Pursuing Christopher Priest: A Dream of Wessex

A Dream of Wessex was Christopher Priest’s fifth novel, originally published in 1977 and not currently in print, though seven copies (hardback and paperback) are available on eBay as I write. My copy is the paperback reprint by Abacus, published in 1987, the year in which the ‘present’ of the story is set.
Wessex is probably my favourite among Priest’s novels, though I wouldn’t say that it’s his best. Priest is one of those writers whose work has gotten better and stronger the longer he has gone on, and whilst Wessex is the book in which he found his abiding theme, it is a first exploration, as opposed to the mature and confident work of his current novel, The Adjacent. Priest isn’t entirely able to control the increasingly divergent levels of reality and the uncertainty surrounding the book’s ending is more that of its author than its reader.
The book takes place on two linked planes of reality, one ‘real’ and one ‘imaginary’, the latter a scientific construction that, perhaps not surprisingly, has become more real to its participants than reality itself. Its viewpoint is shared between two characters, Julia Stretton, a 27 year old geologist, and David Harkman, a social historian aged 43, both of whom are members of the Wessex Project, although a couple of scenes are witnessed through another, older member of the Project, Donald Mander.
Julia is plainly intended to be the central character, certainly within the reality of 1987, but Harkman carries a similar weight within the ‘future’ of Wessex, and the novel ends in his viewpoint, with Julia abruptly reduced to an appendage, a reflection of the lack of clarity engendered by the sudden multiplication of realities in the closing stages.
The 1987 of the book is, of course, a fictional extrapolation by Priest from the period of the books writing. It’s lightly sketched, in the same manner as Fugue for a Darkening Island: what Priest wants to suggest is a future that has deteriorated from the then present day, a Britain suffering from some form of terrorist assault, the Tartan Army, the effects of which are mostly apparent in increased travelling restrictions. This is one of Priest’s common themes: a near future Britain in which things are worse than they are now, presented for us to experience as a strangeness, rather than in express detail.
Julia Stretton is returning from a meeting in London at the headquarters of the Trust that funds the Wessex Project. She is angry, fearful and deeply disturbed at having encountered there her former partner Paul Mason, who she has not seen in six years. Mason, externally charming, smooth, intelligent, charismatic and progressive, is a control freak who dominated Julia’s life, undermining and humiliating her, manipulating and coming close to destroying her, breaking down her self-confidence. Though she escaped him years ago, the mere sight of him, unchanged, has shown that she is still very vulnerable, especially as Mason appears to be getting involved with the Project that has effectively become her life.
Slowly, this is revealed to us. The Wessex Project is based in Dorset, with offices and residences in Dorchester, but centred upon an underground laboratory complex beneath the Iron Age Hill Fort of Maiden Castle. There, a group of 37 participants, covering a wide range of scientific disciplines, have brought into being a consensual future, thanks to the Ridpath Projector, an invention that allows the participants to be mentally linked and share a consensus dream.
The Project’s idea is to try to find solutions to the growing social and political problems affecting Britain and the world by creating a future, 150 years distant, in which those problems have been resolved, and thus bringing back solutions that can assist the present day. Wessex’s external shape, and the nature of the problems it is set to resolve, was created in advance by exhaustive discussion and extrapolation, although the essence of the Project, when we enter it, is shaped by the collective unconsciousnesses of its participating dreamers, who have imagined a different world into being.
The world of Wessex is vastly changed. England is run by a Communist Government, implicitly a puppet of Russia, America is a Muslim state, but these are distant changes, limited to the periphery of Wessex. What is at hand, on the ground, is what is of most importance to the Project members, and thus the reader.
Because in this future, Wessex is an island, cut off from the mainland of England, by a land upheaval that has carved a passage from the Bristol Channel (now known as the Somerset Sea) to Dorchester Bay. Maiden Castle lies on the island, home to a thriving independent community that survives by servicing the tourist trade. Dorchester, on the mainland, has been promoted worldwide as a tourist centre, and is a brilliantly popular place, full of attraction: sunbathing, swimming, nude beaches, boulevards, promenades, sailing of all types, including the extremely popular sea-skimmers – effectively motorised surfboards – which are used to ride the tidal bore that daily washes through Blandford Passage, the narrowest part of the breach that separates Wessex from the mainland.
It’s this element that makes Wessex such a favourite with me. I don’t know the West Country at all, it’s a part of England I have never visited, save for a day’s outing to Bath, so I know little of the countryside. Priest, though born in Cheshire, clearly does, and equally clearly loves the area (or else he is so superb a writer to be able to produce such a convincing counterfeit). He’s made this future Wessex an idyll of tremendous appeal, and my own love of the Lake District resonates with that.
Though the first we actually see of Wessex is through Donald Mander, this is only a brief prelude to the arrival of David Harkman, who then becomes our introduction to Dorchester etc., as he gets the measure of his new environment. But let’s first go back to Julia.
She’s introduced in a state of disturbance over Mason, that is compounded when she arrives back at the Project to find a letter from him, seemingly benign but subtly threatening and condescending, suggesting that he is getting involved with Wessex. Julia is still afraid of him, and doubly afraid of what effect he might have upon Wessex, which has become a refuge for her, an escape zone into which the fear of Paul Mason cannot intrude.
I imagine that in 1977, a lot of this might have appeared rather far-fetched – not the science fiction, but rather the portrait of Mason – but sadly Priest’s portrayal is now something only too familiar.
As we will see, Julia has every right to be fearful. Mason is on his way to Maiden Castle, with the Trustees’ backing, to make changes and, not unincidentally, put Julia back under his domination. However, Julia has a second issue to contend with, as she has been tasked with special responsibility for retrieving David Harkman.
The Project is, after all, a dream conducted in an induced coma-like state. Participants can only be retrieved from Wessex by being made to ‘wake-up’, a process controlled by mnemonics and post-hypnotic instructions: the Project has two conductors whose role is to get people back, using round mirrors (that do not otherwise exist in Wessex) to trigger the response. This is quickly seen as necessary, for Priest doesn’t seek to hide that Wessex is indeed a comfortable escape, a genuinely idyllic scenario composed of the subconsciousnesses of its participants, which they are extremely reluctant to leave.
Mason may appear cruel, and calculating, in his repeated accusations that Julia is inadequate, that she cannot cope without him, that she has to have someone/thing else blame for her own failings, but Wessex is a compelling argument that he is not far from the truth.
Harkman is a special case. Like everyone else, he first went ‘under’ two years earlier, but he has never been seen in Wessex, has never woken, and despite constant physiotherapy and care, his body is deteriorating and there is substantial concern about his physical and mental well-being if he can ever be retrieved. Julia’s task is to find him, and now Harkman, after two years on the mainland, suddenly and inexpressibly obsessed with getting to Dorchester, and Maiden Castle, has finally got his transfer, ostensibly to research the archives, and is here.
It’s a curiosity, and in some respects a minor weakness of the book that Priest’s Wessex occupies only a very small geographic region, between Dorchester and Maiden Castle, and ignores the much vaster territory of Wessex Island, to the west. On the other hand, this can be justified by the consensual focus of the dreamers on such a small region.
So Harkman appears in Dorchester and meets Julia (who, in Wessex, is not conscious of the present, or of her mission). Like so many of the participants, Julia has constructed for herself a role in life that has no bearing whatsoever on her ‘real-life’ qualifications or interests. She helps at the stall, she lives with Greg, who makes sea-skimmers. Greg is not a Participant, merely one of the hundreds of background characters dreamed into being to populate Wessex.
It’s telling, even to Julia, that she has invented for herself a lover who is so sexually unsatisfying: Greg awakes with a raging hard-on every morning, starts groping her and enters her before she’s either fully-awake or sexually responsive, and by the time that her body does get itself ‘in the mood’, Greg is ejaculating and going back to sleep, leaving Julia frustrated: as I say, this is her dream lover.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that when Julia and David meet, they fall in love, out of nothing. Partly, it’s their inner recognition of each other as being more ‘real’ than those around them. This effect is emphasised for David over several days of delightful companionship and great sex which seem curiously forgettable, because Julia is ‘out’ at the time and he is making love to her consensual memory not ‘her’. The moment she returns, things suddenly reintensify.
But that’s inside Wessex. Outside, Julia’s fear has come to pass. Mason is at Maiden Castle, charming everyone, left, right and centre, and muscling into the Project with the Trustees behind him. Wessex is being increasingly seen as self-indulgent, satisfying only its participants and producing nothing of its mandate, a charge that we can see is far from unfounded. Julia feels under personal attack, but the rest of the participants are averse to Mason, though only as they would to anyone new, arriving after two years and threatening to alter their projection.
But it’s clear that Mason has to be accepted, or the Project will be closed down. Julia is personally threatened by Mason, blackmailed into silence over their past relationship (which is against Project rules), and is almost raped by the super-confident Mason. Though she does fight him off, clinging to her love for Harkman as a means of strength, she cannot prevent him going into Wessex with his own ideas, one of which he hints is an omission the Project has failed to see from the start.
Whilst Julia is out, though, Harkman finally gets into the archives for the area. He is stunned to discover newspaper reports for 150 years ago about the Wessex Project, reports that include familiar names and photos: himself and Julia. It’s something too large to absorb, but Harkman is forced to confront the seeming fact that neither he, Julia nor Wessex are real.
Harkman’s discovery of this is seen against a background of gathering thunderstorms coming out of Wessex and holding above Maiden Castle. Julia tries to get him to join her, and them, at the Castle, doing their secret work, but Harkman resists, fearful of what it might lead to. He rejects the mirrors that are supposed to lead him out. Julia returns to the Castle, enveloped in the thunderstorm, to attend a meeting to bring Donald Mander into their group, but whilst the meeting is a consensus approval, it is dominated by its Chairman, the Project’s Director, the brilliant Paul Mason, whom everyone worships, and defers to.
Wessex is gone: Mason has destroyed it. The geography remains, but Dorchester is now an oil-town, dirty, noisy, repellent, it’s filthy bay a mass of rigs, flares, steamers, ships of all industrial kinds, 24/7 noise. And Mason has ‘discovered’ a working Ridpath Projector from 150 years ago and plans to Project everyone into another future, one that this time replicates 1987.
Julia, out of her extreme fear, resists, even though in this new Wessex, she now ‘lives’ and sleeps with Mason, and has done throughout (his rape of Wessex is complete). Harkman’s revelations from the Archives are helping memories to break through from her undermind, and Harkman is intent on defending her.
But as the story rushes to its climax, things break down. Having finally got the absolute power he’s always craved, Mason breaks down into madness. Everyone’s been sent into his Project, instructed to wake up with no memories of their life in Wessex, but Julia’s not supposed to go, she’s supposed to stay with him, alone here in Wessex.
As Harkman fights Mason, Julia gets into her cabinet and emerges back in 1987. It’s complete chaos: everyone’s woken up and left, except Harkman and Mason. Everyone has lost their memory, there is mental and physical damage, only Julia knows what has happened. The Trustees are going to close the Project down immediately, even though it will kill Harkman and Mason. Julia breaks free, jumps back into her cabinet and returns to Wessex, where Harkman and Mason are in cabinets. She frees Harkman.
But where are they? Levels of reality have begun to multiply. When Julia return to the Project in 1987, did she really return to 1987, or did she enter another Projection, 150 years ahead of Wessex but identical to 1987? And where did she come back to? Because whilst she is stood here, with Harkman, her body is also inside the cabinet.
The only thing that is certain is that the Wessex in which they are together, determined to maintain it as their refuge, their escape, is under their dream control. They sit on the hillside and the perverted, oil industry Dorchester Bay slowly fades out and is replaced by the Wessex we have seen throughout the story, free of Mason.
Yet though this is supposed to be the real Julia, even though she is now inside a Projection inside a Projection inside a Projection, with a seemingly real Harkman who is probably her third level projection, leaving the ‘real’ Harkman within the first level projection, the book ends with a final chapter from the viewpoint of the ‘real’ Harkman, sea-skimming in the Bay in either the first or the recreated Wessex.
He’s still chasing the crest of the tidal bore through Blandford Passage when reality changes. The Passage, the water, his sea-skimmer all vanish, and he finds himself in mid-air over the Dorset countryside. In the real world of 1987, we assume that the original and only real Ridpath Projector has been switched off, with Harkman’s unrecovered body still inside. Reality overwrites the dream as Harkman, we are led to assume, dies.
Yet by an effort of will, Harkman reconstructs Wessex, completes his ride of the bore, and returns to Dorchester. He meets Julia, passes the Maiden Castle stall, where a pretty girl is serving, refuses to look in a round mirror and, in an echo of an incident much earlier, when the Wessex Julia destroys the mirror of the conductor who tries to intercept the newly-arrived Harkman, hears a woman’s voice raised in anger, and the sound of glass breaking.
I confess to not fully understanding the final passages. From here on, all Priest’s novel length fiction will concern itself with unreality, offering differing, alternate realities, none more so than The Adjacent, in which the reader must decide – or choose? – for themselves which, if any, is the primary reality.
Wessex at first lays things out neatly and simply. 1987 is the reality and Wessex a fiction, and a mutable fiction, given that Paul Mason’s force of will is enough on its own to mutate Wessex beyond recognition. But the end piles Projection upon Projection, whilst following the consistent thread of Julia’s consciousness, only then at the last to abandon her, showing her only as the ‘cypher’ Julia who exists for David Harkman whilst the ‘real’ Julia is out of the Project.
Now Priest is not in the business of laying everything out neatly and tidily, with labels on for the hard-of-thinking, so I neither expect nor want to be told who and where everyone is. But at this relatively early stage, I don’t think he controls his ending as well as he wishes. Whilst going for pace, he ends up being too abrupt, and instead of challenging the reader with his vision of multiplying realities at the end, I think he obscures the point.
I’m especially not happy with the sudden collapse of Paul Mason. Throughout the book, he’s presented as a considerable force, determined, intelligent, formidable, unheeding of others’ wishes and determined to bend everything to his personal advantage (on a symbolic level, Paul is Thatcherism, which when Wessex was published was still two years away from taking hold).
His domination even continues into Wessex2, where he’s seen as brilliant, creative, charming, effective, but also thoughtful and self-effacing. And then, offstage, he cracks completely, and unconvincingly. There’s no preparation, no foregrounding: Mason goes from sanity to madness in one bound, cracked and ineffectual, and get written off as always having been “unstable and neurotically inadequate” by a suddenly authoritative Julia.
It jars, frankly, it’s too glib and dismissive, and its blatancy, coupled with the panic surroundings in which this exchange takes place, obscures what may be happening. We haven’t yet caught up to the fact that Julia may not have, in fact probably hasn’t returned to 1987 but is in a deeper level Projection, in which hers is the dominant mind, making Mason suddenly dismissable.
We’re being sucked further in, and we don’t realise it.
Where does the application of logic take us, if we dissect the end of this book? At ‘ground’ level, we have 1987, where a group of scientists have entered into a shared reality projection. There are doubts about the value, and validity, of the project and Paul Mason has been sent down to shake things up, generate results. Mason has entered the Project. Beyond this, we do not know the outcome, but we assume that at some point, for reasons unknown, the Project is switched off.
Inside the projection (level 1), Mason has altered the basis of the consensus reality, in which two participants have questioned the ‘reality’ of their world. Mason has created a shared reality projection into which all the participants at this level have entered, except himself and David Harkman. Mason appears to have gone mad. We lost contact with level 1 when Julia enters the projection. What occurs afterwards on level 1 is unknown.
Inside the new projection, level 2, the consensus reality is actually supposed to be ground level, i.e. the projection from level 1 is supposedly ‘up’ to ground level. The shared reality projection has ended in disaster, with amnesia for all participants, together with mental and physical damage, leading almost directly to closure of the supposedly level 1 projection. Julia Stretton escapes by, ostensibly projecting herself back into level 1.
But this level is not ground level but level 2. Julia returns to the machines from which the participants have arrived from level 1, assuming she will return to level 1. Instead, she enters yet another shared reality projection, level 3. This is ostensibly identical to level 1. It is not level 1 for, if Julia had returned there, she would have emerged in her cabinet. Instead, she arrives in Maiden Castle and goes to the cabinet, where she extracts David Harkman, but where her own body is in the cabinet, and remains there. The David Harkman she extracts is her level 3 projection of him. She then imposes the initial level 1 consensus onto her level 3 projection, and lives happily ever after.
Then Priest produces a coda-like chapter, set in a scene not visibly different from level 3, which exists to imply that at ground level the projection has been switched off, but that Harkman now has the internal ability to generate the projection alone. His projection is identical to the original level 1 and the altered level 2, but logically it is neither (the switching off at ground level will terminate all projections at every level). We are led to think that this is the ‘real, i.e., level 1, Harkman, but the truth is that we have no way of knowing.
Looked at analytically, we have five different endings to Wessex, packed into a linear conclusion, in which the ground, first and second levels are actually left incomplete, and whilst the ‘heroine’ and ‘hero’ are ostensibly together, they are actually existing, in one form or another, in different recursions.
Absolutely none of which is apparent from the book.
On the one level, this is genius (although utterly depressing) writing, but on the other the ending betrays none of this. I think that if Priest had come to this story at a later stage in his career, we would see a lot more focus on separating these levels and a stronger, more determined book.
But Priest could not have come to the works that would sharpen and clarify his abiding interest in unreality without writing A Dream of Wessex as we have it now. And, as I saw, for the dream of Wessex itself, the idea of a practical idyll, I return to this book time and again with great enjoyment.


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