If you want a mindscrew here’s one, even though it probably goes against the criteria listed there and is good because of it. For once it breaks my habit of 800+ pages big volumes, A Dream of Wessex is a perfect 200 pages containing a well paced and well calibrated story with a definite conclusion. It doesn’t need one page more or less. More importantly, it is a significant milestone in the pattern I’m following, the fil rouge of this blog and post-modern spin (a pretense I put there and that is not in the book). As one could guess from the cover, it’s also not exactly a new release, though it is connected with new releases. It came out in 1977, thirty-six years ago, but with the time, even as a science fiction story, it acquired significance. It’s far more actual now than how it probably was at the time, and none of the ingenuity of old stories that try to imagine a future.
I could say it’s one of those “perfect” stories. I can hardly find a flaw in it. The writing is superb because of how it does a service to the story. Sometimes with sci-fi plots you have to fight the suspension of disbelief, as you have to try to make the reader accept the “gimmick” (I won’t use gimmick negatively here, I just mean sci-fi stories built around a specific “invention”). A Dream of Wessex is a story of the future, it has fancy technology, but the way it’s structured makes it all completely realistic and even conventional. The power of subversion and mindscrew need no fireworks, they hide behind everyday life. Christopher Priest, maybe the same as Philip K. Dick, writes in his own genre that he calls “slipstream”:
Slipstream does not define a category, but suggests an approach, an attitude, an interest or obsession with thinking the unthinkable or doing the undoable. Slipstream can be visionary, unreliable, odd or metaphysical. It’s not magical realism: it’s a larger concept that contains magical realism.
I’d add to this definition the “feeling” of slipstream, a sense of displacement from reality. As if you suddenly step through some invisible threshold and everything around you appears looking just the same, but wrong.
“Have you seen Tom?”
“Tom? Tom who?”
“Benedict. Tom Benedict.”
“Never heard of him.”
No one knew him. Later she found Allen, spoke to him.
“Did you treat Tom today?”
“I’ve been in Dorchester, Julia. Is he still ill? Who is it?”
Then she found that she couldn’t remember his surname. She ate a meal with a group of the others, trying to think of it… But by the time the meal was finished she could not even remember his first name.
She felt a sense of great loss, and an overwhelming sadness, and a sure knowledge that someone she had loved was no longer there.
The power of A Dream of Wessex is not about “making you believe” in the plausibility of the gimmick. It’s not an Asimov novel (I’ll return to this). The power is to have the subversive layer of the story seep in your real non-fictional life. Like a virus, invisible before you feel its effects. It eats away your sense of reality and sends you to a sense of vertigo, as if suddenly your real self sitting on a chair and reading the book isn’t anymore as tightly bound to a concrete sense of reality. This book has a staggering power of abstraction. It’s not based on a neat, fun idea, but it feeds on some truth at the core, only disguised as “fiction”. And so it traps you through the fictional pretense and drags you on that other side.
It was odd how memory seemed to detach itself from experience; already, the sight of Julia’s boat heading out across the black, multi-coloured water seemed distant from himself. It was as if there were a false experience in memory, one given to him. It seemed that he had been walking alone through the boulevard all evening and into the night, with entirely spurious memories appearing in sequences to supply the false experience.
Memory was created by events surely?
At the bottom of it there’s no horror, but a sense of silent dread just hanging there. It plays subtly with perception, as if what you’re watching has its perspective slightly askew. A strangeness in the familiar. The plot is fairly straightforward and not too convoluted. Some fancy technology development allowed to build a virtual reality machine. It works like a participatory universe, where a number of minds are pooled together and “project” a universe. In the book this experiment has a scientific goal at its back: the imagined reality is set 150 years in the future and so it’s meant as a research on how the extrapolated future might be.
In the early days the reports the participants had made had reflected the spirit of the projection: that they were discovering a society, and speculating about the way it was run. As time passed, though, and as the participants became more deeply embedded in that society, their reports had gradually became more factual in tone, relating the future society to itself rather than to the present. Expressed in a different way, it meant that the participants were treating the projection as a real world, rather than one which was a conscious extrapolation from their own.
But there are no flying cars or A.I.s taking over the world. This imagined future is a social research and the premise is a technological stagnation that made the future not unlike the present. It turns out like a holiday resort with a hippie community living into an old castle. Being participative, this universe needs to extrapolate a coherent whole from all the minds projecting it, using the interesting property of memory (not explicitly stated in the book, but described as exactly this) of spontaneously smoothing whatever problem or inconsistency may come up. The unconscious mind spontaneously discards the parts that it can’t make sense of, unknowingly rearranging them to find coherence. Hammering down pieces that wouldn’t fit. Reality, past and present, is not static. It shifts subtly, or even more dramatically. Leaving only a fleeting impression that something is missing.
All this played out against the characters’ layer. We got here a “strong” female protagonist, really well written in my opinion. This is where the story always return and always gives a priority. Maybe I could nitpick that this woman still seems to draw her worth and strength in the way she’s able to oppose a male guy, and so she’s a female protagonist that still draws her strength from having a guy next to her, instead of just herself, as if that male figure remains indispensable. But this isn’t a problem in the book and it depends too much on a modern “bias” in the way we pretend stories should be told. Characterization here, outside of prejudices, is really solid.
I could say this book isn’t relevant for “what it says” but for “what it does”. It wouldn’t be correct, though, and that’s why it’s even better than I thought. This force that the book has and that I’ve described, does not bog the story down. Here I return to Asimov. He can write some great stories but sometimes the characters suffer. It happens often that in SF stories the characters are created to be in service of the idea at the core of the book. They are built to fit the story and to make the most out of that idea. So one could say that the characters are added to be in service to the rest. Objects more than subjects. Functions of plot. What instead Christopher Priest achieves here is that the characters remain at the apex regardless of the power of the story. When it’s all over and the power of the idea at the core already discharged, it’s the characters who remain and give a perfect (satisfying) closure. Even seen as a whole, that core idea still remains one step below of the significance of the characters, without overshadowing them. This priority is very strongly defined, and yet it doesn’t weaken the power of the idea itself.
If it was Philip K. Dick writing this he’d have probably sent the story spinning wildly out of control toward the end, in an explosion of blurred possibilities staggering the mind. Completely open to ambiguity and open interpretation. Instead Priest does the opposite. Just after the biggest charge is set off, it starts turning counterclockwise for the last 20 pages. The reader can run with the idea and give it more spin, but the book itself defines, and strongly, its “canon”. Most of the book was carefully “seeded” with small elements that Priest would then activate at the end of the book so that the many possibilities that suddenly opened would be instead suppressed. Instead of the open ended finale, for most readers annoyingly unsatisfying, this story clearly defines its official interpretation. It tries to make it as explicit as possible by expressing and then clearly negating doubts that the reader would voice. There may be a minor flaw in this, if one considers that the powerful climax comes too soon and that the last 20 pages instead only do the busywork of putting the pieces back together in a way that makes sense, but the result is that the book doesn’t lose the power of the idea while giving a definite conclusion that one doesn’t often get in these types of stories. No hanging questions left at the end, beside the haunting “slipstream” feel that stays with you a little longer.
There’s only a little door open toward the end. It reminds me the problem of “infinite regression”, or even Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the turtle. Whether you want or not, stories that deal with virtual realities ultimately fall into these cases of recursion. Turtles all the way down. What happens if while in the virtual reality you lose the link with the “true” reality. Can you lose the way back? And how do you recognize a true reality if you don’t have anymore a context where you can properly recognize the point you’re at? It’s like Wile E. Coyote using a ladder to go up, then pulling up the ladder to use it again and keep going up, even if the ladder doesn’t stand anymore on the ground. It happens in your everyday dreams. You know, viscerally, you were dreaming the moment you wake up. Like a hierarchy of dreams, you can only know with certainty you had a dream when you exit it. When you have a context to compare it to. But how can you be sure that the stage you are at, right now, awake, is the “real”, final one? Perception is one-directional, as if you are looking through a window that is transparent if you look from one side, and opaque from the other.
This is the first book by Christopher Priest I read, but not the last. Not simply because I enjoyed this one so much, but because from the start I had a plan. What I’m interested about is specifically his more ambitious and puzzling meta-verse. Some grander vision that ties together some of his most interesting works. It starts with The Affirmation and then continues with the more recent The Dream Archipelago (short story collection), The Islanders and The Adjacent, all of which got enthusiastic reviews:
So A Dream of Wessex fulfilled exactly what I expected it to be. An appetizer for all the good, mind-bending things to come. A teaser of one of the most genial writers out there, who still enjoys thinking the unthinkable.