Me and My Understudy

by Paul Cornell

I remember clearly the moment I was called upon to join the world of Wild Cards.  I was in the bar at a convention, and Melinda Snodgrass came to find me.  ‘George would like to talk to you,’ she said.  And so I was led over to meet George R.R. Martin.  He wasn’t quite GEORGE R.R. MARTIN at that point, but he was getting there, so much so that a little exclusion zone had formed around him, the opposite of a mob, formed out of people who really didn’t want to bother him.

I discovered in that meeting that George was aware of my work in Doctor Who and wanted me to pitch to a forthcoming Wild Cards collection.  I was delighted.  I’d been part of The Weerde, a British attempt, in the 1990s, to do much the same thing.  I love shared worlds.  They give the lonely writer a feeling of companionship that must approximate what a real job feels like.  The new volume was going to be about police work, and I’d just started putting together the ideas that would lead to my first supernatural police novel, London Falling.

You get involved in WC by creating a character, and, because I didn’t then trust myself to write a credible New York police officer (these days I’d have a go), I pitched, alongside some other characters that didn’t make the grade, someone who lived in the bohemian surroundings of Jokertown, but was at one remove from it.  Her name was Abigail Baker, and, like a lot of my characters, she explored the central business of the book she was to be in by regarding it as beside the point.  Abigail wants to be an actor.  A serious actor.  She’s hauling her way up on the lowest rungs of showbiz, as a young drama student.  She’s a Brit who loves New York, partially because it’s not home.  She’s got a perplexed, wry voice that just wants to get something done, a voice that I can put on like an old sweater, and which owes a little to my Doctor Who companion character Bernice Summerfield.

She’s also an ace, whose power is to pick up the powers of other nearby aces like wi-fi.  She sees this, however, mostly as a distraction from what she should really be doing.  I figure that in a world of super powers, there’d be a lot of people who were just trying to get on with things but who kept having cosmic quests and alien invasions getting in the way.  Abigail has, when we meet her, no control at all over when she’ll suddenly manifest a super power, and, as you might imagine, that’s pretty damn annoying.

I also wanted to experience the central joy of a shared world, the use of other peoples’ characters.  Also, I wanted to indicate that, even though Abigail was at a remove from the world of aces, her story wouldn’t be distant from the world of Wild Cards.  I really liked Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, who was created by Roger Zelazny, a writer I’m a huge fan of.  I wanted Abigail, in the screwball comedy of her first story, ‘More!’, to find romance, because I don’t get to write comedy romance often enough.  And so I got those two together, despite a truly startling age gap that nevertheless, visually, wouldn’t be an issue, because Croyd regenerates his looks every time he sleeps, alongside gaining new powers.  Those two power sets are fun together too.  He wakes up not knowing what new power he has, and she immediately ‘catches’ it.

I think ‘More!’ is one of the best stories I’ve ever written, in any medium. Some of that is due to me wanting to live up to the writers around me in the Wild Cards Collective, and some of it is about George being a very good editor. I swiftly got to use Abigail again, when I was offered a slot for a WCstory on  Having got Abigail and Croyd together, I wanted to have a slightly darker story pull them apart, so Abigail could grow.  And so was born ‘The Elephant in the Room’, where Abigail’s powers-phobic mother visits her in New York, and has to deal with her daughter’s lifestyle, and the comedy, as often in my work, leads into awfulness in a way that my wife calls ‘ha ha bang’.  I wanted to use another WC character this time, Elephant Girl.  She was created by George’s wife, Parris McBride, who I’d met and adored, and the nature of her power, to turn into a flying elephant, was delightful as something for Abigail to pick up.  By the end of the story, Abigail and Croyd had parted, and it was sad, but it was going to be okay.  I didn’t want to go the easy route of having them hate each other.  More interesting that these two fundamentally kind and wise people should decide it was for the best, and give each other some space.

Which takes us to this year and Low Chicago.  For this first, and only, we’re assured, Wild Cards excursion into time travel, George wanted me to bring along Birdbrain, a new character created by Victor Milan. As soon as I heard his power was to control a single bird, then I wanted to take Abigail back to the time of the dinosaurs.  When I learned about Birdbrain’s background, I was gleefully able to call that story ‘A Bit of a Dinosaur’.  George and I talked about what from the WC universe could be around back then, and I realised that I had the chance to play a little with the source code of this shared world, quietly make some major revelations (for those who knew what they were seeing) and tease forthcoming developments, all while Abigail remained completely unaware and bemused. It also let me have her encounter Croyd again, and for them to be fine together.

I love how Abigail has grown, how I’ve been able to make her wiser and stronger with every appearance, as she gains experience and starts to be in control of her powers.  Mind you, she’ll never stop trying to get back to what she should really be doing.