Life During Wartime
A Collection of Short Stories
|Edited by||Paul Cornell|
|ISBN||1 844350 62 2|
|Synopsis: The Braxiatel Collection has been occupied by the Fifth Axis. Bernice finds herself caught in the middle of the occupation, her old friends, and her desperate need to protect her child.|
A Review by Finn Clark 2/12/03
Life During Wartime is nearly the best Who-related novel published this year. Admittedly I haven't yet read This Town Will Never Let Us Go, but this Benny anthology is certainly better than everything we've seen from BBC Books. Only Emotional Chemistry even comes close to its combined richness of setting, menace, realism and characterisation. (I think I also enjoyed it more than the Telos novellas, which can sometimes get a bit rarefied, but a novella isn't a novel and so my opening comparison doesn't apply there.)
The only reason I include the "nearly" is that Life During Wartime isn't quite a novel. It has a bloody good stab at it, but unfortunately its ending is a cliffhanger for the next Big Finish audio rather than a resolution. This actually works rather well, being an interesting revelation in its own right, but only because it's an anthology. From a novel 'twould be a bit iffy. [And after that comes the most "what the hell?" story Jim Mortimore ever penned, but in its own disturbing way that kinda works too. The author's name above the story title is warning enough. As everyone knows, Jim Mortimore lives only to make our brains dribble from our ears and we're fantastically lucky to have him.]
The book's core idea is terrific. When reviewing Big Finish's first Benny novel, The Doomsday Manuscript, I pointed out that Brax's asteroid was a completely safe environment in which the only conflicts could be inconsequential personality clashes between the various members of staff. (In other words, Ms. Jones.) It's hard to threaten Benny when she's holding down a sinecure at the top-security private planet of her best friend, who's an alien Doctor-a-like genius with unlimited money. However Life During Wartime overturns all that. I'll quote the back cover:
"The Braxiatel Collection has been occupied by the Fifth Axis. This shouldn't have happened: Brax picked this place to be safe, and surely he knows the history of time and space? Bernice and her friends find themselves living under a military government. Bev joins the resistance. Adrian is thrown into a prison camp for aliens. Jason finds a comfortable little niche for himself in the new administration. Bernice's half-human son, Peter, is now under threat every minute of every day. Bernice herself is caught in the middle of the occupation, her old friends, and her desperate need to protect her child."And it works! Suddenly finding themselves in a life-and-death situation, the Big Finish supporting cast come alive as never before. Ms Jones gains at least two extra dimensions that we'd never even suspected. Mr Crofton is given a wonderful story, The Crystal Flower, after which you'll never see him the same way again. Adrian Wall isn't allowed much limelight, but what little he does get is very effective. Bev Tarrant I'd never met before (she's a character from the audios, created by Mike Tucker), but she certainly adds an edge of unpredictability and danger to proceedings.
But the biggest revelation is Irving Braxiatel. I never really liked him. It's hard to hate a guy who's calm, intelligent and super-efficient, but he never did anything interesting either. The man was dull. However here we see a whole new side of him, locked up and possibly tortured (we're never quite sure) but never giving an inch to the Fifth Axis.
The quality of the stories is remarkably consistent. Apparently Paul Cornell did a fair bit of showrunner-style tweaking and arranging to make things flow as a complete narrative, which makes a huge difference. As I said it's practically a novel, but it's a collection of fine individual stories too. I guess there has to be a worst story... uh, maybe Jonathan Morris's one, which somehow never gelled for me, but even that's okay. A couple of stories were hard to get into initially (Paul Ebbs, Robert Shearman) but there's good stuff in 'em to repay attention. At first I thought Paul Ebbs was just recycling a chapter from The Book of the Still, but he soon proved me wrong and ended up going somewhere rather interesting. And on the upside we have the stories of Jon Blum (which is just flat-out scary), Dave Stone (Jason-centric as always) and plenty more. Ian Mond's Midrash particularly tickled me, for some reason.
I should also mention Simon Guerrier. He's the only person other than Paul Cornell to contribute more than one story and 'twas an excellent decision. He's taken the straightforward notion of "Benny takes a small but significant stand against the fascists" and simply written it twice. Both stories are great and really enhance the book. Had I been Paul, I'd have wanted to run both of 'em too.
I don't normally review anthologies these days. Most collections of stories are merely, well, collections of stories. Reviewing each snippet one by one tends to get bitty and too subjective for anyone wondering whether or not to buy the thing. Life During Wartime is different. This is the anthology for anyone who hates anthologies and the Big Finish Benny book for people who couldn't be bothered with Big Finish's Benny books. It's expensive, yes, like quite a lot these days. The Russell T. Davies series announcement may have come just in time to stop Doctor Who from disintegrating into rival cottage industries of budget-busting audios, hardbacks and trade paperbacks. But for once this hardback is well worth the price.
Biting the bullets... by Joe Ford 15/1/03
I'm going to let you into a little secret of mine... ¦I hate short stories. Novellas I can just about manage, half-length books can still pull quite a punch but four or five page stories fail to engage me mostly. Which is a shame because I think I am missing out on some of the most powerful Doctor Who there is. I look at short stories in the same way as I do poetry (which I also hate), the author having to achieve so much more than that of 300 page book, having to make his/her point in such a short space of time. Don't mistake my words, I realise these short pieces are hard work. It's just the thought of getting involved with characters and having to leave them so suddenly, the reason I read books is to immerse myself in the worlds of these characters, to get to know them, to see them under pressure, to get close to them. Short stories don't offer these opportunities.
Which is quite fortunate then that Who staple Paul Cornell has laced together 25 short stories into a almost novel length anthology with the same characters running through the book. There are two drawbacks to this method; they being that the individual pieces lack a sense of distinction and that there are long stretches where nothing seems to happen, the same characters dealing with pretty much the same situations throughout. Had this been an original novel by one writer the story would be painfully thin... the Fifth Axis occupy the Braxiatel Collection and stamp their racist mark. Benny and friends try their best to cope under the militaristic regime... that's about it I'm afraid. And worst of all, considering this is running story the book does the unthinkable and does not provide an ending but rather leaves you hanging for it in the next Benny audio, great for whetting the appetite for audio suckers like me but annoying for a casual reader of the Benny series.
All of this goes to suggest that I did not enjoy the book and nothing could be further than the truth, indeed some of the writers have provided their best ever work and the twists and turns prove to be both surprising and encouraging. Besides it uses the entire Benny cast in a fascinating way, a cast of which I having been heaping praise upon for some time.
Benny herself is given the best examination, understandably. Considering her child is a half-breed and the fifth Axis' racial prejudice, her fear is palpable indeed as she rushes back to the Collection after The Poison Seas to see if her son is safe. The thought of his death numbs Benny and the reader, considering the incredible birth story (The Glass Prison) and the consequences (Jason and Adrian's fierce jealousy) it seemed a real waste to throw away such a powerful continuing storyline. Peter isn't dead and it is her separation from him under Axis rule that drives Benny through the anthology, her burning desire to see her son and yet keep him safe by not seeing him is one of the most brave/painful things she has ever done.
But then other issues are brought to the fore as Benny starts to co-operate with the Axis, specifically Marshal Anson when it is proven that active resistance will cause the slaughter of everyone. A sharp reminder of her time in Guernsey is nice as Benny is sudden looked upon, as an outer space Jerry Bag, a collaborator and someone who her old friends realise must be dealt with...
The Benny/Jason/Adrian triangle is given a rest through much of the book although her parallel admissions to both of them ("I love you like Peter loves you") really hits home. Jason is absent throughout much of the first half, living up to his reputation of doing anything to survive and licking the fifth Axis' boots until his tongue is black. The second half brings Jason to the fore and it reveals hidden depths to the character and forces you to see him through different eyes. I love sudden reversals like this, especially when they are done this good. We all know Jason has a heart of gold despite his cowardess but what they hell is his plan and how close does he have to get to the Axis to get it sorted? Questions, questionsâ^Ŕ¦
Brax... oh man, what a guy. He spends practically the whole book in his rooms and yet he remains quietly sinister throughout despite the fact he is the prisoner. I love Brax, he is fast becoming as intruging a character as the Doctor because unlike our regular hero, he has dark secrets yet to reveal...
Predictably a resistance springs up from the survivors of the Collection and it is Bev Tarrant, once a throwaway Mike Tucker character but now integral to the series, who leads them. I remember Bev when we first met her in The Genocide Machine, gun-ho but still a bit pathetic. Well she has certainly grown since then and rivals Spang, the torturing interrogator as being the scariest person in the book. She is tough and determined and won't let anyone; even if they used to be friends, stand in her way. Some tense moments between her and Benny light up the book. Thoughtfully the book refuses to see the resistance as heroes but as murderers who are fighting for what they believe in. Are they really any better than the fifth Axis?
The three major Axis characters all make a strong impact. Anson, the man in charge, all silky voiced and charming until you displease him. He reminds me of Kai Winn from DS9, all smiles and diplomacy whilst you're facing him but ready with a knife as soon as your back is turned. Spang, the Interrogator, the man who refuses to live by the Axis' rules but gets results. What an quiet, terrifying little man, his 'gift' (being able to see the timeline of the people around him, their pasts and future laid out) marking him out as one to avoid at all costs. His interrogation scenes with Brax are one of the anthologies highlights. And finally Markof, the humane side of the Axis, the guy who is sleeping with the usually impenetrable Ms Jones, and despite his apparent sympathy to those under Axis rule never, ever fails in his duty. A drunken conversation between Benny, Jason, Markof and Ms Jones proves highly rewarding because we see Markof's facade slip away and find out just what a bigoted xenophobe he really is.
It is a joy to see all these sides of the enemy, their methods are cruel and unfair but they are not completely monsters. We are forced to remember despite their radical ambitions these are still human beings. It's a scary thought but many people alive today share similar views and live normal, productive lives. Did any of you see Louis Theroux in Nazi America? Terrifying stuff and just a step away from the Axis.
So that's the characters, what of the actual stories. Well I have to admit that it is in the writing that Life During Wartime really excels. Many of my favourite authors show up and deliver some really powerful pieces. Paul Cornell has done a superb job in linking the narrative between all the stories, it must have been a tiring process contacting all the authors involved and making sure they knew where abouts in the overall storyline that they were and what they needed to include for the next few. Some of the pieces are linked; Simon Guerrier's The Birthday and Speaking Out introduce and reveal the fate of the boy Luke. Meanwhile..., Suffer the Children and Passing Storms cleverly exploit our affection for children and offer an intriguing glimpse of wartime from the POV of parents/children. And each terrorist attack is never forgotten, the consequences spreading on through each story in the book.
There were only a few pieces that I disliked. Paul Ebbs' Fluid Prejudice came along just when I thought the book was lacking a sense of humour and becoming a bit dry but in retrospect his whacked out prose is a bit jarring. Paths not Taken by Rupert Booth and Barry Williams was not badly written per se but just seemed out of place, this odd SF tale creeps into the story without any real purpose.
My absolute favourites are in rather more plentiful supply... Meanwhile... is a movingly written piece from Peter's point of view, waiting in his crib for his mother and wondering desperately what he did wrong to deserve his abandonment. Hit by John Binns very effectively draws on the horrors of 9/11 and delivers a disorienting look at Benny trapped in a building under terrorist attack. The Traitors by Jonny Morris takes the refreshing stance of exploring two non-regulars caught up in the conflict on opposite sides but finding themselves desperately in love. Suffer the Children is Dave Stone at his emotional best, none of his books have had the power of this short masterpiece. And The Peter Principle by Kate Orman rounds of the overall story with real class, seeing one of the Axis characters finally getting his comeuppance.
But I have to single out The Crystal Flower as my absolute favourite, Cavan Scott and Mark Wright have written a sensitive and satisfying story the really strikes hard with its final twist. A fine example of a short story hitting all the right notes and making its point very effectively in a short space of time. I would love to see these two have a go at a full-length novel after reading this.
None of the others are bad by any means and the book has a good, easy to read flow. It is a book like this that makes me crave for more Benny in print. These are rich characters they have to play about with and it is criminal that they are not being exploited to their full potential. But that's not something you can say of Life During Wartime, a gripping, emotional, consistently surprising anthology that only falters in its grim atmosphere. But hey, it's war and I guess we've already had enough giggles with Benny in previous releases.
Paul Cornell expertly puts everyone in place in Lockdown Conversations: 4, ready for his (no doubt) brilliant audio The Axis of Evil in January. I for one will be climbing the walls to find out what happens until then. I am deeply frustrated that I did not get those answers here but then the rest of the work is of such I standard I cannot complain. And to hear Lisa Bowerman play Benny under such stress is going to be bloody amazing.
Read it, you won't regret it.
More than the sum of its parts by Robert Smith? 6/2/04
Life During Wartime seemed like a bit of a dodgy prospect when it was first announced. The Fifth Axis were never that great to begin with and their only decent appearance was in The Glass Prison, which succeeded in large part because it killed them off. Now they're back, like some bad recurring villain who doesn't even feel the need to explain how he survives by this point. And having an entire short story collection set within the occupied Braxiatel Collection? Crikey, talk about a recipe for monotony.
But I'm pleased to report that Life During Wartime is very good indeed. What's more, this has less to do with the stories which, on the whole are okay but not spectacular, than it does to do with the editing, which is sheer genius. Now this is how to do a short story collection!
I cannot compliment Paul Cornell enough for the hard work he has so obviously put into this collection. Trying to coordinate this many stories with developing plot strands, interconnected elements, recurring characters and subtle foreshadowing must have been insane. But it's near-perfect. So what we get feels not so much like a collection of short stories, but rather a novel that just happens to have every chapter written by a different author.
I guess Paul's the man to do this, given his experience with the multi-author chapter in Happy Endings, but here it's taken a step further and works fabulously. I'm not sure how much he had to rewrite himself, or how much communication must have gone on between the authors, but I rarely spotted the joins. This is the short story equivalent of Season 18.
The setup is okay. It's a bit weird that we find out Peter's fate so quickly, rather than a story or two in, but the setup with Jason works really well. The apparent execution of one of the Big Finish regular cast (who, despite my expectations, didn't 'reappear' at the end) is a really effective way to show that we're not in Kansas anymore. Shockingly, the other members of the regular cast actually get some plot development. Well, except for Bev Tarrant, who's mysteriously part of the Braxiatel Collection now, with no word of explanation. Ms Jones' two stories are pretty good, although they wimp out by actually giving her a first name. (There's a laughable attempt to provide a get-out as well.) But Mister Crofton's story is fantastic. Who knew these characters could actually work? Not this regular reader of the Big Finish Benny books.
There are a couple of standalones, although again they're usually tied back in to the rest of the story, so they don't feel so disconnected. Sadly, the attempt to tie Jonathan Morris's The Traitors to the overarching story falls somewhat flat, given that Mesa appears on page 179, despite being killed on page 105.
The second half of the book really starts to pay off, at least once you realise that the title is far more literally true than you'd thought. This book is much more about living during the occupation than it is about overthrowing it, which means the plot moves a lot slower than it probably should. Benny and others keep making momentous decisions to act and overthrow the occupiers... and then in the next story they don't really do anything, agonise it about some more and then decide, for real this time, to do something about the occupation. In the end, they only really accomplish a relatively small act, in the final story. If this were a novel it'd be appalling, but as it is, it's not bad, just a little slow.
Dave Stone's Suffer the Children was probably my favourite story, although it's not really a fair contest, given that preceding stories do a lot of work to set up the utterly magnificent payoff we get here. I nearly leapt out of my chair and cheered on the spot. That's the real joy of this collection: the strong editorial hand on the rudder means it overcomes the inherent limitations that short stories usually offer; namely the lack of room to breathe or build-up time before getting to the payoff.
Of the major intrigues set up at the beginning -- the attack occurring without Brax knowing, Jason's betrayal, the Axis's technology level and the occupation itself -- only one is resolved within the course of this book. Just one. The last page tells us it's to be concluded, although it neglects to tell us precisely where or when this will be. Another Benny collection? An audio? What? This is pretty important, especially for those of us who only read the books. If it's to be concluded in an audio I'd feel incredibly cheated at paying out a huge sum of money for what is essentially an advertising brochure.
The final line makes it all worthwhile. It's utterly, utterly brilliant, not least because we've had just enough hints throughout that it doesn't come out of left field either. And... wow. Now this is what having a regular series is all about. I'm in awe of how good a cliffhanger ending this actually is.
Except, of course, that it isn't quite the end. Tacked onto this is another short story, seemingly not part of the rest of the collection. Which would be a ridiculous editorial move under any circumstances except one: the story's author is Jim Mortimore (and long-term readers should note that Mortimore was one of two authors that Cornell couldn't lure to the Happy Endings celebration, so this is doubly exciting for a Mortimore fan like me). It's the usual Mortimore sort of thing, by which I mean of course that it's mind-blowingly huge and melted my brain back into its constituent elements just from trying to follow along. This time around, there aren't actually cartoon drawings and font sizes gone mad, but you can tell this is because he wasn't allowed to, not because he didn't try. The numbering of the diary entries alone is brilliant. Welcome back Jimbo, we've missed you.
Life During Wartime isn't your usual short story collection. For one thing, it's very good indeed. The stories are very nicely interlinked, making this far more than the sum of its parts. The stories themselves are good, but the collection as a whole is great. At long last, someone's raised the bar on short story collections and raised it quite highly indeed. Recommended.