Christopher Priest: The Islanders

“People who ran wars needed maps” –Christopher Priest, The Islanders

A few days ago I learned that Christopher Priest had a new novel, which turned out to be The Islanders (All men are islands it adds on the cover but not the copyright page). Actually I heard about it in reference to his remarks about the Arthur C. Clarke not having any worthy finalists this year and speculation that he made the comments because this book was not shortlisted. (Later it was announced that it had won the BSFA Award.)

I obtained the book and have now read it. It’s set in Priest’s Dream Archipelago and is his first “novel” for nine years. It’s written as an apparent gazetteer of the islands in alphabetical order of the official island names, from Aay to Yannet. The islands also have patois names such as “Descent,” “Bearer of Messages” and “Path Followed” which are what is used in the listing at the front, making it hard to look up an island if you need to check something (as you will).

The book is written in a terse, attractive style that I found readable and unusually compelling. If you’ve read Priest’s previous novels, particularly of course the Dream Archipelago collection or The Affirmation, this style will be very familiar to you. Priest’s work deals with the reality of the porousness of the boundary between reality and imagination. That is, like most novels, it is liminal: you are half in and half out of the imaged world. (This itself is a form of twinning; of saying that our knowledge and experience of reality is not independent from the way we imagine it to be, a motif going back to Kant.) This creates new geographical landscapes. I met Priest once at a signing ceremony at a Worldcon (’79?) and garnered a personally dedicated autograph in my hardback copy of Inverted World. The book had a lot of influence on my understanding of space, and along with Philip K. Dick helped provide a mental guide to my studies in cognitive mapping over the next decade, first as an undergraduate at Liverpool, then in the US at Penn State.

The Islanders‘ gazetteer structure, although maintained throughout the book, quickly becomes a number of other things which can be thought of as either short stories or facets of other things. One entry for example, is the story of a young man getting a job as a stage assistant on a distant island, and his run-in with the popular mime performer known as Commis. There’s a death onstage involving a large sheet of glass (there are some parallels here to the Last Transported Man trick in Priest’s The Prestige, although without the “prestige materials” of that book). The nature of these entries varies. The first one we encounter, for the uninhabited island Aubrac Grande or Aubrac Chain (it has no patois name) contains long excerpts from the journal of the scientist after whom it is named, Jaem Aubrac, an entomologist from Tumo University. While on these islands his research team encountered a strange and deadly insect, the Thryme. These can grow to 15-20 cm in length, and roll themselves into a protective ball when approached. They are very deadly, their hairs can penetrate thick gloves, and they have large pincers. If one of these touches or bites you, death is inevitable, although not right away as they appear to lay embryos in you along with a deadly poison.

One review online complained that there is no “big reveal” to the book (I’m trying not to call it a novel). But you should be careful what you wish for! Priest as you may know, has a fascination with magic, doubling and twins, which comes to the fore in his book The Prestige. So any “reveal” will almost certainly be misleading. (Funnily enough there’s a website for a magician by the name of Chris Priest! I’ve not yet ruled out that this is a dummy website put up by the author.)

This fascination comes in part from the fact that Priest himself is the father of twins but I suspect there’s more to it than that. Twins evokes the notion of the double, but in Priest’s work there is is also the sense that the other is folded into the other. That is, to investigate one character is to find the other embedded, and so on (like the yin-yang symbol). This causes multiple identity problems as you can imagine. These are not just of one character to another, but can sometimes “escape” the fiction. As we read The Islanders for example, we learn about Moylita Kaine, who writes to the famous novelist Chaster Kammerston (who provides the Preface for this book). As Kaine matures (nice homage to Michael Caine here, who played a character in the movie version of The Prestige) she soon becomes a published novelist herself. Her first book is The Affirmation, which she dedicates to Kammerston. At this point, I had to retrieve my copy of the Affirmation from the bookshelf (I think this was my first ever hardback purchase, of the British first edition, and I see I’ve inscribed it “15 ii 1982 Liverpool” which means I bought it as an undergraduate, for the then costly sum of £6.25). It does contain a dedication (“To M.L. and L.M.”) as does the Islanders (“To Esla”) which happens to be the name of the writer and social reformer Esla Caurer, who is a central figure in the book.

An important theme of the Islanders is that the Dream Archipelago is not truly knowable as a coherent whole. Only local parts of it can be known and mapped. (There is a parallel here to the history of cartography itself, from large-scale or local mappings into coherent national atlases. Or indeed with other kinds of knowledges that dream of becoming universal, such as Pliny’s 36-volume Natural History, or Herodotus’ The Histories.) Part of the given reason for this in the book are the temporal and visual distortions that occur, particularly near those islands on the Equator. This concept was introduced in The Affirmation, and it means for example that it is not possible to photograph the islands and map them, although partial local maps can be made.

In The Affirmation the protagonist Peter Sinclair holes up in a friend’s country cottage to try and recover from the effects of a damaging love affair with his girlfriend, Gracia. He does the cottage up, painting it a nice clean white, and produces a long autobiographical manuscript. As he writes however, he finds it easier to write metaphorically about a world with a large chain of islands: the Dream Archipelago. London becomes “Jethra.” Soon, he enters the archipelago, where he meets Seri, with whom he begins an affair. One of the features of the Dream Archipelago is that there is a treatment that can make you immortal, a so-called “Athanasian” (from the Greek a-thanatos, not-dying). There is a side effect of this treatment however, which is that you lose all memory of your past life. (This procedure is briefly mentioned in The Islanders.) If you accept the treatment (and only a very few have that opportunity) you have to rebuild your life. In Peter’s case he uses a manuscript he wrote about two years previously. But again, it is written metaphorically, where Jethra becomes “London”…

The impossibility of total mapping in The Islanders immediately casts the idea of a gazetteer in doubt, and indeed Kammeston in the Preface offers the opinion that the “foreknowledge these gazetteers are so keen to impart will always be irrelevant.” Even here however, there is doubt. From internal evidence it appears that parts of the gazetteer were written by Kammeston himself, while other parts are written by his identical twin brother, Wolter. Yet later in the book we attend the death and funeral of Chaster. If he died, how did he write the Preface to this book, which contains his death? Did he write the whole book as a complete fiction (ie., is he Christopher Priest?)

As someone with cartographic interests I very much appreciated the way it is not possible to “map” the islands. There’s even a Meequa Cartographic Institute (MCI) in the entry for the twin islands of Meequa / Tremm, which are known in patois as Bearer of Messages / Fast Wanderer. The Institute uses a large fleet or swarm of drones which it releases several times a day. These drones which are solar-powered, can fly for days on end, and they have proximity sensors that allow them to fly together without crashing. As they fly around the islands, they can therefore collect imagery which can be composited together into a map (This is real, see Vijay Kumar’s GRASP lab and swarm drone demos.) Since the drones are autonomous, and fly independently, Priest introduces the charming idea that they can become “captured” by a particular set of terrain or islands, flying around repeatedly (like an asteroid being captured by the sun’s gravitational field). Some 30 islands are said to have attendant captured drones in this manner.

The possibility of only local maps itself mirrors the book’s overall theme, and one might say of much of Priest’s work in general. There can be no overall summary or apprehension of its content. It is only possible to know things in one local area, but it is also not possible to just add these local areas up into a larger map. There are practical obstacles (most of the drone imagery is of ocean surface or does not match up to other imagery). But more importantly there are philosophical obstacles. Knowledge is ultimately subjective, which does not make it less, but rather more real. Everything is connected, but that doesn’t mean it can be known as a whole. (A Google Earth of the Archipelago would be impossible.) Everything is ultimately in doubt, although for most of the time this doesn’t bother people too much.

A number of links to earlier books are evident for those keen to spot them, such as names of places and islands like Ia, which is mentioned in The Affirmation. However, the main city of that book, Jethra (/London) while mentioned here is not featured in the gazetteer, since in fact it is not in the islands but in Faiand, the main country to the north. But the book can be read on its own if you haven’t read the earlier books.

Priest apparently has apparently already got a new novel in preparation and has done a stageplay of his book The Prestige.

2 responses to “Christopher Priest: The Islanders

  1. Pingback: The Islanders | Susan Hated Literature

  2. Pingback: Christopher Priest announces new novel | Open Geography

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