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Priest, Christopher

Entry updated 5 February 2024. Tagged: Author, Fan.

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(1943-2024) UK author, first trained as an accountant; active in Fanzines and Fandom from 1964; married 1981-1987 to Lisa Tuttle, 1988-2011 to Leigh Kennedy, and partner of Nina Allan from 2011 (they married in 2023). He published several Ties under various pseudonyms, only two of which he formally acknowledged: John Luther Novak and Colin Wedgelock. He distinguished sharply between any such work and any work to which he signed his name. He was Associate Editor of Foundation 1974-1977; his anthologies are Anticipations (anth 1978), and Stars of Albion (anth 1979) with Robert P Holdstock. In The Last Deadloss Visions (1987 chap; various revs and addenda 1987 chap; exp vt The Book on the Edge of Forever; The Facts, the Figures, and the Delusions behind Harlan Ellison's Never-Published Anthology 1994 chap) he produced a cruel analysis of Harlan Ellison's non-completion of «The Last Dangerous Visions».

Priest began to publish work of sf interest with "The Run" in Impulse (see Science Fantasy) for May 1966, though some earlier work (not all previously published) was assembled with revealing commentary as Ersatz Wines: Instructive Short Stories (coll 2008); most of his best early work, much of it still apprentice, was assembled as Transplantationen (coll trans Tony Westermayr 1972 Germany), appearing in English only later as Real-Time World (coll 1974).

Priest's first novel, Indoctrinaire (portion in New Writings in S-F 15, anth 1968, edited by John Carnell; much exp 1970; rev 1979), features a researcher in the Antarctic who is abducted to Brazil, where he is immured in at least two bleak Keeps (one a Labyrinth), in a region subject to Timeslips; his efforts to make sense of his position or condition – a pattern of frustrated interrogation to be found frequently throughout Priest's work – are abortive. The influence of J G Ballard and Franz Kafka can be detected here; they are figures who remained relevant to his work for the rest of his career. His last book, a nonfiction study of Ballard of which he had written 70,000 words, was nearly complete at his death.

Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972; vt Darkening Island 1972) is stronger: set in an England of the Near Future, it deals with Politics and racial tension, focusing on the arrival of African refugees whose homeland has been destroyed by nuclear World War Three; whether or not the narrative structure is literally based on a musical fugue, it is clear that the breaking up of narrative sequence is seriously intended. His third novel, Inverted World (December 1973-March 1974 Galaxy; 1974; vt The Inverted World 1974), marks the climax of his career as a writer whose work resembled Genre SF, and remains one of the most impressive pure-sf novels produced in the UK since World War Two; though its reality turns out to be (in a sense) a matter of Perception, the hyperboloid world across which City Earth moves on rollers is perhaps the strangest planet invented since Mesklin in Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (April-July 1953 Astounding; cut 1954; text restored with additions and one added story, as coll 1978), and the Time Distortion it imposes on the inhabitants of the City is described in Hard SF terms that lead readers to assume that Inverted World takes place in a genuine Alternate Cosmos. The ostensible protagonist exhibits a combination of traumatized lassitude and obduracy which seems characteristically British; but the frame story, set in a Ruined Earth version of Earth, focuses on an energetic female medical technician who experiences a genuine Conceptual Breakthrough when she grasps the nature of the Pocket Universe in which a strange moving city is trapped. In the end, the elders of the city recognize that they must escape this Entropic reality, and open the city gates to the world. It is a sign of Priest's heterodox understanding of sf that his main protagonist refuses to abandon the old world. (The Making of the Lesbian Horse [1979 chap] is a spoof continuation of the book.)

The Space Machine: A Scientific Romance (1976) is a cleverly plotted Sequel by Another Hand that pastiches the work of H G Wells, incorporating the author himself in the storyline (see Recursive SF), which proposes plot-explanations for some of the narrative gaps left in The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898); in its literary focus and its retrospection, and in its anticipation of Steampunk, the book marked, in hindsight, a significant shift in Priest's work. With A Dream of Wessex (1977; vt The Perfect Lover 1977), he began to write tales whose increasingly intricate plots had to be read as maps through which one explored not the world (as in conventional sf) but the protagonists. Here thirty-nine human minds are meshed into a Computer net which projects them (or their mental simulacra) forward from 1983 into a Virtual-Reality world of their consensus imagination, 150 years in the future, in which they "live" without memory of the real world. The entire book is a metaphor about the creative process and its relation to solipsism.

The Dream Archipelago series (see Archipelago) – comprising some stories from An Infinite Summer (coll 1979) and later revised, along with other tales, in The Dream Archipelago (coll of linked stories 1999; exp 2009), plus The Affirmation (1981), The Islanders (2011), The Gradual (2016) and The Evidence (2020) – intensify the sense that Priest's landscapes had now become forms of expression of the psyche, and are of intense interest for the dream-like convolutions of psychic terrain so displayed. The Dream Archipelago itself is a surreally unspecific rendering of England as a land half-sunk beneath the ocean (a vision perhaps influenced by Richard Jefferies's After London [1885]), and is a powerful late-century representation of Sehnsucht (C S Lewis's expression to describe a longing for something that hovers, forever unattainable, beyond the terms of reality). The protagonist of The Affirmation – who is his own Doppelganger, as is the case in much of Priest's later work – inhabits two worlds: a difficult-to-discern London and an Island in the Dream Archipelago, where Immortality, at the cost of Amnesia, has been granted him. Each version of the protagonist is writing a book about the world of the other. The Islanders is ostensibly structured as a gazetteer (see Travel Guides) to an extremely extensive series of Islands that fill the sea between two mutually inimical land masses; but the deeper the reader penetrates into the interwoven tales that underlie and interlace the prose islands of description, the more mutable the archipelago becomes, as does the underlying narrative: a Fantastic Voyage without boundaries, or a home to sail for. The book, which cannot easily be called sf, is deeply labyrinthine, deeply Equipoisal. It was a joint winner of the John W Campbell Memorial Award.

In The Gradual (2016), a musician tours the archipelago and discovers the act of voyaging to be fraught with elusive Time Distortion effects in which both "absolute" and local time are subject to change, causing voyagers to accumulate a temporal "detriment" which needs regular adjustment and correction. These dislocations carry a significant metaphorical load, which is if anything intensified in the last Archipelago novel, The Evidence (2020), whose first-person narrator is a crime novelist named Todd Fremde – which might be cod-translated from the German as Death Outsider – whose visit to the island Dearth to give a lecture entangles him in a long-ago murder back home.

The publication of a singleton, The Glamour (1984; rev 1985) marked an even more radical move from the regions of sf or fantasy than did The Affirmation, and though – along with The Prestige (1995) and The Extremes (1998) – they are central both to Priest's career, and to late twentieth century Fantastika in the UK, they do not respond readily to the descriptive tools of sf criticism. Nor are they meant to: Priest made it clear in various ways that he did not wish to be conceived as a genre writer. The central novels of his career seem, in a retrospective view, to be sui generis. They may be described according to various rubrics, but not satisfactorily. Perhaps they may most profitably be read as explorations of ravenous psyches whose hunger expresses itself through the ingestion of or control over "unreal" (or fantasy) worlds. It is certainly possible to suggest that The Affirmation is a tale of Parallel Worlds: and that The Glamour is a tale whose protagonist literally becomes invisible (see Invisibility); and that The Prestige – filmed as The Prestige (2006), which film is the subject of a nonfiction study by Priest himself, The Magic: The Story of a Film (2008) – is a tale Equipoisal between sf and fantasy, conjoining stage and perhaps literal magic with an informed portrait of Nikola Tesla and his presumed discovery of the secret of Matter Transmission with the side-effect of Matter Duplication. But these readings do scant justice to the intense and conscious inwardness of the tales, nor their refusal to settle into "reliable" readings.

Some later books were, however, weighted clearly toward sf readings. Though it shares a good deal of thematic material with its unfixable predecessors, The Quiet Woman (1990) marks a decided return to the external world. Set in the Near Future, with radioactive contamination impinging upon the southern counties, the tale is a scathing vision of an England rapidly becoming a Dystopia. The Separation (2002), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, envisions two separate versions of the UK, the Jonbar Point that divides them being the flight made by Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) to Scotland in May 1941; a darkly-conceived Winston S Churchill plays a role. In the Alternate World version of the following years, Hess's claim to be conducting a peace mission is believed and leads to negotiations: World War Two terminates, safely short of the formal beginning of the Final Solution (see Holocaust), but the resolution is ambiguous and uncosy. The Adjacent (2013) again subjects a beleaguered Britain to moral and cultural integration through the perspectives granted through the creation of Alternate Worlds (among them, as already noted, the Dream Archipelago), whose testing intersections (or adjacencies) do nothing to blur the coherence of Priest's sense that the modern world is in a state of perhaps terminal distress.

An American Story (2018) interrogates rival narratives explaining the events of 9/11, subverting official appearances in a fashion perhaps too deeply anchored in contentious conspiracy theories; there is resonance here with The Separation, which also draws on hypotheses challenging an established version of history. The interwoven annotations that explicate and contextualize much of his previous work in Episodes: Short Stories (coll 2019), which assembles tales from as early as 1972, point to the complexly urgent relevance, over the decades, of his best fiction. The vigorously told Expect Me Tomorrow (2022) movingly shuttlecocks between two protagonists who both have twin brothers: a nineteenth-century glaciologist haunted by premonitions of Climate Change, and a former policeman attempting to understand, locked as he is in the desert stretches of southern England in 2050, the nature of the catastrophe and to investigate an historical crime; by an accident of advanced Communications Technology, his questions reach the Victorian-era twins via Time Radio, and they perceive these messages as rare but disturbing "voices in the head". In Airside (2023), a focus on the endless recessions of any airport whose size defeats perspective is governed mainly by successive disappearances of an American movie star named Jeanette Marchand in 1949 and later. The protagonist of the tale, a warmly conceived film critic, comes in his search for Marchand to something like terms with the inherent liminality of certain dense intersections in the world, the airsides entered after passing through strait gates out of the measurable real. This contemplative narrative has some of the tone of an (imaginable) voiceover for Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962); the protagonist's review of the film appears within this text, along with manifestations of its cast.

Priest remains a figure singularly difficult to assess, or to locate on a literary map; it is very unlikely that his ultimately sizeable oeuvre will ever fit neatly into any conspectus of literary fiction or sf. It is not unlikely, on the other hand, that he will become increasingly recognized as an author of importance who occupied (as did Ballard and Kafka before him) his own territory. [JC/PN/DRL]

see also: BSFA Award; Dimensions; Disaster; Ditmar Award; Fan Funds; History of SF; Mars; Mathematics; Media Landscape; Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference; New Wave; New Writings in SF; Transportation.

Christopher McKenzie Priest

born Cheadle, Cheshire: 14 July 1943

died Rothesay, Isle of Bute, Scotland: 2 February 2024


As Priest strictly segregated his pseudonymous work from signed work, we have listed pseudonymous works separately; it is not believed that all such works have been identified. Some known non-genre titles are not listed here.


Dream Archipelago

  • The Affirmation (London: Faber and Faber, 1981) [Dream Archipelago: hb/nonpictorial]
  • The Dream Archipelago (London: Earthlight, 1999) [coll of linked stories: contains three stories revised from An Infinite Summer (see below) plus other works: Dream Archipelago: hb/Jim Burns]
    • The Dream Archipelago (London: Gollancz, 2009) [coll of linked stories: contains additional novella: Dream Archipelago: pb/Sidonie Beresford-Browne]
  • The Islanders (London: Gollancz, 2011) [Dream Archipelago: hb/Grady McFerrin]
  • The Adjacent (London: Gollancz, 2013) [Dream Archipelago: hb/abroberts]
  • The Gradual (London: Gollancz, 2016) [Dream Archipelago: hb/]
  • The Evidence (London: Gollancz, 2020) [Dream Archipelago: hb/Tomás Almeida]

individual titles

collections and stories

pseudonymous fiction (selected)

  • Short Circuit (London: Sphere Books, 1986) as by Colin Wedgelock [tie to the film: Short Circuit: based on the screenplay by Steve Wilson: pb/uncredited]
  • Mona Lisa (London: Sphere Books, 1986) as by John Luther Novak [tie to the film: pb/]
  • eXistenZ (London: Pocket Books, 1999) as by John Luther Novak [tie to the film: eXistenZ: pb/Ava V Gerlitz]

nonfiction (selected)

works as editor

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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