Expect Me Tomorrow
(2022) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £22, hrdbk, 325pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23513-7
An ambitious novel following three, seemingly separate, stories that begin to converge. Two of the threads are a work of historic fiction relating to characters who actually existed. The third is set in the near future.
Themes covered include: climatology, crime, miscarriages of justice, advanced computer technology and time travel. Though likely to be bought and read by Priest’s SF fans, this novel is at its best in dealing with the historic events.
Thread one. A man going by the name ‘John Smith’ swindles various heiresses out of their fortunes. The title of the book relates to words he frequently said and sometimes wrote to the ladies he swindled.
Thread two. Unidentical twin brothers, one a rising opera singer, Adolf Beck, and the other (Adler Beck) an early pioneer in climate science and glacier studies, find themselves receiving strange messages in their heads. Both fear for their sanity. One, always broke, finds himself accused of swindling heiresses out of their fortunes, a crime he strenuously denies though he faces two long prison terms over the allegations. Whether or not he is the ‘John Smith’ figure referenced in other chapters will be clarified as the book unfolds.
Thread three. In 2050, the World climate is totally out of control. In Hastings, Sussex, much of the sea wall has gone, there are raging storms, brutal life-endangering heatwaves and deadly insect plagues on the loose causing everyone to stay indoors. Chad Ramsey, A civilian working as a police profiling expert finds himself fitted, along with the serving police officers, with a head-implant that enables instant access to the internet and into the minds of anyone under investigation through DNA strands. Though having the apparatus fitted to help in his work, he is then told that the scanning equipment renders him redundant.
The apparatus grafted into his skull (which involves a degree of trepanation that would surely make most people refuse and protest rather than endure), he is left with the device, which he soon discovers enables him to see into the past too. It is his attempts to establish contacts with his forbears that intrudes on the minds of the Beck brothers.
The idea of a time message from the future getting to the past has been done better, notably in Gregory Benford’s Timescape (1980), though that was concerned with preventing the JFK assassination. Chad Ramsey's Intrusions don’t actually achieve anything other than to confuse and distress his ancestors. At one point he nearly causes one character to die on a glacier he is crossing, but otherwise, he simply learns some of the facts of their case.
The story of the Becks is treated by Priest as if the events are obscure and unknown, at least in 2050, but there is no indication that such a story is suppressed. Giving characters unlimited access to the internet with their minds is hardly indicative of evidence suppression and Adolf Beck’s case is actually quite well documented. I looked him up on Wikipedia soon after reading the novel, and found that his case led to massive changes in the law in criminal cases. Ramsey's time travel teaches him nothing he couldn’t have found in the library or in the internet files available in his own time. What actually happened to Adolf Beck is truly astonishing, tragic, and if presented as fiction on its own, it would be dismissed as extremely unlikely, but Priest conveys the events clearly and with some compassion. He includes photos of the main historic characters and copies of their signatures too (these have some importance in the narrative).
The science fiction angle actually gets in the way of a cracking work of historic fiction here, and both the Beck brothers deserve their stories being told. Beck was warning of the long-term dangers humans imposed on the environment way before it became fashionable to do so. He believed strongly that the heating of the oceans when Greenland’s ice collapsed into the seas will halt or divert the Gulf Stream, and that after a period of intense heat, we will be plunged into a new ice age. He was already warning of this in the 1890's.
The various strands and mash up of genre styles don’t ultimately gel together so the time travel chapters tend to be a distraction to the Victorian drama unfolding before us. This reads like Priest wanted to write a piece of non-fiction but shoe-horned in the science fiction elements to draw in his established readership. The descriptions of 2050’s devastated world are very well handled. The use of the mind-net devise less so. It seems very cyberpunk for a quite conservative narrative, and it is never explained why only one character ends up learning to use it to observe and even interfere in events two hundred years before, albeit extremely ineffectively.
See also Ian's take on Expect Me Tomorrow
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