Friday, February 5, 2016

Review of The Extremes by Christopher Priest

In social work, there is much made of the enabler—the person who wittingly or unwittingly aids another’s self-destruction.  C’mon John, just one more drink...  Sure, we can wallow in your mother’s death for the thousandth time, just tell me what makes you sad…  Yes, it makes sense Sally; he shows his love by beating you…  And on and on go the scenarios wherein friends may actually be more hurtful than helpful.  But what about when the ‘friend’ is technology?  Christopher Priest’s late entry to cyberpunk, The Extremes (1998), is one such resonant tale.

But before jumping into The Extremes, we should back up a little. Priest’s fourth novel, A Dream of Wessex, featured a young woman attempting to deal with personal issues by getting involved with a virtual reality project.  Manipulated, the choice turned out to be something quite horrific in the end, an experience much more than she expected.  Apparently not satisfied with the outcome, Priest revisited the premise in The Extremes. 

The reader meets Teresa Simons in the aftermath of a mass street killing that took her husband Adam in the prime of life.  Grieving, Simons decides to take a leave of absence from her job in the FBI to visit her country of birth, the UK, and rest for a period.  Arriving in the quiet, quaint town of Bulverton, she discovers that on the same day her husband was taken by a mass murderer, sleepy Bulverton also experienced a killing spree that claimed more than a dozen of its citizens.  Law enforcement instincts piqued, Simons begins spending time in the town’s virtual reality parlor, going through the Bulverton scenarios, trying to get to the bottom of the coincidence.

Cyberpunk a few years late to the party but no less potent in delivery, The Extremes is classic Priest: the subjectivity of perception and the malleability of memory float at its core.  The VR scenarios key to the story, Priest prevents the narrative from becoming a maudlin exercise in existentialism by honing in on the personal side of loss, PTSD, and the all-too-human lengths we sometimes go to acquiring knowledge we tell ourselves we cannot live without. 

Inherent to Simons’ search into the history of the two separate but seemingly linked killing sprees is an examination of the larger culture of guns and violence.  The VR experience Simons uses called ExEx (Extreme Experience), most characters in the novel use it to participate in scenes recreating violent tragedies of the past.  Priest having done his homework, he utilizes a set of real-world acts of violence, up to and including Whitman’s clock tower massacre.  Coupled with the paranoia of ExEx developers, the scene presented is quietly scary for how easily people slip into acts of mass violence—witness or participant.  Written years before the Columbine, Virgina Tech, or Norway mass killings, the novel proves itself disturbingly tied to realism in a way that calls into question the technology and media we surround ourselves with.

But there are some questionable narrative choices in The Extremes.  The hotel owners and guests are extraneous, as well as some of the VR scenarios Priest presents.  Neither adding to or detracting from the book, their inclusion leaves me wondering if the ending of Simons’ story wouldn’t have had more impact if the preceeding narrative hadn’t been honed down to a sharper point?  As it stands the reader is left in a sublime state of shock, yet had spurious material been elided, the feeling would be all the more real. 

In the end, The Extremes, like so many Priest books, finds a crack in the human psyche and pries it apart to see all of the flowers and dirt.  Pat Cadigan may do the mindfuck of virtual technology better, but Priest certainly chooses a relevant point in humanity’s interaction with such technology and drives it deeply home.  A darker, slightly more mainstream story than we typically see from Priest, it nevertheless addresses some key ideas regarding mass killings—particularly given the rate of such incidences has not dropped since the novel’s publication.  One thing it is certainly not, is an enabler of such actions.

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