Decalog 5: Wonders
A Collection of Short Stories
|Editors||Paul Leonard and Jim Mortimore|
|ISBN||0 426 20515 4|
|Synopsis:Ten stories - a billion years - an infinite universe. A collection of short stories dealing with the wonders of the universe.|
What a load of old cobblers! by Robert Smith? 24/6/99
The Doctor Who Decalogs have traditionally done rather well for themselves. Their sales were usually higher than the NAs or MAs, even if their quality was variable. Continuing the line after the revoking of the Doctor Who licence made a lot of sense. Here was an opportunity to hopefully keep those high sales and tell interesting and exciting short stories in a science fiction environment.
All of which makes it something of a pity that Decalog 5 is such a boring collection of stories, most of which would probably never have made it into a science fiction anthology had not the authors been (presumably) friends of the editors. It starts off rather mediocre, peaks with three good stories in the middle and then descends into sheer, mind-numbing boredom by the end. To say Decalog 5 is the worst Decalog yet is quite damning when you consider the quality of its predecessors, but unfortunately true.
The Place of all Places The framing story initially showed promise, but ultimately seems a little pointless. Framing stories have the potential to be good, or at least relevant or a story in their own right (as was the original framing story in the first Decalog), but this doesn't appear to be any of those things.
Poyehakali 3201 The story itself is a little boring, but the idea here is quite a good one, leading to initial high hopes for the collection. Owing to the fact that this is a book about Wonders, I really like the idea of the reader being left to work out exactly what the Wonder is here (especially when you're unsure of whether there is actually going to be one, given past volumes' track record of keeping to their theme). It's also not too long a story, which helps a lot. Not great, but not terrible either.
King's Chamber It starts off well and the alien race is well presented, even if their names get a bit cumbersome. It's a bit of a drag to read, but the ideas keep rolling along. However, I thought the Sarcophagus wasn't really a Wonder as such, although the place where it existed was interesting.
City of Hammers This one seems to have lots of potential, but ironically the Wonder is a bit too wondrous. The trouble with describing amazing and powerful and mysterious things is that it's got to be done carefully or else the reader just says "Yeah, right" as the author gets carried away with their own descriptions. This one also seems to go on forever, where a shorter story might have seemed appropriate.
Painting the Age with the Beauty of our Days This is the first one I quite liked! It seems to be taking itself a bit too seriously and using lots of swearing and drug taking for no reason other than that's what Grown Up Science Fiction does, you know, but on the whole I enjoyed it. It kept me actually wanting to keep turning the pages, so I can forgive most of its faults. The one problem I really had, however, was the hints that it was the new drug responsible for the hallucinations. This seems to be going somewhere and then completely disappears. By the end I was quite confused about what started all this and it seems something of a gigantic coincidence that Honeyman should simply find Reed. Perhaps I missed something, but it wasn't quite good enough to warrant a re-read to find out what.
The Judgment of Solomon Now this is probably what the line should be doing more. Using Bernice is quite brilliant, as the majority of readers will likely have already gotten to know the character already. In fact, if there is a future Decalog, they should have more stories using characters like Cwej and Braxiatel and Hamlet MacBeth and all the others Virgin has that could be used. Not that every story needs a recurring character, but many could probably use one in order to hook the reader in the first place. Anyway, the story itself is quite good, even answering a few questions I've had about Benny (ie does she have time travel or not?). The Wonder is well used and the characterisation of the supporting characters spot on. There's a tendency to get silly with the translator, but it just manages to keep itself on the side of credibility. And the ending is just perfect.
The Milk of Human Kindness This one's great, if a little bizarre. It's a real page-turner, effortlessly drawing the reader in to the situation of all the protagonists. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the ending completely fizzles out. Yes, we finally work out what's been causing the changes (and it's a great explanation), but there are some very brief hints on how to stop this when the story suddenly ends! It's implied that there was no cure, but this can't be true since the human race is obviously still around in other Decalog 5 stories set after this. Even a paragraph of technobabble would probably have been preferable to the complete lack of explanation we got here. A pity since the rest of the story was so interesting.
Bibliophage A comedy is exactly what the collection needed at this point and it's a great story to boot. I wasn't particularly impressed with Managra, but Stephen Marley has completely redeemed himself with this story (if only he'd stuck to it and not written a second one, but more on that later). The nature of the problem was fascinating, the solution made sense and best of all the Wonder seemed like a Wonder, particularly as it was simply there and not made a big deal of. Oh, and the Decalog 5 joke is wonderful! Probably my favourite story from this collection.
Negative Space And then it all fell apart. I've read Jeanne Cavelos' Babylon 5 novel and was quite impressed. Unfortunately, the best thing you can say about this story is "Worthy, but dull". With an emphasis on the "dull" part. The science associated with the story is sound because she got a team of experts to help. Unfortunately, every single piece of scientific method or postulation or discovery is listed with agonising detail, as though Cavelos wanted to drum home just how much research she'd done. This is reinforced by the acknowledgments at the end of the story, which I thought was completely misplaced (why couldn't this have gone with her entry in "The Authors" section?). It really breaks the "fictional" flow (such as there is) and tells you, if you hadn't already guessed, that this is not so much a short story as a framing piece for a collection of physics discourses. The actual story that's struggling to get out has promise, but it needs to be about thirty pages shorter. This is one of the most boring short stories I've ever struggled through.
Dome of Whispers Another in the worthy-but-dull category, only this one doesn't have the excuse of being 52 pages long. It's the shortest story in the collection, bar the framing story, and yet still seems to drag. The wonder is interesting and consequences fascinating, but the author clearly doesn't have the talent to make them work.
Waters-of-Starlight Another dull entry that has the hints of a decent story submerged within it, but this one is from Stephen Marley. I can only presume that this was written in a hurry as a replacement (since this is the first time any Decalog author has had two stories in the one collection). Either that or it was the wonderful Bibliophage that was written in a hurry, suggesting Marley should stick to writing under pressure. The Wonder is interesting, like most of them, but it doesn't come across that way (like most of them) simply because of the boring way in which it's written (like most of them). Not a particularly good way to end the collection, even though it makes the most sense, given the nature of the Wonder in question.
In summary, Decalog 5 has a couple of interesting stories, but the majority are interesting ideas submerged by a lack of talent. I'd recommend three of the individual stories (Judgment of Solomon, Milk of Human Kindness and Bibliophage), but honestly wouldn't recommend the collection as a whole. It's a pity, partly because there's some good stuff locked away in here and partly because future Decalogs are going to depend on sales of this one, but boring the reader over and over again is a crime that simply cannot be forgiven in literature.
A Review by John Seavey 27/1/03
To be totally honest, I had some qualms about reviewing this book -- after all, this site is for Doctor Who books and their spin-offs, and by the fifth book in the Decalog series, Paul Leonard and Jim Mortimore had moved away from Doctor Who so completely that the book doesn't belong in the Doctor Who universe in places.
"In places" is the operative word, and also the reason why I feel that this is a slightly weak Decalog; whereas previous Decalogs attempted for a tight cohesion between their ten stories (either through an interlocking narrative, as in the first and third, or at least a very tight theme and careful editing, as with the second and fourth), the fifth Decalog has stories which clearly contradict each other in spots, and some which even stretch the skeletal theme ("Wonders") to its very limits. A few truly excellent stories (including a gem of a Benny short from Lawrence Miles) do raise this to the level of "well worth having", but it's easy to see why it didn't appeal to its specialized niche audience enough to warrant a Decalog 6.
The book's only attempt at a linking narrative comes from 'The Place of All Places', two brief narratives which bookend the collection. The pieces have a gorgeous prose style, but seem somehow incoherent and confusing... hallmarks both of Mortimore and Leonard, who have at times been known to focus more on poetic phrase than clear plot. (I might suggest that the duo were an odd choice to select as editors, but hindsight is 20/20.)
They did manage to attract Stephen Baxter, who contributed Poyekhali 3201... this definitely evokes a sense of wonder, through its vivid recreation of the first ever flight by man into outer space, and does a fine job of bringing out the details of what Yuri Gagarin must have seen and felt as he flew. However, this story, I think, would have worked better with no science fiction elements at all -- the twist, that this is a clone re-enacting Gagarin's flight, is unnecessary and distracting (and does cause one of the big contradictory elements in the story. According to the future humans in the story, no alien life-forms have been found anywhere on any other planet in all of humanity's exploration in space. This obviously puts this short story out of the realm of Doctor Who, and puts it at odds with three or four other stories from this Decalog as well. I realize it's odd to expect inter-narrative cohesion in a short story collection when it's so rarely a feature, but I feel that it's one of the stronger elements of the Decalogs and should have been retained.)
The second story, King's Chamber by Dominic Green, stretches not just continuity but theme as well. The wondrous monument in this book only exists in dreams... but it exists in all the dreams of an entire planet-ful of dreamers. Some very interesting concepts and gorgeous prose here, but an ending that barely borders on coherent (which leads me to suspect this might have been Mortimore writing under a pseudonym.)
City of Hammers, by Neil Williamson, is more along the lines of what you'd expect from a collection whose theme is Wonders. It's an elegant, beautiful story dealing with an ancient, alien city whose function truly does take the breath away (and Williamson's prose does an excellent job of bringing forth that sense of wonder and awe, as well)... but in the end, this story is about the smallest, most human of acts, saying good-bye to the people we love. One of the gems of the collection.
Painting the Age With the Beauty of Our Days, by Mike O'Driscoll, reminded me very strongly of the movie 'Fight Club'. It contains a lot of the same thematic elements: A society deadened to its own emotions and viewing everything through a detached, ironic eye; two men who come upon the means of re-awakening this passive society through stirring powerful, repressed emotional impulses like hate and fear; a female character who comes between the two men and their personal (almost sexual) bonding; acts of "art" that escalate into acts of terrorism; and a final, violent conclusion in which one man outgrows and kills the other. Like "Fight Club", I recommend this story, although not without reservations about the message it conveys. (Connection to Theme: Very slight, although some of the works of "art" do convey a certain twisted sense of wonder.)
The Judgement of Solomon was a shock (albeit a welcome one), in that it was a Bernice Summerfield story by the acclaimed Lawrence Miles. It's a good 'un, too, if you can ignore the tiny question of exactly _how_ Benny time-travelled back to ancient Baghdad... The whole story revolves around anachronistic, technological wonders that might not be so anachronistic after all, and how what we think of progress might not map onto the real world's view of progress. Since these are old, old hobby-horses of mine that I like to get on and ride every once in a while, I loved this story to death, and would have even if it hadn't been a Benny story by Lawrence Miles. :) It also perfectly connects to the theme of the collection, which I liked a lot.
The Milk of Human Kindness, on the other hand, didn't connect to the theme or continuity of the collection at all, unless we're supposed to have heard of the amazing "Planet of Titties". The whole story revolves around a virus that causes everyone in the world, men and women, to lactate uncontrollably... indeed, to lactate to death as their bodies use themselves up producing milk. It's a disturbing, almost-pornographically fetishistic story... but the atmosphere it engenders is nonetheless effectively creepy. Then again, I always get creeped out by "end of the world" stories, so the author probably didn't have to work hard there. Heck, I get creeped out by "Doctor Strangelove".
From the deranged to the... well, still pretty deranged, but unmistakably brilliant... Bibliophage returns us to the theme of Wonders, with Stephen Marley giving us a glimpse of the largest library in the universe. In fact, it's a library that contains everything, a fact which becomes crucial to the course of a cunning, clever, witty, sadistically brilliant little gem of a story that I simply cannot enthuse enough over. I always wanted more of Stephen Marley's work after reading the highly underrated Managra, and with Bibliophage, I got my wish. Now if only he'd write an EDA...
The next story, Negative Space by Jeanne Cavelos, shifts the mood from humor to its polar opposite. Not horror (although there are elements of horror in this tale of a doomed expedition to Alpha Centauri), but sorrow... sorrow so profound and moving that the tale leaves you cold long after its conclusion. The overriding idea here is that there are things out there that evoke emotions so profound that we simply can't deal with them -- on viewing the alien sculptures of the world, with their inhuman evocations of loss and yearning, the explorers just can't cope. Art that kills. Very nice. (And very in keeping with the theme.)
Dome of Whispers, by Ian Watson, is in keeping with the theme, but very little else. Watson comes up with the central idea (a dome of such perfect echoes that sounds are trapped within it forever), then wrecks it... and that's pretty much the story. Here's the dome, here's the hole in it, good-bye. It's not bad, but after the rest of the collection, it seems fairly inconsequential.
Waters-Of-Starlight, by contrast, dwarfs everything else in the book. Stephen Marley (yes, him again) writes a tale reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's 'The Books of Magic', showing the end of the universe and the way humanity's last descendants take on the archetypes of their ancestors simply to pass the time until Creation itself stops. The efforts of Old River Woman to escape the galaxy, the universe, the timeline, and all that is provide a stunning finish to the book, and one of the stories that make it "well worth having".
As I said in the beginning of this review, I can understand why there was no Decalog 6... but that doesn't mean this was a bad collection. I just think that the Decalogs appealed to a very small niche market, and when they left that niche, they couldn't survive. Still, though, I'm very glad I picked this up, if for nothing else besides Bibliophage and The Judgement of Solomon. Suffice to say, if someone ever does do a 'Best Of...' collection of DW-related short stories, these two merit inclusion even if the Doctor never appears.