The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Books 2022, 15)

I’m not sure that I’ve read any of Priest’s ‘Dream Archipelago’ stories before now. Certainly the ones that I’ve tagged with his name are all outside of that loosely-connected set. But you can’t have been interested in SF as long as I have and not be aware of it.

This one, though, well.

Its conceit is that it is a gazeteer of the Dream Archipelago (which is, I’m slightly surprised to discover, what its residents call it: I had thought it was more… dreamy than that).

The archipelago is essentially impossible to map, because of some kind of time-distorting vortices that occur over the world it is on. No one is sure how many islands there are or the names or locations of even the main ones. The writers of the gazeteer try their best in any case.

By way of the would-be-factual entries, plus a number of fairly straightforward short stories (which don’t fit the gazeteer format, but then nothing really ‘fits’ here) we get something of the backstory of the archipelago, and fragments of the lives of a few of its prominent citizens.

It’s all highly readable and makes me want to know more about this odd world and its people (who seem to be essentially human).


Inverted World by Christopher Priest (Books 2022, 9)

With its fairly famous opening line — ‘I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.’ — I kind of thought I had read this before, long ago, maybe as a teenager. But no. It turned out definitely not.

A young man learns his place in a city — Earth City, as they call it — which is moving. Rails are placed before it and lifted up behind it so they can be laid in front again. The city is winched along on the rails by fits and starts. Why? Why is it in motion, and why do the inhabitants work desperately to keep it so? And why is the fact kept hidden from city dwellers who are not ‘guildsmen’?

The answers, or some of them, are within. Though there is no answer to why ‘guildsmen’ is the correct word. Women are second-class citizens in the city. And worse outside it, on the whole.

The people of the city are human, they speak English mostly. They know their ancestors were from Earth planet, as they refer to it. The people in the villages they pass also seem to be human, and they mostly speak Spanish. The sun appears not as a sphere, but as a kind of disk with spikes top and bottom. What can be going on? The title suggests some kind of inversion, but what is it?

Ultimately the mystery isn’t solved in a very interesting way, and the ending is sad, but maybe happy, but maybe sad.

Priest has written much better books, but it bears reading.


An American Story by Christopher Priest (Books 2021, 18)

It was strangely timely that I decided to start reading this a few days before the 9/11 anniversary, since it concerns a man’s obsession with what happened on 9/11. The narrator is a journalist who lost his partner in the attacks. Except her name doesn’t appear on any passenger manifest, and there are multiple mysteries around the whole event.

As there are in real life. But this story takes place in a slightly altered reality. Scotland already has its independence, and England – or at least the little we see of London – has become increasingly dystopian, plagued by militarised police and surveillance.

The action switches back and forth in location between the Isle of Bute (where Priest also lives) and various parts of the USA (and sometimes those places are oddly coterminous). And also jumps around in time, from the present of the story – roughly 2017-8, when it was written and published – to before and during the 11th of September 2001, to various points between the two. It even dips a few years into the future.

It touches on ideas and discussions that are considered the domain of conspiracy theories, but largely avoids going down those rabbit holes. As one review I read said, ‘Conspiracy theories purport answers, often paranoid and outlandish; An American Story is about questions.’

It’s well worth a read, though there a couple of threads that he starts and leaves hanging, that I think would have been interesting to follow.

I usually forget to link to the books I write about. Here we are.


A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest (Books 2008, 9)

This is the motherlode of all brains-in-jars/life-is-a-computer-simulation-type stories. Gibson's and the Wachowskis' Matrixes can both trace their origins back to here - or at least, they should be able to. I'm not aware of anything older than this that quite deals with this idea.

At Maiden Castle in Dorchester in the near future (of the time the book was written; it’s now our near past) a scientific research project has been under way for several years. It involves ‘projection’, in which the particpants, their bodies unconscious, enter into a shared, simulated fantasy world. This consensus hallucination was intended to examine a possible future, with a view to suggesting answers to some of the problems of today.

But one of the participants has been stuck in the projection for two years (when the normal period is measured in weeks or a few months at the most); the trustees are getting worried about the costs; and a new participant is about to arrive and change everything.

It is excellent, and (of course) leaves you wondering how many levels of fantasy there are to reality - both the book’s, and ours.


The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest (Books 2008, 8)

What a fine conceit. Take the two great science fiction works by one of the genre's defining masters, mash them up together, and use the result to tell the 'inside' story of both of them.

It’s title is an obvious allusion to The Time Machine, but this is actually much more rooted in The War of the Worlds. And why shouldn’t those two novels take place in the same fictive universe? And why shouldn’t they be linked? After all, Mr Wells wrote both the stories down, so he must have experienced some of the events of both, right?

Priest sustains the tone and style of a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century novel admirably well, and there’s not much to fault in this novel.

Except, perhaps, for the ending. The actual climax and conclusion of the story is well expected if you know The War of the Worlds. It’s just the last page or two; the rationale for the behaviour of one of the characters (a Mr Wells, in fact) in particular is, to my mind, inexplicable. Not that it matters, that late in the story, I suppose, but it does bother me.

I wish I had known about this novel a few years back, when I read both The Time Machine and Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships. It would have sat very well in company with them.


The Prestige, by Christopher Priest (Books 2007, 5)

The most annoying thing about The Prestige is the way it ends; though I can see that there was no real reason to continue it after that point. The story is told, all that can reasonably be revealed is revealed (without going into preposterous and unnecessary details).

The book is finished; the tale (which, as I’m sure you know, is about Victorian magicians, and Nikola Tesla) is told.

And yet I still thought, as I reached the last page, “Aw, I want more!” like a kid that wants another bedtime story.

Which is no bad thing, it’s fair to say. Better, as a writer (or almost anything else) to leave them wanting more than to outstay your welcome.

And with that thought in mind, I’ll just say: highly recommended. I’m out.