Review: The Adjacent / Author: Christopher Priest / Publisher: Gollancz / Release Date: June 20th
There are a number of strands to Christopher Priest's impressive but deeply puzzling new novel. In a grim future that makes 1984 look like The Year of the Sex Olympics, the Earth has been toasted to a crisp by global warming and Britain, now a caliphate, is devastated by a super-powerful terrorist attack. In WWI, a magician is shipped out to the front to help with the war effort along with none other than H.G. Wells. In WWII, an RAF engineer working on Lancaster bombers meets a female pilot from Poland. And back in the near future again, a reporter interviews the brilliant scientist who inadvertently brings about the destruction of London.
Individually, these storylines are thoroughly engrossing, and throughout Priest's scene-setting is impeccable. His descriptions of the workings of Bomber Command in the WWII section are worthy of Len Deighton. In the futuristic strand, he uses his flat, clinical prose to good effect to create a mood of oppressive menace. By comparison, the WWI segment is something of a lighthearted, Kim Newmanish romp, yet Priest still takes time to deftly capture the feel of an RAF squadron, with its fresh-faced, doomed pilots. All well and good. The problem with the novel, though, is that there's no obvious reason why these particular tales should have been put together.
What links them, supposedly, is the notion of adjacency, which seems to morph through different meanings over the course of the book. For the magician, adjacency is a form of misdirection resulting from placing one object next to another to confuse the eye. For the scientist, it's the discovery of an alternative dimension into which matter from this dimension can be shifted. But, more subtly, is also seems to refer to rumours and legends which lie outside of strict historical truth, and, by extension, to the speculative writer's habit of mixing fact and fiction to create alternative realities.
This, however, seems more like a rationale than a true common bond. Meanwhile, Priest's gift for well researched, compelling narrative actually works against him: you resent it when he abandons one situation and set of characters to introduce the next, especially as several of the story-germs had potential to have been developed much further. In fact, it's hard to escape the feeling that the whole book is a sleight of hand, that what we have here is a series of dazzling fragments placed adjacent to one another in hopes that they will trick the reader into thinking he's reading a novel, and that is perhaps the best way to enjoy it.