16 February 2012

It's Hard to Topple Governments When the Doctor's Not Around

Hardcover, 202 pages
Published 2003
Acquired December 2011
Read February 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield III: Life During Wartime
edited by Paul Cornell

At the end of the previous Bernice Summerfield story, the audio drama The Poison Seas, Bernice received a message from Irving Braxiatel, telling her to come home to the Braxiatel Collection. Life During Wartime picks up almost immediately thereafter, with Bernice coming home to find the Collection occupied by the Fifth Axis, the Space Racists she'd thought defeated in The Glass Prison. Life During Wartime features little archaeology and little space adventure, instead telling the story of the months of the Fifth Axis occupation.

The first thing in Life During Wartime, as in most Bernice Summerfield books, is a little descriptive piece called "The Braxiatel Collection," explaining the series setup. This little piece explains succinctly everything that is wrong with the setup. There are potted backstories for Benny, Irving, Jason, and Adrian, which is fine, but it reads like it comes out of the series bible, and hence explains all of the jokes: we are told that Joseph the Porter is over-literal (but on purpose), what Collection administrator Ms Jones means when she puts on her glasses, how gardener Mister Crofton reacts to forgetting the "Mister," and that the public relations officer never actually turns up in stories (oh, the hilarity). Why do we need all these characters? Bernice Summerfield wants to be Indiana Jones in Space, but Indiana Jones just has Marcus Brody to report back to, not Brody and a lover and a rival and a department secretary and a janitor and a press officer. Why do you need such a large, uninteresting supporting cast? Even the one story largely set on the collection, The Squire's Crystal, didn't make a lot of use of them as I recall.

Life During Wartime doesn't mean that the unwieldy setup has been worthwhile all along, but it is used to maximum effect here. We just don't see what Bernice has to deal with (she feels compelled to play along with the Fifth Axis because she doesn't know where her son is), but how Irving Braxiatel deals with being surprised for the first time ever, how Jason Kane immediately gives in and defects to the Axis, how Adrian suffers as a worker, that Bev Tarrant can be something other than a thief, why Ms Jones fell in love with an Axis policeman, and what happened to Mister Crofton during the Dalek War. The range of characters has a range of reactions to the occupation, some trying to stop it at any cost, while the Axis itself tries to convince them that nothing has changed.

Suffice it to say that I liked this book a lot. It's technically an anthology, but it reads like a novel. Especially the early stories lead one right into the next. Paul Cornell keeps the book nearly seamless; with 22 stories in 200 pages, each story is around ten pages long, and thus no one voice is in play too long. The many-voice thing works, though; it feels like one author adopting a range of styles and approaches to convey one idea: the difficulty of maintaining your courage in a life during wartime. Some are just moments, with Bernice talking to Irving, or Mister Crofton remembering his past. Quite amazingly, not a single one is bad. Not a single one. The worst I could describe one as is "average," and even that is pushing it. If I just talked about the good ones, I'd be here far too long, but here are some favorites:

"The Birthday Party" by Simon Guerrier, where Bernice must help celebrate the life of a member of the resistance without offending Marshal Anson, otherwise many lives will be lost.

"Five Dimensional Thinking" by Nick Wallace, where Irving Braxiatel convinces himself that only a Time Lord could have beaten him, and that that Time Lord must be himself.

"Meanwhile, in a Small Room, a Small Boy..." by Robert Shearman, where Peter must try to occupy himself while his mother Bernice is gone... and he does so through self-destructive blame.

"Drinking with the Enemy" by Jonathan Blum, where Bernice, having sold out and resumed her relationship with Jason, now an Axis officer, has dinner with Ms Jones and her new boyfriend, an Axis stalwart. Curfew comes, no one can go home, they drink too much, and they all learn entirely too much about one another. The best story in the book, showing how someone can be a fundamentally good person and a fundamentally awful person at the same time.

"The Peter Principle" by Kate Orman, where Bernice finally figures out where she stands.

There's something intrinsically Bernice-ish about occupation stories; when I think of classic Benny stories, the usual suspects are Beyond the Sun and Just War, and there's also The Dying Days and "Kill the Mouse!" I think it's because for the most part, Bernice is a pretty Doctor-like character, swanning into sci-fi situations and solving problems through action/adventure and some good dialogue. But occupations play out differently for Bernice than the Doctor. I can't imagine the Doctor living for weeks or months under a dictatorship, unable to do anything but keep himself alive, but what else can Bernice do? It's an intrinsically (and exclusively) human problem, and hence what makes Bernice her own character, her own person, and very real. She's never cruel or cowardly, but when you can't swan into the occupation headquarters and destroy the government with five words, that's something it's very hard to keep up, making her a whole lot braver.

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