(Don Puchatz’s cover for the 1981 edition)
4.75/5 (collated rating: Very Good)
With Christopher Priest’s second short story collection, An Infinite Summer (1979), he enters the pantheon of my favorite SF authors. The thing is, I knew he would all along once I moved past the sour taste of his first novel Indoctrinaire (1970) and finally picked up one of his later endeavors.
Priest’s fiction appeals to my sensibilities: he is the consummate wordsmith; his worlds (especially the stories in the loose sequence of the Dream Archipelago) are evocative; the stories drip with a certain nostalgic longing and/or are populated with characters who cannot escape their memories; metafictional experimentation (a novel within a story, a novel that Priest himself would go on to write–perhaps with a different plot!) is rooted to the aims of each story (you cannot separate the two without eviscerating authorial purpose); and, they can be profoundly affective (love, longing, lust, despair).
If you have any of the same sensibilities then pick up a copy. If aliens on cool spaceships, epic space battles, and strapping young men with big guns are the only reasons you read SF, then An Infinite Summer is obviously not for you.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“An Infinite Summer” (1976), novelette, 4.5/5 (Very Good): 1940, German bombers wreak havoc on London. For Thomas James Lloyd, “the war was an inconvenience” but the “least of his preoccupations” (14). He is new in this war-torn world, at a moment of bliss in the year 1903 he was “frozen” in time by travelers from an unknown future. A strange rubric of “seeing” exists, the previously frozen can perceive those frozen in the past… The freezers can see who they freeze. The rest of the world continues to spend their lives amongst the tableaus of the frozen.
We never know the reason for the strange actions of the future time travelerss, as Thomas who wanders London looking for the tableau of his lover, waiting for her to re-enter the world of the living. Thomas, transfixed by memories of the past, cannot rationalize the present. Strangely serene images, a falling German parachutist frozen above the Thames, populate the pages. Haunting.
“Whores” (1978), short story, 4.25/5 (Good): The Dream Archipelago is a liminal place, a psychologically damaged landscape, a nightmarish world drenched in tropical allure and inner rot (“the walls were papered with hyacinth, the bed-linen enfolded me like a rancid mouth,” 39). A soldier, the narrator, arrives from a war and confides in the reader, “my perception was disturbed” due to the “enemy’s synaesthetic gas” (39). The narrator looks for a prostitute he had previously met but discovers that she has died while he was away. Instead, he visits another named Elva on the island of Winho. An island previously occupied by enemy troops, the women of Winhow have been experimented on—their teeth sharpened, their bodies scarred.
Visions of horror and despair punctuate his lovemaking: “I saw the bobbing head, hair tangled and strewn across my body, and in my synaesthetic torment I visualized her as some monstrous animal, chewing into my gut” (50). Languid and sinister, uncomfortable and macabre…
“Palely Loitering” (1979), novelette, 4.25/5 (Good): Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 1980. In some distant future where the nostalgic recreation of English summer beach holidays dominates daily experience, the strange and undulating Flux Channel assists in the launch of spacecraft as they hurtle through its time distorting “waters.” The Flux Channel can be crossed by multiple bridges that send the walker into either “tomorrow” or “yesterday” or “today.” The story combines the daily life and loves of the main character and his journeys back and forth across the three bridges: “to cross [the yesterday bridge] to the other side was to walk twenty-four hours into the past. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow existed on the far side of the Flux Channel, and one could walk at will among them” (62). More radical time jumps can be accomplished by jumping off of the bridges onto the shore—and via this method our narrator starts to interact with various moments of his own past and develops a love for a young woman on the other side.
The high concept idea of the Flux Channel combines with a coming of age story dripping with the comfort and despair of memory. Time travel heightens all of these ideas creating an emotional and beautiful experience.
“The Negation” (1978), novelette, 5/5 (Masterpiece): The best story in the collection—part of The Dream Archipelago sequence—is filled with metafictional undercurrents. Dik, a somewhat naive young policeman contrives to have his favorite novelist, Moylita Kaine, assigned to his town as the resident artist. She is the author of his favorite novel, The Affirmation, which happens to be the title of Priest’s later novel published in 1981! For Dik, “the author of The Affirmation had been, in Dik’s mind, more ethereal, more a romantic notion than an actual person” (116).
His obsession with her novel seems to miss its more universal themes—“There have always been walls, Dik!” (124)—and soon through discussions with Kaine he learns about his world, the art of writing, the limitations of writing, and the act of creation. Yes!
“The Watched” (1978), novella, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): Nominated for the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novella. The second best story in the collection is also in the Dream Archipelago sequence… Who is watching who and why do the watchers watch? Voyeurism, the male gaze, the anthropological gaze… a profoundly unnerving reading experience.
The range of watchers: Ordier is on permanent exile in the Dream Archipelago, in his previous life he developed weapons for some power on the continent. He obsesses of the presence of scintilla, microscopic spying devices that litter the island, and searches every inch of his house. The Qataari likewise live on the island, onetime progenitors (according to legend) of various peoples on the Continent, after they were evacuated from the mainland. The Qataari obsessively watch any outsider who enters their valley. They stop everything and watch. They even die watching. An anthropologist and his wife land on the island and declare their interest in spying on the Qataari by strewing their valley with scintilla…. But Ordier has a secret, at the top of the ridge behind his home near the Qataari valley he is able to see Qataari rituals from a crack in the wall of an outbuilding. Ordier is aroused by his voyeuristic peering but he is possessed by an uncanny feeling that the entire scenario, the ritual which seems to start only when he looks in their direction, is staged for his benefit… But he watches anyway.
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