Pursuing Christopher Priest: Indoctrinaire


A couple of years ago, I did a series on Christopher Priest’s work. I confessed at the time to not being familiar with his earlier works nor, from what I’d read, being particularly attracted to them. I subsequently decided that was an unfair attitude and I’ve acquired the missing books and will be completing the series by looking at these.
Priest made his debut as a novelist in 1970 with Indoctrinaire, a cool, precise and oddly interesting book, ostensibly dealing with time travel. At this stage of his career, Priest, who had only been a full-time writer for two years, was defined strictly as an SF writer, without any literary pretensions, though the seeds of his future development are evidently in place.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed it on first reading, intrigued about the several mysteries created, the seemingly purposeless behaviour of the central characters and the situation, amused by the fact that the book’ three parts are each given sub-titles beginning with a “The” (the final one, The Concentration, would even now make a superb Priest title).
Yet on a second reading, I found myself largely bored, seeing much of the book as an unnecessary diversion, included because the situation of the story was not, in itself, sufficient to create a story. It’s a typical SF novel of the late-Sixties/early-Seventies in that it eschews plot for detachment, and removes action almost entirely in playing out the story. There’s no real human emotion here: the book’s protagonist, Dr Elias Wentik (who is British, despite the awkward, implausible surname) does not display any emotions until far too far into the story for us to believe in them.
The operative word here is Kafka, or at least Kafka-esque. Now I’ve never actually read any Franz Kafka, an admission that should see me excluded from intellectual society, but I understand what is meant by the term and have read enough Kafka-esque fiction to have lost all desire to put right that omission. Let me set the scene.
Dr Wentik is the senior of two non-American scientists developing a project in a vast Underground laboratory called the Concentration. The massive complex, for no apparent reason, is underground in Antarctica. The cost, in monetary and human terms, in constructing such a site in the most inhospitable conditions on Earth, must have been incredibly prohibitive, yet this has been achieved by 1989, less than twenty years after the book’s appearance.
Wentik is developing a kind of drug to be used in social conditioning, which can achieve Pavlovian effects in three days, instead of months. It is effective on rats, apart from killing them in six days, but there are no other creatures on whom to experiment, except humans. Wentik’s Nigerian assistant, N’Doko wants to test the substance himself, but Wentik forbids it, despite the fact he has already been experimenting on himself, in minute doses, without apparent detrimental effect.
This set-up is abruptly dissolved by the arrival of two men, Astourde and Musgrove, with orders to remove Wentik from the Concentration and commandeer his services. Here is where the Kafka-esque majority of the story begins.
Wentik is taken to Brazil, and then into the interior of the country, to the Planalto region of the Mato Grosso. No-one explains, Astourde and Musgrove both talk in cryptic terms when they talk at all, and Wentik goes along with it, without demur, with curiosity deferred until later. The Planalto region turns out to be a vast, circular, flat region where the jungle has been eradicated completely. It’s also two hundred years into the future and impossible to return from.
There, Wentik finds himself both a virtual and an actual prisoner. Astourde and Musgrove continue to act irrationally and haphazardly, and Wentik continues to not be particularly bothered by it. He’s periodically interrogated, to no end: Priest keeps telling us that the questions are pointless and meaningless, but never shows us any of the questions except, “Give me your name,” and “Admit to your crime.”
There’s a square black jail consisting of multiple cells and torture by light and sound. There’s a dilapidated shack containing a labyrinth constructed as a mathematical puzzle. The soldiers who have escorted the party seem to be ineffectual, unmotivated and uncaring in their allegiance. A hand grows out of a table-top, a four foot long ear grows out of a wall. None of this makes sense, nor is it meant to.
Ultimately, after Astourde immolates himself during one of his periods of being even more irrational than usual, Wentik takes charge. Musgrove has vanished and the soldiers follow his orders. He takes the helicopter on an attempt to escape to the nearest Brazilian town, never having entirely believed that he’s in the future. Once out of the Planalto circle, the helicopter is intercepted by a futuristic aircraft that forces it to return all the way to the jail. Out steps Musgrove who promptly gasses Wentik. He wakes up, strait-jacketed, on the aircraft, flying out of the Planalto. Musgrove is similarly imprisoned.
They land in Sao Paolo, where the crew leave the craft, abandoning the strait-jacketed pair. An ambulance crew greets Wentik, treat him in a friendly manner, drive him through the city and deliver him to a hospital, where he’s promptly locked in, for rehabilitation, under Musgrove’s name. We may be out of the jungle but we’re not out of Kafka, not yet.
Rehabilitation involves decent meals, cheap fiction and orientation films that sound like silent travelogues of the kind you still got in the cinema, from time to time, in 1970. Rehabilitation also involves, whether as part of the service or as an unmotivated personal extra, shagging the young and pretty nurse, though this brings on an unforeshadowed Catholic guilt in Wentik, over betraying his wife, even though she has been dead for exactly two hundred years.
But Wentik now believes he has been displaced in time. An outline history is given by a pamphlet book, summarising Brazil’s history from its foundation. Where things finally start to get serious is in the section from 1989 onwards, which is an account of a nuclear war, arising from a Cuban invasion of Florida, and American H-bomb retaliation.
As a consequence, America, Western Europe and Russia have all been bombed into extinction, and the entire globe has been devastated, except – again for no argued reason – South America. But the reconstruction of the globe has been long-delayed, in two hundred years has pretty much only caught up to where Wentik was in 1989, with certain exceptions. Largely, this is something to do with the Disturbance Gas, a chemical weapon with unusual properties, that causes mental reconditioning, paranoia, irrationality, exaggeration of complexes etc. In short,what caused everybody to go through that long Kafka-esque performance up on the Planalto.
We are finally nearing an actual story now, even though Wentik continues to behave with a near total detachment from everything. Jexon, the man behind this, a scientist who is engaged in trying to shape a new social model, has had Wentik brought forward in time because the Disturbance Gas is based on Wentik’s work, and they want his help in destroying it. Wentik both recognises the undeniable connection and denies it, since he was taken from the past before completing his work. However, long after the reader has made the connection, Wentik remembers N’Doko, who must have carried on the work.
Wentik therefore has to be sent back into the past, to travel from Brazil to Antarctica, during a steadily-increasing, world-involving war, to retrieve N’Doko from the Concentration. Having got there, he finds the place abandoned, empty, and anyway he’s worked out that it could never have worked because time can’t be changed.
In a somewhat credibility-crunching twist, Jexon in 2189 has worked out the same thing, and has come back to 1989, carrying 2189 around himself in a way that makes a mockery of Wentik’s struggle to get to Antarctica, to rescue Wentik to live on in 2189. But Wentik insists on going back via England, intent on assuaging his overpowering guilt as fucking the nurse, by saving his wife and children too. But it’s too late: London’s been evacuated, his family is somewhere in Hertfordshire and he’s on Salisbury Plain, and besides, the first bomb to drop on Britain is due that very day.
In an ending that might have been poignant in another book, Wentik sits down half a mile away from the ship that can carry him to 2189 and safety, until Jexon, after taking one final look around, returns to the future without him.
As I said, I was caught up in and enjoyed Indoctrinaire when I first read it, and it’s extremely disappointing for it to fall apart, like wet tissue-paper, at only a second reading. The book is, as I said, very much of its time, in the immediate wake of the New Wave of SF. It is deliberately cool and detached, which is its first problem. Elias Wentik – and where does such a name as that come from? – displays far too little concern about what is being done to him, succumbs to movements that figuratively and literally remove him from the world without curiosity or resistance.
Although he is seemingly immune to what is later revealed to be the Disturbance Gas, Wentik’s behaviour at Planalto is no less eccentric than that of anybody else. Wentik never becomes real, never displays a personality. His displays of guilt over betraying his long-dead wife are based in a religious belief that comes out of the blue and which fails to convince for a moment. After all, before the story begins he has left her for six months to carry out his project, and even when racked with guilt for boffing the flesh equivalent of a blow-up doll (one of only two female characters in the entire book: the other at least has some elements of a personality), he can’t actually summon up any feelings of love – present or past – for the wife he’s betrayed.
Wentik is a plastic figure, able to be what the story needs him to be at any time. He is unaffected by his tortures, mentally distanced and superior. He effortlessly understands that his project is responsible for the Disturbance Gas, achieving in ten seconds a process it took the world decades to see (probably the single least credible piece of writing in the book). And he is able to detect fanaticism and no doubt fascistic intent in the creation of a plausibly de-centralised, liberal and fluid society: perhaps that’s the explanation for the otherwise inexplicable title, Indoctrinaire.
I’ve said Kafka-esque a number of times already, and I’ve admitted to having read neither The Trial nor The Castle, but my understanding of Kafka’s work is that it anatomises the experience of complete helplessness, of oppression at the hands of forces greater than oneself, acting from motives that remain concealed, that are carried out implacably without explanation or logic.
But Indoctrinaire has a story, has an explanation, and one that, within an SF novel, is both clear, practical and entirely logical, notwithstanding that Priest chooses to undermine it just before the end of the book. Unfortunately, this has the undesired work of rendering all the mystery, the oppression and irrationality of nearly three-quarters of the story, a mere prelude, and for that matter one that immediately becomes both overlong and, frankly, somewhat suspect in its purpose.
The weight given to it shows clearly where Priest’s interests lay in writing the book, yet it is ultimately pointless in terms of the story he brings in to provide the book with somewhere to end. Beyond the fact that the scenario has been created by the effects of the Disturbance Gas that Wentik is supposedly there to counter, the whole sequence ends up having curiously little effect on the ‘plot’, which is diminished by being little more than a stapled-on device to artificially produce an ending.
Then again, that was typical of the times for SF writing, a swinging of the pendulum against Space Opera,against plot and event for its own sake.
And this was the first novel by a young writer, who has since gotten immeasurably better. That the Christopher Priest I know, and whose next book I already await with eagerness, is also responsible for this stumbling story does Indoctrinaire no favours whatsoever. It’s the equivalent of Doctor Roger Bannister achieving a six minute plus time, with falls, in his first mile race. We know what’s to come and harshly apply retroactive standards.
There was a lot of development needed. Fugue for a Darkening Island in its original form would follow this, but we’ve already been there. Priest’s third novel would begin with one of the most famous opening lines in SF.

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