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