CategoryPriest Christopher

Kaleidoscopes and building blocks: two novels by Gabriel Josipovici

I first came across Gabriel Josipovici’s name from blogs such as This Space. I read some of his critical work, and was particularly taken with his idea of art as a toy. Broadly speaking, I understand this to mean art that keeps its component parts in view, in the same way that a hobby horse can still obviously be a stick. Then we can take those component parts and make our own experience with them.

This idea struck a chord with me because it seemed to me that many of my favourite books worked that way. Well, now I’ve read a couple of Josipovici’s novels, and discovered that they work that way as well…

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Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) is the account of an Italian composer, one Tancredo Pavone (inspired by the real-life figure Giacinto Scelsi), whose words are related by his manservant Massimo in interview. Pavone comes across as an absurd, pompous figure in many ways, with his vast collection of clothes that may be worn only minimally, and his strident opinions (“German composers have been so busy airing their souls, he said, that they forgot to air their clothes”).

But there’s something else in there: Pavone argues for a more primal sort of art than what he sees (or hears) around him. He sees music as “a vehicle for the body to express itself.” Pavone goes on: “The language of music is not the sonata and it is not the tone row…it is the same kind of language as weeping, sobbing, shrieking and laughing.” I can understand this by instinct: why I think about the art that I’ve responded to most strongly (books especially, but not only), it was a response that went through my whole body – a sense of being more intensely alive.

The most powerful aspect of Infinity for me is that it’s structured in a way that brings out the same feeling. Pavone’s personality fills the book, larger than life, but his vulnerability starts to show as time goes on. By the end, Massimo is telling of the period after Pavone had a stroke, shoring the composer up, giving him a voice in a way that Pavone himself couldn’t by then. The composer’s intense engagement with existence is what most stands out , and the circuitous way that Massimo tells Pavone’s tale creates a space which allows us to experience that intensity. To bring in a toy metaphor, Infinity is something of a kaleidoscope, turning to reveal different aspects of its subject’s world.

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If Infinity is a kaleidoscope, The Cemetery in Barnes (2018) is a set of building blocks. It begins with the unnamed protagonist, a translator, describing his daily routine as a single man in Paris. After three pages, another voice interjects, that of his second wife – and suddenly we’re in Wales, where the couple are entertaining friends in their converted farmhouse.

There’s something quite startling about the way this is done: sketching his Parisian life vividly, then pulling us out of it into a vivid new life. The novel continues, sliding between Wales, Paris, and an earlier stage of the translator’s life, with his first wife in London. The rhythm of these switches is always uneven – it’s not something we’re allowed to take for granted.

Something that I found intriguing early on was the way Josipovici makes the very idea of there being different stages in one life seem strange – it just feels so improbable that the single man in Paris might become the married man bickering with his wife in Wales, for example. But then the novel goes further: “One sprouts so many selves,” comments the protagonist. There are glimpses of contradictory pasts and futures, some much darker than others.

The Cemetery in Barnes put me in mind of a rather different novel, Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation (1981). Priest’s novel has two versions of the same character, one living in what looks like the real world, and one in what looks like a fantasy world – but neither life has more reality than the other, so both have equal weight. Similarly, the question arises in Cemetery: are we reading about one imaginary life or many? The reader can choose which blocks to use to build meaning, but ultimately any meaning only lasts until the book is closed.

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Infinity and The Cemetery in Barnes are both published by Carcanet.

The Gradual by Christopher Priest:from my #shadowclarke shortlist 

The first review from my shadow Clarke shortlist is now up at the CSFF website. I thought I would begin this shadow Clarke journey with the one author I already knew: Christopher Priest. 

The Gradual returns to Priest’s Dream Archipelago (setting of The Islanders), and concerns a composer who goes on a concert tour of the islands, only to find when he returns that time has slipped away from him. The novel also takes in themes of grief and creativity; I enjoyed it very much. 

I’d also like to say a few words about the review itself. This is my first extended piece of writing on a book in some time; it has also been a few years since I’ve written as much about science fiction specifically as I will be in the months ahead. In that time, my approach to reviewing has changed: now I’m most interested in trying to capture my experience of reading a book, rather than “like/dislike + reasons” as I might have done in the past. I think this shift comes across in the tone of the review, and I’m interested to see how else it might manifest as I go through my shortlist.

My full review of The Gradual is here for you to read. 

Reflections: 'more than real'

When I love a book, I love it strongly: my favourite books have all, in their own ways, made the experience of living that bit more intense. One thing I’ve been trying to do through the blog this year is to come up with a way of encapsulating just what it is in books that makes me respond that way. This hasn’t been an easy task, because it needs to encompass some ostensibly very different types of books: I started off as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, but increasingly find myself drifting away from them; most of my favourites these days come from the ‘General Fiction’ shelves, yet I still tend to find straightforward realism lacking. I perceive a continuum across the books I love, and I’ve long had an idea in the back of my mind as to what unites them; but any description I tried – ‘postmodern’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘speculative fiction’ – would always seem to leave out something important.

The other day, however, the phrase ‘more than real’ popped into my head. What I mean by this is a sense that the conventional frame or form of a given book can’t contain the reality of what’s being written, so it has to push or twist. This feels right to me in terms of describing my favourite books. It covers some obviously fantastical material: Christopher Priest’s equivocal realities; Helen Oyeyemi’s collisions of story; Adam Roberts’s laboratories for testing sf. It takes in writers who take a non-realist approach to ‘the real world’: Eleanor Catton’s living sculptures; Jon McGregor’s unearthing of the strangeness in everyday experience; the mirage of coherence in Hawthorn & Child (‘more than real’ might be another way of saying ‘not real at all’). But there’s also room under that umbrella for writers like Ray Robinson and Evie Wyld, apparently realist writers who, to my mind, are shaping their work in subtler ways. One thing I’ve learned over time is that even the most mundane subject matter can be ‘more than real’.

It’s interesting to me that, though my taste in fiction hasn’t suddenly changed, just having that phrase ‘more than real’ has enabled me to think about these things in a different way. because I can see what I mean more clearly. I have a better idea of what I’m really looking for in fiction, so I should be better placed to find it and explore the experience. I’m excited to begin searching once again.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Elsewhere: Unsung Female Writers and SF Masterworks

After this year’s male-dominated Booker longlist was announced, Naomi from The Writes of Woman got together a few other female book bloggers, who each suggested five female writers who they felt deserved more recognition (see parts one and two of the Unsung Female Writers series). Now, as a follow-up, Naomi has sought a male perspective: she asked me and Eric of Lonesome Reader for our suggestions. She also asked me to suggest a science fiction writer, as that’s not a field she knows much about. In the end, my entire list is SF-tinged to varying degrees – but you’ll have to read the post at Naomi’s blog to find out who I chose. Eric’s list is also well worth checking out.

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In another place, the SF fanzine Big Sky has marked Loncon 3 by putting together two special issues in celebration of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. In issue 4, you’ll find reprints of my blog posts on Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation and The Prestige, and Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty.

Fiction Uncovered Guest Editor

This year, Fiction Uncovered have been inviting various people to act as Guest Editor of the site, each posting four opinion pieces over the course of a month. So far, the Guest Editors have been my fellow book blogger Simon Savidge; my fellow Desmond Elliott shadow juror Kaite Welsh; and the journalist Anita Sethi. I’m excited to announce that this month, it’s my turn.

My brief for the four columns was fairly open, apart from that they should have a British focus (which I’ve mostly stuck to, with a tiny bit of fudging). I won’t reveal exactly what my pieces are about just yet, but I will say that I’ve aimed to cover my main reading interests  in them. I’ve also created a page on the blog where I will linking to the columns as they appear.

The first column is up now. It’s called ‘Uncovering the Reader‘, and is about how we change as readers – how, sometimes, you don’t appreciate a book unless you read it at the right time. I use my own experience as an example, talking about some of the ‘milestone’ books where I think I changed as a reader.

Further reading

If you’re interested, here are some links to where I’ve written more about the books mentioned in the column:

 

 

Clarke Award 2014: in review

This year, the Arthur C. Clarke Award received a record 121 submissions, which set the stage for an exciting shortlist and debate. However, my initial feeling about the actual shortlist was that it felt a bit… well, unadventurous; it wasn’t going to stretch anyone’s idea of science fiction (something which the Clarke often does, and which I value it for), didn’t seem to have benefitted from the uniquely broad view of the field that the Clarke enjoys. Of course there’s no reason in principle that a shortlist focused on core genre can’t be a good shortlist; now I’ve read the books, however, I can’t help feeling that the titles on the periphery of the shortlist should be at its centre, and the titles at the centre of the shortlist shouldn’t be there at all.

DisestablishmentI’ve been going back and forth, trying to decide which one of two shortlisted books I’d jettison first; in the end, there’s so little to choose between them that I may as well call it a tie for last place. Listing the two in alphabetical order means I start with The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann. This is the story of a scientist taking a final sojourn on the planet of Paradise as its human colony is dismantled, and uncovering the secrets of its strange ecology. Mann’s novel feels curiously old-fashioned to me, and is scuppered by its terrible treatment of gender (‘What fools we women are sometimes!’ thinks the protagonist at one point; there are many more examples). This goes right down into the heart of the text, and overshadows what interest there may be in its ecological themes.

Nexus

Also bringing up the rear of the shortlist for me is Ramez Naam‘s Nexus, named for an experimental drug which links human minds. Like Mann’s book, Nexus gives its female characters a poor deal, mostly sidelining them or otherwise using them as adjuncts to its male protagonist. The novel also has its weaknesses structurally: though there are moments when Nexus reflects on the implications of its titular drugs, these are largely drowned out by a humdrum thriller plot that doesn’t do the book’s ideas justice.

AncillaryAnn Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice – a thundering space opera with an AI-protagonist whose consciousness once spanned a gestalt of spacecraft and human auxilliaries, and is now confined to a single human body – has been a very popular book. I’ve seen effusive praise for it, and also some more lukewarm reactions; I’m in the latter camp. Leckie sets out some interesting territory to explore, such as issues of colonialism and gender (the protagonist defaults to using the pronoun ‘she’ for all characters, which gives the novel a distinctive texture); but, again, it feels to me as though the adventure plot is holding everything back.

Adjacent

Now to the second – and, to my mind, more successful – half of the shortlist. The Adjacent is pretty much a distillation of Christopher Priest’s individual creative vision, so what you think of it will largely depend on whether you like Priest’s work in general. I do, and I like The Adjacent: yes, there are issues with the book (particularly around its treatment of gender and the depiction of a British Islamic republic); but it also contains what I found to be the single most affecting sequence in the entire Clarke shortlist (at heart, The Adjacent is a love story), and its portrayal of bleeding realities is bracing stuff for the imagination. I don’t think that The Adjacent quite reaches the heights of Priest’s previous Clarke-winning The Separation, but it’s a considerable work all the same. I just think there are two other novels on the shortlist which are even more fully realised than this.

God's WarAction-adventure sf tends to be the poor relation when it comes to the Clarke, so it’s nice to find an example on the shortlist that feels as though it can hold its own. God’s War by Kameron Hurley comes tearing off the page with its protagonist, a no-nonsense female bounty-hunter, and its vividly depicted background of a centuries-long war on a planet with insectile technology. Issues of faith,  gender, and the body combine in a novel whose adventure aspects complement its ideas, giving them room to breathe and flourish.

Machine small

In some ways, James Smythe‘s The Machine is a very different book from God’s War, its almost claustrophobic calmness and intimate canvas worlds away from Hurley’s widescreen action. But I do think the two novels share an intensity of focus and a facility for dramatising their concerns. If I prefer The Machine over God’s War, it is really only because my personal taste runs more towards the quieter sort of novel than to action-adventure; I couldn’t place one novel ahead of the other in terms of how well each embodies and achieves its own project. That’s why I would be most happy to see either Smythe or Hurley take the Clarke when it is announced next Thursday.

Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I’m joining in this week because I was really taken with the theme. I’ve been reviewing books online since 2004, but this blog started in 2009, and I’m concentrating on the period since then. What follows here is not a definitive list of favourites, nor is it in a strict order – it’s a list of highlights. It’s a snapshot of what I like to read.

1. The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

This is a tale of pure serendipity. I was visiting Cambridge, and saw the hardback of The Rehearsal in a bookshop. It wasn’t the subject matter that grabbed me, but the blurbs promising something different. I took a chance on it… and really didn’t get along with its mannered prose style at first. But I persevered and, once I realised what Catton was doing – how completely the novel’s different aspects embodied its theme of performance – I got into it, and ended up absolutely loving the book. The Rehearsal is the fondest memory I have of reading a book in the last few years, and it showed me a new way to appreciate fiction.

2. Pocket Notebook – Mike Thomas

A few bloggers enthused about Pocket Notebook in 2010 – and I really liked its Clockwork Orange-inspired cover – but I never got around to reading it. The following year, I started reviewing for Fiction Uncovered; when I saw Pocket Notebook on their review-copy list, I decided to try it. I was utterly blown away by the vividness with which Thomas created his corrupt-copper protagonist. My only regret is that I didn’t read this novel a year earlier.

3. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

This book has 661 pages. I devoured the whole lot in a weekend. An Irish boarding-school comedy with added quantum physics, Skippy Dies goes from humour to sharp characterisation to social commentary to pathos to the borders of science fiction and back again, without putting a foot wrong. Stunning stuff.

4. Solo – Rana Dasgupta

When I started this blog, I was just beginning to investigate the parts of the contemporary British literary scene that would most interest me. The website Untitled Books was (still is) a great resource, and it’s where I found out about Solo. I love books with wide-ranging sensibilities, and Solo – with its account of a life that feels like a daydream, and a daydream that feels like life – is that sort of book.

5. Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi

One of the great joys of book blogging has been discovering small presses. Peirene Press are one of the fine publishers who’ve emerged in the last couple of years, and Beside the Sea is one of their best books. Ostensibly the story of a mother taking her children on a trip to the seaside, darkness gradually emerges from behind the happy façade to build up a brilliant but tragic portrait.

6. Yellow Blue Tibia & New Model Army – Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia was the very first book I reviewed on this blog. I was wanting to catch up on some of the contemporary sf authors I hadn’t read, and my first Adam Roberts novel just blew me away. My second, New Model Army, did the same the year after – a novel that I can genuinely say did something I hadn’t come across in a book before. I can’t choose one of these books over the other for this list, so here they both are.

7. The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

Being surprised by an unfamiliar author is great; but so is reading an excellent book by a writer you already know. A Christopher Priest novel is a maze of realities and unreliable perceptions, and The Affirmation is up there with his best. Priest’s narrative shifts between realities, and his masterstroke is to make our world seem no more (or less) real than his fictional one.

8. An A-Z of Possible Worlds – A.C. Tillyer

You can’t explore the world of book blogs for too long without coming across books that you’re unlikely to hear of elsewhere. I first heard of An A-Z of Possible Worlds through Scott Pack’s blog, and it really ought to be better known. Lovingly produced by its publisher, Roast Books, this is a collection of stories in a box – twenty-six individual pamphlets, each about its own place. The stories are very fine, too.

9. Coconut Unlimited – Nikesh Shukla

Here’s another way of discovering books in the blog age: finding a writer to be an engaging presence on Twitter; then, a year (or however long) later, reading his or her newly-published book. That’s what happened with Coconut Unlimited, which turned out to be a razor-sharp and hilarious comedy. More interconnectedness: I met Nikesh Shukla last year at a Firestation Book Swap, which Scott Pack usually hosts (although he wasn’t there for that one).

10. The City & the City – China Miéville

The City & the City generated one of my longest reviews, and I can’t remember reading another book that had so many interpretations from so many different people. It’s a novel to argue with, and argue about. At the time, I hadn’t read one of Miéville’s adult books since The Scar; I remember thinking that The City & the City was good enough in itself, but too quiet to catch on as some of his earlier works had. Of course, I was wrong. It was fascinating to see how the novel was received beyond the sf field, and the book blogging community was a big part of that reaction for me.

Christopher Priest, The Islanders (2011)

Christopher Priest’s work has given me some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, so I opened The Islanders – his first novel in nine years – with no small amount of anticipation. For this book, Priest returns to the world of the Dream Archipelago, setting for a number of short stories and, in part, 1981’s The Affirmation (rest assured that The Islanders stands alone, though readers of the earlier works will recognise a few names and concepts). The Dream Archipelago is a great, world-spanning array of islands; a neutral zone between two countries at war. What we’re presented with in the pages of Priest’s book is ostensibly a gazetteer of some of these islands; but, as well as the standard geographical information one would expect, some of its entries comprise narratives or other sorts of text.

Who (within the context of the fiction) wrote and compiled these entries is uncertain; but the gazetteer’s introduction is credited to one Chaster Kammeston, an Archipeligan native and celebrated writer in the world of the book. Not that Kammeston is convinced that the volume he’s introducing will be of much use, as actually mapping and navigating the Archipelago are nigh on impossible: partly because there are so many different naming conventions for the same geographical features (the ones that actually have names, at least); and partly because of the naturally-occurring “temporal vortices” which distort one’s very perception of the world. Kammeston is even unsure whether he’s the right person to be writing an introduction to a work about the vast expanses of the Archpelago, given that, as he says, “I have never stepped off the island [of my birth], and I expect never to do so before I die.” (p. 1).

But something is not quite right, here. We meet Chaster Kammeston again in the entries of the gazetteer itself; and, if we can believe what we read there, not only has he willingly left his home island several times, he is also dead – yet there he is, alive to write an introduction, apparently after the book has been compiled. Kammeston’s is just one story woven through The Islanders; other characters (many of them artists and thinkers of one kind or another) and events recur: the mime Commis is murdered in a theatre when a sheet of glass is dropped on him from above – but maybe the identity of his killer is not as cut-and-dried as it first appeared; Jordenn Yo travels the Archipelago, creating art installations by tunnelling through islands (presumably that’s what landed her in prison); we may never meet the painter Dryd Bathurst properly ‘in person’, as it were, but we hear enough about him to piece together an impression of who he is and what he might have done.

That last comment points towards a key aspect of The Islanders: namely, that its very structure forces us to construct its story (or stories) for ourselves. This is more than just a simple matter of chapters being arranged out of chronological order; as Adam Roberts notes, the novel itself can be seen as an archipelago, with each chapter an ‘island’ of narrative. Formally, Priest’s novel embodies something of what it suggests about island life:

Islands gave an underlying feeling of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go. You knew where you were but there was invariably a sense that there were other islands, other places to be. (p. 281)

Individual entries within the book point at connections between themselves, without overtly having the sense of being linked that we would normally expect the chapters of a book to have. Priest leaves us to make the links ourselves; but, more than having to assemble a set of puzzle-pieces into a coherent picture, more than having an incomplete set of pieces and having to fill in the gaps, in The Islanders we can fill the gaps in many different ways, thereby imagining new connections. Is Character A also Character B? Could Place X be another name for Place Y, and what does that imply if so? Just as the Dream Archipelago is ultimately unmappable, so The Islanders refuses to be understood definitively. It’s a novel which challenges our conceptions of what a novel can tell.

I’m not sure that The Islanders is right up there with the best of Priest’s work for me – it doesn’t give the great shock to the imagination that The Affirmation, The Prestige, and The Separation do – but it’s no less an elegant construction for that. It lulls you in with the measured neutrality of its prose, and the familiar, non-specific modernity of its world; so that those occasions where the narration does break out of its gazetteer-like register, or a properly fantastical notion is introduced, are all the more effective. And, as a novel which embodies its concepts and concerns within its very foundations, The Islanders is a work of art.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Islanders: Niall Alexander for Strange Horizons; Ursula K. Le Guin for The Guardian.
Christopher Priest’s website

Triple Choice Tuesday

I’m the featured blogger in this week’s Triple Choice Tuesday feature over on Kim’s blog, Reading Matters. This is a feature where Kim asks bloggers and other bookish folk to choose a favourite book, a book that changed their world, and a book that deserves a wider audience. I had great fun deciding on my three  books, and writing about what they mean to me; I’d like to thank Kim for giving me the opportunity to take part.

Click here to discover my choices.

Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)

The other week, Jackie from Farm Lane Books asked for recommendations of literary science fiction and fantasy. I recommended (amongst other names) Christopher Priest, as did Amanda of Floor to Ceiling Books; Jackie subsequently read The Prestige, and now it’s one of her top 20 favourite books. Of course, I’m pleased that Jackie enjoyed it so much; but I was also reminded that I am not as well-read in Priest’s bibliography as I’d like to be, so I took his 1981 novel The Affirmation down from the shelf.

Having lost his father, job, home, and relationship, all in quick succession, Peter Sinclair is at his lowest ebb. He takes on some work helping to renovate a friend’s country cottage; inspired by his ability to turn his vision for one of the rooms into reality, Peter resolves to write his autobiography, in the hope that, by doing so, he can make some sense of his life. After trying various approaches, he decides that the best way to achieve what he wants is to write metaphorically about his life; it won’t be what ‘actually’ happened, but it will attain (what Peter sees as) the ‘higher truth’ of capturing what the events of his twenty-nine years meant to him.

So, Peter creates an alternative version of himself, with the same name, but living in an imaginary world, and all the key people in his life given different names – and writes this Peter’s life story to represent the ‘higher truth’ of his own. Peter has almost completed the manuscript when he is interrupted by the arrival of his estranged sister, Felicity, and is forced to break off his work mid-sentence.

This happens in the fourth chapter of The Affirmation; the fifth is again narrated by Peter Sinclair (his voice is recognisably the same), but it’s the Peter of the imaginary world (a world, incidentally, also used by Priest as the setting for his ‘Dream Archipelago’ stories), who is sailing south to a clinic, having won a lottery to undergo a medical procedure which will effectively confer immortality on him. Okay, one supposes, this must be an extract from the ‘real’ Peter’s manuscript – but, no: the Peter in this world has also written a fictionalised autobiography; and the events of this strand subtly contradict what we know of the other Peter’s manuscript. One is left with no option but to conclude that the ‘imaginary’ world has its own valid reality.

And so, as the novel continues, the two realities shift back and forth, with the reader never allowed to pin down one of them as being more real than the other. Even the nature of the text presented to us is uncertain: we never knowingly get to read any of the manuscripts referred to, so what exactly is the testimony that we’re reading? And we only know Peter Sinclair through his words on the page, so what can we trust? This is what Priest is so good at: undermining our expectations, hiding the truth, making the realities of his stories profoundly uncertain.

There are imaginative pleasures a-plenty in The Affirmation, then; but the novel also works on other levels. It’s a fine meditation on memory, and how it can make us who we are. Peter believes that memory is central to the creation of identity, but he also knows how fallible our memories can be; this is played out in several different ways in the novel, including a quite literal one in the shape of the athanasia treatment – a side effect of the procedure is to erase patients’ memories; they’re required to complete a questionnaire beforehand, which will be used to reconstruct their memories – but can they possibly be the same people afterwards?

The Affirmation is also an acute portrayal of a man in a fragile mental state (though, as noted, it resists being interpreted as solely a tale of delusion). We discover early on that Peter hasn’t actually painted his ‘white room’ at all (though he imagines it painted, and it’s that ‘higher truth’, he insists, that really matters); this is only one of the first indications that the world viewed through Peter’s eyes may not be what a third party would see. This leads the protagonist into difficulties relating to other people. For example, Peter’s ideas of what his girlfriends (in both worlds) are like don’t reflect the reality, which puts a strain on his relationships; the way Priest reveals the ramifications of this is simply superb.

I’ve read three of Chris Priest’s novels now, and they have all been excellent. Seriously, if you have yet to read him, you’re missing out. As for me, I doubt it will be long before I read another of his books, and I very much look forward to doing so.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Affirmation: John Self at The Asylum; Matt Cheney at The Mumpsimus; David Auerbach at Waggish.
Christopher Priest’s website

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