Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review of The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest

Setting is one of the foundational stones in any fictional wall, yet there are times that authors create places so malleable and adaptable as to be perpetually open to further creation. Epic fantasy worlds have, of course, spawned innumerable volumes, not to mention a hero or set of characters have propelled many a series into multiple volumes. But like arrows shot into an apple tossed into the sky, what we’re talking specifically about here are places where individual stories have been told and completed, only for the author to return some time later and tell a entirely separate tale. Different characters, different themes, some classic examples include Michael Bishop’s Catacomb Years, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, Ian Macleod’s Aether stories, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris works, Thomas Disch’s 334, and essentially anything by William Gibson. To this list of quality fiction we must certainly add Christopher Priest’s The Dream Archipelago.

A twenty year gap, the stories in The Dream Archipelago were all published individually between 1978 and 1980 yet were not collected (in English) until 1999. (The French, in their infinite wisdom, collected the stories in 1981.) In honor of the English publication, Priest wrote a fictional introduction. More scene than story, “The Equatorial Moment” describes an airman’s experience as he crosses over a horizon point in the dream archipelago. Priest deploying his powers of description subtly, it belays the leaving behind of the real world and sets the stage for further revelatory experiences.

A horror take on a Hemingway-style story, “Whores” tells of a man convalescing in a village destroyed by war. Looking for a woman he formerly knew who had to resort to selling her body to survive the fighting, he moves among the brothels to find her. What he finds tears at him, literally and figuratively. In perhaps the most mainstream story in the collection, “The Cremation” tells of a young man who has been sent on behalf of an uncle to attend the funeral of a distant relative on one of the more primitive islands of the archipelago. The natives having their own traditions, particularly surrounding the poisonous insect which killed the relative, the young man finds his adulterous past catching up to him in ways he’d rather it not.

In what is likely the most transcendent story in the collection, “The Negation” tells of a young conscript sent to guard a distant, mountainous border against the enemy. The freezing, snowy village where he barracks is not entirely disconnected, however. The ruling power, in an effort to offset its oppression with effusiveness, has commissioned a well-known writer to travel to the village and write a patriotic story. Said author having penned the young man’s favorite novel, The Affirmation, he is ecstatic to meet her before she arrives but nervous when actually standing face to face. The two having a good conversation, the realities of war, nevertheless, interfere. (In one of the rare moments Priest plays with intertextuality, The Affirmation is, of course, the next novel Priest himself would publish.)

The least successful story in the collection, “The Miraculous Cairn” tells of a woman being escorted by a constable to a remote religious seminary to make arrangements for an elderly relative who died there. The seminary holding bad memories for the woman, the story flashes back and forth to her youth and time spent with her relative, even as the sexual tension with her escort escalates. Closing the collection in intriguing fashion is “The Watched.” About the inventor of a tiny-tiny camera he calls a ‘scyntylla’, things go smoothly until production of the small cameras becomes ubiquitous, meaning they are everywhere and into everything. People hiding them to spy on others, the man chooses to quit his life and move to a remote island and there do something more interesting: study the local natives. Observing them from afar, he takes notes, all the while vacuuming his home each day to remove the scyntyllas that build up. A strange occurrence happening one day, it leads to the question: who is watching who? An oddly prescient story given the growing presence security cameras and monitoring have in the Western world, it’s fair to say Priest touches upon the aspect of humanity that dreads constant observation in literary, abstract manner.

The one dream archipelago story missing from the collection is the first published, “Infinite Summer”. But I think the reasons behind its absence are clear (even the French did not include it in their edition.) Though set ostensibly in the islands, it’s really more of a time travel story, and thus doesn’t readily fit alongside the relative realism of the stories that were collected. I would guess Priest himself even thinks twice about having used the archipelago in the story given the lack of consistency with the later stories and novels.

Body horror, sexuality, war and conflict, voyeurism, and being confronted by inner demons I would say are the main themes of The Dream Archipelago. If there are any shortcomings to the collection, one would have to be the similarity of tone. Each story bleeds into the next with little to distinguish them save setting. In fact, for the majority of “The Miraculous Cairn” I thought the main characters was male, so similar in tone and approach is that story following upon the previous featuring a male protagonist. Otherwise, Priest’s story are polished, focused, and whole. None feel tossed off, half-hearted, or lacking underlying purpose or direction, not to mention Priest’s legendary skills with precise diction are on full display. And the last note I would make is that though there are relatively few stories in the collection, a few are novellas, giving the collection a substance and depth that the table of contents may not indicate.

Published throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the following are the six short stories and novellas collected in The Dream Archipelago:

The Equatorial Moment
The Negation
The Cremation
The Miraculous Cairn
The Watched

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