The 60s and 70s were an interesting time—not only for genre, but mainly for the social environment in which science fiction was produced. The New Wave would not have existed without the social revolutions and counter-culture movement happening at the time. But there remained, of course, conservatives, and from a genre point of view, traditionalists. Rather than veering off into atypical story premises and experimental prose styles, they clung to the roots of science fiction telling their tales. Possessing a desire to incorporate both prior and currents aspects into his fiction, Christopher Priest’s first novel Indoctrinaire appeared on the scene in 1971. A fence rider, the novel is as much H.G. Wells as Philip K. Dick in its dealing with the major political issue of the time (the Cold War). History has not shown it to be an important novel, yet it remains worth reading.
Indoctrinaire is the story of Elias Wentik. Living and working in an underground laboratory in Antarctica, his research into pharmaceuticals is put on hold when military men appear one day and request he accompany them for a project of more importance in Brazil. Landing in the jungle yet having to hike in to the facility, things look a bit strange when one of the military men has a moment of insanity. Regaining composure and continuing to lead the way, they arrive at an abandoned jail in a perfectly circular plain in the middle of the Amazon jungle, ready to start the research. But things quickly accelerate to the bizarre. Wentik is kept to a room where a roving light follows his eyes; he is interrogated by a man whose table possesses a large, lifelike hand that points its finger at the comments he makes, and the underground labyrinth he is shoved into one day only confuses rather than helps him understand his surrounds. The final straw being told he is 200 years in the future, Wentik’s goal becomes escape from the circular plain. But where to?
Told in three parts, Indoctrinaire plots the course of Wentik as he works his way through bizarre conditions at the jungle jail to beyond. The classic British gentleman of genre (educated man trapped in a situation he has only his wits and occasional left hook to combat), his plight grabs the attention. And though Priest leads the story in a highly surreal direction, a rational explanation awaits at the end—at least as far as sci-fi is concerned. Intended to metaphorically capture the subtle undercurrents of nuclear threats of post-WWII, there is some pretension in how the plot is resolved. Like Wells before him, Priest utilizes the time travel device for political commentary, though, given the strangeness which overrides Wentik’s time in the jail and after, it will take some parsing out on the reader’s behalf to see how the pieces align upon the denouement.
As such, Indoctrinaire is obviously the work of a young Christopher Priest. His narratives since becoming more sublime and focused, at times the quantity of ideas in Indoctrinaire feels like a new writer laying things on too thick—attempting to make things more complicated than they need to be toward dreams for a grand statement. There are certainly many writers who have yet to produce such an accomplished novel, it’s only in comparison to what came after from Priest the statement can be made. As to the relevancy of the novel’s ultimate message, well, the Cold War has since fizzled, but nuclear weapons and threats remain…
In the end, Indoctrinaire is a book that intrigues for the mystery of the prison, and goes on to become relevant for its conclusion in obscure fashion. Priest writes in a sustained, deceptively casual voice that captures the same surreal atmosphere of writers like Philip K. Dick for much of the narrative, but eventually finds its way into concrete terms in perpetuating the political agenda. The two not always congruous, there are times pretension overtakes quality and unnecessary complexity undermines a definitive statement. But again, an engaging read but not a novel for the ages.