an interview with
Born in 1943, Christopher Priest is reckoned
amongst the finest authors yet to emerge from British SF. His early
novels, Indoctrinaire (1970) and Fugue for a Darkening Island
(1972), along with his first collection, Real-Time World
(1974), were bleakly experimental, and competent enough in those terms;
but his eminence was truly confirmed with the appearance of Inverted
World (1974), an astonishing vision of cultural isolation and altered
physics, and The Space Machine (1976), a complex tribute to H
G Wells and one of the first significant steampunk novels. Thereafter,
remaining faithful to the ambitious formal and thematic agendas that
underpinned the SF of the New Wave period, Priest produced work that
was less and less recognizable as genre fiction. A Dream of Wessex
(1977) specifically portrayed SF's imagined futures as artifacts of
solipsism; the Dream Archipelago tales in An Infinite Summer
(1979), later revised and consolidated in The Dream Archipelago
(1999), with still greater resonance classified the secondary worlds
of fantastic literature as oneirisms, glimpses into inner space. By
the time The Affirmation, the climax of the Archipelago sequence,
was published in 1981, Priest was a major writer straddling SF and the
more innovative reaches
of mainstream literary fiction.
His later novels have borne out fully the promise
of that combined stance, amounting to SF and Fantasy written with all
the technical resources of the mainstream. The Glamour (1984)
is a penetrating, and masterfully ambiguous, summation of the causes
and mechanics of the secret history; The Quiet Woman (1990) is
a thoughtful near-future dystopia; The Prestige (1995), which
won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is an historical fantasy whose
twin narratives interleave with the fabulous intricacy of the stage
magics they describe; The Extremes (1998) is an intellectually
and viscerally gripping thriller delineating the interface between virtual
reality and violence. And now Priest has produced perhaps his most accomplished
work yet, The Separation, published by Scribner UK in August
2002. A masterpiece of alternate history, setting out the possibilities
for peace and war that competed for existence in 1941 in the aftermath
of the Battle of Britain, this novel is a triumph of narrative art and
I interviewed Christopher Priest by e-mail
in August 2002, with an emphasis on his recent writings.
NG: Contemplating your
total oeuvre, there is a decided shift from your early SF writing to
your later, more consciously mainstream, literary output. Yet all your
"non-genre" books operate from recognisably science-fictional or supernatural
premises. Are you still at root an SF and Fantasy writer?
CP: Let's get something straight from
the outset. I know I probably brought it on myself in the first place,
but this idea of my having consciously gone over to "mainstream literary
output" is not true. My approach to writing hasn't changed in the last
thirty years. Obviously, anyone can make whatever they like of the stuff
they see published, say it is this or that, give it a label.
But I would argue that in one special sense the books represent the
visible tip of a kind of long-term argument. It's an essentially friendly
argument I've been having with colleagues in the SF world, other writers,
critics, readers. I once characterised it as a family disagreement amongst
people who understood each other rather too well. It's about how science
fiction should be written, what we should be doing with the stuff.
I began writing in the belief that the essence of science fiction (and
incidentally of much of great literature too) was the speculative or
visionary metaphor, handled seriously, tackled without compromise, but
presented in an entertaining, realistic or readable manner. It's a prescription
that governs all the great examples of science fiction. It's what got
me going, what made me want to be a writer.
The problem is that that was in the mid-1960s. Since then, the images
and ideas of SF have been comprehensively sold out to commercial interests,
to TV and movies, to computer games and advertising, to soft-brained
sagas and trilogies and series and sequels. Many of my contemporaries
have given in to this pressure; many of the new writers obviously accept
it as the norm. I've met young writers who have declared that selling
Star Wars or Star Trek tie-ins is a way in to the writing
of legitimate SF. The typical SF shelf in most bookshops is now crammed
with these undemanding TV or film tie-ins, along with paranoid androids,
heroic trilogies or larky fantasies. The serious kind of SF has become
I feel I have carried on in the way I started: I've now published eleven
novels, all different from each other, none of them a sequel to any
of the others, all of them with an original idea and based ultimately,
as you say, on recognisable SF premises. I see each of them as an attempt
to write traditional SF in a new or challenging way, the best I was
capable of at the time I wrote it. I always assumed this was what the
writers I admired were doing.
Now things have in general moved so far to the right wing of commercial
opportunism that I'm viewed as a kind of would-be posh outsider. But
in fact I see myself working within a clear and even conservative tradition
created by Wells, Dick, Pohl, Sheckley, Aldiss, Ballard, Le Guin, Sladek,
I know I'm always being misunderstood on this subject, but it's really
only here, in somewhere like Interzone, within the family, that
I can speak plainly about it. I don't expect anyone to agree with me,
but I want to get it out of the way.
NG: Virtually all your
mature work is deeply concerned with issues of identity (thus recurrent
doppelgangers) and memory (thus your extensive use of confessional narrative
forms). Why this emphasis on the dubiety of the Self and the unreliability
CP: They're all subjects that interest
me, although I'm a bit dubious about dubiety.
On the unreliability of recollection. All fiction is set in the past.
It's a narrative form, based on storytelling.
In our everyday lives stories are invariably misremembered. Anyone
can try it: repeat a story you were told the other day, or describe
something that happened to you last week. You never get it completely
right: you have to improvise a little, blur details you can't quite
recall, add a few twiddly bits for emphasis -- in short you make fiction
of it. So the unreliability of memory is intrinsic to narrative, to
fiction, and is therefore a principal subject for a modern novelist.
The past is always uncertain.
NG: You are an acknowledged
master of narrative structure: your complex novelistic threads of character
and meaning always seem choreographed to perfection, ultimately converging
with the force of revelation. By what stages has your command of literary
CP: I think I'm probably getting better
at it as I go along, so I assume the answer to this question is simply
that I keep trying.
My first attempt to employ something like structure was
when I was writing Inverted World. I managed things so that the
climactic scene, the revelation of the state of the world, came almost
exactly halfway through ... a rising highpoint, like the poles of that
Narrative structure interests me, because it
seems widely misunderstood. For me, much of the challenge of writing
a novel these days is bound up with the structure. I see it as something
that should ideally be invisible to the reader, in the way that anything
made well does its job without drawing attention to how it's done.
I wouldn't want to give the impression that literary structure is something
that interests me more than (say) drawing characters or setting a scene.
I bang on about structure in particular because you don't hear much
about it from other writers and a lot of people don't understand it.
It's certainly something few editors seem to grasp.
NG: Your most recent
collection, The Dream Archipelago, together with an additional
long story, "The Discharge" (on Sci
Fiction), bears an intriguing relation to your early masterpiece,
The Affirmation. In that novel, the "Dream Archipelago" was essentially
metaphoric, a reflection of a disturbed contemporary individual's psychological
crisis; yet in the story cycle, the islands are quite concrete, a harrowing
secondary world. Why does the dream become tangible between one book
and the other?
CP: The Dream Archipelago stories are
an attempt to deal with various odd obsessions and phobias that seem
to haunt or interest me.
right: the islands are essentially metaphoric in The Affirmation
... but the "concrete" descriptions in the short stories are also metaphoric.
They have to be, don't they? It's just a question of emphasis. Look
at the realist tradition in theatre, for instance.
Part of my long argument with the SF "family" concerns the dangers
of taking things too literally. All fiction is metaphor. None of it
is real. This is why SF novels shouldn't have glossaries of invented
words, why fantasy shouldn't be published with a map showing where the
bloody swamp is situated. Readers seem to want these things, but the
writers should resist temptation. Dumbing down invariably follows. Once
you try to make literal that which is metaphoric, the metaphor dies.
If you can't write a novel without the glossary or the map, then you're
making a pig's ear of it.
NG: The endless war
raging in the world of the Dream Archipelago is a savage and meaningless
one, a fact especially clear in "The Discharge". Did this imaginary
conflict help draw your thoughts to The Second World War, subject of
your new novel The Separation?
CP: The straightforward answer to your
question is: No, I don't see that thematic link between the Dream Archipelago
stories and WW2.
When I began the Archipelago stories, the war background to the stories
was my reaction to "proxy" wars: the way the superpowers would try out
their new weapons and techniques in smaller, local wars. Ever since
the end of WW2, war has been a constant feature in the life of the world:
I read once that something like 140 different wars have been fought
since 1945, most of them directly or indirectly sponsored by the big
countries. (The number has undoubtedly increased since I learned that
World War Two is a different matter: it was a conflict of global proportions,
in which the superpowers were fully involved and committed. It had a
drastic impact on the lives of millions of people, with a less dire
but just as dramatic effect on millions of others. (In 1940, my father
and elder sister were strafed by a German plane in Woking, Surrey; a
few weeks later my father happened to be in Coventry on the night it
was destroyed.) I was born while the war was going on, although I have
no reliable memories of any of it. I grew up in the immediate post-war
All through my life WW2 has been lurking behind me, and I knew that
in the end I should have to find a way of writing about it.
NG: In your very helpful
bibliographic essay on the research that went into The Separation
(online at www.christopher-priest.co.uk),
you indicate your sources at length. You've described your long-standing
urge to deal with this subject, but in summary: in a novel arguing a
pacifist thesis, why World War Two? Why the Blitz and Britain's retaliatory
raids on Germany? Why not, say, the First World War, which more observers,
along with you, would agree was unnecessary, militarism gone mad?
CP: As a writer I respond to the imaginative
impulse. In imaginative terms, the First World War seems to me to be
ground so well trodden that there is almost nothing there for me.
When I was young I read some of the memoirs of the war (Sassoon, Graves,
etc.), mainly to find out what had gone on. Through those books I discovered
the poetry. I was shocked and moved by the poetry. I felt then, and
still feel now, that it would be inappropriate to try to write something
from my nice safe position some sixty or eighty years after the events.
It's a genuine dilemma for a writer, because even superficial enquiry
into that war reveals horrors on such a scale, militarism gone mad,
as you say, that somehow you feel you have no right to call yourself
a writer unless you attempt to tackle those subjects. But then you look
more closely. How could someone like me presume to improve on Wilfred
Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth"? How could you dare? How could you
deal imaginatively with those experiences today, without getting your
emotions from the local Oxfam shop?
World War Two is a different matter. For one thing, many of the people
who took part in it are still alive. Physical traces remain everywhere,
even in central London. Two or three years ago I noticed that some buildings
in Stuttgart were peppered with bullet holes; bomb damage caused by
the RAF can still be seen all over Leipzig. Much of the political situation
that exists today (for instance in the Middle East) can be traced directly
to events in the war. The uniforms that people wore, the planes they
flew, the ships they sailed, the homes they lived in, were not all that
different from ours today. In addition, I had personal links: where
and when I was born, what had happened to my family during the war,
what the world was like in which I grew up.
And from the point of view of an imaginative writer seeking a theme,
WW2 is still rich in possibilities. Many secrets remain; much is unexplained;
people still have things to hide. That's how I came across the story
of Rudolf Hess. It's a terrific mystery, hushed up by Churchill and
the Soviets, a political hot potato, full of fabulous stuff for a novelist
to look at.
(There's information about the Hess mystery on my website, if people
want to explore some of the fascinating books on the subject.)
NG: The counterfactual
development at the heart of The Separation, peace between Britain
and Nazi Germany in 1941, is an historical alternative a lot of people
would consider nightmarish, the triumph of appeasement; yet you seem
somewhat to approve of it. Wouldn't this "premature" peace simply have
aggravated the horrors of Nazism, transferred suffering from the British
to others? A Nazi-dominated Europe through the late Forties and Fifties
CP: Well, The Separation is a
book of ideas, with no particular agenda to pursue, other than my own
general anti-war sentiments.
The so-called appeasers in the British government of the 1930s were
all veterans of the First World War, who had seen the horrors at first
hand and who were determined that nothing like that must ever happen
again. To me, that's an honourable instinct, not a despicable one. Appeasement
only became discredited after it failed, after war broke out, after
Churchill took over. History is written by the victors, and history
is now against appeasement.
As a novelist, I don't give a stuff about historical consensus. I took
the pacifist point of view that maybe there was, after all, something
NG: You do seem to
assume that Nazism would in time have faded away of its own accord,
much as Communism was to do, hardly needing a globally destructive War
to bring it down. In your view, was Nazism's fundamental shallowness,
its self-indulgent vulgarity and barbarity (well exhibited in The
Separation in the figure of Rudolf Hess) evidence that it was simply
a psychopathic flash in the pan?
CP: Yes. For the novel I worked with
the idea that a Nazi government was inherently unstable, and that Hitler,
without a war against Britain to sustain his position, would have been
overthrown. Germany's true enemy was perceived by many Nazis, including
Hitler himself, to be Soviet Russia.
This comes into The Separation and to a large extent it is borne
out by the historical record. All through the war there were various
attempts on Hitler's life, and covert approaches for peace talks with
Britain were made surprisingly often. Much of this has been kept under
wraps, for some reason.
NG: The Separation
is rather serious in tone, but an "extract" from the famously rancid
memoirs of Goebbels provides some hilarious light relief at an unexpected
point. Is the extract entirely, or largely, genuine? How acute an observer
do you think Goebbels was?
CP: I made it all up, but I pastiched
Goebbels's style as closely as possible. When you read Goebbels you
have to put aside many of your normal expectations of a book and remain
as open-minded as possible. In the context of the senior Nazis, Goebbels
was easily one of the most interesting, although also one of the nastiest.
He wrote thousands of pages of diaries, and lies and exaggerations and
distortions can be found on almost every one. Yet his atrocious attitudes,
his bullying, his self-delusions, do make remarkably entertaining reading
... a quality I set out to capture in that imaginary extract. He's also
brilliant on unexpected but sly observations, and odd but unverifiable
facts. You can't trust a word he writes.
I wouldn't recommend his Diaries to anyone, but if you must read any
of the Nazi literature, Goebbels is where to start. He's a sort of alternative
history all on his own.
NG: Your characterisation
of Winston Churchill is highly intriguing, a mixture of dislike and
admiration in the minds of your narrators generating a balanced, well-nuanced
portrait. Do you see Churchill as a brilliant opportunist? Or a person
of principle? It's interesting how, in making peace with Hess, he seems
simultaneously to yield nothing ...
CP: I was brought up by parents who worshipped
Churchill. Like so many others of their generation, they had come through
the war and felt that Churchill had saved the country. As a child growing
up in a country that thought it had "won the war", and as someone who
hadn't been involved, I couldn't dissent from this but I held no strong
views. I have always admired Churchill's speeches, for instance. They
still have the capacity to stir me.
Then in the early 1970s I read The People's War by Angus Calder,
in which Calder described Churchill as an "utterly egregious man". I
have to admit this shocked me, but it made me want to know more about
Churchill. He was indeed a political opportunist, a warmonger, a troublemaker,
a strikebreaker, an empire conservative, a self-publicist, a drunkard
and much more. But he was a compassionate man, he was brave, he had
a sense of humour, he was ineradicably a brilliant war leader, his speeches
can stop you dead in your tracks ... and he wrote some of the finest
English of the last century.
One of the challenges of writing The Separation was to try to
convey some of this, to show how Churchill, acting within character,
could conceivably have done an about-face and made a deal with Germany.
NG: Again on Churchill:
I wondered to what extent he had ultimately planned all the events of
the novel ...
CP: That's getting a bit convoluted,
even for me.
NG: Your protagonists
in The Separation, the twin Sawyer brothers, begin as Olympic
rowers, moving in harmony down the stream of time, only to diverge;
and historical paths diverge with them. In the same manner as the decisions
of Churchill and Hess, do you see the actions of obscure individuals
as crucial to macro-historical outcomes?
CP: That's partly what the novel is about,
of course. World War Two was fought for the most part by obscure or
ordinary people. Many of them survived the war, and a considerable number
of those survivors wrote books about their experiences. WW2 was populated
by air-gunners, sappers, naval lieutenants, radio operators, nurses,
dive-bomber pilots, air-raid wardens ... many of them published their
These vernacular accounts, usually written in plain and unpretentious
language, are rich in experience, emotion and graphic detail. Writers
like Jack Currie, Russell Braddon, Don Charlwood and Richard Hillary
are all but unknown these days, but their books are gripping and moving,
in some ways equal to the trench poetry of the First World War.
NG: Do Jack and Joe
Sawyer -- the dashing bomber pilot, and the troubled pacifist -- represent
different elements of Englishness, the balanced halves of a national
CP: I didn't see them that way. Characters
in my books are usually intended to stand only for themselves, not to
carry symbolic baggage too.
Of course, in times of war men and women do emerge who become seen
as representing some kind of ideal. In WW2, people like Vera Lynn, Erwin
Rommel, George Patton, Joseph Goebbels, William Joyce, Claude Eatherly
and Winston Churchill fulfilled this role.
NG: Elements of autobiography
in fiction: The Separation concerns identical twins, and
you have twin children. Any connection between the two circumstances?
CP: Just a happy coincidence. My kids
are fraternal twins, i.e. non-identical brother and sister. I had been
planning The Prestige for a long time before they came along,
and it was with that book that I started getting interested in twins.
I dedicated the book to the children, but by then they were already
five or six.
NG: In your alternate
timeline, the Third Reich allows some Jews to escape to Madagascar (as
was indeed proposed at one stage in our history); the state established
there, Masada, seems to share the political and military dilemmas of
contemporary Israel. And your parallel Europe of 1999 isn't that different
from the one we know. In some ways, do even the most radical separations
end in convergence?
CP: The Madagascar Plan has a vestige
of historical respectability, in that it stems from the Germany of Bismarck's
time. It was an idea for solving the Jewish "problem". That is, all
the Jews in the world would be moved to Madagascar and left there. This
has the same kind of ruthless thinking behind it as the Holocaust we
know, but it does at least have the advantage that no genocide would
have taken place. Winston Churchill, as an historian, would have been
both attracted and repelled by the idea. What he is quoted as saying
about it in The Separation is my own invention, but I believe
it represents his actual views.
Madagascar (or the Republic of Masada, as I have it in the novel) is
depicted as a secular Jewish state, roughly comparable to the Israel
of our own world. It has become by the present day a democratic and
civilised place, but one with many serious internal and external problems.
I suppose you could say that this similarity to the modern state of
Israel suggests there is a momentum to historical events that leads
to convergence. But I don't see convergence as inevitable. In The
Separation, the USA goes off in an entirely different direction,
for instance, and the Soviet Union is dismantled.
NG: Having now published
a major alternate history novel, or uchronia, or counterfactual: do
you see The Separation as a book fundamentally different from
the SF genre's alternate histories, in form and intent?
CP: This takes us back to what I was
saying at the beginning. All my novels have the same sort of starting-line:
a standard or conventional SF riff, given a new treatment.
Almost all "alternative histories" in the SF genre deal with results.
History is said to have taken a different course, so that the present
day we discover through the fiction seems subtly (or not so subtly)
different. The Spanish Armada landed, Queen Victoria was assassinated,
the South won the American Civil War, Napoleon prevailed, the Reformation
didn't take place ... and so on.
In The Separation I wanted to try something new: to examine
not the results, but the process by which a "separation" of the historical
ways might actually have taken place.
The novel concentrates on the six months of the autumn and winter of
1940/41, during which a number of small, subtle changes of direction
become apparent. I wanted to show that these changes could themselves
be brought about not by big decisions or grand actions, but by more
human things: by forgetfulness, jealousy, muddles, a confusion about
identity, getting things wrong, a bump on the head, an intrusive neighbour,
a borrowed motorbike. Other great events are going on at the same time
-- the Blitz on British cities, the war in North Africa, the fall of
Greece and the Balkans, the peace mission of Rudolf Hess -- but in a
sense they are irrelevant, as are the political and social results in
the present day. I was more interested in working out which of the two
brothers was going to bed the girl.
If all that makes the book fundamentally different from other genre
books, then that's OK by me. I've never seen the point in going over
old ground. For instance, it's thirty-five years since Pavane
appeared. That's a novel that still has the capacity to thrill me. I
re-read it just after Keith Roberts died and found it as marvellous
as I remembered. Pavane defines and in a sense finalises uchronia,
because Keith did it better than anyone else, before or since. Because
of that book, and a few of the others, alternative history is no longer
a fruitful field in which to work. If you're not prepared to churn out
glib rewrites of different bits of history (which is basically all that's
left for others by books like Pavane), then you either have to
leave uchronia alone or find a new way in which to address the form.
NG: Finally: what's
next for you? Is the shape of your next novel apparent as yet?
CP: I'm currently recharging batteries,
as they say, a tired old U-Boat bobbing up to the surface for a breath
of fresh air. The Separation took a total of four years, of which
two and a half years were spent actively researching or writing it.
I'm working gently on a new Dream Archipelago story at the moment.
I've also started thinking about a new novel, with a theme so vast I
keep hiding from it. At this general stage of planning a novel, sheer
fright of an idea is a real experience for me. Only gradually does a
writable book start emerging from the terror.
© Nick Gevers 2002, 2003
This interview was first published in Interzone,
October 2002, and was shortlisted for a 2003 British Science Fiction
The Separation (2002) is published in the UK by Scribner.
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