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Return to the Fractured Planet

The Bernice Summerfield Adventures (Virgin) #21
Joe Ford

F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k. Sh*t. B*ll*cks. F**k. F**k. F**king. F**k. Sh*t. F**k.

Now that I have your attention I shall begin. This was how many swear words I took note of during Return to the Fractured Planet (and there were some that I missed) and if you found the opening of this review tasteless and obscene you can imagine one tenth of how I was feeling whilst traipsing through this unbelievably vulgar book.

I have heard some spiteful things said about Justin Richards in the years he has been the editor of the Doctor Who novel range but he is editor extraordinaire in comparison with whoever was responsible for this hash. I’m not just talking about the swearing, although that is bad enough, but the actual content of the novel itself; a hollow, shallow, predictable mess that I could imagine sealed the fate of the Virgin New Adventures for good (they were cancelled two books after this). The NAs have been going through something of a renaissance lately and one that I feel it is my moral duty to crush because when I decide to select a book at random and test whether this reputation is well deserved I get this crok of Sh*t (Gah! The swearing is infectious!).

Dave Stone is such an unbelievably inconsistent author, capable of producing works that will leave you laughing your head off and others that suggest his unique style is perhaps not suited to Doctor and its various spin offs at all. One thing that you can be sure of in every one of his books is that quirky sense of humour, his fascination with the bizarre sounding and the hilariously grotesque. So why did that kinky sense of wit desert him so transparently in Return to the Fractured Planet; a dour, sombre and downright dull book that lacks all but the scarcest of jokes. Dave Stone’s Benny books have been a far more effective channel for his complicated whimsy than Doctor Who (who can forget the stupid bomb?) and it is immediately (and annoyingly) missing here. I was expecting dry observations, witty diversions from the plot and idiosyncratic twists in the plot. If this is Stone trying to subvert his audience and try something new I would suggest he not try it again, he has won me over in time with his unique vision of how a story should be told and this diversion from that vision was an unexpected disaster.

It does help that the Bernice book range really didn’t seem to have any sort of direction at this point. The quality of the Gods arc reminds me of a heart rate monitor of a paitent who is in turns gloriously excitable and deathly bored, up and down, up and down…after Dead Romance and Tears of the Oracle it appeared Bernice is in for a home run of classics all the way to her ranges death. But this was even worse than Where Angels Fear (the book which kicked off this dramatic chapter in Benny’s life) because not only was it poorly written but it also showed signs of a range that was desperately seeking a direction after shattering its base of operations and pulling all its main characters apart. They really didn’t think this arc through as well as they could, all the characters are still about but are aimlessly looking for something coherent to gel them all together again. Benny, Brax, Chris and Jason seem as bit lost these days, a bit like the range in general. The last three books are a terrible anticlimax after the drama of Dead Romance/Tears of the Oracle and the range limps home on a damp squib. A shame.

I had terrible trouble trying to give a damn about the Agent in Return to the Fractured Planet, which was a particular hurdle considering he was the protagonist of the book. Once again the range does not allow for standalone books since somebody reading this who had not read the past five or so books would have no clue about the situation with the Dellan Gods or the Agent himself. He is a depressing character in a depressing book and the source of much of the horrible swearing the book flaunts. Being an APE (a synthetic human) with a human personality leaves the character in the awkward half way state of wallowing in human angst but with superior technology that sees him easily overcome an physical harm. Oh yawn, an indestructible, angst ridden human. Go read The Indestructible Man instead. He shows little genuine personality besides pining for a fellow female APE and a host paranoid fantasies and spends most of the book indulging in internal monologues, dissecting the plot and every character in it. Every wanted to be analysed by a emotional android? Nah, me neither.

Benny and Brax are wasted too, neither one of them in the book for any length of time, the story far more interested in the observations of Marvin, sorry, the Agent. Considering this is her range and that Dave Stone is so exceptional at capturing the character in print the lack of Benny is a huge mistake. Worse, she has recently discovered she is dying of a terminal illness and the book wastes her scenes on a stupid detective plot rather than exploring this potentially fascinating subject matter. Brax seems especially colourless here, a dark, malevolent presence (seen from the POV of the Agent of course) with all the depth that comes with being a shadowy leader (ie none). Instead the book concentrates on Mira and Kara, the two women in the Agent’s life and the main culprits for the books overdose of melodrama. Mira had some good lines here and there but not enough to give her any personality of charm. She swears quite a bit too.

The fetid tone of the book is enhanced by the secondary plot on Sharabeth, an earlier mission by the Agent and a chance for him to be in every single scene in the book (oh joy). These scenes could be potentially interesting if they didn’t take the obvious route all the time, storm lashed planet, horrid monsters on the surface, disgusting experiments, evil corporation behind it all…Yaaaawn! Stone enjoys going into the details of the horrors the Agent and Kara witness on Sharabeth, the sickening torture of being flayed alive and forced to witness terrible murders which only serves to add to the joy of the book. It is one of the yuckiest planets in any Doctor Who (and spin off) book, horror compiling horror but without a plot that would make this sort of vomiting indulgence worthwhile. Instead it just comes across as gratuitous.

I stuck with the novel in case the dull detective plot was leading somewhere interesting (otherwise I would have abandoned it somewhere close to half way through) and was happy when the villain finally emerged from the shadows to reveal his evil intentions. And how almightily rubbish it all turns out to be. Lets see a Dellan God has latched on to the brain of this master criminal and they now exist in some kind of crystal brain unity. And his soul aim…to bring his order to the universe! BORING! BORING! BORING! Why am I reading this rubbish? And the outcome of the book involving Benny smashing his brain thanks to her Mary Sue protocols? Annoying to anybody who hasn’t read The Mary Sue Extrusion and a lazy plot device to someone who has (me). Where is the editor?

To cap all this off the reading the prose of this book feels like reading a particularly boring instruction manual. Since the main character is a robot or sorts we are treated to lots of glorious technobabble that builds his character rather than genuine emotional growth. There is little humour or charm in the writing and as such it just felt like wading through one dull description after another. It was just words, with little meaning or purpose.

I have rarely had this violent a reaction to a book. It started with the endless swearing and ended with the plot, characters, prose, setting, direction, basically everything going horribly wrong.

I’d rather read The Quantum Archangel again.

Robert Smith?

In some ways this book is Dave Stone on autopilot. In other ways, that's a contradiction in terms, because Dave Stone on autopilot still involves having the pet camel you never knew you had being slowly filled with custard while being cybernetically enhanced with motorcycle parts.

Return to the Fractured Planet is very much a sequel to The Mary-Sue Extrusion. Well, that's not totally accurate, as about half of it is a prequel, but it relies stylistically and thematically very much on its predecessor.

Which, considering the quality of TM-SE, is no bad thing.

I guess this is probably the point where your opinion on RTTFP will be formed. If you adored TM-SE, then you'll probably quite like this. If you hated TM-SE, you probably won't find much that's different here.

But what of the book itself? The same tricks are back, in lots of ways. It's really nice to see Bernice these days, as it really feels like we've hardly seen her lately. This only makes it more of a shame that she gets put out of the action for the latter third of the novel, for no readily apparent reason. Yes, the narrator is very clearly the novel's hero-figure, but other Benny books have shown that you don't need to abandon Bernice altogether in order to have a different character fulfil that role.

Never mind, what we do get is pretty good. I really like the two-tiered structure of the book, with the past and the present alternating between chapters. I think concentrating on a fleshed-out version of either story would have been far more tedious, so this works really well. It also introduces the minor players far better as we've already seen some of them in action by the time we first meet them.

It's a bit of a shame that Benny's illness had to be artificially inflated to a period of months, when it was made quite clear that she only had a week to live at the end of the previous book. And speaking of Tears of the Oracle, I felt sure that the reference to The Well of Forever holding the key to a possible cure was a big neon hint about the action we were going to see in this book. It also feels like the concluding events of Tears haven't been taken into account at all.

I think it's a bit sad that the two authors responsible for so much of the current output in the Bernice range seem so diametrically opposed, even to the point of (apparently) barely communicating between books. It makes for a lurching style that would probably gel a lot better if there wasn't the sense that each was trying to radically rewrite the other's view of what the Benny Universe should be like. Oh well, I guess you can't get much difference between the styles of Richards and Stone, so this is probably to be expected.

I'm also not overly fond of the way Braxiatel has to be put through the idiot-plot motions in order to introduce the values of the central character. I really can't see Brax making that sort of offer to someone like the narrator, no matter how much of a justification the author tries to give. Ten out of ten for that justification, which really tries to put some thought into what makes the character tick, but it still rankles.

And yes, the conclusion does look incredibly contrived and sure, you can see it coming a mile off, but I don't think there was any way around that. Dave's never been terribly good at endings anyway, so I suppose I shouldn't be too upset about it here, in what is essentially his Greatest Hits release.

All that said, there is a lot to like here. All the asides and tangents are lots of fun and the style is great. This book positively flew by, which I've always found appealing. Dave's onto a good thing and he knows it, so he's settled into a style that really works for him. Somehow -- and I have no idea exactly how -- he's managed to do this without losing any of the freshness or inventiveness that you'd expect. Unlike Oblivion, where I feared that exactly this had happened, it's clear here that this is an author who still has a trick or six up his sleeve for each paragraph he writes. I like that.

Return to the Fractured Planet is yet another success in the almost unbeatable Bernice line. I've never seen a success rate as good as this with anything. It feels a little like we've been here before, and that's probably because we have, but it was very enjoyable both then and now, so why not? Recommended, of course.