20 October 2005

Maps and Atlases

I've finished A Dream of Wessex, and very good it is too. The fact that it's an earlier work than the other Christopher Priest novels I've read is reasonably obvious -- the prose isn't quite so polished, and the dialogue in particular sounds at times as if the characters are reciting textbooks -- but it's still outstanding in the depth and texture of its imagination.

It seems that Priest in 1977 still considered himself as a science fiction writer, rather than in the "mainstream with S.F. devices" niche he's come to occupy since. A Dream of Wessex is still fine character-based S.F., with an obvious New Wave influence in its presentation of a future which in many respects resembles the past, has little by way of distinctive or innovative technology, and which while definitively a neurologically-induced consensual hallucination is also very possibly real. My absolute favourite aspect of this future is the titular "Wessex" -- not merely a devolved English region, but actually an island, formerly the Devon and Cornwall peninsula, following the cataclysmic twenty-first-century inundation of most of Dorset and Somerset. The future sequences are set in coastal Dorchester, at the mouth of the Blandford Passage. Which is the kind of imaginative conceit that really appeals to me, I don't know why.

(Speaking of which, I know that when I was very young the local library in Lancing had a truly amazing book of maps of imaginary places. I don't suppose Priest's then recently-created Wessex was among them, but Hardy's may well have been. The book certainly covered Barsoom and Oz and Atlantis and Pern and any number of other fictional places, almost none of which I'd previously heard of (though I imagine Middle-Earth and Narnia must have been in there too), and all of which I found endlessly fascinating. Does anyone recognise the book I'm talking about here?)

Since I recently succumbed to the temptation to buy the uniform editions of The Glamour and The Extremes to go with my The Prestige and The Separation, I'm sure I'll be sampling more Priest in the near future.

I've now embarked upon Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is fascinating so far. The book as a whole is structured as six nested and cross-linked narratives, set in successive historical periods from the mid-nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future, which is a glorious idea. I'm nearing the end of the second half-novella, set in 1931, and have found the historical pastiche every bit as enjoyable as I expect to find the S.F. chapters later on.

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