Monday 25 February 2013

The Islanders

Christopher Priest, 2011
(January 2013)

Cheeky motherfucker.

Objectively, in as much as such a thing is possible, this is an excellent book: imaginative, intelligent, erudite, and genuinely different. In as much as such a thing is possible. And that’s the thing; I don’t know if it is any more. I think I’m all Sci-Fied out.

I’ve probably been overindulging a bit with the SF over the last few weeks, culminating in that cranky and unfairly dismissive post on The Island of Dr. Moreau. Choosing to read this next simply because it too had ‘Island’ in the title probably wasn’t the smartest move. For just as overindulgence in the physical vices will eventually exact its price, so too for the literary.

It’s just, ah… I dunno. I know some people only ever read a single genre: high fantasy or chick lit or police procedurals or whatever. But you spend so much time immersed in places with such similar underpinnings and conventions and it all becomes fairly repetitive. You get multiple helpings of the good stuff, of course, but the generic weaknesses also become more and more obvious. This is Box-Set Syndrome writ large.

I just want a book with a compelling central character, who has conversations for reasons other than expounding on the author’s political and philosophical views. I want a plot that actually makes sense and follows an imperative other than exploring whatever conceptual world the writer is trying to construct. I want to feel engaged with a protagonist who feels like a real person and I really, really don’t want to feel compelled to use the word ‘worldbuilding’ yet again when I write about it. I am heartily fucking sick of ‘worldbuilding.’

In that last respect at least, this was a phenomenally poor choice. It’s a fucking gazetteer of a fucking fictional fucking planet, for fuck’s sake. The second chapter contains a two-page description of thermohaline circulation in action. As you know, I’d normally be completely down with that shit, but this time I was somehow less than enthused. Fortunately after a few dozen pages there’s some genuine horror, a murder and a miscarriage of justice, and things start to pick up a bit.

The narrative, as far as it exists, is fragmented. Extraordinarily so. It’s an effort to piece together and, given my general mood, one I found myself resenting on more than the odd occasion. But somehow it keeps pulling you along with its slightly prim manner, daring you to figure out exactly what, if anything, is really going on. Buggered if I’m going to lose a battle of wits with the supercilious little prick notionally collating this haphazard affair.

And then about three-quarters of the way through there’s a reveal and you get given, if not the answer, then the key to it. Or at least a key, to an answer. And what’s more, you realize you were actually given it quite a while ago and you’ve been carrying it around in your pocket whilst looking everywhere else in vain.

Cheeky, as I said, motherfucker.

Fortunately this is a book that’ll stand up very well to a few re-readings, which I’ll definitely attempt when I’m in a more suitable mood for it. Maybe not from page one, though.


  1. As a huge fan of the movie 'The Prestige', I've been afraid to read the novel for fear of either becoming disillusioned (pun intended) with the movie or disappointed by the book. Maybe I should give this one a read and see if I think his writing style will leave me feeling alright about reading 'The Prestige'.

    1. It might be a good place to start, actually, if you're just looking for a taster of his style. It also has musings on magic, showmanship and duplicates which would appear to be very much his thing.

      I enjoyed the movie too, and the penny dropping moment in that (when Batman went nuts because Wolverine had kidnapped his 'mate') was similar for me here. It shifts around that moment and you start recalculating everything.

    2. As good as "The Exorcist" was it absolutely paled when compared with the book which was just fucking bad reading for a 9 year old. I shouldn't have touched mommy's book. Jaws was similar. Read that to at a very young age and it...was scarier than the movie like the Exorcist was. I recall Exorcist 3 ..or 2? which both sucked had a scene that...was worthy but it might be because I never read the book...don't think such a shitty flick had one? But the scene was

    3. Christ, nine? I read it when I was in my early twenties and was up until about 4 in the morning on a work night because I couldn't bare to put it down without some sort of comforting resolution. Even though I'd seen the movie so knew it'd be (kinda) all right in the end.

      I've not seen 3, 2 was enough to kill it all off for me. Lord, what a turd of a film that was.

  2. After Priest's epic rant last year about the Clarke awards, I've been wondering when I should read him.
    I'm also curious what you'll read next, now that the SF Experience is winding down and you've OD'ed on worldbuilding.

    I almost snorted my root beer onto the keyboard during this post, btw.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. It was quite cathartic to write, I have to admit.

      It's the first of his I've read, largely off the back of that rant. Clearly I could have been in a more appreciative mood for it though.

      While we're on the topic of duplicates, I keep meaning to ask, are you Pep or Jose? I've been assuming the former, though the assumption there are in fact two of you could be totally misplaced.

      As for the upcoming, a bit of nonfiction tomorrow and then a run of books I can only describe as 'flaky'.

    2. I'm Pep, my little brother is Jose. That joke doesn't work as well now that Pep Guardiola no longer coaches at Barca, but it's too late to change now.
      Jose would write more, but 1) he's lazy and 2) he works 10+ hour days at our bookstore and is pretty sick of books at the end of it.

      The flaky stuff sounds fun.

    3. You've got a bookshop? When I was younger I used to think working in a bookshop would be the best job ever. Now I'm a bit older and wiser I realise that it's just being in bookshops that I like, I can see how actually having to earn a living that way might kill of the romance a bit.

      Still and all, it's not something I'd completely rule out...

  3. I forgot about Priest's Clarke rant. Ugh!

    I too am one who has wanted to read Prestige for some time but just haven't made the effort. It will happen one of these days.

    Sorry you have gotten a bit burnt by SF, but that makes perfect sense. If you are the kind of person who likes to read a wide range of stuff (which I suspect most of us are) then it can get tiring to stay focused on just one genre, even if that genre has variety within it. I think I've been less prone to being burnt out on it this year just because I've read some books, like The Mad Scientist's Daughter, that are only SF in the most broad definition and so I've got a break, as it were.

    1. Yeah, that rant was something special, eh? Certainly the most interesting thing about the Clarkes last year. For once it was a award I'd actually read a decent number of the shortlisted books for and I could definitely see his point.

      No need to apologise at all. It's entirely my own fault. I used it as a bit of an excuse to attack the TBR pile which, as I only discovered embarrassingly recently, isn't perhaps the most diverse of bookshelves.

      Still, lessons learned and all, and in sum it's definitely been a positive and enjoyable experience. Thanks for hosting (and stopping by and commenting :)

  4. It was great to have you participate. And your experience is one of the reasons a few years ago I started emphasizing that I wanted to host things where a person could just read a book or two and still consider themselves a full and active participant. I want people to discover and/or indulge in a passion for the same kind of literature that I like without burning themselves out on it.

    1. Don't worry, it's not a burn out. I've spent too much important time in SF worlds to throw that particular baby out with the bathwater. I might need to hire a babysitter for a while though...