Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago

An Infinite Summer was a fortuitous find at Twice Sold Tales. I knew there were collections of Christopher Priest’s stories floating around, of course, but I hadn’t got around to pursuing them, despite how much I admired his earlier books The Space Machine and A Dream of Wessex. Reading An Infinite Summer quickly led me to Priest’s 2011 novel The Islanders, just released last month in the US by Titan Books; I’ve been half-living in the Dream Archipelago ever since.

infinite-summerThere are five stories in the collection. “An Infinite Summer” and “Palely Loitering” both explore time travel. The title story follows a young man cast out of his own era in Edwardian England just when his dreams of happiness are about to be fulfilled, while “Palely Loitering” is a novella about a curiously retro future. Both of these stories are excellent and enjoyable; but the real attractions here are the three other pieces, all set in the Dream Archipelago.

A vast, world-girdling chain of tens of thousands of islands on a sort of shadow-Earth, bracketed by two warring nations at one pole and an icy, battle-scarred wasteland at the other, the Dream Archipelago is a conception Priest has been revisiting since the ’70s. As with most of his work, it’s a milieu that doesn’t quite claim a tight niche in fantasy or science fiction or slipstream or horror, though there are certainly elements of each.

One of the main things that distinguishes the Dream Archipelago from much modern SF and fantasy is its reluctance to engage in worldbuilding. It seems strange to claim that a book like The Islanders, expressly conceived as the exploration of an imaginary world, has disregarded the worldbuilding convention that so many genre readers crave. But for Priest a setting portrayed so coherently, adhering to a dogma that demands such close attention to internal consistency, would be airless and artless.

For example, we see him mirror contemporary technology throughout the stories — there are cars and planes and radio, and by the time he writes The Islanders there are drones and the internet and email and DNA profiling. But there are also anachronisms: writers who spill ink from inkjars and smoke cheroots, miniaturized surveillance bots. And there are lacunae: unknown regions, blank spots on the map (or, as Priest avers: “No maps are allowed. Not even to me.“).

The concept of a modern age of air travel and instant communication that still permits unexplored regions seems inconsistent; but like any great artist Priest will always sacrifice the consistent for the evocative. It is dream logic for a dream archipelago, and like dreams it may be inconsistent but also incredibly haunting.

So we get a piece of intense body horror like “Whores,” or an eerie tale of obsession like “The Watched,” or a lovely study of moral choice like “The Negation.” As Priest points out in his brief, charming introduction:

The Dream Archipelago is more an idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill and St Tropez thrown in for good measure. I should like to issue a small warning here (knowing, as I do, what the stories are about): each story in the Dream Archipelago is entirely self-contained.

This is true, as far as it goes: any of these stories, and for that matter The Islanders, could be enjoyed without reading any of the others. But one of the many pleasures of reading The Islanders is the elliptical references to those earlier stories. While it’s a bit disappointing to find only passing mention of the island of Tumo or further exploration of the Qataari, for example (both featured in “The Watched”), Priest sketches in some historical context for the horrifying events of “Whores” and provides a melancholy resolution to “The Negation.”

islandersWritten in Priest’s usual lucid, measured style, The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer of selected islands, with longer stories interspersed throughout. The gazetteer entries allude to quirks of geography or custom, while the stories explore the mysteries and injustices and horrors of the islands, and the effects of the endless war in which the islanders do their best to stay neutral.

There are through-lines, of course, connecting threads woven through the novel: the dreaded thryme of Aubrac Grande, an insect species that inflicts a horrible, lingering death on anyone it infects; the unravelling of the mystery surrounding a performer’s murder on the remote island of Goorn; the intertwining lives and loves of artists like Dryd Bathurst and Jordenn Yo and writers like Chaster Kammeston and Moylita Kaine. There is a tale of intrigue as a woman working for a covert mapping agency on Meequa seeks to learn the fate of her lover on the mysterious neighboring island of Tremm. And there is a marvellously eerie novella, an expert blend of psychological horror and Cthulhuesque weirdness, set on the isles of Goorn and Seevl.

It’s these intrigues and unresolvable weirdnesses that prevent the world of the Dream Archipelago from collapsing to a mere analogue of our own world, and that make a persuasive case for uncertainty and mystery in a hyperconnected, Google-mapped age.

Stray observations:

  • The garish and surreal cover of my 1979 US edition of An Infinite Summer (see above) surely must have made Priest shudder, but it’s actually an accurate representation of elements from two unrelated stories in the collection.
  • Priest has a lovely essay on his site about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Guardian review of The Islanders, pointing out that she probably didn’t recognize that the character of the writer Moylita Kaine was in fact drawn from his brief acquaintance with Le Guin herself. He also mentions that Kaine’s novel The Affirmation (a title that Priest recycled for one of his other novels featuring the Dream Archipelago) as described in “The Negation,” is modelled on The Magus by John Fowles. The Magus is also clearly the inspiration for “The Watched” — it’s no surprise to learn that it’s one of Priest’s favorite books.
  • Halfway through writing this I realized I was listening to the soundtrack of The Prestige (which we re-watched last week). Must be Christopher Priest month here in the Smith household.
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In Defense of “The Road”

In her recent negative review of Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, the fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin makes a pretty good case for the book’s slightness:

A good many things in the novel were inexplicable to me, such as how and when North America came to be like this, what happened to nation and religion, how raw materials are produced and how, without trains or good highways, they manage to have coffee, petrol, electronic devices, food in plastic pouches, neoprene suits, plastic throwaway dishes and implements — unsustainably hi-tech luxuries that we in 2014 enjoy thanks to our immense global network of industrial production. In a broken, sporadic civilisation, where does all this stuff come from? Neglect of such literal, rational questions in imaginative fiction is often excused, even legitimised, as literary licence. Because the author is known as a literary writer, he will probably be granted the licence he takes. But social science fiction granted no such irresponsibility, and a novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

There are some good points here. Le Guin’s basically complaining about a lack of worldbuilding in Lee’s novel, and she provides enough specific detail that the complaint makes a lot of sense. But her passing shot at McCarthy — clearly in reference to The Road — just seems wrong-headed to me. Complaining that The Road doesn’t adhere to SF worldbuilding dogma is like complaining that L’avventura neglects the conventions of mystery fiction because it doesn’t (spoiler alert, I guess) resolve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance.the-road

When you get down to it, worldbuilding is really about ecosystems, either natural or cultural. How does this world work? How do its parts hang together? How did it come to be this way? If you buy into the worldbuilding orthodoxy, you demand this sort of detail; and if you really buy into it you relish that detail, all intellectual considerations aside.

But The Road’s focus is precisely: what if there are no ecosystems left? What if all the natural and cultural infrastructures that sustain us are stripped suddenly away, replaced only with the certainty that we can never, ever get them back? What if the world the author builds seems gray and lifeless because that’s exactly the world he’s trying to create in order to explore the themes he wants to explore?

In The Road, there appears to be no earthly life left other than man. This is, to put it bluntly, impossible — no disaster we can imagine, whether meteor or supervolcano or thermonuclear war, could bring about such a state. But the world McCarthy creates has to be this bleak to fulfill his purposes. He masterfully exploits his stark mise-en-scene to examine a very specific question: how can a parent fulfill his obligation to nurture and protect his child when there is absolutely, positively no worldly hope? Complaining that the cause of the book’s apocalypse is left unclear or that “we can’t live without bacteria” (as one of the commenters on Le Guin’s review gripes) is dogma-driven nerdishness of the most obtuse and tedious sort. It prizes a specious rigor over the central aims of art.

Le Guin has complained about McCarthy swiping SF’s goods before (though, interestingly, a close reading of her comment there suggests she hasn’t even read The Road). And she’s long nursed a resentment toward the mainstream literary world — more specifically, to the way she feels the mainstream literary world looks down on SF. It’s an understandable resentment. It can be ridiculous to see a gaggle of Brooklynites or Upper West Siders go apeshit over an SF trope that has, for readers familiar with the genre, long since curdled into cliché. But The Road was a popular success as well as a critical one, and so far it’s had a lasting cultural afterlife (which I suspect Lee’s On Such a Full Sea will not). It’s not just literary mandarins who embraced McCarthy’s novel, it’s the reading public as a whole, and that should tell Le Guin that she’s acting like a bit of a literary mandarin herself.