Christopher Priest, 1943-2024

Like many of you, I was very sad to learn this morning that Christopher Priest has died at the age of 80. I first met him on the printed page, as a teenager in Belfast, where his novels were one of my main escape routes from the Northern Ireland of the day. Inverted World and Fugue for a Darkening Island were favourites then, and the former is a favourite still. Later, when I first started bookblogging, The Separation was the best of the books that I read in the closing months of 2003. I very much enjoyed his Guest of Honour speech and other presentations at Interaction, the 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow. Nineteen years on, we are preparing another Glasgow Worldcon and we’ll be thinking of him.

In 2007, we became friends. We met in person at the 2007 Beneluxcon which was conveniently for me in Leuven, and started a correspondence which continued for a decade and a half. He filled me in on the story of how he didn’t write for Doctor Who, and we reflected on Brexit and other political disasters together. And I continued to enjoy his writing, both new and old.

In August 2016 I happened to be passing through Devon, and we met up in Burrington, where he and Nina Allan were living at the time, and went for a very pleasant lunch in The Grove Inn, the only pub in the area, in the next door village of Kings Nympton. He and Nina loaded me with books to take away. (They subsequently moved to Scotland.)

The last time we saw each other was at Novacon in Buxton in 2021, where as it turned out I contracted COVID (but he fortunately did not). Fanboyishly (if that is a word) I brought over a small part of my Chris Priest collection, and he signed them all for me after breakfast. (He had already signed the ones he gave me in 2016.)

He was funny, passionate, incisive and (I have to be honest) not always kind. He was hugely entertaining to spend time with and I felt that my teenage enthusiasm for a writer I never expected to meet was ripely repaid a quarter to a third of a century later. Paul Kincaid’s brilliant book, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, will give you a very good idea of what he was like and what he was trying to achieve as a writer. I feel privileged that I knew him as a person as well. My condolences to Nina, and to the rest of their families.

Expect Me Tomorrow by Christopher Priest (brief note)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Chad was standing on an unbroken spur of the former sea road, staring out at the remains of the town’s old seaside pier when he felt the phone vibrating in his pocket. The rusty upright piles of the pier managed to hold on somehow, still visible and prodding up at low tide, although low tide had itself become something of a rarity. The sunshine on the white foam of the breakers was dazzling. Greg’s name was on his screen. He turned his back on the sea.

An intricate story, involving (as usual from Priest) twins and (unusually for him) climate change, with three timelines (late 19th century, early 20th, mid-21st) whose interlinkages gradually come into view, meshing to form a complete story. Not my all-time favourite book by this writer but I still liked it a lot. You can get it here.

Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest

Second paragraph of third section:

Working methodically, by midday I had filled two haversacks with canned food and had stolen for future barter three road maps from abandoned cars. I did not see the other man, Rafiq, again during the morning.

This was one of Christopher Priest’s first books, published over half a century ago in 1972, depicting a near-future Britain with a populist right-wing government, over-run with refugees from African conflicts, and the consequent disintegration of the social order. It’s told through the viewpoint of Alan Whitman (“White man”?) who is frankly unpleasant; he cheats on his wife and on his travelling companions, not for the sake of any grand strategy but because he’s just that kind of guy.

Since the book was published, the topic of migration and refugee flows has become considerably more toxic than it was then. Priest is clear that the two things he had in mind while writing were the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which saw the biggest forced population movement in Western Europe since the second world war, and the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, many of whom came (and as it turned out integrated well) to the UK. Those were different times, and for us it’s impossible to read the book now outside the context of the 2015 migration crisis and the poisonous and dishonest rhetoric of recent years.

It’s not what Priest was getting at; he was looking at the disintegration of his own society under the shock of the future, a sort of It Can’t Happen Here, and mapping the disintegration of his protagonist’s household and family onto this social crisis. His target is not the refugees but the corrupt right-wing government that presides over the chaos. The narrative itself is disjointed, three different timelines (as a fugue has three different themes) jumping between several different phases of the crisis as things get worse.

I read this as a teenager and wondered how it would hold up. It’s all grimly credible from a 1971 viewpoint, but of course the world has moved on, and Priest revised the novel in 2011 to smoothe some of the parts that had aged less well. This is not one of his better known books – tenth on LibraryThing, fourteenth on Goodreads – but it was an interesting return. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016 (kindly given to me by the author, who signed it for me). Next on that pile is At the Edge of the World, by Lord Dunsany.

The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As I should have known it would, though, the next move came from Amelia, for waiting for me on the Saturday evening was a letter postmarked in Richmond.

I was given this by the author back in 2016, with an entertainingly ambiguous inscription:

Chris Priest autograph

I guess that the love story which is not between the characters is an old one between the author and H.G. Wells. It’s a very entertaining mash-up of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Our protagonist is a goggles salesman, who hooks up with the lovely Amelia (who is way better than he is; we can see this, though he does not know it); they are transported to Mars, where she undermines the structures of government by bringing them revolution; and return to Earth where they encounter H.G. Wells in the flesh. Witty and well-executed. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that list is Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt, of which I have lower expectations.