Archive for the ‘Christopher Priest’ Category

The Space Machine

October 13, 2021

The Space Machine is, in many ways, out of keeping both with the three novels Christopher Priest wrote before it, and with those which came after. This is, of course, partly because the novel is an affectionate pastiche of H G Wells, but also, I suspect, because of the delight Priest seems to have taken in writing it:

“I thoroughly enjoyed writing this one, probably more than I should have done. For me it represents a kind of personal peak, because I wrote it in an extrovert mood during a happy period of my life, at a time when I wasn’t too broke, and I was not yet feeling held back by other people putting labels on me.”

(He does, however, go on to note that, “Everything went smoothly until publication day, when the Observer memorably observed, ‘Three hundred pages of homicidal tedium.’”)

The Space Machine takes two of Well’s most famous novels, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and grafts them together into a single narrative. It begins in 1903 and, like Wells, Priest uses a narrator to tell his story, in this instance a commercial traveller, Edward Turnbull. As the novel opens the greatest mystery is far from scientific as Turnbull and fellow salesman, Dykes, discuss the arrival of a young woman, Miss Fitzgibbon, at the hotel where they are staying. Dykes wishes to take a bet on who can speak to her first (this may be Edwardian rather Victorian England, but Miss Fitzgibbon (Amelia) is strictly out of bounds), but Turnbull is more intrigued when he hears that she works for the inventor, Sir William Reynolds – he has recently designed a Visibility Protection Mask for motoring and hopes to interest Sir William. Turnbull arranges an ‘accidental’ meeting as Amelia passes his room that night but, when they face the danger of being caught by the landlady, they are forced to enter Miss Fitzgibbon’s room. Priest has fun with necessity versus propriety from the start:

“‘Your room?’ I said in astonishment. ‘Do you not want a chaperone?’”

Edward and Amelia’s attempts to behave with the appropriate decorum even in the most unlikely circumstances becomes one of the novel’s running jokes: at one point, for example, Amelia refuses to remove her stays even when they are faced with an apparently endless walk over a desolate landscape (and even when she does take them off, she insists on carrying them with her). Edward can be just as strait-laced – when, at the end of this journey, they encounter a group of slave-workers who are “almost completely unclothed” he suggests he go to them alone, but, as Amelia points out:

“We are about to starve to death and you smother me with modesty!”

Edward is not discovered in Amelia’s room even after the landlady insists on entering, but her suspicions are enough to necessitate his departure the next day, though not before arranging to visit Sir William. It is there, of course, he encounters the time machine, and not long before he and Amelia decide on a test run, secure in the knowledge that it will always automatically return to 1903. Ten years in the future, however, they are greeted with unexpected violence:

“Somewhere just outside the house there was a massive explosion, and some of the panes of glass cracked. Splinters fell down upon us.”

And for Edward, an even more disturbing sight follows when he sees a woman running towards the house only to be consumed by flame:

“I had recognised the woman and knew her to be Amelia, suffering her dying moments in the hellish war of 1913.”

And so Priest embeds a future into the narrative that we knowingly head towards no matter how unlikely it might seem, but also one his narrator will attempt to avoid at all costs. In shock, Edward attempts to interfere with the driving of the machine and accidentally dislodges the rod that ensures it travels in time only, sending it through space as well.

It is this accident which takes the travellers to Mars and here Priest does what Wells doesn’t: gives a picture of the world from where the invasion originates. Priest does not deviate from the Martians as portrayed in The War of the Worlds but describes a society which explains their behaviour on Earth. Perhaps the most surprising part of this is the existence of humans on Mars as slaves and food for the Martians; yet it is also the most logical, as the chances of Martians developing a taste for human blood within days of arrival are slim. Priest uses the depletion of humans on Mars – the reason for the invasion – to explain why Edward and Amelia are initially able to remain undiscovered, staying in an empty building and eating in communal areas, largely indistinguishable from the Martian humans. The description of their time on Mars is the longest section of the narrative and, if this does not interest you, you are likely to find this middle part a little slow.

They do eventually return to Earth (and, of course, nearer to Amelia’s possible death), using one of the projectiles designed for the invasion, and Priest introduces characters and events from The War of the Worlds, including a Mr Wells who is not so much the author as one of the author’s anonymous narrators. For those who love Wells, or classic science fiction at all, this novel is enormous fun, very much in Wells’ spirit of wonder and dread. Of the many novels inspired by his work, it is among the best.

The Islanders

May 28, 2012

Unlike J. G. Ballard, a novelist who similarly stood astride literary and genre tributaries, Christopher Priest has never quite made it into the mainstream. He has also had some celluloid success with the adaptation of his novel The Prestige a few years ago (and, in one of those strange connections we often find in his fiction, wrote the novelisation of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Cronenberg being the director who filmed Ballard’s Crash). He has, however, perhaps suffered from not having the same exotic biography to draw on. Though both writers have produced intelligent, radical science fiction, their approaches are different: whereas Ballard is like a microscope, focussing on and enlarging one aspect of society in each novel, Priest’s method is kaleidoscopic, presenting many faceted realities which often only seem to coincide with our own at angles.

His first novel in almost ten years his structure is more kaleidoscopic than ever. The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer, each of its chapters detailing information about an island in the Dream Archipelago, an imaginary island group that has featured in Priest’s writing before. The gazetteer is shamed-facedly incomplete, the islands being uncounted and uncharted:

“There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.”

The Dream Archipelago exists in geographical ambiguity. As Dant Wheeler, a journalist who contributes one of the chapters (more on this later), points out:

“As regular readers know, the IDT no longer publishes maps. The official reason for this is because most maps of the Archipelago are notoriously inaccurate, but our former policy was that an approximate map was better than no map at all. However, the newspaper had to revise this policy when a few years ago the T&V Supp inadvertently sent a group of retired church workers to a Glaund army rest and recreation base.”

This makes the Dream Archipelago a gift for a writer – and is possibly a dig at that particular genre of world-building fantasy novels that always begins with a map.

Though ostensibly a gazetteer, not all the entries are purely informative. As well as the above quoted travel journalism, one chapter contains a series of letters, another documents relating to a suspicious death, and a few read more like short stories. What makes this a novel, however, is the number of reoccurring characters and plot-lines. Most of the recurring characters are artists: the writer Chaster Kammeston, who provides the introduction but whose funeral is described in the text, the artist Dryd Bathurst (whose biography Kammeston writes), the conceptual artist Jordenn Yo who creates networks of tunnels, the writer Moylita Kaine, who corresponds with Kammeston before her own writing career begins (her first novel is entitled The Affirmation, also a Christopher Priest novel). The most important character who isn’t an artist is Elsa Caurer, an intellectual and teacher (and Kammeston’s lover), and also, it seems, the individual to whom The Islanders is dedicated! In this format the reoccurrences can seem increasingly unlikely, but they allow the novel to explore the idea of the artist, though perhaps with tongue at least halfway in cheek. Bathurst debauches from island to island leaving a trail of paintings behind him; Kammeston refuses to leave his island, even for love, because it will damage the mythology of his fiction.

Priest also has some fun with his various plots, genre-hopping in way that goes largely unnoticed until they come to fruition. There is a murder mystery – the death of the mime artist Commis, with clues revealed sporadically throughout. There is a horror story about deadly insects, told in entries in a scientist’s journal:

“We discovered just how dangerous the insect could be when rolled: the bristles are as fine as hairs bit they are stiff and hollow and act as hypodermic needles for the venom they contain.”

(The thryme, as they are called, are quite as terrifying as anything in Alien). There is a love story (Kammeston and Caurer, as mentioned previously), a coming of age story (Kammeston again), a supernatural story (in the chapter ‘Dead Tower’) and a thriller (the story entitled ‘The Drone’). While some of the short, informative chapters can feel like treading water, the longer chapters are often examples of story-telling at its best, and the cross-referencing means that the novel is more than the sum of its parts, with a re-reading undoubtedly needed to fully appreciate it. Priest is a writer we should treasure and acclaim, as those involved in the genre ghetto of science fiction have done for many years.