Edinburgh International Book Festival: Ben Aaronovitch & Paul Cornell

Review by Paul F Cockburn | 28 Aug 2013
  • Rivers of London

Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell both have "previous" when it comes to writing Doctor Who, on television and in novels. However, as chair Stuart Kelly points out on this occasion, whoever wrote the entry for this event in the Edinburgh International Book Festival brochure must believe that the iconic BBC television series is akin to documentary, given its suggestion that both writers have since "also turned to fiction" with contemporary urban fantasy set against the framework of police work and detection.

Humorous opening notwithstanding, Doctor Who initially hangs over this event like a cloud, Aaronovitch explaining the limitations (especially now the show is such a big hit) inherent in using characters created by other people, within restraints on what you can do with them imposed by even more executives. While Cornell remains a fan of the show, proud of the strong thread of Doctor Who throughout his career, he's personally "done with the Doctor" as far as his own work is concerned. "It's better to do your own thing," he admits; indeed, he's rather enjoyed creating his own universe without being forced to share it with anyone.

That said, Cornell did create the character of Professor Bernice Summerfield as a new companion for the Doctor in the Virgin-published novels, and remains amazed at how, 25 years later, she's still going strong in her own stories and audio adventures by many different writers. That sharing, however, was part of the initial concept; in contrast, Aaronovitch is somewhat more uneasy with how one-off supporting characters he created for his 1988 Doctor Who story, Remembrance of the Daleks, have recently gained new life in their own series of audio adventures. Yes, he has copies of the stories on his shelves, but he hasn't been able to listen to them for fear that they are either very good (in which case he'll be jealous) or very bad (in which case he'll be disappointed with what friends have done with his characters). "A lose-lose situation."

Moving on from the Time Lord, the majority of the event is focused on both writers' respective urban fantasy series: Aaronovitch's Rivers of London books and Cornell's new Shadow Police series. While both are clearly fascinated by the psycho-geography of the UK capital, their reasons for setting their novels there differ: for Aaronovitch, it's obvious because he's a native, while Cornell still retains the outside perspective of the visitor more likely to notice the subtle aspects of the metropolis usually lost through over-familiarity. Yet the influence of environment on people and society is important in both their works – it's not just about "magic," but the consequences of planning permission. Aaronovitch is particularly fascinated by the results of modernist architecture; the estates and houses clearly not built with any thought to either quality of materials or the everyday lives of their inhabitants.

Aaronovitch rejects Kelly's suggestion that an earlier flowering of London-centric fiction (by authors such as Peter Ackroyd, Angela Carter and Michael Moorcock) has inspired the current flowering of new London urban fantasy, suggesting that it has at most influenced "how" he and others approached London rather than "why." Nevertheless, there is at least a parallel, given that, apparently, during one afternoon walk, Aaronovitch and Cornell (who have been friends for many decades) had effectively split up the capital between them – just as Ackroyd, Carter et all appear to have done back in the 1990s.

Given that both magic and crime can be viewed as infringements against "order," it's perhaps not unexpected for the two to be brought together. However, Kelly's question about what such a pairing can offer, compared with "social realism," inspired possibly Aaronovitch's simplest response: "It can entertain people," he says, to clear audience laughter, although he adds that if you're going to write about the life on the estate, it's probably best if you've actually lived there. Otherwise, write fantasy. More simply, both authors simply enjoy the heightened weirdness that comes from putting properly trained professionals in situations well beyond their training, to see how well they cope. Though, as Aaronovitch points out, both are too obviously SF writers to not ensure their "Magic" has a strong rationality, and set within a universe that has no source of Supernatural Evil. People do act in evil ways in their books, but there's no Devil on which to blame everything.

With any ongoing series, there is a question of whether the author has some end-point in mind, the intention to eventually reach some overall story-arc conclusion. Aaronovitch denies that he does, beyond writing a sufficient number of books to buy a really big "Bond Villain" yacht, but Cornell admits that, while he'd initially thought of his Shadow Police as simply the basis for a potentially unlimited number of novels, he changed his mind while working on the second book. He can now see a conclusion with (probably) the fifth novel; and, to be honest, you sense he is, creatively, quite happy with that.

Ben Aaronovitch & Paul Cornell appeared at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 24 Aug http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/ben-aaronovitch-paul-cornell