(Bruce Pennington’s cover for the 1971 edition)
3.25/5 (Slightly Above Average)
“There is an element of terror in any natural object that does not exist in its proper place. Wentik experienced the full force of this as he stood in the dark. A hand grows from a table, and an ear from a wall. A maze is constructed to sophisticated mathematical formula, yet is housed in a tumbledown shack. A minor official terrorizes me, and a man tries to fly a helicopter without vanes. Land exist in future time, through I feel and believe instinctively that I am in the present. What else will this place do to me? (83)”
Christopher Priest’s first novel Indoctrinaire (1970) explores the mystery of a vast perfectly round plain with a series of strange buildings that appears in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. Seemingly displaced in time, the transformed landscape is not only a visible sign of the ecological transformation the world will undergo but also, less visibly, the unseen but pernicious scars of future war.
The novel begins as an exercise in surreal paranoia. After Dr. Wentik is taken into the displacement field that surrounds the plain he is imprisoned and subjected to psychological torture with little explanation. His relentlessly analytical mind slowly uncovers the mysteries of the time-displaced “Jail.” Unfortunately, the second half of the novel devolves into a tenuously related and clunky ecological parable. A valiant but ultimately disappointing effort, Indoctrinaire (1970) has certainly wetted my palate for Priests’ later more polished SF experiments.
Recommended only for fans of 60s/70s SF and Christopher Priest completests.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)
In the near future, Dr. Wentik works at the Concentration, a vast “complex system of research units linked by many tunnels through the ice” of Antarctica (4). In this isolated local more than four hundred scientists—practitioners of “biochemistry, particle physics, nucleonics, bacteriology” (4)—and their assistants carry out experiments independently of each other. Wentik studies ” what could loosely be called the chemistry of sanity” (79). More precisely, the “external factors of insanity, how ideas or images could distort rational thought” and how “even incidental factors such as environment or diet could ultimately affect sanity” (79).
With his assistant, the Nigerian Dr. Abu N’Goko, Wentik experiments on himself with a mostly untested new drug, the nature of which remains unknown for the majority of the narrative. Their dangerous experiments are interrupted by the arrival of two men, Musgrove and Astourde, who take Wentik to the Amazonian jungle—and into the mysterious time-displaced circular plain: “together the stepped out of the jungle, and walked across the plain two hundred years [2189 AD] into the future” (19).
The plain is surrounded by a displacement field that “controls the balance between the two times” (20). The plain itself is vast and mostly empty: a dark black windmill turns slowly in the wind, a collection of buildings dot the horizon. As Musgrove and Wentik travel across the plain Musgrove appears to have a hallucinogenic experience.
And then the psychological torture commences: Wentik wakes up in a pitch dark cell with a device that directs a high-powered light-source into one of his eyes that is “able to follow him automatically wherever he moved” (23). When Wentik turns away from the beam a large speaker set high in the all blares music “fast, loud and discordant” (23). After a series of strange experiences inflicted by his jailers—including being tossed into a complex maze in a crudely built shack—he is subjected to daily interrogation at a table with an extra hand that seems to grow from the center: “not resting there, like Astourde’s, but growing. Wentik could see where it joined the smooth wood” (32).
Eventually Wentik discovers how his jailers seem to be confused, often afflicted with bouts of insanity. And soon, he compels Astourde to sit at the interrogation table where fragments of the purpose and functioning of the time-displacement emerge.
In first half of the novel, discussed above, Priest weaves a transfixing spell. Wentik’s strange predicament, the landscape, the unusual psychological torture, the slightly unnatural feel of the prison and its functioning (the hand on the table, an ear on the wall, the light-beam) all create a profoundly surreal reading experience. Our hero’s relentlessly scientific outlook adds to the disconnect, for long periods of the narrative he is unable to explain what is happening to him. And the ways in which he starts to control the narrative, influencing his interrogator, discovering the function of the hand on the table, is slow and methodical and believable.
Unfortunately the spell is broken as soon as Wentik exits the “jail” and enters the future world of 2189 A.D.—the narrative completely loses its power. The minimalist exploration of control and psychological manipulation transforms into an predictable and bloated ecological and political parable. In multi-page summaries of all the history of the two hundred years after Wentik’s time, Priest describes how the Cubans invaded America causing a nuclear (among other super weapons) war: “the Americans had used almost every kind of weapon available to them” (112). However South America emerged mostly unscathed even despite later Disturbances and Reformations. And the new society of Brazil into which Wentik is now a key player. The unusual time-displacement field narrative is joined in an awkward marriage to a “we must save the world” plot.
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1971 edition)
(Ed Fox’s cover for the 1970 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1979 edition)