Book Review: Indoctrinaire, Christopher Priest (1970)

(Bruce Pennington’s cover for the 1971 edition)

3.25/5 (Slightly Above Average)

“There is an element of terror in any natural object that does not exist in its proper place. Wentik experienced the full force of this as he stood in the dark. A hand grows from a table, and an ear from a wall. A maze is constructed to sophisticated mathematical formula, yet is housed in a tumbledown shack. A minor official terrorizes me, and a man tries to fly a helicopter without vanes. Land exist in future time, through I feel and believe instinctively that I am in the present. What else will this place do to me? (83)”

Christopher Priest’s first novel Indoctrinaire (1970) explores the mystery of a vast perfectly round plain with a series of strange buildings that appears in the middle of the Amazonian jungle.  Seemingly displaced in time, the transformed landscape is not only a visible sign of the ecological transformation the world will undergo but also, less visibly, the unseen but pernicious scars of future war.

The novel begins as an exercise in surreal paranoia.  After Dr. Wentik is taken into the displacement field that surrounds the plain he is imprisoned and subjected to psychological torture with little explanation.   His relentlessly analytical mind slowly uncovers the mysteries of the time-displaced “Jail.”   Unfortunately, the second half of the novel devolves into a tenuously related and clunky ecological parable.  A valiant but ultimately disappointing effort, Indoctrinaire (1970) has certainly wetted my palate for Priests’ later more polished SF experiments.

Recommended only for fans of 60s/70s SF and Christopher Priest completests.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

In the near future, Dr. Wentik works at the Concentration, a vast “complex system of research units linked by many tunnels through the ice” of Antarctica (4).  In this isolated local more than four hundred scientists—practitioners of “biochemistry, particle physics, nucleonics, bacteriology” (4)—and their assistants carry out experiments independently of each other. Wentik studies ” what could loosely be called the chemistry of sanity” (79).  More precisely, the “external factors of insanity, how ideas or images could distort rational thought” and how “even incidental factors such as environment or diet could ultimately affect sanity” (79).

With his assistant, the Nigerian Dr. Abu N’Goko, Wentik experiments on himself with a mostly untested new drug, the nature of which remains unknown for the majority of the narrative.  Their dangerous experiments are interrupted by the arrival of two men, Musgrove and Astourde, who take Wentik to the Amazonian jungle—and into the mysterious time-displaced circular plain: “together the stepped out of the jungle, and walked across the plain two hundred years [2189 AD] into the future” (19).

The plain is surrounded by a displacement field that “controls the balance between the two times” (20).  The plain itself is vast and mostly empty: a dark black windmill turns slowly in the wind, a collection of buildings dot the horizon.  As Musgrove and Wentik travel across the plain Musgrove appears to have a hallucinogenic experience.

And then the psychological torture commences: Wentik wakes up in a pitch dark cell with a device that directs a high-powered light-source into one of his eyes that is “able to follow him automatically wherever he moved” (23).  When Wentik turns away from the beam a large speaker set high in the all blares music “fast, loud and discordant” (23).  After a series of strange experiences inflicted by his jailers—including being tossed into a complex maze in a crudely built shack—he is subjected to daily interrogation at a table with an extra hand that seems to grow from the center: “not resting there, like Astourde’s, but growing.  Wentik could see where it joined the smooth wood” (32).

Eventually Wentik discovers how his jailers seem to be confused, often afflicted with bouts of insanity.  And soon, he compels Astourde to sit at the interrogation table where fragments of the purpose and functioning of the time-displacement emerge.

Final Thoughts

In first half of the novel, discussed above, Priest weaves a transfixing spell.  Wentik’s strange predicament, the landscape, the unusual psychological torture, the slightly unnatural feel of the prison and its functioning (the hand on the table, an ear on the wall, the light-beam) all create a profoundly surreal reading experience.  Our hero’s relentlessly scientific outlook adds to the disconnect, for long periods of the narrative he is unable to explain what is happening to him.  And the ways in which he starts to control the narrative, influencing his interrogator, discovering the function of the hand on the table, is slow and methodical and believable.

Unfortunately the spell is broken as soon as Wentik exits the “jail” and enters the future world of 2189 A.D.—the narrative completely loses its power.  The minimalist exploration of control and psychological manipulation transforms into an predictable and bloated ecological and political parable.  In multi-page summaries of all the history of the two hundred years after Wentik’s time, Priest describes how the Cubans invaded America causing a nuclear (among other super weapons) war: “the Americans had used almost every kind of weapon available to them” (112).  However South America emerged mostly unscathed even despite later Disturbances and Reformations.  And the new society of Brazil into which Wentik is now a key player.  The unusual time-displacement field narrative is joined in an awkward marriage to a “we must save the world” plot.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1971 edition)

(Ed Fox’s cover for the 1970 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1979 edition)

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Indoctrinaire, Christopher Priest (1970)

  1. Alternate title and rear cover description for the Pennington cover art edition: “Addams Family Apocalypse” and “Thing realizes with horror he should have strangled Pugsley in the cradle.”

    • This is one of those huge swing and a miss type novels — the parts of their but how everything is interwoven together is inarticulate. I also found what the main character studies i.e. the environmental causes of insanity could have been explored in a more intriguing manner. What we read is exactly what is happening, there is no fine line between insanity and sanity etc. — I know for certain Priest explores these issues with more finesse and complexity later on.

  2. Hm, I have a great fondness for Priest (I have a review of his Fugue for a Darkening Island at mine), but this does definitely as you say sound one for completists, and I’m not that.

    Still, interesting review as ever Joachim.

  3. At some point in the novel, the 23 year old Priest writes something to the effect that the past is unchangeable and forever set (it has been over three years since I read the book, so I don’t have the exact quote). Christopher sure has changed his mind about *that* over the past 45 years.

    • Well, that is not surprising considering our understanding of history as something other than simply a collection of facts where objectivity is possible is a late 70s/post-70s mentality.

  4. Sounds like the story had a lot of potential. Perhaps Priest had an external epiphany while writing the novel and tried to weave that and the original storyline together. That sort of thing does happen to writers. Unfortunately, more often than not, the plot becomes a tangental mess. Be that as it may, the Pennington ’71 and the uncredited ’79 covers really do suggest a surrealist experience.

    • I know! Ultimately it isn’t surreal at all. Everything is nicely explained. If there were more indications of the potential insanity of the main character than that would have been more interesting.

      But the more surreal elements — the ear on the wall, the manipulated hand on the interrogation table — are supposed to be unnerving for the individual undergoing the psychological torture by their unnaturalness… But the hero is a scientist and figures out how each works.

  5. I once spent a lot of time working out the details of the maze which Wentik’s captors force him through. It’s basically two mazes in one, switching between floor-plans as doors swing across junctions to close some corridors and open others.
    One of the questions that come to mind as you read the book is, “How come Wentik has not succumbed to the same bizarre psychoses as everyone else in the Patagonia station?” It belatedly occurred to me that Wentik *was* insane, just in a different way. ‘Indoctrinaire’ prefigures several of Priest’s novels, with their first-person narrators who are completely bonkers but unaware of it.

    • I would have LOVED if there were more indications of his insanity. Of how he was being used etc. There wasn’t enough indications. But I love the idea of his highly analytical mind being deceived. But again, there was a lack of indications that that was the case..

      The novel gave an explanation of “How come Wentik has not succumbed to the same bizarre psychoses as everyone else in the Patagonia station?” — because Wentik developed the drug and was testing it on himself at The Concentration he was supposedly immune. But if a more substantial reason to cast this explanation into doubt was given then the novel might have more complexity in this regard.

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