Christopher Priest obituary
The novelist Christopher Priest, who has died aged 80 after suffering from cancer, became eminent more than once over the nearly 60 years of his active working life. But while he relished success, he displayed a wry reserve about the ambiguities attending these moments in the limelight.
In 1983, he was chosen to be a part of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists, a group of 20 individuals. Most of them were younger than Priest, including well-known authors such as Martin Amis, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, and AN Wilson. Priest’s career had started nearly 20 years earlier and he had already published at least 15 books and 50 stories by the early 1980s. He believed that his delay in being recognized by the literary establishment was not due to the quality of his work, but because he was hesitant to admit that he wrote science fiction when asked.
His extensive collection of literature did not conform to any specific category. It is only in recent times that it has been recognized that the complex and clever nature of his stories cannot be easily categorized, similar to the works of authors like Amis and Ishiguro who also write fantastical tales.
Like them, he wove visions of Britain drifting into a post-empire future without secure signposts. Those stories, and the characters he let loose without a paddle, sink and dodge into realities that no longer count. Lacking much in the way of science-fiction gear, even his early work seems to describe the point that we have now arrived at.
The first book he wrote, Indoctrinaire (1970), introduces a critical examination of a future Britain that is imagined by the author and continues until his final book, Airside (2023). His next book, Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), is more mature and is the first of many to portray Britain as both physically isolated and isolated in terms of the emotional distress experienced by its inhabitants. It portrays a country that has been devastated by environmental disaster and is now at risk of being overrun by displaced people from around the world. The story is divided into 69 sections (or “islands”) that are not presented in chronological order.
The novel Inverted World (1974) explores the concept of perception and its ability to alter one’s understanding of the world. Similarly, The Space Machine: A Scientific Romance (1976) pays tribute to HG Wells while straying from the author’s usual themes. However, in A Dream of Wessex (1977), several stories from An Infinite Summer (1979), and his novel The Affirmation (1981), the author focuses on what he has dubbed The Dream Archipelago. This collection of stories takes place in various versions of Britain, each transformed into a unique landscape-dominated world with a Mediterranean climate. Each story delves into the depths of watery labyrinths.
The impact of Richard Jefferies’ novel After London: Or, Wild England (1885) is apparent. In the book The Glamour (1984), the main character is so disconnected from the real world that he actually becomes physically unseen.
Christopher, born in Cheadle, Cheshire (currently part of Greater Manchester), was the child of Millicent (nee Haslock) and Walter Priest. His father was a high-ranking employee at Vandome and Hart, a company that produced weighing machines. After graduating from Cheadle Hulme school at 16, Christopher worked as an accountancy clerk until 1968. He eventually released his stories written during this time as Ersatz Wines in 2008.
The initial indication of progress towards his developed perspective appeared to stem from his encounter with Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958). This story’s challenging examination of established science-fiction norms, influenced by American culture, combined with a strong pessimism regarding humanity’s ability to control the future, was incredibly impactful.
The boisterous Aldiss soon introduced him to the small but intense literary world in Notting Hill Gate, west London, that Michael Moorcock was beginning to create in the early 60s through the magazine New Worlds.
In a previous work, Priest was the first to use the term New Wave to describe the unconventional and fantastical stories of this time period. However, he had mixed feelings about aligning himself with the content found in New Worlds. He left his job in the church, started writing full-time, and later married Christine Merchant in 1969. They relocated to London and divorced four years later.
The idea of a world without a clear identity and lacking stories for guidance, as portrayed in the New Worlds/New Wave concept, was thought-provoking. However, Priest acknowledged the significant impact and guidance provided by JG Ballard, whose captivating tales explored the seemingly unexplainable. Ballard’s intuitive understanding that the past, present, and future are all part of our inner realm, urged us to delve deeper and coexist with it.
Although Priest’s works may be more cleverly crafted, they all recognize the insights of his mentor who realized that we currently reside in a perilous inner realm. His final book, which he unfortunately did not finish before his passing, is a examination of Ballard.
Harlan Ellison, an American author, removed a story written by Priest from his anthology Last Dangerous Visions, which was indefinitely postponed. In response, Priest published The Last Deadloss Visions in 1987. This work documented Ellison’s failure to release the anthology, despite having over 100 stories dating back to 1972. Ellison continually promised that the anthology would be published immediately, but it remained in manuscript form until his death in 2018. Priest faced backlash from Ellison’s supporters for his honesty, but he shrugged it off. However, others in the US admired him for speaking out.
In 1981, Priest and Lisa Tuttle got married, but they ended up getting divorced in 1987. The next year, he married fellow writer Leigh Kennedy, and together they had two kids, Elizabeth and Simon.
The book The Prestige (1995) by the author tells the story of two rival magicians in the 19th century. It received both the James Tait Black Memorial prize and a World Fantasy award. In 2006, a movie adaptation directed by Christopher Nolan featured Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as the main characters competing over a teleportation trick.
Responding to this new upsurge in his reputation, Priest wrote about the experience in The Magic: The Story of a Film (2008). Meanwhile, The Separation (2002), a dark alternate history of the second world war featuring Rudolf Hess and Winston Churchill, won an Arthur C Clarke award.
In 2011, he divorced Kennedy and started living with writer Nina Allan, eventually relocating to the Isle of Bute. They tied the knot in 2023.
His remaining years were prolific. The Islanders (2011) was soon followed by three further and summatory Dream Archipelago tales. An American Story (2018) takes a contrarian view of the assassination of JF Kennedy. Expect Me Tomorrow (2022) plays an intricate game involving doppelgangers, geology and climate change.
His last novel, Airside, conveys with eerie aplomb the seemingly simple tale of a Hollywood star who escapes the potential wreck of her career by travelling through something like an escape-hatch housed in the Heathrow “airside”: an Escherian space, neither here nor there, that any traveller must somehow traverse without becoming abandoned.
The French director Chris Marker’s most famous film, 200 stills comprising the 20-minute La Jetée (1962), which Priest cites in this novel, is partially set in an airside where past and future intersect. The sadness of that intersection is fathoms deep, serenely knowing. The voiceover for that film, and the narrator of Airside, speak to us in the same tone of voice: a tone that seems to grasp the future in hindsight.
By the conclusion of his career, Priest had accomplished his greatest feat – bringing us back to where he was waiting for us.
He was often sharp and demanding in his writing, although he was usually able to persuade others. Over the course of our fifty-year friendship, I discovered that he was a genuinely kind person who had a great sense of humor and was loyal, amused, and sociable. He had the unique ability to take himself seriously when necessary, but not too seriously. His laughter was contagious.
Nina and his children are the ones who will continue to live after him.