Wednesday 23 April 2008

Christopher Priest, Collapsing Societies, Inappropriate Covers & Shitty Movers

Christopher Priest is an extremely talented science-fiction writer who is probably never going to get the recognition he deserves. The wider public best knows his work through the film of The Prestige, the cover of the trade paperback of which is shown here. I have this edition, and it's lovely, printed in sepia tones on a parchment-style paper stock; the images well-match the magic/mysterious-science ideas of the story. Unfortunately my copy is also badly damaged, due to the fuckwittedness of a pair of house-movers who managed to leave the box which contained this book in the rain. They also managed to drive partway to the new house with the back doors of their truck hanging open, water-damage some of our furniture, and to stink of smoke so much they set off the smoke alarms in the new house just by standing in the corridor without cigarettes.

But back to the topic at hand: Priest has written a number of unusual and thought-provoking novels which explore a dazzling array of ideas: exotic geography, time travel, politics, virtual reality, illusions and alternative history among them. A common denominator is a chilly authorial voice, like Ballard's but without the repetitive self-limitations.

His second novel was Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), unusual for the fact that it is a fairly straightforward story that doesn't play with the concepts of space, time or literature. It was also an end-of-the-world novel, which is where we come in.

My edition is from the long-gone and lamented Pan Science Fiction series, a wide-ranging set of novels and story collections whose covers made them instantly attractive to young science-fiction fans in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The first blurb there shows you why it's of interest to apocalypse fans, and the Wyndham comparison is not far-off. The cover, by horror comics artist Mike Ploog, is wildly misleading, however. The bawling man clutching the nude woman may as well be wearing a loincloth and waving a sword rather than a rifle, given the style of the picture and the fantasy world background. It makes the book look like macho survivalist nonsense, rather than a (admittedly exciting) well-written examination of the betrayals and compromises someone might need to make to thrive in a terrible situation. Fugue is also reminiscent of John Christopher's The World in Winter.

Here are a couple of other editions: the first is (I think) the original hardback, and the second is from an omnibus which combines Fugue with the rather more mind-boggling (and also excellent) Inverted World.

Speaking of Inverted World, it's about to be reissued by NYRB Classics, so you have no excuse for not reading it. Here are two versions of the proposed cover design: the final choice is the second one, which is a lot better than the first.


Steerforth said...

I read 'The Quiet Woman' and 'The Glamour' years ago and thought they were great. However, Priest has never enjoyed good sales until the last few years.

Like John Christopher, I suspect he's too mainstream for sci-fi readers, whilst other people are put off by the more fantastical elements.

Anonymous said...

I'd only vaguely heard of him until he popped up on my blog last year! I then picked up his novel The Glamour but haven't got around to reading it yet. I'll try to get hold of the NYRB of The Inverted World and not get around to reading that either.

JRSM said...

Yes, a lot of his previous publishers have obviously had trouble knowing how to present him. One of his books., 'A Dream of Wessex' was even renamed 'The Perfect Lover' in the US, which would seem an unwise attempt to make him sound like a romance author.

If you do read 'The Inverted World', there's apparently a spoof sequel Priest himself wrote, with the marvellous title of 'The Making of the Lesbian Horse'. This is, sadly, very rare--I think it was only printed in a very limited edition in the late 1970s.