The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
Published by Titan Books
Christopher Priest is a brilliant, experienced writer who has been publishing steadily for almost fifty years. He has written in many genres, including biography and children’s non-fiction. But he is best known as a writer of social science fiction, or more precisely psycho-sociological science fiction that usually eschews the techno-babble of hard SF, to present a more subtle exploration of the effect of the fantastical on human society and individual characters.
For Mr. Priest, human beings, characters and their interactions, matter the most. His past books have won awards and been well-regarded and respected among science fiction readers, but Mr. Priest became more widely known when his novel The Prestige hit the best-seller lists, and director Christopher Nolan turned it into a film starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.
The Adjacent is Christopher Priest’s latest novel, and it echoes some of the themes and scientific theories of The Prestige, such as space-time loops, death and resurrection, quantum mechanics, and the art of stage magic. But these are no more than echoes, a kind of skimming off the top of what could have been a literary treatment on the themes of quantum mechanics. Many readers will buy The Adjacent expecting it to be another Prestige, which it isn’t. As I mentioned, many of the same themes are explored, but this book is quite different, and on its own terms, somewhat disappointing and not entirely successful.
The use of language is almost perfect; Mr. Priest is an artist who has perfected his skills so that he rarely has to use five-dollar words when simple, conversational English will do. His prose style is so expert, so rhythmic and comfortable that the average reader often doesn’t realize the complexity of the concepts they are reading about. Unfortunately, if you are used to digging for patterns or putting the different pieces of a story’s puzzle together, The Adjacent will disappoint. There isn’t much of a coherent underlying hard-science component to support the book. This does not make the book any less worthy, and indeed will probably appeal more to the general public. But for long-time fans of Christopher Priest, the lack of cohesion, the less than thorough untangling of the different theoretical themes, is a let down.
The novel is divided into eight parts. There is a base time-line presented by a point of view character named Tibor Tarent, a photographer who uses cameras with names we can recognize–Canon, Nikon, Olympus–but which can do things like fold up flat in the palm of a hand. The Canon also uses a “quantum lens” and the word quantum in this case isn’t hyperbole. His story takes place roughly a hundred years from now, and Mr. Priest presents a world beset by climate change and political instability. He also envisions a UK that has become a “caliphate.” The “IRGB” of Part One of the book. The details are telling–there are brief revelations, hints as to culture, custom, government hierarchy, altered familiar names that paint a picture of this future. There are still terrorists and violence everywhere, with mounting horrors and human suffering. The destabilizing effect of massive Category 5 hurricanes churning, one after the other, across Great Britain and Western Europe, has left the English countryside mostly a mess, with few standing trees and swatches of land controlled by violent thugs. But Tibor Tarent’s journey home from Anatolia (where his wife has been killed) is insulated, protected by a government bureaucracy as well as the “Mebsher”–the armored passenger carrier he uses to travel throughout Great Britain, so that we experience his world–this future world–in dissociated bits and pieces, just like he does.
Part Two of the novel switches to a World War I story of military intrigue that stars Tommy Trent, a stage magician, and none other than writer H.G. Wells. This is a superbly written section, and Mr. Priest brings the era and the characters intensely to life. His technical knowledge of biplanes and their pilots is particularly impressive. This part–“La Rue des Bêtes”–could be an entire novella, and could be excised from The Adjacent and not be missed. Is this a problem for the novel as a whole? That depends on what each reader decides is going on, regarding the overall structure and use of quantum physics as a theme. For this reviewer, “La Rue des Bêtes” has only a superficial link to the rest of the story, and given the underlying suspicion that there is no timeline that is valid, the particular plot in Part Two didn’t seem to have a point. But it was a great read.
Part Three takes us back to Tibor Trent and his attempt to get home. This is perhaps the most important chapter of The Adjacent. For what is basically the katabasis of Tibor Trent, coming from Anatolia where his wife was killed in mysterious circumstances, back to the IRGB, goes from being figurative to literal. This is an almost Kafkaesque chapter, where dystopian government bureaucracy and quantum disruptions meet.
Part Four, “East Sussex” presents one of the problems with The Adjacent. A new character is introduced, speaks in the first person, is used only for the purpose of introducing us to Professor Rietveld, Nobel laureate and inventor of the central technology of the book, “Perturbative Adjacency.” Could there have been better ways to give the reader this information? Mr. Priest obviously could have gone a different route, since his protagonist, Tibor Tarent was involved as a very young man in the same events Jane Flockhart describes. This seems an odd way to proceed; a kind of organized chaos of points of view without any larger, linking narrative. There doesn’t appear to be any deeper meaning to using American journalist Jane Flockhart, who we never meet again. Or do we? If she’s one of the ringers in later chapters, then how could we possibly know, since as a first-person narrator, she doesn’t leave us any physical description of herself.
Part Five, “Tealby Moor,” takes place at a World War II air field in England. Here the new characters begin to circle and pass one another and their doppelgangers, and there are some interesting uses of past, present, and future voices. But while the historical writing is superb–I’d rather Mr. Priest just write a World War II novel and be done with it, he is that good at resurrecting the time, people, technology, and language–it is in this chapter that The Adjacent seems to falter. The reader is never rewarded, turning page after page of Polish refugee Krystyna Roszca’s story, by some affirmation of her reality, her place in the context of the “adjacency” events. Is the aspect of quantum physics as presented by the book’s “adjacency” theory, coherently represented by this female character whose name constantly changes? This question becomes important, because in the next chapter, we return to what seems the novel’s essential literary and science-fictional physics. Part Five almost feels like self-indulgence on the part of the author.
In Part Six, “The Cold Room” we see through Tibor’s eyes once more, and this is the heart of the novel. His is a sad, dark, yet coldly analytical view of his predicament. And the reader starts to get answers, to understand. But the mood is distinctly broken by Part Seven, “Prachous,” where readers are abruptly shoved into some kind of all-new parallel world, with no guideposts to geography or geopolitics. (Much like the characters themselves.) People pop up who might be characters we’ve met before, with altered names that retain the same first letter. This should have been the chapter that got the brain cells fired up, that continued the puzzle-solving phase, but alas, it is not.
From “Prachous” we move to the short final chapter, “The Airfield.” This supposedly takes us back to Tealby Moor, but does it really?. There is a happy ending of sorts, but one that is incomplete. The novel is tied off with inconsistencies and questions.
There are at least three representations of quantum mechanics theories in The Adjacent. All concern interpretations of the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. The question raised by the Schrödinger’s Cat problem is, when does a quantum system become one thing or the other (either dead or alive, for example) and ceases to exist in a superimposed quantum state, where all possibilities exist at once. In the “Copenhagen” interpretation, a system becomes either one thing or another, once it is observed. In the closed box, the cat can exist as both dead and alive at once until someone opens the box and observes it.
In the “Many Worlds” interpretation, the cat is both dead and alive after the box is opened, because that moment the box is opened and the cat is found alive becomes one ribbon of reality peeling off in a separate universe. And there is also a moment when the box is opened, and the cat is found dead, and that too peels off into its own separate universe. This is called quantum decoherence, and each “world” has no contact with the other.
In the “Relational” interpretation, all quantum states are governed by the same rules but different observers (which includes inanimate objects) can give different accounts of the same series of events until multiple observations coincide and all system states “collapse” into one result.
The Adjacent also gives us classic science fiction memes such as a space-time shift with place remaining the same (remember the Twilight Zone episodes of the three soldiers on maneuvers in South Dakota who wind up in Custer’s cavalry in 1876, or the pioneer father of 1849 who stumbles over a ridge into the 20th century), and the opposite, parallel timelines with shifting geographical settings.
All of this falls short of tour-de-force. There has to be some way to tie the disparate parts together, rather than use “all things are possible in the quantum universe” excuse. The fine writing, the expert depiction of people and their emotions could be, should be the glue. But the book doesn’t quite manage to make the connections. There are too many different iterations of too few possible versions of infinite possibilities.
I recommend this book, even with my stated reservations. It’s a gripping novel, and the characters are memorable. I hope that The Adjacent is a prelude, a “Book One” of a larger story that allows Christopher Priest to more intricately and thoroughly explore the themes and ideas he has raised.