‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Asimov’s.
This is the third in a series of stories featuring Jonathan Hamilton, the second of which, ‘One Of Our Bastards Is Missing’, was shortlisted for the 2010 Hugo Award for novelette. I’ve not read either of the previous ones or, as far as I am aware, anything else by Paul Cornell.
The fantastic inserts itself quietly but insistantly from the beginning of the story. Hamilton arrives in Copenhagen undercover, “as etiquette demands, without weapons or folds, thoroughly out of uniform.” Soon afterwards he is informed that the Lustre Saint Clair, the woman he is there to interview, “could be folded like origami.” However, apart from this tantalising hint of magical technology, the story reads as alternate history set over a hundred years ago. It is a surprise then to suddenly come across the following sentence: “Armies across the continent and Solar System had been dispatched to ports and carriage posts.” So there is a lot for Cornell to unfold here and my interest was piqued.
What transpires is a shaggy dog story where the details are very enjoyable but the big picture dissolves. Saint Clair is a diplomatic courier with secret information locked in her head. She was kidnapped fifteen years but has now turned up having apparently not aged a day. Hamilton, who knew her as a younger man, is send to debrief her but before he can do so the embassy they are in is attacked. They flee, they are captured. Along the way I built up an understanding of the world that whilst far from complete was enough to sustain the story. This skillful doling out of information is much more preferable than dumping it all up front, whetting the appetite rather than sticking in the craw. At his best, Cornell manages to pack an awful lot of punch into asides. For example, whilst talking to a secondary character Hamilton recalls a previous encounter in passing:
He’d wanted to send her flowers afterward, but he couldn’t find anything in the Language of Blooms volume provided by his regiment that both described how he felt and kept the precious distance of the connection between them.
The sending of flowers is a completely familiar gesture but not only does the detail of that “Language of Blooms volume” free it from cliche, it casually reveals a lot about both the society in which Hamilton lives and Hamilton himself. Sometimes these asides are less successful though. We are told of Hamilton that: “His Irish blood was kept in an English jar.” That sounds a bit off to me – do you keep blood in a jar? – but, more importantly, it doesn’t explain enough to make it relevant. Usually, however, Cornell gets the balance right and the new reader is neither lost or mollycoddled.
The problem comes when the antagonists turn up. They are typical James Bond baddies, an improbably rich pair of twins with silly names: Castor and Pollux Ransom. They spin Hamilton a yarn and then proceed to torture him to death. Obviously he is rescued in the nick of time. Well, not quite the nick of time, he has his penis pulled off. Did I read that right? Or is medical technology of a sufficient level that this isn’t overly traumatic? Anyway, having escaped, it is revealed that the tale they told was part of an elaborate con that Saint Clair was in on. For me, this rather lets the air out of the story and, for the first time, changes it into more of an episode in a continuity than a story in its own right.
No one seems to have written much about the story but Blue Tyson’s typically gnomic micro review at Free SF Reader is: “Fake alien Balance tampering ship story. Fake woman too. Most likely.” That sense of uncertainty wasn’t one I really got from the story. I don’t know if we are intended to take the title to be a reference to the actual Copenhagen interpretation or whether it is simply a weak pun but I can’t really see any collapsing of wavefunctions here. Does any one read the con as not being a con at all? Or am I overthinking the title?
Finally, a stylistic point. Hamilton is a spy, perfectly happy to die serving his country in secrecy. He is very, very excitable though. Not only does Cornell give him dialogue ending in exclamation marks, on one page he gives him three interrobangs. Now, I don’t think there is much of a place in fiction for the interobang but I’m happy to but that down to personal taste. It does seem an odd choice for this character in this society though, and it is one that knocked me out of the story several times. Am I just being picky?