolved into a holy, monastic Order – but that devolved over the centuries into an almost purely policing organisation again.

They lost their blanket jurisdiction on Earth after the destruction of the Overcities, and they were pushed out of the Sol system entirely. Following the collapse of the Earth Empire, they reformatted themselves into the Church of Adjudication.

Their temple was the largest free-standing structure in the Habitat: fifty levels of bloody-minded functionalism in the centre of the Dome, garlanded with a bolt-on fretwork of insignia and iconography so that, from a distance, it looked like some overgrown burial mound, from within which the corpse-lights burnt.

The High Churchman wielded, so far as any faction could wield, supreme power over the Habitat. They were the highest-ranking Adjudicators, who remained in monastic seclusion, attended by a retinue of hand-picked Adjudicators known as the Hands of God, never leaving the Temple, to protect themselves from undue influence and temptation. To keep themselves pure.

The Adjudicators are supposedly analogous to the Justice Department from the Judge Dredd series – something which is pretty evident if you look at the front cover of this book. I however decided to make my own comparison. An order of religious nut-cases, armed with their own private militia, and operating in a science-fiction setting… wait a bleeding minute, this is just the Brotherhood of Nod! I half expected a bald mythical messiah to jump out of a cupboard at one point, ranting about Tiberium Divination and the ever escalating threat of GDI! And with that, there is my obligatory Command and Conquer reference in a review. Because I am nothing if not consistent.

◆ Cyberpunk Excellence

‘Burning Heart’ is the third vaguely cyberpunk novel that I’ve read, and easily one of the best. Dave Stone described the Habitat in great detail during the first few pages of the book, allowing you to truly immerse yourself in this bustling cosmopolitan metropolis. The buildings twisting around each other, like someone attempted to colonise Dramos by dumping a bunch of black shipping containers in a pile of organised chaos. Humans, Silurians, polymorphs and piglet people are only a handful of species that make up the menagerie of different cultures living beneath the geodesic dome.

The Habitat truly feels like a living and breathing civilisation. The world-building is absolutely stunning! But do you know what really impressed me about this vaguely cyberpunk-esque book? The fact I wasn’t repeatedly flicking to a glossary at the back to find out what random bits of poorly integrated slang and technobabble meant. Just another reason why I would happily revisit ‘Burning Heart’ over something like ‘Transit’.

◆ Conclusion

Make them ready for the manufactory of God.”

Virgin Publishing have dabbled with the cyberpunk genre on a few occasions, with some incredibly mixed results. ‘Transit’ was so apocalyptically awful that I probably would’ve gotten more enjoyment out of sticking my head into a hornet’s nest! On the flip side, ‘Burning Heart’ managed to be one of the best books I’ve read all year.

The setting is pure cyberpunk, brought to life by some simply excellent world-building. The Habitat is a cosmopolitan society on the verge of total collapse. Unrest is at an all-time high, and the patrolling Adjudicators are more than happy to engage in a little police brutality.

Our heroes are given plenty to do throughout the book as well – the Doctor makes some friends whilst incarcerated, including a giant centipede who talks like he’d been force-fed a dictionary, named Queegvogel Duck Duck Duck Duck Duck Duck Seven. Then there’s Peri, who unwittingly becomes a footsoldier for a space-faring version of the English Defence League!

‘Burning Heart’ is a thoroughly underrated cyberpunk novel, but with enough deranged moments to remind you that it’s written by Dave Stone. I highly recommend this one.

Review created on 2-05-24