This collection of stories is characterised by non-completion. By ellipses, gaps, loss of memory, tantalising hints of more, general incompleteness. In the stories themselves, in the people, in the world.
This turned out not to be the book I thought I was reading. Having adored The Islanders, I thought I was getting an earlier novel set in the same place. Uh, no. This is a set of short stories (including a couple of novellas): some set in the Dream Archipelago, some just referencing it. So I was quite discontent when I read the first ‘chapter’ – The Equatorial Moment – and accepted it as setting the premise for the book… and then realised that The Negation was quite separate, although with strong links. Don’t worry; I got over my disappointment.
“The Equatorial Moment” is not a story. It’s a vignette, explaining the very odd thing about this world: that there is a time vortex, which means it’s the same time everywhere on the world at the same time. It also means that flying somewhere is a rather difficult business. It also sets up that this world is experiencing a war, which – far more than issues to do with time – informs the entirety of this collection. “The Trace of Him” is also a vignette, of a lover and a funeral, that doesn’t really seem to fit the rest of the collection. It’s set in the Dream Archipelago, but that’s all.
Some of these stories are directly about the war, and its impact on soldiers and civilians. “The Negation” is framed around a draftee and his experiences, but also around an author whose art might be subverted by the war. (Its connection to the Dream Archipelago is tenuous – the novel that the soldier loves is set there.) This story was the first taste of incompleteness that flavours the rest, as Priest suggests and hints but does not fulfil. It’s marvellous. “Whores,” too, examines soldiers and civilians, through a different lens. This time the soldier has been granted leave due to sickness which manifests as synaesthesia; the civilians are women who have become whores because of the exigencies of war. This aspect, that the women are not simply whores but that they became such for real, usually economic reasons, and that they might also have other concerns, was a delight. Too often whores (and slaves) just exist in the same way that horses or dogs do, with no reference to what came before. So that worked. And there’s a tantalising question over whether the soldier in these two stories is the same man or not. The last story in the collection, “The Discharge,” also brings together art and war and ellipses. It’s the fullest exploration of the war that’s been affecting this world for a ridiculous amount of time, and makes it clear that ridiculous is exactly what it is. But then the narrator ends up in the Dream Archipelago, and starts exploring art… a type of art that has a genuinely visceral impact on its viewer by messing with the hypothalamus. And the story takes on a whole other layer and attacks a whole other idea. It’s maddening and glorious and a bit creepy.
You know that thing where you’re reading along, and you’ve been assuming something about the race, gender, location or attitude of a character and then something happens and you have to go back and read everything again to see whether you were stupid and made a mistake, or whether the author has been deliberately messing with you? That was “The Miraculous Cairn” for me. And I’m pretty sure the answer is the latter. It’s set half on the mainland and half on an island; half in the present and half in the past; and it’s a horror story. One of those slow, creeping horror stories that might not be a horror story but probably is. Gave me the shivers, anyway, and is the exemplar of non-completion. It has nothing to do with the war. Neither does “The Cremation,” which is set more fully in the Archipelago and whose horror aspects stem directly from that fear of not knowing the local traditions and attitudes and behaviours. It works all too well. Also largely separate from the war is “The Watched,” whose horrific nature really only comes through in the last few pages. Before that, it definitely has its creepy elements but they’re not the focus (although on reflection perhaps that ought to have made it more creepy…). The tantalising gaps in this story are the sort of thing that in another author’s hands would just indicate a lack of imagination, or pages where they’ve simply deleted “MUST ADD MORE INFO HERE”. Instead, the reader is left just as much in the dark as Ordier about the society of the Qataari, his object of frustrated fascination. What makes the novella really work is that this fascination, while at the heart of the story, is not its sole preoccupation. Ordier – living in the Dream Archipelago but not a native, having left the mainland and his war-related work – lives a relatively ordinary life with a girlfriend whose job is demanding and disappointing, and we get many pages of relatively ordinary life along with Ordier’s growing obsession. This adds to the creepiness but it’s not just there as filler; actually I would have been happy reading about Ordier and Jenessa and their experiences, they’re so intriguing. Which is why it works as a novella.
Are they SF? Is this fantasy? No. The collection is set on a different world, yes; but there’s no exceptional technology – it would be easy to read much of it as set in a generic olde worlde rural setting until you get references to planes, grenade launchers and microwaves. There’s also no magic; the time vortex just exists, and except for stuffing around with air travel doesn’t actually impact on life. The people are human, with nothing special about them. This is just… a world. But I would still argue that it counts as speculative fiction, because I am contrary like that.
This is not the sort of collection I can imagine reading again. The stories are demanding, they’re frustrating, and I think they may only work once. But that once was pretty glorious.
In which we keep it short (truly) through restraint and perseverance, despite setting Tansy off on a tangent about Lego and lots of crunchy gender bias stuff to chew through. Um, yes, we might have misnumbered somewhere along the way. This really is 54, apparently. You can get us from iTunes or Galactic Suburbia. Also, yes we already know we made a mistake in talking about what Genevieve Valentine has won. Oops.
Tansy’s thing: new feminist Doctor Who blog Doctor Her
Can princesses play with Lego? (Lego friends petition at Change.org)
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Vorkosigan – Shards of Honor, Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
Alex: The Islanders, Christopher Priest
Tansy: After the Apocalypse, by Maureen McHugh (collection)
Feedback episode coming too!
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Some advice on reading The Islanders, by Christopher Priest.
1. Read the introduction.
No, really. Even if you’re an “I never read the introduction” kinda person, read this introduction. It’s part of the story, and without it you are likely to be terrible confused, because…
2. Don’t think this is a novel.
At least, not in the conventional, linear (or even non-linear) plot sense. Things happen, but not in any sort of chronological order. This is, as the introduction suggests, more of a gazette: an introduction to a few dozen of the islands which make up the Dream Archipelago. It’s a mixture of straight Lonely Planet-style description and suggestions for tourists, along with police investigations, letters, wills, and a couple of short story narratives that appear to have snuck in under the radar.
3. You don’t have to have read the short story “The Dream Archipelago.”
4. Pay close attention to the names of characters.
Seriously. Really close attention. Because while there is not exactly a narrative as such, there are several recurring characters who build up around themselves quite the biography as they visit and interact with different islands; and one fairly substantial murder mystery, which also keeps getting mentioned in relation to different people and different islands. If you don’t keep track of names you won’t experience the maddening joy of getting another jigsaw piece that may or may not fit into one of the several puzzles you have on the go.
5. Be prepared for a lot of wind.
Breezes, zephyrs, howling gales; humid, dry, grit- or snow-filled; wind plays a really significant part in many of the descriptions of the islands. They all have their own names, often different ones from island to island.
6. Accept that each island has its own language (or several).
And before you dismiss this as ridiculous, remember that it is estimated that Papua New Guinea – a country of just some 462, 840km2 – has “over 850 indigenous languages” (I’m not afraid to use Wikipedia when it’s expedient and unlikely to be controversial). So why shouldn’t separate islands have different languages and cultures?
7. Take nothing for granted.
Not even time and space. The Dream Archipelago isn’t a dream – there’s no waking up – but there are definitely hints that time, especially, is something that might just happen to other people. Just go with it. Enjoy the maddeningly slippery way in which Priest suggests new information that may or may not fit in with other information given earlier in the gazette.
8. People who should avoid this book include:
Those who are easily confused by occasional and slight reference to probably important characters; people just turn up when they are relevant to the island under discussion. They might have been born there, died there, visited there, made art there, been arrested there. And it might only be one sentence in the island’s entry.
Readers who really prefer a linear plot; because as mentioned above, there isn’t one. There was a murder once, on the island Cheoner, whose investigation and subsequent surrounding mystery provides the only thing close to a plot you’ll find; there are references to the people involved in the entries for maybe another six or seven islands, spread out over the course of the whole book. There are also biographical notes for four or five main characters also spread throughout the book, and they are sometimes contradictory but always interesting.
People who get seasick just by reading about the ocean: there are islands. There is island hopping. Some important things happen at sea.
The extremely insect-averse, because the thryme – a really, really nasty critter – has basically a whole entry about itself, and it keeps getting mentioned throughout.
9. People who may enjoy this book include:
Those who enjoy discussions about what actually constitutes art. Does boring a tunnel through a mountain count? Is there a point in creating art that no one, not even the artist, will ever see?
Readers who enjoy a good puzzle; because the whole book is a puzzle. Putting the pieces together about (for example) Dryd Bathurst’s life is a great deal of (sometimes conflicting) fun.
People who like islands. There are islands.
The seeker of innovation. I wouldn’t want to read book after book constructed in this manner, but it was certainly enthralling and intriguing to read this one.
10. Read this book.
Unless you’re completely and irreparably put off by the notion of the non-linear/possibly non-present plot, read this book. It’s a delight to read, the prose is enjoyable and varied from island to island, the ideas are stimulating, and the people as engaging and different as excellent pen-sketches can be. Read this book.