Fiction Reviews

The Gradual

(2016) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £8.99 / Can$15.99, pbk, 346pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20055-5


Spoiler alert: A truly beautiful novel, very much in keeping with Priestís other 'Dream Archipelago' stories.

The narrator, Aleandro Sussken is a classical music composer, growing up on the coast of a mainland state governed by a fascist Junta. He can see the nearest of many islands in the distance and yearns to learn more about them, but information is suppressed. His country is officially at war with a distant island. His own brother has been drafted to the fighting, and Sussken fears being sent to fight too.

Instead, he finds himself on a cultural exchange tour of some of the islands to promote his music. His journey will give him a brief affair with a Soprano soloist who sings in his compositions, and news that some of his work has been plagiarized by a talentless rock musician on one of the islands.

It is the journey itself that really makes an impact though. Sussken finds his route between islands is erratic rather than linear, even when islands are visible and look approachable in a straight line. Strange people called Adepts act as guides at ports and harbours, though weirdly they seem to be the same people he sees at each end of the voyages, without seeing them on the boats he sails on. Rashly he often ignores their advice. Customs officials and Adepts alike check his stave wand as if using it as an additional passport document, and his watch behave strangely, gaining and losing hours at a time. The Adepts try to help make compensatory adjustments to the time gained or lost through the seemingly gradual distortion fields.

Though the successful tour takes just a few months, Sussken discovers on arriving home that several years have passed. His lover has abandoned him, and he has amassed numerous debts. The seas between islands cause time itself to ebb and flow, and swirl in currents. The effect seems gradual to the traveller, but it can change a great deal in the wider world.

The Mainlandís war echoes that in Orwellís 1984, a battle that might not even be real, as soldiers returning talk of being kept on manoeuvres and stand-by without engaging any tangible opponents.

A fantasy novel rather than science fiction, and it is unclear what world or realm the story is set in, though references to the Internet and an Arctic Circle suggest that it is an alternate Earth.

The distant war continues as does the mainland homeland Junta government who, recognising Sussken as a genius, invites (demands) that he writes an epic patriotic propaganda hymn to their regime. The meeting with his president is the one point in the novel where the protagonist seems in genuine danger. Even the volcanic eruption, that comes later, represents a surge of creative energy rather than any kind of threat. Only the fixed, non-fluid never changing, or going anywhere junta is a threat. It is unaffected by time-tides, or creative wisdom.

Sussken is offered a large advance sum of money to use to prepare the expected magnum opus, but he uses it to flee back to the islands, travelling mostly without set plans. He finds the peoples of islands he visited on previous arrivals have changed. They no longer appreciated classical music, the great concert halls have closed. Music moves through the jazz and pop culture phase.

Not everyone travelling the islands is affected by the time distortions. Only those gifted in some way or are particularly time-sensitive. Susskenís musical talents make him highly susceptible. His creative juices have laid dormant for a time, but erupt and gush like lava in a blaze of new ideas and productivity.

The volcanic eruption inspires Sussken to write fresh masterpieces, coinciding with his discovery that he is a natural Adept, as with some guidance from the other Adepts, he learns to move through time and help guide other tourists on the islands.  Ultimately, Sussken will return home, but his voyage of self-discovery, gradually changed by time and tide, is extraordinary.

The novel moves like a classical composition, moving to crescendo with its volcanic urge, and its discordant jazz phases come through the island hopping adventures.

Arthur Chappell

See also Mark's review and Allen's review of The Gradual.

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