The subtitle of Christopher Priest’s The Islanders `All men are islands’ cocks a snook at Donne’s `No Man is an Islande’ which points out interconnectedness. Priest’s supposed `gazetteer’ of the islands of The Dream Archipelago both reinforces Donne and his own subtitle, which hints at the also truth of isolation, inward looking, self-reflective nature of islands and island dwellers
This is a book to mangle minds. Told by several unreliable narrators – including the writer himself, who turns out to have dedicated his book to one of his mysterious characters, and thereby does that `up yours’ gesture to the reader who wonders how much the writer of the foreword, Chaster Kammeston, is, or is not, Priest himself – this book systematically pulls rugs out from under the readers’ feet, up-ending and wickedly landing them on the floor.
Those familiar with Priest’s writing will be no strangers to his ability to severely disorientate and deliberately unsettle the reader, turning his dream landscapes to nightmare, whisking what seemed safe ground away to reveal the yawning chasms of danger beneath. Echoes of his earlier works are scattered throughout the text. Indeed the islands themselves are part of The Dream Archipelago, the title of a previous work. One of the islands is the island where lottery winners achieve, through medical science, immortality, and some of the island names as well come from that previous work
Set in what is probably a post-apocalypse near or parallel future of this world, (environmentalists are already predicting this could be nearer than we think) global warming has flooded most of the landscape, leaving 2 war torn major land masses and the long, divided chain of islands of The Dream Archipelago. Presented as a travelogue or guide to some of the major islands, which, according to Kammeston are idyllic, peaceful areas of neutrality outside the still warring land mass areas, where the arts, education and scientific research which benefits all are held in high regard, we quickly learn that much of what Kammeston claims can be disregarded. The `no man is an island’ of Donne’s view and the `all men are islands’ of Priest’s subtitle clash and weave together – the oppositions proving and disproving each other just like 2 of the major installation artists of the book are shown to do.
Nothing is as it seems here, Priest reworking some of his major preoccupations with illusion, sleight of hand, the conscious attempt to deceive of theatrical magic – the major focus of his earlier The Prestige (GOLLANCZ S.F.).
To lay out more of the spells, the illusions, the darknesses and the oppositions Priest explores would be to spoil the new reader’s own journey of dislocation and necessary obfuscation.
If you are unfamiliar with Priest’s work, an excellent place to start is The Glamour (GOLLANCZ S.F.) (which is where I first encountered Priest) To describe him as an SF writer – as often happens – is not completely right. To my mind, he is a kind of English Borges, a philiosopher metaphysician with a scarily challenging mind and imagination. What I particularly appreciate in this book, is a sense of light touch and playfulness, leavening the darkness