Film 2020: Red Shift

Alan Garner’s own adaptation of his 1973 novel as a 1977 BBC Play for Today is the one remaining ‘film’ left in this series that gives me real pause for doubt. The book has been my favourite among Garner’s works since I first read it, not long after publication, and it remains one of my favourite books of all time. That I was unable to watch the film on its original, and only, broadcast due to an interview far away from which I could not get back in time was devastating.

Since first acquiring a DVD copy, initially by purchasing a private copy obviously videoed, this is only the third time I have watched Red Shift. Partly, this is because, oddly enough, the film is too faithful to the book. By that I don’t mean that it tries to capture in film what can only successfully be rendered in words – where such sscenes exist in the book, Garner sensibly doesn’t even try to include these. But the book is ninety per cent dialogue (it’s a wholly stripped down book in all respects) and to hear this spoken verbatim, with faces and bodies and settings wrapped around it, produces a strange and not entirely welcome effect.

It’s as if the film has no real life of its own because it’s shackled to the earlier, and very complete, work.

Red Shift tells a complex story that is not anchored to a single time-frame. It’s dominated by the contemporary love story of Tom and Jan (Stephen Petcher and Lesley Dunlop), but intercuts with two other moments in time: the remnants of the lost Roman Ninth Legion attampt to survive among Cheshire tribes and during the Civil War a village is massacred by the King’s Men. Both these parallels centre upon a young couple. There is Macey, the young beserker and the unnamed priestess who his fellows hold captive, pregnant from their rapes (Andrew Byatt and Veronica Quilligan). And there is Thomas Rowley, an epileptic, and his wife Madge (Charles Bolton and Myra Frances) who survive the massacre though Madge too has been raped – and possibly made pregnant – by her former suitor Thomas Venables.

In the book, all three sequences are equals, irrespective of the different lengths given to them, but in the film we are watching Tom and Jan to whom the other pairs are but slightly outre alternatives.

The film is a love story, of sorts, linked in place rather than time, with the stories centring upon Chesire, and upon the folly-topped outcrop of Mow Cop. They are linked by a votive stone axe of incredibly preserved condition that passed from one couple to another. They are linked by almost parallels reverbrating from era to era. But it is Tom and Jan, the modern age couple of the Seventies, who receive most of our attention.

The pair are teenagers of about 18, living in Rudheath, Cheshire. Tom, the son of an Army Sergeant-Major and a possessive mother, is highly intelligent, highly articulate, studying for something that’s never defined, Jan is a bright, attractive girl, dsughter of two psychiatrists, intent on becoming a nurse, which means her moving to London for her training. Though we quickly are introduced to Tom’s latent instability, it takes the film much longer to reveal that both are the product of home environments that have affected them badly.

And it’s on the very evening that Tom learns tjat not only is Jan going to London but her parents are also moving away, have already sold their house, that his parents start asking if the two of them have yet had sex.

It’s not put so bluntly but that’s what it is: have you done anything that would cause us to be ashamed of you? As it happens, the pair haven’t. They are tactile, hand-holding, hugs and kisses, but neither of them, and especially Tom, are yet ready. not that it’s any business of his parents if they have.

But the enormity of the question, prompted by his mother through his more-easily embarrassed father, strikes through the shield of Tom’s words and breaks him. Whilst his poisonous mother (an excellent performance by Sheila Tanner, a familist character actress well-siuited to harridan-like roles) accused Jan of being the unspoken equivalent of a succubus, Tom pushes a window of their caravan home until it shatters, cutting his hands.

This scene is treated as the catalyst of Tom’s link to his equivalents of the other times.

We already understand that Tom is on an edge and his words and attitude and projected self-confidence are things to hide behind. How much Jan understands of that now we can’t tell. For the moment, they establish a routine whereby they can see each other, in Crew, once a month. Their relationship is established instantly every time. Jan tells Tom she loves him several times. We notice that he doesn’t say it back. They find their way to Barthomley Church, scene of the massacre, and to Mow Cop, where Tom finds the axe whose journey to that point we’ll learn later.

To Jan, the axe is of vital importance, a ‘Bunty’. It is a thing of beauty but most importantly it’s a thing of permanence. She, like Tom, is traumatised by her childhood, a life of never being in the same place for long, always moving, never having friends, never having anything of permanence. It is theirs, it symbolises the relationship they have, that is coming nearer it being sexual, though it’s significant that she has to ask Tom if her’s alright about that. Because Tom’s not.

On Mow Cop, Macey the kid hangs around the priestess but never touches her. He is lost in confusion since using the axe to kill, sees Macey and himself as separate, with Macey gone. once the priestess poisons his mates, Macey is free and they can leave together, the axe buried in a riverbank where Tjomas Rowley will find it.

In Barthomley, Thomas has a fit and fires a shot that brings the Army down on the villagers beseiged in the Church. In pursuit of the rebel John Fowler (James Hazeldine), son of the Rector, educated man but still inferior, the men are killed and the women are raped. But Thomas Venables (Michael Elphick) only wounds Thomas Rowley before he takes Madge, sparing him to live and care for her on Mow Cop, with the axe built into the chimney where Tom finds it in its collapsed and derelict state.

These couples escape together, though one woman, probably both, are pregnant by another. Will Tom and Jan repeat the pattern? We already know they won’t.

Tom begs a lift to London to intercept Jan. He sees her arrive in a nice dress, with a well-coiffeured and eveidently prosperous middle-aged man who sees her off in First Class with a kiss. At Crewe she is in her familiar pullover and jeans. Tom pretends not to know anything but treats her in an overbright and callous manner that signals to her instantly that something is wrong. In the keep of the folly on Mow Cop everything spills out. The man was the German wine-grower where Jan au-paired last Easter. She lost, or rather gave, her virginity to him. A lonely child, unable to commit, unable to feel valued, because her parents never gave her time to be anywhere, his warmth, his appreciation, touched her. She didn’t love him, she never revealed her real self to him, but she allowed him to ground her, to learn value in herself, he made her capable of loving Tom as she does. he was passing through London, concerned that she hadn’t answered his letters, was happy for her and Tom, treated her and them.

But the explanation doesn’t take account of Tom’s own traumas, his instability, his unwordly and unrealistic attitude to sex, brought in on him by life in a caravan that rocks and has no sound-proofing. Saturdays and Mess nights, his father begging, his mother who’s directed her possessiveness towards Tom in some inverted Oedipal manner, making his Dad beg. Tom has worn headphones to shut this out since he was eight.

Maybe a psychiatrist could straighten him out but though now Tom wants sex with Jan, it’s all he wants, out to catch up on something he can never catch up to because his own insecurities, instability, will always push his goal further away. Garner wrote book and film as an expression of the myth of Tam Lynn, with Janet required to hold on to Tam Lynn, just hold out throughout all his changes, to save him.

But Tom sold the axe, the Bunty, to a museum in which it’s forever untouchable, to pay for London. Tom’s misunderstood, has failed to understand Jan so thoroughly that, between that and his change from giver to taker, grab, grab, grab and always promising ‘next time’, not even she can hold on. Not really now not any more.

It strikes me that i’ve failed to do the film justice, that I’ve reviewed the book,  not the play. That’s the peril of hewing so closely to the original. Red Shift the film falls short of Red Shift the book, no matter its qualities, because it stands so close it can’t escape the book’s shadow.

The  acting is good throughout, and the cast includes a couple of actors on their way to greater recognition. everything stands and falls on Tom and Jan, and whilst Petcher, in his debut performance,  does what he can with a near impossible role, Dunlop is fantastic, inhabiting Jan with a comprehensive naturalness, making every line the product of a young woman reacting to horrendous circumstances.

There is more to both book and film that I’m able to convey without going into such depth that I might as well just copy out the book. Ultimately, I’m not able to separate the two.

Spies, Sleuths and Sorcerors – An Inadequate Defence

That from whence it came… for me

The BBC are currently in the middle of a short series, written, presented and conceived by Andrew Marr, about genre fiction: espionage, crime and fantasy. It’s a potentially interesting subject, since genre fiction is usually derided critically by all who don’t share an interest in it, and serious attention to books that don’t constitute ‘literature’  is rare.

The series is pretty obviously Marr’s baby, and he’s looking at genres with which he’s clearly familiar, and which he enjoys, not to mention that he’s an intelligent man. But that didn’t stop the episode on Fantasy fiction this week from being a condescending and superficial review that undermined any attempts at serious treatment by its arch manner, and its format, supposedly condensing Fantasy into eleven Rules, or should we say formulas?

That was the episode’s single biggest failing. Some of the ‘Rules’ were key characteristics, such as Rule No. 1 – Build a World. The overall effect, however, since some of the later ‘Rules’ were far from universally applicable, was to construct a limited and rigid structure, whereas true fantasy, the best there can be, is inherently variable, springing from its own sources and creating its own shape.

Marr began by pointing out that this once more or less reviled genre has in recent years become overwhelmingly popular, citing the obvious leader, Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice and George R R Martin. He pointed out that series’ roots in British history, and its exploration of power and brutality.

Next, he turned to, equally obviously, Tolkien (who appeared in some archive footage), and shortly thereafter, C. S. Lewis. It was interesting to note that Marr focused on the deep and specific Christian underpinning of the latter’s Narnia books (what else is there to focus on?) but ignored the fact that Tolkien’s work was just as fundamentally religious in aspect, in fac,t in many ways, more so.

Instead, Marr emphasised the current critical thinking about The Lord of the Rings, centring upon it as a response to Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, and upon it being written, to a large extent, during World War Two. The English at war, with the hobbits standing in for the English, was his overriding analysis, after which he could then humourously boggle over the take-up of Tolkien by the American counter-culture in the Sixties, in which the Ring becomes the Bomb.

This allowed him to turn next to Ursula Le Guin, who he openly stated he loved, but only in terms of the Earthsea books. These were defined as the anti-Tolkien, the deliberate subversion of his world. On one level, they are, but reading Le Guin’s work on one level only is a fatal mistake, and to key her approach into Californian counter-culture, with its air of cheesecloth, was seriously limiting. And to talk of Ged’s going to Wizard school being Harry Potter-like when J.K. Rowling was over thirty years later set me growling.

Incidentally, Rowling, though clearly central to the current fantasy boom, got rather short shrift. We twice saw the same clip of people in Hogwarts costumes lugging racks of books around at a publication party, we got one line about the books and that was it. Clearly, Joanna Rowling had declined the chance to appear and her work got side-lined as a consequence when, despite its manifest flaws, its massive influence demanded similar attention to that given Game of Thrones (which was generous with the clips).

The episode did improve once it got to writers who’d agreed to be interviewed talking about their approach to Fantasy, its themes and importance. Alan Garner got short shrift, a few gnomic lines about folk-lore and myth being “high-octane fuel” and a cover shot of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen with Marr pronouncing the last word in a way I’ve never heard before.

Neil Gaiman didn’t fare much better, though he is a practiced speaker and got more substance into his few seconds (American Gods got slightly more time than Gaiman himself) whilst Frances Hardinge, of whom I’d never heard before, who writes for and about children (the area on which Marr quizzed her) got more time than both.

I mean no insult to Hardinge, who affected a black hat the way Terry Pratchett did for fedora’s, and who has a good reputation. I found it interesting that this review of Fantasy fiction almost exclusively focused upon writers with whom I was familiar: in my twenties and thirties I read little but Fantasy/SF, but have gotten completely out of touch with the field since, yet the episode included only Hardinge, and Joe Abercrombie, with whom I wasn’t familiar.

Of course, the Blessed Pratchett was the last heavyweight to be featured. He isn’t here to speak for himself now, but his long-term assistant Rob Wilkins featured, and he and Marr made one point that resonated directly with my thinking, that it was Mort where Discworld really started to become Discworld, to become the mirror to us and ourselves that Discworld was so successfully for so many (but still not enough) years.

Overall, and granted that an hour is hardly long enough to give anything remotely like a broad picture, the episode was welcome but still unforgivably superficial. Marr may well know and love Fantasy fiction, but he didn’t show much of that. Overall, he presented the show with an air of defensive humourness, secretly reassuring the audience that it’s all rather a bit silly, and I know it as much as you, and you can’t really take Dungeons, Wizards and Dragons seriously, the way these people do.

That was encapsulated in one of the later Rules, that Fantasy was always, always, about the Dying of the Light, that it always used to be better, that the good stuff – the magic, you know – is always going and it’ll never be as good as it was, sigh.

No, in the end, despite its purported attempt to define and, in some way, dignify Fantasy fiction as worth reading, the episode lacked the courage of its convictions and undercut itself at every turn. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Fantasy may be in, now, and its popularity sufficiently high to keep it from sinking back into mere specialist genre, but it is far from earning respect (and a bloody great chunk of it doesn’t and never will deserve it).

We can but hope that the next one will be a bit more confident in its aims and can reject the urge to treat its subject with disdain.

Re-seeing Red Shift – Still Brilliant After All These Years

Like many people of my generation, I first discovered Alan Garner through the medium of television, in this case the extraordinary eight part Granada adaptation of his fourth novel, The Owl Service, broadcast in the classic children’s Sunday tea-time slot in 1969.
From the series, I graduated to the book, and its three predecessors and, in due course, Garner’s next book, Red Shift, published in 1973 and aimed at a somewhat older audience.
Red Shift became, and remains, one of my favourite books. It’s a book in which place counts for more than time, in which three couples in three very different eras undergo a series of experiences that revolve around the village of Barthomley and the Stone Age fort/folly of Mow Cop, situated on one of Cheshire’s few elevated ridges.
The story follows Tom and Jan in the present day, Thomas and Madge in the English Civil War, and Macey and the Girl in Ancient Roman times. The stories interweave, show curious, but never exact parallels, and an ancient stone axe is present in each of the time periods.
Garner tells his stories in a stripped down manner, primarily in dialogue. He has worked so hard to remove anything unnecessary from the book, that it feels that to remove just one word from what remains would cause the entire book to collapse into incoherence. The effect is to demand so much more of the reader, who must work to supplement the sparse text, to fill in what is not written from within themselves.
It’s a superb book, and in 1977 Garner, working with Director John McKenzie, was asked to adapt Red Shift into a ninety minute film for the BBC’s prestigious Play for Today slot. Play for Today was an old, established tradition whose usual material was realistic, often socially aware: Garner’s time-crossing fantasy was something of a departure.
The play was scheduled for broadcast on Tuesday 17 January 1978, in the slot immediately after the Nine O’Clock News on BBC1. As soon as I heard about it, I was delighted – for all of a minute. Because less than twenty-four hours before learning of the broadcast, I had been on the phone with Cambridge Borough Council, organising an interview for Articles of Clerkship with them. My interview was on Tuesday 19 January 1978.
At this time, I had been in a professional limbo, having completed my Law Degree and passed all bar one of my Professional Exams, and needing only to secure two years Articles to qualify as a Solicitor. I had been waiting for Articles for almost a year. There was no decent way that I could request a change of date for the interview. But by train – three trains there, three trains back – it was impossible to come up with a permutation that got me back home any earlier than five minutes after Red Shift finished broadcasting.
On the day, I went to Cambridge: Manchester to Birmingham, Birmingham to Ely, Ely to Cambridge: Cambridge to Leicester, Leicester to Sheffield, Sheffield to Manchester. Never mind, I will catch it on the repeat, I consoled myself.
It was never repeated. I didn’t get the job either.
We flash forward thirty years or thereabouts. I am browsing eBay one day when it comes into my head to do a search against Red Shift. I occasionally do impulsive searches against rarities, having been surprised to discover that they are available too often, and once again I am not disappointed. Someone is offering a DVD of Red Shift. I immediately add it to my Watch List and, being absolutely determined not to let it slip away a second time, come up with the highest bid. At last, after all those years.
The DVD, when it arrives, is a modestly professional package that has clearly been based on a tape from the television, though it has come from a high quality original and has not suffered too badly in the copying process. It is of relatively low definition, but most of the flaws in the recording come from the tape quality of the original, a function of the recording processes of the time.
Having waited all that time to see the adaptation, an adaptation written by Garner himself, it’s strange that I never thereafter watched the DVD again. But I still took notice when, late last year, it was announced that Red Shift had been released officially by the British Film Institute, in a digitally remastered print that improved the quality beyond the original tape. It became a Xmas treat for myself, though it wasn’t until this week that I finally made time to watch it again.

Tom and Jan

Re-seeing Red Shift, I was struck by the actors I recognised. I had previously recognised one of the actors in the Civil War sequence as Michael Elphick, just a couple of years before his period of television ubiquity, but I can’t remember if I’d recognised that another of the cast from that part of the story was James Hazeldine, who would be a mainstay of London’s Burning in the latter half of the Eighties. But I had certainly not appreciated that the part of Jan was played by a very young Lesley Dunlop, who has constantly been on British television ever since.
Given how clipped and brief the book is, it seems odd that, even with ninety minutes available, Garner has to compress events for the film. He’s commented that readers of the book who take it to be about Tom and Jan, with the other eras as sub-stories are misreading the story, but the film very clearly treats the contemporary thread as its main element.
Tom and Jan are a young couple, late teens, who are in love, though only Jan is able to say so aloud. The story begins with their separation: Jan is moving to London to train in nursing whilst Tom remains in Cheshire, sharing a caravan with his parents, his father an Army Sergeant. Tom’s very intelligent and articulate, though his words fail him when his parents try to press the pair to admit that they are having sex, when this is not yet the case. The stress triggers a near epileptic fit that seems, in film and book, to act as a breakthrough into the other two centres of the story: both Macey in Roman times and Thomas in the Civil War speak of ‘seeing’ a mysterious figure that appears to be Tom (though this vision is only given to Macey in the book).
The contemporary pair conduct their relationship via a series of monthly meetings in Crewe, discovering the town (omitted from the film) and some of the surrounding countryside: Barthomley, scene of the Civil War massacre that involves Thomas and Madge, and Mow Cop, where Macey and his mates, deserting legionnaires from the missing Ninth, form a base against the tribes around them.
Both Macey and Thomas are epileptics, prone to fits that affect them in different ways. Though Macey’s story covers a minimum of six months – the unnamed girl captive is raped early on and is heavily pregnant but not ready to give birth at the end – Thomas’s tale takes place in the space of a single day. Both, on film, are treated as interleaves with Tom and Jan: several times, the film cuts to one of the other protagonists for a few, silent seconds, when they are doing nothing of significance.
So Tom and Jan become the heart of things. Tom is the hyperactive centre of their story, leading the way, creating the world around himself, in which Jan is a loyal, willing and content follower, excited by everything he offers. Even before his sobbing response to his parent’s pressure, there is a question mark as to his stability, and his unnaturally quick recovery seals our doubts into place, though it’s not until much later that we learn the source of his trauma, and his sexual hang-ups. Quite simply, Tom has spent a decade exposed to his parents’ sex-life (Saturday nights and Mess Nights), couched in his father’s pleadings and the caravan rocking. It’s distorted his view of the sexual aspect of relationships, making him more than an innocent. It’s notable that it is Jan who first raises the prospect of being ready for sex, and Tom who is quickly accepting of it still being a future, postponed, occurrence.
But as events progress, we learn that, behind his calm exterior, Jan has her own trauma. She’s the child of busy health care professionals (it’s implied that at least one is a psychiatrist), forever on the move from location to location. Jan’s peripatetic life has left her without stability, without friends, and with deeply lowered self-confidence. She’d known Tom for some time but nothing happened between them before she went away at Easter, staying with a German wine-grower. She admits to seducing/having been seduced by him, a middle-aged, married man, and sleeping with him, of taking nothing but warmth and a sense of inner identity from the encounters that changed her into the person Tom finally ‘saw’ and fell in love with.
Unfortunately, this revelation comes after Tom has hitch-hiked to London to meet Jan at Euston, only to see her escorted to the train by a smoothly dressed middle-aged man who buys her a First Class ticket.
It’s the moment that breaks everything. But Tom himself has failed in his imagination. He has been holding the stone axe, the stone axe found on Mow Cop, where it had been built into a chimney as a thunderstone by Thomas, who had found it where it had been buried by Macey. Though Jan had identified it as something previous and real, a ‘Bunty’, an object of permanence in a life of transience, Tom has sold it to a museum, where it’s forever beyond her reach.
From there, it’s a tale of deterioration. Tom and Jan have sex at last, but it’s always and only sex, nothing else, as Tom strives desperately to ‘catch-up’ on something impossible to pursue. The film leaves it plain that, where Thomas and Madge, Macey and the girl go on to lives together, Tom and Jan are broken beyond repair. Curiously, it does not sink to the utter bleakness of the book, its hollow final line (taken from a piece of graffiti seen by Garner that was one of the three spurs that led to the book) being ‘not really now not any more’.
It surprised me that this was omitted from the film, as was reference to the secret message, given on the endwrappers in a code that, when unravelled, appears to indicate that if Jan doesn’t turn up next time, Tom will return to Mow Cop alone, and there kill himself. This notion is supported by a short essay by Garner himself, written for the DVD, setting out the three disparate elements that combined to birth the story in his mind.
Nevertheless, the adaptation of Red Shift is superb, and I wish I had seen it many years ago, though it would probably have coloured my interpretation of the book. As it was, not long after missing the broadcast, I sat and read Red Shift, trying to visualise every scene as it might have been portrayed – and discovered for myself a whole, and crucial scene, hidden between two otherwise awkward lines of dialogue that I had never before suspected.
Having it finally available is a justified reward for the many talents who came together to produce the film. And I’m glad to have a near-pristine, beautifully composed and supported version of the film to go with my autographed copy of the original Armada paperback. In a way though, like the completion and release of Brian Wilson’s Smile, it’s beyond it’s time. It can’t influence now as it properly should have. Commercially, it was clearly a contemporary failure – I do not recall it even being reviewed – and the DVD release is a rescue from obscurity.
But for me, and others like me, it would have been an influence on our thoughts and emotions about the story. It comes nearly forty years too late to affect me now.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: Afterword

A couple of years ago, I received, read and enthusiastically reviewed Alan Garner’s last novel, Boneland. I called it his last novel, because Garner himself had described it as such: between his age, the time that writing takes, and the absence finally of an idea to inspire him, he did not expect another. And the book itself presented that conclusion. It was the culmination, the drawing together, the resolution of all Garner’s work. It was complete.

On 14 July this year, Christopher Priest will be 71. I have no reason to doubt that both his physical constitution and his mental acuity are strong. And as for his age alone, the world’s greatest writer, Gene Wolfe, is 88 and shows no signs of retiring. There’s no reason to think that there won’t be more thoughtful, perceptive, imaginative books from Priest. The Dream Archipelago has surely not been exhausted.

Yet I can’t help viewing The Adjacent in a similar light to Boneland. If it were to be Priest’s swansong, then it would prove to be a most apt book for that role. In it, many of Priest’s theme come together, forming parts of a disparate but absorbing whole, and the underlying theme of his career, Uncertainty, comes into its own, embodied in every page, every thought, every action. Reality expands beyond alternates into an infinity of worlds. I find it impossible to think where Priest can take this central obsession that goes beyond The Adjacent.

But then I’m not writing his books, only reading them and forming impressions and beliefs from them. I would be extremely happy if there are more works to come, works that can spread yet further outwards. That doesn’t deny, however, the feeling I have of culmination about this book. If it were to be the last, I would not feel cheated, or denied. And I would be spared the risk of the disappointment that comes from reading Robert Neill’s last two, weak, novels.

The Adjacent is a tremendous achievement. By the same token, it is an enormous hostage to fortune.

Thank you all for following my thoughts in this extensive re-reading of Christopher Priest’s work. Needless to say, I am already turning in my mind to another favourite author, and a protracted re-read and exposition of someone who ought to be better known. We shall convene again, shortly.

Pursuing Christopher Priest – an Introduction

I used to read primarily science fiction and fantasy, my tastes in each form coming from the borders where the two worlds grow into one another. I have rarely enjoyed the classic hard-SF of one genre, nor the sub-Tolkien forays into magic of the other. Though if given a choice between Robert Heinlein and Robert E. Howard, I would shade towards the former, my enthusiasms have always lain with those to whom the S in SF stands for ‘Speculative’.
But that was years ago, and it is the best part of twenty years since my taste in fiction automatically led me to that section of the bookshop. New names have arisen, tastes and trends have shifted (I was there for the beginnings of cyberpunk, which dates me) and I haven’t called myself an SF fan for many years. I no long know the field, nor am I interested in developing my knowledge further.
On the other hand, if I am asked who are my favourite authors, there’s an interesting link between them all: Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner. All but the last of these have spent their careers writing fiction that lies absorbed in SF and fantasy – and given that Garner’s work has myth, its process and consequences, as its central theme, I do not see him as an exception.
There are other names that I could add to that list, writers no longer with us, much-missed: R. A. Lafferty, James Tiptree Jr. Like those I have named, writers of those uncertain lands, the only difference being that there can be no more new work from them (though a lot of old, unpublished work by Lafferty may yet appear, if we are very very good).
What truly links these writers is not that they are in any way members of some genre or other, but that they are the writers whose new work I will buy on sight, without hesitation, writers who I trust not to fail me, but rather to engulf my mind, to draw me into the world their fiction has created, and to leave me enriched when I close their books on their final pages.
However, though these are the names I’ll give when I’m asked to define myself through my reading, there is another that belongs there. Less prolific, certainly Less celebrated, unfortunately so. A minor talent among his betters? No, I’ll not accept that. He belongs with the others for exactly the same reason: that I buy his books automatically, because I trust what he has chosen to write about.
Christopher Priest, who was born less than ten miles from where I currently sit, but a dozen years earlier, has written thirteen novels (excluding novelisations, published under pseudonyms) since 1970. His current novel, published in 2013, is The Adjacent, his eighth successive novel to be entitled with the definite article. I haven’t read it yet, but had read all its predecessors, and the short story compilation The Dream Archipelago, which collects stories set in a fictional world of islands separating two continents, which first came to prominence in The Affirmation, the acclaimed 1981 novel that brought Priest to my attention.
I do not have all Priest’s books: indeed, I have only added his second novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island this Xmas. This novel aside, and the edition I have bought is a version revised forty years later, I found little to interest me in Priest’s first few books. But with his fifth novel, the subtle and ethereal A Dream of Wessex, Priest struck a vein that he has, in differing ways, tapped throughout the rest of his fiction, that of unreality.
I intend to spend some time re-reading, and commenting upon Christopher Priest’s novels, plus the Dream Archipelago collection, beginning with my recent acquisition, and them proceeding to that sequence of novels commencing with A Dream of Wessex. Priest is a fine writer who gets too little attention: in my small way, I hope to encourage more people to read him. You will be well-rewarded.