Two days after the announcement of the shortlist for last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel, Christopher Priest wrote on his blog that part of the award’s purpose is to prove to ‘the larger world’ that science fiction ‘is a progressive, modern literature, with diversity and ambition and ability, and not the pool of generic rehashing that the many outside detractors of science fiction are so quick to assume it is’. But the shortlist, he argued, did exactly the opposite. Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, for instance,
keeps alive the great tradition of the SF of the 1940s and 1950s where people get in spaceships to go somewhere to do something. In this case, the unlikely story begins as the interstellar spaceship arrives somewhere. The paragraphs are short, to suit the expected attention span of the reader. The important words are in italics. Have we lived and fought in vain?
Priest concluded that the judges should be sacked, the ceremony cancelled and the prize suspended for a year.
The essay was a polemic by a writer with a stake in the debate. Predictably, it didn’t go down well with the tiny fraction of online readers who comment on this sort of thing. After all, it wasn’t only a transgression against the pervasive politeness of book culture; it was also a wholesale attack on the current state of the genre. Priest’s charge was that contemporary science fiction sets its own low standards, meets them, reaffirms them with awards, and then wonders why mainstream respectability eludes it. The winner of this year’s Clarke Award was Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, a novel about the descendants of two marooned astronauts, reduced by inbreeding and privation to, in the words of the back cover blurb, ‘an infantile stew of half-remembered fact and devolved ritual that stifles innovation and punishes independent thought’. It’s a convenient metaphor for Priest since it makes it clear that Dark Eden is yet another retread of one of science fiction’s most timeworn premises. An analogous complaint is often made about the insularity of the Booker Prize, which ignores both science fiction and experimental fiction. But partisans of these genres complain because they feel excluded. Priest, who’s been nominated three times for the Clarke Award and won it once, complains for the opposite reason: he feels included to the point of immurement. He sees the Clarke Award as a distress flare which must be kept in working order if the colony is to have any hope of rescue by ‘the larger world’. Until then, he’s stranded.
It wasn’t always so. In 1983, at the age of 39, Priest was included in Granta’s first ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ anthology alongside Amis, McEwan, Rushdie and Ishiguro. That he had already published novels called Inverted World (1974) and The Space Machine (1976) wasn’t then considered the literary equivalent of a criminal record. But it wasn’t the shape of things to come, either for the Granta list – no author known mostly for science fiction has appeared on it since – or for Priest himself. By 2002 the Observer was asking: ‘Whatever happened to Christopher Priest?’ In fact, he’d published eight more novels, and since then he’s published another two; a film adaptation of The Prestige(1995) by Christopher Nolan, director of the recent Batman trilogy, grossed $100 million in 2006. Priest remains, however, the model of a cult author.
This surely has a lot to do with his sentences, which are so workmanlike that you have the urge to offer them a few cups of strong tea as they go about their heavy business. In general Priest’s prose is just dull, but sometimes it reaches new frontiers of dull. Most of his new book, The Adjacent, is set during wartime, so his characters get a lot of bad news. After the destruction of most of west London by an experimental bomb: ‘“What were the casualties?” he said, aghast at this appalling news.’ After the sinking of a hospital ship: ‘I was shocked by the news, the stark reminder yet again that we were involved in a desperate war. “I can’t imagine it. What a disaster that would be, if it were true.”’ After the crash of a bomber plane: ‘I stared ahead at the rough surface of the road, thinking of war’s futility and the death of young men.’ It’s also hard to take seriously Priest’s depiction of courtship, which is primarily frictional: ‘Sometimes they brushed against each other’; ‘His fingers brushed against’ her ‘implant again’; ‘Her nipple brushed against his arm’; ‘As he walked close beside her they sometimes brushed against each other’; ‘the light brushing of her strands of dark hair against the side of his face’; ‘For a fraction of a second their fingertips brushed against each other.’ And the dialogue is no better. One character is described as ‘speaking slowly and pedantically, like a radio announcer conveying an important piece of public information’ – a simile that counts as a rare flight of lyricism for Priest – but it’s impossible to tell from the prose because everyone in this book thinks and speaks that way all the time.
Priest is sometimes compared to Philip K. Dick, who was no great stylist himself, but Dick’s fiction barrels along at such a speed that it never matters, whereas Priest catalogues every landscape and circumstance and emotional state in paragraph after paragraph of porridgey detail. Dick had jokes, and Priest has almost none. That’s why his most successful novel in terms of matching style to content is The Islanders (2011), which is written in the form of a guidebook, and therefore justifies its pedestrian language. It could be argued that people read science fiction for the ideas, not the prose, and indeed Priest has plenty of fans who declare his prose satisfactory, even elegant. So perhaps when we compare the two cultures, we should adopt a sort of relativism, and acknowledge the fetishisation of beautiful sentences as subjective. But that’s the sort of special pleading Priest would reject.
Because Priest has serious limitations as a writer, we need to look for pleasure elsewhere in his work. From his plots, there is the abstract satisfaction of watching all the pieces falling into place, or rather meticulously failing to fall into place. And that develops sometimes into the sort of thrill you get from Kafka, Lovecraft, Borges, Ballard, Dick: when a story of the inexplicable in a contemporary setting infects the real world with a fever of the uncanny. It’s one of the most difficult literary effects to achieve, and Priest’s hit rate is patchy. He’s obsessed with doppelgängers (there can’t be many writers who’ve published two novels in which a woman has sex with her husband’s twin) and in The Adjacent, along with much of his earlier work, we often return to the Vertigo scenario: a character sees someone who looks exactly like a person they once knew but who can’t be that person (or perhaps, later on, can be). Why Priest thinks this still has any juice after its eighth, ninth, tenth repetition I have no idea. But when he finds more inventive ways of muddling a book’s internal logic, as he sometimes does, he achieves a pitch of metaphysical anxiety that’s just about unique in British fiction.
The Adjacent revisits themes, characters and settings from many of his previous books: music-hall conjuring from The Prestige; Tealby Moor, a Second World War airfield, from The Separation (2002); and an imaginary land called the Dream Archipelago from The Affirmation (1981) and The Islanders, as well as a 1999 short-story collection called The Dream Archipelago. The main plot follows Tibor Tarent, a photographer who lives in the Islamic Republic of Great Britain in the 2040s. (Priest never does anything to develop or explain the provocative setting, though you keep expecting him to, which may be the point.) As the book begins, Tarent has just returned from a humanitarian expedition to Anatolia, during which his wife was killed by terrorists. Because the bomb used seems to have employed a mysterious new concept in quantum physics called ‘adjacency’, he is held for questioning at a military base. Interspersed with Tarent’s ordeal are three subplots in different periods and perhaps different realities. The first, set during the First World War, follows a stage magician called Tommy Trent as he travels to the trenches in France to suggest improvements to aerial camouflage. The second, set during the Second World War, follows a bomber plane technician called Mike ‘Floody’ Torrance, who attempts to seduce a female Polish pilot who’s in love with her fiancé, Tomasz. The third, set during one of the Dream Archipelago’s many wars, follows another photographer, Tomak Tallant, and then another stage magician, Thom the Thaumaturge, who bears a strange resemblance to Tomak. By the end of the book, the different realities have begun to seep into one another, and we understand that Tarent, Trent, Torrance, Tomasz, Tallant and Thom are all aspects of the same protagonist, restaging time after time a story about someone separated from and then reunited with his lover.
So The Adjacent is a sort of homage to J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, in which a man called Travis, Talbot, Traven, Tallis, Trabert, Talbert or Travers, who is in flight from ‘the very facts of time and space’, watches his wife die over and over again (and at one point transforms into a bomber pilot). Priest has written repeatedly about his admiration for Ballard, and the two are sometimes categorised as members of the ‘new wave’ of British science fiction. But it’s in the differences between The Adjacent and The Atrocity Exhibition that we can best understand Priest’s uneasy suspension between science fiction and the speculative avant-garde.
Priest’s best book is still Inverted World, deservedly reissued a few years ago by New York Review Classics. It’s set on a planet which isn’t a sphere but an infinite hyperboloid where time moves faster towards the rim than towards the asymptote. The narrator lives in a city called Earth which must be winched along on train tracks to stay as close as possible to the ‘Optimum’. The opening line reads: ‘I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.’ As Priest works methodically through the implications of his deviant physics, we get a sense of a writer who wants to shoulder forward the possibilities of storytelling, and the book comes to seem not only a piece of science fiction but a British attempt at a nouveau roman. Then, at the last minute, Priest ruins it: a physicist appears from nowhere with a technobabble explanation for everything you’ve just read. Imagine if at the end of The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard had revealed that his characters were all patients at a psychotherapeutic role-playing retreat. That’s the sense of deflation, or banalisation, that you get in the last few pages of Inverted World. As Priest writes in The Prestige: ‘The wonderful effects created on stage are often the result of a secret so absurd that the magician would be embarrassed to admit that that was how it was done.’ If the editors of the reprint had cut out the twist, they would have been bringing out something much closer to a masterpiece.
The suggestion isn’t fanciful. Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel, The Invention of Morel (1940), has a similarly silly ending, but when Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet took a similar story as the basis for Last Year atMarienbad they excised the futuristic gadgetry, presenting the same events with no mundane underpinning. Even memory can make such changes. When I was a child I watched an episode of The Outer Limits called ‘Refuge’. I’ve recalled it ever since as a sinister hybrid of The Atrocity Exhibition and Last Year atMarienbad. But watching it again I discovered that it ends with the main character waking up in a laboratory to find he has been in cryonic suspension all along. My misremembered version has gnawed at me for years in a way the real episode never could have. The laws of genre mean that on the whole we can tell whether we’re reading a science fiction novel that will be rationalised at the end or an avant-garde novel that won’t. But a few wander in the borderlands, and it’s here that Priest, at his best, likes to set up camp.
In The Adjacent, the early signs aren’t too promising. Professor Thijs Rietveld discovers that ‘using what quantum physicists sometimes call annihilation operators, an adjacency field could be created to divert physical matter into a different, or adjacent, realm.’ The abuse of the adjacency technology is central to Tarent’s storyline and is echoed in all the rest. As soon as you see the word ‘quantum’ in a work of fiction you know the author is going to attempt something tricky and is hoping you won’t ask too many questions. In this case you begin to fear that all the book’s mysteries will be tidied away as side effects of Rietveld’s invention. But by the end an awful lot of things have happened that the adjacency technology can’t possibly be intended to explain. One of the clichés of the ‘it was all a dream’ ending is that the hero wakes up, like Dorothy, to find some physical souvenir in the bed, so forced paradox doesn’t in itself guarantee any thrill of ambiguity. Often, however, The Adjacent’s jagged edges don’t work to complicate the scientific explanation but rather seem entirely irrelevant to it. At one point, we get a weird hint that Tarent may have entered the kind of virtual reality that Priest wrote about in The Extremes, but the hint isn’t foreshadowed or resolved, which makes it more unsettling than just about anything else in the book. The rupture isn’t in the space-time continuum: it’s in the artwork, and in the mind.
That Priest feints towards scientific explanation and then so cheerfully marginalises it is more interesting than it would be if he had never brought it up at all, because it’s as if we are spectators at the combat between the Atrocity/Marienbad approach and the Inverted World/Morel/‘Refuge’ approach, or perhaps between the science fiction Priest sees on the Clarke shortlist and the science fiction he would prefer. Set aside the question of whether his own work, with its grey sentences and grey characters, would really do a better job of luring ‘the larger world’ into the enclave. Instead, recognise that his essay about the award shortlist wasn’t a diversion from the project of his fiction, but a synopsis. Everything really good in his books comes from the sound of Priest banging on the walls of his genre.