September 20, 2012 by Aidan Brack
The Blurb: Andrew Brown never has enough time. No time to call his sister, or to prepare for that important presentation at the bank where he works. The train’s late, the lift jams. If only he’d had a little more time. And time is the business of Mr Symington and Mr Blenkinsop. They’ll lend him some – at a very reasonable rate of interest.
Detecting a problem, the Doctor, Amy and Rory go undercover at the bank. But they have to move fast to stop Symington and Blenkinsop before they cash in their investments.
‘You want more time, of course you do. We all want more time. Let me make you an offer.’
The Novel: Doctor Who is not, by design, a political or topical show but over the years it has featured many stories that seem to align with what was happening at that time in the world. This novel by Naomi A. Alderman fits into the tradition of such stories The Happiness Patrol, The Green Death and The Sunmakers, telling a story that seems very much rooted in the events and issues of the last few years.
‘Imagine what it could do for your career. All the time you want, Mr Brown, at the touch of a button.’
The issue at the heart of Borrowed Time is the banking industry and the way loans are pushed at people who are too desperate to consider the consequences of what they have signed up for. Somewhat ironically, the victims of these scam loans are actually bankers themselves, desperate for extra hours in the day to accomplish their targets and put their careers on a winning track. If anyone ought to understand the risks involved in what they’re doing it should be them. Even those who use their time credit line carefully find the repayments far more costly than they anticipate because they didn’t understand the numbers.
The problem is one of compound interest which the book does a good job of explaining. Essentially for every period in which the loan is not being paid back, there is not only interest being charged on the amount borrowed but also on the interest being generated which quickly multiplies. Suddenly instead of owing weeks of their lives in payment, they are owing years and so the repayments are killing them.
They had the kind of totally ordinary, clean-shaven, innocuous faces that you’d forget the moment they left the room. Andrew Brown hadn’t heard them knock, or invited them in. But he forgot that as soon as they were there.
It’s a novel idea and certainly fresh in terms of Doctor Who plots but it also feels decidedly current to stories young readers will be hearing talked about in the news. Not every story has to feature the impending destruction of the universe. In fact, I often prefer them to play out on these smaller, more human stages so that you can really appreciate the stakes on an emotional level.
Not she really needed to do that because the cast of characters Alderman presents us with are believable and sympathetic. These are not a collection of highly successful fat cat traders but people at the very foot of the career ladder, crushed by the unrealistic expectations of their superiors, the competitive nature of their workplace and the difficulty of balancing work and home life. I suspect most can relate to that sensation of never having enough time to achieve everything you want and feeling the pressure to deliver.
In that context it is easy to understand why those characters make the deals they make to gain a few extra precious hours and also how many come to abuse it. It’s much less clear to me though why Amy, juggling two different telephone calls, would sign up for the plan as well. Certainly it adds a level of tension to the story with her life being on the line but it also requires us to believe her to be much less smart than I think she appears in the television episodes.
But Rory wasn’t listening. As Andrew Brown spoke into his ear from his office on the fifth floor, he’d become very sure indeed that Andrew Brown was also standing across from him in the mailroom.
Surprisingly, given the potential for continuity issues with the time manipulation in the story, the actual sequence of events hangs together pretty well. I found it easy to keep track of everything that was going on thanks to Alderman’s clear narration and I was surprised at how pacy parts of the novel were. She certainly captures the energy and tone of the new series well in that regard.
I did appreciate that both the Doctor and Amy feature a lot in the action and feel, Amy’s lapse of judgment aside, quite accurate to the characters as portrayed on television but sadly Rory fares less well. Relegated for most of the story to Warehouse duty, he seems irrelevant to most of what goes on and I was disappointed that he didn’t get his own, more substantial subplot.
My broader problem with the novel though concerns the universe constructed to support the story. Where does the time they are borrowing come from? Well, there’s an explanation for that which fits with the financial markets parallels the story draws but it is hard to reconcile those institutions existing with the show’s existing canon, not to mention it all feels a little too silly and a little too literal of a parallel.
And Amy realised what the lump on Symington and Blenkinsop’s back was. It was a fin. Like a shark.
Similarly, I groaned when we learn that the two loan sharks actually resemble the creatures. I suspect it is intended as a little throwaway gag but it feels forced and awkward, standing out as a pun rather than a carefully considered piece of universe building.
What I did like though is that, as literal as these elements are, they are utilized well in the story’s conclusion. The Doctor’s plan to fix things is pretty smart and, once again, based on some financial principles, giving the villains a healthy taste of their just desserts. Though it is a little too clean and tidy for my tastes, I think it does work well as an ending.
In Review: This high concept idea for a Who novel feels timely and original – a difficult ask after close to fifty years. Alderman communicates her concepts well and creates some sympathetic characters but I did think elements of her universe needed refining and Rory was under-utilized. Fortunately the story was pacy and its resolution capped the story off nicely.