Ferry to Bute with dolphins, May 2022.


I happened to be reading Chris Priest’s novel when I learned of his death. I have not been able say what I feel to Leigh, or his children, or Nina. I found myself writing about what I assume is his last novel, if not his last book. That has helped a bit.

I knew Chris for forty-seven years. He was one of those people with whom we didn’t talk around stuff—politics, progress, writing, personalities—just got stuck in. Something he pointed out back in 1979, when I first dropped in to see him, was that friends took up where they left off. We did.

The Fascination

Airside by Christopher Priest Gollancz UK 2023 (298 pp)  

Christopher Priest’s last novel is named for the airport zone beyond which exists only atmosphere and vapour.

Airside. Outside of our sovereign inside.

It is the story of once-famous Hollywood actress Jeanette Marchand, whose public beauty and domestic pain made it impossible for her to escape in her own country in the 1940s, but who in Britain vanishes without a trace at an airport. Justin Farmer is a boy in Manchester when Marchand disappears, one whose obsessive and systematic nature picks up both film and aircraft.

Paul Kincaid has pointed out that Farmer is close to Priest in some historical life circumstances. Yes, and no.

Airside‘s plot flirts in several of its turns with a story written by any other science fiction writer that might satisfy content generation, but Christopher Priest has been plying his own way well beyond the field for many decades. There are cheeky moments where the reader believes Justin’s story might resolve conventionally. Priest’s prose stands back from its subject, paces regularly, leaving spaces, lulling the reader into average expectations while all the while the author has been moving partitions around and altering the lighting and angles. Pages go by and before you know it you’re somewhere the ordinary words make poetry.

The novel form in Priest’s hands is itself is an excuse to write up to a sequence of words which would make no sense without the previous novel, but which glow away from the pages with a plain truth it has taken hundreds of thousands of others piled up beneath author and reader to scramble upon.

I’ve been reading them for about fifty years. Priest’s novels have always revolved around an image of the infinite, or perhaps heading toward the infinite like the city Earth in Inverted World. Since Indoctrinaire and Fugue for a Darkening Island, the world has changed yet is the same, only thinner. Priest’s work moved very quickly from what that might have been identified with SFF movements such as the New Wave and publications such as New Worlds, to novels outstanding for originality and seriousness. Even The Space Machine, a Wells pastiche which as a teenager and something of a stylistic snob I regarded as Priest breaking out of Priest but which in retrospect was just him breaking further into being Priest, is much more than a romp, arguably the origin of a rigorous and yet still frolicsome Steampunk and making postmodern comment on the genre with which Priest’s work always maintained an ambivalent relationship.

For all Priest’s affection for the science fiction fantasy communities, his relationship with all genres and cliques, his relationship with its conventions is broader-based in its fantasy and at once more factual than its science, leading him out of genre, including the “literary” one, and into a place that will continue to influence not only such limited origins but, through The Prestige and The Space Machine, The Adjacent, and his various Dream Archipelago stories, the world’s outlook in general.

This is a bold claim to make. He was no George Lucas.

Priest, I would maintain, was that beast rising from genre wetland, “storyteller,” where the magic of a printed stretch of pages comes from the author’s conspiratorial “plotting” in the devious sense of the word as much from the ideas and literary forms and stylistic twerking. This is what has helped Priest’s reputation for metafictional trickery in a way only matched in the great practitioners of it. And without the Lucas bullshit.

It isn’t enough to cleverly comment on the art of fiction and its history and connections to other art forms; to play an old song; Priest’s work depends from his connections with other art in a way completely integrated with his characters and places. Priest was always at work on the reader’s expectation of what was about to happen or should happen in a story such as by what he found himself the fascinated.

I can still see his eyes glittering with the joke, one often taken so seriously it took on greater proportions than the confines of a novel. Or a movie.

Not just geekery, those Priest interests in flight, photography, and stage magic, all miraculous. In Airside, Justin Farmer keeps a card catalogue of every film he has seen and runs into trouble when he attempts to catalogue his first relationship. It is not mentioned whether Justin continues this practise in his romantic life. Certainly he destroys this early assembly with the determination, “Never again. Never.” And yet his follow-through on Jeanette Marchand’s disappearance is quietly persistent and arguably all-absorbing in the finish.

In scenes echoing the films his character reviews throughout the book, Justin Farmer enters the liminal world of Jeanette Marchand, lands on whose far side lie uncertainty and alarm, whose border anxiety is managed by unseen and incomprehensible forces ministering according to scripts the passengers cannot share.

Part of the enigma, brand names are points of reference when the globalised and novelty-based architecture dissolves a sense of sovereignty to place or one’s body. Such logos and shapes are superficial but familiar, at least on the face. Christopher Priest has always seen through his own industry’s branding and travelators and boarding pass Cerberuses.

His work has taken appealing ideas—invisible man, alternate WWII, professional magicians’ secrets, bizarre topologies—and never led them to predictable conclusions. Airside is no exception. The glamorous combines with the nerdy, locating the birth of classic early science fiction and its fandom and its nervous Edwardian reaction to the corners of the planet having contracted (an earlier incarnation of an “end of history”) as the mystery origin of this popular, global, systematised mythology.

Priest wrote book-length caustic screeds on the deceptive moneymaking patter of fandom. Yet to the end of his life he remained a cheerful participant in fandom’s amateur public expression.

The shiny belly of the aircraft, or its shadow, or its descent into fire, stands in for the looming of real nature always ready to break with a climate-led, water-dependent shit-crash into our sterile profit-maximised and yet puffed-up baggage roundabout of entertainment, our peach veneer of luxury without real legroom: the moment of maximum vertigo for me in this novel concerns the boarding gate tunnel repetition of posters of tourists enjoying themselves in manufactured paradises.

And relief from that, however illusory this also might be, takes us back into coherent story, where we expect and want a “solution”, however qualified and ironic.

Justin reflected that being conducted through a terminal in this semi-official way temporarily removed the feeling of dysfunction. The one mixed blessing allowed to passengers waiting in a terminal, the false and restricted freedom to walk or wander around, was replaced by a sense of purpose, motion, transportation. No options existed. Was this a key to understanding? The solution to the enigma? The elevator halted. The journey resumed. The walls were the same, so were the advertisements.

A mystery is perhaps solved and Justin and his partner Matty, a writer with professional interests lending her an x-ray view into his obsessions, if not a collaborative fascination over them, must satisfy themselves with Jeanette Marchand’s new location, somewhere beyond their current movable partitions. Such an ending could have been perfunctory.

It could have been Concrete Island and not a novel in which this appears:

She disbelieved in coincidence. The circle of connections, double-headed arrows like arms pointing towards each other, a symbol of a loose friendly hug, the names made into a never-ending link. For Justin that day in the old cemetery was the first tentative confession of Matty’s love scribbled on the title page of an old book, or the approach of love, or its likelihood. Or its truth. That warm summer’s day on the bench beneath the canopy of trees—that was when he had Matty had begun their lives together.

We read shortly afterwards about “a mature and stable love” as opposed to Justin’s fannish obsession with Marchand. Priest’s Earth is fractured but not entirely a crystal world.

The reason Christopher Priest left writing and film artistry a better place than he found them is that in a career across six decades he maintained a story-based relationship with his reader, an unwavering gaze upon his own and others’ human natures, and work always firmly Christopher Priest no matter the influence.

Playfully, Priest’s characters have departed without confirmed arrival, into the clouds as, unlike their pages’ author, human being Christopher Mackenzie Priest has done as well.

Christopher Priest
14 July 1943-2 February 2024