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.

25 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.

    Liked by 2 people

    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! 🙂

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    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.

      Liked by 1 person

    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.

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

    1. I sort of see what you mean, Jean, though of course the manner of telling is very different. So many authors are entranced by the multiverse—which is not surprising, given our capacity to imagine, and almost our greed for, other possible worlds.

      Must reread Hexwood … I remember its complexity and curious mix of SF and legend and fantasy and echoes of other novels like Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and puzzlement over whether it all hung together…

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      1. Oh I’m sure they are! Maybe Cloud Atlas would have been a more apt comparison? Just your talk of multiple casts across multiple times all intertwined got me thinking of the “timey-wimey” chaos Jones wove into that particular narrative. I’ve always thought messing with the time-plane to be one of the riskiest moves SF/F plotting because it’s so easy to muck up all the motivations of the present-day plot. Back to the Future II pulled it off, though, and that one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when they enter The Original Series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” (That one’s a really slick episode, if you’re a Trekkie of any sort. 😉 Have you ever read a book/seen a film where the time traveling mucked up the narrative?

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        1. I was never really into Star Trek, especially as its various incarnations proliferated but watched the odd episode (not this one, though, which sounds to have been wonderful!).

          I can’t recall any time-travelling narrative that made total sense to me (the physics never made sense to me anyway) but the one I was least convinced by was surprisingly a Michael Crichton story, Timeline; and the film of it was even more ridiculous. The one I most enjoyed was the HP one with Hermione’s time-turner, both book and movie!

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            1. No, I’ve got the Cursed Child to enjoy (is that the right word?) after I’ve completed my reread of the HP series, but forewarned is forearmed, right? 😁

              The less said about Timeline the movie the better…

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            2. LMAO! Looking forward to your thoughts on Cursed Child. I’ve never intended on reading it, no matter the praise/criticism. I’ve just never enjoyed reading plays as literature. Oh sure, I’ve read Shakespeare and a few other things, but that’s with the added experience of seeing the plays performed.

              That and I hate it when sequels render powerful events/characters in original stories meaningless. xxxx

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            3. I’ve deliberately avoided any reviews or discussions of this HP play, and waited till the paperback edition (with the final version of the text) was published. I don’t mind play texts too much as reading material though I don’t read them as much as I used to: the last two I remember were Cymbeline for the quartercentenary of Shakespeare’s death and the screenplay of the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

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            4. And what did you make of the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts Who Are Already Found and Stuck in a Tardis-Stuitcase? 🙂

              (Pretty sure you can catch the vibe of MY feelings from that question)

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            5. Rowling did a similar trick with the roomy tent for the Quidditch World Cup and in the Forest of Dean episode, and of course for the Room of Requirement. And Hamlet had a speech about being bounded in a nutshell and yet count himself a king of infinite space, according to Shakespeare 400 years ago… 😁

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            6. Oh Iiiiiiii remember the tents and the R o’ R. 🙂 I guess I just couldn’t wrap my head around a movie called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” being instead about an evil villain rising to power with ambitions to destroy the balance between magic-wielders and muggles…rather than about a dude that GOES TO WHERE YOU FIND FANTASTIC BEASTS. Like, let’s SEE when he saves that awesome griffin thing from smugglers! That would be amaaaazing!
              Ahem. 🙂

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  3. I think I didn’t follow up on this because I’m a bit scared of being confused by lots of jumping around with similarly named characters. I’m not always in the mood to pay enough attention. Do you think the read was especially confusing?

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