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Christopher Priest: The Islanders

Priest famously attacked the 2012 Arthur C Clarke awards, arguing that the quality was very poor. Some people pointed out that this was sour grapes, as this novel was not nominated for the Award. Priest refuted this. Priest did win the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for 2011 for this novel. I have not read any of the Clarke Award nominees though I have always considered China Miéville not exactly my cup of tea. However, my question would be why did this novel not win the Man Booker Prize? It is far superior to any of the books on the long- or shortlist. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, since the death of J G Ballard, Priest is the foremost living writer of novels in England. Like Ballard, of course, critics do not know where to slot him. He is, of course, a slipstream writer but critics do not get slipstream, so, at least as far as this book is concerned, and probably most of his others, they slot him into fantasy, which they equate with swords and sorcerers and lump him with George R R Martin and Harry Potter. Nothing wrong with Martin or J K Rowling but they are entertainment. This book, and Priest’s other work, is a cut above.

This novel is about a world somewhat similar to our own – it has an equator, tropics, colder polar regions and, it would seem, a similar or identical atmosphere to ours. It is populated by people who seem remarkably human and who have many of the things we have – the Internet/email, stem cell research, theatres, art, cars (and car hires) conventional marriage and so. Where they definitely differ is their geography. There are two continents, an unnamed Northern one, though it is often referred to as Nordmaieure, and a cold, Southern one called Sudmaieure (the names suggest that they may even speak French in this world!) In between is a large ocean, the only one on this world, called the Midway Sea. In the Midway Sea are numerous islands which form part of what is known as the Dream Archipelago. No-one knows how many islands there are. Indeed, it is not sure what islands are there as some of them seem to move, while others seem to overlap in some way. What seems to be happening in this world is that the big issues are similar to ours. For example, there is a perennial war between the two major powers, while the rest of the world lives in various semi-feudal but relatively free smaller states, trying but not always succeeding in avoiding the conflict between the two powers. The day-to-day issues are also similar to ours. People get married, have children, eat, travel (though less than us), enjoy art and sports, particularly extreme sports and have jobs. However, in-between, there is a certain fluidity, as things change according to one’s perception, according to certain temporal fluxes and according to certain meteorological and other physical phenomena.

The book is told in the form of a gazetteer. Surprisingly, not only have the islands not been fully mapped, except for a few local charts, used by fishermen and the like (though we do learn that there is a project under way to map them) but no-one knows what islands exist and what happens on the different ones. This book is an attempt to partially rectify that gap. The book is introduced by Chaster Kammeston. Though we don’t initially know, we will learn during the course of the book that he is one of the foremost novelists of this world, that he is now dead, that he has, since he was a young adult, never left the island of Piqay, that he may or may not have been involved in an incident on another island before returning permanently to Piqay and that he had a brief affair with the well-known social reformer, Esla Caurer, and that he never saw her again. Priest slips quite a few plots into the gazetteer. Reading about one island, we will learn something of an event and then pick up more about it, usually giving an entirely different perspective, in the entry for another island. We will meet several of the important people of the world. These are primarily artists, scientists and reformers, and not political or military people. They all, like Chaster, are originals but also difficult people, often in conflict with the authorities, as good artists often are. For most of them there is something of a plot line, as we follow their activities and lives. For example, Jordenn Yo is a tunneller. She goes to various islands and digs tunnels, sometimes to make artistic caves, sometimes to make whistling tunnels and sometimes just to dig tunnels. Not surprisingly, she is in continual conflict with the various authorities. She had been in prison several times and is banned from many islands, though she manages not only to sneak herself in but also her heavy equipment. Her activities can be dangerous. In one case, she starts tunnelling on an island (claiming, dishonestly, that there are valuable minerals to be found). Many others follow her and they end up destroying the island (and many of the tunnellers are killed.)

This novel has been called fantasy (and, of course, to a great degree, it is) but it is much more. Though the physical geography is different from ours, the people are, in many ways, like us. Unlike people in a realistic novel, they see and, in some cases, inhabit a world which is somewhat beyond ours. We learn about the towers that have a psychic force in them, which can kill and certainly change people, about the temporal (and geographical) distortions and about islands that change shape but also about a bloody and pointless war, about an island that officially does not exist but can be seen by everyone, about tourist boards and weather reports and art that is, in many ways, like ours. And, intertwining through the gazetteer are these stories of the people of this world, who are seen from different points of views and therefore whose lives are different, depending on who is doing the story-telling. If the readers of realist novels could accept that, sometimes, novels lumped into the science fiction and fantasy categories offer so much more, they would find wonderful novels like this and Priest’s other works.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Victor Gollancz