Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Capsule Reviews: A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest, plus three others

Capsule Reviews: A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest, plus three others

by Rich Horton

I like Chris Priest's writing a lot "An Infinite Summer" is one of my favorite SF stories. The Inverted World was one of the first serials I ever read in an SF magazine (Galaxy, in 1975 or so), and it fairly blew me away.  I read Darkening Island (Fugue for a Darkening Land) at just the right age to be impressed by its non-linear narrative structure. But for some reason, maybe because his books don't seem to get much push in the US, I haven't been following him lately. I have just now read what I believe to be his fifth novel, A Dream of Wessex (US title The Perfect Lover), from 1977.  This is a very interesting novel, and very intriguing.  

The basic idea is quite "Priestian", a (very little) bit reminiscent of his first novel, Indoctrinaire: in the near future of 1977 (1985), a research project is set up whereby a group of people sort of "pool" their unconsciousnesses and create a realistic world 150 years in the future.  Ostensibly this is to explore what might be done to reach a more pleasant future.  The dreamed future is set on "Wessex", which is the western part of England after it has been separated from the mainland by earthquakes, with the new channel roughly along the path of the river Stour.

All of England is communist, and part of the Soviet sphere, while the US is Islamic.  (The notion that this is a more pleasant future, or realistic, is one on which one's mileage may vary.)  The "dreamers" all have alter-egos in Wessex, and they return periodically to report. But one of them, David Harkman, has never returned. Another, Julia Stretton, goes looking for him, while she also worries because her abusive former lover has maneuvered his way onto the project. Julia and David fall in love in Wessex, but all is threatened when Julia's lover begins to change the parameters of the future world. The idea is a bit barmy, I think, but it's appealingly solipsistic, as well. The idyllic scenery of Wessex is well-evoked, and the resolution is very nicely handled. A different, but very interesting, book.


Indoctrinaire was Christopher Priest's first published novel. A British scientist, working on a mysterious project in the Antarctic for the US government, is kidnapped by a couple of rather odd people and taken to a strange prison in central Brazil.  After some time he realizes his captors don't really know what to do with him, and he escapes to discover the real nature of his imprisonment, which I won't realize for fear of spoilers.  I didn't find this a very successful novel on the whole.  It showed promise, but the ultimate revelation was silly, and much of the plot was highly contrived.  Priest did manage to pull off a fairly moving and somewhat true-to-his-character ending.  He got much better quickly, with Fugue for a Darkening Land and The Inverted World.

The Separation

This is an alternate history, comparing two time streams -- ours, and one in which Rudolph Hess's mission to England was successful and England made a separate peace with Germany in 1941. The personal story is expressed via a pair of twins, Olympic rowing champions, who play different roles in the two time streams. I liked the book, but had reservations about Priest's careful arrangement of his alternate history to be roughly comparable to ours despite comparative Nazi success -- in my words, Priest palmed about 6,000,000 cards.

"The Discharge"

Much stranger is Christopher Priest's "The Discharge", a new Dream Archipelago story, which originally appeared in a French anthology. This is a long novelette about a man who comes to awareness at the age of twenty, with almost no memories except that he is an artist, as he is conscripted into the army to fight in the 3000 year long war. The story tells of his war experiences, but more closely of his artwork, especially in the odd style called "Tactilism". This is an odd and not completely successful story, but the writing and the images are sufficiently interesting to make it well worth reading, even if the plot and internal logic don't quite cohere.

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