Pursuing Christopher Priest – an Introduction


I used to read primarily science fiction and fantasy, my tastes in each form coming from the borders where the two worlds grow into one another. I have rarely enjoyed the classic hard-SF of one genre, nor the sub-Tolkien forays into magic of the other. Though if given a choice between Robert Heinlein and Robert E. Howard, I would shade towards the former, my enthusiasms have always lain with those to whom the S in SF stands for ‘Speculative’.
But that was years ago, and it is the best part of twenty years since my taste in fiction automatically led me to that section of the bookshop. New names have arisen, tastes and trends have shifted (I was there for the beginnings of cyberpunk, which dates me) and I haven’t called myself an SF fan for many years. I no long know the field, nor am I interested in developing my knowledge further.
On the other hand, if I am asked who are my favourite authors, there’s an interesting link between them all: Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner. All but the last of these have spent their careers writing fiction that lies absorbed in SF and fantasy – and given that Garner’s work has myth, its process and consequences, as its central theme, I do not see him as an exception.
There are other names that I could add to that list, writers no longer with us, much-missed: R. A. Lafferty, James Tiptree Jr. Like those I have named, writers of those uncertain lands, the only difference being that there can be no more new work from them (though a lot of old, unpublished work by Lafferty may yet appear, if we are very very good).
What truly links these writers is not that they are in any way members of some genre or other, but that they are the writers whose new work I will buy on sight, without hesitation, writers who I trust not to fail me, but rather to engulf my mind, to draw me into the world their fiction has created, and to leave me enriched when I close their books on their final pages.
However, though these are the names I’ll give when I’m asked to define myself through my reading, there is another that belongs there. Less prolific, certainly Less celebrated, unfortunately so. A minor talent among his betters? No, I’ll not accept that. He belongs with the others for exactly the same reason: that I buy his books automatically, because I trust what he has chosen to write about.
Christopher Priest, who was born less than ten miles from where I currently sit, but a dozen years earlier, has written thirteen novels (excluding novelisations, published under pseudonyms) since 1970. His current novel, published in 2013, is The Adjacent, his eighth successive novel to be entitled with the definite article. I haven’t read it yet, but had read all its predecessors, and the short story compilation The Dream Archipelago, which collects stories set in a fictional world of islands separating two continents, which first came to prominence in The Affirmation, the acclaimed 1981 novel that brought Priest to my attention.
I do not have all Priest’s books: indeed, I have only added his second novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island this Xmas. This novel aside, and the edition I have bought is a version revised forty years later, I found little to interest me in Priest’s first few books. But with his fifth novel, the subtle and ethereal A Dream of Wessex, Priest struck a vein that he has, in differing ways, tapped throughout the rest of his fiction, that of unreality.
I intend to spend some time re-reading, and commenting upon Christopher Priest’s novels, plus the Dream Archipelago collection, beginning with my recent acquisition, and them proceeding to that sequence of novels commencing with A Dream of Wessex. Priest is a fine writer who gets too little attention: in my small way, I hope to encourage more people to read him. You will be well-rewarded.

2 thoughts on “Pursuing Christopher Priest – an Introduction

  1. in absolute agreement with your last sentence, above.

    I first came across Christopher Priest when Inverted World was published, many years ago, now. Back then, I wasn’t the completist that i have (sort of) become. Quite some years later I happened across The Affirmation, and therefore have now read all his books. Several times.

    Have just been perusing your various essays on some of his books here, I wanted to say that I found your insights into some of my favourite books to both chime with, and go beyond that which i had thought i had worked out for myself.

    Excellent site.

    1. Your kind words are appreciated, Bob. I had a great deal of enjoyment in re-reading the books for this series, and more so in teasing out the ideas that they sparked off. Would that there were a dozen more! A Dream of Wessex remains my favourite, simply for the vision of Wessex within the Project, but I’ve got to say that The Adjacent now runs it very close!

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