Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review of "A Dream of Wessex" by Christopher Priest

Written in 1977, Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex stands at the mid point of media questioning reality.  Falling on the tail end of Philip Dick and his oeuvre’s continual exploration of metaphysical meaning, the book is also an (unheralded) fore-runner to sci-fi featuring uncertain realities that followed in the 90s and after.  Many ideas that are exploited in films such as The Matrix or Inception can find a potential conception in Priest’s tale of a scientific experiment into alternate realities.  The dream-within-a-dream and mind-disconnected-from-body plot devices can in particular be seen as strong precursors to these modern examples. 

A Dream of Wessex also marks the mid point of another aspect of literature: style.  Lacking any embellishment or literary flourish – similes even, Priest tells the tale of Julia Stretton in very straight-forward, almost brooding fashion.  The direct prose neither lifting the spirit or dropping it, Julia’s life as a geologist inside a social experiment plods steadily along, the details of the setting and emotional output described in a minimum of words.  The premise of this social experiment is that a group willingly detaches themselves from physical reality to mentally live inside a projection of their collective psyches.  As the experiment moves on, some participants routinely remove themselves, returning for brief periods to their normal lives.  Others, however, have been inside the fictional Wessex for more than 2 years, their bodies atrophying slowly in a drawer in reality.

While the idea may be interesting and keep the reader guessing as to which reality is the real reality, where the plot finds truly finds its impetus is when Julia’s ex-lover announces his intentions of joining the experiment.  Threatening and violent in private, his effervescent public persona seems to have charmed the board of trustees governing the experiment into letting him join.  The psychological drama which unfolds for Julia is only heightened by the distance from reality the experiment seems to take her every time she links in.  The climax this situation builds to is one only Priest could pen. 

Thus, the third mid-point is my opinion of the novel: it is neither gosh-wow nor forgettable.  Its strong parts include competent plotting, excellent metaphysical questions, and an overall story structure which highlights theme.  Where the novel doesn’t meet expectations, however, is in the blasé nature of its prose, the occasional gaps in logic of the projection's premise, and the lack of a wholly motivated plot.  Questions like: “Is that the only reason compelling Julia at the moment?” or, “Shouldn’t there be a stronger justification for the experiment to exist?” occur occasionally.  That being said, the novel remains a well-told, brain-in-the-vat tale exploring the meaning and perception of reality.  Those who enjoy Philip K. Dick or the premise of any of the afore-mentioned movies wouldn’t be wasting their time reading A Dream of Wessex, and may have their eyes opened to the world of Christopher Priest in the process.

(This review has also been posted at

No comments:

Post a Comment