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Christopher Priest: Extremes

This is a novel about violence, about identity and about the fluidity of time. Teresa Simons is an FBI agent. Though born in England, with an English mother, she is American, her father being a US Army officer stationed in England. The family moves to the United States when Teresa is young and she considers herself American. Her husband, Andy, is also an FBI agent, specialising in finding links between apparently unrelated serial and mass murders. When he is called in to a shooting spree at a Texas shopping mall, he becomes the fifteenth and last victim of the killer. By an amazing coincidence, the same day Gerry Grove goes on a shooting spree in Bulverton, Sussex, England.

Teresa is, of course, devastated and is given leave of absence by the FBI. She decides to go to Bulverton to find out what went on there. While with the FBI, she had used a virtual reality programme called Ex-Ex. This involved the user entering the body/mind of a person involved in a crime. It could be the body of the perpetrator, a law enforcement officer or, most frequently, an untrained witness. The user was given rapid information on the situation and then had to react, usually with minimum notice. Sometimes there were specific instructions, other times none. Teresa found this training stressful but managed to survive it. When she arrives in Bulverton, she finds that there is an Ex-Ex simulator in the small town, open to the public. She spends a lot of time there (a lot of the novel is about this), getting involved in various situations, sometimes from different points of views. Not all the simulations are criminal activities – she gets heavily involved in a porn simulation. But all the time, Priest is cleverly, brilliantly, playing with our perceptions of reality, identity and time.

Teresa is not just using Ex-Ex. She is investigating the Gerry Grove killings. Why did the police react so slowly to his initial attack (he shot a mother and her young son and then robbed a filling station at least two hours before his main shooting spree), what did he do in the missing two hours and why did he do it at all? She is not the only one interested. Most of the people of the town are still in shock but the executives of Gun-Ho, makers of Ex-Ex are very interested, not least because their initial simulation has been much criticised. And gradually, she brings the Grove shooting spree closer to the one where her husband was killed. Did she influence the Grove shooting after the event? Can she save her husband after his death? And is she just Teresa or is she, partially at least, an old black lady who saw a criminal shot by the police or Shan, the porn star?

Priest is too often consigned to the limbo of science fiction. However, he was on Granta’s Best Young British Novelists and, frankly, in retrospect looks to be the best of the bunch. This novel proves it as he tackles weighty matters the others would not dare look at.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Touchstone