A Life of Surprises / Collected Works / The Doctor Who Storybook 2007 / Genius Loci
ed. by Paul Cornell / ed. by Nick Wallace / ed. by Clayton Hickman / written by Ben Aaronovitch
Reviewing anthologies can be rather boring. They are all a mixed bag, with some good stories, some bad stories and some middling stories. All the reviewer does is sort the stories into categories. Well, I didn't want to write that sort of review.
"A Life of Surprises" has some good stories (and some middling stories and some bad stories—see what did I say?), but what drags the good stories down is the sameness, all these generic archaeological threats. In isolation, it wouldn't be so noticeable, but together you see the problems more: a simple view of Benny coupled with little imagination. And the stories are all so forgettable that I have nothing else to say!
Benny stories have always had that danger inherent in them. Doctor Who is such a great format because it can go anywhere and because solving things is the Doctor's raison d'être. That's what makes "The Doctor Who Storybook 2007" work: a succession of good science fiction stories... and one by Nick Briggs. The "Storybook" stories, they don't tell you anything about the Doctor and Rose, but they tell short stories that work as short stories, each with their twists, mostly written very well.
Benny's raison d'être involves alcohol, not adventure. The early Benny NAs put Benny into a comfortable environment on Dellah with a host of new characters and then realised they had to spend all their time dragging Benny out of that setting. The series eventually dealt with the cosy Dellah! Big Finish made the same mistake, putting Benny in Brax's collection with a host of new characters and then a whole family, but again a nice safe environment doesn't generate enough adventures.
Until someone is brave enough to do an entire campus novel with Benny ("Beige Planet Mars" comes close), the genre requires some sort of peril. Over the course of a novel, one peril is plausible and you can do something interesting with it. With "Collected Works", nearly every story requires a peril, but as they supposedly form a single narrative, you get this ludicrous set of random peril after random peril. (Gold stars to those authors who avoided this: e.g. Blum, Orman, Purser-Hallard.)
That repetition is a problem in "A Life of Surprises" too, but "Collected Works" is trying to be cleverer, and fails. "The Doctor Who Storybook 2007" is trying to be really simple, and succeeds tremendously. "Collected Works" offers a linked narrative that clearly required some top notch editorial coordination, but it doesn't actually work. There are many little links, but they don't give much of an unfolding narrative about the lives of the main characters. A bit, more than "A Life of Surprises", but not much more. Some just feel silly: Nick Wallace's story feels totally wrong squeezed into the broader narrative. Points to Nick Wallace for trying to have some sort of metaphor in his story's peril; shame the actual story is terribly predictable.
"Collected Works" has some good stories (and some middling stories and...). Overall, I preferred it to "A Life of Surprises", but it hasn't escaped the same problems. So, if Big Finish's Benny anthologies are struggling with the format, what of their novels? After the disappointment of "Collected Works", "Genius Loci" was a hugely welcome surprise. This might well be the best book, perhaps the best anything, to come from Big Finish. Set early in Benny's life, Aaronovitch has proven his genius again with a fantastic novel, set in a world of archaeology, with great characters, a successful plot and a fair bit of moral philosophy.
Aaronovitch gives us a much more realistic archaeology than "A Life of Surprises" or "Collected Works". For much of the book, the drama and tension is not about an evil dug up from the past but the day-to-day challenges of an archaeological dig in a broader society. As is his trademark, the back-story is detailed and complex: multiple parties with their own perspectives, not just an evil corporation or an invading alien horde. It is also surprisingly Doctor Who-y. The ethos of Doctor Who storytelling, and a fair bit of clever use of continuity, shines through.
Were I to be critical, I could question the pacing: events speed up at the end, perhaps too much so, but I don't begrudge the time spent on the earlier parts of the story.
Buy "Genius Loci" even if you have never tried a Big Finish book before. Buy "Collected Works" if you see it cheap, something unfortunately unlikely. "The Doctor Who Storybook 2007", with a print run an order of magnitude higher, is readily available cheaply and well worth it. Don't bother with "A Life of Surprises", but cherry-pick the good stories if somebody happens to give you a copy.
Henry Potts, 1 Apr 2007
Originally posted to the Jade Pagoda mailing list.
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