Professor Bernice Summerfield
The Tree of Life

Author: Mark Michalowski
Big Finish
RRP: 14.99
ISBN 1 84435 152 1
Available 01 July 2005

What's a famous archaeologist to do when she receives an uninformative message from a woman she barely remembers on a planet she's never heard of? Investigate, of course! What happened on Tollip's World 8,000 years ago? What's the origin of the electrical discharges beneath the planet's surface? Why is there a greenhouse in the middle of a jungle? And what are the Trees of Life...?

Another Bernice Summerfield book, another life-themed title. Ah well, it's a good antidote to Doctor Who's surfeit of ...of Death titles, I suppose.

There are some intriguing ideas in The Tree of Life, not least of which are the trees themselves and the other strange life forms of Tollip's World, the animal species of which have been wiped out by a mysterious virus several millennia ago.

However, the supporting characters, including an old archaeologist chum of Bernice called Liso Fortuna, Liso's rather inept wannabe boyfriend Piotr Volkov, and a tough military commander by the name of Bleize, aren't the most interesting creations ever to be set down on paper. Even Ms Jones, the Braxiatel Collection's chief administrator, seems out of character, having reverted to her uptight and officious pre-Life During Wartime persona.

At least the Professor herself comes across well. Indeed, the essence of her wry attitude towards life pervades the entire narrative, thanks to rich descriptions such as: "If the inside of the base had been warm and sweaty, then the outside was... well, warmer and sweatier," and observations such as: "...why build a greenhouse in the middle of a tropical jungle? It was like building a fridge in the middle of the Antarctic. Oh, she remembered: they did have fridges in the middle of the Antarctic, didn't they - to keep ice cores and whatnot from melting. Bad comparison."

The author also managed to fool me into believing that he had made a mistake regarding Benny's assumed identity, Anghela Maru, when in fact it was a clue all along.

So the book isn't a waste of precious trees after all.

One final question, though: given that there is more than one such tree on Tollip's World, why isn't this novel called The Trees of Life?

Richard McGinlay