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British Summertime
Paul Cornell
Victor Gollancz, 341 pages

British Summertime
Paul Cornell
UK writer Paul Cornell's credits include episodes of TV shows Coronation Street, Casualty, Doctor's, Children's Ward and Springhill along with two seasons of his own children's series, Wavelength. He has also written twenty-two books including several Doctor Who novels and a number of books about television (including co-authoring The Guinness Book of Classic British TV). He currently lives in Bath with his wife.

ISFDB Bibliography
Excerpt: British Summertime
Interview with Paul Cornell

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Like his popular Doctor Who books, Paul Cornell's non-media tie-in novel British Summertime centers around time travel -- though from a very different perspective, a story that might best, perhaps, be described as a Socialist mystery wrapped up in a Christian enigma.

Alison Parmeter is a young woman with a gift -- or a curse, depending on how you look at it. She's able to read patterns: body language, facial expressions, tones of voice, the arrangement of buildings on a street that point to the existence of a particular sort of shop. While this makes her a whiz at her job (setting odds for a betting shop), it's pretty depressing always to know what people are going to say and do. And things have, abruptly, gotten very much worse: for Alison's gift is now telling her that the End of the World, something she has always sensed as a very distant possibility, is suddenly extremely close. And there's nothing she or anyone can do about it.

Standing in line at a shop one day, Alison meets a man whose patterns tell her he comes from somewhere else -- and not anywhere so mundane as another country. His name is Douglas Leyton, and he's from the future, caught up in a space-time anomaly that his shipboard navigator (Jocelyn, a bodiless head hooked up to a quantum computer) couldn't avoid, and thrown back one hundred and thirty years into Alison's time. But Alison's time is puzzlingly unlike the history lessons he learned as a boy -- much darker and more terrible. Leyton, a deeply religious man, has the sense that God is further away here.

Leyton and Alison soon discover they're being hunted -- by a British intelligence agent named Frederick Cleves, who has found Jocelyn in the wreck of Leyton's ship and is searching for the truth, and, more mysteriously, by four great golden beings with swords for tongues. What do the Golden Men want? Are they aliens -- or angels? Does Jocelyn know more about the time anomaly than she's letting on? Who's the man who looks enough like Leyton to be his great-grandfather and is, spookily, also named Douglas? Why is Alison's time so apparently different from the history that belongs to Leyton's time? And why does Alison keep dreaming she is Judas Iscariot?

This is not a novel to read with your brain turned off. The plot has enough twists and turns to give you whiplash; if you don't pay close attention you'll lose the thread. And Cornell's language can be opaque -- many passages require a second reading to properly extract their meaning.

There's also a fairly demanding exploration of Christian theology (a reading of the Book of Revelations wouldn't be a bad idea before you tackle this book, the better to appreciate the many references and allusions), combined with some trenchant social criticism. The core of Christianity (Cornell seems to be saying) is a sort of enlightened socialism. This is embodied in Leyton's timestream, where money is only a memory, along with capitalism and private wealth and all their ills, and the world is run by a benevolent World Government that apportions resources according to need. In this setting, where the competition and alienation engendered by money and its pursuit are absent, and the beast of greed and domination that spoils the human heart has been tamed, there's little distance between man and God. This is the flaw for which Jesus gave his life to heal -- in Leyton's timestream, the Kingdom of God really did follow on his sacrifice, and Revelation is absent from the Bible because the world has already ended and begun again. But in Alison's timestream, things have been subverted by the Golden Men, who are quite literally the embodiment of Mammon. Having entered the timestream and transformed it in their own image, they are now fighting to ensure their permanent existence -- part of which involves bringing on the Apocalypse. This is the challenge Alison and Leyton face: not simply to defeat the Golden Men, but to eliminate them from history, so that Leyton's timestream can reassert itself.

One of the things the Golden Men have managed to do is to divert Leyton's ship from 1947, when it originally crashed, to 2000, believing this will alter things in their favor. This is just one of the many time travel paradoxes with which the book is filled, and Cornell does a heroic job of unraveling them all. Inevitably there are some closed loops -- for instance, a technology from the future that's passed on in the past, but is never actually invented. But this is really just quibbling; on a larger level, everything makes admirable sense.

British Summertime isn't a perfect book. Cornell doesn't write especially sympathetic characters; the rapid-fire shifts of viewpoint can be disorienting, and some of the over-the-top plot elements (for instance, what Alison does about the mote the Golden Men place in her eye) put a strain on the willing suspension of disbelief. And I'm still trying to figure out the title (although Britishness, especially a kind of 40's movie-style, gallant-RAF-pilot Britishness, is one of the novel's themes). But overall this is an impressively rich and detailed work -- one of the most interesting, and also one of the most idiosyncratic, I've read this year.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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