Saturday, 12 March 2011

Life During Wartime edited by Paul Cornell

I'm going to let you into a little secret of mine... I’m not a big fan of 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 on the whole. Which is a shame because I think I am missing out on some very powerful Doctor Who stories. I look at short stories in the same way as I do poetry (which I also approach with caution), 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. Not usually.

Which is quite fortunate then that Who staple Paul Cornell has laced together 25 short stories into an almost novel length anthology with the same characters running through the book. There are two drawbacks to this method; one 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 occupies 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 drama of her 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 – it is one of the most brave and 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 well. 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, questions…

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 gripping 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 who leads them, once a throwaway Mike Tucker character but now integral to the series. 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 Moskof, 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, Moskof and Ms Jones proves highly rewarding because we see Moskof’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 complete 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 you see Louis Theroux in Nazi bred America? Terrifying stuff and just a step away from the Axis.

So that's the characters, what of the actual stories. 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 and 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 whilst 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. I actually cheered out loud at his murder, that’s how good the writing is.

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 an effortlessly 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. That's not something you can say of Life During Wartime, a gripping, emotional, consistently surprising anthology.

Paul Cornell expertly puts everyone in place in Lockdown Conversations: 4, ready for Death and the Daleks. To hear Lisa Bowerman play Benny under such stress is going to be bloody amazing. Its such a shame that the Bernice series is a niche spin off of what is already a niche spin off (the Doctor Who audios) because this series at its best really deserves to reach a wider audience.

Read it, you won't regret it.

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