Christopher Priest: Dreams Of Flying

Christopher Fowler
I'm always astonished by the number of brilliant authors we have in this country who, if Amazon is to be believed, barely register on popular book charts. The problem is with the chart itself which is always the same, starting flat, curving gently upwards and eventually descending to tail away. Let's call the centre of the chart Peak Readability, where simplicity, emotional intelligence and pleasure meet. The further you cross that peak the more demanding the books get. Soon you're dealing with abstract concepts - and shedding readers by the ton. Where did you go wrong? Is it simply intellect and education that stop Agatha Christie fans from reading Ned Beaumann or Roz Barber, or something else? Comfort zones - we're hearing a lot about them right now because folk are not in them in their actual lives, and certainly don't want to be shifted from them in their reading. It's a shame, because Christopher Priest is critically acclaimed, highly readable and incredibly moving. His themes return to circle over his prose, lending an air of expectancy and you'd think, familiarity, but you'd be wrong. Mr Priest is technically an SF writer, in that he offers possibilities and eventualities, but he's more of a reality splitter. His fascinations involve doubles, mirror images, alternatives, flight and escape. He began his career, like most of us, by imitating his influences. His islands and archipelagos appear in a series of novels, where the lands hold the dreams of those who feel incomplete. There's much of the mental analysis that Ballard and RD Laing favoured, but his characters, fused, twinned or separated, are far more human. Living in that part of Scotland which fractures into tiny fiefdoms has certainly shaped his writing but I have favourites of his that have stayed with me. Among his early novels, Inverted World is the most self-consciously 'SF' book with a wooden city rolling forever forward on tracks to stay within its gravitational field. The Prestige, with its duelling rival magicians, was pleasingly filmed, somewhat lighter, but both fantastical and historically grounded. The Separation represents a heart-rending peak. It is another exploration of dualism and imposture as twin brothers split into two different versions of reality in WWII - in which the war is both lost and won. He is fascinated by opposing forces. Why does Priest receive so little attention outside of the SF community? His books fall into the category of Edge Fiction, where it's hard to find a loyal readership. Readers prefer their writers' originality to be edged with familiarity. But try him and be enthralled - he has a new book out shortly.       


roxanne g reynolds (not verified) Tue, 06/12/2022 - 02:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

i was just able to borrow the ebook for my kindle without having to go on a waiting list. never a good sign. 'Helward Mann?' what a delicious name. i can't wait.

MartinT (not verified) Tue, 06/12/2022 - 10:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Amazon selling the Inverted world and The Prestige both for 99p on kindle.
The Space Machine which he wrote in 1976 some claim to be the genesis of Steampunk.
I've read most of his books but The Glamour lost me. Never forgotten reading it but still confused.
Thank you for writing about him.

Ace (not verified) Tue, 06/12/2022 - 11:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'I’m always astonished by the number of brilliant authors we have in this country who, if Amazon is to be believed, barely register on popular book charts.'

I think you've answered your own question right there. It is largely Amazon and more specifically --- its opaque metrics. So you need only look to how most novels are promoted and sold these days. And, if I may be so bold --- the B&M series falls into the same literary limbo --- work by an author who also has more on offer than indicated by the category in which he finds his books

I've read two of Priest's novels,'The Glamour' (strangely, after hearing part of a radio play adaptation) and 'The Prestige.' (after seeing the fine Nolan film you mention). Just based on that limited sample, I can understand how he could easily cause a good deal of head-scratching among the more sensitive of the taxonomists. In fact, I found the fantastical elements in the books almost secondary to his emphasis on the psychology or state of mind of his characters. Again based on my limited experience, Priest is not an author you 'curl up' with. But just when you may begin to mentally fidget, he pulls you in completely.

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 06/12/2022 - 18:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What Ace said. A perusal of "best books of 2022" list is discouraging. Lots of books, few worth reading. Even the prize committees have punked out, favoring the most promoted over the most creative. Oh, well. readers will just have to work harder to find the great ones like Priest.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 06/12/2022 - 19:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

or listen to the conversation here, Brooke. I have put Priest on my library list.

Stephen Groves (not verified) Tue, 06/12/2022 - 20:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Another Christopher to collect .Really ? Mrs G will have to move out !
All best

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Wed, 07/12/2022 - 10:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Added to my ‘must read’ list as well.

Paul c (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 18:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Looking for a dvd of The Presteige I'm my local charity shops I found a box set of Preston Sturges films - what a glorious discovery ! Thank you do much.

I'll add C Priest to my list too. Iwatched The Menu at the cinema yday and hated it. Avoid!

roxanne g reynolds (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 21:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

finished ripping through 'inverted world' in the wee hours this morning. i thought it was amazing. can't wait to read more by CP.

chazza (not verified) Sun, 11/12/2022 - 13:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Always loved his "A Dream of Wessex", his controversial "Fugue for a Darkening Island" and his short stories mesself...

Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 12/12/2022 - 00:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

More and more I want to read him but I guess it's 2nd hand for me since the library supposedly only had a couple and those seem to have gone missing. I'm making a list.

Glasgow1975 (not verified) Mon, 12/12/2022 - 21:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh I love him, his archipelago novels are just bonkers, space and time as we know it just doesn't exist there

Melinda Landis (not verified) Tue, 13/12/2022 - 04:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I read the Inverted World when I was first learning to epread. SF, that is. I’d been reading Heinlein, Asimov, Norton, just beginning to expand past space opera. Along with Dalhgren, it was one I read over and over and never felt like I understood it at all. I was like 22 then. I think of it every so often, wondering if it would become clear or would the wonderful strangeness just vanish, were I to reread?