Smoke, mirrors and planes

Christopher Priest: The Adjacent
Gollancz 2013

“We were naïve, all of us but especially me — we thought we were making a breakthrough into something that would neutralise weapons. It would always be safe to use, non-aggressive in nature, harmless because it would remove harm. But what we all feared soon came to pass: minds other than ours worked out how to make quantum adjacency into a weapon of war.”
— Professor Thijs Rietveld, discussing Perturbative Adjacency Field.

This is a novel of ideas, of obsessions, and of the emptiness when a loved one disappears. It’s a work of speculative fiction, but one in which one mustn’t look too closely at the science nor expect any magic (except that being accomplished by smoke and mirrors). It’s a narrative that jumps around in time and space, told in both the first and the third person, in which we encounter many individuals; but ultimately there is one thread and one couple on which our attention is focused. It’s a novel that is by turns illogical and alienating but yet strangely satisfying.

Told in eight parts, The Adjacent begins in a dytopian 2030s. Hopping between Anatolia and the Islamic Republic of Great Britain we come to realise that the world is in the grip of two crises, one of extreme weather brought about by rapid climate change, the other produced by random terrorist strikes using a frightening, almost apocalyptic, weapon. It is this last that has apparently caused the disappearance of Melanie Tarent while on relief work as a nurse in Turkey, to the distress of her husband Tibor, a freelance photographer, who travels back to the IRGB, towards Lincolnshire and Hull, then one of the seats of government.

Thereafter, while continuing to follow Tibor’s story we also find ourselves travelling to the western front during the first world war with stage illusionist Tommy Trent and H G Wells, then to the home of Nobel prizewinner, the physicist Thijs Rietveld in East Sussex, where he is photographed by a younger Tibor; this is followed by a Second World War airfield for Lancaster bombers in the Lincolnshire Wolds (modelled on RAF Binbrook) where we meet Aircraftman Mike Torrence, and then the apparently fictitious island state of Prachous where we follow the career of Thom, a stage magician, and Tallant, an overseas visitor. What is the connection, if any, between all these individuals with curiously related names; and of the women whom they meet, whose names equally seem to share resemblances?

Where to start with answers, if indeed there are any? Let’s begin with the Platonic solid called the tetrahedron, a pyramid composed of four equilateral triangles with four corners and six edges in common. Traditionally the solid is associated with the element of fire, and is even used these days as a diagram to educate about fire safety and fire prevention, with heat, oxygen, fuel and chemical chain reaction represented by each one of the triangles.

The tetrahedron is the shape appearing both explicitly and implicitly through the 400-plus pages: in the triangular craters associated with the terrorist attacks, the space enclosed by cables in the suburban East Sussex garden of Thijs Rieveld (the Dutch name means Matthias Reed-field), and in the optical perturbation seen from the air over the vast area of reedbeds in Prachous. Dare I also see an echo of its influence in the various involuntary love triangles of the narrative?

Unfolded, the pyramid can form a large equilateral triangle, but can also be presented as a reticulated parallelogram, a little like the wing of a plane. This brings us to another connecting thread: the author is clearly a superior aircraft buff because not only does he introduce us to early warplanes (during the episode set not far from the Allied trenches of the Great War) but also Lancasters, Spitfires, Ansons and other European planes (during the parts set in wartime Poland, Romania, Lincolnshire and, surprisingly, Prachous): we even vicariously take an extended ride in a high altitude photo reconnaissance Spitfire.

Tetrahedron surface area

Yet another narrative thread comes with cables: the communication device that H G Wells unsuccessfully tries to introduce to the trenches, the homemade support for Rietveld’s Perturbative Adjacency device, the principal prop for the Indian rope trick that Thom the stage magician uses in Prachous. And with conjuring we come full circle: the whole art is to do with illusion, with distraction, with misdirection and with adjacency. After all, it’s that sleight of hand that the author subjects us to as we try and make sense of what he presents, all the while wondering what is real in this fiction and what is illusion.

With the notion of illusion we have a final link with Plato, whose allegory of the cave, the prisoners, and the shadows assumed to be reality perfectly illustrates how we routinely deceive ourselves. It’s no coincidence that the various male characters occupy themselves with the pretended semblances of reality — camouflage, photography, conjuring — and that many of the female characters are not what they seem, or operate under different names. The author will have known that the root of words like ‘illusion’ and ‘delusion’ is the Latin verb ludere, ‘to play’.

So, a novel of ideas, as the above suggests, and also obsessions, as many of the topics touched on — conjuring, aircraft and misperceptions, for instance — appear in Priest’s other novels, such as Inverted World (1974) which involved a whole group of people not seeing the world as it actually is. (Or may be, because who’s to say our perception is any less distorted?) But intriguing ideas and overriding obsessions do not necessarily a good novel make, and especially one like this where the narrative is deliberately disjointed.

What works for me, I think, and helps make The Adjacent an impulsive read, is that we are interested in what happens to the characters. The main protagonists are almost just as confused as we are, and like us are trying to piece together clues. Yes, some of the women are enigmatic (and a little too liable to throw themselves at whoever the principal male is) but others are more than two-dimensional: the Polish airwoman Krystina Roszca and the American journalist Jane Flockhart, for starters. If the men feel alienated within their various worlds, perhaps indulging in displacement activities, the women are more emblems of hope and growth, connected as many of their names are with concepts of plant growth — Malina (the Polish for strawberry), Flo, Firentza.

Behind all of the characters is the ache that Tibor feels for Melanie, so cruelly snatched away from him, and the guilt he has that he didn’t patch up a quarrel they had before she disappeared; and the similar emotions Melanie’s counterpart feels for her missing Tomak. If not everything is ever explained in The Adjacent this at least is something we can hang onto: the love that can hold us together, come what may.

After composing this review I did find further clarity in a few other online reviews and discussions, such as here, here and here.

11 thoughts on “Smoke, mirrors and planes

  1. Christopher Priest certainly is an ideas man. I’ve only read a couple by him, The Prestige (which I adored) and this which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here. I really enjoyed this one, but did wish I’d read some more of his dream archipelago books to make more sense of those parts of the novel.

    1. Great review on Shiny New Books, Annabel, and (taking a cue from your ‘ideas man’ label) I was taken by the Bermuda Triangle parallel which is so obvious now you point it out! I did enjoy this, even if temporarily thrown by Prachous—which I assumed was GB transferred to an equatorial location—and may finally try for ‘The Prestige’ next! 🙂

    2. And I forgot to say, while this hardback was borrowed from the library I’ve actually got my own copy of The Gradual, a more recent novel and one that’s set in the Dream Archipelago — as well as focusing on a composer (which is what drew me to it in the first place). I may go for, that next.

  2. earthbalm

    Sounds like my kind of novel. I enjoyed the film version of “The Prestige”. Must check out that novel too.

    1. Haven’t yet seen the film: I tend to wait till it’s on terrestrial television but haven’t spotted it in listings recently. You may well enjoy this one too, Dale, though I got it from our library.

  3. Pingback: Smoke, mirrors and planes — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

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