Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Reading Christopher Priest

As I have noted before on this blog, I have had tendency, which though it has declined, was strong in the 1980s-2000s of reading all the books that I could by a particular author.  I have written here of my engagement with the books of Michael Moorcock and Michael Dibdin.  Back in June, finishing the last (so far) published book by this author that I had not so far read, I was reminded that I could put Christopher Priest in this category.  In some ways he is similar to the previous two, that whilst he can write realistic fiction, often he writes along the borderlands between fantasy and magic realism.  I have been impressed by some of Priest's books and dismayed by others.  Yet, his writing is always engaging if only because it infuriates and I feel that despite his long career he is even more under-rated in mainstream culture even than Moorcock.

Priest was born in 1943 making him five years younger than Moorcock.  He began publishing short stories in 1966 including in 'Impulse' and in 'New Worlds' which Moorcock edited 1965-9 and 1971.  Unlike Moorcock and other British science fiction authors of the late 1960s/early 1970s, Priest's work does not engage with an overly fantastical approach and seems uninfluenced by the drugs culture of the era.  Perhaps that is not a correct statement, as many of his characters can have a distorted perception of reality or can be thrust into a delusional state.  However, whereas contemporaries at that time could see such states and perceptions as liberating for Priest's protagonists they are at least challenging if not down right dangerous. 

Priest's work, even when considering fantastical ideas, remains grounded in reality, sometimes cynically.  There is an air in Priest's work of the individual losing control whether to stronger individuals or to larger elements in society or the environment.  This is not to say that Priest's work is fatalistic, it is just that he is very adept at painting the kind of nasty people we can all encounter in real life.  Naturally this keeps Priest's writing 'grounded' even when touching the fantastical and his portrayal of characters can be more effectively painfully acute than those of strictly realist writers.

Priest published his first novel, 'The Doctrinaire' in 1970.  It is a short story collection and is of its time.  Whilst many of the stories could have been produced by many other writers of science fiction at the time, as reviewers note, Priest's ability with unpleasant characters and settings is apparent.  This should not be taken to suggest he is a horror writer and that makes his writing more penetrative, Priest knows that the greatest evil is not extravagant but mundane.

I have read 'Fugue for a Darkening Island' (1972).  I came to this book after having read many of his subsequent books.  I think if I had not read other Priest books by then I would have shunned him entirely.  There are a few reviews online which you can find for yourself which highlight how racist a book it is.  However, there seems to be no record on the trouble it caused.  As far as I can see it really only began to attract criticism during the 1980s in the context of race riots such as that in Brixton in 1981.  The book portrays a Britain in the near future which is under an authoritarian government.  Britain is overwhelmed by refugees from sub-Saharan Africa fleeing a nuclear exchange in the region.  By the time the novel is set, Britain is in the midst of a racial civil war between blacks and whites.  The story has little narrative direction, it is a 'slice of life' portrayal, but this can be said to characterise a number of his novels and in fact, many works of British contemporaries like Moorcock and J.G. Ballard.

The story has a clearly biased perspective, showing the blacks as more brutal and a greater threat to Britain and 'Britishness' than white authoritarianism.  Apparently it is not published often (though is available on Amazon still) and this may explain why it is not a 'set book' for the BNP and other racist political parties.  The entire principle of the books appears to pander to all the paranoia about Britain being 'over-run' by refugees from non-white ethnic groups, even during the 1990s when there was net emigration from the UK with so many middle class people moving to France, Spain and Florida. 

It is difficult to gauge Priest's political stance, though apparently he was angered by criticisms he received in the 1980s and this stance does not seem to appear in any subsequent books.  In addition, he features a lesbian couple in a positive way in a story 'The Dream Archipelago' (1999) in a brilliant piece of writing which misleads the reader very well in regard of the characters' gender.  Whilst tolerance of same-sex couples does not always go hand-in-hand with having a multi-cultural perspective, it does seem to jar.  I do wonder if after 'Fugue for a Darkening Island' Priest's views on racial matters shifted or he simply realised that if he continued to peddle racist propaganda in his novels he would not get published (the Race Relations Act became law in 1976).  This novel is certainly an indelible stain on Priest's career and unfortunately cannot but detract from the strength of his other writing.

The novels of Priest's that I first came to were those which can be seen as clearly magic realism.  I bought 'A Dream of Wessex' (1977), 'The Glamour' (1981) and 'The Quiet Woman' (1990) all in the same imprint from a remaindered bookshop in Oxford in 1993.  These books have a very British feel about them and in many ways are 'gentle' books, not shaking you with brash ideas in the way that some of Priest's other novels, for example, 'The Inverted World' (1974) do. 

These stories are set at the eastern edge of South-West England, areas like Dorset and Wiltshire.  'The Quiet Woman' is really about a woman unravelling how a local man has been party to manipulating the media to hound political activists.  It is set in the near future when the region is suffering from the fall-out from a nuclear accident at one of France's numerous power stations., if not for that future setting it could have been a realist novel.  'A Dream of Wessex' is more clearly science fiction, featuring a group of people seeking to learn potential future developments for the UK by going into a computer simulation of the country in the near future.  The exact nature shifts depends on who is overseeing the project and it is interesting when the source of power for Wessex (which has become separated from the rest of England) is shifted from wave power to oil rigs off the south England coast when a new project director with less ecological attitudes comes in.   In this context which is clearly reminiscent of stories such as 'The Matrix' movies, there is a search for individuals and an attempt to reassert the 'better than real' nature of Wessex. 

Priest's sympathies for those fighting against individuals repressing political activism and ecologically sound approaches to power supply seem to suggest Priest is a liberal and this makes it hard to reconcile with his authorship of 'Fugue for a Darkening Island'.  There was clearly a lot of turbulence in Priest's political attitudes which does not seem to be revealed to the average reader.

As 'A Dream of Wessex' can be seen as a precursor of 'The Matrix' and 'The Quiet Woman' of 'Edge of Darkness' (1985), 'The Glamour' contributes much to contemporary vampire stories like the 'Twilight' and 'True Blood' series.  The special characters in 'The Glamour' are not vampires, but do have an ability to make themselves unseen by ordinary people.  Following an accident the protagonist becomes involved in an almost love triangle including a male of these different people.  Again, Priest is excellent at crafting the antagonist in a way that you know that whilst he does not engage in overt violence, you know your life would be shattered simply due to his whim, if you encountered him for real.  In a low key novel like this, the reality of that character and the almost raw strength of his nasty personality stand out all the stronger.  As in many of his stories, like 'The Extremes' (1998) and 'The Separation' (2002), and in his novelisation of David Cronenberg's screenplay for 'eXistenZ' (1999)  Priest plays around with the sequence of events and time and people's perceptions of them.

In terms of the chronology of Priest's writing I have jumped ahead.  His third novel was 'Inverted World' which whilst more clearly science fiction encompasses familiar traits of Priest's work in an interesting way.  The story features a rolling wooden city moving across the landscape, which actually turns out to be Spain.  The residents of the city see time and space differently to the way we do.  What they see about their 'world' of the city and the humans they encounter is shown from their perspective so making 'us' appear very alien.  Like much of Priest's work this questions our views of what is true when discussion (mis)perceptions. It is well written and like the best of Priest's writing submerges you in the 'reality' of the context and the characters and it deservedly won the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) award.  

Priest's next novel, 'The Space Machine' (1976) which I finished reading this June, plays a little with time and space with the protagonists taking the time machine from H.G. Wells's 'The Time Machine' (1895) but using it travel to Mars on the eve of the Martian invasion of Earth as portrayed in Wells's 'The War of the Worlds' (1898).  It is a more conventional action science fiction story, written as a pastiche of Wells's work.  Only the focus on the development of the male protagonist's lust and then love for his female counterpart and reference to their growing relationship betrays the fact that the novel was written in the 1970s when it seems it was compulsory to include such elements.  It is well paced and portrays both late Victorian London and Mars as suggested by Wells vividly and far less whimsically than 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II' (2002-3) which also presents a different perspective of the invasion.  Priest's novel is a good read that sweeps you along.  In many ways it can be considered an overlooked steampunk novel at a time when Moorcock with his 'Nomad of Time' series was also stimulating the seeding of this genre.  Priest has been vice president of the H.G. Wells Society since 2006; other vice-presidents have included: Brian Aldiss, Stephen Baxter, Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Foot.  I very much enjoy this novel and hope that Priest returns to steampunk writing.

One setting that forms the background for a number of Priest's stories, is the dream archiepelago.  The collection 'The Dream Archipelago' encompasses all the stories from an earlier collection 'An Infinite Summer' (1979).  It features a fictional archipelago which even to the characters may be a delusion or a fantasy.  This context is the setting for 'The Affirmation' (1981) in which the protagonist battles to decide whether he is the author or his own character in a novel set in the archipelago; it reminds me of the similar merging of author or character seen in the movie '2046' (2004) which with its distortion of time flow and perception fits well within the Priest-style exploration of worlds.  The premise of 'The Affirmation' is well handled, despite the seeming complexity of the set-up. 

Stories among those set in the Dream Archipelago context do stand out.  Again, the mundane nastiness that Priest does so well is noticeable, especially the consequences of misunderstanding local social customs and unspoken communication when at a funeral.  This motivated me to write 'The Wedding Party': in a feeble attempt to mimic Priest's story.  In 'The Affirmation' and 'The Dream Archipelago' Priest demonstrates that science fiction can be light touch and from that approach allow the crafting of acutely observed and portrayed characters and interactions.

After a relatively quiet period in his career in the 1980s when Priest produced movie novelisations as diverse as 'Short Circuit' (1986) and 'Mona Lisa' (1986), he steadily rose in public recognition in the 1990s and his output increased too. 'The Prestige' (1995) was the one book which brought Priest a higher level of recognition than any other because it was made into a movie, 'The Prestige' (2006).  The novel won a World Fantasy Award.  As with much of Priest's work, there is a grounding in very credible reality, rivalry between two Victorian stage magicians, but with the added fantastical element of electrical power seemingly allowing teleportation.  The movie adopts a different approach, though equally steampunk, in that it replicates whilst transporting so creating multiple versions of the magician rather than a single semi-copy as in the novel.  The rival who simply uses his twin brother and the difficulties that causes for their family lives, is carried between the two and in other author's hands would have been the extent of the story. 

With this novel, Priest moved from the 'near future' into a different time context, but brought with him his usual themes and because of his successful portrayal of harsh individuals was well suited for portraying the bitter rivalry and hard people of the time and business.  The characters in the movie were felt to be underwritten, but that the actors, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale lifted their roles above this.  Priest himself enjoyed the movie and saw the variations from his novel as innovative and exciting.  All credit to him for not adopting the Alan Moore approach to movie adaptations of his work!

'The Extremes' (1998) also won a BSFA award.  Like 'eXistenZ' and 'A Dream of Wessex' it features a protagonist going into a virtual reality to uncover truths about the 'real' world.  It features an American woman in Britain exploring events around her husband's death during a shooting spree in the USA by allowing her to 'go into' the event.  A friend of mine and I cannot agree whether ultimately the protagonist is transported back to that time and place or whether the virtual reality simply becomes her dominant reality.  Again it explores themes of reality and perceptions of it, but in a way which seems very contemporary both in terms of technology, the traumatic incident and the impact on those associated with it.  The US setting is a new departure for Priest, but I imagine was to address a potential American audience brought to his work by 'The Prestige'.

'The Separation' (2002) has counter-factual elements but also features discussion of what is 'real' and features a messing around in the sequence of events as seen in 'The Glamour'.  It features twin British brothers at the time of the Second World War who at a juncture experience different outcomes, one the war we experienced in our world and the other a world in which Britain made peace with Nazi Germany following the arrival of Rudolf Hess in Britain.  As with 'The Prestige' Priest shows good attention to period detail.  As with a number of his stories, there is no strong narrative thrust, but rather interesting speculation on how events would unfold in the different contexts leaving the reader to come to firm conclusions if they desire. This novel also won a BSFA award, Priest's third, and an Arthur C. Clark award too; 'The Prestige' and 'The Extremes' had both been nominated for this latter award when published.

It is difficult to find out biographical details about Priest, but he faded from my sight and that of the general public, I imagine, through the 2000s. Priest is now 68 so he may have been in semi-retirement. However, we are promised 'The Islanders' (2011) and 'The Adjacent' (2012).  Christopher Priest comes over as an erratic writer but one who has produced novels and short stories of recognised high quality.  Even in his 'quieter' novels, he produces acutely observed characters some of which that are almost so uncomfortable to read that you feel you have to set the story aside.  Yet, you are locked in by the ideas that he raises and toys with, giving answers though not easy ones and leaving much up to you as a reader to decide upon.  Consequently, his writing stays with you long after you have finished reading. 

For me, however, my enjoyment of such much of his writing and my true admiration of his skills notably in drawing characters and settings and stimulating thought, will be forever over-shadowed if not contaminated by a single novel, 'A Fugue for a Darkening Island'.  Whilst his political views seem complex and many of them liberal, to me this is one of the most aggressively racist books still in the mainstream and available freely to buy.  Its nastiness is heightened by contemporary debates about refugees, race, violence and the UK and that means it is a running sore on Priest's body of work, ripped open once again to spoil everything else which he has produced.  Despite all his good attributes, I can never forgive him for producing that foul book.

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