(2019) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 354pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20062-3
In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, John Banville, reviewing a collection of short stories says ‘Randall Jarrell famously, and wittily, defined the novel as an extended work of prose fiction that has something wrong with it.’ (NYRB 24/10/19 p24). And in so many instances, I would agree. Time-and-time again, I find as I read a novel that the author loses momentum, or even the plot, while short stories, because of their nature, stick with it – they are short, and they are stories. As various contestants on BBC's Strictly Come Dancing regularly say about the Quickstep ‘Well, it’s quick, and there are a lot of steps.’
For me, although I had read the odd SF novel, it wasn’t until I bought a copy of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction on the bookstall at Southampton Station in the mid-seventies (those were the days when there was something interesting to buy) that my true enjoyment of the genre began.
Yet two confessions: I have never read any of Christopher Priest’s novels, and I have only read one of these stories before – and that one only fairly recently. But I will, on the basis of this volume seek out more.
The stories included in pisodes were written over a period from 1972 to 2017, and span a wide range of styles/genres from horror to satire. Most don’t carry any ‘standard’ SF elements, so Priest in his introduction (titled ‘First’) describes them as speculative. One, ‘futouristic.co.uk’ began life as a script for a radio programme, and the URL takes you a site which is still ‘active’. Another takes the form of the ultimate ‘body-horror’ story you will (n)ever want to read (although that was the story I’d read before, and queasily enjoyed both times).
One of the delights for me are the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ which accompany all the stories. Priest provides us with a little bit of background to the reason why a story was written: who it was commissioned by, the literary influences that inspired him, and some of his frustrations with the SF community; and then what happened to the story – was it published by those that commissioned it, and where. The how and when and the why is always fascinating, and sometimes more so than the story itself!
About confession '1' above: I suspect that I have been put-off reading any of Priest’s novels before because they have been described in some reviews as ‘literary Science Fiction’, and being a bear of very little brain, I let them pass by. But on the basis of these short stories, perhaps I’ll give one a try.
I thoroughly recommend this volume.
See also Ian's take on Episodes.
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