22 June 2012

Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Alternate Timelines

Hardcover, 202 pages
Published 2006
Acquired February 2012

Read May 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield VII: Something Changed
edited by Simon Guerrier

This Bernice Summerfield anthology has a somewhat odd premise: a man named Doggles brings a "history machine" to the Braxiatel Collection just after the emotionally devastating events of Parallel Lives.  At the end of the first chapter (Simon Guerrier's "Inappropriate Laughter"), the history machine malfunctions, and the devastating consequences are explored in the second chapter (James Swallow's "Siege Mentality"). But at the end of that chapter, everyone dies, and there's another second chapter (Joseph Lidster's "Dead Mice") where we pick up again in a reality where the machine malfunctioned in a different way.  And so the book goes again and again, sometimes picking up immediately after the malfunction, sometimes months or decades later, but always showing a different possibility.

What stops the book from feeling like a collection of pointless alternate-timeline stories is that they all use the premise as a way to create genuine insights into Bernice herself and her supporting cast. I didn't fully understand what was happening in "Dead Mice," but it was a great look into Braxiatel and his levels of manipulation, as is "Family Man" by Ian Mond.  Pete Kemphshall's "Acts of Senseless Devotion," where Bernice is blinded and her son is dying, showed the all-too-plausible depths to which Bernice might sink to save her son.  Jason Kane gets a good showing in Dave Hoskin's "Writing in Green," where he attempts to show Benny the depth of his love with the help of Hass, the Collection's Ice Warrior gardener.  Another dark story was Ian Farrington's "A Murderous Desire," where someone kills Doggles.  Very dark actions from all of our main characters, but seemingly all too plausible.

Of the stories that picked up much later, I most liked Eddie Robson's "Match of the Deity," where Benny and Doggles are reunited eight years later to try to return a religious artifact to an alien planet, with hilarious consequences.  But even though it's set eight years in an alternate future, it still tells us something of both Bernice and Doggles.

Some take odder approaches, but that's okay.  In Ben Aaronovitch's "Walking Backwards for Christmas," the history machine makes Bernice relive her own past, and thus we get a great story of the little-explored period where Bernice was at a military academy and subsequently went AWOL. It's neat to see a very different, but very recognizable Benny. I also liked Dave Stone's "There and Back Again," where Jason uses the constantly shifting timelines to try to help his other selves break free from Braxiatel's conditioning.  Poor guy.

A couple, though, I couldn't see how the worlds they showed were related to the premise at all.  Why is Bernice fighting with a fanatical resistance army in "The God Gene" by Ben Woodhams? No one really ever says. Or why is Bernice fighting for the Fifth Axis in "The Ice Garden" by Jonathan Clements? I have no idea (though it yields the excellent cover image).

Those are just two stories, though, out of an excellent bunch. Once again, Simon Guerrier has knocked it out of the park with a Bernice Summerfield anthology: we have here a collection of deeply character-driven, unique sf stories, which only an open-ended, multi-author series like this could do. A variety of voices and styles, all giving their perspectives on a small group of people, but able to do almost anything like them. Excellent stuff, which once again has me excited for the continuation of the Bernice line.

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