The Gods Storyline
Virgin Books
The Joy Device
A Benny Adventure

Author Justin Richards Cover image
ISBN 0 426 20535 9
Published 1999

Synopsis: Clarence and Jason Kane are on a mission: Protect Bernice while she takes a holiday. But things are never that simple, especially when long dead civilisations start appearing and people start disappearing.


A Review by Finn Clark 14/1/00

I haven't heard much discussion about The Joy Device, which is a bit of a shame but not really surprising. Just as the controversial 8DAs attract more attention than their quieter cousins in the PDA range, this book is a relaxing interlude in the big and noisy Gods arc from Virgin. I've got Twilight of the Gods 2 sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read, and only a stern sense of duty stopped me from skipping The Joy Device in favour of that other book's revelations.

Had I done that, 'twould have been a shame, as The Joy Device is a whole lot of fun. My only disappointment was that despite the book's title, there wasn't a razor-edged nipple clamp to be seen. Misleading advertising, I call it.

But on to the book itself...

Justin Richards has tried writing light-hearted comedy before, in Demontage. That was okay, but fluffy and inconsequential rather than actually funny. Now he's tried again with The Joy Device and I'm happy to report that the results are a great deal better.

The plot is beautifully simple in conception, dependent upon the kind of misunderstanding and conspiracy that propels the best sitcoms. You half expect to see a vicar running around with a young lady in her underwear. I haven't read anything this bright and breezy since the last book by Terrance Dicks. Benny takes a holiday from the gritty Gods storyline, and how.

The Benny book regulars are present, correct and running around like blue-arsed flies. There are murderous gangsters, but you could say the same of Mean Streets or even Some Like It Hot. It doesn't noticeably affect the tone.

If you're looking for Big Omen-Laden Story Arcs of Doom, this certainly isn't the book for you. However if you're after an amiable breath of fresh air, you could do a lot worse than this. Don't feel you have to know the first thing about the Gods storyline, or indeed anything whatsoever about the Benny books. If the line hadn't just ended, this would be a perfect jumping-on point.

Surprisingly Underdone by Robert Smith? 19/1/00

There's one nice thing about Justin Richards' books: they're never stale. He has lots of really cool tricks up his authorial sleeve and over the many years and many books he's managed to hone his style into something quite polished indeed.

Which makes it all the more of a pity that he doesn't use any of the lessons learnt over the years in The Joy Device.

Okay, I appreciate the attempt to do something different, really I do. You'd be hard-pressed to guess what kind of book this would be in advance, I think. It's light, it's fluffy, it's a welcome respite from the heavy-going Gods arc, it's a last minute breather before the end.

It's also not very good and hinges around a one-note joke that isn't particularly funny to begin with, yet is pounded into us for all it's worth, and then some. It all starts with the quote on the back cover, which fails to even raise a flicker of amusement. The whole idea that Benny might enjoy herself on the frontier feels like the sort of revelation that Justin had at 3:00am while exceedingly drunk and felt the urge to explain a perfectly obvious idea in painstaking detail to any passing strangers. As the back cover does. As Jason does to Clarence. Twice. In two pages.

The first fifty pages are awful. So awful, in fact, that I honestly thought we were in for the mother of all twists from Mr Richards and the bad writing was going to be part of the wind-up. Dent's book seemed like a dead giveaway here. But sadly this is not the case.

It does get better, fortunately, but my goodness is it tough going. Demontage was a similarly light and fluffy book, but Fitz's reactions there kept it on a very humorous level the whole way through. There's nothing inherent in the NA cast to prevent this, as far as I can see, yet it really doesn't gel at all for me.

Almost every scene happens directly after the previous one, with only the occasional piece of Dent's book to break the flow. I like this idea in theory, but it needs a firmer hand to carry it off successfully. The book feels quite bland and underwhelming because of this, which is a real shame, as it's quite a refreshing change from the usual hectic style of the Bernice NAs. The historical documents and differing approaches and flash-forwards of Tears worked brilliantly for a reason. The Joy Device feels like it's been stripped to its bare essentials, only there's not a whole lot of interest left at this point.

The idea of Bernice having chunks of her past missing and parts of it existing only in diary form has a lot of potential, but frustratingly it seems to go nowhere! I recognise that in the book Justin was trying to write, a deeper analysis would seem out of place, but the one we got is crying out for something to liven it up (especially the boring beginning). It frustrates me no end to see potentially fascinating subjects like this dropped in favour of the ho-ho-ho, isn't-it-a-laff antics of Jason and Clarence.

What with Dave Stone rewriting the consequences of Tears of the Oracle in the previous book and now Justin casually dismissing the ending of Return to the Fractured Planet, I feel like we're locked into a surreal game of tug-o-war, with staunch Major Richards on one side and shape-shifting "Giraffe" Stone on the other. It's like two co-authors each trying to write the other into impossible cliffhangers for their own amusement, only between books for a change. It's not necessarily bad, it's just weird.

Once the action picks up, so does the book, but it never reaches anywhere near the level of interest it wants to. The comedy seems to have been squeezed out of a rock, so hard does this try to please. I suspect that this is mainly because The Joy Device shouldn't be a book at all, but a comedy episode of a normally serious Sci-Fi TV series. Most of the jokes would probably improve in the translation no end.

Clarence feels really wrong to me all through the novel. And the ending with Braxiatel isn't even supposed to make sense, as far as I can tell. Oh, and the resolution to something quite important is in the cover art if you look closely enough!

The more serious part of the story, such as it is, works quite well. Dent is quite good for what he's supposed to be and I really like his introduction via the novel Benny reads. The plot here works very well, with Justin's trademark skill at plotting taking over nicely. I'm loathe to say "stick to what you know", because I'm usually all for experimentation, but I guess this illustrates the very real capacity for failure that such experiments run the risk of.

All in all, The Joy Device is amusing in some places, quite good in others, but mostly frustrating the whole way through. It's a shame, after the brilliant Tears of the Oracle, that we get something this poor. The NAs have been having quite an astounding success rate; I suppose it's only natural that they'd fall flat on their face sooner or later. A shame it couldn't have waited two more books to happen, though.

"Who the hell is Berny Summerton?" by Joe Ford 30/11/03

Are you sure that this was written by Justin Richards? If so it is the least substantial of all of his works, even Demontage and that was fairly shallow. The book felt as though it had been written in a hurry (and to my surprise I found it was rushed to fit in a gap in the schedule) with a speedy but uncomplicated plot and relatively little surprises. Is it possible? Is it the first Justin Richards novel that genuinely sucks?

AHAHAHAHAHA! Of course not! Much like Robert Holmes I don't think Justin could write a poor book even if he set out to imitate Craig Hinton (although Holmes did write The Power of Kroll and The Space Pirates so there may be a flaw or two in that argument). The Joy Device is certainly one of his lesser novels, lacking the horror of The Burning, the revelations of Time Zero, the twists of Dreams of Empire, etc, etc but it still has much to recommend it. It was another Benny book that moved like lightning, I started it last night and finished it this morning, I had no desire to put it down and as I result spent much of my working day today yawning and moaning about how tired I was!

As Finn Clark so ably put it The Joy Device is a sitcom, reading this is like reading a One Foot in the Grave episode, a tale of witty quips, clever plotting and loads of co-incidences conspiring to frustrate the characters but amuse the reader. It is fortunate that I love One Foot in the Grave and this quirky, unpredictable humour appeals to me greatly.

However I can understand why readers like Robert Smith? found the book trying, it is not going to suit all tastes. The main plot is slight at best, the one joke premise although embellished brilliantly does threaten to bore after a while and as several reviewers have pointed out it doesn't really have an ounce of genuine threat to it.

Listen up folks, this is how it goes. Benny is traumatised after her life threatening escapades of recent adventures and wants to set off to the Eastern Rim for some adventuring. After losing a great deal of her memories she wants the chance to grab some new ones and to give her life a bit of spice in the meanwhile. Unfortunately Jason, Chris, Clarence and Braxiatel are scared shitless that she might enjoy herself so much she might never come back so Jason and Clarence embark on a mission to make her death defying holiday as peaceful and dull as possible without her noticing she is there. Unfortunately it appears they may fail when the unspeakably handsome Dent Harper offers to be her guide, a man of ill repute, his CV includes seeking out danger in every nook and cranny and facing it with breathless heroism. And with two desperate dangerous factions searching for Dorpheld's Prism, the Joy Device, and somehow inveigling Benny in their petty attempts to acquire it, Jason and Clarence have their work cut out for them to ensure Benny is so bored she is desperate to come home...

That's about the size of it. If you don't like the sound of that don't go near the book. Because this isn't a book that survives on shock revelations (usually a given in a Richards novel) or probing character insights, no, this is a book that thrives on the incidentals, the little details that leave you chuckling with delight.

Richards knows Benny inside out and bravely sets out to write the book where absolutely nothing happens to her (well no of course loads of things are happening to her but thanks to Clarence and Jason she hasn't a clue what is really happening). So no seat of the pants action for our favourite heroine, no quick thinking, no leaps of quirky logic to escape from impossibly tight situations... for Benny this just a leisurely (and dull) stroll through another generic world. I loved it when The Romans focussed on the running gag of Ian and Barbara being in Rome with The Doctor and Vicki but neither party actually meeting (but coming pretty damn close), it set up some delightful sequences where one dupe would disappear from the screen only for the other to pop and as soon as they vanish the others return. Quality visual gags and very cleverly done. Quite apart from the skill it takes to pull it off in a novel the 'Benny hasn't a clue' gag that holds this story together also left me giggling wholeheartedly. Her constant retorts to Dent's assertions that the Rim is a market of danger and fear are hysterical, of course WE can see the shootouts, the petty criminals, the fights and the grisly murders but to Benny, yawning her way through the adventure it is quite another matter. The sequence in Prevoria where Dent tempts Benny with sights of depravation and despair is laugh-a-minute good with the villagers brandishing them with garlands of flowers and fruit, kissing them and treating them as Gods. Her reaction ("I was again struck by the generosity and plain friendliness of everyone. And, after about ten minutes, by how boring it all was") was spot on.

This facet of Benny, this comforted, pampered woman who longs for the adventure of days past is an extremely welcome return after all the horror and drama of the Gods arc. By wiping her memories clean it sets up a new series of adventures, which continues superbly with the Big Finish books and audios. Her final decision that it doesn't matter that she doesn't know everything about her past, that it is what is coming that's what's important is a vital moment and one to cherish.

Surprisingly all the best bits of the book though deal with Jason and his increasingly absurd attempts to keep his ex-wife safe. It was during his trials that I found myself laughing silly at the lengths he was going. Some of the gags are priceless, the entire sequence where he infiltrates the Cartel as the esteemed Professor Fred Bloggs, Braxiatel helping him along with some technical info through an earpiece. Unfortunately there is a five second delay so Professor Bloggs has to stall until Brax can communicate leading to all sorts of hysterical diversions (and how Winther keeps using his name... "Well, well if it isn't Professor Bloggs!" and so forth had me roaring!). Jason's obsession with Benny, his refusal to admit how much he loves her but proving it by doing such an incredibly stupid thing like trying to sabotage her holiday just so she will come back to him is incredibly sweet.

The book continues on this path for so long you expect a huge twist to reveal some meaning to it all but its purpose seems to be just provide a good time. Annoying, if you fork out 5.99 for an absorbing piece but pleasant if you're killing a day or two. Every time the book threatens to get dull there is another moment that makes you laugh, ("Dent Harper is working for a tour company as a guide! Can you believe it? And his client is the famous archaeologist Berny Summerton!").

The whole Dorpfeld's Prism plot is just as excuse for the fun to begin but Justin provides enough background to make it a plausible starting point for the chase to begin and to introduce some ludicrous characters to try and ruin Benny's holiday. The sequences with Winther, Klench and Linn under the influence of the Joy Device are superb, all smiley and gay (ahem, not like that!). When Benny finally gets around to finding some action, a tense shootout in the hotel pub she is under the influence of the Prism and finds it all a bit of a laugh! 'Boys!' she exclaims as Dent waves his gun about!

It all climaxes in a loopy sequence where all the major players are pointing weapons at each other and Jason ends up flying over the balcony into the jaws of a waterfall on top of a fat, giggling geriatric! To prove how inconsequential that book is this is the grand finale! Hardly worth getting excited about but boy was I laughing!

And then as if to give the book a purpose, a reason to follow the mismatched couple Dent and Benny they spend the last twelve or so pages of the book trying to get to their hotel room so they can bonk each others brains out. One final task for Jason as he goes to disturbing lengths to see that they don't succeed. It is another very funny sequence in a very funny book.

The humour is controlled but effective (Jason diverting the thugs to the rubbish dump and then discovering seconds later that is exactly where Benny is going!) and although the book wont win any prizes for innovation or anything come to that I enjoyed it a lot. It has kind of confirmed my suspicion that the Benny books are little more than amusing diversions but in the end of the day there is nothing wrong with that, this knocks spots of Doctor Who bores such as Parasite, The Death of Art, Grimm Reality, Heritage and such like. I would take this whacky screwball over much of the Who input.

Before I started this review I was kind of on the fence as to whether the book was even worth reviewing, such was its unimportance but now I realise just how much fun it is and how much of it sticks in your mind.

A worthy foray into sitcom land with some priceless moments of well observed comedy.

A Review by Dave Roy 19/2/04

Most of the Benny books have been extremely funny, even when they're being serious. The Joy Device is played just for laughs, though, and Richards plays it up like a gem. Being the penultimate book in the range, I guess Richards felt that he had to go for it all. While the joke does go on a bit too long, it's still a hilarious book.

I've always been a big fan of Benny, both with the Dr. Who books as well as her solo adventures. It's sad to think that this is the next-to-last one published by Virgin. Richards delivers a wonderful book, though, full of the trademark humour and strong writing that he's famous for. The situation Benny finds herself in (though she sometimes doesn't realize it) is almost too crazy to believe, with events happening all around her but she is unaware of them (thanks to some timely intervention by her friends). There's a laugh on almost every page, whether it's Jason's attempt to keep a purse-snatcher from bothering her or Jason trying to make sure she doesn't sleep with Dent, or many other zany situations. Richards doesn't make the jokes too obvious, and he has the perfect cast of characters to cover them all.

First, there's Benny and Dent. Benny is Benny, often sarcastic and just in need of a breather. Dent is an adventurer, and Richards really fooled me on whether or not he is the man he claims to be. He is mystified by what's happening (or, in this case, not happening) and the holiday he promised Benny is turning to mind-numbing boredom. Every time things start to go the way he's expecting them to, they all of a sudden reverse themselves. While he is not a funny character, his reactions are almost the straight man to everything that is happening, and he does a wonderful job at it.

Then there's Jason and Clarence. Clarence is so innocent, he's not used to all this skullduggery, and Jason gets him involved in a lot of it. He's wonderful, fake moustache and all. But it's Jason who steals the show, constantly coming up with impromptu plans to get in the way of disaster happening to Benny, and making sure that she doesn't know that he's been involved. He's the one who always ends up in danger, and he handles it with aplomb. He hasn't changed a whole lot from previous Benny books, as he's still incredibly possessive but knows that if he expresses it publicly, she'll rip his equipment off. At the beginning of the book, they're still arguing like they did when they were married, with neither side allowing the other any leeway. Jason and the others can't allow Benny to know they don't want her to go, mainly because the reason they don't want her to go is because she may find that she likes it out there. Being the person put in charge of making sure she doesn't, Jason is a pleasure to read about.

The villains of the piece are typical comedy villains. Ruthless to an extent to make things dangerous, but mostly comic characters where there is no violence to be had. They threaten everybody, and there is some gunplay. Overall, though, there's not a lot new about them. They aren't one-dimensional, but they aren't exactly full-blooded.

There are a couple of problems with the book, but they don't detract enough for me to lower my rating of the book. First, the joke does go on too long. I didn't realize when I started the book that the joke was the book. I thought it was just an aspect of it, but no. It was fine until the conclusion, when Jason was desperately trying to keep Benny and Dent apart. By this time, I was tired of it and found the whole sequence annoying (though taken by themselves, the scenes were wonderful).

Secondly, there is a bit of a logic problem, something that I don't usually associate with Richards, even in a comedy. Benny is finding the whole thing boring, but there is a running battle in the hotel with the bad guys trying to get the prism, shooting up the place and everything. While Benny is under the effect of the Prism, there is no indication that it affects her memories of what happened. Sure, she's under its spell when she calls the whole thing "a misunderstanding," but then when she's no longer under it's effects, she still calls the Rim boring and says that nothing happens. I'm sorry, but even if it is a "misunderstanding," being shot at and having explosions go off all around you doesn't sound like nothing happening. I found Benny's blase attitude toward the whole thing at the end a little mystifying.

Still, this is a wonderful book. It's funny and reads very quickly. Other than it's setting, it's not even really science fiction. It's an adventure, through and through. And did I say it's funny?