The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I hoped it would help round out my reading a bit, and haven’t been disappointed!
The 2011 winner was The Islanders by Christopher Priest. It won the BSFA award for best novel, but didn’t show up on the Hugo or Nominee shortlists.
The Islanders by Christopher Priest
Christopher Priest is rapidly becoming an author I seek out to read. I read The Prestige a few years back when I discovered the movie had been based on a book. I’d never heard of Priest before that, but as I go back and explore vintage sci-fi, I see his name time and again. The Islanders isn’t exactly vintage yet, having been published in 2011, but I could see it living as an acknowledged classic for years to come.
If I had one word to describe the book, I’d call it a maze. It’s written like a kind of travel gazette introducing readers to the Dream Archipelago, a group of islands that contains some apparent temporal and spatial anomalies (or does it?). It’s organized alphabetically by island, and after a couple islands, readers will wonder if it is only the a fictional travel gazette after all. But then we get introduced to some characters, and begin to wonder about a murder, and artists, and the narrator who is relaying these islands to us. Why do they include islands they don’t care about? Wait, who wrote the introduction? Oh!
I found myself flipping back and forth in the book as I continued more deeply into the story, and discovering that some names got repeated and hints of events taking place could be uncovered with some effort. The main plot of the story centers around a murder, a murderer, and lovers. But that main plot occupies perhaps a quarter of the text of the novel, much of which is dominated instead by vignettes of the islands and asides about literary, scientific, and artistic works. However, as you read the book, you discover that each of these may have mysteries embedded therein as well.
I’m not at all convinced I managed to tease out even a tenth of the threads interwoven throughout the book. What connection do the snippets of art have with the broader story going on? What, exactly, is “tunneling” and how might it have impacted the mystery in some way? I have many, many more questions, and I know I’ll be coming back to find out more.
The Islanders is an unforgettable maze of a novel. I believe I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time, and there’s no question it’s worth revisiting to see if one can extract more from its pages. I recommend it.
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I believe I’ve mentioned in this space before that Priest has been a top favorite since Inverted World in 1974, and that I saw him give the GOH speech at the Glasgow Worldcon in 2005, so I won’t belabor those points.
The Islanders wasn’t Chris’s first foray into the Dream Archipelago. A series of stories started in 1974, with Infinite Summer. Those stories were collected in 1999’s The Dream Archipelago from Earthlight. It has never received a US printing, but I got it from Amazon UK. But before then, Chris had written 2 novels that were tangentially connected to The Dream Archipelago: The Affirmation, 1981 (Scribner’s US / Faber & Faber UK) and The Glamour, 1984 (Doubleday US / Jonathan Cape UK). The Glamour is my 2nd favorite Priest, only following The Separation. Inverted World comes 3rd, although The Quiet Woman is darn close.
There is 1 more Dream Archipelago novel that’s come out, The Gradual, 2016 (Titan US / Gollancz UK) and it is also quite good.
Looks like I have some works to track down!