Christopher Priest Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/21/2006]

[Warning: I cannot possibly discuss the first three books without some level of spoilage, because any comments about them must reveal something anti-spoiler purist may not want to know before reading them. I try to keep it to a minimum, though.]

I have recently read three novels by Christopher Priest: THE AFFIRMATION (1981) (ISBN 0-171-11684-1), THE QUIET WOMAN (1990) (ISBN 0-8095-1063-4), and THE GLAMOUR (1984) (ISBN 0-575-07579- 1). If I had to find one adjective to describe Priest's work, it would be "Escheresque". Reading these books (along with THE SEPARATION [ISBN 1-882-96833-6], review in the 03/21/03 issue of the MT VOID), I am constantly reminded of one or another of M. C. Escher's pictures, especially "Drawing Hands", "Encounter", and "Print Gallery".

A paragraph from THE QUIET WOMAN expresses some of this feeling: "The way the evening had developed was a complete surprise. It started ominously: the wine bar where Tom Davie had suggested they should meet turned out to be one of the coffee-bar haunts she and Bill used to go to in the old days, with a different decor and new prices, menus and clientele. Simply going through the door had given her a chill of alienation. Everything looked simultaneously familiar and strange, and charged with deceptive memories." [page 74]

In THE AFFIRMATION, Peter Sinclair, having undergone several major life crises, begins writing his autobiography, but decides that he will change the names, the places, and indeed the underlying reality to reflect some "deeper truth". Some of the subsequent chapters take place in this new reality, with the new people proceeding with their lives. Yet some of them also seem to have flashes of Sinclair's world. We also continue to follow Sinclair through the progression of his life, and realize that his "misperception of reality" is not limited to the intentional misperception of his writing, but includes what he thinks is his actual reality.

THE QUIET WOMAN begins in what seems to be our present world, but we soon discover that there has been a major nuclear meltdown across the Channel from England. The action takes place in an area considered dangerous and hence somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, and the government has become much more oppressive. The main character has written a book that the government is trying to suppress, a friend of hers is killed, and gradually events take on a level of dislocation. Different people have different perceptions of reality, and not just in a figurative sense.

What makes this even more confusing is that the alternate reality in THE AFFIRMATION is the "Dream Archipelago" which Priest has used in other stories, and one of the characters in THE QUIET WOMAN, when describing her own history, seems to be describing that of one of the characters in THE AFFIRMATION.

THE GLAMOUR by Christopher Priest (ISBN 0-684-81615-6) seems at first to be much more straightforward. The main character has been in an accident and is suffering from amnesia of the period for a few months preceding the accident. He is visited by a woman claiming to be his girlfriend, and with her help starts to remember what had happened. Or does he? Priest writes most of this novel in a much more traditional structure than THE AFFIRMATION or even THE QUIET WOMAN, but still manages a few twists.

To order The Affirmation from, click here.

To order The Glamour from, click here.

To order The Quiet Woman from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/13/2007]

FUGUE FOR A DARKENING ISLAND by Christopher Priest (ISBN-10 0-330-25544-4, ISBN-13 978-0-330-25544-8) is written in a very temporally disjointed way. There are four different threads, and Priest jumps among them without much warning. One is when the narrator, Alan Whitman, first meets his wife. One is when Britain starts to fall apart. One is when Whitman and his family have fled their suburban home. One is when Alan has joined up with a band of rebels/scavengers/whatever. Two things to remember are that Whitman is not necessarily the most reliable narrator, and that things that are not explained at first will eventually be made clear. In particular, the explanation of the social breakdown does not even begin until well into the novel, and a more complete explanation does not occur until the midpoint.

One may argue that the novel seems misogynist or racist, except that all these views are expressed by the narrator, who is misogynist and racist, (And, yes, the title has a double meaning.) What it does do is carry on the tradition of British science fiction in portraying people coping with social disintegration. John Christopher's DEATH OF GRASS, Brian Aldiss's GREYBEARD, John Wyndham's DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, Terry Nation's SURVIVORS--all of these are classics in the theme. FUGUE FOR A DARKENING ISLAND is too "literary" in its fractured time sense to become a classic in the same sense as those others, but it is nonetheless a noteworthy entry in the sub-genre.

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AN INFINITE SUMMER by Christopher Priest:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/03/2007]

AN INFINITE SUMMER by Christopher Priest (ISBN-10 0-440-14067-6, ISBN-13 978-0-440-14067-2) is a 1979 collection of five short pieces: "An Infinite Summer", "Whores", "Palely Loitering", "The Negation", and "The Watched". These stories have connections with other Priest works. For example, the author in "The Negation" (a 1978 story) has written a book titled "The Affirmation" which takes place partly in the "Dream Archipelago". In 1981, Priest wrote a novel titled THE AFFIRMATION, also using the Dream Archipelago, and "Whores" (as well as all five stories in his 1999 collection THE DREAM ARCHIPELAGO) also takes part in the Dream Archipelago. And in the introduction, Priest says that "An Infinite Summer" was intended to be part of his novel THE SPACE MACHINE, but could not integrate it well enough.

"The Watched" seems even more topical now in its use of surveillance devices, but also has a flavor of classic first contact stories, and some unexpected twists. (I thought I knew what would happen, but I was wrong.) This is one of Priest's three Hugo-nominated works; the other two are "Palely Loitering" (also in this collection) and his 1974 novel THE INVERTED WORLD. I find it noteworthy that Priest received all of his nominations towards the beginning of his career, during the "New Wave" period when people were looking more at style and literary qualities. Priest's later work is far more developed and nuanced, but the trend in Hugos has drifted away from that. (One might also argue that his frequent difficulty in finding an American publisher for his works has not helped. At the 2005 Worldcon, Priest recounted that he sent his 1977 novel A DREAM OF WESSEX to Harper Row, who turned it down, saying it was "long and slow and furthermore British." Brian Aldiss said that he got the same rejection for THE MALACIA TAPESTRY. Publishers liked it but had no category for it. He said that publishers need a new category: long, slow, and British.)

Priest has had only three collections of his short fiction published: REAL-TIME WORLD (1974), AN INFINITE SUMMER (1979), and THE DREAM ARCHIPELAGO (1999). None are easy to find, but all are recommended.

To order An Infinite Summer from, click here.

INVERTED WORLD by Christopher Priest:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/23/2007]

INVERTED WORLD by Christopher Priest (ISBN unknown) is an older novel; it was written in 1974. Yet it displays the same complex structure and (possibly) unreliable narrator that his later novels such as THE AFFIRMATION (1981), THE GLAMOUR (1984), THE QUIET WOMAN (1990), THE PRESTIGE (1996), and THE SEPARATION (2003). Trying to discuss it is impossible without giving some spoilers, so if you want to be surprised by the turns and revelations, read no more of my comments on the book.

Helward Mann lives in City Earth, apparently an enclosed city that moves along a track which is picked up from behind the City and re-laid in front of it. Time is measured in distance (the narration begins "I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles"), but there is more to it than just a different metric, as Mann discovers when he is sent on a mission "Down Past" (and later, "Up Future"). There is the question of why the City needs to keep moving, and a host of other mysteries. One reviewer compared this to Hal Clement's MISSION OF GRAVITY (ISBN-10 0-575-07708-5, ISBN-13 978-0-575-07708-9) in its basis in hard science (physics) as the nature of the "sense of wonder". I found myself reminded of "Into Darkness" by Greg Egan (in AXIOMATIC, ISBN-10 0-061-05265-5, ISBN-13 978-0-061-05265-1), which it's emphasis on strange warpings of space and time. My one objection would be that Priest seems to assume, if not a Lamarckian view, then at least some notion of the exterior environment affecting future generations in a very unlikely way. He also seems to postulate that subjective views can in some sense affect objective reality, or perhaps more precisely, that two observers in the same frame of reference can perceive physical realities such as light and gravity very differently from each other. This may be a hint of things to come in Priest's future novels, full of differences in perception, unreliable narrators, and other disorienting elements. Highly recommended.

To order Inverted World from, click here.

To order Mission of Gravity from, click here.

To order Axiomatic from, click here.

THE ISLANDERS by Christopher Priest:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/15/2013]

And speaking of word-watching, THE ISLANDERS by Christopher Priest (ISBN 978-0-575-08864-1) uses a lot of words that Priest made up (e.g., havenic, shelterate, anti-importunation), and a lot more that you *think* he made up (e.g., erotomane), as well as words usually found only in spoken language (e.g., simoleon).

To order The Islanders from, click here.

THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Priest (St. Martin's, ISBN 0-312-14705-8, 1996, 404pp, hardback):

I have resolved to spend more time pointing out the wonderful books that people don't seem to hear about, and much less reviewing the latest "nth book in a heptology" or whatever.

And this is a wonderful book.

Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier were two Victorian magicians who through circumstance became not only rivals, but bitter enemies. Borden's descendent is a modern-day journalist who has been having strange "premonitions" of a lost twin, and eventually becomes entangled in the strange tale of his ancestor and Angier. Both Borden and Angier were masters of deception, and it is this bent towards deception and concealment that leads to their war against each other. That both perform a trick involving magical bilocation is part of their rivalry, but only part. How they perform their magic, and the implications thereof, are only slowly unfolded throughout the book. By the end it all makes sense if one accepts some science fictional conceits and a certain amount of misdirection. But then, misdirection is what prestidigitation is all about, and Priest manages his magic trick as neatly as Borden and Angier do theirs.

This is a book that you cannot read only once. As with a stage magic trick, there is a compelling desire after seeing the trick to go back and see if one can figure out how it was worked. (This has been used to excellent effect in a couple of movies of late as well. After reading it you'll know which ones I mean, but even saying which is giving too much of a hint.)

This is a magical book, and the one mystery is how it's managed to remain as invisible as it has, especially given that it won the World Fantasy Award. It would be a better trick to materialize it on everyone's night stand (though of course that would bypass the royalties for it). So I'll settle for giving you a strong recommendation for this book.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/27/2006]

In preparation for the upcoming movie, I re-read THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Priest (ISBN 0-312-85886-8). The movie has many changes from the novel, yet the basic structure and underpinnings are kept intact. What changes were made to the script were made to tighten up the story (hence, for example, the elimination of all but the first generation of Angiers and Bordens), or to make it more visually understandable, or to add additional twists. What is important to note is that in spite of the changes, the film will not disappoint fans of the book. I do not want to say too much, because I want those unfamiliar with the book to go into the movie fresh, so I will just say that I highly recommend both.

To order The Prestige from, click here.

THE SEPARATION by Christopher Priest (Scribner UK, ISBN 0-743-22033-1, 464pp):

This is the book that everyone is talking about--well, everyone who has seen it. Unfortunately, that's not a huge audience, nor does it appear likely to become one. This is not because THE SEPARATION is a bad book, however. It's a very good book--but very unmarketable.

Christopher Priest earlier wrote a novel, THE PRESTIGE, about twins, and magical bilocation, and other related concepts. Priest revisits this somewhat in THE SEPARATION, with two twins, Joe and Jack Sawyer. Both are called "J. L. Sawyer", which leads to confusion, especially as they have enough similarities

to promote this confusion. For example, they were both in Berlin in 1936 as a rowing team at the Olympics.

But when war comes, they go their separate ways. Joe becomes a conscientious objector, and Jack becomes a bomber pilot. (This leads to one confusion when someone in the government conflates the two and tries to figure out how a conscientious objector could also be a bomber pilot.) Each becomes involved with well- known historical characters--or possibly their doubles. (And, no, Field Marshal Montgomery wasn't one of them.)

All this would be relatively straightforward were it not for the fact that the events of the novel are taking place in at least two alternate universes, possibly three, or even more. The novel begins in a world in which an author is researching a history book in a world obviously not ours. He gets a manuscript from someone which purports to be true, yet describes a world or timeline which seems to be ours. (This is made a bit more confused by the fact that its narrative is told in reverse sequence, something like the film MEMENTO, though for different reasons.) Then there are some documents which seem to span the timelines, and then another narrative in yet another timeline.

Believe me, you will want to take notes.

(I read the book, then immediately re-read it, taking notes, discussed it with a friend who had read it, and then went back and re-read parts again.)

(I will note that I said of THE PRESTIGE, "This is a book that you cannot read only once. As with a stage magic trick, there is a compelling desire after seeing the trick to go back and see if one can figure out how it was worked.")

If this book is so enthralling (which it is) and well-written (which it is), why do I think it won't find a huge audience? Well, it appears unlikely to get a major publisher's release in the United States, perhaps in part because the story is completely British. Not only are all the characters British (or German), but the story centers around the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, two aspects of World War II which do not have the appeal in the United States that other, later parts of the war do. Even in Britain, it seems to have gotten a rather small release.

I realize it seems as though I have told you a lot of the plot, but I have given you only a brief outline and left most of the major events out. I highly recommend this book, though if you are in North America, you will have to order it from or other British bookshop unless you're lucky enough to have a specialty shop near you that is willing to take the risk to carry it. (I can't seem to find it in Canada, my first choice for ordering British books, as the exchange rate and shipping are both cheaper.) Luckily, it has gone back for a second printing after being basically unavailable due to a very small, trade paperback only first printing.

I also said of THE PRESTIGE, "This is a magical book, and the one mystery is how it's managed to remain as invisible as it has, especially given that it won the World Fantasy Award." At least THE PRESTIGE had a United States publication. I think Priest's problem is that his works are too literary to be marketed to the audience that buys the vast bulk of science fiction, and too fantastical to be marketed to a mainstream literary audience. (As Ellen Asher noted at Boskone, publishers don't necessarily publish what will sell, but what they know how to market.) I'm sure people from both sides will attack this position, but THE SEPARATION seems to me a book that should appeal to the same people who read Frances Sherwood or Michael Chabon--to pick two authors I've read recently--but publishers don't know what to make of it.

[As of 29 Nov 2005, THE SEPARATION is now in print in the United States, from Old Earth Books.]

To order The Separation from, click here.

THE SPACE MACHINE by Christopher Priest:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/04/2007]

THE SPACE MACHINE by Christopher Priest (no ISBN) is a much more straightforward novel than just about any other Pries novel. This is probably because it is an homage of sorts to H. G. Wells, a combination "coquel" of sorts to both THE TIME MACHINE and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. It is written in a much more Victorian style, with Victorian sensibilities, and should appeal to fans of Wells even more than to fans of Priest.

To order The Space Machine from, click here.

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