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?

One Response to “BSFA Survey Response: Paul Cornell”

  1. World Wide Wednesday: Associations and Unreliable Narrators | Fantasy Literature's Fantasy Book Reviews Says:

    […] So far Torque Control has published the responses of John Meaney, Kit Whitfield and Paul Cornell, which are fascinating to […]


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