‘Prolific’ is not a word to describe Christopher Priest. Taking his time with each creation, some stories or novels appear one after another, while at other periods, there can be gaps of years or even a decade between published works. An artist, the muse must, apparently, be at work. Bringing together five stories from the late 70s, An Infinite Summer (1979), the muse was, apparently, at work.
The five stories can essentially be split into two parts. Both examinations of the same idea (love through the lens of time), the first part are the title story and “Palely Loitering”. One capturing the idea with far more maturity and gravitas than the other, “Palely Loitering”, as the title indirectly suggests, is the mediocre of the two. About a boy who goes to a time-flux park with his family, he accidentally launches himself into the future where he meets himself, and is introduced to a young lady and told not to forget her before being sent back to his family. Nominated for a Hugo (undoubtedly due to the simplicity of the time hopping idea), the story has a lot of trouble bearing the weight of its theme given the lightness with which the emotions at stake are presented and the distraction of the time travel mechanic. “The Infinite Summer”, however, handles the idea with far more aplomb. Invoking in the reader the desired weight of theme it intended, it tells of a man travels ahead in time to witness the bombing of London by Germany in WWII. Emphasis shifted from the time travel mechanic toward the tableauxs the man is witness to, not to mention the role his personal life plays in his understanding of them, Priest is able to capture that unidentifiable something that tugs at the heart strings without being cheap.
The other part of the content in An Infinite Summer is material that would later be re-collected in Dream Archipelago: “Whores”, “Whores”, and “The Watched”. 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, he moves among the brothels to find her. What he finds tears at him, literally and figuratively. 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, but 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, resulting in an a fictional situation being bolstered by its metafictional reality.
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.
In the end, An Infinite Summer is a subtly superb collection of short stories, save “Palely Loitering”. Each story thought through and presented in a light that shines on underlying human concerns, Priest proves fiction is an art, even at short length. The only real drawback to the collection is that if you have already read 1999’s Dream Archipelago, then the only new material you are getting here is the title story (a story which, ironically, is considered part of the Dream Archipelago but for whatever reason did not find its way into that collection) and “Palely Loitering”. Beyond that, this is among the best of the 70s in terms of short speculative fiction; “An Infinite Summer”, “The Negation”, and “The Watched” truly stand-out.
The following are the five stories collected in An Infinite Summer:
An Infinite Summer