The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Titan Books, 2013) qualifies as one of the most interesting books of the last year. In part, the interest lies in what the book is not. Ah. . . so now we immediately come to the heart of it. In some senses, this is a story about the nature of relationships rather than a book sitting comfortably in a genre such as science fiction or fantasy. The word selected as the title gives us the theme. When two or more people, places or things are adjacent, they are next to each other, perhaps even sharing a common boundary or border, but they do not overlap. You could pass from one part to its neighbour, e.g. from a city centre to a suburb or, in American terms, a more distant exurb. This gives us a potential paradox to resolve. Two people may be “close”, but no matter how intimately involved they may be, they do not physically become one person. They retain their individual traits and characteristics. Ironically, the law used to proclaim husband and wife were one person for legal purposes. So, for example, spouses could not give evidence against each other or, in some cases, property originally owned by one before marriage fell into the ownership of the other after marriage. Laws create their own fictions or distortions of reality to fulfill their social policy purposes.
When it comes to literary purposes, Christopher Priest is playing a complicated game with us. None of the first- or third-person narrators who feature in this novel are intentionally unreliable. It’s not their fault that they fail to grasp exactly who they are nor what purpose their presence advances. All they can do is tell their stories, believing them to be true, and leave it to us to decide how much of what they say might be true in the context for their contributions. We start off with Tibor Tarent and his wife Melanie. They are in a version of Anatolia, Turkey. He’s a professional photographer and she’s a nurse. In earlier times, their marriage was strong, but their enforced stay inside this medical camp for refugees puts their relationship under pressure. Normally, Tibor displaces his personal problems into the passivity of observing life through the lenses of his cameras. When the dangerous war-torn conditions outside the camp deny him this release, he grows frustrated and angry. She’s endlessly useful to those in need. He’s in the way. Unfortunately, when she leaves the camp, she’s the victim of a terrorist attack with a different type of weapon and disappears. He’s loaded into different forms of transport which carry him back to the Islamic Republic of Great Britain (IRGB). Up to this point, we might have been in our version of reality, but it now seems we’re in an alternate history version of the world in which Arab states rule Europe with Islam as the dominant, but not the exclusive, religion. Or perhaps the different forms of transport with closed windows have carried us into new somewhat Kafkaesque spaces.
It’s also at this point we become aware of another feature of the narrative structure. The IRGB Government is interested in Tibor because he met with Thijs Rietveld just before the latter committed suicide. This man was a theoretical physicist who discovered the adjacency equations. It was meant to be a defensive system which could divert an incoming missile into an adjacent quantum dimension. Unfortunately, what can be used defensively can also be modified to displace enemies into different dimensions. Having let the technological cat out of the bag, the world now faces attack by anyone with the technical skills to build the weaponised form. This use of “adjacency” randomly pokes holes in space-time. Consequently, everything gets mixed together unpredictably. When we start the story, Tibor has no memory of meeting Thijs. Later the meeting is described in detail and he has the photographs to prove it. Depending on where you stand, walk or fly, you can see buildings or not (watch shells disappear and appear). What happens in one dimension can also be an echo of events in a different dimension. Even more confusingly, Tibor may be able to meet both living and dead versions of himself. So we come back to the problem of what adjacency actually means.
One part of the story is told by a stage illusionist named Tommy Trent who makes a wasted trip to the battlefront in World War I in the company of H G Wells. He’s been asked to advise on whether it’s possible to camouflage an aircraft in flight. Dismissing the use of blue paint to “hide” the craft against a blue sky, he theorises it might be possible to use two or three planes flying close together, using one or, perhaps, two of them to distract the audience on the ground so that the third might effectively become invisible. This is adjacency used to distract attention so that a magic trick can be performed, e.g. using a beautiful and scantily clad assistant to take the eyes of the audience at just the right moment. What makes the sequence of stories interesting is the way they are placed next to each other, i.e. some elements may be distracting our attention. This process becomes all the more fascinating with the diversion into the fictional landscape of the Dream Archipelago to meet one Tomak Tallant who’s also a magician, this time with a rope trick much loved by fakirs. An avatar of Melanie flies a World War II Spitfire into this dimension which just goes to show how malleable the boundaries can be between the different spaces.
So putting all this together, Tibor could passively look through the lens of his camera and see an image of Melanie in relation to himself. Now think of this as a photograph of the street forming the boundary between the city centre and a suburb. He could actively change the image so the street appeared to be six inches or six-hundred miles wide. But changing the image we might see does not change the reality of the relationship between the city and its suburb. They remain in close proximity, divided only by the designation of a street on a map as a border. So people may resonate with each other in their relationship and, no matter whether we’re persuaded to see them as physically close or widely separated, they remain close even though a magic trick might make it appear one had disappeared. The Adjacent is strongly recommended to everyone who enjoys thoughtful fiction.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.