The Gradual, Christopher Priest (Titan 978-1-78565-303-2, $24.99, 400pp, hc) September 2016.
In the three and a half decades in which Christopher Priest has been inviting us along to his colorful but shifty Dream Archipelago – including an extensive if inconclusive gazetteer with The Islanders in 2011 – he has mostly confined his viewpoints to those of the archipelago’s inhabitants, though we are given to understand that an endless and vicious war is being carried out by superpowers on the world’s major continents, and that an Antarctica-like southern continent serves as a kind of staging ground for the warfare. He’s also often featured artists of various kinds as his protagonists; in The Islanders alone we meet a novelist, a painter, a conceptual artist, even a mime and a magician. With The Gradual – which is a far more linear narrative than we had with The Islanders – we get to see what life is like in one of those bellicose societies on the continents, a gloomy dystopia called Glaund, that reads like a thoroughly unpleasant amalgam of North Korea and Orwell’s Airstrip One. But Priest’s focus on art and artists is more detailed than ever: his protagonist is a brilliant composer named Alesandro Sussken, who tells us that music and bombing ‘‘were the two main events of my childhood,’’ because of the constant hazard of the recurrent air raids on his coastal hometown of Errest. Susskind narrates his life in the straightforward manner of a Künstlerroman – this is the most formally traditional novel we’ve seen from Priest since The Extremes – and his descriptions of Susskind’s compositions are technically impressive, if a bit soulless (with one remarkable exception when, later in life, he manages to musically channel a volcano).
As a child, Susskind catches a glimpse of nearby Archipelago islands from the loft of his home, which begin to haunt his imagination. A musical prodigy, he lives in fear not only of the drones and rockets, but of the universal military draft which has already taken his older brother for an indefinite term of service. As his success as a composer grows, he comes to be viewed as a cultural asset, and even discovers that a rock/jazz musician somewhere in the Archipelago has begun plagiarizing his work. He meets and marries a violinist named Alynna, and eventually is invited to participate, as a senior composer, in a grand orchestral tour of several islands in the Archipelago. The nine-week tour not only introduces Susskind to the variety of societies in the Archipelago – and to new notions of freedom – but also to the disorienting time distortions called the gradual, which vary from island to island and can only be tracked by markings on a passport-like baton which he is issued, without explanation, at the beginning of the journey. Throughout his travels, he keeps an eye out for the plagiarist who adapted his work, and for any news of his brother, who by now has been missing for decades. When he returns home, he comes to realize the cumulative effects of the gradual; even though his tour has been only nine weeks, more than two years have passed in Glaund. His parents have died, and Alynna has long since moved out. But he also draws the attention of the feared and ruthless Glaundian dictator, or Generalissima, who commissions him – with a generous advance – to write a piece of kitsch propaganda music for her council’s tenth anniversary. Recognizing that such a bludgeoning composition would ruin his reputation, he flees again to the Archipelago. And we’re still only halfway through the novel.
Susskind may be a marginally more reliable narrator than we’re used to seeing from Priest, but he’s also a badly misinformed and sometimes obtuse one, and at a number of points we can see the wiring of the narrative before he does. But that doesn’t mean The Gradual lacks surprises: Susskind does find out some things about his brother and his plagiarist, but because of the unpredictable time shifts of the gradual, we can never quite be certain we have the last word on these figures. In effect, what Priest has done – and he did much the same thing in The Islanders – is to literalize not just a metaphor (as we keep hearing about in SF), but to literalize an entire narrative technique involving the management of time. Even mainstream authors have all sorts of ways of shifting the reader back and forth in time, revealing characters from different perspectives and at different points in their histories, but Priest literally puts his narrator through such time shifts, and the effect is both dizzying and firmly grounded, even as it leads toward a conclusion which is, if a bit more conventional than we’ve come to expect from Priest, thoroughly satisfying.