This one is stranger than usual, I think. It's the work of a first-time writer who will go on to big things, from his extremely well-regarded Missing Adventures to his work on the new series...and like all first works from future great writers, it's uneven as all hell. But most of the problems with the book lie with the lurches from extremely polished humor to frustratingly clumsy attempts at shock and horror; we've just seen the first NA from Gareth Roberts, but it pretty much exemplifies all of his experiences with the line. Gareth Roberts is not particularly interested in being a grown-up.
Or, to be far more accurate and charitable, Gareth Roberts subscribes to the Doctor's own philosophy: "What's the use of being a grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes?" His major antagonists in the book, the Chelonians, are giant cyborg hermaphroditic vegetarian turtles with a ludicrously extreme case of xenophobia (and rotten anthems.) Their opposition is a train full of British commuters who've accidentally found space guns. The Doctor attempts to construct "Diplomacy" as a literal super-weapon, knowing that the Chelonians wouldn't know what the word meant if they were presented with the definition on a neon sign. This is, at heart, a comedy.
But then you get Sheldukher, who's the kind of brutal and humorless thug that really doesn't belong in a book like this. You get a genuine psychopath like Molassi, who is genuinely effective as a murderous madman but who never feels like he fits in with the narrative. You get death, death, death and more death, ending with the Doctor catastrophically failing in his efforts to save the really sweet and nice humans and having to just up and leave. In another book, that might feel appropriate, but Roberts hasn't quite figured out how to stick that blend of humor and horror...or more accurately, he hasn't quite figured out which side to err on. He feels like he's trying too hard at times.
Which isn't to say he fails. For all that it never quite gels as the sum of its parts, 'The Highest Science' has some genuinely effective chills in its narrative (Benny's realization that the addictive drug she's drinking is killing her, even as she pops open another can, is inexplicably squicky. And even though you get the feeling that Sheldukher was intended more as a Julian Glover-esque charming villain, and Roberts was then asked to "NA it up a little", he's still very well-written for what he does.) And the comedy bits, though not as prevalent as in Roberts' later books, are funny indeed. (There's just something so surreal about the Chelonians that I'm still hoping we see them in the TV show, practical difficulties aside.) It's just that the divide between the funny bits and the creepy bits feels more like a chasm than a slope.
It's a good book, and I'm glad it was written...but at the same time, much better is on the horizon for this author.