In the 1950’s, Hugh Everett III postulated the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, which basically suggests that every possible alternative past and future are not only possible, but must be real. Christopher Priest’s latest slice of genius, which is a genuine puzzle of a piece of fiction, appears to embrace this branch of science. And while it’s a wonderful example of writing and imagination, it won’t be for everyone. It isn’t an easy book to describe without giving away the plot points which will spoil the reader’s enjoyment and discovery. It isn’t easy to categorise a novel which is set both in the future and the past and another place or planet entirely and features a cameo from HG Wells.
The main plot strand is set in a future where climate change and warfare have ravaged what is now the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. Tibor Tarent is a freelance photographer whose wife has recently been killed in Anatolia; the result of a mysterious attack. A similar, but incredibly larger attack has occurred in London too. Hundreds of thousands dead. Tibor is transported to a government facility to be debriefed and meets a mysterious woman en route. Meanwhile, it is the First World War, and a stage illusionist is sent to the front line to try to make aircraft harder to spot to the enemy. He meets the enigmatic Herb, with an equally perplexing mission. Later, in 1943, a Polish pilot who has lost her lover meets a young technician who reminds her of her missing fiancé. And there’s more. Today, or perhaps tomorrow, a physicist stands in his garden and makes some conch shells disappear. We revisit Tibor as his reality becomes increasing confusing and the authorities attempt to work out what is causing these unusual terrorist attacks.
The Adjacent is a potent blend of history and science fiction and speculation, covering many of Priest’s favourite themes: magicians and illusions; playing games with the reader; alternative versions of WWII; identity; coincidence and perhaps is favourite trope, the unreliable narrator. Indeed, a passage on page 97 (hardback) is so blunt that it reads “I mislead and deceive. That’s what I do’. This applies to the author as well as the narrator. So what do you believe is such as novel?
The characters are incredibly interesting and intriguing. Many might be the same person, or least that might be clever misdirection. Names are the same but different… What is particularly clever is that the characters appear to have some higher level of influence on the events around them: the photographer ‘sees’ (much to the chagrin of his wife before she dies); the magician is nothing but an ‘illusion’, maybe; the nurse ‘saves’ more than just the wounded. There is a theory in physics that the act of observation alters the outcome of the thing observed. Of course, to the casual reader, this may seem baffling. However, it is to Priest’s credit that he makes the whole experience of reading The Adjacent a rewarding one, thanks to his imagination, his skilled prose and his believable characters.
There are more answers than questions, but not in an annoying Lost way when it seems that the writers made stuff up as they went along. We never find out the fates of the WWI protagonists. There is no explanation of how the Polish pilot ‘disappears’. Mysteries compound mysteries. Priest appears to have planned everything out meticulously, leaving the reader puzzled but charmed and entertained. You can imagine his notes full of the answers and plot points coming to conclusions. He just didn’t put them in the novel.
The Adjacent is, in my opinion, a story about how people perceive the world around them. Or maybe the author has misdirected me into looking at his right hand, while the left hand produced the real trick. Either way, this novel is a delicious read.