The Sword of Forever
The Dead Men Diaries
A Collection of Short Stories
|Edited by||Paul Cornell|
|ISBN||1 903654 00 9|
|Synopsis: Who but Professor Bernice Summerfield, interstellar archaeologist, raconteur, boozer and wit, would get other people to write her autobiography albeit under threat of death from two bounty hunters sent by a publisher far too concerned about little things like deadlines? These stories are an ideal introduction to the life of Bernice Summerfield: falling off cliffs, getting sacrificed to orange pygmies, saving the universe and trying to buy a new frock. Cliffhanging escapes! Adventure on distant planets! Scones for tea!|
A Review by Sean Gaffney 9/10/00
It was a very amusing Friday for me: four Who-related books arrive at once. Players at the bookstore, and Dead Men Diaries, Turing Test, and Independence Day in the mail. Now I had a choice. Which of the 3 (ID wasn't really an option, as my hopes for it are limited) should I read first? The agonizing choices!
Luckily, I then remembered I'm a total slut for anything with Benny, and polished her book off in a matter of hours.
I remember being very wary when I first heard about the Virgin Benny Adventures coming out. I was worried they'd break up Benny and Jason, and of course, they did. ^^;; But for the most part, they books proved to be quite fun, with one or two that were right up there with the very best Who books.
Likewise, I was worried when I heard about this Big Finish project. Dropping all the continuity I rather liked (well, OK, liked bits of it), and the "SF has never been this much fun!" tag made me think we'd see almost a panto Benny.
Needn't have worried. Worlds may change, writers may come and go, feuds may erupt over who has the rights to what and what characterization is best, but Bernice is still Bernice, and thank God for that. For some of us, she's still the favorite Who companion of all time.
OVERALL: Benny is back. And we should be happy. She's undergone a THIRD complete universe changeover, complete with three editors who have totally different understandings of how to write her/her books, but Benny has always been Benny. Having adventures, cracking wise, drinking a few planets dry, and still making us grin and/or cry. And this book isn't perfect, but it's a great reintroduction after almost a year away. Sign me up for 8 months more of this! Oh wait, you have to do that yourself. Off I go...
Overall score: 8/10.
Science Fiction has never been this mediocre! by Robert Smith? 8/5/01
I must admit, I was pretty dubious about Big Finish taking over the Benny novels. Virgin had a strong publishing history, a dedication to both subtlety and quality and had been responsible for some of the most innovative and consistently good ideas for Doctor Who in the past ten years, whereas Big Finish is helmed by, erm, Gary Russell.
On the other hand, the authors involved looked promising and with Paul Cornell as editor, there might be some hope in the concept yet. With only Benny, Brax, Jason, Wolsey and Joseph returning from the NAs (along with asteroid KS 159, I suppose), this collection had a lot to do if it was to pave the way for a new line of novels.
There's an interesting outline of characters residing at the Braxiatel Collection on the first page... which is quite strange, as none of those characters are even referred to for most of the stories. They eventually pop up in a couple of stories towards the end, but I honestly thought this was a rather amusing joke for most of the book. Sadly, I only wish it were. None of the new characters exactly inspire confidence, with the exception of Broderick Naismith - but as he isn't actually there in person this isn't much help.
The links between stories are mostly inoffensive, except when they try to be funny. I'm really worried that Paul Cornell has lost the comic edge he once had. Between this and the painful comic duo in Shadows of Avalon, you'd hardly recognise the genius that was responsible for the underrated Oh No It Isn't! The other problem is the way the links keep explaining the story we've just read, in case we were too stupid to work it out for ourselves. Last time I checked, this wasn't an anthology from the point of view of Tegan Jovanka.
A Question of Identity seems rather pointless, although it's not too bad for kicking off a new line. Benny never really struck me as someone who would mope around questioning her identity. The editorial link has to do quite a bit of squirming to get us to the place where this story needs to be to start and I think that just demonstrates how artificial it is. The story isn't especially interesting, mainly since not much happens at all. It's probably my least favourite story in the collection, so I suppose it's a positive thing that it isn't actually that terrible. It's still not very good, but at least it's mercifully short.
Steal from the World sees a jump in quality and story length. It's a bit bleak, but the two-tiered nature of the story works really well. I like the way it ties into Walking to Babylon and it comes together really nicely. Definitely one of the better stories in the collection.
One idea stories live or die by the success of that idea, but fortunately The Light that Never Dies has a really neat idea. It only has the one, but that's okay. I think this could have been a bit tighter if it were a bit shorter, ala the BBC's short story output, but as it is it works well enough. Nothing outstanding, but it's not terrible either.
Heart of Glass feels like Daniel O'Mahoney on autopilot, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a weird story, though the length means it doesn't have time to grate before it ends. It feels very off-kilter, but I presume that's intentional.
I'm sure The Monster and the Archeologists is quite well thought out, but that simply doesn't translate to the page. There are clunky first-time-writer mistakes here, but there's also a sense of freshness about it that overcomes some of its flaws. I suspect it could have worked better with a bit more editing, especially since the characters are very forgettable even from one scene to the next, so I struggled to remember who was who. It starts off okay, but seems to flounder somewhere in the middle and never bothers to recover from that.
I really like Step Back in Time. It sets Benny up with a Star Trek style romance of the week that we know can't succeed, but the story works really well. The ending is also just right. It's surprisingly touching for a story of this type and continues to confirm my theory that Matt Jones is one of the best short story writers out there.
Christmas Spirit is another passable one idea story. It's also the first to use any of the new characters and magnificently fails to bring them to life. The Memory Stone isn't a bad idea as these things go, but there's nothing to write home about.
The Door into Bedlam has a really, really funny sequence with Mr Wilburton and his non-invisibility. It's a shame this wasn't a story about that, since we would have had a far better tale on our hands. The one we do get isn't terrible, though and it's good to see some continuity with Twilight of the Gods. There are lots of fun snippets to be found, like the commentary by Dr Gilhooly and the Repository of the Improbable. Things get more serious once we leave the Collection, which is a shame, but the story doesn't run out of steam. This is the inverse of most other stories in the collection, being crammed far too full of ideas, rather than relying on simply one or two.
The Least Important Man is far and away the best story of this collection. Just like Continuity Errors in Decalog 3, Steve Moffatt has livened up a mediocre collection with a runaway classic. The ideas here are fantastic, but they're written with a style and confidence that the other stories can only dream of. This is fantastic stuff.
Digging up the Past concludes the collection with a typically mediocre but inoffensive story. Benny's showdown with Ms Field is a highlight, but otherwise it seems to be marking time. It's not terrible by any means, but it's nothing special either. Much like the collection as a whole, really.
So there we have it for this twenty-first century decalog. Ten stories, ten authors, ten ideas. Sprinkle with lame jokes and some patronising links and serve lukewarm. That said, the epilogue and Appendix work really well to round out the book. The running Blake's Seven jokes in the second half of the book actually give the collection a punchline, which is greatly appreciated. I think the book would have worked far better without the interstory links and instead just used an introduction and an epilogue in Paul's/Benny's voice.
On the bright side, The Dead Men Diaries has no real clunkers. However, it does have an awful lot of stories that are either single idea stories or just marking time. They need some tighter editing and a bit more direction and focus. I'm also fairly certain the word "Toby's" is meant to be "Gavin's" on page 194, although that's the only proofreading blooper I've spotted, which is quite impressive for a small company like Big Finish - especially when you compare this to the early proofreading disasters from the BBC.
However, it's clear that short story collections are incredibly difficult to manage. It's a shame this book isn't a lot more fun or funny, but it's still nowhere near the disaster it could have been. And a few of the stories are quite good and there's a fantastic one by Steve Moffatt. Based on any objective criteria, this book is struggling to rise above its own mediocrity, but compared to most short story collections, this is an almost runaway success.
I'm reserving broader judgment on the new take on the Benny series until I read one of the novels. However, the fact that I've now ordered the first two says that despite my problems with the book, it's ultimately successful as the beginning of another new era for everyone's favourite archaeologist. Bernice Summerfield is back.
Inside Benny's Head by Barbara Smith 20/9/01
This book is a series of short stories based on Bernice Summerfield, Archeologist living in the 26th Century (Quantum-Time and Dimensional travel permitting). The short stories, naturally, are very diverse and some are slightly off the wall (this coming from someone who thinks the special effects in Red Dwarf are perfectly believable and would gladly take a place upon that ship if it ever passed her way) but overall these stories downplay the adventures the Benny has to give more of a background to the way Benny thinks. The fact that the stories have been written by many different authors adds to the complexity that makes up all human minds -- well female ones at least. These stories make Benny seem more realistic, due to the background information they provide.
An interesting point to note is that this book seems to add some friends of Benny's in the timeframe of the story, not as a recollection of a drunken binge or failed romance. These characters seem to be a permanent part of Benny's life, rather than a passing aquaintance that seems to be most of Benny's companions in other books such as The Squires Crystal and The Gods of the Underworld, except for the staples such as Irving Braxiatel, Ms Jones, Wolsey and Adrian Wall. This contributes to making Benny seem more real as the reader automatically imagines her friends to be like their own (in some cases it's scary). Although a couple of the stories were a little hard to understand they did make this reader think and puzzle out the answer, which is always a good thing.
The continuity of the book is assured thanks to the narration in between each story that brings the reader back to the present and gives us more of an idea of what Benny thinks about her own adventures and herself... although if anybody figures that out could they tell her please?
In summary, The Dead Men Diaries is a little fractured at times, but that makes it seem like you're actually in Benny's head, which added to the enjoyment and made me want to read more of her adventures, both past and future. This book would be excellent for a reader new to the world of Bernice as it explains a lot of the complexities of her life that are only hinted at in subsequent novels.
A Review by John Seavey 23/2/03
Before I begin reviewing The Dead Men Diaries specifically, let me just add my voice in support to those people who've said that whoever it is on the cover of the early Big Finish Benny books, it's not Bernice Summerfield. I mean, go look at the cover to Ship of Fools, for example, from the Virgin line, and then come back and look at the woman on the front cover of The Dead Men Diaries. It's clearly not the same person. A definite lapse there.
Despite this horrible lack of Benny on the cover of the new Benny books, I did enjoy The Dead Men Diaries. It starts off pretty slow, and there were a few points at which I suspected I'd be giving it a bad review -- but a string of good stories towards the end, including an absolute corker by Steven Moffat, brings it up to the level of "respectable", and worth reading.
There is no table of contents in this book. Someone must pay.
The introduction and linking material by Paul Cornell is interesting... probably not his best work ever, but it gave me a few laughs. It clearly struggles to fulfill its function of setting up the next story, and I think that Cornell might have been better off just jettisoning that idea and focusing on being witty... but ah, well. Too late now.
It also introduces the "new" setting -- apparently, the books have abandoned academia for the realm of the Braxiatel Collection. (I do sometimes wonder how Douglas Adams might feel if he knew a single off-hand reference in one of his scripts has expanded into a whole setting, a character, and spawned references of its own. *sigh* We'll never know now.) The books have also jumped five years forward from the end of Twilight of the Gods, neatly skipping over the question of "What happened to Vremnya?" There's a brief mention of it in one of the linking bits, so it's not being forgotten... however, Benny does say her last university appointment ended with the planet being destroyed (in the last linking sequence). Either Cornell's slipped, or the implication is that Benny can consider herself the worst academic jinx of all time. I have no real problems with the Braxiatel Collection being used as the setting here, save that it runs into the same problem they always had with Dellah -- she's never actually there.
The first story, A Question of Identity, by Caroline Symcox, isn't totally without charm; however, it's just so unbelievably hokey a premise that I couldn't really get into it. Bernice is having a crisis of identity, wanting to establish herself as a sober, serious scholar instead of a lady adventuress. (Why? Because there'd be no story if she wasn't.) So she tries to mingle with serious scholars, and of course they snub her (see point A), all except a bunch of thieves who she inadvertently clues in on some vaguely important relic they want to steal, and Guy Chisholm, a Benny groupie who's there to provide her motivation for getting back to her normal self. Which she does, defeating the thieves and yadda, yadda, yadda. The characters are all pretty one-note, and if it wasn't for decent prose, I'd be even harsher than I am now. Not a good way to start off the collection.
The second story, Steal From the World by Kate Orman, is really working uphill from its basic premise. Kate takes one of those many anecdotes from the books that we only heard bits about (Benny's expedition to Capella Four, where she broke both her legs and had to cut open her veins to lure earthworms to feed on them so she could eat the earthworms to stay alive), and expands it into a full-length story... with the uphill work coming from the fact that anyone who's heard this anecdote has already got their own version of the story in their head, and aren't willing to let it go. She compounds this problem by making the "actual" version much nicer than it originally sounded -- magical space pixies set Benny's broken bones, Benny manages to start fires and cook the earthworms, the earthworms taste nummy when cooked, et cetera, et cetera, so that by the time she's finished, it sounds more like a happy holiday camp than the grueling experience that I, at least, had envisioned. The prose is great (it is, after all, still Kate) and Benny's spot on (ditto), but I can't help feeling that this story was better left as an unknown quantity.
The Light That Never Dies, by Eddie Robson, is a clever little story about an alien being trapped in a film projector. Creepy in turns and short enough that it never gets a chance to lose its punch, this one provides the first sign that things are picking up in the collection.
Heart of Glass, by Daniel O'Mahoney... well, you have no idea how much it hurts to give an author you like a bad review. I loved his previous stuff, I expect to love his later stuff, but this... while the prose is vivid and intriguing, the plot feels like a very tiny fragment of a much larger work. This feels very frustrating to the reader (at least, to this reader) as a lot of stuff either makes no sense or very little, and seems to be referring to things elsewhere that aren't there. This should probably have been expanded into a novella or even a full novel (hint, hint.)
The Monster and the Archaeologists, by Kathryn Sullivan, does have a lot going for it -- on the one hand, it's one of the few Benny stories that actually focuses on her doing archaeological work, rather than just having her get caught up in a big adventure and occasionally recalling the legend of the ancient alien relic she's stolen/looking for. It's also got some nice characterization, and some characters I wouldn't mind seeing again. On the other hand, there's not much plot, and a slightly unclear denouement (I'm not sure exactly what Niwlog blew up.) A creditable first effort, but hopefully the next will see a bit more clarity.
Step Back In Time, by Matt Jones, is unbelievably depressing. Not that this is necessarily bad, but I do feel that someone should warn you. It's about Benny getting a crush on someone (the story works better, I think, if you decide that the crush is somehow induced), and then stealing an important, powerful time-travel artifact for them... with tragic results. Again, unbelievably depressing, and it works better if you assume that Benny is not "just" in love... but good.
Christmas Spirit, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, is also good... although it does feel a bit, I dunno, similar. Not similar to anything in particular -- just similar, in general. Evil artifact causes hauntings, Benny works it all out and stops it because she's so wonderfully clever, huzzah. My only complaint was that Benny should have thrown the artifact away even earlier than she did, since it was obvious that it was affecting her once she grabbed it away from the person it was affecting. Well, OK, my other only complaint was that Benny shouldn't have been able to see the spectre in the end, since she hadn't been able to see it at any of its previous manifestations. But still, Scott and Wright did a nice job with Benny, so I forgive them.
The Door Into Bedlam, by Dave Stone... well, I probably don't need to mention my unabashed Dave Stone fandom by now, so it should come as no surprise that I loved this story. It also features the return of Jason Kane (you can almost hear Dave Stone grousing about nobody asking him if he wanted Jason captured by the Ferutu), even if it's not the return of Jason Kane to this universe. It's an obvious set-up for later plotlines, but it's fun, so who cares?
The Least Important Man, by Steven Moffat... a note to any readers of this in the UK; could one, or possibly several, of you please kidnap Steven Moffat and force him to produce Doctor Who novels? It's a crying shame that the man who's written two of the best short stories in the canon of Doctor Who and its spin-offs has written absolutely nothing else. This cements the reputation he had with Continuity Errors from Decalog 3, with a wonderful story about a young 20th century boy and his imaginary friend, Bernice Summerfield. Rave, rave, rave.
Digging Up the Past, by Mark Michalowski, is a cute finisher, if a bit inconsequential -- it's a funny little story about Benny getting stuck in an embarrassing TV contract, and her clever little blackmail to get out of it. Not much happens, but the prose is very sparkling and I read this one with a huge grin, especially when I got to Benny's description of her smugness on page 209.
On the whole, as I say, it does pick up steam as it goes along, and sets up some of the material for the novels along the way. Certainly, it fulfills its most important role to me -- it's got Benny in it, a character that I've always loved reading, and that I'm sure I will love reading again.