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Magic, Illusion, and The Adjacent With Christopher Priest
Author of over a dozen novels, Christopher Priest’s first published story was ‘The Run’ in 1966. His first novel, Indoctrinaire, was published in 1970. His second, Fugue for a Darkening Island, was a Campbell nominee, and his third, The Space Machine, would win the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award and was nominated for a Hugo. A Dream of Wessex (1977 – published in the US as The Perfect Lover) would be regarded as the first great virtual reality novel.
His most famous work, The Prestige, was released in 1995 to critical acclaim and would go on to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and World Fantasy Award. The novel was further adapted to the silver screen by Christopher Nolan in 2006, starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, and David Bowie, chronicling its novel’s rivalry between two 19th century stage magicians: one whose magic is all but ordinary. Author of The Extremes, The Separation and The Islanders, all of which would earn him the BSFA Award, Priest’s kept writing since, including The Adjacent, in which all is once again not as it seems.
And the less you know about The Adjacent going in the better. Spanning three stories starring three men somehow different yet alike, The Adjacent is a place where fiction and history intersect, every version of reality is suspect, where truth and falsehood lie closely, if not deceptively, adjacent in ways you’re not likely to expect.
What led you to set the stage, so to speak, for The Adjacent?
I’m not sure about setting a stage! I simply saw it as my “next novel,” a development of previous concerns and interests, with a new way of putting them. Can you describe the book’s principle of adjacency in your own words? It’s what the whole book is about, a theme that runs through it. It was originally based on a concatenation of two notions: adjacency is an argument within quantum field theory, and adjacency is a technique used by cunning people like stage magicians and camouflagers. The quantum physics was my way of staking a claim in science fiction — the magic is something that intrigues me, and anyway is a readable way to illustrate harder stuff about physics.
The Adjacent harkens back to your illusionary work with The Prestige. Where do you believe your interest in stage magic stems from and are there any particular stage acts that speak to you?
I had no particular interest in or involvement with stage magic before The Prestige . . . I always found it entertaining, but then so too do a lot of people. When I wrote The Prestige I became interested in the way a stage illusion is often crafted in the same way as I craft a plot or a story. The book became a sort of extended metaphor for the writing of literature. Or at least, my way of writing literature. Since the book and the film have appeared I have become much closer to the magic community, who on the whole seem to accept and enjoy the ideas of The Prestige.
Your work has been most often recognized as fantasy and science fiction, though The Adjacent doesn’t seem to adhere to either in the traditional sense. What distinctions, if any, do you believe separate the two genres?
What traditional sense? I see my work as being at the heart of the fantastic, but I also realize that a lot of people don’t see it that way. When I began writing there was a different ethos about writing fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy barely existed, for instance, except in a number of second rate derivative works based on Dunsany, Lovecraft and Tolkien. That has changed out of all recognition since then, but I still do not care much for fantasy. I found myself working in a genre where genuinely innovative writers like J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, John Sladek, Brian Aldiss, Thomas M. Disch, Samuel R. Delany were breaking rules and standing science fiction on its head. I found that exciting and challenging, and I still do. The trouble is that in the last half-century (yes, I realize that it’s as long ago as that) the centre ground of science fiction has been taken over by high-concept films, TV series, video games, comics, and all that . . . what the media calls “sci-fi.” A whole generation of writers and readers has grown up with this as the imaginative base for what they understand and expect science fiction to be. The consequence is that my kind of work seems now to be identified with the fringe, the outer edge, work that is thought to be trying to be “something else” . . . no longer what you call “the traditional sense.” I think otherwise. I see The Adjacent, since that’s the one we’re talking about, as firmly within the tradition I inherited, or entered, in those early formative years. Central ground, in other words. Most of the other writers I named from that era have either died or moved on, and the ethos they represented then has come to seem irrelevant today. Or so some people seem to think. I still respond to it, and find it a creative challenge.
The Adjacent follows much of the nonlinear story structure that characterizes your writing. If we were to liken it to a magic act, how challenging is it to pull the wool over readers eyes?
Again, I don’t agree. The Adjacent tells a complicated story, with difficult ideas. Part of the work of a novelist is to make complicated ideas seem logical, original, comprehensible. By breaking the story of The Adjacent into shorter sequences I felt that the ideas would be much more enjoyable for the reader to discover, stimulating his or her own imagination about what might be happening. Using the word “nonlinear” can make a book sound obscure, and I think in this case it’s inappropriate. Yes, The Adjacent hops about in time, but it actually has a beginning, middle and end, and in that order, and as it goes along it collects, picks up, images that illustrate the idea and deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters and the position they are in.
Much like The Prestige, The Adjacent includes an appearance by H.G. Wells who, much like Nikola Tesla, plays a part in the book’s historical commentary. What do you admire most about their respective work?
I’m interested in the work of both men. Nikolai Tesla was a genuinely innovative thinker and inventor. At the time I wrote The Prestige he was an almost forgotten, overlooked historical character. Because during his lifetime he was in a constant and bitter feud with Edison, and Edison was better at PR, many people thought of Tesla as a kind of crackpot. In reality, Edison was doing a lot of things wrong, Tesla got them right, Edison never forgave him . . . but history has on the whole thought of Edison as an innovative thinker, etc. So I wanted to try to restore some of Tesla’s uniquely interesting quality. Since The Prestige came out, I’m pleased to see he has been rehabilitated. H. G. Wells doesn’t need rehabilitation by me or anyone else, but he was a great character and the incident described in The Adjacent is based on a real event. Little-known, but real.
The Adjacent’s primary protagonists of Tarrent, Trent, and Torrance all harbor overlying themes of loss, identity, and illusion as they seem to correspond to each of their given fields: photography, stage magic, and aviation. We’ve talked about the second, but what about the others spark your interest?
I’ve always been interested in photography. Like literature, photography is an evolving art. Unlike literature, photography is becoming a folk art … whenever there is a crowd at a big public event you see thousands of people holding up digital cameras or mobile phones. Yet, oddly, photography is something everyone does, but few actually look at. Let’s hope books don’t go the same way. Aviation is an old love of mine. I learned to fly when I was a teenager, but because of lack of money I haven’t done any flying for years. I dream on.
You deal with a wealth of speculative fiction in The Adjacent, which spans three specific wartimes: both World Wars and those ongoing in the Middle East. Are there any historical parallels you draw from all three periods?
Yes. War is wrong. War is never motivated by higher principles. War solves no problems, merely changes the nature of the problem. Going to war means the imagination has died.
As in The Islanders and The Affirmation, the Dream Archipelago appears once more in The Adjacent. What do these islands best symbolize to you?
The Dream Archipelago is as its name implies: it is a landscape (more properly, a seascape) in which the quality of dream is dominant. But it is not “dreamlike” . . . it is depicted as a real place with real problems and issues, people get hurt, a war is being fought, art is pursued. But behind it all lies the calming, oneiric quality of a quiet sea, hot weather, beautiful islands, people making love, people drifting, finding things, sitting around, musing a lot. For me it is a useful tapestry, full of detail, not a consistent or whole world, but one where things change around a bit depending on the story. It has an overall consistency, but the place itself is huge and diverse. The Islanders is a kind of source-book: enquire within for all the facts. Books like The Adjacent riff off those facts.
Your 1995 book, The Prestige, was most famously adapted to film by Christopher Nolan. Would you ever like to see The Adjacent adapted in the same manner?
Yes, but not by Christopher Nolan. At least, not the Nolan of the present day, who makes high-concept blockbusters about Batman. Inception was one of the worst-written big films in recent years. We probably disagree about this too? I understand why Nolan makes such films, but I found the Nolan of Following, Memento and The Prestige a much more intriguing and stimulating film-maker than he is now. I’d like to see him rewind the tape a bit, go back to making smaller, more intelligent films. Then he would probably become a major film-maker of the same sort of international renown as (say) Hitchcock or Truffaut or the Coen Brothers. Anyway, the good news about having a film made of one of your books is that they give you a shitload of money. But I’m not keen on the rest of what it brings. I’d like to see The Adjacent filmed, yes, but perhaps when I’m dead and gone, so my kids would benefit from it without getting dragged in.
The Adjacent’s been released in digital and printed formats alike. Which do you most prefer as a writer and do you see both surviving in the near future?
I personally prefer a printed book. It’s aesthetically more pleasing to carry and hold and read from. As what is now known as an information retrieval device a printed book is almost perfect. The technology is equal to the wishes of the users. I am not a Luddite: I love electronic gadgets, and have read books on both a Kindle and my tablet. But you asked me which I prefer.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I’m working on something that is a bit of an experiment. I’m writing a novella and a novel about the same subject, treated differently. After that I have a new short story collection to put together, and a long way off in the future I have another novel planned. There’s a non-fiction project in prospect, which I’m keeping under wraps, but it is one of the best ideas for a book I have ever had. There’s a film coming of The Glamour, but I have withdrawn from involvement with it, over scripting issues. There is also a play of The Prestige coming on in London later this year.
You can find Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent on Amazon on Kindle, hardback, paperback, and audio book.