Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Dream Archipelago


The Dream Archipelago differs from the rest of Priest’s work that we are discussing here in being a short story collection, each of the tales taking place in and around The Dream Archipelago and the psychological landscape Priest created in the 1970s, and used so brilliantly in 1981’s The Affirmation. Indeed, one of the first stories in this collection is titled ‘The Negation’, and references internally both a short story of that name, and also an epic length novel called The Affirmation, though it bears no resemblance to Priest’s own book.
Most of these stories originate in the late Seventies, though each has been re-copyrighted 2009, and we must assume that they have been revised, or at least polished, by the author before this latest, expanded version of the collection was published. I used to own an earlier version of this book, but the current compilation includes two even later stories.
Because the stories originate in the Seventies, the majority are not really about the archipelago itself, or its people. They centre upon people of Faianland, and their war with their northern continental neighbours. The Archipelago is a neutral zone, not merely in fact but in political determination, and access from the north is strictly limited and controlled, placing the islands beyond the easy reach of Priest’s protagonists.
And removal to the islands is all but permanent.
This version of the collection opens with the shortest, newest and least typical story, ‘The Equatorial Moment’,which is more a geographical account than a story, describing a newish feature of the Archipelago, a time vortex which flows along the equator, enabling rapid air travel to distant parts of the islands and the unpopulated southern continent, where  the actual fighting has long since moved.
Priest’s other new story, is almost as short, but is a world apart: ‘The Trace of Him’ is told from the point of view of a woman who, briefly, was the lover of an older, famous man, who she has not seen in years, but is invited to his funeral, amongst a family that treats her outwardly with the utmost respect but inwardly feels very different: she on the other hand feels only her memories of him, which may be enough to resurrect him for a few moments.
‘The Negation’ is unusual in taking place wholly in the war, on the southern continent, as its protagonist begins to doubt his side’s cause under the influence of the writer who pens for him and him alone the story that gives its name to this story: Dik never gets to read it but it fuels a desire to surrender to the enemy that is only foiled when a mirror image of himself surrenders to Faianland. This is the only story to touch upon Priest’s usual theme of Unreality.
Both ‘Whores’ and ‘The Discharge’ (which was written for the 1999 first English language publication of the collection) feature escapees from the war. One is an invalid, subject to attacks brought on by exposure to synaesthetic gas (Priest is entertainingly inventive with his advanced weaponry), the other a deserter. ‘Whores’s protagonist is the only character to come from the un-named opposite side.
The other three stories all centre upon people who originally come from the north, mainly from its capital, Jethra, but who, for reasons of their own, have come to the Archipelago. Lenden Cros in ‘The Miraculous Cairn’ is travelling on a permit, to dispose of a relative’s belongings on Seevl, the nearest island to Jethra, the gateway that hides sight of any other island from the city: there is a beautifully disguised twist to this story, midway, but the difference is that Lenden can and does return, whilst in their different ways, neither Graian Sheeld in ‘The Cremation’, nor Yvann Ordier in ‘The Watched’ can return to Faianland.
In their differing ways, each of these stories unsettles. I see no point in examining them in greater detail, nor in doing more that suggesting their themes. Short stories, even at the length of some of these, are by definition short: their focus is more finely concentrated, their range of characters much reduced, their ambit defined.
Priest still creates a great deal of space in these stories in which the reader has to supply his or her own explanations, but the overall effect is of a mosaic that does not even begin to create a picture. What we understand most about this collection is that the Dream Archipelago is indefinite, potentially infinite. The Archipelago has no history: the northern countries have only a shared one, of a war tat has lasted for 3,000 years and will last far more than 3,000 more, locking the Archipelago into a neutral space, bounded on both sides by the war of which it is not part, yet which locks it into a place that is at once nebulous and fixed in both space and eternity.
The Archipelago is fragmentary, physically and psychologically. Anything can happen and so nothing happens. It has no significance, and it is a place of escape. These stories address these complex contradictions directly, in the surface, but it is in the depths that the tales have their effect.
Priest’s next work would also concentrate upon the Dream Archipelago, this time in its own right and state. It would be both fiction and fictional fact, familiarising the islands more than they had been before, yet at the same time removing them further from our own mindscape. It would apply Unreality to the unreal.

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