About two months ago, I wrote here at some length about Kate Atkinson's latest novel, Life After Life. She is a writer paid respectful attention to by literary moat defenders, for reasons hard to fathom as her take on the world is transgressive, her view of London is dismissive, and she flips genres like a cardsharp or grownup; her 2013 book, her ninth in twenty years, seemed (and seems) an appropriate text to discuss here. Not having read more than a couple of the Twice-Told Tales in Not the End of the World (2002), however, I first did some context-wonking in the literature about her, necessarily having recourse to the moat defenders of the literary press, where unsurprisingly I found no useful references to the use of the fantastic in her work; and so I missed the fact that her second novel, Human Croquet (1997), which I've now read and enjoyed, is a timeslip tale whose protagonist tumbles in and out of Shakespearean England in an attempt (maybe at the behest of the book itself) to energize her rite de passage away from her implausibly dysfunctional family. So Atkinson had already made "use of the tools of fantastika to get a grip on things".
And the timeslipping is close enough to the non-metaphorical that Human Croquet pretty well dodges the generic claustrophobia of family-romance realism, though it is muffled by a shrugging inattentiveness to the tools she has evoked, a failing not as evident in Life After Life, where nothing makes sense unless you believe what is actually being said. But here's the rub. A reader of Strange Horizons will intuitively infill on the Alternate Worlds/Godgame tools Atkinson is using in the latter (the bemusement of some litfic reviewers of the book may simply be an expression of noli me tangere ignorance); but informed readers will, I think, all the same detect something inert about Life After Life, a sense that to invoke a narrative tool (in this case a palimpsest-like tool-array, time-honoured with examples) can fall seriously short of making it new. Rust never sleeps.
All of which leads us to the fully earned-out thrum of telling and justified outcome that so distinguishes Christopher Priest's The Adjacent from the Atkinson novel (whose rather different strengths I addressed in the piece mentioned above); a distinction all the more relevant if one considers how similar, under the critic's totalizing gaze, the two books can seem. Each book (this is more clearly and powerfully evident in the Priest) is a godgame, a maze whose outcome is successful emigration to a liveable world; in each case the protagonist(s) are conspicuously played by the tale(s) they occupy; and in each case the Sarastro of the tale is the book itself: as though each word we read were not only somehow spoken but also preternaturally directive. (We get into deep waters here, as every word in every book in the world is directive; or, more to the point here, any text which is storyable is told: maybe what I'm saying is that these books are about text making world, the way current makes a river.) Further similarities between the two novels are perhaps less substantive, but fascinating all the same, though their unpacking shows the gap between an Adjunct in Fantastika and a cardsharp who has done the ten thousand hours, who has been polishing his rhadamanthan load-bearing voice for nearly fifty years until it is fit for the task of bearing us through dismemberment. Both novels present a vision of the twentieth century as being intolerable to human life unless gimmicked with; both are Alternate Worlds tales pivoting on World War Two; both are romances whose protagonists cannot reach a moment of intercourse until they inhabit a world that permits one; both are set Between the Wars, the only peace bestowed by either book being the fact that its last page closes on characters who are still alive; and both books have Slingshot Endings.
The Adjacent is divided into eight parts. There is a sense of travel throughout. The book itself seems to travel from part to part. Its multiply estranged protagonists (travel being a body English of every form of exile) are always in motion from one country or reality to another; or are recovering from travel, which is to say attempting to work out if they have arrived somewhere; or are setting out, on foot or aloft.
Part One is set in a distant Near Future version (somewhere around 2050) of a world where the long-established Islamic Republic of Great Britain (or IRGB) is caught in the throes of violent climate change, with "temperate storms" (i.e. hurricanes) savaging the landscape, wiping out the trees that still remain. At the same time, terrorists or insurgents or foreign powers have brought a new weapon of terror into play, an explosive (or so it seems) which utterly obliterates anything within its triangular impact zone, which is demarcated (as though by a ruler separating one reality from another) from the untouched world around it. The protagonist, whose name here is Tibor Tarent, a photographer who obsessively attempts to fix the world in place with his new "quantum lens" camera, which applies an "adjacency technique", which is now illegal: as though it were bad magic (though a first reading does not quite warrant the assumption that the camera itself creates adjacencies, rather than "simply" register them). He is in transit from Anatolia, where his estranged wife Melanie Roscoe (whose private nickname was Malina or Mallie, and whose family surname was originally Roszka) has been killed in the first of what soon become recognized as adjacency events. Tibor's journey becomes increasingly estranging; he discovers that part of London had been eliminated by an adjacency event four months earlier, but has heard nothing of this until now. The government is in some disarray, but has simultaneously imposed high-tech draconian restrictions on its citizens. He is transported in an obsolete personnel carrier known as a "Mebsher" towards Warne Farm on Tealby Moor, where he is to be debriefed. A woman traveling in the Mebsher, perhaps in order to monitor him, expresses an impersonal sexual desire for Tibor, though she finds him offensive, and they eventually fuck. She calls herself Flo. In the meantime, he learns that he is of interest to her and the government partly because many years earlier he knew Thijs Reitveld, the physicist who had postulated, or discovered, adjacency. He has no memory of this. It was another world, perhaps the world which contained Anatolia before adjacency; it is no longer this world.
Part Two may be set entirely in a world we know, France in 1916, near the trenches. The protagonist, whose name here is Tommy Trent, a middle-aged stage musician specializing in tricks involving the "disappearance" of a confederate, has been brought to France in order to tell the Royal Flying Corps how to make planes disappear. He protests in vain that he is a performer not a "real" magician. In his travels he meets H G Wells, who is promoting the notion that a telpherage system—moving containers suspended from a rail or track—might be used to transport gear and goods through the mud and chaos behind the front. (Priest's portrait of the 50-year-old Wells, at the high pitch of his career, is constrainedly affectionate, though at the same time, by referring specifically to The War That Will End War , he implicates Wells for his utopianizing of war as a solution to history.) Attempting to be helpful, Trent postulates the use of what magicians call "an adjacent distraction", where two out of three planes in a fixed aerial triangle serve as dazzle camouflage, while the third is able to aim its vast camera at the world beneath, and grasp the truth. Nothing comes of either scheme. Trent and Wells return home embarrassed.
Part Three returns to Tealby Moor. Flo continues in the Mebsher, which is almost instantly engulfed in an adjacency event. Tibor finds a place to sleep after bureaucratic difficulties evocative of Kafka. He feels he is "cracking out of the hardened carapace of his past, sliding vulnerably into an unknown future." The novel freezes shut.
Part Four. The novel opens again. A journalist named Jane Flockhart, who lives in what seems to be our normative world, travels with a photographer (whom we identify though she does not as a version of Tibor) to the small village where she is to interview Thijs Rietveld about his discovery/creation of the Perturbative Adjacent Field or PAF, "the Weapon That Will End War", sometime during his tenure somewhere near Cambridgeshire:
Using what quantum physicists sometimes call annihilation operators, an adjacency field could be created to divert physical matter into a different, or adjacent, realm. An incoming missile, to use the famous example described by Professor Rietveld, . . . could be moved to an adjacent quantum dimension, so that to all intents and purposes it would cease to exist. . . . Reitveld once optimistically described the potential for an ideative future world in which every city [by which we understand he ultimately means every building, every individual human being] might one day be permanently protected from physical assault by a localized field of adjacency.
Reitvelt demonstrates the triangular shape an adjacency field will create. But then he tells her that the process has fallen into the wrong hands, and may be used as a weapon. After she departs, he kills himself. The reader is not surprised. Reitveld's use of Wellsian language to describe Utopia has given the game away. The track of the world has begun to suffer a dismemberment indescribable in the language of H G Wells. Reitfeld's guilt is intolerable. We are Between the Wars. Where will the Book take us?
Part Five. We are on Tealby Moor again, but now it is the middle of World War Two. There are echoes of all of Priest's work throughout The Adjacent; but it is The Separation that seems to press the thin partitions most vividly at this point. The protagonist's name here is Mike Torrance, known as "Floody Torrance", a joke. He is an aircraftman. He maintains Lancaster bombers. A replacement bomber, presumably flown by a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary, has landed. He finds a wallet, owned apparently by the ATA pilot, whose name seems to be Second Officer K Roszca, with a telephone number, which he rings. A woman answers. She is Krystyna Roszca. (In this world, which seems to be ours, woman pilots are permitted in the ATA.) They arrange to meet at Tealby. She is overwhelmed by his resemblance to her lost fiancé Tomasz. She takes him in her plane to a private place. She tells him her story (Torrance writes it down years later, so we receive it as a manuscript at several removes; all the same, it seems to be set in our own world). She is Polish. Her parents are Gwidon and Joanna Roszca (Melanie Ross's parents in Part One are Gordon and Anna). Her nickname is Malina. They return to Tealby. She tells him she longs to fly a Spitfire XI, the most advanced plane in the world; its main use is to photograph enemy emplacements. They behave as though they are in love, as though Tarent/Trent/Torrance/Tomasz inhabited the same world as Ross/Roszca. But they separate. They never meet again. In old age Torrance researches her story, but The Adjacent cannot allow this long tale to ordinate what is to come, and he can find no record of her life. But in World War Two England she did "really" exist, for a while. He discovers that her last action in this version of the world was to fly a Spitfire over the Thames estuary and never come down, "releasing herself [as he thinks] from the bonds of war, through the white clouds, across the blue, scraping the roof of the world. . . ."
Part Six returns us to Tealby Moor, where consensual reality is continuing to fissure. Tibor discovers a dark tower which seems to generate adjacency effects (I believe we are never told it is the case—the 400 pages of The Adjacent are dense with coded revelations, not all of them catchable at a first reading—but I am going to assume that this tower has had something to do with Professor Reitvelt's early investigations.) He is required to identify the bodies from the Mebsher. He identifies Flo, whose name is in fact Tebyeb Mallinan. He then sees her alive, more or less adjacent to her corpse. She does not recognize him. He is not told, but eventually guesses, that the one body he is not asked to identify is his own.
Part Seven. The book takes a great breath and translates us to the island of Prachous in the great Dream Archipelago, venue for much of Priest's previous work, including his previous novel, The Islanders (2011). The island, with its complex cleverly worked out culture, is meticulously described over the hundred pages of this section of The Adjacent, which seems to be the homeland we have been nearing for so long. The protagonist's name is now Tomak Tallant. He is traveling across the interior desert of the vast island, guided by a "woman missionary" whose name is Firentsa, and who seems to hold him in deep disdain. Like Flo, however, she expresses a strong sexual desire for him, and they fuck. Both scenes of intercourse are told flatly, but without prejudice. When asked how long he has been on Prachous, Tallant experiences "a cold, familiar inner fear," perhaps because he does not know: "his memories were textureless, uninterrupted, a smooth continuity". But it may be, Firintsa suggests, that he is no more a native of Prachous than the huge population that fills the triangular shanty town of Adjacent, where they are almost enmired. For an instant he remembers his wife, who is clearly Tibor Tarent's dead partner. He realizes that the sudden rough flow of memories he now experiences, as though the current of the river of the book is becoming a single flow, "Weren't real—they were just good enough narratives".
We leave Tallant, and follow the life of Thom the Thaumaturge, a magician whose specialty is a rope-trick in which his assistant, an adolescent girl named Rullebet, is made to disappear. With difficulty he arranges a performance in a central venue. Something goes wrong and Rullebet dies in a fall. Before he can be lynched, a woman—who has been shadowing him for weeks, her name is Kirstenya Rosscky—tries to save him; a woman missionary then attempts to save both of them. But in vain.
The narrative starts again (this is the point at which The Adjacent and Life After Life most resemble each other), the performance is mounted, with a different outcome. Kirstenya now speaks in the first person. She had flown to Prachous months before, in a plane she loves, searching for her "close friend" Tomak. The adjacencies of the worlds are thrumming through their thin partitions, they can be heard speaking each to each. Here she begins to call herself Mellanya Ross. She finds Tomak, but Tomak is of course Thom. He does not know her. She shadows him, jealous of the adolescent girl he is spending time with, whose name is Ruddebet. She attends the magic show. Ruddebet falls at the climax of her act of disappearance. She is injured. Kirstenya, who is a nurse, cradles her. The missionary, whose name is Firentsa Mallin (elsewhere Tebyeb Mallinan) and is a doctor, takes over. The triangle is again complete, for an instant. (Adam Roberts argues, in a review posted to his site, that triangles structure The Adjacent throughout.) Kirstenya, who knows Thom is in some sense not (or not sufficiently) Tomasz, flees from Prachous in her plane, encountering before her final escape a radically disorienting thunderstorm over the shanty town of Adjacent, where all the refugees of all the worlds seem to huddle together. She survives the storm, flying what we now learn is her beloved Spitfire XI higher and higher into this world or another, saving her fuel, arriving in England.
Part Eight. Tibor Tarent tries to return to the compound on Tealby Moor, but is impeded by undergrowth. But there is no undergrowth left in the IRGB. He finds himself adjacent to an airstrip. It is World War Two. It is here. He listens as two aircraftmen, one of them known as Floody, describe the arrival of a one-engined plane the night before. Tibor finds the plane, and there he finds his wife Melanie. Floody will never know how close he has come to finding Malina Roszca. But Tibor and Melanie are safe, perhaps, in a stable 1943, though there is never more than a moment or two of peace Between the Wars. They grasp the moment, though Tibor now photographs her with an advanced camera that will not exist for many decades, elsewhere, a beat away.
The Adjacent begins in a quiet voice that Priest has mastered, slightly cartouched but unitary, a voice whose dignity of diction is a way of conveying terror: that seems to tell us that endurance is all: but that we are unlikely to endure. But something happens in The Adjacent, unexpectedly, almost breathtaking: the voice begins to loosen: inchworm, two steps forward one step back, edging into the reader's vision something that might almost be called (whisper it not) joy. And a drama of the heart that has seemed as frozen as a gaffed fish under the basilisk gaze of the wrong world(s) breaks almost smilingly through the meniscus. We know the fucks were good but they are gestures of clearance. Something else is happening. We learn that magic is allowing things to seem invisible. The adjacency triangles fade into mottos of paths not taken. The Spitfire breaks the meniscus and lands right here. It seems we have been reading a love story.