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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
John Clute

Christopher Priest obituary

The 2006 film The Prestige was based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest about two feuding 19th-century magicians.
The 2006 film The Prestige was based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest about two feuding 19th-century magicians. Photograph: AJ Pics/Alamy

The novelist Christopher Priest, who has died aged 80 after suffering from cancer, became eminent more than once over the nearly 60 years of his active working life. But while he relished success, he displayed a wry reserve about the ambiguities attending these moments in the limelight.

In 1983 he was included in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists, a 20-strong cohort, most of them – such as Martin Amis, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift and AN Wilson – significantly younger than Priest, whose career had begun almost two decades earlier, and who had at least 15 books and 50 stories in print by the early 80s. He clearly felt that it was not so much the quality of his work that delayed his “promotion” to the literary establishment, but his reluctance to deny, when asked, that he wrote science fiction.

His large body of work never fitted easily into any mould. Only in recent years has it become widely understood that the sometimes baffling ingenuity and thrust of his fiction has been of a piece, no more detachable into convenient genres than, say, Amis’s or Ishiguro’s tales of the fantastic.

Like them, he wove visions of Britain drifting into a post-empire future without secure signposts. Those stories, and the characters he let loose without a paddle, sink and dodge into realities that no longer count. Lacking much in the way of science-fiction gear, even his early work seems to describe the point that we have now arrived at.

His first novel, Indoctrinaire (1970), jaggedly initiates that scrutiny of a near-future, self-hallucinated Britain that terminated only with his last novel, Airside (2023). His next, much more mature, tale, Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), is the first of several to envision Britain as islanded both literally and in terms of the traumatic solitude endured by those who live in it. It depicts a land devastatingly isolated by ecological collapse, threatened by uncontrollable waves of the world’s dispossessed. The tale is broken into 69 sections (or islands) in no chronological order.

Christopher Priest was greatly influenced by the writer JG Ballard.
Christopher Priest was greatly influenced by the writer JG Ballard. Photograph: Aevitas

Inverted World (1974), a brilliantly realised study in how perception can transform a world, and The Space Machine: A Scientific Romance (1976), a wry but genuine homage to HG Wells, step away from his central focus. But in A Dream of Wessex (1977), in some stories from An Infinite Summer (1979), and in a further novel, The Affirmation (1981), he created what he came to call The Dream Archipelago, a sequence of tales set in a variety of similar Britains, all transfigured into differing landscape-dominated worlds, sometimes enjoying a Mediterranean climate, each individual tale following paths into watery labyrinths.

The influence of Richard Jefferies’ After London: Or, Wild England (1885) is clear. The protagonist of The Glamour (1984) is so islanded from reality that he becomes literally invisible.

Born in Cheadle, Cheshire (now Greater Manchester), Christopher was the son of Millicent (nee Haslock) and Walter Priest, a senior executive in the firm of Vandome and Hart, manufacturers of weighing machines. On leaving Cheadle Hulme school at the age of 16, he became an accountancy clerk, work that he was able to leave in 1968. Much later he published the stories he wrote from this period as Ersatz Wines (2008).

The first significant hint of a way forward into his mature vision seems to have come through reading Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958), a tale whose disruptive questioning of science-fiction conventions borrowed from the US, married to a loud pessimism about humanity’s hopes of dominating any future world, was electrifying.

The boisterous Aldiss soon introduced him to the small but intense literary world in Notting Hill Gate, west London, that Michael Moorcock was beginning to create in the early 60s through the magazine New Worlds.

In an early piece, Priest himself first applied the term New Wave to the experimental fantastic narratives of this era, but was ambivalent about how much he wanted to identify with what he found in New Worlds. He gave up clerical work, began to write full-time, and in 1969 married Christine Merchant. They moved to London and divorced after four years.

The New Worlds/New Wave vision of a world that had lost all sense of itself, with no stories to show a way out, was inspiring: but from the beginning Priest recognised the central influence and mentoring genius of JG Ballard, who made hypnotic stories out of the seemingly unstoryable, for his uncanny intuition that past, present and future were an “inner space” we must explore and live with.

Though his works are formally more ingenious, everything Priest wrote acknowledges his mentor’s foreknowledge that we now live in that inner space, where the lighting is treacherous. His last book, not quite completed at the time of his death, is a study of Ballard.

After the US author Harlan Ellison withdrew one of Priest’s stories from his indefinitely postponed blockbuster anthology Last Dangerous Visions, Priest published The Last Deadloss Visions (1987). It was a ruthless documentation of Ellison’s failure to release this volume, while retaining at least 100 stories, some from as early as 1972, and all the while promising immediate publication (when Ellison died in 2018, the anthology was still in manuscript). Priest treated the vituperation from Ellison’s followers as an inevitable consequence of his honesty, but shrugged it off. Others in the US respected him for speaking out.

In 1981, Priest married Lisa Tuttle; they divorced in 1987. The following year he married the writer Leigh Kennedy, and they had two children, Elizabeth and Simon.

His novel The Prestige (1995), about two feuding 19th-century magicians, won both the James Tait Black Memorial prize and a World Fantasy award. The successful film adaptation by Christopher Nolan (2006) starred Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as the illusionists sparring over a teleportation stunt.

Responding to this new upsurge in his reputation, Priest wrote about the experience in The Magic: The Story of a Film (2008). Meanwhile, The Separation (2002), a dark alternate history of the second world war featuring Rudolf Hess and Winston Churchill, won an Arthur C Clarke award.

He and Kennedy divorced in 2011, and he and the writer Nina Allan began to live together, soon moving to the Isle of Bute. They married in 2023.

His remaining years were prolific. The Islanders (2011) was soon followed by three further and summatory Dream Archipelago tales. An American Story (2018) takes a contrarian view of the assassination of JF Kennedy. Expect Me Tomorrow (2022) plays an intricate game involving doppelgangers, geology and climate change.

His last novel, Airside, conveys with eerie aplomb the seemingly simple tale of a Hollywood star who escapes the potential wreck of her career by travelling through something like an escape-hatch housed in the Heathrow “airside”: an Escherian space, neither here nor there, that any traveller must somehow traverse without becoming abandoned.

The French director Chris Marker’s most famous film, 200 stills comprising the 20-minute La Jetée (1962), which Priest cites in this novel, is partially set in an airside where past and future intersect. The sadness of that intersection is fathoms deep, serenely knowing. The voiceover for that film, and the narrator of Airside, speak to us in the same tone of voice: a tone that seems to grasp the future in hindsight.

At the end of his career, Priest had finally brought off his greatest trick: to bring us home to where he awaited us.

In his written work, he could be acerbic and taxing (though usually persuasive). My own friendship with him, which deepened over half a century, revealed an urgently kind man, witty, loyal, amused, gregarious. He had the rare gift of taking himself fully as seriously as he warranted: but no more. His laughter was infectious.

He is survived by Nina and his children.

• Christopher Mackenzie Priest, author, born 14 July 1943; died 2 February 2024

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