TagChristopher Priest

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. 

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.

Books in brief: early September

Here’s another round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately.

Christopher Priest, The Adjacent (2013)

If there’s one thing you can be sure of with a Christopher Priest novel (and that’s quite an ‘if’), it is that the spaces between what is told will be at least as important as the tale itself. That was certainly true of 2011’s The Islanders, whose gazetteer-like structure left readers with a set of pieces from which multiple narratives could be constructed.

The Adjacent begins with photographer Tibor Tarent returning to what is now the Islamic Republic of Great Britain from a war zone where his partner Melanie, a doctor, was caught in the blast from an adjacency weapon, a device which annihilates everything within its triangular field.  He has been summoned by the government, who are keen to learn what he knows of one Thijs Rietveld, the Dutch scientist who invented adjacency technology; Tarent insists he’s never heard of the man – though that assertion would seem to be contradicted by a later chapter. It transpires that an adjacency weapon has wiped out a large area of West London; so much for Rietveld’s certainty that his technology could never been used in aggression.

The novel returns to Tarent periodically, but also takes in the First and Second World Wars, and Priest’s own fictional world of the Dream Archipelago; in these times and places, we meet individuals who may be analogues of Tarent and Melanie (and perhaps other characters besides). We learn that adjacency technology works by shifting matter into an adjacent quantum universe – though it evidently does a lot more than that.

The characters of The Adjacent do not always feel fully rounded, which in turn has a detrimental effect on the power of the novel’s love story. But there is still much to enjoy here, in how Priest paints with realities that bleed into each other and fray at the edges. There’s a wonderful recurring image of flight as freedom, the Spitfire used not to make war, but to transcend it. This gives rise to a sequence towards novel’s end which is one of the most affecting passages of imaginative writing I have read in a long time. Priest casts the fantastic into shapes that no one else does, and The Adjacent is a fine demonstration.

Juan Pablo Villalobos, Quesadillas (2012)
Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, 2013

And Other Stories return to where they started with a second title from Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of the superb Down the Rabbit Hole. Quesadillas shares the earlier book’s wry wit and cutting absurdity. We meet Orestes, one of seven children (all named after characters from Greek mythology) living in the family home on a remote Mexican hill. Orestes would dearly love to escape, but his siblings seem to have better luck on that front than he does.

What makes the novel work so well for me is how the wider political and economic upheavals in the background are filtered through Orestes’ home life – so the quesadillas that his mother makes become more or less substantial as fortune allows; his household comes under pressure from the rich family who build a big house next door; and so on. As the pages turn, reality stretches further, until the family are literally defending their home. Add to this some sharp lines (‘Basically, all the rebels did was shout “Long live Christ the king!” and pray for time to go back to the beginning of the twentieth century’, p. 22) and you have a book that’s very much worth reading.

John Williams, Stoner (1965)

The Vintage Classics edition of this novel really seems to have taken off in the UK these last few months; I wasn’t too surprised to see that it was the next choice for one of my book groups. It chronicles the life of one William Stoner, who is born into a Missouri farming family, but ends up a professor of literature. After his death, Stoner is not much remembered, let alone celebrated; John Williams then explores the quiet dramas that make up such an ‘ordinary’ life.

I feel ambivalent towards Stoner, and think Scott Pack has it about right. The novel has some very good aspects: I especially like Williams’s evocation of the grit and graft of the farm; and the running theme of domestic and professional spaces being used as the battlegrounds for control in Stoner’s life. But Williams gives his female characters short shrift (to put it mildly); and, for me, there’s too little sense of friction – Stoner lets life sweep him along to such a degree that I find it working against the emotion and drama. There are a few times when Stoner’s strength of conviction does come to the fore, and they are some of the book’s most compelling moments; but I wish they weren’t so few and far between.

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven (2012)

This was my other book group’s latest choice; I liked it better than Stoner, but still have my reservations. I didn’t know much about A.M. Homes’s work beforehand, but I was anticipating a darkly humorous twist on the Great American Novel, which is pretty much what I got. What I’m unsure about is whether May We Be Forgiven subverts the archetype enough for my liking.

At the start of the novel. George Silver causes a fatal road crash and later smashes a beside lamp over his wife Jane’s head, killing her. He’s then sent away to a psychiatric institution, which leaves his brother Harry having to move in to look after George’s and Jane’s children. Harry’s wife Claire leaves him because he was having an affair with Jane – and so Harry’s run of misfortune continues, to a sometimes-absurd degree. There are certainly parts of May We Be Forgiven which I found amusing, such as the late of blooming of Harry’s ninety-year-old mother, who suddenly gets into dancing and all kinds of other activities. It often seems as though Harry is surrounded by people who are in command of the stories of their own lives, and the novel reveals how he tries to take control of his.

Looking back, I can’t quite put my finger on the reason I didn’t enjoy May We Be Forgiven More. I do know that the book group discussion made me feel like reading it again, to see what I’d missed. Maybe the time will be right, another day.

Peter Mattei, The Deep Whatsis (2013)

The spine of this novel reads: ‘The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is the bastard love-child of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Eric Nye is a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.” Well, I feel somewhere in between the two extremes towards him, so there.

Eric Nye is an ad agency’s ‘Chief Idea Officer’, who takes delight in his job of weeding out people to be fired; seemingly can’t look at a woman without objectifying her; and is about to find out that the pretty young intern with whom he’s just had a one night stand is not going away any time soon. So far, so unpleasant; and Nye stays that way for much of the book – but there is a relentless rhythm to his narration that keeps one going.

The novel’s satire of advertising and corporate culture feels a little too over-familiar truly to bite; but, further in, Nye’s subjectivity is challenged – there are hints that he may have done things he cannot remember – and this is what really captured my interest. Nye’s view of the world is all to him, so when its integrity is called into question, that hits him more than talk of morals or ethics ever could. Nye doesn’t quite become a reformed character, but he does start to change his mind; and his narration becomes a little less self-assured as a result. He’s not quite likeable, but we do start to see the person he could be. I’m struck by Mattei’s skilled control of language in The Deep Whatsis, and I’d certainly look forward to reading more of his work.

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

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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