Seamless storytelling can sometimes seem like magic, but in The Adjacent, Christopher Priest goes to great lengths to stress the applied aspects of both practices:
What I do . . . is contrived to look like a series of miracles, but in reality the preparation of a magical illusion is a prosaic matter. Few people realise the amount of rehearsal conjurors have to put in, nor what goes on in the background. A trick often requires technical assistants, who will help design and build the apparatus. The movements a magician makes on stage are the result of long and patient rehearsal, while still having to look natural and spontaneous to the audience. It is an acquired practical skill, in other words. Only while in performance, in the glare of the limelight, can magic look like inspiration. Even at best it is never more than an illusion. Things are never what they seem. (p. 86)
This is true of almost every facet of The Adjacent. Its narrative feels fairly straightforward at first, but the farther into the fold we go, the less linear and logical it looks. One tale turns into two, two into ten . . . ten threads or thereabouts, then, which contradict as often as complement one another, seeming to stand alone from the whole at the same time as suggesting some imperative collective resonance. Meanwhile, whatever motivations or expectations Priest's cast of characters either have or lack at the outset are quickly obliterated; annihilated on even the theoretical level by something uncomfortably akin to the Perturbative Adjacent Field proposed by Professor Thijs Rietvel.
A revolutionary reactant which allows for physical matter to be diverted to another realm—so that a missile, for instance, fired at a target protected by this technology seemingly ceases to exist—the PAF becomes known as "The Weapon That Will End War" (p. 162). Instead, tellingly, it facilitates a scenario on the opposite end of the spectrum: a "war that will end everything" (p. 255), fought with adjacency-based weapons no one can defend against.
In the interim, the climate has practically collapsed, rendering large parts of the planet uninhabitable and dramatically altering the weather everywhere else. Devastating tropical storms are now par for the course in middle England, and that country, where the bulk of Priest's tenth novel takes place, has seen some still more sweeping changes. It's now a part of the Islamic Republic of Great Britain, or the IRGB: a setting simply presented, with next to no context or explanation. All we can do is accept it whole-cloth, in concord with the pedestrian ways it's changed the day-to-day:
As the Mebsher moved slowly out of the town centre one of the crewmen came on the intercom. It was a formula greeting: peace be upon you, Allah is almighty, welcome back aboard, keep your seat-belts fastened, food is available in the galley but remember that no alcohol is allowed aboard, please follow all instructions from the crew in the event of emergencies. Inshallah. (p. 26)
The IRGB can be read as a controlled response to the rise in recent years of Islamophobic narratives—of what we could call apocalypse Allah as it's played out in speculative fiction specifically. Rather than roundly rebutting this quasi-racist rubbish, Priest presents a balanced Britain-under-Islam that is in every manner matter of fact. The slight changes effected by the government's revised religious outlook are skin-deep indeed: that Allah is publicly praised in the IRGB rather than the holy Christian trinity is nearly meaningless; jarring, perhaps, but only momentarily.
In terms of narrative, character, and setting, then, The Adjacent plays with our expectations at every stage. Indeed, preconceptions are a crucial piece of the prose puzzle that Priest's new novel masquerades as: on the one hand there's what we believe we've seen, and on the other, what has actually happened. Our understanding of certain events is frequently revealed to be incomplete, our subsequent assumptions incorrect, giving rise to the sense of uncertainty that has come to be characteristic of this illusionist-cum-author's oeuvre.
Our purported protagonist, Tibor Tarent, is a freelance photographer whose aid worker wife is arbitrarily atomized at the outset of the text by a bastardization of the aforementioned PAF. Unbeknownst to Tarent, a similar attack has annulled a substantial chunk of London; thus the government of the IRGB recall him from war-torn Anatolia to be debriefed. Still "in a state of torpid confusion" (p. 131), he is a character utterly without agency for perhaps the first half of his four-part narrative. To be sure, he's aware that "other people [are] taking over his life, determining his actions" (p. 35), but unquestioning compliance excuses him from dwelling on the part he's afraid he played in his partner's passing, so for a time, Tarent simply submits to the system. Eventually, however, his photographer's curiosity—his innate need to reframe reality—wins out once it becomes inescapably apparent that his home country is not what it was, if, that is, the IRGB even is his home country.
The key to unlocking it all, or as much of it as Priest is prepared to give away, is found in The Adjacent's second section. La rue des bêtes—literally the street of beasts—introduces readers to Tommy Trent, aka London’s Lord of Mystery. The celebrated British prestidigitator is being shipped out to the French front of the First World War to offer his professional perspective on the camouflaging of reconnaissance craft, but immediately after he arrives, the only soldier with any interest in his ideas dies while test-flying one of the airplanes Trent had been asked to assist with. Thus rebuffed, he takes the next train home, and as abruptly as it began, La rue des bêtes ends.
In practice, that’s the first and last we hear of the Lord of Mystery, yet his stymied stratagems reverberate through the rest of text. Chiefly, he advances another interpretation of adjacency, as it applies to live magic rather than science:
The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd or suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed. The actual set-up is unimportant—what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction.
An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates. (pp. 103-4)
To wit, a prodigious portion of Priest's narrative is an elaborate distraction. But which bit? And what has it been designed to distract us, the audience, from?
The Adjacent is an enormously recursive piece of work, rife with doubles, dissonance, and a laundry list of other uncanny occurrences. Priest has written novels of this sort before, of course—enigmas wrapped in riddles—many of which The Adjacent pointedly, and at points poignantly, recalls. In concept, The Adjacent's broken Britain recalls that of his recently revised dystopian debut, Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972). It also has multiple magicians in common with the pair from The Prestige (1995); an interest in synchronicity not dissimilar to the one Priest explored in The Extremes (1998); and the author’s fascination with wartime aircraft—see The Separation (2002), especially—dominates the central section, wherein a so-called "instrument basher" (p. 177) falls for a dashing Polish pilot. Later on, a large fragment of narrative—in itself the longest and most engrossing of The Adjacent's eight—returns (and returns (and returns)) to the Dream Archipelago Priest has often explored before; in the 1999 short story arrangement of the same name in addition to The Affirmation (1981) and The Islanders (2011). But for all that it has a lot in common, conceptually, with Priest's past narratives, one rarely feels that he’s repeating himself. Yet this may be the adjacency effect at work as well:
All stage magic evolves gradually, tricks adapting as society changes or as new technology becomes available, but every illusion is based on a handful of principles that have not changed in centuries. What appear to be fresh concepts or innovations are in fact the result of showmanship or novel ways of presenting old ideas. (p. 314)
Though he has been taken to task for plodding prose, these continuing criticisms have always seemed measly to me. Priest’s sentences are certainly unsentimental—that they are not as pretty as those from the pens of our principal wordsmiths is plain—but what they lack in glamor they more than make up for in purposefulness. The power bolstering Priest's prose lies in its incremental accretion of meaning, particularly so when the significance of this implication and that insinuation is not known. Stripped of the superficial, the elements of the entire illusion are laid bare, and such artifice is much more attractive when we're invited to work out what the method behind what we see could conceivably be.
Reading The Adjacent is like taking a grand tour of the larger canon Christopher Priest has established over the course of his forty-year career, so no, newcomers need not apply, but old hands are apt to find it massively satisfying: an exceptional effort which seems to complete, if not necessarily conclude, many of the themes and ideas the author has been dickering with, ever so cleverly, for decades.
One can only hope this literary magician has many more tricks in his repertoire.
Niall Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) reviews speculative fiction of various shapes and sizes—whether in film, literature, video games, or comics—honestly, the lot—for a number of genre-oriented resources, including Tor.com, Starburst Magazine, and Strange Horizons. Failing all of the above, as is the case most days, he'll happily bend your ear over at his blog, The Speculative Scotsman.