Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
Though it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year (but didn’t win the prize), it has taken me a while after reading The Adjacent by Christopher Priest to assimilate how I feel about it, and even longer to work out how to write about it!
On the one hand, it would be easy to suggest that this is a novel for the initiated, for those who are already familiar with Priest’s locus at the slipstream end of science fiction, especially so as it revisits his ‘Dream Archipelago’ – a group of imagined islands he has written about several times before – in one of the novel’s plot-lines. On the other hand, it stands alone perfectly well as a multi-stranded story, weaving from a speculative fiction future to WWI and back again via WWII, yet it is likely to be seen as tricky to read, occupying that borderline area between literary and science fiction.
The story starts in the 21st century with a photographer, Tibor Tarent, returning home to a debriefing after the death of his wife Melanie in a near-Eastern warzone where she was an aid-working doctor. Melanie, it seems, was killed by a new weapon, which just ‘annihilates’ a triangle of space and everything in it.
The land to which he returns is unrecognisable; large parts of the IRGB, (the Islamic Republic of Great Britain we assume, although it is never named in full), are now uninhabitable due to climate change, and a whole triangular chunk of London around Notting Hill has been lost. Tarent has to travel north to a safe base in Lincolnshire, and is transported there in a giant armoured vehicle. One of the other passengers is a woman who only identifies herself as Flo, who works for the Ministry of Defence. At their overnight stop Tarent finds that they are two people with needs!
We then jump back to WWI and meet Tommy Trent, a stage illusionist who has been seconded to help disguise aircraft in France. He travels with Bert – also seconded, who turns out to be none other than HG Wells. In a third strand, there is almost a romance between an aircraft engineer Torrance and the girl who delivers the spitfires, who has a fiancé Tomasz.
In between we revisit Tibor – or do we? In one section, ostensibly in his past, he recalls his meeting with the scientist who invented the ‘Purturbative Adjacency Field’ or PAF, the tetrahedral quantum field that annihilates its contents in one dimension – originally designed as a tool of defence but later, in the wrong hands, transformed into a weapon of mass destruction. The first time we encounter Tibor he doesn’t remember the meeting, the next he does – is he the same Tibor?
In all the strands of the story, the names, both forenames and surnames, echo each other – Tibor, Tomasz, Torrance, Tommy, Tarent, Trent and so on – and with the female characters there is always a similar variation on Melanie, Krystnya or Flo. They’re close, adjacent you could say. Are the characters in each time echoes of each other? Are the slightly varying details in the different parts of each time-strand adjacent too, or different memories? Or are they in parallel universes?
Although the background to almost all the sections is war of one kind or another, grimly depicted, we must consider the unsaid running joke all the way through that is the Bermuda Triangle, and never more so than in the part of the novel located in the fiercely neutral island of Prachous, in the Dream Archipelago, where another magician will perform the Indian rope trick and a woman pilot will search for her lover. It’s like all the echoes from the other strands meet up here, wherever this ‘here’ actually is.
All the talk of quantum annihilation and so on serves to hide the real thread that runs through each of the story arcs. There is the notion of a central romance – always searched for as the characters go on their journeys. The question of whether any of the pairings will find each other and through that happiness, is the main driver to the majority of the stories, but seen through a distorting lens.
Anyone who has read a Priest novel before – maybe some of you have encountered The Prestige, his tale of warring magicians and a fantastic disappearing trick – will recognise his recurring themes of magicians, illusions and doppelgangers. His earlier story cycle The Dream Archipelago introduced the chain of islands in the middle of an ocean, a neutral zone between warring continents, which reappear here as well as in his novels The Affirmation and The Islanders. Photographers are another favourite mind-bending trope of his – is what you see through a lens the truth?
I am always drawn to dystopian societies and speculative fiction in novels, so I’ll freely admit that the futuristic story of Tibor Tarent captured my imagination the most, alongside the meeting between Tommy and Bert whose conversation presaged and set in motion everything that was to come afterwards.
Priest’s visions are extraordinary, and raise the novel above its sometimes utilitarian prose. If you don’t mind a novel that makes you think and constantly question it, yet is strangely compelling, then Christopher Priest may be for you. Although I enjoyed reading it, The Adjacent may not be the best starting place if you haven’t read this author before, but several weeks after finishing reading it, I’m still thinking about it, which can’t be a bad thing.
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and hopes that the PAF stays forever in the realms of Science Fiction.
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (pub 2013, Gollancz, London) 978-0575105380, 432 pp., paperback April 2014.