Five by Five Books #5: “The Islanders” (2011) by Christopher Priest

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? The Islanders is written in the form of a travel guide to a vast, equatorial, globe-encircling chain of islands called the Dream Archipelago. The names, shapes, histories, locations, economies, and politics of the Archipelago’s islands are elusive and amorphous, defying ready mapping or simple narrative description. Several key characters (a mime, an artist, a social reformer, a reporter, a roustabout, a writer, a stage manager) appear sporadically throughout the text, on a variety of islands, and over wide spans of time, their stories occasionally over-lapping, all advancing through hints and off-hand references and casual mentions. The Dream Archipelago is, by law, ostensibly a peaceful buffer zone between two warring polar superpowers, though both powers wield significant influence and shape the narrative through varying degrees of skullduggery or outright aggression. An apparently unreliable narrator further complicates the proceedings, whoever he or she might be.

Who wrote it? Christopher Priest is a British novelist who cites H.G. Wells as a formative influence; he has served since 2006 as a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society. His books and short fiction have won multiple British Science Fiction Association Awards, and he has also been nominated for or won various Hugo, Campbell, James Tait Black, Clarke and World Fantasy Awards throughout his career. He is probably best known in the U.S. for his novel, The Prestige (1995), which was adapted into a highly acclaimed and successful film of the same name by Christopher Nolan, with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in the lead roles. He has also written various film tie-ins and television screenplays under pseudonyms. The Dream Archipelago has been a recurring motif/location in his fiction, first appearing in 1981’s The Affirmation, where a possibly schizophrenic protagonist may or may not be preparing to undergo an operation that will make him immortal, a theme that again appears in The Islanders.

When and where did I read it? This is a relatively new one to me, since I just read it this past May, during the trip that Marcia and I took to Fort Lauderdale, Florida around my birthday. I was not familiar with Christopher Priest when this book showed up on the “Recommended for You” panel of my Kindle, probably because I had recently read the first two books of Jeff Vandermeer’s somewhat thematically similar (in terms of its narrative ambiguity) Southern Reach Trilogy. The unmitigated weirdness of The Islanders‘s premise appealed to me, so despite my general reluctance to buy new books by unknown (to me) authors, I went ahead and downloaded it, and was absolutely delighted by my choice. I finished the book over a couple of days (it was addictive reading), and the lovely tropical opulence of our rental digs at Villa Amorosa provided an absolutely perfect setting and ambiance for the woozy literary magic that Priest concocts in The Islanders. I even dreamed about the Dream Archipelago, further cementing my sense that reading The Islanders was a very resonant, provocative, and haunting (in the good sense of the word) experience for me.

Why do I like it? I have always loved entering and experiencing well-created, fully-realized, wholly inhabitable literary worlds, in books, in video games, in movies, in online communities, anywhere. The Dream Archipelago is one of the most vibrant and rich such literary worlds that I’ve ever experienced, even though the descriptions that Priest offers of it are nebulous, shifting, and certainly lacking in the structural rigidity and formality of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. That being said, some of the details placed before a reader are sublime: the explanations of tunneling as an art form, or of a particularly nasty toxic critter, or of the denizens haunting a cluster of ancient towers, or of the activities of the polar superpowers’ drones, and so many other scenes, all of which are beautifully elucidated, and instantly memorable. Very little is ever explicitly explained in The Islanders; instead, the reader gains knowledge and perspective pebble by pebble, bit by bit, hint by hint, picking up a lot of information over time, while not actually realizing how much has been learned. The key recurring characters in the novel are also delightfully well-realized, and the often unexpected interactions between them provide some of the novels’ sharpest “a-ha!” moments, where revelation seems close at hand, though it almost always still slips through your fingers if you try to grab on to it too quickly or too hard. 

A five sentence sample text: (From Chaster Kammeston’s Introductory) “Here is a book about islands and islanders, full of information and facts, a great deal I know nothing about, and even more on which I had opinions without substance. People too: some of them I knew personally, or had heard about, and now rather late in the days have learned something about them. There is so much out there, so many islands to discover, while I am familiar with but one of them. I was born on the island where I live now and where I am writing these words, I have never stepped off the island, and I expect never to do so before I die. If there were a book about only my home island I should be uniquely equipped to introduce it, but for quite other reasons I would then not agree to do so.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

CLICK ON THE COVER OF THE ISLANDERS BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY:

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Colluvies

 1. I traveled to New York City in 2008 to see what I have since assumed was going to be my last King Crimson show, as mainstay guitarist Robert Fripp announced his retirement from live performance soon after that tour wrapped up. The show was wonderful, as was the mobile fracture subset of the Big Crim, ProjeKCt Two, that I had caught in 1998. (My P2 review is here at Crimson’s Discipline Global Mobile [DGM] site). So imagine my delight and surprise when, in 2013, Robert Fripp announced that King Crimson was on the move again, with a new seven-man, three-drummer line-up, including four of the five players I saw in 2008 — Fripp, Tony Levin, Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto — plus Jakko Jaksyck from the 2011 KC ProjeKCt album, A Scarcity of Miracles, plus returning sax man Mel Collins from the early ’70s Crimson lineup, plus former Ministry/R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin. Wow! I have been eagerly monitoring Robert Fripp’s diary and the DGM Live pages waiting to see where they’d play, so imagine my shock a few weeks ago when the Crim announced that they’d be opening their tour in, of all places, Albany, New York . . . which I left in 2011 after 19 years in the market! Auggh!! Why you do this to me, universe?!?! No fair!!! Fortunately, Crimso are playing two gigs in Chicago (a mere six hours away), and Marcia has agreed to be a Prog Rock Warrior Princess and accompany me to one of them . . . on top of our agreed-upon-trip to Chicago to see YES! She’s even committed enough that she’s asked me to put a selection of YES and King Crimson songs on her car iPod to prepare her for the adventure. What a gem! What a wingman! How lucky am I, right? I love the road trips, I love the music, I love my wife, so this is about as good as it gets for me!

2. We had a great opening night of Shakespeare on the Lawn at Salisbury House last night, with perfect weather, a super crowd, and a nice sponsor preview Garden Party where we unveiled our plans for transforming the grounds of the property. I did a few TV spots in advance of the show, and I like this one best, as it features a green-screen sneak scene (ooo! I like the sound of that accidental alliteration/rhyme!) by our presenting partners at Repertory Theater of Iowa of this year’s production, The Merchant of Venice:

3. While Marcia and I were on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the paradisaical Villa Amarosa, I read a relatively recent work of fiction by Christopher Priest called The Islanders, which had been “Recommended For You!” by my Kindle. And what a great recommendation that was: this book is completely my alley in terms of its subject, its presentation, its structure, its use of language, and its general, over-arching weirdness. I’ve been finding myself thinking about and re-visiting it, mentally, for the past few weeks, and may decide to give it a full “Five by Five Books” treatment at some point soon, if just to get the thoughts rattling around out of my head. It’s pretty rare for a new book by a new (to me) author to resonate with me so deeply, though I suspect that this would be a “love it or hate it” kind of book, with more people leaning the latter way than the former. Are you intrigued enough to give it a shot? (Katelin is reading it now). If so, let me know what you think!