Book Review: An Infinite Summer, Christopher Priest (1979)

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(Don Puchatz’s cover for the 1981 edition)

4.75/5 (collated rating: Very Good)

With Christopher Priest’s second short story collection, An Infinite Summer (1979), he enters the pantheon of my favorite SF authors.  The thing is, I knew he would all along once I moved past the sour taste of his first novel Indoctrinaire (1970) and finally picked up one of his later endeavors.

Priest’s fiction appeals to my sensibilities: he is the consummate wordsmith; his worlds (especially the stories in the loose sequence of the Dream Archipelago) are evocative; the stories drip with a certain nostalgic longing and/or are populated with characters who cannot escape their memories; metafictional experimentation (a novel within a story, a novel that Priest himself would go on to write–perhaps with a different plot!) is rooted to the aims of each story (you cannot separate the two without eviscerating authorial purpose); and, they can be profoundly affective (love, longing, lust, despair).

If you have any of the same sensibilities then pick up a copy.  If aliens on cool spaceships, epic space battles, and strapping young men with big guns are the only reasons you read SF, then An Infinite Summer is obviously not for you.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“An Infinite Summer” (1976), novelette, 4.5/5 (Very Good):  1940, German bombers wreak havoc on London.  For Thomas James Lloyd, “the war was an inconvenience” but the “least of his preoccupations” (14).  He is new in this war-torn world, at a moment of bliss in the year 1903 he was “frozen” in time by travelers from an unknown future.  A strange rubric of “seeing” exists, the previously frozen can perceive those frozen in the past…  The freezers can see who they freeze.  The rest of the world continues to spend their lives amongst the tableaus of the frozen.

We never know the reason for the strange actions of the future time travelerss, as Thomas who wanders London looking for the tableau of his lover, waiting for her to re-enter the world of the living.  Thomas, transfixed by memories of the past, cannot rationalize the present.  Strangely serene images, a falling German parachutist frozen above the Thames, populate the pages.  Haunting.

“Whores” (1978), short story, 4.25/5 (Good):  The Dream Archipelago is a liminal place, a psychologically damaged landscape, a nightmarish world drenched in tropical allure and inner rot (“the walls were papered with hyacinth, the bed-linen enfolded me like a rancid mouth,” 39).  A soldier, the narrator, arrives from a war and confides in the reader, “my perception was disturbed” due to the “enemy’s synaesthetic gas” (39).  The narrator looks for a prostitute he had previously met but discovers that she has died while he was away.  Instead, he visits another named Elva  on the island of Winho.  An island previously occupied by enemy troops, the women of Winhow have been experimented on—their teeth sharpened, their bodies scarred.

Visions of horror and despair punctuate his lovemaking: “I saw the bobbing head, hair tangled and strewn across my body, and in my synaesthetic torment I visualized her as some monstrous animal, chewing into my gut” (50).  Languid and sinister, uncomfortable and macabre…

“Palely Loitering” (1979), novelette, 4.25/5 (Good): Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 1980.  In some distant future where the nostalgic recreation of English summer beach holidays dominates daily experience, the strange and undulating Flux Channel assists in the launch of spacecraft as they hurtle through its time distorting “waters.”  The Flux Channel can be crossed by multiple bridges that send the walker into either “tomorrow”  or “yesterday” or “today.”  The story combines the daily life and loves of the main character and his journeys back and forth across the three bridges: “to cross [the yesterday bridge] to the other side was to walk twenty-four hours into the past.  Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow existed on the far side of the Flux Channel, and one could walk at will among them” (62).  More radical time jumps can be accomplished by jumping off of the bridges onto the shore—and via this method our narrator starts to interact with various moments of his own past and develops a love for a young woman on the other side.

The high concept idea of the Flux Channel combines with a coming of age story dripping with the comfort and despair of memory.  Time travel heightens all of these ideas creating an emotional and beautiful experience.

“The Negation” (1978), novelette, 5/5 (Masterpiece):  The best story in the collection—part of The Dream Archipelago sequence—is filled with metafictional undercurrents.  Dik, a somewhat naive young policeman contrives to have his favorite novelist, Moylita Kaine, assigned to his town as the resident artist.  She is the author of his favorite novel, The Affirmation, which happens to be the title of Priest’s later novel published in 1981!  For Dik, “the author of The Affirmation had been, in Dik’s mind, more ethereal, more a romantic notion than an actual person” (116).

His obsession with her novel seems to miss its more universal themes—“There have always been walls, Dik!” (124)—and soon through discussions with Kaine he learns about his world, the art of writing, the limitations of writing, and the act of creation.  Yes!

“The Watched” (1978), novella, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): Nominated for the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novella.  The second best story in the collection is also in the Dream Archipelago sequence…  Who is watching who and why do the watchers watch?  Voyeurism, the male gaze, the anthropological gaze…  a profoundly unnerving reading experience.

The range of watchers: Ordier is on permanent exile in the Dream Archipelago, in his previous life he developed weapons for some power on the continent.  He obsesses of the presence of scintilla, microscopic spying devices that litter the island, and searches every inch of his house.  The Qataari likewise live on the island, onetime progenitors (according to legend) of various peoples on the Continent, after they were evacuated from the mainland.  The Qataari obsessively watch any outsider who enters their valley.  They stop everything and watch.  They even die watching.  An anthropologist and his wife land on the island and declare their interest in spying on the Qataari by strewing their valley with scintilla….  But Ordier has a secret, at the top of the ridge behind his home near the Qataari valley he is able to see Qataari rituals from a crack in the wall of an outbuilding.  Ordier is aroused by his voyeuristic peering but he is possessed by an uncanny feeling that the entire scenario, the ritual which seems to start only when he looks in their direction, is staged for his benefit…  But he watches anyway.

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26 thoughts on “Book Review: An Infinite Summer, Christopher Priest (1979)”

  1. The only novel of his I ever read,was “The Affirmation”.It was quite excellent really,and showed the strong influence of Philip K.Dick,but too overtly I think.In that respect,it was flawed.Ballard and Holdstock are the British authors I really like the most.

    I never thought about his short fiction.I think this should be the next one of his to go for.

    1. Richard, I am sorry if this is blunt and I really do enjoy reading your observations/comments…

      ….But I am profoundly exasperated by the following pattern: “Book A is not as good as what PKD wrote in the same period” or “Book A is not as good because it has a few similarities to what PKD wrote and PKD is better.” Come on. Really? I do not name drop my favorite authors in EVERY review I write! How is it a productive or meaningful way to engage with the genre?

      PKD is NOT the only yardstick against which to judge quality. I do not dismiss PKD because he was inspired by Kafka (and yes, Kafka is a better writer). “Influenced by” does not in ANY way equate quality. Of course people are influenced by other writers.

      Priest has a unique and distinctive voice which does tackle ideas of reality and perception (which yes, suprise, other SF authors write about).
      ___

      “I think this should be the next one of his to go for” — Good idea! His style fits short form very well. Moments ago I bought a copy of A Dream of Wessex. I can’t wait!

      1. Ok Joachim.I didn’t mention him as part of a recurring pattern in this case.If I hadn’t have noticed the resemblance,I wouldn’t have mentioned him.I just wanted to tell you about my limited experience of his stuff.I said it was really an excellent novel,but at the time I read it,it reminded me of his work.It was just an observation,I wouldn’t have mentioned him if he hadn’t displayed such an obvious influence that was a fault in such a great book.It was meant as admirable criticism.

        Nor I think do I repetitively mention Dick as often as you say.Yes I do from time to time,but not out of habit,favourism or patronism when I do.I only do it when necessary to make a constructive point,not to judge the entire genre upon I assure you.

        Yes,I’m fully aware that he was inspired by Kafka,and good for him.His stuff would have been a lot less rich without him I think.I wouldn’t like to compare them though and say who’s the better writer,but I prefer to say they were equal,even though Dick owes a great debt to him.

        I’ve no doubt he’s a great writer from what I’ve read of him so far,and nor do I want to compare him necessarily to Ballard and Holdstock.It’s obvious from “The Affirmation”,that he writes of themes about reality and perception.I don’t mind either if it’s influenced by or even not as acutely done as Dick,but if I think it’s too self consciously displayed,I’ll say if I think it faulted an otherwise excellent piece.I’ve no doubt other writers do too,such as Ballard and Kavan as examples,among others,whatever the outcome.

        I think you have gravely misunderstood this comment and others,but I take the blame.I will stand-up fro myself though if I feel unnecessarily aggrieved.

  2. Sounds fascinating! I Will have to track down a copy… Excellent review, too; maybe your best this year, or it could just be that it’s been a long time coming since the last one and I’m in withdrawal. 😉

    Also reminds me that you need to find a copy of his INVERTED WORLD, I think you’ll like it more than INDOCTRINAIRE. Not that that’s an accomplishment!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I like my Charnas review more, haha.

      I have a copy of the INVERTED WORLD on my shelf. But as you know, I tend to perambulate around a bit — explore lesser known works, short stories, etc before the more famous works. I think A Dream of Wessex is the next one of his I’ll tackle. Saving INVERTED WORLD for later.

  3. I recently read this anthology myself, and loved it just as much as you – although your review is way better written than mine. I read it after reading Priest’s essay about his dealings with Ellison (The title story was written for the unpublished third ‘Dangerous Visions’ anthology). Priest is a master of prose. I would highly recommend ‘The Space Machine’, his Wells pastiche.

    1. Where’s your review? I’d love to read it!

      That said, yeah, I knew I would like Priest. All the potential was there in Indoctrinaire other than a horrid second half (well, and his prose was pretty tepid in that novel) — this hit all the points. For some reason I find myself really emotionally involved with his characters/scenarios, which is not what often happens in SF….

      As for the Wells pastiche, perhaps — after I finish A Dream of Wessex, The Affirmation, The Glamour, The Inverted World 😉

  4. Thanks for the review. I am now very keen to track this collection down. And let me second the recommendation for ‘The Space Machine. It’s great fun.

  5. I think Priest will become a favorite of mine, too. I loved Inverted World (you will, too), so I’m eager to read more of his work. It sounds like I can add his short fiction to the list, too.

    Great review, though like Chris said above, I may just be responding to The Great SFRuminations Drought of 2015.

  6. I read Inverted Word about 30 years ago, and was – generally – underwhelmed by it,unfortunately. Maybe I should re-read it, as I was a teenager then, and so wasn’t as mature as I am now. It has some amazing ideas and passages though, and I think it will be more your particular cup of tea, than mine, Joachim (I predict a score of at least 4, once you get around to it!).

    Still haven’t got around to his others (even though I already have most of them), but not sure if I have this collection, so thanks for the tip – sounds fab.

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