I’ve written about Christopher Priest more than I have about any other writer. He’s a friend, of course, which has an influence; but he is also the writer whose work appeals to me more than any other. It excites me intellectually, it fascinates me in its invention, I find it emotionally satisfying just as the intricacies of plot entrap me. Most of what I’ve written about Chris has been collected in What it is we do when we read science fiction or in the forthcoming Call and Response, but this is a rare piece that escaped those two books. It was an introduction to Priest’s fiction that appeared in the Novacon 30 Programme Book in November 2000, when he was the Guest of Honour.
To hear Chris Priest tell it, his books divide neatly into three groups of three. In an interview I did with him for Vector he said as much: ‘There are three which I feel I can stand my reputation on, three which are good near-misses, and three which I’m not very happy with at all.’
This isn’t the whole truth, of course. It misses out his collections of short stories, Real-Time World which, in the title story at least, attains some of the mysterious, identity-threatening power of his later works; An Infinite Summer which contains, in ‘An Infinite Summer’ and ‘Palely Loitering’, two exquisite stories which signalled the full maturing of his work, and also three of the Dream Archipelago stories which would also be collected in The Dream Archipelago. This last, finally bringing all his Dream Archipelago stories together more than 20 years after they were first written, is still one of the most compulsively readable and sexually threatening works you could hope to encounter. No one considering Priest’s work would want to omit these books from their remit, mostly because, the last two at least are so damned good. Still, it is the novels for which he is likely to be best known, so I’ll devote the remainder of this survey to them, taking them according to his assessment (and for the purpose of this survey I’m going to assume that his tenth novel, The Extremes, falls somewhere between the first and second category).
It would be unfair to spend too much time on those novels with which Priest is unhappy. These, he reveals, are Indoctrinaire, his first novel, The Space Machine and The Quiet Woman. Indoctrinaire, the story of an isolated prisoner, is as full of existential despair and new wave angst as anything to come out of the Sixties, and is a fairly poor work. Neither The Space Machine nor The Quiet Woman is anywhere near as bad. The former is a pastiche of H.G.Wells that manages to combine The Time Machine with The War of the Worlds and is a readable and amusing jeu d’esprit, if not much more than that. The Quiet Woman attempts to be quite a bit more than that, a sour exploration of a world falling apart, including along the way a descent into the fevered and sexually perverse imagination of one of the characters, it is much better on re-reading than on first acquaintance, but it had the misfortune to appear in the midst of a succession of excellent novels which made it appear worse than it was by comparison.
The good near-misses, on the other hand, are books which many another writer would be happy to claim as the pinnacle of their career. Fugue for a Darkening Island is a form of that archetypal British science fiction trope, the catastrophe story. In this instance the catastrophe is caused by a war in Africa that has resulted in Britain being flooded by refugees, which in turn has led to factionalism and the disintegration of order. This disintegration is reflected in a non-linear narrative which dots about in time, and this in turn reflects the psychological disintegration of the central character, Alan Whitman.
This device, in which the psychological state of the characters finds an echo in the landscape through which they move, is something to which Priest returns again and again in his fiction, though always with slightly different angles. It’s there, for instance, in the next of his near-misses, A Dream of Wessex (which was re-titled The Perfect Lover in America, for no readily comprehensible reason). In many ways this is a harbinger of his very best work, and if it must be accounted a miss it is only by comparison to what would come after. Set partly in a dystopian near-future, and partly in a distant future reached via an experiment in controlled dreaming, it shows the landscape of the idyllic far future being corrupted by the psychological and sexual tensions imported from the present. Since the distant future features a drowned England in which part of the south coast has become a sort of summer isle, this is clearly a precursor of the Dream Archipelago.
With A Dream of Wessex, Priest really hit his stride. Time and again from this point on he explored themes of identity and skirted the edges of madness in fiction that was rarely comfortable, often chilly, but always powerful. The Glamour, another ‘near miss’, is perhaps the finest consideration of invisibility in science fiction, because invisibility becomes intimately connected with questions of self-esteem and how memory shapes our identity. Grey is a newsreel cameraman (a craft redolent of seeing without being seen) who is injured in a terrorist bomb blast and who, in trying to piece together his lost memory finds himself with a girlfriend and a rival who are both glamorous, that is, they can both become invisible at will. The gaps in Grey’s memory, and the gaps in the engagement of the glamorous with the society around them mingle to provide a devastating glimpse of shattered identity and social dysfunction.
Society is dysfunctional in another, altogether more violent way in Priest’s most recent novel, The Extremes. To be honest, I have no idea whether he considers this a near-miss or a novel upon which to stand his reputation, though knowing how exacting his standards can be it is probably safest to consign this to the former category, though that seems a strange fate for a book that won the BSFA Award and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Here we get two mass murders, one in Texas and one in a small town on the south coast of England, at the same time on the same day. And what links them, after the event, is the new public entertainment of virtual reality. Virtual reality is a disengagement with reality, represented here by the corporate executives for the VR company who roll into Bulverton dispensing money and insulating themselves from what might be called life. But virtual reality, like the dreaming in A Dream of Wessex, is a way through to something else; and just as the protagonists in A Dream of Wessex are able to shape the dream to create their own happy ending, so Teresa in The Extremes is able to shape virtual reality to find a way of reuniting with her husband who was killed in the Texas massacre.
Now we come to the three novels on which Priest is prepared to let his reputation stand. I have said before that critics find it easy to write about bad books, because the failure provides a ready handle to grasp, but good books are remarkably hard to discuss because as their qualities are necessarily dispersed throughout the entirety of the work, there is no readily graspable handle. These three books are like that, they are so damned near perfect that one is either left with nothing to say or too much. There is a terrible temptation to quote each novel in its entirety, pointing to it and saying: ‘isn’t that marvellous?’
The first of this trio is Inverted World, which is probably as close to unique as anything in science fiction has ever got. If you haven’t actually read it you should be frog-marched, right this moment, into the book room, you should have a copy of the book thrust into your hand, and you should be made to sit down there and then to read it. It won’t be a hardship, from the moment you read the first line – ‘I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.’ – you’ll probably be hooked. But if you don’t read it your knowledge and appreciation of science fiction, and particularly of British science fiction, will be fatally flawed. No-one else in science fiction has turned the world inside out in this way, and done so not only with such rigor but with such haunting images. I guarantee you will never forget the city that must keep moving, the people who become elongated as they get ahead of the city or more squat as they travel into the past. Inverted World is Priest’s most science fictional story and probably his most engaging. A year or two later, with ‘An Infinite Summer’ and the first of the Dream Archipelago stories, he would embark on a new phase in his writing, psychologically more acute and more disturbing, the writing sharper and more measured. Whatever his occasional public pronouncements on the matter, none of these later works, not even The Quiet Woman, ever quite left science fiction behind, but the invention became less exuberant because it was more important and more interesting to explore the minds of the characters than their worlds. This approach has led to his finest novels, and as a body of work everything he has written from A Dream of Wessex to The Extremes may be equalled but it has not been surpassed in British science fiction. None of that, however, takes away one jot from the sheer glory of Inverted World, one of the most inventive and wonderful (in the literal sense of the word) science fiction novels written in this country in the last 50 years.
If I don’t advocate the same forced reading of The Affirmation and The Prestige it is only because these books demand a different approach. You need to come to these two books willingly because they will do things to your mind, make you question the relationship between yourself and the world around you in ways you may never have done before.
The Affirmation is set partly in our familiar world and partly in the Dream Archipelago, an island landscape reminiscent of the Isles of Greece that provides an unsettlingly idyllic setting for the tales of psycho-sexual horror played out in them. If the Dream Archipelago stories had warned us to beware of what went on there, nothing had prepared us for The Affirmation. To explain what happens briefly is inevitably to distort the novel, for all of Priest’s work from A Dream of Wessex onwards contains such twists, involutions, resonances that only a complete recounting of the plot could hope to avoid distortion, nevertheless: Peter Sinclair has lost his job and his girlfriend at the same moment and retreats to a remote cottage where he starts to write the story of his life. But the story he writes is set in the Dream Archipelago, where Peter Sinclair and his girlfriend Seri travel to where Peter cam claim his lottery prize, treatment that will make him immortal. However, the treatment will destroy his memory, so he must write his life story. The story he writes is of Peter Sinclair who has lost his job and his girlfriend and is trying to piece his life and his mind back together again. The two stories echo back and forth between Britain and the Dream Archipelago, each amplifying the madness of the other until the heart-stopping moment when we discover that the fat manuscript that Peter has obsessively written and rewritten is composed entirely of blank pages. (Then, later, in The Quiet Woman, we discover a central character once familiarly known as Seri who had a shipboard romance with a Peter Sinclair as they returned from Greece at the outbreak of the Second World War.)
If The Affirmation makes us question what it is to be sane, The Prestige, which is perhaps Priest’s finest individual achievement, makes us question what it is to be an individual. This is a novel which, uniquely, won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the World Fantasy Award (the latter is particularly strange, since The Prestige does not contain one single word of fantasy, every apparently fantastical event which happens in the novel is carefully explained in terms of either stagecraft or science). In its simplest terms it is a story about the rivalry between two stage magicians at the end of the Victorian age, but as I said before, simplifying one of Priest’s plots is to do it irreparable harm. This is a novel crowded with twins, doubles, doppelgangers, mirrors and reflections, duplicities, hidden personae. It is a novel in which no one character is unique, they have a twin or they play a double role or in some other sense they are duplicated. One of the warring magicians is imbued with every tradition of the Victorian stage, the extraordinary lengths that stage magicians would go in order to preserve their trick, to the extent that they distorted the reality of their lives for the preservation of an illusion. (Does that sound familiar? Think of The Glamour and The Extremes.) The other is more of an iconoclast, ignorant or uncaring of the traditions which mean so much to his rival, yet he to ends up distorting reality for the sake of illusion, though in a very different way. One man has a twin but only half a life, the other creates a doppelganger which sucks the vitality from his life; yet it is only as the framing narrative ends, in an image redolent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that we learn to what extent the sins of the fathers have damaged the lives of their descendents.
All the novels and short stories collections that Christopher Priest has written are worth reading, many of them are particularly good. But these three, Inverted World, The Affirmation and The Prestige are something special. You won’t find their like anywhere else. On second thoughts, maybe I should force you to read The Affirmation and The Prestige along with Inverted World. You’ll thank me for it in the end.