The Affirmation, published in 1981, was Christopher Priest’s breakthrough novel in more than one sense. Artistically, it was the first of his novels to fully realise Priest’s central theme, which I’ve called Unreality, and which I will expand upon in this essay. But it was also his breakthrough out of SF into the mainstream, establishing for him a reputation in literary fiction, as opposed to genre writing.
In the literary world, the book was reviewed and praised as an acute and detailed character study of an individual struggling with mental issues, represented in the book as his ability to slip between reality and fantasy, intertwining and colliding with each other. In that sense, the SF element of the story is treated as solely a mental state, a hallucination without objective reality of any kind. Indeed, it’s easy to read the book in that fashion: like A Dream of Wessex it operates on two interacting levels of reality, one of which is easily characterised as ‘real’.
But The Affirmation does not make the distinction so easy to accept, especially as Peter Sinclair’s fantasy world is not his creation but rather than of Priest himself: the Dream Archipelago had already been the setting for a couple of short stories: it ‘exists’.
Sinclair is the story’s narrator in each of its aspects. Born in Manchester but having spent most of his life in London, Sinclair presents himself as being 29, in a contemporary world, as opposed to one of Priest’s near-future settings. I say presents himself as 29, because in the first few paragraphs, Peter himself casts doubt on his age, foreshadowing the fact that his word cannot be taken at face value.
However, everything proceeds perfectly normally to begin with: Peter is initially reeling from a series of devastating setbacks in a short space of time: the death of his father, being made redundant, breaking up with his girlfriend, losing his flat. He meets his father’s old friend, Edwin Miller, who proposes a solution: Edwin and his wife have recently bought a dilapidated cottage near the Welsh border, and Peter can stay there rent-free, in exchange for doing it up. It’s an ideal solution: getting Peter out of London symbolises getting him out of himself (not the only use of a change in geography symbolising a change in mental state) and Peter approaches it with an initial euphoria that sadly evaporates as soon as Edwin’s wife visits, making it plain that she disapproves, and that Edwin has gotten into trouble over his generosity.
Nevertheless, Peter resumes decorating etc. after this emotional setback, combining this with long sessions of writing: trying to capture his memories, trying to write his life for himself, define himself. As draft follows draft, Peter casts and recast his life in symbolic, or fictional terms that, to him, capture the true reality of himself, his family, his former girlfriend.
But in chapter 4, Peter’s elder sister, Felicity, arrives out of the blue, when he is less than ten pages from finishing his story. Despite his opposition, she forces her way in, bringing with her a baser level of reality. Peter is torn away, not only from the story, but from the false reality he has imposed upon himself: there has been no decorating, no cleaning, no cooking: just decay, neglect and empty whiskey bottles, which have mounted up in horrifying numbers.
Felicity’s reality overwhelms Peter’s, exposing his as a façade: he is taken over as an inadequate, in need of nursing by big sister, who has to clear up after him (as always) and who sweeps him away to her home in Sheffield, where he will learn the values of mundanity: home, marriage, family, mortgage.
It’s at this moment that the book undergoes its first shift. Peter Sinclair leaves Jethra, the capital city of Faianland, heading into the Dream Archipelago. The archipelago, which consists of at least 10,000 named islands occupying the Midway Sea, circling the globe between two continents – one northern, at perpetual war with itself, one southern, barren, empty, the war zone for the northern continents. The Archipelago is neutral: more importantly, it is a psychological landscape, a place of escape, of refreshment and recovery.
This Peter has a background recognisable in symbolic terms of the Peter from London, but in the Dream Archipelago, he has something improbable, something fantastic: he has a winning ticket in the Lotterie-Collago, and what one wins is immortality. Peter is on his way to Collago to undergo the athanasia procedure, after which he will remain 29 forever, free from organic disease and death.
We assume that the Jethran Peter is the subject of the London Peter’s book, and that we are merely reading his own, symbolic construction of his life, but that’s not the case: the Peter of the Archipelago gives us only a cursory summary of his background, no more detailed than that of Peter in London, and mentions in passing that two years earlier he has written his life-story, couched in symbolic terms, in a villa in the north of Faianland. Jethran Peter’s story is current, and it includes his meeting, and subsequent relationship, with Seri. But Seri is London Peter’s fictionalised version of his girlfriend Gracia, who pre-dates Seri.
Jethran Peter, as we might expect, is a more whole, more competent person: the illusory London Peter’s projection of himself. This conventional sense, that this version is the fantasy, is supported by the ease with which he takes up with Seri: it’s actually Seri that takes up with him, throwing herself at him from almost the first moment she sees him.
As they journey, without any urgency, towards Collago, they debate the morality of the athanasia process, the morality of immortality that can only be offered to a very limited number. At the same time, we get the sense of the Dream Archipelago, not as a real, geographical place, but as the psychological landscape Priest intends it to be. The islands are an escape from life, a journey with no intrinsic purpose, endless novelty and avoidance of commitment (Priest intended the use of the Archipelago in The Affirmation as a swan song, but it appears in his work as recently as 2013’s The Adjacent).
What also comes out, slowly but surely, that Jethran Peter is no more idealisation of his original: Peter’s inner-directedness, his secretiveness, his unwillingness to allow anyone else to influence his thoughts, begins to show, more and more, and reaches its ultimate on Collago, when he has reported to the Lotterie.
Two things are quickly learned. First, that whilst the athanasia process preserves the body’s physical integrity, it destroys the memory: participants must complete an exhaustive questionnaire before undergoing the process, in order that they can have their life ‘re-uploaded’ to them afterwards. Second, despite his decision not to go ahead, Peter is suffering from a brain tumour that will shorten his life expectancy to little more than eighteen months.
His moral objections overruled by self-preservation, Peter agrees to the process. However, he refuses to undergo the questionnaire, and insists the Lotterie, and Seri, use his autobiography of two years ago to redefine himself to himself afterwards: it contains ‘the higher truth’ about him.
Astute readers will have already foreseen what follows: at this stage, all we are given is that there is an immediate discrepancy between Peter’s account of himself and his Jethran reality: he is currently 29, and wrote this two years previously. Yet he described himself then as being 29…
Priest then switches back to London Peter, or rather Sheffield Peter as it has been for several months, living as a virtual prisoner of Felicity, amusing her children, being patronised by her and her husband and taking reluctant, ineffectual part on forays to Wales that are slowly putting right the damage he has done to the cottage. On the surface, he is normalising, though not fast enough for the stolidly suburban and superior Felicity.
With Peter seemingly stabilised and socialised, Felicity deems it time to raise the issue of Gracia, his ex-girlfriend. When she does, it is with a bombshell piece of information that Peter has, to date, suppressed, both from his account and himself, the fact that he did not actually break up with Gracia, but ran away, leaving her in the hospital.
Felicity’s objective is to put Peter and Gracia back together, demonstrating the superiority of coupledom (Peter will no doubt go on to get a mortgage, like any normal human being). She organises a day out just after New Year, in Castleton, in the Peak district, at which Gracia appears out of the blue to bump into Peter. This reunion quickly leads into their taking off back to London, to live together once more.
Up to this point, it is easy to categorise the two versions of the story as realistic and fantasy, but when Priest returns to Collago, and the post-process Peter, things start to become uncertain. Peter is being reconstructed through the joint efforts of the ultra-loyal Seri and his Lotterie therapist, but even in his state of innocence, he’s quickly aware that they’re slow and hesitant, frequently stopping to consult: already a paranoia is developing over his being entirely dependant upon them to tell him who he is.
The cause, as we have already suspected, is because Jethran Peter’s symbolic autobiography is London Peter’s story, and Seri and the therapist are struggling to translate it back into Archipelagan terms, deleting passages they find too difficult to solve: effectively, they are editing Peter’s life for him, and he deeply resents that.
With the introduction of the mirror image, things cease to be quite so certain about which Peter is the real one, or to be more precise, whether either is ‘real’. The story begins to slide backwards and forwards between Peter/Gracie and Peter/Seri. The relationships in both halves begin to fracture. Both Peters are obsessed with their symbolic visions of each other. London Peter finds Seri intruding into London, sometimes as a narrative voice in his mind, sometimes as a real character to whom he speaks aloud, someone who answers him with speech in quotation marks. But Seri is unreal to others.
In London, Gracia attempts suicide again. On Collago, Seri asserts herself as someone with thoughts, needs and desires of her own. London Peter searches for the Archipelago, Jethran Peter flees Collago, ostensibly returning to Jethra but in fact searching for London. The story ends in the same moment of incompletion that is a running theme throughout the story, in all of its rescensions. Only the reader remains, to decide of what he or she has just read.
For the mainstream reader, the decision is easy enough: the Dream Archipelago is a fantasy, an escape from reality for a sick, unwell mind, a man sinking into madness, and if we look at how the two halves of the story, much of the evidence supports that comforting perspective. They neither know nor care that the Dream Archipelago is ‘real’, the setting for stories that exist independently, of Peter Sinclair.
The SF fan thinks differently. The presentation of a radically different world, an alternate reality, is not automatically a fantasy: all realities are ‘real’ unless proven otherwise, and Priest, especially after Jethran Peter is replaced by a construct of himself, is adept at opening little doors, doors that cast light or shadow that suggest things are not as clear cut as the mainstream reader would assume.
For me, the brilliance of the book lies in the balance between the two realities, the fundamental impossibility of determining which is the man, and which the butterfly. Though the version of the Dream Archipelago we see here is but a sketch, an impression, it is a fascinating landscape, and its offer of an ever-changing world, of islands representing shades of being, that one can travel between indefinitely, is appealing
The Affirmation sees Christopher Priest come into his full power. Each of his works, from this point forward, will deal with levels of reality that define what is, or is not, unreal, and the acceptance, in one form or another, of states that do not reflect the world we believe ourselves to live in.