Big Finish
The Big Hunt

Author Lance Parkin Cover image
ISBN 1 844351 07 6
Published 2004

Synopsis: Professor Bernice Summerfield is sent off after an old space artefact only to crashland on a planet apparently devoid of life. Devoid of life, that is, except for the robotic animals, big game hunters and ruthless corporate administrators of the type she's learned to know and mistrust.


"It's life Jim but not as we know it!" by Joe Ford 14/10/04

The only really insulting things about this book appear on the back cover, the price and the description of the story as a novel. How on Earth Big Finish can justify the extortionate 14.99 price even for a hardback book is beyond me especially when BBC books release a monthly book at 5.99 with about 120 extra pages in it. Which brings me to the second point... a novel by Lance Parkin? A novel -- at 165 pages? A novella surely? It took me three hours to read this and even a really good "novel" takes me twice as long (on average). So the page count and price together do not get the book off to a very good start.

Neither do the first 50-odd pages. Lance Parkin has proven how good he is in the past, indeed I have just finished his hilarious thriller Trading Futures for the third time, but he trips himself up in the opening to The Big Hunt by having Benny go solo and not even mention the issues that are going on in her life. The Big Finish Bernice range has taken great pains to create a self-sustaining universe of characters to play about with and to find the first original "novel" in some time ignoring those characters seems an incredible waste. With Benny on some archaeological mission on her own this book could be set at just about any point in her life and beggars the question why is it being told now, especially when things have never been juicier in her life.

There is nothing wrong with the writing itself, Lance Parkin is as thoughtful and interesting as ever, having invented a fascinating hunt for Benny to embark on but it just seems bizarre that she would accept such a task at such a busy period of her life. Looking for the Eagle probe, a device for discovering planets that are habitable for human life and creating an environment for said humans to begin their terraforming is as good a start to book as any and provides a decent enough excuse for Benny to head off into the great unknown to face god knows what dangers.

Parkin pushes the book on very well and there is no shortage of incident, but it never seems rushed or underdeveloped. He has taken a very simple idea of crashing on an unfriendly planet and taken it to extremes. Stick with the book because although you may ask yourself early on why you are bothering with such a throwaway book (like I did) at about the halfway point the plot thickens considerably and the pace accelerates to a gripping, action-packed climax. I was surprised at how much of the early scenes were essential to the story, hinting at the truth behind the planet and making me slap my head with embarrassment at how much I had missed.

I feel I should discuss the cover, which gives away far more than perhaps it should, but it is still excellent. I find it odd that I should say that because when I first saw it I cringed and labelled it "kids junk", my usual reaction to these Adrian Salmon covers. And yet each time I return to the Benny books I find myself thinking how striking they are, especially The Glass Prison and Death and the Daleks, they might be simple illustrations but they are rather vivid and he uses colour to arresting effect. I really like them. They're certainly far superior to the early covers in the range.

Robots. I'm convinced Parkin is obsessed with them! How many of his books have used robots now... Father Time, Trading Futures... erm I fear there may be a few more. I get a giddy thrill every time they show up, thank God there is a writer out there who remembers the fun you can have with science-fiction and cars that turn into robots and transformer-like warriors are such childishly appealing ideas, they counterpoint Lance's gorgeous character work with something a lit shallower. This book is full of robots of all shapes and sizes and they are right deadly buggers too! When Benny and her friends escape their crashed spaceship and return to the site only to discover it has been eaten I was chuckling with delight! What sort of frightening monster could possibly do that?

Lance subverts his usual fun antics by providing the robots with a genuinely interesting back-story and development. As the story progresses and Benny and co realise they have try and understand their enemy, they uncover some daunting facts that shocked her and me, the end of chapter seven was especially good in this regard but I shan't spoil it for you. Needless to say when Benny and her newfound friends uncover the reason WHY the robots are on the planet, the results are catastrophic for the universe if they ever escape. It provides the book with a knife-edge tension in its final pages when it appears they might very well succeed...

I adored the philosophy used in sections of the book, especially the use of Eden, humans attempting to create paradise on another world because they ruined their own. Benny has some profound thoughts as they explore Eden, ten minutes there and the humans have already started to tear it down. Are we naturally destructive creatures? Do we deserve to spread our chaotic behaviour throughout the universe? Have we really evolved or is our philosophy and way of life just a screen for the destructive creatures behind? I don't blame Benny for wanting to stay on a planet that is so close to what we consider heaven but she is well aware that it is entirely fake, a tiny patch of humanity's dreams transplanted to another world.

At first I wasn't very impressed with the secondary characters, none of them seemed to come alive or had very interesting personalities but as the book drives on their bland exteriors are peeled away as they are forced to fight for their lives. Flynn was the best of the bunch, a credible scientist caught up in violence she would rather leave to those that are better at that sort of thing. She is afraid but never cowardly and her relationship with Benny, from strangers to relying on each other totally as the sitch turns from bad to worse is sweet and believable. She can be snappy and impatient with Benny and her initial reaction to the woman is that she is a robot! She felt very real and I was longing for her to make it through the book. Beardmore starts out terribly, a butch chauvinist but soon finds his loyalties wavering as the truth about his mission to capture the robots is revealed. And Makins is the sort of nasty bastard you love to hate, outwardly so charming but with a hidden agenda you know you won't like.

I wouldn't say Benny was writer proof like, say, Fitz (remember her embarrassing portrayal in Terrance Dicks' Mean Streets?) but you would have to be a truly incompetent writer to get her seriously wrong. Fortunately Lance Parkin knows how to get her very right, her quirks correct and present. Like Jac Rayner he allows her lots of time to think about her situations and she comes across as a very intelligent woman and one who can think on her feet (she has no trouble yanking out a gun if the crisis requires it or sending men to their deaths if it means it will give them a better chance of survival). I enjoyed how Lance used her to parallel lots of developments in the future to similar issues in our time, the book felt richer for having Benny act like a professional. But she can still swear and panic like the rest of us, she isn't quite Saint Benny yet!

Some of the later action scenes were extremely memorable and in some places very graphic and I found the last fifty pages real page turning stuff. The image of the spaceship struggling to reach orbit because monsters are ripping it to pieces from the surface was very powerful.

The ending is a bit of a shock considering it doesn't really wrap up anything and leaves room for much more to be told but I rather enjoyed how Parkin allowed the reader to make up his or her own mind as to how the fight on the planet will be resolved. The danger is defeated and Benny (of course) gets away but leaving the fate of so many people open to interpretation is very brave indeed. Was there a rush to get this story in? Is that why it's so open ended? I would love for Benny to return to this planet in an audio to discover just what actually happened.

The Big Hunt is an enjoyable book, it gets so much better as it goes along and you'll probably finish it feeling quite satisfied. I would recommend as a thoughtfully written Benny standalone but I couldn't possibly justify suggesting you pay that bank-balance destroying price.

Wait for the sales.