November BSFA London Meeting: Paul Cornell interviewed by Roz Kaveney

Author photo by Rob Monk, copyright SFX Magazine, 2012

Location: The Cellar Bar, The Argyle Public House, 1 Greville Street (off Leather Lane), London EC1N 8PQ

On Wednesday 28th November 2012, Paul Cornell (novelist, and comics and TV writer) will be interviewed by Roz Kaveney (critic and author), mostly about his new novel, London Calling.

ALL WELCOME – FREE ENTRY (Non-members welcome)

The interview will start at 7 pm. We have the room from 6 pm (and if early, fans are in the ground floor bar from 5ish).

There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

Map is here. Nearest Tube: Chancery Lane (Central Line).

(There is no BSFA Meeting in December).
23rd January 2013* – Dave Hutchinson, interviewed by Ian Whates
27th February 2013 – Elizabeth Hand, interviewed by Farah Mendlesohn
20th March 2013** – BSFA Awards discussion

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.
** Note that due to the proximity of Easter to the fourth Wednesday of the month, this will be held on the third Wednesday.

The BSFA 2011 Shortlists!

The BSFA is delighted to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2011 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan (Interzone 233, TTA Press)
The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell (Asimov’s, July)
Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley (Kameron Hurley’s own website)
Covehithe by China Mieville (The Guardian)
Of Dawn by Al Robertson (Interzone 235, TTA Press)

Best Non-Fiction
Out of This World: Science Fiction but not as we Know it by Mike Ashley (British Library)
The SF Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition ed. John Clute, Peter Nicholls and David Langford (website)
Review of Arslan by M J Engh, Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions blog)
SF Mistressworks, ed. Ian Sales (website)
Pornokitsch, ed. Jared Shurin and Anne Perry (website)
The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the New Doctor Who (Foundation Studies in Science Fiction), ed. Graham Sleight, Tony Keen and Simon Bradshaw (Science Fiction Foundation)

Best Art
Cover of Ian Whates’s The Noise Revealed by Dominic Harman (Solaris)
Cover and illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls by Jim Kay (Walker)
Cover of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama by Pedro Marques (PS Publishing)
Cover of Liz Williams’s A Glass of Shadow by Anne Sudworth (Newcon Press)

This year a number of members nominated the British Library’s Out of This World exhibition for the Non-Fiction Award. The Committee has decided that this does not meet the eligiblity criteria for the award. However, in recognition of the support it has received and its success in encouraging people to explore and enjoy science fiction (one of the primary purposes of the BSFA Awards) will be giving it the status of Specially Commended. In addition, the accompanying book by Mike Ashley made the shortlist and can still be voted on, along with the other nominees.


Members of the BSFA and Eastercon will now have the opportunity to vote on the shortlists.

Advance voting forms will be posted out to BSFA members, who will have until 2nd April 2012 to get their nominations in. They can do that by post, email or online form, ranking each of the nominees according to their personal preference: 1 for favourite, 2 for second favourite etc. They don’t have to rank all nominees and they don’t have to vote in every category. The awards ballot is available online here. After 2nd April, the only way to get your voice heard will be to attend the Eastercon and grab a ballot form from your pack or the BSFA desk. Deadline for voting at Eastercon will be 12 noon on the day of the ceremony, the date of which will be confirmed shortly.

Congratulations to the nominees!

BSFA Survey Response: Paul Cornell

Survey coverPaul Cornell is a writer of novels, comics and television episodes. He is probably best-known for his work on Doctor Who; his notable novels in that franchise include Love and War (1992), the first appearance of the companion Bernice Summerfield, and Human Nature (1995), and his TV episodes include “Father’s Day” (2005) and a two-part adaptation of Human Nature: “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” (2007). He has also written for Casualty, Robin Hood and Primeval, and is currently the writer for the Marvel comic Captain Britain and MI-13 (2008–present). His two original sf novels are Something More (2001) and British Summertime (2002). Cornell was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and his responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

Yes. Although I also write other genres.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

I think I look at ‘realism’, especially the representation of modern British life you see on television and in literary novels, and find it staggeringly wide of the mark when it comes to depicting reality. It’s almost as if it’s felt that that’s not actually what realism is meant to do. So I like to pick up on one particular thread of the many failings that encompasses, the lack of a presence of what might be called the numinous, the fantastic, from dreams to religion to the actual situation of human beings as standing on a planet in a spiral galaxy, and pick at that, and find all the ways that talks about the human condition.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

I think it was chosen for me at the moment I opened a crate in my parents’ loft, and found my older brother’s books, which included runs of Galaxy and Worlds of If, Eagle Annuals and the sf of Captain W.E. Johns. When I felt that I had to be brave enough to watch Doctor Who, something that led between the playground, the social world, and that very solitary experience of reading books that even smelt different to everyone else’s books connected.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

Hugely. The exasperating nature of the British, and the problems of Britishness, and indeed the nature of all nation states, leading on from that, is almost all I write about. I’m frustrated with what are these days taken to be inherent characteristics of Britishness (being uncomfortable with success, preferring a hard fought loss to a win, a general pessimism and cynicism) in the way only someone who thinks of themselves as very British can be. Of course, this means I want to go off and live in America, where I can be much happier watching Britishness from a distance. But at least I own up to that.

5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

There’s something awesome about following the path that leads from Keble College, Oxford, to the Mariner Valley on Mars. It’s a true experience as well, British people heading out to do extraordinary things in terrible new places, and then coming back to places that have stayed the same for centuries.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

R.F. Delderfield, A.J. Cronin, Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, Dorothy L. Sayers, Stephen Baxter, Arthur Clarke, John Scalzi, Geoff Ryman, Terrance Dicks, Steven Moffat, Ian Fleming.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Not at all, really. I’m also vastly keen on America, so it’s not as if I’m setting up an opposition.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Again, not at all.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

I like the moment, and I think this defines sf, where, as the song goes, one feels that ‘oh my God, I can’t believe it, I’ve never been this far away from home’. That moment of complete plunge into unknown stuff, where it’s up to the reader to find the one or two carefully placed footholds that the writer has put there for them, while carefully denying them anything else. It’s why I loved Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “True Names” so much recently: no footholds!

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

The way it looks in on itself. Only our crowd allowed, outsiders stay away, you’re only allowed in if you say you write sf, rather than if you just do. That’s what’s led to an almost medieval worship of the coming apocalypse, because we’ve been bad people and deserve global warming. Which is kind of the opposite of what the initial sf project was. An invasion of young faces and their authors would help. But we’re going to have to be the ones to open the gates, they’re having enough fun for themselves over there in their camp. (And other strained metaphors.) This insularity means you still get the odd Stalinist review that regards a book as ‘politically suspect’. That is, literally, that the reviewer didn’t like it because they didn’t agree with it. (It was Churchill who said something about loving Liberalism and hating Liberals, wasn’t it? Instead of ‘Liberal’, insert any description of anything I am. I’m vastly suspicious of any club that even sends me the forms.)

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

The return of Doctor Who. Seriously. There’s no better influence on young sf minds. The rise of Neil Gaiman to stardom has been a good thing all round. Ian McDonald carving out a new niche right at the border of sf and the mainstream novel. I’m missing something huge, aren’t I?

Human Nature

Of necessity, this will be more of a compare-and-contrast than a review. Paul Cornell’s 1995 novel, Human Nature, is the first Doctor Who novel I’ve read, and almost cripplingly mired in continuity I have next-to-no knowledge of. So if I say that I didn’t like it as much as the recent TV adaptation (as “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”), in part all that means is that I don’t know the context. The outline of the plot is the same for both versions – the Doctor, living as a human teacher in England, in the months immediately before World War I, watched over by his companion, falls in love, and (unrelatedly) is pursued by an alien family. But the details are different. In both, the companion is the viewpoint character; but I don’t know Bernice Summerfield like I know Martha, and nor do I know Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

Some of the changes are cosmetic. Benny is clearly cut from the same cloth as Martha (or rather, vice versa; both are smart, proactive, athletic, funny), and has an equally impressive resume, being a professor of archaeology, not to mention more overtly political in ways that would probably not sit comfortably with the current TV incarnation. In fact, in some ways it’s hard to imagine a more companion-ish companion, and at times Benny comes across as almost too good to be true, in the manner of the characters in The West Wing: you want very much to believe in her, but there’s always a nagging suspicion that people as intelligent, competent, and passionate about what they do as she is are too awesome to really exist. On the other hand the book’s family, never named as the family of blood, are more alien but less threatening than their TV counterparts. In the novel, the family are from a species of shapeshifters known as the Aubertides, who reproduce by budding. The catch is that (apart from their queen) they can only do so for a half-dozen generations, after which point they become (a) a complete family and (b) sterile. To get around this, the particular family in Human Nature want access to Time Lord “biodata” to enable every member of their family to reproduce 13 times — more than enough to form an army. We are told that this will lead them to scourge Gallifrey (among other places), mostly out of boredom (“Don’t knock it,” says one family member. “It’s something to do”). So they set a trap for the Doctor. As fuel for the action of the plot they work well enough, but none of the family members are as well-defined, as instantly sinister, as their TV counterparts.

Other changes between book and TV are more fundamental – surprisingly so, in some ways. The novel takes an impressive risk (if you don’t know what’s coming) by introducing us to John Smith as though he is just another character. It’s only when we see him through Benny’s eyes that we realize he’s the Doctor in human form. (The downside of this, of course, is that we’re not given a chance to get to know the Doctor before the story starts, so without context we don’t know how similar he is or isn’t to Smith; but the same could be said of the TV version, in isolation.) But to my mind, in the end the novel is a somewhat safer work than the TV episodes. For example, it seems that much more of the Doctor remains in Smith, who is never quite as nakedly human as his screen counterpart; when confronted with the truth of his nature, his reaction is not fearful but pragmatic. He attempts to do what the Doctor would do to save the day – albeit never with any intention of letting himself be turned back into a Time Lord. And what changes his mind is not the desire to do the right thing per se, but the appearance of a character who has been lurking in his memories throughout the novel, Verity. As in the TV episodes, the actual decision to change back takes place off-screen, to set up an encounter in which the Doctor bluffs the family. But, not knowing who Verity is, Smith’s choice in the novel feels more than a bit ex machina. In the context of the New Adventures it may all make perfect sense, but coming to it cold it looks clunky. Moreover, a plot contrivance allows Smith and the Doctor to talk to each other before the end, to reach some sort of accommodation; neat in theory, but unfortunately the scene comes across as nothing so much as an attempt to absolve the Doctor of his responsibility for creating a life he only ever intended to destroy, and that’s a shame.

At the same time, the other big difference of emphasis is that there’s much less of Smith in the novel’s Doctor. In “The Family of Blood”, the Doctor tells Joan (Smith’s love) that he’s capable of everything Smith was — including, implicitly, love. In the novel we get the opposite. Smith certainly still loves Joan, but after he has changed back, the Doctor tells Benny, “I can’t love her”; “whatever [love] is, I’m incapable of it” is how he puts it, bluntly, to Joan. On the flipside, this Doctor is more aware of the moral consequences of his actions – in the novel it is he, and not Joan, who raises the issue of how many lives he caused to be lost by choosing this time and place to become human, citing it as a reason he can’t risk changing back. This fits with the more selfish nature of the original choice to become human: as noted above, in the novel the Doctor walks into the family’s trap, choosing voluntarily to become home to take “a holiday from being himself”, rather than undergoing the transformation as a last resort to hide.

Of course, much of the power of Human Nature comes from the contrast of Smith’s love story with its setting – among schoolboys training to be soldiers, on the eve of a singular, terrible, global war. That aspect is the same, and similarly effective, in both novel and TV episodes — if anything, the argument for pacifism is stronger in the original. The epilogue – which, as in the TV version, plunges us fully into the midst of war – is probably the best piece of writing in the book, arguably the only place where the prose aspires to anything beyond the comfortable. But in the novel, Timothy, the boy who finds the Doctor’s essence (which in the novel is stored in a cricket-ball-like pod, rather than a watch) only goes into the conflict as a member of the Red Cross, a choice made as a direct result of his experiences with the pod. Both versions of the story shift focus as they develop, moving the rural idyll from foreground to background, but the extra room to breathe in the novel makes the contrast between quiet, pastoral life and the harsh intrusions of conflict that much more powerful. It’s a contrast that, in the end, perhaps gives us a taste of the Doctor’s perspective, his capacity for what in the novel is called loving “big-ly, not small-ly”; or is that already part of human nature?