Pursuing Christopher Priest – The Book on the Edge of Forever


I omitted this work by Christopher Priest from my series last year, partly because it’s a polemical pamphlet as opposed to a novel, but mainly because I had misplaced it. It’s now come to light and, after reading it, I wanted to express a few thoughts about both the book and its subject.
The Book on the Edge of Forever was published in 1994 by Fantagraphics Books, known primarily as comics publishers in America. Though it’s entirely in prose, it was published in a square-bound comic book size, complete with a cover drawn by Drew Friedman, an artist known for intensely detailed, pointillistic art, depicting well-known personalities in a warts’n’all realist manner. In this form, it was an up-dating and expansion of Priest’s original essay, published in 1987 as The Last Deadloss Vision.
It’s a factual story about a book, a book that has never been published and a book that, despite being promised as recently as 2007, is about as likely to ever actually be published as I am to be invited to lead out Manchester United on Cup Final day. Though in a world where Twin Peaks is to return for a wrap-up series, perhaps we shouldn’t be so dogmatic.
The Last Deadloss Vision was a parody of SF’s most famous ‘missing’ book, The Last Dangerous Visions, which was imagined as long ago as 1971 as the third in a trilogy of SF anthologies edited by the noted writer, editor, critic and campaigner Harlan Ellison. The sequence began with the original, influential Dangerous Visions, whose theme was the exhortation to the writers to write powerful, experimental, provocative stories on subjects that the SF field had, to that date, treated as taboo.
Dangerous Visions appeared in 1967, though I did not read it until 1978/9. It was as popular and influential as it was intended to be, and Ellison signed on to a sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions: bigger, louder, containing only writers who had not appeared in the first book, which duly appeared in 1971, though it had much less impact. I read it subsequent to the first collection, but found it far less impressive, less focused and certainly less transgressive.
Ellison’s introduction promised a third, final, master volume, The Last Dangerous Visions: even bigger, even bolder, a kind of uber-collection showing definitively what and where SF was. It would again feature only writers who had not previously appeared in either collection and would be a landmark. It would come out in 1972.
When Priest wrote The Last Deadloss Vision, the collection was already fifteen years overdue. By the time the updated essay appeared as The Book on the Edge of Forever (parodying the title of Ellison’s controversial and famous Star Trek episode, City on the Edge of Forever), the collection was twenty-two years overdue. When Ellison last referred to wanting to get the book published, in 2007, the time had stretched to thirty-five years. Eight more have gone by.
Priest’s purpose in writing his essay was, as he openly stated, to produce a polemic. His intention was to produce a coldly factual account, correctly and accurately researched, that would nevertheless condemn Ellison for not just the failure to produce this work, but for the miasma he has constantly raised about the project and it’s state of health, the ever-changing stories and the constant lies told about the book being ready, having gone to the publisher, being scheduled to be published.
And Priest had some personal experience, having been solicited by Ellison in pretty OTT terms to produce one special story to be included. This happened in 1974, after several announcements about the contents being locked-down. Priest, after some badgering, set aside a novel to write and submit a story: after four months he instructed his agent to retrieve it. He may or may not have been the first writer to pull his story, but he was certainly the first to put it into print elsewhere. “An Infinite Summer” went on to become the title story of Priest’s second collection.
The essay is indeed cool and dispassionate, and Priest records that in the seven years since The Last Deadloss Vision, Ellison had never contradicted nor challenged the facts upon which Priest relied, though he had been extremely hostile ever since Priest withdrew his story.
The Book on the Edge of Forever makes two salient points based upon the factual information put forward at various times by Ellison. The first is that, given the physical scope of The Last Dangerous Visions, it is next to impossible to imagine the sheer size – and weight! – of a book that,  in 1994, Ellison estimated was equal in length to thirteen-and-a-half novels. Could it be economically possible to physically produce such a thing?
And the second is that these stories went back over twenty years then, and thirty-five now. What relevance can they have to the body and the present of SF? They weren’t published when they were reflective of the field, or ahead of it. We as readers, the SF world in general terms, have been denied the chance to absorb these stories, to be influenced in our thinking and our writing by what they would have been if they had come out then.
I only have to imagine what it would mean if Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quartet had been contractually bound into something like this: written 1981-4, still unseen. The effect on Wolfe’s career on having this central work suppressed, the books that catapulted him into the front rank never published.
And the size of The Book of the New Sun is only a fraction of the size of The Last Dangerous Visions. Who knows what writing has been lost to sight for three and a half decades? Who knows what will never be written because this body of work was never there to be read, to inspire and spark?
The Book on the Edge of Forever includes another list of writers, filtered from those announced to have contributed stories. Twenty-three writers who, in 1994, had died without seeing their stories in print. Twenty more years have gone by. Even more writers never saw their work in print.
The Book on the Edge of Forever has been out of print for years but can be found, albeit at enthusiastic prices. Even though it’s twenty years out of date, nothing has in essence changed vis-a-vis the non-appearance of The Last Dangerous Visions so the book’s not out-of-date as far as Priest’s examination is concerned, and the story is fascinating, even to non-SF fans.

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