See also my review of Something More
I enjoyed Paul Cornell’s previous book, Something More, sufficiently to want to get my paws on his next book. Something More was a mostly interesting, intelligent and idiosyncratic work of sf; a definite break from the norm (if there can be said to be such a thing in sf), and a jolly good stab at meshing a collapsed future England, religion and aliens in a remarkably frightening ‘ghost’ story. British Summertime sees Mr Cornell continuing along this path but now throwing everything into the mix: aliens, religion, a utopian and a collapsed future England, time travel, Dan Dare, angels, post-Singularity artificial intelligences, parallel universes, shadowy secret government organisations, drugs... I don’t know of many 404-page books that can mix all the above into a coherent story.
Time travel is at the heart of British Summertime, so it certainly gladdened my heart to see someone take this genuine cornerstone plot of the genre and make it just about as unashamedly complex as it possibly could and should be. Zipping about the timelines, with all the ensuing paradoxes such messing about inevitably implies, is not something to be taken lightly and Cornell is not afraid to embrace and tangle himself irretrievably in a plot that often seems to dare you to attempt to unravel it.
Given the complexity of British Summertime, any plot synopsis is only likely to confuse more than it enlightens but I’ll try to put it into some kind of narrative context.
Alison Parmeter lives in modern-day Bath. She can recognise patterns instinctively in anything – she explains it as being able to find a chip shop by sensing the ‘chipshopness’ of an area. When we first meet her Alison is currently seeing ‘endoftheworldness’ all around her in Bath, a crushing burden to bear. It is lightened somewhat by the appearance of a lost Pilot From The Future, Squadron Leader Douglas Leyton. If, Alison rationalises, he has come back to the past from the future then Alison’s recognition of ‘endoftheworldness’ has to be wrong because there is a future for him to come from. Hurrah! Book ends.
Except it doesn’t because Squadron Leader Douglas Leyton has crash-landed in a past that is wrenchingly unfamiliar to him: he has lost his ship, the Crimson Dragon, and his navigator, Jocelyn, a disembodied head. Alone in a world he barely recognises, he seems to know Alison somehow...
Meanwhile, back in 29AD, Judas Iscariot is about to betray his master, Jesus. He doesn’t want to but long ago realised he had to. The other disciples don’t share his pattern recognition skills and so they could never understand why he has to betray their master, but Judas sees that Jesus has to die in order to live on.
The Golden Men are... something else. They are you and they are we. There are four of them and they are everything you’ve ever wanted. They are money. They are the masters of creation. They are from the future too but Douglas Leyton and Jocelyn have never heard of them.
There, I trust that’s cleared up precisely nothing. But if you’re anything at all like me then it has irresistibly snagged your interest. Mixing apocryphal interpretations of early Christianity with time paradoxes is not something I imagine it’s easy to do, especially when also mixing in a most elegant and believable homage to the original Pilot Of The Future, but Cornell pulls it off with aplomb. Dare – sorry – Leyton’s future is a communist near-utopia, a step (at the very least) down the road toward Banks’ Culture, and because of this it is feared and hated by, ahem, all those with a vested interest in maintaining our current status quo. Cornell’s political sympathies seem to further be made clear when he condemns the fuel protests and protestors of 2000 (remember them? How the government supposedly tottered in the face of them?) as short-sighted and only selfishly interested in personal ‘freedom’ and gain. The Golden Men, embodying, as they seem to, everything that is awful about modern-day consumerism, love the fuel protests. They are stoking and fomenting the unrest through carefully placed agents. However, it’s interesting to note that even Leyton’s beautiful, brilliant world of the future is embroiled in a nasty space war because of its own inability to see beyond ideology.
Nothing in British Summertime is simple. I lost count of the number of times I had to reread passages, not because they were badly written (Cornell is a very good writer, I think), but in order to squeeze the juice out of what was happening, and sometimes simply to be able to grasp some of the somewhat surreal concepts and sensations Cornell is trying to convey. Even the alternate spins placed upon Christ, Judas and the Christianity of Leyton’s future gave this old atheist some pause for thought, suggesting not the dull, dim and immutable dogma that I was raised with but some absorbing philosophical questions long since excised from the standard gospels of the Bible.
This is not a book to be lightly skipped over; it requires a little extra attention and some careful consideration of its ideas if it is to be enjoyed and understood. This is what science fiction should be about: a good, interesting story overlaid with a bewildering array of ideas, flights of fancy and a wild joie de vivre in the display and execution of them. British Summertime is, in short, as fine a piece of 'proper' sf as I’ve seen recently and I wish Paul Cornell would write more of it!