the Extremes by Christopher Priest

Scribner, 1999, 398 p.

the Extremes cover

FBI operative Teresa Simons has lost her husband in one of those shooting incidents typical of the US. In an attempt to assuage her grief and probe the circumstances of similar tragedies she has travelled to her native England, from where her parents emigrated when she was young, to visit the south coast town of Bulverton, also scene of a (much less typical) mass shooting several months before. In her FBI training to improve the responses of law enforcement agents in such cases Teresa had undergone many immersions in virtual reality scenarios of shooting incidents. We are given accounts of several of these where Teresa inhabited the minds of different participants – victims, bystanders, perpetrator. Commercial VR outlets are also a feature of this world and, in them, shooting simulations (as well as the inevitable porn) are widely popular. Employees of the GunHo Corporation, purveyors of ExEx (extreme experience, their version of virtual reality, which overall amounts to the second largest economy in this world) also occupy the hotel where Teresa is staying and are willing to pay the town’s inhabitants enormous sums for their recollections of the fatal day.

Like Philip K Dick, Priest has always been a slippery prospect. In his work appearances can be deceptive and reality tenuous. As Teresa delves deeper into ExEx’s wares, trying to find the limits to their scenarios, the outside world starts to become less concrete. If, in a scenario, you enter an ExEx property within it and immerse yourself in one of its simulations where will you emerge when you activate the trigger that is supposed to restore you to the ‘real’ world? In particular she has to face up to her own responsibility for, within an ExEx simulation, inadvertently showing the Bulverton shooter how to handle the gun he is carrying. Is she to blame for the subsequent deaths? This has the potential to takes us down a rabbit hole which Priest manages to sidestep but the phrase, “Extreme reality was a landscape of forking paths,” is undoubtedly a nod to Borges’s famous short story wherein he presaged the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics by decades.

The subject matter invites comment. The fascination some people have with guns is undoubted but I suspect they would not be swayed out of it in any way by the observation, however true, that, “the more there were people who owned guns, who made themselves expert with guns, who prepared to defend themselves with guns, who went on hunting trips with guns, who mouthed slogans about freedom and rights being dependent on guns, the more those guns were likely to be abused and to fall into the wrong hands.”

As usual Priest’s characters are well drawn and believable. This is so even within the virtual realities. For a twenty year-old narrative this still holds up remarkably well.

Pedant’s corner:- On the cover and spine the title is given as the Extremes but the title page has The Extremes. At times the narrative slips between English and USian usages. Otherwise; Mrs Simons’ (Simons’s,) epicentre (centre,) “in bright orange shirt” (in a bright …,) “the police Swat team were trying to gain access” (the police Swat team was trying ….) “A crowd … were staring” (a crowd … was staring,) non-antibioticly (non-antibiotically?) Mrs Williams’ (Williams’s.) “She thought, Any more of this and….” (Either put the ‘any more of this and….’ in quotation marks or lose the capital ‘A’.)

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