Published September 2016.
“’There’s a problem with time and I don’t know how to explain it to you.’” (*repeated several times*)
In “The Gradual” by Christopher Priest
I just put down the book. Blew my mind. I'm kind of seeing things at the moment…
When Phil Dick died only Christopher Priest remained to explore similar themes. Despite exploring similar literary veins, Priest was always less concerned with the trappings of the SF genre than Dick was. Anyone seriously interested in SF for grown-ups should read him in his own right. I’ve said elsewhere that if I’m a fan of any genre, it’d have to be SF. It’s my first love, and it’ll always remain so. When I was a young SF-neophyte and I discovered Phil Dick, I felt that my kind of soul had made contact with his work. It was a very defining experience, and it felt like it was innate. It’s hard to explain my feelings at the time. For me, that experience was absolutely bound up in finding these books that were dealing with the nature of reality and of what makes us authentic humans. Phil Dick always maintained that the bombardment of the so-called pseudo-realities began to produce make-believe and spurious humans very quickly — as fake as Lady Gaga. I was used to the Asimovs, Heinleins, and Clarkes, which were more run-of-the-mill SF. When I came across the Phil Dick oeuvre it almost seemed they were a sort of fictional artifacts. I couldn't believe there was such a writer working in the field of SF. I still remember thinking his name seemed weird or that his titles seemed nonsensical to me. It was like a secret reality unraveling in my life. As you can imagine my poor brain had to cope those strange things coming out of Phil Dick’s pen. Priest’s books have a similar effect on me. But because I’m “more mature and wiser”, the impact is not in the same order of magnitude when compared to Phil’s books. Nevertheless, in Priest’s take on the nature of reality, there‘s also something about the essence of his writing that creates that feeling. I still think there‘s something innately self-deprecating about the writing. His run-of-the-mill sentences make you feel like I‘m the only one who understands what he’s writing, and he‘s also the only one who understands me. It‘s like a cognitive version of a love affair. I’m making this cozy connection with this other mind. He’s able to project that into his work (see my review of "The Adjacent"). I think that Priest sees the inner workings of our own reality we experience so profoundly. And this speaks to the different layers of reality in his work — the way time moves according to the calendar, but other ways in terms of ship time (mental time, psychological time, social time):
“Time fled from me – I suffered gradual detriment. Youth attached to me – I gained gradual increment. Balance remained.
Absolute time, ship time: the difference became personal time lost.
Absolute age, travel through the gradual: the difference led to personal rejuvenation gained.”
Looking closely at the above quote, I can see the way Priest conveys the experience of the mind-altering or the reality-transforming better than nearly any writer who ever lived, with the possible exception of Phil Dick. Priest’s prose is so plain that by that same plainness he’s able to turn things into a sort of a hidden reality. His characters — his surrogates within the space of his own fictional world — are totally incorporated in it. There‘s no mastery exhibited. It’s all so very plain as to be awkward, but we can sense the way the character’s experience it. They‘re not objective tour guides. His characters are sufferers who move through these worlds/realities.
For many years, while I was reading Phil Dick by the bucket load, I was also thinking about what made Dick so compelling and personal, i.e., what made me each time take him so personally when I discovered his work. And the same happens now with Christopher Priest. That’s the magic of the great writers. They make us believe in their unique creations.
This is not the best Priest has ever written, but if you want to see what literary SF looks like, look no further.
SF = Speculative Fiction.