Paul Cornell has written episodes of Elementary, Doctor Who, Primeval, Robin Hood and many other TV series, including his own children’s show, Wavelength. He’s worked for every major comics company, including his creator-owned series I Walk With Monsters for The Vault, The Modern Frankenstein for Magma, Saucer State for IDW and This Damned Band for Dark Horse, and runs for Marvel and DC on Batman and Robin, Wolverine and Young Avengers. He’s the writer of the Lychford rural fantasy novellas from Tor.com Publishing. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, a Hugo Award for his podcast, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his Doctor Who. He’s the co-host of Hammer House of Podcast. “Distribution” is Cornell’s third appearance in Uncanny—an examination of government regulation and human nature, set in a darkly imagined future.
Uncanny Magazine: “Distribution” is packed with ideas: free minds, consent, human nature, religion. Did you start from wanting to explore one (or more) of these concepts, or did you have a different inspiration?
Paul Cornell: As I get older, I’m increasingly aware of the generational tension in all the different media and genres I move in, so I’ve started to consciously write about futures that spring from youth. I offhandedly and as a matter of policy tend to take the side of the younger generations when it comes to cultural faultlines, and I’m always on the lookout for the moment when that starts to look ridiculous, when I’m the old guy getting the slang wrong. That moment has to come, right? It may have already. I don’t get to judge that. And ‘I don’t get to judge that’ is kind of the theme of this new body of work. I think we’re at a hugely exciting moment for our species, albeit one that’s also tremendously frightening because of how entrenched the reactionary reply is turning out to be. The increasing freedom of personal identity in terms of gender particularly speaks to me. It’s the promise of Bowie fulfilled. ‘Identity politics’ have been enormously helpful to me personally. They’ve given us not just a new way to look at who we are but (maybe this is just an English thing) permission to do so. But the most important thing is, I need to find a slightly different place to stand for these stories, because they’re stories where the figure I’d normally identify with is no longer the protagonist. I don’t want to do something as simple as make myself the villain, though I do indulge in that a bit, because my generation hasn’t covered themselves in glory. So it’s about putting the pieces together in a different way and seeing what suits now. I’m excited. Your mileage may vary.
Uncanny Magazine: There’s wonderful tension in this story, with Shan continually on edge, waiting for something bad to happen as the situation becomes increasingly unsettling. You do dark fiction and horror quite well—what draws you to this type of story?
Paul Cornell: Thanks. I just think that’s where we are now. Social media lets us, for the first time in history, look human nature right in the face every minute. Fuck. That’s what we’re really like.
Uncanny Magazine: If you lived in the world described in “Distribution,” would you want to be part of the co-op or off on your own?
Paul Cornell: Ah, that’s the most brilliant question, because it really gets to the heart of the story. I love the idea of such co-ops, and would like to be able to spend time there. I love big government. Good law, humane law, is my favourite thing. But then again, I think we all have a thing inside us that says we want to light out for the frontier. I like to think that the best futures we can imagine allow both, because liberty and social duty should not have to be mutually exclusive.
Uncanny Magazine: You started out writing Doctor Who fan fiction, and have since expanded into a wide range of projects—novels, nonfiction, comics, screenplays—both within the world of Doctor Who and outside of it. What advice do you have for writers who are starting out in fan fiction?
Paul Cornell: You’re in the best possible place, keep at it. Fan fiction is an amazing space for you to get critique of your work and improve fast. And you get to learn characterization and tones of voice. And fan fiction is also worthwhile purely for itself.
Uncanny Magazine: Do you find it difficult to keep your various projects from bleeding into each other? Alternately, do you like to include references to different worlds or franchises as Easter eggs?
Paul Cornell: Not really, I like the variety, though it means, horribly, that my name doesn’t mean a specific genre to readers, which limits me. And I absolutely do not include such references, that would be horrible. I like to write whatever I’m writing thoroughly and properly, and it’d undermine it somehow to put exterior stuff in there.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
Paul Cornell: I have a hard SF novella out in 2021, part of the body of work I mentioned at the start, as well as four creator-owned comics, two of which have been announced. I’ve got a finished YA SF novel and a movie screenplay being shipped around too. Bit busy.
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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