Christopher Priest’s next novel, The Extremes, was published in 1998, a decade after the event that inspired it, the massacre at Hungerford, in Berkshire, when Michael Ryan shot and killed sixteen people using an extensive, and legal gun collection, before killing himself.
The incident led directly to changes in the gun laws in the UK, massively restricting the right to private ownership.
By a curious coincidence, Priest himself was in Hungerford that day, though not at the time of the shooting nor in its area. However, if a novelist, who is driven by the creative part of his consciousness gets so close to such a matter, its realisation for him in fiction is almost inevitable.
The Extremes is a very powerful book, filtering the experience, and more pertinently the aftermath of such a life-distorting event through other, equally pertinent contemporary concerns, such as video games and virtual reality, which are combined to provide an unexpected angle upon something so pregnant with violence.
Naturally, Priest does not begin by telling us what the story is about. And at first he teases his way into the story via a number of viewpoints, principally that of Theresa Simons, the central character, but also, to begin with, the perspectives of Amy Colwyn and Nick Surtees, an uncertain couple with a personal history and a shared bond in the tragedy that precedes the opening of the book.
We are also teased with a single chapter from the viewpoint of Dave Hartland, a minor character who rises momentarily to the surface of the narrative, on a couple of occasions, most notably near the end as Amy and Nick abruptly walk out of their roles in the story, but whose usefulness begins and ends in his sole viewpoint chapter.
Amy and Nick run a relatively modern but decaying hotel in Bulverton, a South Coast resort town whose past is much brighter than its present, and which is sliding irrevocably downhill, a process accelerated by the massacre that took place on its streets the previous summer, when a cheap, aggressive gun nut called Gerry Groves went on a killing spree, killing, amongst others, Nick’s parents and Amy’s husband.
They were once close, and the shared tragedy, which leaves them both in a suspension, has brought them together again to run the White Horse, which Nick has taken over.
But it is Theresa Simons with whom the book is concerned. She’s introduced (in the present tense) as a seven year old girl, born to an American father and a British mother, living on an American Army Base in England that she rarely and her father never leaves. Theresa has an imaginary friend, a ‘twin’ called Megan, whose reality, or lack of it, is left obscure until Theresa gets her hands on one of her father’s guns, and shoots and ‘kills’ Megan.
But that was almost forty years ago. Theresa has spent most of the rest of her life in America, where she works for the FBI, as does her husband Andy, or rather Theresa does and Andy did for he is dead, shot in an incident the previous year. Theresa, devastated by his loss, has come to England, to Bulverton, on a wild, irrational expedition, to study its massacre, and the effect on those who’ve survived.
Priest conceals for a long time the ‘rationale’ behind Theresa’s investigation: that Andy was killed the same day, at the same time, as Gerry Groves, thousands of miles away, was conducting his massacre at Bulverton.
Save for the coincidence of dates and times, and the bloody outcome of both, there is nothing to link the two. But somewhere in her head, Theresa, who cannot let her husband go any more than Bulverton can return to proper life, every moment of its existence, of its survivors lives distorted by the undoability of what happened, Theresa is seeking some connection, some kind of explanation.
And the explanation, or rather the gap in which the explanation fits, is discovered at a relatively early stage as Theresa, having very professionally – perhaps more professionally than the British police – mapped out a timeline, discovers an unexplained gap in Groves’ day.
Whilst we wait to learn its significance, Priest explores the other theme of the book, and its overt concession to SF, namely ExEx.
ExtremeExperience, to give it its full name, is a new form of entertainment, combining video games and virtual reality. A commercially available service, with a fortuitous branch in Bulverton that Theresa regularly accesses, it enables a person to project themselves into, and play a role in an experience, letting them feel the reality from inside and take their own steps to change it.
Naturally, as the full title indicates, the experiences are almost overwhelmingly violent (or pornographic, of course). And the scenario Dave Hartland experiences is supposedly that of Gerry Groves (Amy’s husband was Dave’s brother and Dave is trying to understand what happened, rather than being morbid and gratuitous, though otherwise he is drawn as the latter kind of person). Groves’ sequence is, however, cheap and nasty, a cliched representation rather than a properly researched and accurate job.
Theresa is very familiar with ExEx: in a non-commercial capacity, it has long been part of her FBI training and she is used to being projected into real-life scenarios of death and horror, in which she is expected to work out how to (have) resolve(d) the scenario without it reaching its real-life ending.
Amusingly, amongst the many cases Priest explores is the quasi-legendary Texas Tower shooter, though no scenario for ending that in a positive manner is ever given!
Whilst she builds up her picture of Bulverton (and comes close to becoming a lush out of evening boredom), Theresa joins the local ExEx and experiences its wares. She begins to test their boundaries, literally, trying to drive away from scenarios and see how far she can physically get in the simulation.
Meanwhile, the lack of a responsible, researched Gerry Groves scenario is being put right. Four slick, smooth, utterly alien Americans from the GunHo Corporation (who own ExEx) have moved in to do the real research. They don’t want Theresa about: her own, private enquiries can influence recollections, pollute the purity of the memories they are collecting.
Nick and Amy are beneficiaries: offered unimaginable sums for their memories, they take the money and run, though not before surprising themselves (and us) with the discovery of a genuine wish to be together, and not merely the inertia of the aftermath.
With time becoming limited, and her boundary pushing in simulations beginning to suggest that it is possible to travel between contiguous scenarios, Theresa finally projects herself into Gerry Groves. It is here that reality begins to crumble.
Groves himself is a mess, a stupid, unthinking ball of hatred and self-pity, with no capability for empathy, a violent thug who isn’t even competent with the guns that he obsesses over. But Theresa can interact with him. What’s worse, her training with firearms gets the better of him, and to her horror he actually learns how to fire his weapon, and kill is first two victims, out of her head.
Things begin to spiral. Is Theresa actually influencing Groves’ actions from the present, although they took place eight months earlier? Is she involved? And how? Can she move him away from doing what he has done? Can she save Andy?
And then the gap in Groves’ movements is closed: in the simulation, he goes to ExEx, as he did on the day, enters a simulation inside the simulation. Theresa withdraws from the simulation, unable to bear things, but it is not her simulation she leaves, it is Groves’. In a manner reminiscent of the closing scenes of A Dream of Wessex, we are lost between layers of reality. What is simulation and what is real? Connections, hyperlinks, between Groves and Theresa multiply exponentially until she can finally link to San Antonio, to Andy’s death. His shooter is Groves.
Only this time Andy doesn’t die. Theresa has him back. Love has achieved a reuniting, even if its only within a simulation on some level of reality that we no longer can relate. Theresa draws Andy way, drives off with him into the literal sunset, into the margins of the simulation, away from all death and horror, into the extremes of the Extremes.
As I said, it’s an immensely powerful book, and in its closing sequences, like those of Wessex, it introduces a multiplicity of levels, transitioning so rapidly that it is impossible to conceive where the story ends. Cold logic insists that, in exactly the same manner, there is a reality in which the GunHo corporation have taken over Bulverton and Theresa Simons is, well, what? Alive? Dead? Caught in an ExEx scenario? Still without Andy, that’s all we can say, if we can say anything for sure at all.
In a way, it reminds me of Anthony Minghella’s superb film, Truly, Madly, Deeply, in which Juliet Stevenson’s Nina is so wildly grief-stricken at the loss of her lover Jamie (Alan Rickman), that she brings him back: the film never explains how, or whether Jamie returns for real or in her mind, and is all the stronger for it. Priest, in contrast, chooses to end his story on the impossible, the reuniting of lovers, the overturning of death, an emotion that few among us cannot recognise and, inside us, long for. Where and how, and even if it happens are immaterial beyond the affirmation that love can mean that much that it transcends.
The Extremes is not merely powerful but seductive. Priest brilliantly anatomises the varying types of grief and despair that hold everyone, and looks unflinchingly at our urge to immerse ourselves in violence. ExEx is a fantasy entertainment, but a frightening one, revealing how deep into violence and death we want to go without ever sullying ourselves with its reality: life with a reset button.
It’s not too hard to see the parallels with Nick and Amy. As the only other characters with any substantial autonomy in the story, they, like Theresa, are rewarded with a happy ending: love returns in the face of all the indications that it never existed, and they abruptly vanish, to somewhere not even the author knows.
The superficial implication is that they’ll survive, be happy, and thus we are meant to believe that Theresa will also be happy, even as she rushes out of the story too fast for us to even start asking questions. But Teresa is no longer real, and will Nick and Amy’s happiness be any more solid?
A good novel leaves you wanting to ask questions about its characters and their afterwards. A good author never answers them. Christopher Priest is a good author, who writes good novels.