15 May 2012

Professor Bernice Summerfield in an exciting adventure with some Academics

Hardcover, 183 pages
Published 2004
Acquired January 2012

Read April 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield IV: A Life Worth Living
edited by Simon Guerrier

This is the fourth Bernice Summerfield anthology, but it's the first to be edited by Simon Guerrier instead of the usual mainstay, Paul Cornell.  But just like all of Cornell's anthologies (bar the first one), it's an intelligent, charming, literate, thoughtful collection of sf stories.

The premise of A Life Worth Living is that, in order to help obscure the memory of the Fifth Axis Occupation from the minds of the Collection, Braxiatel opens it up to students-- and then asks Bernice to not go offworld for a year so she can live up to her teaching and other academic duties.  Of course I would be sold on it right away: it has to be the only sf book I've ever read that revolves entirely around the doings of academia!  But there's more than that.  Though the book involves a lot of academia, it could involve a lot of anything. It's a book about picking up the pieces, figuring out what you're doing and who you are, and getting back to work. Because even if giant, awful things have happened to you, life really does go on.

This is set up right from the beginning with Paul Cornell's lovely "Misplaced Spring," which is a series of moments across the Collection as the new students arrive and Bernice tries to remember what it's like to be in love again.  There are a lot of stories about relationships, actually, and most of them are quite good: "Welcome to the Machine" by the improbably-named Sin Deniz is about a desperately lonely woman being stalked, and it feels all too real. "A Summer Affair" is a charming but dark tale by (of course) Joseph Lidster that gives another romance to Ms. Jones. Man, that "woman of a certain age" gets around!

Probably the most fun of all these was Philip Purser-Hallard's "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants," where Bernice discovers that not only has Jason taken up writing xenoporn again, but that it's attracting rather a lot of academic criticism!  Hilarity ensues, of course.  I also enjoyed "Against Gardens," an Eddie Robson story about Hass the new Martian (not an Ice Warrior, honest!) gardener on the Collection, who turns out to be rather a fascinating character.

My favorite story, though, has to be "Final Draft" by Cameron Mason.  Here, Bernice has to write a keynote address for a conference in three hours when Hass tells her she's made a basic mistake.  And the closer the conference comes, the worse the situation gets.  Funny and it includes nice character moments for every member of the cast, what else could you want?

There's only one flat-out bad story in the collection, Richard Salter's goofy and far-fetched "Nothing up my Sleeve," where Bernice squares off against the Brotherhood of Magicians.  Good joke if you've seen Tomb of the Cybermen (I have, unfortunately), but little else.  Also, I think the Collection plays host to three conferences in the course of the book, which seems rather a lot for an institution that small.

Honestly, though I'd miss Lisa Bowerman, I wouldn't be upset if Big Finish chucked the novels and the audio dramas and just did Bernice as a series of anthologies. These are where the characters and writers really get their chance to shine.

I read this after Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Bone of Contention, which was the release order, but it appears that it actually goes before that story. This means that the order of the past few Bernice stories is:
  • Audio 4.3. The Poison Seas: Bernice is summoned back to the Collection.
  • Anthology III. Life During Wartime: Bernice returns to find the Collection occupied.
  • Audio 4.4. Death and the Daleks: The Collection is liberated.
  • Novel #6. The Big Hunt. Bernice takes a vacation after the recent stress.
  • Audio 5.1. The Grel Escape: Bernice comes home to find that while Jason has been watching Peter, he's been playing with the Time Rings.
  • Anthology IV. A Life Worth Living: Bernice spends a year on the Collection without leaving.
  • Audio 5.2. The Bone of Contention: Bernice takes her first offworld trip in a year, to the Clutch.
  • Anthology V. A Life in Pieces: Jason persuades Benny that they should take a trip together, as they have each had one of their own recently.
  • Audio 5.3. The Relics of Jegg-Sau: You tell me, I'm only halfway through it!
I enjoy the fact that this series crosses media, but it can be tricky to stay on top of without a central numbering system!

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