Since the lamentable passing of J. G. Ballard in 2009, there remains only a handful of British writers with personal ties to the paradigm-shattering
New Worlds/New Wave era, a revolutionary period which saw science fiction imbued with fresh quantities of literary sophistication; more engagement with Realpolitik and pop culture; a redirected focus on "inner space" psychological probings; and a close kinship with the weird, surreal, absurdist, and magic-realist strains of fiction. The UK contingent includes Michael Moorcock, who helmed many of the changes as editor of New Worlds, while simultaneously producing a cornucopia of exemplary fiction; his onetime assistant Charles Platt; Brian Aldiss, a mainstay of the New Wave, now in his nineties; and M. John Harrison, whose most recent novel appeared only four years ago. Jumping continents, we retain, among the Americans connected with the movement, the inspiring presences of Samuel Delany, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, and Harlan Ellison. But Aldiss, Platt, Delany, Silverberg, and Ellison produce hardly any fiction these days, and Moorcock is currently occupied with semiautobiographical novels, starting with The Whispering Swarm, which, while they display fantastical elements, are more roman à clef than otherwise. Harrison's output, although still provoking major excitement upon release, is relatively infrequent. All laudable accomplishments, but still: while the lessons and models and ambitions of the New Wave continue to percolate through later generations of SF writers right down to the present young crop folks as disparate as Christopher Barzak, Lavie Tidhar, and Will McIntosh it seems as if that first generation has mostly fallen silent, except at rare intervals. Until we come to the case of Christopher Priest. Born in 1943, Priest sold his first story as a very young man in 1966. Priest has always been intimately connected with the 1960s movement to remake the genre. While he was not the first to employ the term "New Wave" for this kind of SF (an honor that goes to a fan named Jim Linwood), Priest was one of its first promulgators. He and his books typified the ambiguous, eerie, multivalent stance on science and the substance of reality that the New Wave endorsed. In Priest's novels, human nature and cosmic reality both exhibited spooky quantum behaviors, with subtle slippages between dimensions and avatars alike. Since his first novel in 1970, Priest has produced about twenty books roughly one every two and a half years. Not the output of a Stephen King or James Patterson, but nonetheless a steady creative flow that shows him always growing and responding to changing conditions in the world and in the field. His work continues and extends the esthetic "final programme" of the New Wave with panache and insight. Priest's major introduction to the world at large was certainly his book The Prestige, which became a critically acclaimed film with a stellar cast. While an excellent example of his skills and tactics and interests, the book's steampunk ambiance and quasi-detective mode were not totally representative of his work. Perhaps the most archetypical sequence in Priest's oeuvre is The Dream Archipelago. The short story collection that bears that title is accompanied by novels The Affirmation and The Islanders. In these volumes, Priest charts a strange land somehow laterally displaced from ours, a polity comprised of many linked islands where spatial and temporal anomalies reign. These books belong, at least in one sense, with such Ruritanian masterpieces as Jan Morris's Hav, Brian Aldiss's The Malacia Tapestry, and Ursula Le Guin's The Complete Orsinia. Priest's The Gradual belongs to his Baedeker of Oneiric Atolls and extends the effects and remit of the sequence admirably, while standing utterly and satisfyingly self-contained. Our tale begins, however, not in those esoteric, idyllic isles (ostensibly "hundreds of thousands" in number, some larger than continental countries) but on the mainland, in the drab, dreary nation of Glaund. Note the perfection of this nomenclature: gluey, glandular, gloomy, glaucous, glaucoma, and "grim land" are the echoes. And the city in Glaund where we start is Errest: "to err the most?" Priest will deploy scores of equally perfect cognomens, proving himself a rival to Jack Vance, the master of resonant place and character names. Into Glaund, an autocratic country perpetually at war for no clear reason with its neighbor, Faiandland, is born our narrator, Alesandro "Sandro" Sussken. His parents are talented professional musicians. His older brother, Jacj, exhibits instrumental skills as well. But Sandro will come to outshine them all during his unpredictable and, eventually, radically remade career. The first forty pages of the novel bring Sandro from childhood up to, coincidentally, age forty. This section forms a compact, poignant, completely palpable Bildungsroman. We witness Sandro's blossoming realization of his talents; his less-than-perfect relations with his parents; and his adoration of his older brother, who, shatteringly, in a pivotal moment, is drafted and sent to fight in the endless war, now displaced from Glaund and Faiandland to a polar neutral zone. We watch as Sandro meets and falls in love with Alynna, another musician, who becomes his wife. We also observe the seed of Sandro's obsession with the Dream Archipelago: a rare glimpse of several islands not far offshore from Glaund, on a day when the polluted atmosphere opens up briefly. To my mind, Priest in this opener solidifies our impression of Sandro as a real and believable musician of talent. His take on life, his application to his work, his artistic goals and inspiration and methodology all ring true. Throughout this portion of the book, we are also steeped in the history, culture, and politics of this alternate continuum, which so much resembles our familiar plane and yet is so foreign. This world possess a kind of echt Mitteleuropa feel, in part due to the antiquated technology though it evolves as Sandro ages, going from LPs to CDs, for instance. The old-fashioned gravitas and emphases of Sandro's voice and perceptions evoke the feeling that we are reading some lost volume by Thomas Mann or Bruno Schulz, Alberto Moravia or Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. A bit further into the novel, however, we are going to have reason to conjure up Franz Kafka and Italo Calvino as well. Priest's masterful prose is very sensual and concrete. The reader receives vivid and nigh-tangible impressions of the houses and streets, exteriors and interiors: The place was looking shabby and cluttered: cardboard boxes were stacked in the hallway and up the staircase. The main room at the front of the house was crammed with furniture and more boxes. My parents appeared to spend their days in the cosy music room at the back the piano was still there, but also mounds of sheet music, as well as hundreds of old newspapers stacked in and around the fireplace. Unwashed food plates and odd pieces of cutlery lay on the floor. The curtains were closed but hanging irregularly from the runners, one of which was coming away from the wall. Sunlight glanced in at an angle. There was an unpleasant background smell. This same vibrant specificity will apply when Sandro gets to his longed-for islands as well. In contrast, they will be all lush jungles, glaringly white buildings and oceanside promenades. The innocuous yet potent monkey wrench in Sandro's life arrives in the form of a seemingly wonderful invitation to undertake, along with a company of other musicians, a nine-week concert tour of many of the islands in the Dream Archipelago! He jumps at it, even though it means leaving Alynna behind. The tour is an eye-opener, invigorating Sandro both artistically and romantically (he has a one-night stand with a female pianist). He considers expatriating himself forever but resolves to return home first. Priest plants a couple of little nuggets of information here that will prove central. This is part and parcel of his devilish slyness and craft. I fear I must highlight these clues, as well as reveal a major plot twist, in order to talk sensibly about the rest of the book, whose further surprises I promise not to disclose. But my reveal concerns an event occurring less than a third of the way into the narrative, and much wonder remains undisclosed on the far side. First, Sandro is given a "stave" by the Dream Archipelago authorities and told never to lose it. This small, curious wooden baton seems featureless, but it is demanded like a passport at every point of entry. Also at all these customs facilities he notes an oddball crowd of louche hangers-on who seem purposeless. Bizarrely enough, faces in this ragtag bunch repeat from island to island, sometimes betokening inter-island passages faster than the ships that Sandro rides himself. In any case, the mysteries of stave and customs house idlers are forgotten when Sandro returns to Glaund and discovers that an enormous and catastrophic change has taken place, one that connects The Gradual to the fairy realms of fable, and makes Sandro into a figure with a suitably Wagnerian cast. The rest of the book provides a magnificent step-by-step unriddling, while at the same time continuing the deeply affecting story of our hero and his artistic and spiritual transcendence all of which turns on the explanation for the disaster on Glaund, its causes and its consequences. Along the way Sandro must flee Glaund and return to the Dream Archipelago, on the run from the dictator of Glaund (the operatically absurd and perhaps Thatcheresque Madam Generalissima Flauuran), his life becoming inextricably bound up the archipelago's mysterious class of "adepts," an offbeat bunch employing Carrollian logic and discourse that accompanies their unique powers. While seeking his heart's desire including knowledge about the fate of his decades- lost brother, Jacj Sandro will come to deep intuitions about their work and how it illuminates what once seemed to be a straightforward journey from cradle to grave. I should lastly note that while the Dream Archipelago stands as the polar opposite of Glaund, both in reality and symbolically, it is not portrayed as a utopia, being full of human quirks and disappointments and vices. Organically suspenseful in the manner of real life and not a contrived thriller, with feet planted in the gutter of daily living and head soaring into the empyrean, this book stands comparison to anything by David Mitchell or Mark Helprin or George Saunders. It begs to be filmed by Terry Gilliam or David Lynch or Michel Gondry. And it justifies and ennobles all the high ambitions of the New Wave of science fiction, whose banner Christopher Priest had unfailingly flown, through all of his imagination's manipulation of space and time. Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo
The Barnes & Noble Review