While some writers are quite happy to plough a furrow in which aspects of their writing is very recognisable either in style of plot direction, others transcend it. Giving a reader something to latch onto is often a good thing, especially for the making of a best-seller. Having the power to resist and produce something different and original with each book needs skill. To produce a remarkable work of literature takes talent. Christopher Priest has had that skill and talent from his very first book, Indoctrinaire (1970). After more than forty years that talent is still impressive, perhaps more so.
Writers often invest a lot of time in research for a book and at times you might suspect that much of it never gets used. While background knowledge is essential for the authentic construction of a narrative imparting too much to the reader can get in the way of the pace of the story. Fine writers, like Chris Priest, know exactly how much is needed. So what happens to that left over? It may be left to one side as the next project supplants it, or it might prove useful for future books. The Adjacent revisits some of Priest’s passions and twists them together make a brilliantly original novel. The best way of perceiving this novel is to accept that there are adjacent alternative approaches to our history which, given the right conditions can leak into each other.
The main thread of the plot is set in a future where Britain is an Islamic Republic. Tibor Tarent is a photographer being shipped home from a Middle East aid complex after the death of his wife. She was a nurse; he is now surplus to requirements. The explosion that killed her left a neat, triangular scar in the ground. On his way north for a debriefing he discovers that part of London has also been taken out by a neat triangular incision. This is one of the many things that he doesn’t understand.
The key to events is in the second section. Here an illusionist, Tom Trent is drafted into the First World War conflict as an advisor to the fledgling air force. The authorities have mistakenly thought that as he can make things disappear of stage, he ought to be able to find a way to make the planes invisible to the enemy. The problem is that his stage magic relies on distraction to work. This however does introduce the theory of adjacency, a science that is later developed.
The place Tibor is taken for debriefing is the same place that in the Second World War was a bomber command airfield. There and then, Mike Torrance meets a Polish woman pilot, whose job is to deliver aircraft from factory to airfield. She notices a resemblance between Mike and Tomasz, the fiancé she left behind.
Another section of the book deals with intertwined events on the island of Prachous, which is part of the Dream Archipelago. Although not mentioned in the gazetteer that makes up Priest’s novel The Islanders, it belongs there having all the quirky aspects that characterise the islands. This place brings together characters that share similarities with those from earlier on the book. There is an illusionist, a female pilot searching for her fiancé and a photographer trying to find his way home. It is a place of anomalies, especially the mysterious shanty town of Adjacent that doesn’t exist on the maps but is continually growing.
The elements within the various scenarios connect recurring themes, not just within this book, but within Priest’s body of work. The idea that small changes can have large effects, particularly on history, has been around in fiction for a long time and is the traditional root of alternative history novels. More recently, with the development of string theory, authors have explored the physical crossing between alternatives. Priest takes it a step further, layering alternatives over each other which can be glimpsed and even exist simultaneously. This is a complex novel of ideas, revisiting some of his earlier themes and blending them to produce a book that has extraordinary vision. It deserves to be widely read.