Wednesday, April 18, 2007

(Loosely) Collected Works

To mix metaphors madly, Collected Works boasts a Premier League line-up, with all the old-time heavyweights represented, plus a smattering of promising new new kids on the block and a goodly handful of the current stars of the show.

There are half a dozen authors in here who, in my opinion, should long since have left the tie-in ghetto behind and who have it in them to write great mainstream fiction, sf or otherwise.

There are in fact two authors in here who are, I think, better writers than 99% of all authors currently writing science fiction anywhere.

The editor wrote the last really excellent Doctor Who novel and all the linking work is done by a writer who is inarguably the best currently writing creator of post-human civilisations in popular fiction.

Some of the stories in Collected Works are superb and the majority of the prose in general is fantastic.

Even Ian Mond's story is really good.

It's a Doctor Who book you can actually quote from.

But (and you knew there was going to be a 'but') it still doesn't entirely work for me.

Ironically, Collected Works suffers from the reverse of a problem which dogged the early Short Trips collections. In those, an absolutely rigid linking theme often dragged good writers down as they desperately tried to make their stories fit the half-arsed and pointless theme of the day.

In Collected Works, the problem is that there isn't really a theme at all. There's obviously meant to be several - the Quire (the posthumans who are visiting the Collection) are one strand, whilst the Collection itself in the absence of Brax is another, and the need for increased security is a related third. Unfortunately, the stories flit from one theme to another (or ignore them altogether) and there's consequently a feeling that - in psite of the quality fo the actual writing - Phil Purser-Hallard's Interlude sections are really struggling to bind the entire collection together. Personally, I think of the three strands the security element would have been the most likely to succeed, but perhaps the feeling was that it would be a bit too similar to Life During Wartime.

Added to all that, the fact that several stories refer to or rely for their full effect on information from the audio range is a big mistake, but presumably one outwith the control of the editor.

It doesn't really detract from the individual stories, but given that the book is called Collected Works, it's a shame.

Hey ho - onto the stories which, for all I've said up to now, are more than worth the price of admission.

In no particular order (and missing out - with apologies to the writers concerned - those which I can't remember a month after reading them):

'Let There be Stars' - Mark Michalowski

'Let There be Stars' represents Mark Michalowski's best short story by miles. In the past, his shorter work has been far weaker than his full-length writing, and has relied more on gimmickry (Poe pastiche, minor continuity tricks) than playing to the strengths evident in his novels - primarily the ability get under the emotional skin of his characters, but also a lyrical quality to his prose and satisfyingly intricate plotting.

Obviously there's little room for intricate plotting in these few pages, but the pocket Universe in LtbS is wonderful, providing as it does a sense of the large-scale otherwise missing in stories based on the asteroid. The character of Hass is an interesting one and his joy in 'flying' is effectively and movingly portrayed as are his emotions when it seems as though everything has gone tragically wrong.

Beautifully written ending too.

'The Tree that was' - Steven Kitson

One of the most intriguing elements of this collection for anyone conversant with the Jade Pagoda mailing list was the appearance of the name Steven Kitson on the list of authors. A long-time contributor there, with (ahem) firmly-held views on writing and writers, it was an interesting proposition to see if he could walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.

Pleasingly, he can, although in truth TTtW is something of an odd man out in this book. Rather than the lyricism of Michalowski, the arch cleverness of Bucher-Jones or the imagination of Purser-Hallard, Kitson's story has a curiously old-fashioned feel to it, as though Benny had wandered inadvertently into one of Asimov's Elijah Bailey mysteries. It's none the worse for that and for all that it lacks the pyrotechnics of some other stories, it's a well-crafted piece of writing and more than deserving of its place in Collected Works.

Grey's Anatomy - Simon A Forward

I like the Galiari a lot and consider them one of the more interesting alien races to have been created by the Big Finish stable, so I was delighted to see Mordecan from Forward's earlier audio, The Sandman, make a return here, in the company of the mysterious Mr Grey. It's a solid rather than sensational story, but in filling in Bev's character it make a valuable contribution to the anthology as a whole while being one of the stories which makes most effective use of the Collection as a setting.

False Security - Nick Walters

Walters' story is a return to the bad old days of Big Finish anthologies. It's a dull story, uninterestingly told and, worst of all, appears to have no real need to be set on the asteroid or to have featured anyone from the regular cast. Truth be told this wafer thin tale of a sentient security net could have appeared anywhere and featured anyone, excepting the fact that without the rider of a Who author name I can't imagine any fiction collection anywhere outside of a school yearbook would ever think of commissioning it.

The Two-Level Effect - Eddie Robson

Robson is the Bright Young Thing of Who fiction right now, with writer credits for a major chunk of the high profile McGann season on BBC7 . The only other of his prose I've read was a short story in ST: Companions which was the best thing in that book, and his story in this one is equally high quality. Robson uses an intriguing idea to trap Jason, all the while leaving the solution in very obvious sight. An enjoyable twist on the security theme and and superior in every possible way to Walters' pedestrian effort.

The Painting on the Stair - Simon Bucher-Jones

Bucher-Jones can write and write well, but he does require a bit more thought than the average Who author. This is a typically intelligent piece of writing, with a nice line in visualisation of future painting and a solution to a puzzle which makes perfect sense, even if I did have to read it twice to realise that.

Lock - Kate Orman

I'm starting to think it's just me, but as with every Orman short story I've ever read, this was utterly uninvolving and dull, a one dimensional vignette with little plot which ends up going nowhere and doing nothing of consequence on the way. In many ways, it reminds me of Simon Guerrier's short stories in earlier Benny anthologies, only less interesting and not nearly so well written.

- Jon Blum

Nearly forgot about this which, like the Sin Deniz Adrian-centred story which precedes it, tells its tale through the eyes of one of the less used regulars, in this case Peter. It's a mark of the quality of everything else I've ever read of Blum's that I was mildly disappointed in what was, after all, an enjoyable character piece.

Anightintheninthage - Lance Parkin

An odd one this, almost like and extra Interlude rather than a story in its own right. It serves its purpose well, setting a couple of things up for later stories, but it does seem a bit of a waste of Parkin's undoubted talents, making him the guy who takes a hit for the writing team by doing this kind of administrative story.

The Cost for a Collection - Ian Mond

Clever and gross in equal measures, this is Mond's best work yet for Big Finish. Whereas in the past I've thought that authors have made Bev and Benny almost interchangeable at times, Mond neatly demonstrates the streak of coldness in Bev which is largely missing in the more sentimental Benny and in doing so creates the only story in the collection which is likely to make the reader go 'yuck'. Surprisingly not rubbish given Mond's appalling general taste*.

Cabinet of Curiosities - Mags L Halliday

It's nice to see another writer remembering that this isn't just a collection of random sf stories, but actually set on a massive museum where, you know, there's stuff related to museuming going on. Like Simon Forward's story, this doesn't sparkle like the very best of the author's work, but it's an interesting idea and well told, which sheds further light on the ladies who rule the Collection (actually that's something which is done rather well when CW is taken as a whole - Benny and Bev are allowed to be different without ending up diametrically opposed caricatures).

Mother's Ruin - Dale Smith

The "writer most likely" in my opinion, author of one of the very best PDAs and a series of the best Who short stories ever (including 'Blossom' which comes behind only 'In the Sixties' in my affections). No disappointments here, I'm happy to report. This is the story where you can quote lines to people and where the writing absolutely sparkles. Someone give this man a book deal now, please.

Future Relations - Philip Purser-Hallard & Nick Wallace

Both excellent writers, but the Quire just aren't interesting enough for the end story in the collection to stick in my memory for long. There's a decent climax and everything is tied neatly up but beyond that it felt a little flat. I suspect this is inevitable, since I was never wildly enamoured of the Quire and never really engaged with the over-arching theme, but it's a shame nonetheless.

Collected Works didn't in the end entirely live up to my (admittedly sky-high) expectations, but it's still one of the better Big Finish anthologies, and for all that it falls a little behind Life During Wartime it's well worth buying and remains head and shoulders above the vast majority of the main Who line of Big Finish fiction.

* Kidding.

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Blogger SAF said...

Great review, thanks. Of course all us author types immediately searched out our own stories :)

I've not read the book myself yet, I suppose I should get around to that!

3:20 pm  

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