A Life Worth Living
A Collection of Short Stories
|Edited by||Simon Guerrier|
|ISBN||1 844351 09 2|
|Synopsis: The war is over. The Braxiatel Collection is back to normal. Better than that, people are all making more of an effort ú to rebuild, to get on, to re-establish the Collection at the forefront of academic excellence. Benny and Jason are back together. Life is good. It's not going to last, is it?|
Benny's back! by Joe Ford 14/9/05
I am starting to sound like a broken record. I can't help it. I really, really like what Big Finish have done with Benny. Not only have they managed to break the adventuress into a spanking series of audios but they have successfully continued her adventures in print too. After a faltering start the Benny fiction line has rocketed to new heights, conquering novellas and short stories too. Go read The Glass Prison (a genuinely terrifying drama where Benny is trapped in jail and forced to give birth under the same roof as her worst enemy) or Life During Wartime (the recent short story anthology that chronicled the occupation of the Braxiatel Collection, an impressive collection of stories that put their Doctor Who collections to shame).
What's more, Big Finish have achieved something even more important, they have managed to assemble a genuinely interesting set of regulars for the series. Characters who are growing continually and flowering with such interest that their stories are practically self-perpetuating. Not to put too fine a point on the matter but the regulars that have leapt over from Virgin (Benny, Jason, Braxiatel) are all much more interesting these days and the original characters created by Big Finish (Bev, Mr Crofton, Ms Jones, Adrian, Peter, Hass) help boost the idea that this is a family of characters who live together and suffer together. It's a great mix, fun (Benny and Jason), soap opera-ish (Jason and Adrian), touching (Benny and Brax, Benny and Ms Jones), awkward (Benny and Adrian) and just plain hilarious (Joseph and anyone!).
The Braxiatel Collection is a great place to live and never more so than now. A Life Worth Living is another very good anthology series and one that takes the wise step of cleaning up the mess on the Collection after the Fifth Axis occupation. Had Big Finish ignored this huge drama and returned to standalone tales I would have been so angry because, as this anthology proves, there is real potential in a post-war situation (just watch Deep Space Nine).
Misplaced Spring by Paul Cornell:
It seems only fair that after so successfully assembling the stories for Life During Wartime, Mr Cornell should have the honour of bridging the gap between that anthology and this and this is all he pretty much does here, gives a quick recap of where the characters were when we left them. However this "previously on" introduction is told with Cornell's trademark skill, setting up the new year on the Collection with a handful of striking character scenes. As is pointed out in a later story, sex sells and we are privy here to the rudest ever scenes in any Doctor Who or Benny fiction, we're talking major oral action chaps! However Cornell writes this beautifully, allowing us to see Benny and Jason closer than ever before. It is touching to see how they have changed and grown into their relationship, still annoying the hell out of each other but clearly desperately head over heels in love.
Whilst turning the Braxiatel Collection into a university smacks of the situation on Dellah, it does push forward the idea of getting on with life and returning to what is important on this asteroid, the sharing of knowledge. We catch up with Adrian and Peter and it is charming to see them so close. I love it when the writers fight against the one-dimensional nature of Adrian and allow us to see him intimately. Finally Ms Jones is outcast from society since her affair with an Axis officer and it serves to remind how prejudiced people can be. All in all, a great start, opening up lots of possibilities. New student Parasiel is particularly interesting, a far cry from the pathetic Emile Mars-Smith: A
Welcome to the Machine by Sin Deniz:
Not a name I recognise and probably the weakest story in the set. It's not badly written but it doesn't really fulfill any purpose but to introduce introverted academic Jess who has little relevance to the anthology but to see the rebuilding of the Collection through the eyes of a newcomer. I quite liked Jess but didn't really feel she had much potential as a regular, her nervous attitude was sweet at first but proved a bit too intense. What I did take from this was how an outsider could perceive Benny: not privy to her hectic lifestyle, Jess sees Benny as a lively, witty soul who lights up the room. She makes her seem indestructible which just goes to show how well Benny covers up her true emotions.
A waste of page-space really, a confused story of a bullying student: C minus
Final Draft by Cameron Mason
Much better, Benny written in the style of a farce. This lightning-paced story leaves you feeling all warm inside as you egg Benny on, trying desperately to finish a recital she will be giving in TWO HOURS, if only nobody came to visit her! Of course, entertainingly Jason, Brax, Bev, Parasiel, Wolsey, Adrian and Peter see this as an invitation. You get the chance to see how Benny deals with all of her friends and it enhances the idea that this is a family unit. When she eventually gives her speech you will be rolling on the floor with laughter. Hilarious, feel that fuzzy feeling inside: B plus
Against Gardens by Eddie Robson
A gorgeous piece, one that gives the new gardener Hass a proper introduction after briefly popping up a few times already. He's a lot of fun because he's so damn grumpy! I love grumpy characters; it takes the edge off all the sweetness and light with Benny and co. He's a Martian with attitude and he hates his life at the Collection, he wants to change the gardens but everybody is so desperate to keep Crofton's memory alive.
You have to admire a writer who manages to make a story about gardening this good. Can you think of a topic that is more boring? But this is an insidious tale, reflecting the two gardeners' styles tells you a lot about both characters and gives you a quick insight into the mind of a person who relishes life out in the open. Even Crofton's scenes are given a decent explanation: A minus
A Summer Affair by Joseph Lidster:
I am glad that Big Finish have decided to keep working with Lidster because despite his two underwhelming scripts this is the best thing he has written for them. Ms Jones is fast becoming one of my favourite characters of this bunch and this uplifting tale of moving on from lost love highlights the administrator at her best. I disliked that hard image they tried to give her at the start and they have answered my prayers by letting Clarissa open up to Benny, the only person she can still call her friend in the Collection. It shows prejudice is hard to let go, most people still treating her as though she has the plague. Ms Jones, a slave to her emotions, refuses to dismiss the memory of Bernard and proudly remembers their relationship. It's a heart-warming summer affair, one that allows Clarissa to dance and have picnics and discover life is for living! It's a great message and lifts your heart to see her emerge from the fling a stronger woman. The ambiguous ending involving a mysterious death is very intriguing: A
Denial by Ian Mond
Muscular and surprising, it puts Benny under the spotlight and forces her to re-evaluate her strong opinions. Mond is proving adept at these short stories, managing to fit a great deal of emotion and intelligence into such a small piece of writing. Here he manages to paint a picture of a terrible war in many shades of grey. The final twist is well put across and touching and left thinking of DS9's Duet in all the best ways: A
Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants by Philip Purser-Hallard:
Another riotously funny story and one that has absolutely no shame in promoting the pornographic scribblings of one Jason Kane. There is a diary entry of Benny's that had my laughing my head off, Benny's love for her boyfriend shines through even when she is despairing at the lengths he will go to to appear successful. Once we are in a conference hall with four replicas of Jason, all discussing the political relevance on his sex books, all hope for this story goes out the window and it is best to just wet your pants and enjoy the ride! World of the Vixenoids? Slave Sluts of the Slime People? I just know you boys want a piece of this action: B plus
The Blame of the Nose by Ben Woodhams:
I appreciate the idea behind this story, Benny longing for a normal life but its agreeable ideals get lost behind a strange plot that feel as though it should be a lot longer, a novella perhaps. Still you have to admire any piece of writing that starts with "Congratulations Bernice, it can't be everyday you kill two people before getting out of bed." And despite the confusing story it is entertainingly told, especially when Jason Kane comes crashing down from the ceiling fully encased in rubber and careers straight into the bad guy. Bernice have a normal life? Unthinkable, which this short tale of death by reading and head explosions goes to show: B minus
Reparation by Gregg Smith:
A very intelligent look at how the Fifth Axis have left their mark on other worlds, not just the Collection. The dialogue here is perfect, discussing racism, iconography, history and wrapping it around a thoughtful tale of buried feelings rushing to the surface thanks to a little Axis intervention. The human/Vivekan political history provides an excellent backdrop for the story and Smith does a superb job of fleshing out this culture in such short page space.
Bev gets the spotlight here, along with Adrian. They are two of the more neglected characters so it pleases me to see they are responsible for one of the best stories in this anthology. Bev's presence in Benny's life is very welcome; considering so many of the characters are squeaky-clean, it is a nice contrast to see this corrupt art thief trying to make good. It is Bev's insistence that history should be remembered in its entirety, the bad stuff as well as the good, which marks her out here. She might not be PC but she is right. Not only the Braxiatel Collection suffered from the hands of the Axis, their menace has spread further than you might think: A plus
Nothing Up My Sleeve by Richard Salter:
A bit pointless but some welcome levity between two far more serious tales. Every series has a stab at the magic trick episode and this Benny's turn although to be honest it isn't really long enough (or well explained enough) to really work. A few nice twists here and there (although I never truly believed one character was dead) and some fun Benny/Jason interaction (she's always a giggle when she's jealous) but really this the equivalent of the filler book in the BBC schedule that turns up each year. The Brotherhood of magicians is an idea so absurd it never had a chance to work: C plus
Buried Alive by Kate Orman:
As good as you would expect from one of the most influential writers of Doctor Who fiction. This is everything good fiction should be... surprising, emotive, ambiguous... and it's only eleven pages long! It takes the core of Bernice's life - archaeology - and throws it into an unforgiving light, suggesting that some times things are better left buried. The consequences of her prodding and poking beneath the surface of the insect planet are catastrophic. It's admirable that a collection of stories so focussed on celebrating life could include a story that looks back at the past and proves that it can be dangerous business. Written in an urgent, claustrophobic voice, this paralysing tale shows the potential of Benny's off-collection adventures: A
There Never Need Be Longing in Your Eyes by Ian Farrington:
This had the potential to be the best of the anthology; a look at Bernice's relationship with her son was one of the highlights of Life During Wartime but this wimps out at the end with a truly bizarre twist that feels forced and unnecessary. There is a marvellous gag about Jason taking an entire day to change a light bulb and some emotional insights into Benny's hectic life but it's all a bit underwhelming. Plus it wimps out at the end by excusing Buried Alive's shock ending in one line where an entire story was required. The last scene almost excuses this because it highlights Benny, Jason and Peter as a real family, something I haven't had a feel of yet: B
Mentioning the War by Nick Walters:
A striking tale that hits you square in the chest when you realise that in some respects the cold and vicious Professor Ovmakh is making more sense than Benny. Which is especially disturbing when she rips our heroine to pieces, dismissing her work as derivative and dismissing her suffering under the Axis Occupation as nothing compared to that of her people. It's another fine example of disturbing things buried and forgotten that come back to haunt you and highlights the strengths of Benny and Brax's ambiguous relationship (can they really be best friends when they argue so violently?). What I especially got from this story was Benny's sense of justice and her desperation to let the outside world know the true horrors of war rather than a glamorised version made up by an academic. War is hell and it doesn't let us forget it: A minus
Fragments by Stewart Sheargold: A truly bizarre way to finish this collection of stories and yet I can understand its inclusion, it successfully provides a window into Benny's conflicting thoughts about her life. Through some revealing novel extracts that she will write in the future we get to see her take on so many of her friends, some of it predictable (the Jason/Adrian jealousy thing), some of it shocking (the horrific image of a mock-Braxiatel exhibiting Benny's dead child suggests the fear she feels towards her mentor) and some of it utterly weird (Adrian killing Jason...). What this does achieve well is to bring Benny's year of academia on the Collection to a conclusion as she confront Brax and tells her she needs to get her hands dirty again (which leads into The Big Hunt and The Bone of Contention really well - if only this had come out before those!).
Majorly weird but imaginative and compelling: B plus
It's a shame we don't catch up with all the other characters before we go as some intriguing ideas were set in motion, a possible romance for Adrian and Bev, Hass having to deal with the recent excavation of the gardens, Parasiel and his new love... but I guess this book has achieved the impossible, setting up a new beginning for the Benny series and allowing the writers to use these characters as when they choose. Needless to say I cannot wait...
Simon Guerrier deserves credit for assembling this (mostly) excellent collection; it isn't as thematically strong as Life During Wartime and doesn't flow as well to a set conclusion but then that wasn't the point of this anthology. The Braxiatel Collection is alive again, full of exciting, hilarious and uplifting tales. There are still adventures to be had, enemies to be fought, lives to be lived...
The real surprise element is the number of unknown writers who contributed to this set of tales. Big Finish has long been a promoter of new talent and this anthology proves there is much of it out there; it gave the book a boost that so many new voices could so successfully continue Benny's adventures. It adds to the feeling of freshness about the series in general. A major thumbs up.
An enjoyable year with Benny. I hope there are some more anthologies on the Collection as there is still a lot of potential there and this and Life During Wartime have successfully re-invented the short story format so it genuinely works in a collection like this.