Pursuing Christopher Priest: An Infinite Summer


Properly speaking, An Infinite Summer should not be in this brief follow-up series of blogs. It’s a short story, albeit the title story in a short-story collection, and it isn’t even the longest story, that honour going to ‘Palely Loitering’, which I’ll also be looking at below.
But ‘An Infinite Summer’ is intimately bound up with Christopher Priest’s career, and despite its brevity, it deserves to be considered on its own merits. And in case anyone thinks I’m short-changing the other three stories in this collection, these are all early ‘Dream Archipelago’, from the time when the Archipelao was in its most inchoate state, when Priest saw it as having no collective geography whatsoever. These stories were collected in The Dream Archipelago compilation.
‘An Infinite Summer’ was written halfway through the composition of The Space Machine. Priest was approached by an importunate Harlan Ellison to contribute to The Last Dangerous Visions. After coming under some pressure, Priest set The Space Machine aside. He had researched Richmond prior to starting the novel, although in the end had avoided using the material, but now he found it invaluable to capture a mood that did not fit into his book, the sense of places being affected less by time than people.
Priest submitted ‘An Infinite Summer’ but, concerned at publication delays and growing suspicious of Ellison’s stories of ‘progress’, became the first author to successfully demand the return of his story, which he promptly sold elsewhere!
The story centres upon Thomas James Lloyd. We first meet him on a bridge over the Thames, in Richmond, in August 1940. He is a strangely young-looking sixty and prefers to wear dark glasses at all times. Through these, he can see freezers.
I am not talking about kitchen or industrial appliances, but rather of humans. Who or what these freezers are, and why their name applies, is of course not revealed initially, nor is it immediately apparent that these freezers, who seem to be interacting with the August crowd, are in fact invisible and inaudible to everyone but Thomas.
The answer lies in Thomas as a young man, aged twenty-one, fresh from Cambridge: intelligent, ambitious and in love, in June 1903. The story moves backwards and forwards between the two Thomases until we understand what has happened to both.
In 1903, Thomas is expected to become betrothed to Charlotte Carrington, but is instead in love with her young sister, Sarah. With the assistance of his cousin, Waring, who is accompanying him in taking the Misses Carrington for a walk in Richmond Park, Thomas contrives to speak to Sarah alone. It appears that his love is reciprocated and indeed Sarah accepts his proposal of marriage.
But by this point, we know what freezers are. They are humans, from an unknown future who, for reasons that are inexplicable, are seeking out scenarios, or tableaux as Thomas terms them. Perhaps it is a form of art, but whenever a freezer locates a suitable tableau, they will freeze it, using some device that does not yet exist. And as Thomas in 1903 reaches out his hand to clasp that of Sarah, we know what is to happen, that they are to be frozen.
What happens to things that are frozen? Time ceases to be for the participants. Moreover, they are removed from the timeline: only freezers, and those who are freed when a tableau erodes. Thomas alone emerged from his tableau in 1935, to learn that in 1903 he and Sarah simply disappeared. They were treated as having absconded, they were disinherited, their families’ lives were changed in an instant, disastrously.
Thomas has remained in Richmond ever since, close to Sarah, hoping that one day she too will return to life.
Now, this day, during War, a German plane flies overhead. It is shot down, the plane crashing in Richmond Park, close to Sarah’s frozen body. The Pilot bales out but, a few feet from landing in the Thames, disappears completely: frozen. But the tableau erodes within minutes, the shortest Thomas has ever seen. Proximity to the freezing gun determines the strength and length of the tableau. Thomas hurries to the Park, followed by a growing number of freezers. The plane has crashed close to Sarah. Already the grass is alight. Sarah is safe from this, but at last the tableau is eroding for her. Her skirt catches fire. Thomas forces his way through to her, takes her in his arms at so long last, but as she sees him again they are once again frozen, a new tableau. For this young Edwardian pair, denied their future, the summer is indeed infinite.
Though short and, when completed, a little slight, ‘An Infinite Summer’ rests on the mood of infinite time Priest successfully creates, the sense of stability that endures, both long before and long after the ‘present’ of the story. It’s a disturbing, unsettling, yet strangely serene tale, the sense of the Edwardian summer, that last arcadian time in British life as it is so often presented, pervades. Thomas and Sarah have all time, yet they have no time, their immortality not a blessing but a ruination of everything they had hoped to be to one another.
‘Palely Loitering’ is another matter entirely though it too concerns itself with Time Travel. Unlike the other three stories in the collection, it is not identified as a Dream Archipelago story, though the names at its heart, and the science that is at its centre are strangely non-English in a way that had me, at least, borrowing the later Archipelago’s blanket to cover it.
The story centres upon Mykle, who we first meet as the son of a seemingly Victorian family, son of a distant and stern father who holds a great post. Mykle has two sisters, Salleen (who is elder) and Therese (whose age is not specified but who is suggested as being very close to that of Mykle, perhaps a year younger). Mykle is ten at the story’s beginning, and its primary setting is Flux Channel Park.
But the story takes place in a distant future, of great scientific advance, an era of starflight, albeit one in which humanity has lost the urge to go to the stars. The Victorian atmosphere is an affectation, a fashion period, a reversion.
Flux Channel Park takes its name from a channel of Flux, a kind of silvery, almost gel-like fluid, that distorts both space and time. It had been used to launch a starship, seventy years ago, at speeds that had it escaping the Solar System in seconds. Where the starship has gone, and when or if it will return is unknown: the Flux Channel has become a public entertainment. Two bridges cross it at slight angles. One is the Yesterday Bridge, the other the Tomorrow Bridge. On the other side of each Bridge, the time is twenty-four hours different, forwards or back.
It is an annual treat for Mykle and his sisters to cross one of the Bridges each summer. But in the year the story starts, when he is ten, he daringly jumps from the Bridge, at an angle, crossing the flux-field and projecting himself into a much more distant future.
Beyond the bridge, he meets an older version of himself, a version in love with a girl who sits on a park bench, waiting for someone to appear out of the covered end of the bridge. Her name is  Estyll (you can see why I keep  thinking this is set in the Dream Archipelago).
Mykle will come and go across the bridge, across his leap into futurity, several times throughout the story which, like ‘An Infinite Summer’ is a love story. Mykle repeats over and over, encountering himself at different ages. On the right side of the Bridge, he grows up, succeeds his father in a very responsible job, marries and has children. For years, he forgets Estyll, who continues to watch.
But everything changes again when the return of the starship is announced. It will land in the flux, and so the Park will be closed, and access to the Bridges and that curiously time-indeterminate land beyond them, will cease. Mykle realises that thirty-two years have passed since he inadvertently jumped thirty-two years into the future, that that time – and Estyll – is now here, but cannot last long.
On the last possible day, he returns to the Park, crosses the Bridge again. Crosses and recrosses, into Past, Present and Future, dozens of his self gathering, watching. A meeting with Estyll must come at last, but it must come for the right version of Mykle and it must be arranged within the flux-field if it is to ever happen as it should.
As so often is the case with Christopher Priest, the story ends in a way that is final and which yet doesn’t deliver a resolution, leaving the reader to decide for him or herself what effect this has all had in reality, or even in which reality it exists. A Dream of Wessex had been written by this point. The Affirmation would follow. Christopher Priest’s career as the writer we understand him to be was opening before him. ‘An Infinite Summer’ and ‘Palely Loitering’, with their shared sense of formal times, their combined atmospheres of indeterminacy, of summer and of dreams, were essential staging posts.

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