(2022) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £22, hrdbk, 325pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23513-7
It seems very timely (July 2022) that the southern half of Britain is being held in a red-hot grip with warnings about extreme heat, possible loss of life, not to mention the risk of fires, that I am reading Expect Me Tomorrow, the new novel by Christopher Priest, part of which is set in England in 2050 where that grip has got tighter and is squeezing the life out of the country and its citizens.
Life in 2050 is hard for Charles (Chad) Ramsey in a lot of ways. He has lost his job as a profiler with the police, partly due to a clash of personalities with a new Superintendent and partly due to a change of emphasis in policing. Gone are the days of detecting and solving crime; now the police are more a tool for dealing with the mob and unrest. Chad is aimless, directionless, and conflicted, bitter about losing his job, but in a way glad to see the back of it. Right now, he has other things to worry about. His father-in-law who lives in Oslo is terminally ill; his twin brother, Greg, a freelance political journalist for British National News seems to have a reckless drive to place himself in danger in a lawless Europe, but Greg needs Chad’s help as he might lose his job as a freelancer because of the criminal record of an ancestor, Adolf Beck, unless he can find out what Adolf’s crimes were and prove that his employer has nothing to worry about. Chad’s investigations through normal means are proving fruitless, but can he use the new policing tool that he was given, an Instant Mental Communication nanoshield that encompasses his scalp, which is invisible now his hair is growing back, that might actually allow him a to contact Adolf in the past thanks to some DNA retained in items from Victorian times?
Back in those Victorian times we meet another set of twins – Adler and Adolf Beck, identical twin brothers who might look the same but are very different in temperament and ambition. Adler is driven by the dangers of the Norwegian glaciers that took the life of his father, which might grow again in size and herald another ice age. Thus, Adler begins a journey of scientific discovery involving glaciers, sunspots and volcanic eruptions and the realisation of the dangers of greenhouse gasses on the climate. But his journey also brings him love, a wife and children. Life for Adler would almost be perfect if it wasn’t for his discoveries, and also the strange incursions that grip his body, rooting him to the spot, unable to move, to speak, and then he starts to hear voices. Is he ill, going mad, or is he the subject of some strange scientific experiment? His brother, Adolf, or Dolf, as he is better known, also has the same paralysis. The two cannot meet to compare notes because Dolf heads off for South America to follow his operatic talents, and love and fame and fortune, all of which seem to elude him.
Both of these narratives intertwine, but there is another narrative that Priest reveals, involving one John Smith, a Victorian conman who swindles fallen women out of their few remaining valuable possessions, as well as any cash they might have lying around.
Clearly, John Smith is not his real name, but who is he? Could he actually be Dolf Adler who never meets up with his brother even when they are in the same city? Whose letters are always written in another hand? Who seems to disappear for years at a time? And where is he during these periods? In prison? And yet something doesn’t seem to add up…
While it is interesting to read about the exploits of the two Norwegian brothers and the crimes of John Smith, Expect Me Tomorrow really comes alive in the year 2050 where Priest describes the world with an almost-matter-of-fact chilling casualness. A world where parts of the Earth are uninhabitable, where millions have tried to flee from the heat, and have died in the process. Chad lives in Hastings, part of which is crumbling into the sea. He hides in his house with the air con on, and drinks bottled water. Soon, he realises he is merely existing, fighting a losing battle against the climate in an England where the super-rich and celebrities have either left or have claimed the best spots – the higher and cooler places. Scotland is even higher and cooler, but it is independent, and Chad and his wife wouldn’t be allowed to settle there. Priest reveals in a couple of simple, telling scenes just how bad life is; once when Chad returns home and has to visit the local twenty four hour convenience store which has an armoured booth and sells nothing we would recognise as food; and another time when he goes for a walk down to the seafront, but has to flee because the beach is covered with rotten food dumped by a cargo ship which has brought an infestation of yellow flies with it. These simple events highlight how fragile existence is in 2050. Yet there may just be the hint of hope as Chad is given a dossier of papers to consider from a variety of major sources such as the EU, OECD, some written by Nobel laureates. Is there a chance that the planet can reset itself, possibly with the belated help of mankind?
Expect Me Tomorrow allows Priest to flex his considerable story-telling muscles in a tale that is inventive and intriguing in a prefect melding of the past and the near future. Recommended.
See also Arthur's take on Expect Me Tomorrow
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