Tag Archives: Speculative Fiction

British Summertime (and Paul Cornell’s Books in General)

The cover of British Summertime.

British Summertime, Paul Cornell’s second entirely original novel, was published in 2002. Since then he’s published short stories but, aside from a novelization of a BBC webcast, no more novels. Lately he’s been writing for television and for Marvel comics. I can’t help feeling he’s come down in the world.

I’d like another book from Cornell. You will not believe that after reading this review. I ask that you take it on faith. Paul Cornell, I’ve come to realize, is one of those writers whose books I enjoy for reasons I cannot fully explain. Ask me why his books are worth my while and I’ll spend half the time on apologetic “okay, admittedlies,” “despites,” and “even thoughs.” I liked British Summertime, mostly, but all I can think to write about are my reservations, which have to do with Cornell’s obsessive sentimentality. His books drip with sentiment. Like Charles Dickens dipped in treacle. It’s both charming and irritating, in at least three ways. (Although as I’ve worked on this review I’ve come to think that “sentiment” isn’t the right word for the latter two. Maybe “unwarranted optimism.”)

Cornell’s books bask in nostalgia for a stereotype of early twentieth-century England (which seems to be the home of many Cornell characters’ speech patterns). It’s gotten worse over the years. In 1995 his Doctor Who novel Human Nature celebrated the death of Victorian values and the beginning of modernity; a dozen years later in Cornell’s television adaptation the hero learned to Do His Duty and die for his country. British Summertime, written in between, features Commander Leyton, an alternate-universe space pilot who talks like a stereotypical World War 2 RAF pilot. (Apparently this is a takoff on Dan Dare.) Leyton’s navigator is the disembodied head of a campy flapper. It’s like they walked out of the Powell and Pressburger production of Bring Me the Head of Zelda Fitzgerald.

What’s interesting is that, just while I’m reading, I’m willing to suspend disbelief in this sceptered-isle, stiff-upper-lip stuff. Continue reading British Summertime (and Paul Cornell’s Books in General)

A Couple of Torchwood Books

Recently a couple of Torchwood books were recommended to me on the Jade Pagoda mailing list. I’ve now read Slow Decay, and decided to review it. I’m going to begin by talking about Another Life. I read Another Life, and tried to read Border Princes, not long after they came out. This is why I’ve only now read Slow Decay.

Torchwood is strange. It has moments of genuinely good drama, sometimes, but for the most part it’s fun for reasons the producers did not intend and will never fully understand. At heart it’s a series about dumb, horny college kids who somehow got the keys to the most powerful paranormal investigations agency in Wales… basically a Battlestar Galactica-style dark reimagining of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, except instead of a talking Great Dane it has Ianto.

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Doctor Who Reviews: Shadowmind

You know what’s interesting about Shadowmind? It turns out I’d never read it before. I skipped it when it came out due to a limited teenage book-buying budget and mediocre reviews. Much later I decided I wanted an obsessive-compulsively complete New Adventures collection, picked up a copy at a used bookstore… and immediately forgot about it.

You can’t blame me. By that time I was all too familiar with Christopher Bulis. Among Doctor Who fans the Bulis name is synonymous with “meh.” As I’ve mentioned before, Bulis’s trademark move is to take a really amazing, ass-kicking central concept and surgically remove the fun. I’ll bet his novels sound wonderful in outline–Space marines meet Dungeons and Dragons! A steampunk expedition to the moon! I imagine Bulis working far into the night on his outline. Sweating over it until it gleams. With sweat. Finally he holds the precious document to the light. It’s perfect. “This is the most brilliant idea I’ve had so far!” exclaims Bulis. “Now… how can I make it suck?”

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New Adventures Reviews: White Darkness

Zombies are hip. They’re in our movies and comics and major investment firms. You can’t walk more than a few blocks without stumbling across some shambling horde of loosely anatomical types desperate for brains. Zombies, it seems, are the new ninjas. So the cover of White Darkness—on which a smiling Doctor, intrigued Ace, and off-model Benny greet their happy zombie friend—might look ahead of the curve. Not exactly. White Darkness gets into the kind of stuff that started the pre-pop-culture zombie legends. David McIntee “set out with the intention of giving Haiti and voudon society a fairer representation than is usual in fiction.” White Darkness is a straight-up historical adventure novel, with no pretentions to anything more, but it’s coming from a slightly smarter place than the books, films, and flash mobs covered in fake latex sores.

White Darkness innovated in setting the story somewhere other than goddamn London again. A lot of Doctor Who stories take place in and around London. I mean, a lot. There was a reason for this, once. The TV series had tight budget constraints and, hey, the Home Counties were right there. It’s slightly less understandable in the new series, which by the same logic should spend more time in Cardiff. When the novels and Short Trips collections head back to London again it’s plain baffling. It costs no more to set a novel in Africa, or India, or even on some entirely imaginary alien planet, than in Croyden. Apparently these stories suffer from imaginitive constraints… which may also explain those alien-world EDAs that could have been set in London. Conversely, many London-based stories could have taken place in any city and even at any time… but the TARDIS automatically, unthinkingly seeks out contemporary London again. (Preferably a neighborhood with some nice middle-class white people.) It’s like the default state of Doctor Who.

David McIntee did more than any other nineties author to claw the TARDIS from the death grip of southern England. Of his dozen Doctor Who novels only one is set in the London area, and that was a Pertwee-era UNIT story. Ironically, the author who in one book dropped in a lame joke about “political correctness”—which sounded completely bonkers coming out of the Doctor’s mouth, being normally used only by old-fashioned types who resent being asked to show some manners—did so much to diversify the series. When he wasn’t taking the TARDIS to strange new worlds, he set it down in 19th-century China. Or medieval France. Or imperial Russia. Or contemporary Hong Kong. Or, in this case, Haiti.

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New Adventures Reviews: Lucifer Rising

In their first couple of years the New Adventures covered surrealism, cyberpunk, high fantasy, space opera, a Quatermass pastiche, and even a right-wing religious authoritarian mystical horror novel (The Pit, which arguably took Doctor Who into places it should never have gone). Lucifer Rising was the NAs’ first Big Dumb Object novel.

Big Dumb Objects are one of your standard SF tropes—what Rudy Rucker calls “power chords,” the ideas that are to SF what the hooks are to a pop song. BDOs are the coolest gadgets in science fiction—both artifacts and environments. Rendezvous With Rama’s vast wandering starship is the canonical example. (And one of the blander ones, to my mind… although it’s been years since I read it and if I went back I might have a different experience.) My favorite is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (from Solaris, natch). It might be stretching a point to class a living planet as a BDO, but Solaris does the same thing: injects Sense of Wonder straight into the novel’s jugular and gives the characters something mind-blowing to explore and react against.

Continue reading New Adventures Reviews: Lucifer Rising