The Evidence by Christopher Priest

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Christopher Priest’s sixteenth novel, his fifth in the last decade, returns to the uneasy setting of the Dream Archipelago, most recently traversed in 2016’s The Gradual. On the one hand, The Evidence is classic Priest with the full panoply of twins, stage magicians and the endless war between Glaund and Faiandland trundling on in the background. But, on the other, it’s a crime novel with several variants on the locked-room mystery and a particularly violent murder scene. Has Priest sold out to the demands of commercial genre writing or is he sarcastically deconstructing the format?

The Evidence

The novel begins with crime writer, Todd Fremde, on a train on Dearth Island heading to Dearth City, where he will be staying in the Dearth Plaza Hotel, in order to give a keynote lecture, to a conference organised by the University of Dearth Literary and Historical Society, on ‘The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime-Free Society’. Fremde has accepted the invitation against his better judgment, swayed by the promise of top cuisine, a suite at the hotel, and being driven around in a university car. Therefore, he makes it clear he only has time to give the lecture and then leave the next day. While it would no doubt be a mistake to conflate Fremde with Priest himself, the following fear seems heartfelt: ‘The prospect of prolonged and detailed academic discourse from theoreticians who knew little of the art and craft of writing filled me with dread’. Ouch! Suitably chastened, I shall try and rein in my well-known proclivities to quote large chunks of Derrida, Lacan or Agamben for the duration of this review.

Needless to say, the amenities on Dearth fail to match up to their billing but the real trouble arises from Fremde’s inability to adhere to the ‘Seignioral mutability regulations’ with the consequences that his watch stops, the electrical equipment in his room (not suite) takes on a life of his own, letters disappear from his emails and texts, and he incurs hefty fines for ‘electrical mutability abuse’ and a ‘Seignioral surcharge’ for ‘unauthorized horizontal prejudice’. Fortunately, he is able to offset some of the cost of these by cashing in the return half of his rail ticket and accepting the offer of a lift back across the island from a woman, Frejah Harsent, who attended his talk. But even this has its consequences as Harsent, who drives a gullwing roadster with a barely-concealed automatic weapon in the boot, turns out to be a semi-retired detective in the ‘Transgression Investigation Department, Dearth Seignioral Police’. Not only does she insist on telling him extensive details of a cold case that she was involved in because it will give him material for his writing but it also transpires that she is incredibly prejudiced against serfs leading to his blunt admission that he is a ‘citizen serf’, which provokes the following exchange:

‘I’m embarrassed – I assumed you were a professional, a vassal.’

‘That’s just your assumption,’ I said. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m a writer. All writers are serfs.’

Subsequently, Fremde gets back to his home island of Salay Raba and over the following days all seems back to normal apart from the fact that there is no sign of his expenses and fee from the University of Dearth. But then, once more against his better judgement, he finds himself slowly dragged into the ongoing fallout of the cold case that Harsent insisted on describing to him and the attendant complications of twins, magicians and illusory perfect crimes. None of which is helped by the financial collapse and run on the banks, which threatens to destabilise the economy of the entire Archipelago that Fremde may have inadvertently triggered through his mutability transgressions. All of this is great fun, narrated with deadpan irony to characteristic understated comic effect; but with a marked political charge. 

The feudal class system of the Dream Archipelago has never been laid out so starkly as in the drop-down list of ‘social level’ options that Fremde accesses at one point in the proceedings: ‘Serf, Citizen Serf, Villein, Squire, Vassal, Corvée Provider, Cartage Provider, Demesne Landed, Knight, Manorial Landed, Baron, Seignior.’ Although, amusingly, magicians are categorised as a separate category of ‘Mountebank’. In The Evidence, this outdated class system is linked with finance as a manifestation of mutability, which is both a real and unreal process that happens or is thought to happen: ‘best understood as existing somewhere between quantum physics and psychology’. 

The unexpected appearance of the medieval term ‘Vassal’ in contemporary British usage presents an example of this kind of simultaneously real and unreal existence. It is used to express the concern of Brexiteers, such as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not to be reduced to the status of vassals of the European Union regardless of the fact that this is neither a likely outcome nor necessarily an undesirable one. That this kind of absurdity now constitutes the political reality of the UK is a reflection of the state of affairs described in a recent book, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (2020), by William Davies, Professor of Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. Davies posits that the mismatch between ever-expanding digital data and timebound analogue frames of meaning is generating ‘escalating opportunities for conflict over the nature of reality’. This strikes me as essentially the same phenomenon that Priest describes as mutability. Fremde might have been tasked with the seemingly paradoxical task of talking about the role of the modern crime novel in a crime-free society but Priest sets himself the even more difficult problem of writing about the relationship between illusion and reality in a world in which the distinction between them has collapsed. Somehow, by sleight of genre and time-honed skill, he achieves this, and order is restored at the end of The Evidence with revels ended as all is mended. The dream still works even as all falls apart around us.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction edited by Canavan and Robinson

Reviewed by Anthony Nanson. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In Rob Latham’s Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) the field of ecocriticism was conspicuous by its absence. That gap could have been nicely filled by Gerry Canavan’s Introduction to Green Planets, or indeed Latham’s own contribution to this book. Ecocriticism and SF may have been reluctant bed-mates, but in this book we see an explicit insemination of SF criticism with ecocritical thinking. Not only that, Canavan argues that science fiction itself is an ideal means of ecological critique. As Kim Stanley Robinson points out in the interview concluding this volume, the ecological crisis confronting the world is so complex, and so much about process unfolding in time, that it is better described in terms of story than of abstract concept.

Canavan structures his introduction and – the book’s three parts – using a set of categories borrowed from Samuel Delany. First, the contrasting utopias of New Jerusalem (the high-tech super city) and Arcadia (the rustic good life). Each of these inverts into a dystopia: respectively, the Brave New World and the Land of the Flies. In the interstices between these arise new postmodern categories: Junk City (slow-motion urban collapse), whose positive side (‘an ecstatic vision of improvisational recombinative urban chaos’) is unnamed (how about ‘Brexit’?); and the not formally named ‘ruined countryside’ (‘Edgeland’?), whose positive aspect is the Culture of the Afternoon (sunset shining through the smog). Transcending these sixteen categories is the Quiet Earth, where humankind is completely or almost completely absent.

Part 2, ‘Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies’, thus focuses on dystopian stories. Part 3, ‘Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon’, tends that way also. Eric C. Otto’s chapter there applies the concept of ‘critical dystopia’ (from Raffaela Baccolini and Tom Moylan’s Dark Horizons [2003]) to show how Paolo Bacigalupi exercises an ecotopian (ecologically utopian) desire through dystopian scenarios that create a tension between his characters, who become motivated to act differently but whose options are foreclosed by the structures of their world, and the reader in this world for whom change remains possible.

What really struck me is that most of the texts examined in the supposedly utopian Part 1, ‘Arcadias and New Jersusalems’, also incline towards dystopia. Christina Alt’s chapter on H.G. Wells compares the ecological awareness of The War of the Worlds with humankind’s ruthless extermination of undesired species in his notionally utopian novel Men Like Gods. Latham’s ‘Biotic Invasions: Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction’ surveys a range of grim invasion stories. Michael Page’s study of Golden Age SF touches on some utopian texts when discussing the theme of ‘evolution’ but then returns firmly to dystopia with his second ecological theme of ‘apocalypse’. This leaves Gib Prettyman’s study of Le Guin as the only chapter, besides the Robinson interview, that wholeheartedly engages with the utopian imagination.

The notion of a kind of merging of SF and ecological critique is made tangible by two chapters about ‘science faction’, texts that are essentially works of speculative popular science but framed in a future narrative. I use the term in a broader sense than the narrow one in which Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman deploy it, to refer specifically to depictions of a world devoid of people. Equally ‘science faction’, I’d say, is Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, the focus of Sabine Höhler’s chapter. Both these chapters run into a political dead end: Bellamy and Szeman’s because, as they conclude, a post-human world is a priori devoid of politics; Höhler’s because Hardin’s thought experiment leads to a neoliberal cum fascist conclusion that the resource limitations of Spaceship Earth necessitate a coercive survival of the fittest. In proposing a lifeboat exit strategy from this dilemma, Höhler appears to reject the premise that the Earth is a closed system and fall back on the dream of a destiny somewhere else – which both Canavan’s introduction and the interview with Robinson make clear is no solution to humankind’s ecological quandary.

For me, the most interesting line of thought arises in three chapters that, in different ways, engage with the idea of a change of consciousness through some concept of immersive ‘depth’. Melody Jue explains now, in Stanisław Lem’s Solaris and Greg Egan’s ‘Oceanic’, the metaphor of mysterious ocean depths is manipulated to suggest possibilities of reciprocal connection between the human and non-human. Timothy Morton’s essay on the film Avatar is a tour de force of postmodernist criticism, blithely drawing upon the likes of Kant, Spinoza, and Heidegger to explore an alluring void of reason in which we may find connection with all that is, only to leave us with a nightmarish image of alienation. Brilliant though it be, this kind of writing strikes me as more a performance of the critic’s cleverness than a useful contribution to our problems, whether ecological or existential. Contrast this with Prettyman’s clearly structured argument that the transcending of the ego facilitated by a spiritual path such as Daoism, to enter a broader field of connectedness, is instrumental to Le Guin’s strategic engagement with ‘the “enshrinement” of egocentrism that makes capitalism “the enemy of nature”’ (quoting Joel Kovel).

With the passing of Saint Ursula – I say that with tearful respect – this excellently produced book only reinforces my impression that Kim Stanley Robinson is out there on his own in applying the SF imagination to explore hopeful pathways into the future. We need more writers like him with the guts to step beyond the self-fulfilling prophecy of dystopia. As Canavan says, ‘The future has gone bad; we need a new one.’

(c) Anthony Nanson. All rights reserved.