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‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

with 9 comments

‘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?

Written by Martin

7 February 2012 at 09:23

9 Responses

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  1. I’ve read the other two stories in the sequence, both of which have the same Steampunk James Bond feel of this one. As in the previous cases I started the story feeling a little fatigued by the ornateness of Cornell’s world but felt, as you did, that by the end of the story he had successfully walked me through it.

    I think the story’s Bond-ness is established from the outset – what sort of name is Lustre, if not for a Bond girl? – which makes Castor and Pollux and their overheated plan more of a piece with the story as a whole. I did, however, take the end of the story as a lie that was being sold to Hamilton, and presumably the rest of the world, as a way of maintaining the balance. The Ransoms discover relativistic physics while the rest of the world is still thinking in Newtonian terms, and Cornell draws a bald parallel between those two competing theories and the contrast between Hamilton’s class-consciousness and their social climbing (they want the new planet because it represent land, something that people of their class could never possess, and Hamilton is scandalized by their lack of respect for the social order). So relativity becomes a revolutionary concept and must be suppressed, along with the implications of what the Ransoms have discovered and the people, like Lustre, who know about it.


    7 February 2012 at 15:53

  2. In hindsight, Lustre Saint Clair is a very Bond girl name but I didn’t pick this up at all. Perhaps I was misdirected by the setting but I’d also suggest she doesn’t act like a Bond girl and, more importantly, Hamilton is not much like Bond. Although admittedly, it is a very long time since I read Fleming and I’m mostly going on the films. Still, the appearance of the Ransoms was a shock for me.

    With the ending, Turpin’s description of what really happened is pretty glib and farfetched and would usually set alarm bells ringing. But what we actually see and the Ransoms’ suggested is pretty glib and farfetched. There is also Hamilton’s reaction, he is an intelligence professional and should be used lies and counter-lies but he seems to take it all at face value. Then again, the dizziness and lack of study foundations to his world hint at the opposite but don’t seem like terrible plausible for a spook. I feel like Cornell deliberately closes down Hamilton’s perspective (the section is mostly Turpin’s dialogue) in order to create ambiguity but doesn’t actually deliver it. When Turpin says, “You’re greatly valued, Jonathan. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t still be here”, is he really saying I should be killing you for what you know? Then why doesn’t Turpin kill Saint Clair?

    I totally missed the Newtonian versus relativistic distinction though, I took the Ransoms to be merely making a revolutionary political point, one that I found rather unlikely for its Bond villian delivery.


    7 February 2012 at 16:45

  3. but felt, as you did, that by the end of the story he had successfully walked me through it.

    My frustration with these stories is that they seem to do this and no more. I’ve read them all, I enjoy them while I’m reading them, nothing catches on my mind and I’ve forgotten all the details a few weeks later. I do plan to re-read “The Copenhagen Interpretation” before voting, but at the moment I have nothing to add.


    7 February 2012 at 17:21

  4. Hello again! Re-delurking.

    I had the same experience as Niall. Cornell’s Demon Knights comic is very fun, and I’m willing to believe that his episodes of Doctor Who are similar, but I’ve never seen his prose stories make up for the lack of brightly colored visuals. The genial reliance on ancient story tropes is well-done, but just seems flat here. I think part of the problem is that Cornell is a smart user of existing characters, which give him a long history of story to draw on in clever, specific ways; but if the characters are original, his use of pop-narrative cliches seems more derivative, ironically enough.

    Similarly, the way he introduced the setting was capable and sure, and much better than information dumps; Cornell’s good at what Jo Walton calls “incluing.” but I didn’t particularly care about the particular setting he was introducing.

    Seth Ellis

    7 February 2012 at 18:44

  5. […] ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul […]

  6. I was going to add a few comments but I also realise that in common with Niall and Seth, I can’t remember a blessed thing about the story. Well, other than the vaguely steampunkish atmosphere, and again Martin’s point about having been walked through the world resonates. I feel I’ve been shown something but I don’t feel I’ve engaged with it. I wonder if reading the other stories would help but from what others say I’m not sure they would. I may be about to have a ‘tedious old fart’ moment here but what this actually reminded me of, in a more sophisticated way, was Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories; hugely enjoyable but utterly forgettable once read. I’d not go so far as to say the Cornell is as forgettable but it is the atmosphere rather than the story that sticks, and actually, I’m pretty steampunked out anyway.

    Maureen Kincaid Speller

    12 February 2012 at 12:33

  7. I apologise for turning up a month late, but I really feel I must comment on how different I found the end of this story, from the moment that Hamilton doesn’t have his penis pulled off.

    To my eye, everything the Ransoms have said is true, and Lustre is the same “girl” Hamilton knew. Everything Turpin says is a complete lie, in aid of keeping ‘the balance’. Hamilton is mostly alive because Turpin can’t know how much Hamilton actually knows; Turpin has never known that Hamilton knew her decades before, and no-one knows what Lustre and Hamilton said to each other as it is in a language they cannot speak. Still, Turpin holds out the threat “you wouldn’t still be here”.

    And in the final paragraph, surely, Lustre tries to contact Hamilton, but his ability to speak Enoch has been revoked.

    Duncan Lawie

    12 March 2012 at 21:02

  8. […] by China Miéville – in which I discuss a story that lost the 2011 BSFA Award. 9) ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell – in which I discuss a story that won the 2011 BSFA Award. 10) ‘Desertion’ by Clifford D. […]

    Four « Everything Is Nice

    24 September 2012 at 13:20

  9. nice interpretation.

    pia cagalitan

    7 August 2013 at 05:12

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