The Islanders by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2011, 339p

The Islanders cover

This one is odd. Normally a novel unfolds by the interactions of various characters and the intertwinings of their stories – however separate their narratives may seem to be from the outset – all set out in a standard narrative format, albeit with digressions or flashbacks or indeed flashes forward. This book strays far from such conventionality. It is set out as a gazetteer. Each “chapter”€ title is that of an island in the Dream Archipelago – a place of indeterminable geography due to “€œtemporal gradients”€ and a “vortex”€ which distorts perception – which Priest has visited before. Different “€œchapters”€ take different forms: some are exactly like entries in a gazetteer (including tourist information relating to local laws, currencies used etc) others are more conventional first person narratives, there is even a police (Priest uses the description policier) interview transcript; but all drip information either about the world of the Dream Archipelago or its inhabitants. Indeed were I to be hypercritical I could describe the book as a giant info dump interspersed with (relatively few) short stories.

However, SF likes to think of itself as innovative. Where better to find altered ways to tell stories, to redefine what constitutes a novel? And this is on the BSFA Award short list (but not the Clarke, to whose choices this year Priest has objected.) I somehow doubt, though, that writing novels as if they were gazetteers is going to catch on.

Nevertheless in The Islanders a picture of the world and its complexities builds up over time. Early on, a confession to a murder in a theatre leads to an execution – later episodes cast doubt on whether the death was a murder at all, and if so who was really responsible. The narrative sections are mostly concerned with creative types, mainly writers and artists. Events are experienced through various eyes and are seen to be as mutable -€“ or incapable of full comprehension -€“ as the Archipelago’€™s geography.

Yet – to be hypercritical again – none of the stories really requires the off-Earth setting, each could take place in our here and now. Much of the discourse is familiar, we have cars, computers, the internet, email; the flora and fauna are unexceptional, we even have bananas. The world, set between two warring powers – one from each of the two polar continents which are separated by the ocean in which the Archipelago (more or less protected by the neutrality pact which is supposed to safeguard the islands’ sovereignties) sits, is almost humdrum in its similarities to our own. The islands’€™ polities appear akin to our own Channel Islands, being feudal and overseen by Seigniors some of whom are more benevolent than others. And warring powers behave as they will in any time or place.

The Islanders is novel, I would agree. But a novel? It’€™s ingenious and an impressive achievement; but in the end the structure does not fully satisfy; there are too many interconnections between the “chapters” for the book to convince as a gazetteer, and too few for a rounded novel. Nevertheless between the three candidates for the BSFA Award which I have read so far it is, I would say, the strongest contender.

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