Julia Stretton is a researcher for the Ridpath projection, a machine that has generated a completely convincing simulation of what the world may look like in the early 22nd Century. In the projection, the south-west of England has broken away from the rest of the island of Britain due to an earthquake and has become something of a holiday resort, tolerated by a communist government in London for the sake of international relations. In this vision of the future Julia finds herself drawn to a man named David for reasons she doesn't quite understand, but in the real world the arrival of her ex-lover on the project's staff causes chaos for Julia and the project...
A Dream of Wessex was originally published in 1977 and was Christopher Priest's fifth novel, following up on the extremely well-received An Inverted World and The Space Machine. Like many of Priest's books, it contains musings on memory, identity, consciousness and reality. The book also describes what looks suspiciously like a prophetic virtual reality cyberspace simulation some years ahead of such things becoming fashionable thanks to cyberpunk.
The novel features Priest's traditional narrative hallmark, namely being written in clear and readable prose through which the author laces several narrative and thematic time bombs that explode in the reader's face at key points (dubbed 'The Priest Effect' by David Langford), including several hours after you finish the book when you suddenly go, "Hang on, does that mean..." and you have to go scurrying back to re-read half the book to confirm your suspicions. Characterisation is excellent, with Julia an interesting protagonist who spends part of the book in fear of her ex-lover, but eventually coming to terms on how to deal with him through internal reasoning rather than a more obvious and melodramatic external form (beating him up or having some big speech, for example). As usual with Priest, what he doesn't say about the characters can be as important as what he does say, leaving the reader with some intriguing interpretive work to do.
However, it's the incredible ending that will sit for the longest in the reader's mind. It maybe isn't as completely mind-blowing as The Separation's conclusion or as deeply haunting and unsettling as The Prestige's, but it's still astonishingly well-written and haunting.
A Dream of Wessex (*****) is a very strong work of science fiction, powerful and thought-provoking and the work of an imaginative author at the height of his powers. What's even more startling is that it isn't even Priest's strongest work. The book is not in print at the moment, although some older copies can be found on Amazon UK and USA.