Skip to main content

The Gradual (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

Christopher Priest may not be a prolific writer, but he was writing when I first got interested in science fiction, and he's still producing remarkable novels - most recently The Gradual. It's a remarkable book - mysterious, intriguing and with a main character who really takes the reader along on his sometimes dream-like experience.

But for one problem, it would have a solid five stars - and that's that it shouldn't really be here at all, because it's not science fiction, it's fantasy. (Unless you take the old definition that 'science fiction is what science fiction authors write.') I need to note a few specifics to explain why, but I'll try not to make them spoilers.

What makes it fantasy? Firstly it's set on a world that clearly isn't Earth, yet absolutely everything about the culture and environment (other than the fantasy elements we'll come to) is exactly like Earth, from the alcoholic drinks to the musical instruments and gramophone records. That's a relatively minor aspect. But then we've got a world where traveling from island to island causes shifts in time - you could just about set up an SF explanation for this, but it is not attempted. And most of all, these time shifts are countered by what can only be described as magic.

If we get over the book sneaking in here under false pretences, though, it is marvellous. It's not a book to read if you like everything set out just so from the beginning. Like the great Gene Wolfe, Priest enjoys leaving us confused about what's going on, only gradually revealing what's happening near the end. (Frustratingly so, to an extent, as the main character really doesn't try very hard to get an explanation, other than from people whose job it is not to give it.)

The best parts are those involving the nastiness of living in a dictatorship and anything connected to music. Throughout the book, music is a powerful theme - Priest really puts us in the head of a true musician and it's a wonderful experience.

Just occasionally there seem to be logical gaps. For example, the main character is advised that just moving around on a particular island will cause him big problems - yet everyone else, who should have the same problems, seems to do so just fine. And some of the supporting characters, particularly the female ones, could do with a bit of rounding out. But this doesn't stop this being a remarkable piece of writing.

In the past, I've found that it has been hard work to read some of Priest's novels (Inverted World springs to mind) - and the outcome sometimes didn't reward the effort. The Gradual reads like a dream (both metaphorically and literally in places) - it's excellent just as a highly approachable novel, but is also inspiring. Probably the best book by Priest I've ever read.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…