Pursuing Christopher Priest: An American Story


Several years ago, I wrote about Christopher Priest’s 2013 novel, ‘The Adjacent’ that it was the summation of all his themes and preoccupations, the most complete examination of his great subject, Unreality, and that it felt like a fitting final book of his career. ‘An American Story’ is the second novel he has published since: I have no regrets about being wrong.

The first shock about this story was its title. Not since 1977’s ‘A Dream of Wessex’, for ten successive books, has Priest published a book whose title did not begin with the definitive article – ‘The Affirmation’, ‘The Prestige’, ‘The Gradual’, etc. – yet this book fits only the indefinite article.

The second is that Unreality, in the classic sense I’ve used it about Priest’s writings, has no role to play in this book, save in one small refutable scene. We are not without some sense of that, in a more subtle form, intrinsic to the third shock, but the story is confined to a single reality, without alternate versions amongst which to choose.

And that third shock is that this is not a novel as I understand it, as we have come to expect. ‘An American Story’ is reportage, extended reportage, with Priest’s conclusions about a real-life matter of some significance placed, to one degree or another, in the mouth of his reporter-narrator.

Ben Matson is a successful science journalist, living with his partner Jeane and their two sons on the Isle of Bute, which, in the near future of the story, has reverted to its Gaelic name. England has left the EU, Scotland has left the UK and rejoined the EU and there are full blown Customs controls to pass through at all Scottish airports whenever Matson’s commissions take him back to his birthplace, London.

What kick-starts such story as there is – for the trajectory of the book is back and forth across time, taking in different periods of the twenty years passing since the book’s core event – is the juxtaposition of two news items. One, a couple of days old, is the death of Russian-born, US naturalised, mathematician Kyril Terganov. Matson has interviewed him twice, is privy to the details of Terganov’s short disappearance, wrote an unsuccessful film screenplay about him. The other is the almost subliminal glimpse of a breaking story from BBC Scotland about the discovery of the wreckage of a crashed plane, off the east coast of America.

The two items bring back up the subject over which Matson has obsessed for a large part of the last twenty years: 9/11. Ben Matson lost the woman he loved, Lil Viklund, the woman with whom he would have spent the rest of his life. Or so he believes: Lil was supposed to have been on Flight AA77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, but her name appeared on no passenger manifest, and Lil was one of the thousands of victims of that day for whom no traceable fragment of DNA was ever found.

So the only proof that Ben has ever had of Lil’s death is that she never ever reappeared, and that he is assured she died by her husband Martin Viklund, who has some shadowy role in Government and Security. But what is true: Lil’s depiction of their marriage as over, as prolonged only by complex financial issues, or Martin’s depiction of it as ongoing, between two individuals whose life-work spheres are wildly different?

‘An American Story’ is, at its simplest, a careful examination of the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory, as investigated by Ben Matson. Once I realised that Priest, via his central character, was taking the Conspiracy seriously, was repeating many of the arguments that I have, from time to time, read, I found myself getting very resistant to the book, to the point where I had to force myself to be open-minded, and listen to what was being said, to give more credence to familiar elements of the classic theory because of who these were coming from.

Indeed, the book is so strongly built upon the belief that there was a conspiracy that Priest himself emerges in a short epilogue to profess himself as having been disturbed by the information he researched: although he distinguishes himself (undefinedly) from Matson’s conclusions, it’s clear without the afterword that he shares a large part of them.

Priest’s endorsement of the framework of the conspiracy forces me to take these claims more seriously than, over the years, I have come to do. And Priest, via Terganov, builds a social theory for the subsequent imposition, on a mass audience, of a construct reality that is not merely dishonest but which replaces the truth that people have witnessed via their own senses.

It makes for a disturbing book overall, especially as Priest’s fictional conclusion is proof of Lil’s death, smuggled implausibly out of a heavily guarded institution in which physical evidence of the ‘boat’ sunk of America’s coast is available for limited inspection, proof that the crash site is the real end of Flight AA77, that it did not crash into the Pentagon but was sunk, its complement of passengers killed, as part of an ongoing scheme for the gathering of power.

In whose hands? The book ends in 2024 with the Election of another Republican President. His Vice-President is named Martin Viklund.

Though the book is of course carefully constructed, and substantially argued, what interested me most was my instinctive rejection of the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory that motivates it. How many people, like me, automatically assign that theory to crazies, internet obsessives, reject the idea that something like this, that could only have come about through such copious and extensive planning, could be true and still be a secret twenty years on?

Am I aiding plotters in pulling the wool over my own eyes? Or is it all craziness? It’s too soon to determine what effect this book will have on me. But it is still a very good example of Christopher Priest’s ability.

Film 2018: The Prestige


I don’t usually tend to watch films based on books I know, partly because the kind of books I like very rarely get adapted to film, but more often because I find it very hard to sink into the film and enjoy it for itself because a distinct part of me is continually assessing the mechanics of the adaptation: what’s left out, what’s been compressed, how they handled that scene, aaahh, how they dealt with that bit: no, didn’t like that at all.

As you’ll already be aware, I’ve been a long-term follower of Christopher Priest’s work (curious irony: an Amazon pre-order for his newest novel was in my in-box when I logged on today, before watching this film again) and it took me a long time to test what everyone, including Priest himself, had said, namely that this was good, indeed very good.

Re-watching it this morning, after a long break, I found myself oblivious to how the film is structured to adapt the novel, and more concerned to read how many clues there are to the essential mysteries of the film, which of course I knew from knowing the book.

What The Prestige is about is the rivalry between two late-Nineteenth Century stage magicians, Robert Angier (The Great Danton) (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (The Professor – Le Professeur de la Magie in the novel) (Christian Bale). It focuses on their enmity: Borden is responsible for Angier’s wife’s death on stage, is the better magician to Angier’s superior stagemanship, both try to sabotage each other’s acts, spy on each other, etc. Primarily it centres on one trick, The Transported Man, by which each magician disappears in one place and reappears in another almost instantly.

Borden invents it, Angier tries to duplicate it. Each has their own method but it’s not enough to have their own successful act, each has to know the other’s secret.

Director Christopher Nolan, working with a script adapted by his brother Jonathan, takes an achronological approach to the story, working within a frame-story that deals with the aftermath, in which the meat of events is presented as at least two series of flashbacks, and these are not themselves wholly chronological. We begin with a shot of a field full of identical black top hats, which is crucial to one strand of the plot but whose significance is not understood until much later.

Then we find Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, who, as part of the trick, falls through a trapdoor into a locked cabinet of water, where he drowns.

Then we watch John Cutter, Angier’s ingenieur or stage engineer (a lovely, warm performance by Michael Caine) demonstrate a fairly basic magic trick to a little girl, setting up the concept of the three parts of a magic trick: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige, a three-act structure that the Nolans apply to the screenplay.

I’m undecided as to how much of the film’s secrets or revelations to discuss here. I mean, the novel’s been available since 1995 and the film appeared in 2006, so it’s not like I’m risking significant spoilers, but on the other hand the film does tie itself into quite complex knots to preserve its mysteries to very nearly the end, and I feel under a certain obligation to give in to its obsession. For spoilers, read this.

So, knowing in advance what revelations await, how does the film work? Quite simply, superbly. The film incarnates the period, and Bale and Jackman in their contrasting roles are both outstanding and utterly convincing. The supporting cast are also excellent: Rebecca Hall in the rather understated role of Borden’s wife, Sarah and Scarlett Johansen in the more obvious part of Olivia, mistress and assistant too both Angier and Borden are equally natural, and their duality is, for those aware of the true situation, a vital key to one of the revelations.

Indeed, duality (as opposed to Priestian Unreality) is a key element in The Prestige. Though the film avoids those parts of the book where the same events are described in differing ways according to which magician is seeing them, its objective approach is wrapped up in duplicated experiences on each side. To take one blatant example, at different times each magician obtains possession of the other’s diary, pores over it extensively, and learns that each diary is a plant, ending in a direct address to its intended reader, exposing itself to be a complex manipulation.

Once you begin to understand the extent to which duality is a factor in the presentation of the story, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see into the realities that Chris Nolan wants to withhold until the end. In fact, with foreknowledge, it can be seen that the film overflows with minor clues.

I’ve mentioned the film’s primary cast, though Rebecca Hall is actually a supporting actress, and mention must certainly be made of David Bowie’s mildly-extended cameo as the science/electric pioneer, Nikolai Tesla (with Andy Sirkis, blessedly motion-capture free, as his assistant). Bowie, in a neatly underplayed performance, makes Tesla into a strange, near-alien presence, lending a psychological credence to his producing, out of nowhere, the only genuinely magical element of the entire film, even as it is paraded as not Magic but Science.

This is the other mystery that Nolan wants to withhold until the very end. We’ve seen it in action at the outset, or rather one esoteric aspect of it, and it spurs the film into action as the explanation for why Alfred Borden is on trial, is convicted, is hanged. Put the field of top hats together with the man in the locked cage of water and you can understand the magic without needing the last, final, horrific shot to render explicit what the film has long since given away. All things are duplicated.

Actually, the end is the only disappointing thing about the film. Borden, who has died for killing Angier when he hasn’t killed him, kills Angier (work that one out) but not before the two have a final, cryptic conversation that is far too long and slows the film to a crawl just when it needs to stay taut.

I do have one further complaint about the film, or rather my DVD copy of it, which has the soundtrack mixed so low that, given that so much of it is conducted in whispers, or lowered voices, it was impossible to make out what was being said on many occasions, even with the laptop volume cranked up to 100.

But this is still a great film, and despite its differing intentions, it’s a worthy companion to Christopher Priest’s novel. Different but equal: no better thing can be said about an adaptation.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: Uncollected Thoughts on ‘The Gradual’


Two years ago, I completed an initial review of Christopher Priest’s novels (excluding most of the earlier, primarily SF books) by looking at his latest novel, 2013’s The Adjacent, a magnificent book then still only on hardback. It brought together so many aspects of Priest’s body of work, immersed itself so thoroughly in his central theme of Unreality, that I said then that I would not be surprised if it were his final novel, so completely did it seem to sum up everything.
I’m more than happy to have been wrong about that, as this week Priest published yet another novel – his third in five years, which is positively prolific for him – set firmly in his increasingly dominant Dream Archipelago. The Gradual, which I have only read once and already look forward to re-reading, makes that world even more real.
For those unfamiliar with the Dream Archipelago, this concept originated as a psychological landscape, a background to a small number of Seventies’ short stories, before becoming an intrinsic, but potentially unreal setting for The Affirmation, the 1979 novel that drew attention from the literary world to Priest.
The world of the Archipelago is an Earth, a planet (though it is still very difficult to think of it in such concrete, limited terms) consisting of two continental land-masses, one in each hemisphere, separated by the broad, equatorial Midway Sea, which contains hundreds of islands of differing sizes, shapes, cultures, geographies and histories, more even than Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea.
The northern continent is divided between two nations, Faianland and Glaund, existing in a state of perpetual War, hundreds of years old, for reasons long since lost. The fighting, when the war is physical, takes place on the bare, frozen, uninhabited southern continent. The Dream Archipelago, lying between, is Neutral, by external imposition, by internal choice, by custom, preference, tradition and a strict insistence.
In The Gradual, which is in many ways the most straightforward, single-minded story Priest has ever set in this unusual existence, he introduces two new elements that form the basis of the story. The novel is narrated by Alessandro Sussken, a composer and musician and, for the first time, a native of Glaund. All previous stories have either featured natives of Faianland, exploring the Archipelago, or those native to its Neutrality.
The second element, the gradual itself, is a concept that Priest retrofits into the Archipelago, an aspect of time that has previously gone unremarked upon. What this is, as in The Adjacent, is never explained in plain words, though the reader quickly learns the shape of it when it comes to the forefront of the story, in its latter stages.
Sussken is the younger son of professional musicians, resident in Errest, a town in Glaund. He has a brother, Jacj, four years older, who is vital to the story though he is absent from it for almost its whole length. Glaund is a cold, forbidding, enclosed, wintry country, reflecting its political structure. It is a repressed, repressive country, fascist in form, though communistic in its deprivation. Midway through the story, we understand that it is ruled by a military junta that overthrew a ‘corrupt’ civilian government around the time Alessandro is born.
Life in Glaund is so repressed that Sussken is seven before he discovers the existence of the islands, and even then he can only see three dim outlines: he must build up the islands and their life out of his own imagination. Not coincidentally, given that he lives for music, they are the spark for his earliest compositions. He grows into a well-respected, and gradually well-known composer, and a successful session musician.
Indeed, Sandro falls in love with, and marries Alynna, a talented pianist.
All goes well for several years, well into Sussken’s forties. His only concern is the discovery that a minor Archipelago musician, going by the name of And Ante, is plagiarising him pretty comprehensively, converting Sandro’s music into crude guitar-based rock.
But throughout this period, Sandro’s narrative keeps foreshadowing an end to his good times, the collapse of his life, which becomes when he is invited to participate in a cultural tour of the Archipelago, with a full orchestra, singers, composers etc.
The sixteen week tour is a splendid success, though Sandro returns with a sense of guilt for sleeping with the pianist ho so beautifully interpreted his Piano Concerto on the final night of the tour. This is but a minor shadow, and one that pales against the situation he discovers when he returns. His parents are dead, his wife has vanished, he is in horrendous debt, his home and possessions about to be seized. And if this is not bad enough of itself, this situation has arisen because, though Sandro can account for every day of his sixteen weeks away, nineteen months have elapsed in Glaund.
His wife, believing herself cruelly abandoned, has found another man, and even though Sussken rebuilds his financial probity, she suspects him of things he cannot explain, unless he can explain why time has betrayed him in this fashion.
Over time, Sandro’s abilities and his reputation only grow. And Ante has turned to jazz, and is no longer plagiarising him. His main concern is with his long-missing brother, Jacj, who conscriptive duty was supposed to be for only four years but who has been gone decades. Sussken starts to search for him, by such limited means as are available to him (the internet and e-mail have reached this world but Social Networking was stomped out by Glaund before it ever got going).
When he hears that a regiment, whose number is not too far away from that of his missing brother, is due to return, Sandro heads for the docks. However, he is intercepted by mysterious officials and given a very-Kafkaesque ride that brings him to, of all things, a ceremony presided over by Glaund’s female Generalissimo, honouring him in the highest words.
Unfortunately it also brings with it a commission to write a new piece of national music, entirely of Sussken’s free composition, except, that is, for all the national and patriotic requirements that will ensure Sandro will never be taken seriously as a composer again. Despite his instant, loathing hatred of the Dictator, Sussken can’t actually refuse, so he does the next best thing: he pockets the extraordinarily generous compensation and flees to the islands.
Sandro has harboured dreams of settling there since his earlier visit, with his preferred destination the distant island of Terrill, ironically the home of And Ante(as well as Cel, the pianist he slept with). Within the confines of island bureaucracy, and the risk of pursuit, it seems a very simple thing, but it is here that Priest introduces the gradual itself, which grows to become a very complex influence on Sussken’s life entirely.
In The Islanders and The Adjacent, Priest introduced the concept of a kind of Vortex, constantly circling the Archipelago, making time travel a practical reality. Now, he draws this down from the macro to the micro level. To Travel among the islands is to not merely travel in space but in time: each island exists in some kind of subjective time that differs in relation to each other island, and travellers move up and down the gradual, or gradient.
Neither Priest nor we are interested in the mechanics of how that works. It is the explanation for the length of Sussken’s concert tour, but everywhere he goes it affects him by strange and unpredictable increments.
He is fortunate, or perhaps not, to fall under the guidance of adepts, who appear and disappear, taking him on strange diversions that correct his gradual, as measured by the strange wooden shaft all Archipelagans and visitors must carry, known as a stave. In some strange manner, the stave records and measures its holder’s temporal divergence from what seems to be Absolute Time, howsoever that is measured and wheresoever it actually exists.
By the time Sussken reaches Terrill, his personal time is back in balance. The island is no longer what he remembers, especially not as a home to musicians, and though he is reunited with Cea (and back to bed with her) she is now a jazz pianist to survive. For a moment, he questions his future, but decisions are put into suspense by massive eruptions from the island’s volcano, that spur a miraculous and unique experience as Sandro conceives and creates a tremendous musical work, out of nothing.
He also undergoes an incredible physical restoration, turned back to his late twenties bodily.
Unfortunately, Sandro discovers he is not alone in this. Cea demands he meet her father, Ormand Hall, who is equally improbably young. He is also the former rock musician And Ante. But he, like Sandro, is attuned to the beat of the island, the musical impulse. Both read it, both understand it. It is not Sandro’s creation after all. And nor is he now acceptable to Cea: she has had enough of it from her father not to take it in a lover.
Sussken’s realisation prompts the end of his life as a musician. He slips away to join the adepts, learning quickly from them how to manage people’s individual times. As he masters the gradual, he becomes uprooted in time, using it to his own purpose, going wherever he wishes, whenever he wishes, by balancing the gradual.
Until he calculates a date with great precision, a time outside the Archipelago, back in Glaund. It is the day Jacj returns and, unexpectedly, the day the Generalissimo is assassinated. When this is in time, if absolute time can be said to exist, Priest leaves unexplained. Perhaps things will become clearer on re-reading. Perhaps time is now in flux, with Sandro able to alter it at will. For Jacj is still young, and his and Sandro’s parents live. Even Jacj’s cat lives.
As I said, this is a first reading, and there will be more to come. There is more to get my head round. But Priest remains as strong and thoughtful a writer as ever. Another book will be most welcome. The Dream Archipelago remains a fascinating place to think upon.
But I’m no longer sure I would want to go there…

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.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Space Machine


I’m not a fan of H. G. Wells, indeed I’ve read very little of his work, though I am aware of how influential he was in shaping the very early parameters of SF. The War of the Worlds has to be one of the most widely read and referenced books of all time, with The Time Machine close on its heels. I may have read the latter at School, I know I have read, and not particularly enjoyed, The Invisible Man.
Christopher Priest is, however, a great fan of Wells, and since 2006 has been the Vice-President of the International H. G. Wells Society. Wells makes an appearance in The Adjacent, in one of its early sections. And in 1976, Priest published an impeccably Wellsian SF novel, The Space Machine, in which he effectively and affectionately interwove the two classic novels into a single continuum, giving his characters an ongoing adventurous role in the background of the two books, and having them meet Wells again in the climax.
I can’t comment on the effectiveness of Priest’s pastiche, except to say that the flavour it conveyed was consistent and recognisably archaic. It certainly came over effectively to me, and most commentary on the book does applaud his ability to incarnate Wells’ voice and style. The only criticisms I have seen suggest that Priest did not go far enough, that he did not bring a more modern sensibility to subvert the effects he was counterfeiting, and that he was entirely too respectful of Wells. What did they expect of him?
The Space Machine is narrated to us by Edward Turnbull, who introduces himself as a commercial traveller in leather goods, with a special interest in a product of his own conception, devices that he describes as Visibility Protection Masks (Edward is not good on naming things, we fear). In short, they are motoring goggles, which Edward hopes to promote to those who are taking up these new-fangled motor cars. It is 1893, as fans of The Time Machine will understand.
Edward learns, to his considerable surprise that there is a lady commercial traveller staying (under strict chaperonage by the lady proprietor) at his commercial hotel in Skipton. Whereas other reps are much taken by the thought of Miss Amelia Fitzgibbon for reasons that I fear are not honourable, Edward is more fascinated by the fair Amelia (and indeed she is fair) being the special representative of Sir William Reynolds, the inventor of repute, and a motoring enthusiast.
Eager for an introduction that might lead, via Miss Fitzgibbon to Sir William’s patronage, Edward contrives a meeting that leads to the perilous situation of him being closeted with Miss Fitzgibbon in her bedroom. Nothing untoward arises – Edward is much too respectful of Miss Fitzgibbons for that, and indeed it is she who is freer of her conduct with him, without ever overstepping the bounds of physical contact – but he still gets slung out on his ear before breakfast. At least he has an invitation to contact Amelia at Richmond House, the home of Sir William.
Wellsians will, by now, be well aware of the direction Priest is travelling. Sir William is the un-named Time Traveller of The Time Machine and Edward is about to join Miss Fitzgibbon in the unexplored back-story of that novel, in the same way that Thursday Next keeps dropping into famous literature in Jasper Fforde’s series. For Amelia is aware of the Time Machine, and happy to take Edward on a trip in it, so that he will believe.
Their destination is 1903, which will have Wellsians nodding sagely again. The Time Machine travels in Time but not Space, set to return to its starting point on an automatic three-minute reset. Unfortunately, three minutes is enough for Edward to see Amelia, of whom he is already inordinately fond, burning to death in 1903. In attempting to avoid returning to her history, he upsets the controls of the Time Machine, delivering the pair to an unknown and foreign place, where they are tipped out and stranded beyond the point of auto-return.
They have, of course, been transported spacially to Mars, a Mars of tall, thin, spindly humans oppressed and used as cattle by tentacled monsters that use hundred foot high, three-legged war machines to travel around, and who are constructing great cannons to fire projectiles. In short, our heroes have been transferred into the back-story of The War of the Worlds.
Edward and Amelia survive no little time in this strange society, maintaining their Victorian appearances, and as much of their Victorian clothing as they can. Nor, despite their enforced reliance upon each other, as the only people either can speak to, does Amelia permit any liberties to be taken, not that Edward is especially pressing with them. He is in love. Amelia is not to be lead to any admissions on that score.
It’s only when they’re re-united after six months separation, when Edward has learned that the Martian masters are killable, and Amelia is building a rebel alliance among the Martian humans, that their feelings for one another – and the certainty that they will never see Earth and its standards again – lead to warm expression of a kind over which Edward draws a modest blanket.
But hope is re-kindled. Edward and Amelia realise that the Martian monsters plan to invade Earth and smuggle themselves aboard the first projectile, hoping to warn their home planet. Unfortunately, they don’t reckon with nine further projectiles being fired, at 24 hour intervals, in their wake.
Thus begins The War of the Worlds in earnest. I’m assuming that Priest is faithful to its events, whilst keeping Edward and Amelia – running around in their underwear – to the fore of his story and the rear of Wells’s. As I said above, whilst trying to reach Sir William’s home (where, alas, the Time Traveller has disappeared ten years earlier) they witness England’s helplessness before the vicious, brutal, enslaving invader and bump into a bare-chested man, a philosopher, a writer (Sir William’s biographer too), whose name is Wells. He is in exactly the situation of the un-named narrator of his own novel.
By now, this joyous romp wants only an ending in which the trio can strike back at the invaders until the end of Wells’ novel can be reached. This involves a massive departure from the approach of the story thus far, which has stealthily added plausible detail to behind-the-scenes scenes. Priest now has Wells construct a crude but working Time Machine, assisted by blueprints that Amelia can fortuitously lay her hands on, which the trip use as a Space Machine. The new machine is, literally, a flying bedstead that, when in attenuated form in the Time Dimension, is invisible and undetectable to the Martians, enabling our heroes to bomb the machines to buggery.
In the end, though, Earth vanquishes the invasion simply by being inimical. It’s soils, its atmosphere, even the blood of its own humans will not sustain the monsters. Victory is achieved, and Mr Wells goes off to find his wife in Leatherhead. Edward and Amelia wait for the humans to come back. Of course, now they are back on Earth, they have resumed proper clothing – outer as well as under – and have stopped shagging each other enthusiastically, but Amelia has allowed herself to admit to loving Edward,so we can assume wedding bells and screwing with propriety will feature in the foreseeable future.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, though it was a lot more fun of first reading. On a second, I was far more conscious of its (deliberate) stiffness and its length. Priest takes a very long time to build things up on Mars, especially after being relatively brisk in the Time Machine section, and the book does become a little wearying after a while. And you do rather have to like H. G. Wells to appreciate it.
Ultimately, it never rises above the level of a pastiche. Priest is in too much respect of Wells to seriously play around with him (and now says he couldn’t never repeat the exercise since he could no longer approach the idea unself-consciously). Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable exercise and the ingenuity with which Priest marries the two tales is natural and unforced. It’s certainly worth reading once but, unless you are a committed Wellsian, perhaps not often thereafter.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: Inverted World


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.
Inverted World was Priest’s third novel and the end/culmination of his career as a genre SF writer. It’s a well-respected SF book, whose opening line – “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” – is celebrated as one of the great opening lines of SF. I read it many years ago, out of the library, and re-reading it for the first time in literally decades, I was immediately reminded of why I’d long avoided any of Priest’s work prior to A Dream of Wessex.
Which is not to say that Inverted World is a bad book, but it is a book of a kind that offers very little to me. I found it very dry and uninvolving, and slow to read because I couldn’t engage with either its subject or its principal character.
The story centres upon Helward Mann, who we first meet when he is about to leave the creche in a city called Earth, on a planet far from Earth, to take up his apprenticeship in the Futures Guild, one of six that preserve the safety of the City, following in the footsteps of his emotionally and physically distant father.
Earth, the City, is in consistent motion, drawn across the landscape of its planet upon railway tracks that are laid before the City on its perpetual journey north, having been removed from the wake of the City south. The City is in pursuit of something called the optimum, and must move one mile every ten days if it is to keep up. For most of the book, the City is trying to catch up to the optimum.
After a brief, third party prologue, Priest organises the story into five parts, the first, third and fifth of which are narrated by Mann, the second being third person about him, the fourth third person about Elizabeth Khan, who appears in the Prologue. Each section grows progressively shorter, as the City moves closer to, and overtakes, the optimum and consequently moves faster and more freely.
But Khan’s arrival in the story leads to revelations that completely invert (ha, ha) the basis upon which we have been led to understand the City.
The problem, for me, is that the story is no more than an intellectual puzzle: an SF trope. Priest creates a situation that is physically impossible within the laws of Physics as we understand them at present, and explores the reality of life under such conditions. Earth, the City, believes itself to be effectively a colony, stranded on an alien world among primitive tribes. This world is itself an inversion: the sun is not a sphere but rather a disc, with two hemispheric poles. Imagine it as one of those cheap plastic Xmas cracker prizes, where you spin the disc by balancing it on one of its poles.
Time and dimension become subjective on this world. Apprentices who travel north, surveying the ground for the best path forward, can be away for two months whilst returning to the City where only a few days have passed. The inverse effect of heading south is even worse: as well as the time factor – Mann is away for about two weeks on his journey and returns to find he has been gone two years, his wife has divorced him, believing he’s dead, has remarried and is pregnant –  there are spatial effects.
Mann’s mission is to return three traded women to their home village. Women in the City produce only male babies so the City barters for native women, who are kept for one pregnancy (if a girl, kept by the City, if a boy, returned with the mother if she chooses) and escorted back. The women start off tall, lithe and desirable (Mann screws two of them) but the further south they go, the shorter and broader they become, as does the landscape, until Mann finds himself being dragged by a near irresistible horizontal gravitational force until mountain ranges are barely inches high and he is bigger than the planet itself.
The revelation, at the end, brought by Elizabeth Khan, is that this entire construct is wrong. The City – little more than a mobile office block to Khan’s eyes – is on Earth the planet. We are two hundred years into the future, after the Crash, a breakdown of civilization from which the planet is now only beginning to recover. The City is the subject of an experiment into maintaining an unusual but seemingly perpetual energy source, which distorts the perceptions of all the folk from the City, causing them to perceive reality as inverted. The City is actually heading south-west, not north: it started from China and the optimum it is pursuing is a concentration of energy that circles Earth on a Great Circle. The City is now crossing Portugal, and the ‘river’ that confronts them is the Atlantic Ocean.
But Helward Mann refuses to believe this. His and Elizabeth’s perceptions are inverted and though she can recognise the unbridgeable gulf that stands between them (of which the Ocean is a concrete symbol), he cannot begin to comprehend any apprehension of the world but his own experience.
So the story ends in, essentially, stalemate. Mann is extreme among his City fellows but he is their representative – symbolically Everyman(n)  – and his inability to exceed his perceptions indicates that the City will not be able to break out of its own trap, whilst Khan brings the word that nobody in the world of Earth cares about the City or its predicament. Help will not be forthcoming. Te City, physically, cannot travel further.
As I said, it’s an intellectual, conceptual, scientific puzzle, and even at the height of my fascination with SF, I rarely read Hard SF, because it did not appeal to me, because I am not scientifically knowledgeable. My interest, in fiction, has always been with the effects on people caught up in situations, and there is nothing for me to take hold of in Inverted World. Helward Mann is a cold, emotionally subdued person. His intended, and later wife, Victoria, is a more vivid character, desirous of breaking out of the restrictions she faces, where Helward is content to accept them. She’s the far more active character, but she gets far too little room. The breach in the pair’s marriage carries no emotional weight, and after that such part Victoria has to play is dull and fanatic, based in a complete ignorance of the circumstances of the City, as we are fed them by Helward.
That’s not to say that the book is wholly without interest. I’ve characterised Christopher Priest’s central theme, from A Dream of Wessex onwards as being Unreality: each of his novels thereafter deals in differing manner with different and incompatible layers of reality. Though it’s barely developed here, Inverted World does represent Priest’s first, almost subliminal brush with this theme.
Helward Mann and Eliabeth Khan live in the same physical world, but they are separated by their diametrical approach to that reality, their perceptions – induced from birth – causing them to see the same thing from inverted positions. Though they can speak, hear, touch face-to-face, there are as good as living in two worlds, just as Peter Sinclair in The Affirmation lives in both our familiar world and the Dream Archipelago.
And there’s also a subtle physical form of the theme. Elizabeth Khan appears in the prologue, in the Portuguese village where she is acting as a nurse. She joins in a dance, goes for a walk to clear her head, returns to the village where she hears two strangers conversing with the village leader. Deciding it is none of her business, she walks away, later hearing horses gallop away.
But when she reappears, in Part Four, the scene is transformed. The scene is daylight, not night, but this time, Elizabeth pursues her curiosity, and what she hears leads to her taking the part of one of the women bartered to the City, with results we have already seen. But the Prologue and Part Four are incompatible. We are seeing Priest’s central theme being formed for the first time in his novels.
It will be far better dealt with in future years.

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.