Known more for his works of comic fantasy, Tom Holt serves up humorous science fiction in his latest novel, Doughnut. This move toward SF seems to be a growing trend for Holt, although, since the science in this and his other recent SF comedy, Blonde Bombshell, are playfully implausible, it could be argued that he has never left fantasy. In any case, Doughnut features all the hallmarks that have contributed to his reputation as one of the funniest humorists writing science fiction or fantasy today.
The story revolves around Theo Bernstein, a physicist whose life is in ruins after his carelessness causes an accident that blows up a multi-billion dollar Hadron Collider, a mountain, and very nearly Switzerland. In addition, the accident has wiped out his bank account, his marriage, and the ozone layer. All this has left him rather unpopular to the point where he can’t even get a job flipping burgers. To top things off, he finds out his good friend and mentor, Professor Pieter van Goyen, has died. But Pieter has bequeathed him the contents of a safe deposit box, the contents of which will lead Theo into a bizarre multiverse of intrigue, danger and doughnuts. Theo is reluctantly forced to solve a convoluted mystery with physics and mathematics while encountering a cast of memorable, quirky characters.
One of Holt’s narrative strengths is the way he manages to keep the unraveling puzzle in constant motion with unexpected twists and turns, never giving the reader a chance to put the book down. The situations and locations Theo finds himself in have an almost dreamlike unpredictability leading to laugh inducing absurd circumstances. The strangeness of it all can be mildly disorienting. It is something of a wild ride and Holt manages to keep the ‘what the hell is going on’ suspense right up to the last.
But perhaps Holt’s greatest strength is his skill at the comedic turn of phrase. Doughnut is laced with heavy doses of humorous word play, simile, metaphor and hyperbole. Most of the time these work, like his explaining the remote chances of an event as “Paris-Fashion-Week slender” or in describing a woman’s icy tone as “a voice you could’ve preserved mammoths in.” His eye for comedy in the simplest of details is a delight, “He glanced up at the letterhead and saw a bunch of names, huddled together like penned-up cattle. Lawyers.” Some phrases are so outrageous that one can only assume the reason Holt is not a frequent headliner in Ansible’s Thog Masterclass, is that David Langford recognizes that humorists have carte blanche, like Bond’s license to kill, on taking liberties with the English language.
Overall, Doughnut is an entertaining and hilarious romp through a surreal landscape that will keep you up late into the night. There are some minor disappointments in the novel; a couple of inconsequential but annoying inconsistencies, a few would-be witty quips that go clunk, and readers might wish Holt’s characters would grin a little less often. It makes one wonder how much better his novels might be if he were to slow his prolific output for just a little extra polish. Still, it is a neat trick and takes a special talent to weave such off-the-wall imaginative elements into a story that is in many ways as much a success on a conventional level as it is funny.