(2016) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 352pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20054-8
Christopher Priest's Dream Archipelago has been the setting for many of his works since writing The Affirmation in 1981 (also see The Islanders). For newcomers to the islands, The Gradual is an accessible introduction, set as it is in the Republic of Glaund, and analogue to many oppressive regimes of the 20th century.
Alessandro Sussken is a composer of classical music. His career takes off after he writes a set of pieces about the islands he can see in the distance from his home. We follow his journey around the islands, and are introduced to the strange time zone differentials that affect Priestís world.
The first person narration of The Gradual immediately draws in the reader. There is a Orwellian quality to the setting that has cautionary appeal, but this is no straitjacket and after an appropriate build up, Priest breakís out into a travel fiction, reminiscent of the best utopian novels. Susskenís discovery of the different places and cultures on his first voyage with the orchestra is cleverly worked to offer glimpses of the strangeness of the islands and their relationship to one another. By keeping the perspective tight and personal, priest is able to unpack the revelations for Sussken and us at the same time. Many things are hinted at, but left to be explored later. A less masterful writer might delve immediately into the plot and conspiracy, but Priest refrains, sticking to his task of making Sussken a believable character writing something of a memoir of his adventures.
The exploration of time differential and the consequences of it is similarly handled in an incredibly personal way. This is the aspect of time travel which is often overlooked. Dealing with the changes in the personal relationships, absence and unpaid bills are not often covered in enough detail to make a real to the reader. Instead writers look to the adventure and pushing on towards goals. Priest is not seduced by this but instead sticks with his character who finds a way to live with the damage and hurt that his unexpected change of circumstances generates.
When Sussken embarks on his second journey, this time fleeing the authorities, the mechanics of the Dream Archipelago become more prominent and more of an obstacle. Sussken struggles but also learns more in his second trip, which culminates in a revelation of his individual gift and circumstances. This aspect of the work is a little difficult to comprehend. There is a sense of the writer knows completely how the phenomenon of the time-shifting in his world works, but this reviewer cannot quite reconcile it with his own understanding of linear time. However, a complete instinctive understanding is not necessary to appreciate the culmination of Siskin's personal journey.
The final resolution, involving Sussken's brother Jacj, is further confused by the time differentials. Again, I am unsure as to how the moments coincide, but the completeness of the story requires their meeting and reconciliation with each other. So long as you don't push too hard to comprehend the timings of the final events, this resolution works well. I will perhaps be left for many years puzzling as to how it all fits together. It is a testimony to the writing that I know this is my problem as opposed to the fault of the writing or planning.
The Gradual is an excellent read, drawing in its reader with subtle intrigue and interesting characterisation, without resorting to frenetic pace or overblown action. There is a real sense to the characterisation in the work, which makes it transcend other novels of the genre.
See also Mark's take on The Gradual.
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