Saturday 3 February 2024

RIP Christopher Priest

News has sadly broken that Christopher Priest, one of British SFF's most inventive and confounding authors, has passed away at the age of 80.

Born in Cheadle, Cheshire in 1943, Priest had various jobs as a young man, including an accountant and audit clerk. He discovered an enjoyment of writing at school, and began penning fiction shortly after leaving school. His first story he was happy to have published was "Going Native" (1963), although his first work to actually see print was "The Run" (1966, in Impulse). Priest began publishing short fiction prolifically and became a familiar figure on the nascent British SFF fandom scene.

In 1968 he was able to become a full-time writer and published his first novel, Indoctrinaire, in 1970, in which an Arctic researcher is kidnapped and taken to a location in Brazil subject to bizarre timeslips. Whether the SFF elements in the story are real or a product of the character's mind is a recurring theme in Priest's work. Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) achieved a higher profile with a timely (then as now) story about a near-future Britain whose politics are pushed to the extreme by an influx of refugees from an Africa scarred by war.

The Inverted World (1974) is arguably Priest's most overtly science fictional novel, featuring the City Earth, a massive machine-city rumbling constantly across a hyperboloid world. The book won Priest his first BSFA Award, although in later years he seemed to regard its overt SF-ness with amusement, and wrote a satirical sequel short story with the memorable title "The Making of the Lesbian Horse" (1979).

The next phase of Priest's career saw him predicting the rise of major new subgenres. The Space Machine (1976) ambitiously combines the events of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and War of the Worlds into a single universe and acts as a sequel to both, with Wells himself playing a role in the narrative. The novel has a decidedly steampunk feel, some years before that subgenre became more widespread. His subsequent novel, A Dream of Wessex (1977), deals with human-machine brain interfaces and virtual reality, and was subsequently cast in the nascent cyberpunk genre, which had already been given great impetus by Priest's fellow Brit John Brunner (after early work in this mode by Philip K. Dick) and would later explode again in the United States in the mid-1980s.

In 1974 Priest penned "An Infinite Summer" as a commission for Harlan Ellison's anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, his third massive, genre-spanning anthology work. After repeated failures on Ellison's part to communicate the status of the collection or the story, Priest withdrew the story. The story became Priest's most seismic work for two reasons. The first is that that setting - a beautiful but mysterious world called the Dream Archipelago - inspired him, unusually, to write four stories set in the same milieu. These were later collected as An Infinite Summer (1979). Priest revisited the setting through his career, becoming the closest thing he had to a signature series.

The second is that Priest felt his treatment by Ellison had been unprofessional, and as he consulted other writers whose stories had vanished in the black hole of The Last Dangerous Visions, he realised some had been treated far worse than he had. He embarked on a journalistic investigation of the situation, publishing the results as "The Last Deadloss Visions" in 1987. Ellison initially reacted with bonhomie, comparing himself to Michelangelo completing the Sistine Chapel whilst "an angry Priest rants below," but his amusement was short-lived. His predictably explosive reactions as the situation continued did not deter Priest from covering the story further in new editions of the work, and in 1994 expanded this to a full volume, The Book on the Edge of Forever, which was nominated for a Hugo Award. Allegedly, Ellison would spend some time going around dealers' rooms at conventions and threatening anyone stocking the book with legal action or trying to have them thrown out.

Priest returned to novel-length work with The Affirmation (1981), one of several contenders for the title of his best novel. The novel is also partially set in the Dream Archipelago, but sees the protagonist slipping between that milieu and life in contemporary London, with the fantastic events bleeding over into the mundane and the reader left unsure about what is happening. In one of Priest's boldest moves, the novel has a looping narrative that ends where it begins, which allows the novel to be immediately reread as its own sequel. The book won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

The Glamour (1984), a spin on the invisibility trope, marks a return to a more conventional narrative, although as always this is only relative to Priest's own extremes. The Quiet Woman (1990) revisits the idea of Britain collapsing into a dystopia, with the southern countries becoming contaminated by radiation.

Not for the last time in his career, Priest undertook a career hiatus, but returned in 1995 with his best-known, most accessible and approachable novel. The Prestige is a story of warring magicians in 19th Century England which feels pretty conventional, although engrossing, until its conclusion, when Priest undertakes one of his finest finales. The novel won the World Fantasy Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was nominated for both a Clarke and BSFA award. It's non-appearance at the Hugos remains bewildering. The novel is the only one of Priest's works to be filmed, by no less than Christopher Nolan and staring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie. The Prestige is a fine film, though perhaps a tad less accomplished than the novel.

The Extremes (1998) was something of a thematic sequel to A Dream of Wessex, dealing with virtual reality, but Priest also examines the notion of what he calls "spree violence," manifesting as explosive outbursts of violence by hitherto apparently sane individuals. In 1999 he collected various short fiction as The Dream Archipelago, something of a thematic follow-up to the earlier An Infinite Summer (whose stories it also contains).

In 2002 he returned to fiction with The Separation, another contender for his best novel. The book deals heavily with duality, as identical twins take on different roles in World War II, one as an ambulance driver and the other as a bomber pilot, with a framing device set in the present day. The book is possibly Priest's most ambitious and brain-melting, and defies easy summary.

The Separation also apparently did poorly in sales, with low print runs. Priest did not publish another novel for nine years, leading to speculation of an unofficial retirement.

However, when Priest did return, it was in force. The Islanders (2011) is a confident return to the Dream Archipelago, tying in with his earlier The Affirmation but also acting a travelogue narrative somewhere between novel, gazetteer and story collection. The Adjacent (2013) is a mystery-SF novel about a mysterious weapon that kills thousands of people in an apparent terrorist attack on contemporary Britain, but also ties in with events during World War I and II, including stage magicians aircraft pilots and the Dream Archipelago. In that sense it feels a bit like "Priest's Greatest Hits" assembled as a single novel.

The Gradual (2016) and The Evidence (2020) both revisit the Dream Archipelago more directly, with a musician touring the islands experiencing temporal dislocation and, in the latter a crime novelist who finds his sojourn on one of the islands somehow embroils him in a murder that took place many years in the past.

Inbetween he wrote An American Story (2018), perhaps his weakest work, which explores how conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 emerged. Priest's novels have often challenged orthodoxy, so his examination of why people believe counter-narratives in an absence of proof is interesting, but not especially revelatory.

Expect Me Tomorrow (2022) returns to a favourite theme of twins, this time with two sets of twins in the 19th Century and the late 21st Century. The advent of an ability to communicate across time leads to intriguing ideas.

Priest's final novel is now Airside (2023), in which a film critic goes in search of a missing movie star amidst the infinitely-recessing perspectives of modern airports. Unusually, Priest includes his influences and inspirations for the novel, including the film La Jetée (1962).

In addition to the fiction penned under his own name, Priest wrote media tie-ins under a variety of pen names: he has only admitted to the 1986 novelisations of the films Short Circuit and Mona Lisa, and eXistenZ in 1999 which he penned under his own name after finding the premise intriguing (although the finished film underwhelmed). How many more stealthily Priest-penned novelisations are out there is unknown, but intriguing.

Priest wrote novels and stories that were accessible - his prose was always smooth and engrossing - but completely confounding in their approach to genre, their linearity and if the events were even really happening. Priest's friend and occasional collaborator David Langford dubbed this "The Priest Effect," the moment in a Priest novel when the reader "gets it," either what's going on or at least grasps the strand that things are not as they seem and the floor of the narrative is dropping away beneath their feet. Arguably Priest could over-indulge with this; its notable that his best-regarded novels are those which anchor the narrative on firmer ground and keep their powder dry, deploying the Effect at just the right time and with restraint, to the achieve the greatest impact. For that reason, and its very fine film adaptation, The Prestige will likely emerge as Priest's most enduring work. But all of his nineteen novels are at least interesting and thought-provoking. 

The fact that Priest also managed to pass away shortly before the actually-for-real-this-time, posthumous publication of The Last Dangerous Visions may be a sign that the universe is not entirely without a sense of cosmic irony. "An Infinite Summer" will not be among its contents.

Priest is survived by two children and his long-term partner. One of Britain's most fascinating, enduring SFF talents, working at the outer edges of the genre and occasionally reporting back, he will be missed.


Novels

  • Indoctrinaire (1970)
  • Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972)
  • The Inverted World (1974)
  • The Space Machine (1976)
  • A Dream of Wessex (1977)
  • The Affirmation (1981)
  • The Glamour (1984)
  • Short Circuit (1986, as Colin Wedgelock)
  • Mona Lisa (1986, as John Luther Novak)
  • The Quiet Woman (1990)
  • The Prestige (1995)
  • The Extremes (1998)
  • eXistenZ (1999)
  • The Separation (2002)
  • The Islanders (2011)
  • The Adjacent (2013)
  • The Gradual (2016)
  • An American Story (2018)
  • The Evidence (2020)
  • Expect Me Tomorrow (2022)
  • Airside (2023)
Short Story Collections
  • Real-Time World (1975)
  • An Infinite Summer (1979)
  • The Dream Archipelago (1999)
  • Ersatz Wines (2008)
  • Episodes (2019)

1 comment:

MV said...

Great body of work. Will be missed. Sadly I will never understand what's happening in the Dream Archipelago. The Inverted World is mind blowing.