A Connecticut Yankee in an Old Comic


This is not who this is about

Though you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, Eagle was not the only boy’s comic I used to devour in my personal Golden Age of the Sixties. It’s just the one of which I had the most clear and comprehensive memories, spurring me to pursue it, even to the extent of a dozen years worth of issues before I ever read my first.

Everything else exists in just brief flashes, odd, generic scenes of old but exciting series: Kelly’s Eye, The Steel Claw, Robot Archie, The Spider… ah, the Spider! I am still in awe at the discovery that some of those stories I relished back then, in 1965 or so, when we still lived at Brigham Street, were being written by Jerry Seigel, the Jerry Seigel, creator of Superman. Writing for _Lion_. I would love to grab hold of those old comics, to read them and try to see in them the work of the man who created American comics.

What comics did I read? The ones of my real childhood are unimportant to me: Robin, of course, and TV Comic are the ones I do remember, not that I would want to re-read any of these, except for the extraordinarily anarchic ‘Goon Show’ series, which really ought to be reprinted for us fans.

But of the older titles? Though I remember several recurring series from Victor and Hornet, and enjoying them then, I have curiously little attachment to their memories, and no idea which title housed which character I recall. The D.C.Thompson titles looked and felt cheap: slim, brittle, regimented in even rectangular panels in static tiers, and that permeates my recollections.

There’s only one story I would like to re-read, and that was one of which I never reached the end. This was a Wilson story, William Wilson, the mystery recluse and super-sportsman, and it involved cricket. The plane carrying the England Test party to Australia had crashed, injuring everyone. Mysteriously, a second plane with a replacement party also crashed, leaving no viable Test team. Wlison, the marvelous eccentric, put together a team of amateurs and eccentrics and weirdos who, under his unorthodox tutelage, played entertaining games and won them. Despite official MCC opposition, there was talk of offering the Tests to Wilson’s XI…

And then I gave up Victor or Hornet, whichever one it was, and never read the rest of the story. It wasn’t the only story left uncompleted by changes in my allegiances but, like my once-unfinished ‘High Quest’, it is still in my memory fifty years later.

If anyone did read that story to the end and remembers its outcome, please write!

I’m hazy on what comics I did get and which I only read when swapping with my mates. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember which comic Sergeant Hurricane (Valiant) featured in, only that it was never one of mine, but I remember getting Hurricane from its first issue, but not its contents, with the exception of its cover strip, a football series featuring the career of up and coming striker, Harry Kane (would you believe it?), nick-named ‘Hurry’, which for some reason I tried to pronounce mentally as Huhry.

But with very few exceptions, it’s the serious stories that provide me with these flashes of memory, the adventure series, the ones with a consistent, ongoing lead character. Just as with Eagle‘s features, the comedy has not worn well, and why should it? Just because I can still appreciate Laurel & Hardy as much as I did fifty years ago doesn’t mean that I am going to be in tune with cartoons and comics aimed at a ten year old’s mind and imagination.

Except that what’s caused this burst of nostalgia is a sudden recollection of a comic series that I haven’t thought of in decades.

I hold Ursula Le Guin responsible: since her death earlier this year, I have been engaged in a private re-read of all her books that I have collected, which is about 90% of her portfolio. I’m up to the non-fiction, and today, sitting in the sun with a bag of chicken nuggets, idling before my shift, I found myself reading an essay about Mark Twain, listing various of his books.

There was a reference, and a slighting one at that (with which I am in accord) to Connecticut Yankee (or A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court). Now this has been filmed, quite successfully, with Bing Crosby playing a smoothed down version of the character – you may remember the song ‘Busy Doing Nothing’ which comes from this film, but suddenly I remembered that one of my comics did a serial adaptation of the book – updating its central character to a 1960’s motor mechanic, and having a great deal of fun with it.

I seem to remember that titular Yankee having the name Huck, or maybe it was Hiram – utterly American names I was familiar with from TV – Huckleberry Hound and The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (hell’s bells, that’s another old memory springing out at me without warning!). It’s Hank in the original, and most likely in this version, I suppose. Probably, Twain’s satire, and the stinging snipes at Arthurian times and Kings in general, were removed and the series may well have taken nothing bit the basic set-up and played with it, but the point is that it’s arrived back into my head, and I want to know. I want to read it again, to test it against fifty years, to see how much of it, if any, still hits me. Because I have this irrational belief that I would remember this the way I don’t remember most of its contemporaries.

I did read the book, once. I’d read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course – at that age, the first was practically compulsory – but I tackled Yankee precisely because of the comic strip version I remembered so well. Like Ursula Le Guin, I didn’t particularly like it, and indeed resented it in places. This was substantially down to a kind of nationalism, as opposed to patriotism, an early sense of being British and being formed from the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of my country, and instinctively opposed to having our ancient past criticised by some damned upstart Yankee. I couldn’t then see that Twain was using the mythical times of Arthur to criticise contemporary Britain.

There was none of that in the strip version, or if there was it was softened for so young an audience. That this was being produced in Britain, and in an age when many of the differences between the nations in the back half of the 19th Century had decreased, it was more purely a modern versus ancient theme.

Of course, Connecticut Yankee has been adapted to comics many times, mostly straight, and apart from my memories, there’s no evidence of this version ever existing. It would have dropped out of copyright in England fifty years after Twain’s death in 1910, so the series could have used the proper title. But I can almost see actual panels in my mind, images of Hank (if they did follow the book), his wide open brash grin, his lankiness and his motor-goggles.

The chances of confirming any of this would seem to be slim. But thank you the late Ursula for triggering this rush, and your patience for reading this, especially you younger readers for whom this might as well have been in a foreign language!

Ursula Le Guin: We are left behind


I was about to close up my laptop and retire for the night, but I cannot shut my mind to the report of the death of Ursula Le Guin, one of the greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy, one of the greatest writers of this last century, at the age of 88.

Like so many of my generation, the first Le Guin I read was the Earthsea Trilogy, a series of magic and wizards of great brilliance and influence. I was young, barely into my teens, when the books first began appearing, with those magical Pauline Baynes covers. Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner, two vastly different writers of different worlds but both, in their ways, writers who depicted a world that could not exist in great reality.

From there, I grew towards such classics as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, books like The Lathe of Heaven and, an astonishing work of imagination, the world of Always Coming Home.

I have nearly all Le Guin’s books, including those that consist of essays about writing. I will return to them and re-read them. She was one of the most clear-headed writers I have ever read.

Ironically, my favourite of her works is not SF or Fantasy, or anything that might be said to concern itself with a future, but the collection of historical stories set in an imaginary Eastern European country, Orsinian Tales. My favourite of them is the last story of the book, not really a story but a depiction of life before the Second World War, among an aristocracy already long gone. It’s last line always resounds with loss.

‘But that was a long time ago, and I do not know whether it still happens in that way, even in imaginary countries.’

From now onwards we will have to imagine a country in which Ursula Le Guin still lives. Our own has become unbearably small for the lack of her.

P.S.

The quote above, from the short story, ‘Imaginary Countries’, was written from memory last night. Before going to bed, I located the book and read it. My memory was sadly imprecise: the actual words are:

‘But all of this happened a long time ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.’

So much better written than my recollection, more elegant, more fragile.

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.

Considering John Crowley: Engine Summer


British SF paperbacks had some awful covers in the Seventies

John Crowley’s third novel, Engine Summer, was my first experience of his work, before the breakthrough that would come from his next book. I read it from the library in Nottingham, twice at least, in its year of publication, 1979: on one occasion, it was my evening’s entertainment on one of those long Friday night coach journeys home to Manchester, every six weeks or so.
As such, though it does not in any way match up to the levels Crowley was to establish in his next book, Engine Summer was a clearly better book than his first two efforts, and I did acquire a cheap paperback copy for a time, before getting the Three Novels oversized compilation that included The Deep and Beasts.
Re-reading it, what struck me most was how much it reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent Always Coming Home, though that is completely unfair to Crowley, who was writing a half dozen years earlier than Le Guin’s classic anthropological novel, making it at least possible that Engine Summer may actually have influenced her!
The story is set is a distant future, on a planet we are left to assume is Earth, in, by the same assumption, California. It is the story of Rush that Speaks, primarily by way of a lengthy recounting, interrupted at certain points by questions from an unidentified second party. The account is, in some form that we do not understand until the very end, a recording on a series of crystals, each bearing eight faces or facets – though only four facets are used on the Third and Fourth Crystals.
Rush that Speaks begins deep in his childhood, in the Coop of Little Belaire, which occupies a quiet, wooded river valley. A Path runs through Little Belaire, which is a community of truthful speakers, founded by Saints: Saint Andy, Saint Gary, Saint Olive, Little Saint Roy, whose lives are the stories that underpin Little Belaire and the way of life it has developed.
As the story slowly elongates, we learn certain elements of background. That at some point, the Earth of this much-removed future has suffered some sort of event, referred to only as a Storm, which has destroyed Western Civilization. Though the remains of the old culture – the practitioners of which are known as angels – still exist, here and there, there is no true memory of them. All forms of power have expired, and people have learned new ways of living, based upon beliefs and assumptions rooted in a lifestyle that has yet to come into existence.
Rush that Speaks is a part of this world, and the First Crystal is taken up primarily with his description of life within, in terms that are natural to him but which leave the twentieth (and twenty-first) century reader to try to take in, indeed to imagine, what all these things relate to.
Saints and Angels. And the Path. And the Long League. Doctor Boots’ List. Snake-hands. Cords. Like Le Guin so soon after him, but unlike, in that Le Guin – daughter of anthropologists – couched the story of her character Always Coming Home in so much detail (that in the terms of Engine Summer would be comprised of snake-hands) that we learn to understand the Kesh as much as if her book were a study of a Nineteenth Century Indian Tribe.
Crowley’s approach is much more surreal. Though at no point does he explain more than a fraction of the atmosphere he creates, though he provides little in the way of links, hinting at the possibility that the ‘history’ of this book does not exist in any coherent form, nevertheless, the dream-like sensation of Engine Summer is in no place jarring, never inconsistent, never tangible but never beyond the sense of recognition.
Not much happens over the course of the First Crystal: not much happens over the course of the entire book, for Crowley is not that kind of writer. At the beginning, Rush that Speaks meets Once a Day, a girl of similar age to him, though of Whisper Cord and not his own Palm Cord. Rush falls in love, without defining it as love: indeed, the pair are far too young for that definition, being between their first and second seven years: 10, at the most is my guess.
So, not love, but inseparability for what feels to be eternity to Rush that Speaks, until the black-hatted traders of Dr Boots’ List arrive on their annual visit, and when they leave, Once a Day goes with them.
As much as there is a story, the remainder of the book is of Rush that Speaks’ efforts to reunite himself with Once a Day. She doesn’t return to Little Belaire so, eventually, Rush leaves the coop to find her. He’s barely started moving when he stops, joining the household of a contented couple and their twin sons. After a prolonged stay with them, Rush winters with a supposed Saint, in the trees. Blink is not a Saint, but rather extremely shy and reclusive, but provides Rush with a home, until the following year, as we would term it (for Rush, the calendar, and the seasons, is determined by the character of the time so that a ‘year’ may have two Novembers and no September, if that is how the weather falls).
Leaving Blink, Rush moves on, but again not very far before he falls in with Dr Boot’s List and finds Once a Day again. Amongst those who are not truthful speakers, he feels a degree of fear, is threatened over the risk that he will betray their hidden camp. Gradually, however, he settles into their ways, so much so that, when the time comes, he requests and receives a Letter from Doctor Boots
It is not a letter but an experience, a seemingly empty experience, involving scientific equipment – albeit equipment couched in fantastic and mythological terms, such as the silver glove and the silver ball – though it is enough to change Rush. What is worse is, once he emerges from his Letter, he learns that Once a Day has left, refusing to return whilst he remains. He is welcome to stay, he will not be forced to leave, but the List want Once a Day to come back.
So Rush leaves, stealing away, intent on a return to Little Belaire. Before he can approach the Coop, he encounters Mongolfier, a seeming clown with an umbrella, though a hero to his own people, who are direct inheritors of the past that Rush and his people ascribe to the Angels. Rush’s story is recorded by Mongolfier, who answers certain question, providing information that only unsettles. It is recorded on four crystals, of which two use only four facets.
Rush himself, or that aspect of him that is a series of interactive crystals, is a story without an end. His return, his reception, his life is an impenetrable mystery to ‘him’ and his ending is a horror in which he begs to be released.
Looked at closely, it’s very easy to argue that Engine Summer is a very poor book. Nothing happens, nothing is explained. It is heavy upon atmosphere and mystery, without providing anything but the tiniest of clues to help resolve or explain. We see all things through the eyes of Rush that Speaks, who is less of an unreliable narrator than he is simply an unsatisfactory narrator. He fails to understand what is around him, but fails to observe things that would allow the reader to draw conclusions that lie beyond Rush’s reach.
Once a Day is an enigma, an unknown quantity. What causes her to turn so solidly against Rush is a question for which there are no clues. Curiously, it’s far from a surprise when it happens, but Crowley offers nothing by way of explanation: the reader has to make this up for themselves out of whole cloth.
So why then is this book so fascinating, so absorbing? Part of it lies in the language it uses: Crowley’s style is slow, and intense, constantly turning in on itself to debate. There’s an element to it of ‘stream of consciousness’, in that he is forever sliding into thoughts and reflections, philosophy and musement, though it always remains highly organised.
But what makes Engine Summer stand out is that it paints a picture. Like Always Coming Home, it opens up our eyes to a future that has been broken off from our path, to a way of life that has developed, evolved, from the absence of things that we take for granted. It has separated itself and the way people think, the assumptions upon which their lives are based, have changed.
Sometimes we recognise a connection: engine summer is a simple corruption of Indian Summer, that late-flowering, late September burst of good weather that follows on from calendar summer, and the title hints towards a certain impermanence in this world. Sometimes Crowley dangles what seems to be an obvious connection: four dead men, carved into a mountain is surely Mount Rushmore and the Presidents, but the four dead men of this story turn out to be something very different.
Crowley’s decision not to explain is surely wise. This world is seen from within and the reader explores it as a stranger, with no more information than its inhabitants, without a deus ex machina who comes along with a magic decoder ring at the end. The ring explains little or nothing: it makes us see this world as being contained in a bubble. Who knows if it even still exists?
Good as it is, Engine Summer remains ‘prentice work, but it’s the last of Crowley’s books that can be described so. When he next appeared, it was with something strange, wild, unprecedented, something that will still being read in another century.

Considering John Crowley – The Deep


John Crowley’s first published novel, The Deep, was published in 1975. He had written an earlier novel, based on the Wars of the Roses, but this was never completed. The Deep was marketed as an SF novel, and hailed with great praise by such as Brian Aldiss and Ursula Le Guin. But whilst I am usually prone to respect her opinions, I can’t share hers or Aldiss’s enthusiasm for this book.
If we’re going to talk genre, The Deep, to me, is properly a work of Fantasy and not Science Fiction. It is set in a fantasy world, of armies and Kings and magic, a world divided by the competing claims to kingship of two opposing factions. It’s a world that, early on, is said to exist on a pilar that is founded on the Deep, and this physical structure is confirmed at the book’s end.
Into this world, Crowly introduces one SF element, in the form of the Visitor. The Visitor – who will go on to subsequently be given the titles of the Secretary and the Recorder, titles which identify the three parts into which the novel is divided – is a made thing, superficially human but neither male nor female. Damaged at the outset by a skirmish between the Protectors and the Just, the Visitor progresses throughout the book towards the Revelation that he/she/it was been made by Leviathan, who has made the world of the Deep.
For what reason? There, for me, lies the great failure of the book. It uses the trappings of conventional fantasy but only to pay lip service to them. Rule of this world lies at first with the Blacks, a rule that the Reds are determined to challenge. There is an ancient feud between them with the throne at the heart of it.
But that’s all there is. The names are flat and prosaic: indeed, they put me in mind of Draughts (or more appropriately for an American author, Checkers). Crowley uses the tropes of fantasy but in an abstract form that denies any underlying form of passion. Everybody’s name incorporates the element of their faction: King Little Black, Black Harrah, Red Senlin, Red Senlin’s Son, Fauconred, etc.
It’s an approach that might work if the intent were satirical, to undermine the tropes by presenting them in such an elemental, anatomised manner, but whatever Crowley’s purpose here, he at least needs this story to be taken seriously, and this careful removal of any kind of human context doesn’t serve.
Indeed, Crowly takes pains, after adopting this schematic approach, to avoid actually depicting the cliches one would normally associate with the form.
It also makes it easy for the book to slide out of the head, leaving it untouched. It’s only a couple of weeks since I finished re-reading it, yet it’s already impossible to remember what it was about, what it meant, what end it reached. A couple of moments only: King Little Black running, shrieking a warning as he eavesdrops on the Queen rutting with her lover Black Harrah, but not what he’s warning against: the vaguely Mervyn Peake atmosphere of Little Black’s mad and ultimately fatal escape from imprisonment, but not which character he frees to go with him.
The Deep fails to spur the imagination and fails to hold the memory, and to me that makes it a complete failure. As such, I am at complete odds with those who welcomed and praised it, and who professed to see a skilled depiction of the complexity of human nature, and many deep levels. I don’t think I’m an unintelligent reader, but in this respect I see nothing in this book to recommend it, except the quality of Crowley’s prose.
He’s a very thoughtful, very stylish writer, almost to the point of mannered in some instances, and we’ll be seeing with later books how he can create an atmosphere, invest in a level of finely-observed detail, that will irresistably hold a reader’s attention irrespective of the actual content of the story.
The evidence is here that Crowley possessed that quality from the outset, a lucid, almost limpid prose that seeks to fill up the senses. Crowley’s on the right track alright, but at this apprentice stage it’s far from enough to hold. There is insufficient weight or body to either the events or the characters for the prose to form a musculature that absorbs attention. It’s pretty, but is it art? as the old saying goes and, for The Deep, the answer from me has to be no.
Frankly, it’s not a book I’d keep if I had it as a solo volume. After Crowley made it big with Little, Big, and confirmed his quality with Ægypt, his first three novels were reissued in an omnibus volume, as Three Novels. So, if I wish to keep any of Crowley’s early books, I must keep all of it.

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.