Professor Bernice Summerfield
Life During Wartime

Editor: Paul Cornell
Big Finish
RRP 14.99
ISBN 1 84435 062 2
Available now

The Braxiatel Collection has been occupied by the Fifth Axis. Bernice and her friends must adjust to living under a military dictatorship. Bev joins the resistance, Adrian is thrown into a prison camp for aliens, Jason finds a comfortable niche for himself in the new administration, and Bernice's half-human son, Peter, is under constant threat...

I usually have trouble with short story collections. For me, the hardest part of reading a piece of prose fiction is getting into the story in the first place. With a collection of short stories, therefore, I have to go through that "getting into" process each time a new narrative begins.

But Life During Wartime is different. Rather than being a set of very distinct tales, the stories in this volume, which picks up where the audio drama The Poison Seas left off, all take place in the same setting (on the Braxiatel planetoid), share a common theme (the Occupation thereof by space Nazis) and follow on from each other in a more or less linear fashion. What we have here is more akin to an episodic novel than a short story collection.

So why not just publish a novel? Well, there isn't a proper conclusion, for one thing (that is to follow in a subsequent audio adventure). For another, the use of numerous authorial voices lends a great sense of scope to the Occupation, in terms of both its duration and the impact that it has on different people. Not surprisingly, Benny is the focus of many of these stories - a recurring theme is the unpleasant effect that interacting with the enemy on a day-to-day basis has on the Professor's mentality and morality. But the writers also turn their spotlights on Irving Braxiatel (in several stories), Jason Kane (in Dave Stone's Suffer the Children), and even Peter (in Robert Shearman's Meanwhile, in a Small Room, a Small Boy...). Even more intriguing are the surprising insights we gain into the lives of groundskeeper Mr Crofton (in Cavan Scott and Mark Wright's The Crystal Flower) and administrator Ms Jones (in Martin Day's The Garden of Whispers), background characters that we haven't heard from since the Bernice Summerfield novels sadly came to an end.

One disadvantage of the umbrella theme is that it limits the range of the stories to a certain extent. There are no out-and-out wacky or weird entries, with the exception of Jim Mortimore's perplexing concluding tale, A Bell Ringing in an Empty Sky. However, the writers find various means to liven up the grim subject matter, including several sly references to Brax's own people (you know - them).

The Fifth Axis' Occupation certainly kept me occupied.

Richard McGinlay

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