In his blurb for my book (The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest – did I mention I’ve written a book?), Adam Roberts notes that Priest’s work is resistant “to conventional critical approaches”. That is only too true, and it contributed to the problems I had writing this book.
My first idea when I set out on this project was to follow essentially the same plan I had when I wrote my book on Iain Banks, that is a more or less chronological account of his career. I even started a draft of the book on this plan. It didn’t work, I knew it even as I was writing it. Everything that Priest has done in his fiction works against any straightforward chronological reading. I don’t just mean the way he returned to the Dream Archipelago twenty years after The Affirmation, though that introduces complexities enough. There is also his habit of revisiting and revising his earlier work. Do you write about Indoctrinaire in 1970 or its revised edition of 1979? What about Fugue for a Darkening Island, first published in 1972, which reappeared in an extensively revised edition in 2011. Or The Glamour, which went through several different iterations between its original publication in 1984 and its revised edition of 1996. Since the past is fluid in Priest’s writing, it is only logical that it is fluid in his bibliography also, which tends to make a nonsense of a straightforwardly chronological approach. And that is not to mention the way themes, devices, and even occasionally characters, recur throughout his career. The more I went on this track, the more I realised I was going to end up tying myself in knots as I necessarily referred backwards and forwards in time.
But if not chronology, what structure could I use for the book? Thematic? Years ago, writing about Priest (which I’ve been doing, off and on, for something like 40 years now, lord help us), I noted that there are recurring devices that run through most if not all of his oeuvre: the island, the double, the book. So I began to plot out how I could construct my book by taking each of those themes in turn. And again I ran into an immediate problem: a novel featuring islands is as likely as not going to feature twins also. Keeping strictly to a thematic structure would entail constant repetition.
I was stuck. Both approaches seemed to offer benefits in discussing Priest’s fiction, but there were just as many problems. And whichever I chose I could foresee that by the end I would be tying myself into such convoluted knots that even I wouldn’t be able to see a way through, let alone the poor reader.
Then I had a silly idea: why not do both. It is easy to periodize Priest’s career: his engagement with the New Wave as he was getting started; what we might call the science fiction years from Indoctrinaire to The Space Machine; the noticeable stylistic change in his writing that takes us from “An Infinite Summer” to The Affirmation; the period when he seemed most distant from science fiction from The Glamour to The Separation; and the return to the Dream Archipelago with The Islanders. Each of those would work as a coherent, unified chapter, providing a context for his career. And I could intersperse those chronological chapters with thematic chapters taking, in turn, career-spanning ideas such as islands, the nature of reality, doubles, and the arts.
There are advantages to this. By providing thumbnail sketches of the books in the chronological chapters, I wouldn’t need to keep repeating them in the thematic chapters; while devoting individual chapters to each of the main recurring themes, I wouldn’t need to spell these out every time they came up in another work. So I would obviate a significant cause for repetition throughout the book. But there would still be repetition, of course. Some key works, such as The Affirmation, The Prestige or The Islanders, might need to be discussed in anything up to half a dozen different chapters. But maybe, I thought in a self-justifying way, this need not be a major problem. If I take as my thesis, as I do, the notion that Priest’s work is unstable, that there is no consistent and unified reading of his work, then by approaching each of these works from a different perspective, by emphasizing different characteristics in them, I could illustrate this very point. Here is not one reading of Priest’s work, but a variety of different readings. After all, I’ve read The Affirmation more times than I can count, and it seems like a different book every single time.
I admit, one of the reasons I finally went for this somewhat convoluted structure is that, when I started putting it down on the page, I found I could make it work. Whether it works for anyone else, of course, is not up to me, but this is the structure I ended up with:
Or mea culpa, in which I explain that Priest is a long-time friend, but also try to lay out the complexity of the way he revisits older work.
To be more accurate, this is a bibliography of his books. But the quotations I use throughout the body of the book are identified by abbreviations, which are spelled out here.
A Complete List of Short Fiction
The second part of the bibliography basically does what it says on the tin.
Chapter One: Ambivalence
The book is published as part of a series called SF Storyworlds, so I begin by laying out the troubled and complex (two adjectives that seem inevitable wherever Priest is concerned) relationship between Priest and science fiction. He is ambivalent, often antagonistic, towards science fiction; science fiction is ambivalent, often antagonistic, towards him.
Chapter Two: Accounting
The first of the chronological chapters takes us from his failed career in accountancy to his part in coining the term “New Wave”, to his early stories and eventually the first novel, Indoctrinaire.
Chapter Three: Insularity
Islands play an inordinately large part in Priest’s fiction, from the island in time of Indoctrinaire to the island city of Inverted World to the psychological and ontological distortions of the Dream Archipelago, all covered here.
Chapter Four: Inversions
For a time Priest was primarily and intentionally a science fiction writer, with Fugue for a Darkening Island, Inverted World, and The Space Machine, but in this chapter I trace how quickly a conventional approach to sf exhausted the advantages the genre offered to his ambitions as a writer.
Chapter Five: Instability
As a schoolboy Priest was knocked off his bike and suffered amnesia, with several days of his life that have never been recovered since. This created a sense that reality is unstable, a theme that crops up repeatedly from “Real-Time World” to The Islanders.
Chapter Six: Dreaming
Opinions differ on when the change came in Priest’s writing, but I date it to his story “An Infinite Summer”. There can be little doubt, however, that a more austere and literary approach to his fiction gathered pace through A Dream of Wessex, the early Dream Archipelago stories, and The Affirmation.
Chapter Seven: Doubling
Priest’s own children are fraternal twins, a curious example of life following art since he had been writing about twins and doubles throughout his career, and they would continue to be a symbol of the uncanny nature of reality.
Chapter Eight: Authorities
In the 30 years between The Affirmation and The Islanders he produced fewer books than in the first ten years of his career, but these complex and challenging works established a literary language for dealing with the issues of unreality that have been central to his work.
Chapter Nine: Authorship
It is very rare to find a novel by Priest that does not involve a stage magician (The Prestige), a painter (The Islanders), a musician (The Gradual), a photographer (The Adjacent), or more frequently a writer (The Quiet Woman, An American Story), so in this chapter I explore the symbolic weight of these artists.
Chapter Ten: Revisiting
Late style in the case of Christopher Priest seems to involve a new urgency (the last ten years of his career have been as productive as the first ten); an increasing simplicity of language tied to a complex and often oblique structure; and above all a return to the Dream Archipelago.
Chapter Eleven: Stories
A return to some of the questions I was asking in the first chapter, in which I try and fail to resolve what sort of a writer Priest is.
And here, after 235 pages and 80-odd thousand words, the book comes to a close. Is it some sort of a victory that after all of this I still love Priest’s work?