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. I’m won over by the narrative’s own conviction. Cornell is particularly good at nailing his characters’ point of view. No matter whether British Summertime’s narrative is in Leyton’s POV, or Alison’s, or Cleves’s, it doesn’t seem to be faking its abiding faith in whatever the hell they believe. Of course, you could say this about any writer with a handle on their characters. It’s hard to explain why I feel Cornell does it notably well. The best I can come up with is… well, some writers—Charles de Lint is a major offender, assuming this rises to the level of an offense—have a habit of getting into digressions about the novels their characters read or the music they listen to, not as characterization, but because the writers themselves think the music is cool and hope to render their characters cool by association. Cornell doesn’t do this much, if at all, but sometimes his writing has the same flavor as de Lint’s maundering about Celtic fiddle bands. The trick is that these aren’t necessarily Cornell’s own enthusiasms. Cornell grants this narrative enthusiasm to his characters, who have their own ideas

His skill is most obvious when he borrows a trick from his first novel, Timewyrm: Revelation. Viewpoint characters are colonized by the villains’ worldview: a shallow consumerism preocupied with images and immediate desires, too unconsidered to rise to the level of conservatism. The narrative sells the new point of view with the same bland conviction that This is How Things Are it elsewhere grants Cornell’s own middle-class liberalism.

Like I said, this may be charming or irritating, depending on your opinion of whatever POV the narrative happens to be expounding at that point. Mostly I’m charmed. I think Cornell is always charmed. He likes all his characters, even the villains.

Which explains another recurring element in Cornell’s books: the villains’ sudden and unconvincing conversion to Good. Gandar from the Doctor Who novel The Shadows of Avalon is an obvious example, but you also have Cornell’s failed attempt to tweak Compassion’s personality in the same book; or the Timewyrm’s transformation in Revelation, and Chad Boyle’s shift from budding psychopath to ordinary (and redeemable) bully; or the anonymous offstage hit-and-run driver from “Father’s Day” who, in the new version of Pete Tyler’s death, stops to take responsibility. British Summertime has a creepy psychopath who turns out to be a metaphorical fallen angel, a martyr with a part to play in bringing about heaven on earth. Cornell’s worst villains—the Hoothi, the Reapers, or BS’s Golden Men—are inhuman, unknowable, and rarely viewpoint characters.

Sometimes in Cornell’s work the entire world becomes suddenly new. It can happen apparently naturally: Happy Endings is set in the wake of the “big cleanup,” when everybody pulled together to fix the environment. This is background, so it’s understandable that we don’t hear how they managed this—but it’s interesting to compare the villains’ insufficiently explained conversion moments. And both British Summertime and his earlier novel Something More end with the world radically remade by Sound-of-Thundery, step-on-a-butterfly changes to history itself. Cornell can’t do anything this radical in Doctor Who, but often ends his Doctor Who stories with smaller but equally miraculous changes to individual histories (Chad Boyle in Revelation, Danny Pain in Happy Endings, and the Tyler family in “Father’s Day”). Cornell’s fiction is set in a universe of conversions and sudden miracles. His characters strive for a better world, but not primarily by building a better world. A better world is given to them because they’ve shown they deserved it. In religious terms—appropriate, since Cornell uses so much Christian imagery—Cornell’s characters are saved less through works than through grace.

And yet in British Summertime and Something More Cornell’s religion is unsentimental and cheerfully heretical. Cornell’s Christianity is a potentially benign force that took a wrong turn early. Something More’s villain is an evil Jesus. British Summertime’s other world provides a version of Christianity in which the book of Revelation is an alien meme, the creation of the Golden Men. In the “real,” Revelation-free Christianity the end of the world isn’t an issue; somehow (if this ever became clear, I’ve forgotten) Revelation creates the necessary conditions for the Golden Men’s hypercapitalist future.

(The end of the world is not really what Revelation is about, incidentally—it’s the reading of modern fundamentalists who are only capable of understanding myths literally—but that’s not a problem if you assume the Golden Men knew it would be misread in the right way.)

Miracles, conveniently, don’t work through cause and effect. Cornell can’t let the reader think too much about the causes and effects of British Summertime’s alternate history. It’s badly infected with Underpants Gnomes.

Underpants Gnomes are characters from South Park who’ve achieved internet fame to a degree that even people who really, really hate South Park (i.e., me) have heard of them. The Underpants Gnomes were creatures with a business plan:

  1. Collect underpants
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

The point being that they hadn’t really worked out step two. British Summertime’s plan goes a little like this:

  1. England finds a spaceship and makes friends with the Soviets.
  2. ???
  3. Communist utopia!

British Summertime’s idea world needs no money. You want chips, you go to a chip shop and they give you chips. It’s not hard to imagine how this might work in a post-scarcity society—Iain M. Banks’s Culture, say—with resources, energy, and space so abundant that everyone can have pretty much anything they desire. But British Summertime’s alt-Earth doesn’t look like that kind of place. Cornell tells us this is a utopia, but we have to take it on faith.

It’s never clear how this society is supposed to work. It’s clear there’s rationing—everybody gets a “land allowance,” for instance. It’s not clear how this is made equitable. What about the poor saps who end up with acres of desert or swampland? We hear about “work tokens” but aren’t told what makes them different from money. If you want the cameras and film to make a movie you need a certificate of filmmaking proficiency, and who decides who gets those? The more I wonder, the more huge, glaring unanswered questions I have. British Summertime presents alt-Earth as something to aspire to, but elides the details of how this society could be built and how it would work. Within the story alt-Earth springs from nothing, implemented in a cosmic virgin birth. This is utopia as sleight of hand.

For British Summertime, considered as a novel rather than a tract, that’s not a bad thing. There’s a long tradition of utopian novels—going back to Plato’s Republic, which most of us today would consider a dystopia—that take the reader on a detailed tour of wonderland. Mostly the writers come off as cranks. British Summertime’s vagueness keeps it respectable. It’s easier to kick back and enjoy the story when you’re not shaking your head, bemused at Paul Cornell’s theory of civilization. But that comes at a cost: until he opens up and lets his crank flag fly Cornell’s model society can never be anything more than a promised reward—the blurry CGI backdrop glimpsed through a doorway at the end of the movie.

When British Summertime’s other history establishes itself, everyone remembers the real world—the one we live in. We don’t hear from anyone who thinks they had it better before the change. In fact, our society is referred to—with the usual bland conviction, natch—as “Hell.” Considering everything that’s happened in the last decade, I guess there are moments when I wouldn’t have more than a halfhearted argument with the characterization. But I don’t think I’d want to live in a world where Ed Wood couldn’t make Plan Nine from Outer Space.

1 thought on “British Summertime (and Paul Cornell’s Books in General)

  1. I think that’s a very fair review. I’m proud of many aspects of both my first two books, but I also wince quite a lot. I think they’re both ‘first novels’, and I set the bar a great deal higher for myself these days. Especially about the plotting. The new novel that I’m just coming to the end of is the product of many years reflecting on what I did terribly the first two times, which I think you’ve summed up pretty well. I’m not ashamed about the optimism, mind you, but I think it needs to be hard won.

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