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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"The Islanders" and "The Dream Archipelago" by Christopher Priest (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Christopher Priest Website
Order The Islanders HERE
Order The Dream Archipelago HERE

INTRODUCTION: Christopher Priest is probably best known for The Prestige since the movie adaption of the book has been a reasonably successful and talked about 2006 film. While I have heard of the author before I watched the movie, the lack of easy availability of his titles in the US in the 90's when I widely explored the sff genre, prevented me from giving his work a try, while in the 00's when easy online availability came about, I tended to focus - as today - on new authors and books unless something really motivated me to check older works.

But I was sufficiently impressed by the movie to start reading Mr. Priest's oeuvre, and while The Prestige, the novel, was interesting but lacked the dramatic flair of the film to a large extent - one of the few cases where an adaptation is better in many ways than the original - and his most recent novel from 2002, The Separation, left me somewhat cold with its strong dollops of British nationalism, The Affirmation and The Glamour are two of the most awesome novels I've ever read which got the author a place on my all time favorite books list.

The Affirmation which has one of the most mind blowing ending of all times, partly takes place in the Dream Archipelago, a world circling sequence of islands which is the topic of the collection with the same title and of the novel The Islanders. The reissue of a complete Dream Archipelago stories collection in 2009 and the present publication of The Islanders offer the readers a superb glimpse at one of the most fascinating secondary worlds in current sff.

I strongly recommended to get both and read them together since the stories from The Dream Archipelago are sequels, prequels, in one case identical but for a shift in narrative style from third to first person, or more generally just related by characters and setting to various chapters in The Islanders and the two fit perfectly together as one superb creation, with the more dramatic style of the earlier work adding the "zing" I felt missing on my first solo read of the present novel.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Before starting my discussion of The Dream Archipelago sequence composed of the collection of the same name and of The Islanders, I will remark that there is a case to be made - and there are some reviews around that actually do that - to treat at least the novel as a literary game. As I tend to strongly believe that a novel has value only if it is "alive" and I dislike literary games and literary cleverness for its sake as an empty sterile endeavor, I will treat both books as "living", or in other words as referring to possible real places, real people, etc.

Part of that requires that the "author-reader" implied covenant of suspending the disbelief holds and I will touch on how The Islanders by itself failed on occasion there for me, but on reading it together with the more dynamic collection, that failure disappeared.

So, what is The Dream Archipelago? Well, according to the preface from the novel, supposedly penned by renowned writer Chester Kammerton - one of the main human characters of The Islanders, it is:

"The Dream Archipelago is the largest geographical feature on our world. The islands are found around the whole girth of the planet, spreading across tropical, subtropical and temperate latitudes, both north and south of the equator. They are placed in the only ocean we have: this is known as the Midway Sea and it too is circumambient of the world. The sea with its islands occupies more than seventy per cent of the total surface area, and contains more than eighty per cent of all the world’s water"

Of course the reality is much subtler insofar there are a lot of peculiarities to both the world and the Archipelago itself, where the "main feature" of the rest of the world is the continual war between several Northern continent powers - Faiand and Glaund are the most notable - war that is mostly prosecuted on the icy, barren Southern continent, though of course the Archipelago is "in the way", being somewhat protected by the "Neutrality Covenant". Again from The Islanders:

"The political concerns of this world of ours are worrying. Many of the countries in the north are at war with each other – they have been at it for as long as I have been alive, they were at it for at least three centuries before I was born, and they show every eager sign of being at it for centuries more to come. The issues over which they violently disagree, and the alliances they have formed in an attempt to prevail, are often reported in our newspapers and on television, but few islanders seem to take much notice. This is largely because in an act of unusual, not to say unique, far-sightedness, the elders of the Dream Archipelago long ago drew up and agreed a document called the Covenant of Neutrality. The Covenant is just about the only matter on which the various peoples of the islands have ever agreed. It extends to every island, small or large, populated or unpopulated, and it was intended to guarantee that the belligerent concerns of the north should not affect the people of the Archipelago"

But of course the Archipelago has its unique features due to geography and biology, science and art and one of the most important such that essentially gave its "Dream" name and puts the narrative threads in the "guess what's reliable or not" category is:

"The problems of mapping the Dream Archipelago are well understood. High-altitude aerial cartography is more or less impossible because of the distortion caused by the temporal gradients. These gradients, impossible for me to explain here (there is an attempt later in the book), exist in every part of the world except at the magnetic poles."

So, this is the world the author asks us to accept when we embark on the journey of exploration that "The Islanders" offers. The structure of the novel consists of 53 chapters that offer an overview of individual or groups of islands in alphabetical order, though important ones like Muriseay or Derril have several successive chapters. Each chapter tends to start with a short description and end with an overview of local currency and main laws, but in-between you can have anything from a historical tale, to a part of the loose main thread that follow several artists and their relationships, as well as hinting at a murder mystery, to pure description, to first person narration.

On the other hand, The Dream Archipelago has a more traditional structure of eight stories, to which some of the chapters of The Islanders are prequels, sequels, or just related, while in one case the corresponding "A Trace of Him"/"The Trace" are almost identical except for a shift from third to first person narration and some sentence modifications.

When I first read the novel by itself, the thing that struck me the most was the change in the author's style from his earlier intense and dramatic narrations to a more detached style at least in most of The Islanders' chapters. I felt that did not work that well at least for me since it make me think about the book rather than being immersed and there are quite a few places where the world building does not really stand up to close scrutiny at least if you want to imagine it as a "potentially real place" rather than a literary game that's "clever scribbles on paper that are essentially meaningless". For example a character sculpts a mountains with paid help, but the locals seem blissfully unaware, which runs utterly contrary to human nature and its limitless capacity for gossip.

But when I started reading the novel and the collection together in the natural way - each story from The Dream Archipelago at its natural place in the structure of The Islanders, the more dramatic prose from the earlier stories perfectly countered the more detached tome of the novel and I finally could appreciate the books as they deserve to be.

Overall, I think that the Dream Archipelago experience the author presents in The Islanders and in the related story collection, is indeed a masterpiece of modern sff and I expect to be enchanted by it again and again across the years.


Jamie Gibbs said...

I've been interested in reading something by Priest since I first saw The Prestige. Ill have to check these out. Thanks for the review :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review.

I have been meaning to start reading Christopher Priest for some time now. Which book would you recommend as a place to start reading his work?

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comments; I would start with The Glamour or with The Affirmation. Both are standalones and you will see very early in they hook you


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