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The Dream Archipelago

by Christopher Priest

(Earthlight, £5.99, 264 pages, paperback; published 4 May 1999.)

This book, the first collection by Christopher Priest in about twenty years, is superb intellectual architecture. The six short stories and novellas gathered here are all triumphs of quiet, steady craftsmanship, models of ingenious design and subtle implication, and as a group they further enrich each other, interlocking cleverly, symmetrically, sinisterly. If this is not the best SF collection of the year, it will certainly come close.

But there is some uncertainty of classification here. Earthlight is an SF imprint, and The Dream Archipelago has been unambiguously marketed as SF; there are quintessentially science fictional elements to be found here, such as a war waged with hallucinogenic gases, exotic anthropological speculations, and a mysterious "time vortex". But any reader familiar with the output of Christopher Priest over the last two decades will be aware that his novels, however conceptually indebted to SF, Fantasy, and Horror, are issued in mainstream literary formats, with little overt acknowledgement of genre, and that their emphasis is consistently on "inner space", the lineaments of unusual contemporary and historical psychological experience. A look at the copyright page of this volume shows that, with the exception of the introductory vignette, the stories here (all apparently newly revised) date from the period 1978-80, the time when Priestís departure into the mainstream was becoming evident; and the tales themselves demonstrate this shift very clearly, being slow, contemplative studies of minds and cultures in crisis. This book could just as easily have been issued as "upmarket" literary fiction; given its exceptional depth and richness, Earthlight can only be thanked for bringing it to the attention of the SF audience instead.

As Priestís novel The Affirmation (1981) complexly conveys, his so-called Dream Archipelago is just what its name implies, a region of the wondering (and wandering) mind, a location allowing intricate explorations of various, always abnormal, mental states. The islands occupy the equatorial ocean of a world that is in some sense a reflection of our own, with familiar political, cultural, and psychological realities. Modern realities are certainly being brought brutally home to the islanders, as the rival powers of the northern continent wage global war on each other, enforcing a bizarrely restrictive "neutrality" on the archipelago while their forces ravage countries still further south. Armies of occupation; battles fought on supposedly neutral territory; horrifying medical experiments; "sense gases" that drastically confuse perception: these traumatize indigenous cultures, and make even cosmopolitan visitors uncertain of their existential ground. All settings and events seem unreliable, subjective; and, indeed, one might readily see the islands as fragments of the inner landscape of a single human brain, obeying subconscious rather than naturalistic logic.

So of what does this mental topography consist? One of the virtues of these stories is their openness to multiple interpretations, as cryptic clues are dropped and hidden designs are intimated. This review reflects just one possible reading of the text: "The Negation", an account of the life of a young would-be poet in a remote military outpost, could be seen as a commentary on the human inner conflict between action and passivity; "Whores" may be an allegory of the universal brutalization inflicted by war, as all people, combatants and civilians, prostitutes and their clients, become whores in an absolute, dehumanizing sense; "The Cremation", the story of the attempted seduction of a northern expatriate man by a married island woman, seems to suggest that a conservative culture or mentality resisting corruption by the modern ends by corrupting itself. "The Miraculous Cairn", a particularly dispiriting psychological horror story encapsulating a remarkable and sudden gender reversal, gives elements of sexual dysfunction and (probably) child abuse an inexplicable incarnation that vanishes as soon as adult sensibility is brought to bear on it. These tales are all impressive enough; but "The Watched" outdoes them, even as it links their concerns together.

The Dream Archipelagoís opening story or prologue, "The Equatorial Moment", evokes the time vortex that overhangs the islands, making events occurring on them strangely simultaneous (and the collectionís stories by implication parts of a single coherent whole). Aircraft employ the vortex as a sort of short cut, and are stacked there in a vertical array; the role of the aircrews as observers is emphasized. "The Watched", the concluding piece, takes this motif of observation and carries it to elaborate lengths. More briskly told than the earlier stories, and strengthened in its revised form since its appearance in Priestís second collection, An Infinite Summer, "The Watched" investigates a further implication of war: that spying and surveillance may destroy all privacy, making everyone a spy, everyone a subject of spying. Tiny camera devices known as scintillas are being used in the war, and have spread to the extent of being as common as pollen. A reclusive millionaire living on an equatorial island is surreptitiously observing his neighbours, refugees belonging to an ancient and even more secretive culture; anthropologists wanting a glimpse of these Qataari visually tantalize and spy on the millionaire; the refugees monitor and manipulate everybody. Free will comes to seem an illusion; ritual displaces spontaneity. As a study of the psychology of voyeurism, "The Watched" is very incisive indeed; with its chess-like logic of construction, its extraordinary control of suspense, and its brilliant closing orchestration of the concerns of the entire volume, "The Watched" must rank as one of the greatest SF novellas.

If this book has a defect, it is stylistic: despite his great literary ambition, Priest is not as smooth a master of language as, say, John Crowley or M John Harrison. At times, a claustrophobic clumsiness hampers Priestís prose, and his rather gloomy Englishness of tone can verge, depressingly, on the pedestrian. But his mastery of structure decidedly outweighs this: The Dream Archipelago is virtuosity of narrative design at its most cunning, its most urgent, and its most elegant.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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