The Big Idea: Paul Cornell
London! Cops! The supernatural! Author Paul Cornell! What do they all have in common? The answer: London Falling, Cornell’s latest adventure, which puts a pair of the city’s finest on a most unusual beat. And how do they approach it? As Cornell explains, by being what they are: Cops.
London Falling is the story of a team of modern undercover police in London, who, in the pursuit of their duties, accidentally gain the ability to see the monsters and the magic of the conjoined cities. (Because London is actually made up of two cities, Westminster and The City. No, I mean in real life.) After my heroes finish panicking, they decide the only way to save themselves and those they love is to use (real) police tactics against what is now clearly a truly terrifying ‘suspect’.
This is my first urban fantasy novel, the start of a series, and I like to think I’ve written it in the voice I used for my Doctor Who work. That is to say, these are stories I have to tell, that come bursting out of me. They’re emotional, and hopefully scary, and move along quite fast.
I’ve written on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog about how, while London Falling is very much an urban fantasy, it’s also a classic SF problem-solving novel in the tradition of editor John W. Campbell. My heroes, being police, use their Ops Board to take apart concepts like ‘ghosts’. They won’t settle for the mythic. I have a rational basis for the psychogeography of my London, which will become clearer in each volume in the series. And though this is a series, I’m determined that each book should be a complete story, that my heroes will close a case every time.
Writing these books has made it clear to me that I have a tendency to see the world in terms of underlying forces. In my own life I track concepts like the gravity of capital, grace, the Marxist flow of history. Sometimes I overdo it, and become like a Roman or a paranoiac, seeing auspices and patterns when there’s nothing there. The London of my books is full of hidden influences, both real (like how the cities are shaped by planning permission and house prices) and invented, like the ‘extra boroughs’ that orbit the capital in some other sort of space. (At least one of these can be accessed by catching a ghost bus.) Add that to my heroes’ instincts to take apart everything they see, and you have a mechanism which makes me automatically examine both the world I created and the real one. It’s startling, actually, where the police procedural can take one in that regard.
For instance, I have a scene set at a New Age Fair, where our heroes, new to the business of magic, go to work out what’s real and what isn’t. They have to navigate a series of different maps, economic, political, social and magical, all inside one hall. The bigger stalls at either end are where the magical power is, but that’s also because the richer stores can afford the bigger pitches. Those with actual knowledge tend towards poor and wear old clothes. And my two black undercover coppers discover there aren’t many non-Caucasians in this socio-economic group. This conflict between hidden forces grows even more tense in the second novel, which I’ve just finished, underlying the plot of which is the insistence of a part of the occult community that money (rather than terrifying ‘favours’) should be allowed in their transactions.
These forces create the tectonic plates of hidden London. I can feel them myself at two particular points. If you’re in the capital, perhaps you could try them. Get out of Tottenham Court Road tube, and go to the point where St. Giles High Street meets High Holborn, with St. Giles in the Fields (that name says a lot) on your right. Before they built the new office blocks in front of you to the left, one could feel a weird dislocation at that point, as if planners and priests and magi had all failed to decide on something. It was like a little No Man’s Land on the way to Forbidden Planet, a place where things got a bit seedy just for fifty yards. Those new towers have balanced it somehow, but I can still just about feel it. A dowser might say it’s about buried rivers or underground rail tunnels. I don’t know what it’s about, unless the throne with the motto over it in that old church is relevant, but perhaps it’s all heading into psychoarchaeology now.
The other location is in Baker Street underground station. Walk from the Bakerloo line down to the Eastbound Circle Line platform. You’ll find yourself, before you get to the war memorial on your right, moving faster as you head down an actual physical hill, with the rumples and lumps of a meadow, hardly obscured by the flooring. It’s like you’re suddenly, in the very heart of urbanity, being encouraged to rush down, like in childhood, or over the top, with the deaths of 1914-1918 waiting on the other side. I feel something startling there, too. The shafts of sunlight that can spring suddenly down into that station help with it.
I should mention, finally, that there’s one word that doesn’t appear in the book: ‘magic’. My coppers and intelligence analyst just aren’t comfortable with it. And I thought it’d be fun, like with the word ‘Mafia’ in The Godfather, to see how far I could get without using it. Turns out that’s all the way.
I hope you’ll enjoy London Falling, and that it might give you a few more things to see and feel next time you’re in London. Perhaps I should have talked more here about the characters, all of whom (particularly genius intelligence analyst Lisa Ross) are dear to me, all of whom we meet in depth. But character, like everything else, is shaped by landscape, and, just for once, I wanted to write about what lies underneath.
Adieu, and thanks for listening.