Aliases and anomalies

John Verney, The Island (Bournemouth & Poole College Collection)

The Evidence by Christopher Priest. Gollancz, 2021 (2020).

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Shakespeare, ‘Richard II’

Against his better judgement a crime writer, invited to an overseas conference, attends, and not only has to suffer huge inconveniences but is then reluctantly fed ideas for a plot based on a true crime by a retired cop.

No, that’s not quite the sum of it. In The Evidence we find ourselves on another world, one girdled by an island archipelago, which suffers gravitational anomalies and, in places, something called mutability which somehow changes the reality of events. And while much of the technology feels both contemporary and familiar the social and geopolitical systems are either arcane (as in feudal) or polarised (as in totalitarian versus more liberal systems).

On the other hand – how many hands do we have? – this is pure metafiction: an author describes the processes of writing fiction in this, an actual work of fiction, where sleight of hand, distraction, misdirection and mistaken perceptions are discussed and then perpetrated on the actual as well as the hypothetical reader. You either like what’s been done here or you feel you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes. Is the narrator reliable or is he too affected by mutability at the deepest level?

Ferry routes, Dream Archipelago © C A Lovegrove

First, let’s consider the setting. Todd Fremde is the first-person narrator from the island of Salay Raba invited to give a keynote speech to the University of Dearth Historical and Literary Society. But Dearth Island, unlike Salay Raba, is known to be “positioned on a geological fault above several gravitational anomalies,” as Todd reminds the reader in Chapter 23, resulting in a “mutability” – an enigmatic phenomenon which produces “physical changes that were allegedly real at the time they occurred, but forgotten soon afterwards” (Chapter 18). A Dearth police commissioner, Freja Harsent, informs Todd that “what you call a crime we call a civil transgression,” which seems to be a way of accounting for the fact that actuality on Dearth may, without warning, reconfigure itself at any time.

Still, Todd has, due to the dogged insistence of Freja, been thrown into a situation where he has to consider a cold crime, one committed many years before on his own island group of Salay. The ramifications of this amateur sleuth’s initially very tentative investigations is that he uncovers a lot more than had bargained for, a situation which threatens not only his own life but those of a colleague and his partner, and perhaps even the financial stability of the Archipelago.

And this is the specific theme he returns to in this novel: how might the conventions and clichés of detective fiction get refreshed when the writer himself is the amateur sleuth or investigator. “Was there still an allowable, plausible way of plotting a crime novel that involved identical twins?” he asks at one point; elsewhere he muses

We all involve ourselves with story. Most people who read books love to think about ‘what happened next?’, or if they read mysteries ‘whodunit?’. They follow the story, enjoy its twists and turns, wait for the final revelation.

The creation of a story, though, is not simply a matter of telling a sequence of events, however embellished those events might become in the process.

Chapter 8

Christopher Priest evidently had fun writing this novel, meaning that this reader at least also had fun with this page-turner. Though it shares features with The Adjacent and The Gradual, a couple of his other novels set in his Dream Archipelago which I’ve enjoyed, it works as a standalone – even if it requires similar mental adjustments. Priest reprises many of his literary obsessions, such as the notion of people having aliases, and of doppelgängers, or analogues in other worlds, or (as now in his best known novel, The Prestige) twins; there are also the themes of conjuring and illusion which he blatantly revisits here, and which he compares to the art of an author, especially the writer of crime fiction, murder mysteries and thrillers.

Here then is our real life author, Priest, using the voice of a fictional author, Fremde, beginning to tell us something about not just how fictional authors may tell a story but how us readers may like to regard the story we’re actually being told now, particularly where its inspiration came from and how the writer developed the ideas. The unsurprising answer to where does inspiration originate is … it’s a mystery. Why? Because the process is organic and, for the writer, internal.

This being so, far be it for me to try to explain The Evidence to you. Here not only is the telling of the story a process, the story itself is the process, anomalies and all. If I’m puzzling out the implausibility of the fictional author having to explain to his readers the political and social systems they already know to be pertaining in their own world, I then consider that maybe this is another anomaly we may have to put down to mutability rather than trusting a possibly unreliable narrator.

Perception is all, certainly where Priest’s fiction is concerned (as I first discovered in his Inverted World). Though there may be none of Shakespeare’s dead kings about whom to “tell sad stories” here, readers of crime fiction will find the murder mystery aspect satisfying, fans of speculative fiction will enjoy the alternative world premise, and devious types like me may appreciate the literary puzzle box Priest offers up for our inspection. Dare one open it?

20 thoughts on “Aliases and anomalies

    1. You do yourself a disservice, Karen, your brain cells would absolutely cope with this – unless your constitution was immune to speculative fiction? 😁 I loved this as a puzzle, not just for the murder mystery element but because of SF aspects even if, frankly, all the talk of gravitational anomalies and mutability is mumbo-jumbo!


  1. Oh, this sounds really interesting, Chris! I like a bit of meta, anyway, and all the elements you highlight sound fascinating, particulary as there’s a crime novel built in there! Would this be a good place to start with Priest, do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It may be as good a place as any, Karen, if only for the murder mystery element and whiff of police procedural to sweeten the pill for the headache that will inevitably result! I’ve only read one of the Ben Aaronovitch novels which mix crime with magic, so this is much the same, set on an Earth but not as we know it. I’ve only watched the movie based on Priest’s The Prestige, but if you saw and coped with that this one’d be a doddle!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve just looked at a couple of reviews and I like the description in this passage (
      “You know those trendy chefs who make deconstructed dishes, where all of the ingredients are present, but not necessarily in the arrangement that you were expecting? Well, The Evidence is kind of a deconstructed crime novel.”

      A deconstructed crime novel is definitely what it is, Mallika, and I think that despite its science-fictiony feel you might appreciate it – it’s got murders, unreliable testimony, a locked room puzzle and a discussion about whether you can eliminate crimes by simply relabeling them ‘transgressions’.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Why do we find chilling tales best for the cold season?! It defies logic! But be warned, if you ever get to this, reconstruction will involve missing several pieces!


  2. The Evidence?? Sounds so so like The Isalnders by him, the only one I read.

    I usually love quirky and daring new type of fiction, but alas, I didn’t understand a thing in this book.

    Here is part of my “review”:

    “Some reviews had warned me that I had to persevere. So I did, always hoping for the big ah ah moment.

    When it came, sort of, it really didn’t explain much.

    Still, I kept reading to the end.

    339 pages, and I still have absolutely no idea what the book is about, or how it works.

    I spent a good amount of time to read reviews and presentations of the book, and I still have really no idea. Can anyone enlighten me?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Islanders and The Evidence are part of the same world, in which the Dream Archipelago usually features, and so I’m unsurprised it sounds familiar to you. I agree, they’re complex things, not easy to understand – if at all – but I suppose the clue is in the name Dream Archipelago, even if, like Dearth Island here, Dream doesn’t only apply to what comes to you when you sleep!

      So, am I able to enlighten you? Probably not, as I still am puzzling about it even now! But I think if you accept it’s Priest having fun with ideas, about what’s ‘real’ and what isn’t, and go with the flow, it becomes more enjoyable – like those conjuring shows where someone gets sawn in half, or pulls metres of bunting from their mouth – it doesn’t make sense, it defies logic, but it evokes wonder. Except that the results may often seem sinister…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. My limited experience with just three in that loose sequence is that you have to reset your understanding of the parameters (such as it may be) for each one, so it doesn’t really matter where you start – for example, The Adjacent was set partly in our world’s past, present and future, and partly in the Dream Archipelago. That said, I’d dearly love to read the earlier novels related to that world, such as The Islanders or the titular collection of stories.


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