Random Reading 11
David Langford

The Grim Grin of Christopher Priest

When Christopher Priest set up his own small press as GrimGrin Studio, I assumed the name referred to Kingsley Amis's early novel I Like It Here, which has some fun with continental European pronunciation of British authors' names. Edge-Crown wrote The Keys of the Kingdom and Grim-Grin wrote The Power and the Glory. As it turned out, no Amis reference was intended; our author is a regular guest at conventions in France and heard about Britain's Grim-Grin at first hand. So far this POD imprint has produced four titles, all by Priest himself and published in 2008.

The Magic: The Story of a Film is also the story of a novel, Priest's World Fantasy Award-winning The Prestige (1995), and of the hopes, fears and suspense generated by its transformation into the 2006 Christopher and Jonathan Nolan film. The original tricky narrative of duelling Victorian stage magicians emerged from a deep fascination with the ambience of conjuring -- not merely standard illusions and apparatus but the obsessive secrecy and jealousy of others' secrets that riddle the profession of magic. Authors are traditionally shocked by Hollywood's dismantling and Frankensteinian reassembly of their work for the big screen: Priest, however, is generally sympathetic to the process. It's perhaps useful to remember that one central metaphor of his novel The Glamour (1984) is the mystique of filming, the simultaneous authority and invisibility of the man behind the camera. His warm appreciation of the Nolans' achievement makes his few criticisms, chiefly of the film's finale, all the more telling. Since Priest is no mean polemicist, I expected some scathing remarks about how the film people themselves became so infected with the theme of secrecy that (despite having changed both the ending and a significant detail of the central SF device) they deprecated the book as a mere source of spoilers. The October 2006 Empire carried both a cautious Priest commendation of the film -- which he hadn't yet been allowed to see -- and a fervent plea from Christopher Nolan: "Don't read the novel! It spoils everything!" Tor Books was allowed to publish a film tie-in edition of The Prestige, but not to use any film imagery that might actually sell the book. Priest remains remarkably controlled about such annoyances, and The Magic is all the better for the calmness of its narrative. Recommended.

Real-Time World is a straight reprint of Priest's first collection, with two brief introductions -- one from the original 1974 edition and another added in 2008. The contents range from his first published story "The Run" (1966 Impulse) to effective foreshadowings of mature Priest themes, like the metaphorical chill of "A Woman Naked" (1974 Science Fiction Monthly) and the unreliable narration or unreliable reality of the long title story (1972 New Writings in SF 19). "The Head and the Hand" (1973 New Worlds Quarterly 3), agreebly nasty Grand Guignol about a performance artist who lops pieces off himself, is frequently hailed as prefiguring reality TV. A mixed bag, but containing some good stories. The www.christopher-priest.co.uk website also promises a slightly expanded paperback Real-Time World + 2, adding two previously uncollected stories to complete the assembly of early Priest work (see also Ersatz Wines below). These are "The Invisible Men", a first brush with The Glamour's theme of mental or psychological invisibility, from George Hay's 1974 anthology Stopwatch, and the very minor -- Priest has ruefully called it "excruciating" -- "Nothing Like the Sun" (1970 Vision of Tomorrow). This enlarged edition, calculated to infuriate completists who own the original Real-Time World, is scheduled for early 2009.

Ersatz Wines , a new collection of old stories, brings together Priest's apprentice work written from 1963 to 1968. Three of these were actually published in 1966 and 1967: "Impasse" in SF Impulse; "The Ersatz Wine" and "Conjugation" -- which in particular carries all the stigmata of determination to write a Moorcock New Worlds story -- in the Moorcock New Worlds. Nine more appear for the first time. The value of this book is indicated in its subtitle, on the cover though not the title page: "instructive short stories". A gratifyingly long (34 pages) autobiographical introduction explains Priest's background -- "This is a book about a writer's beginnings" -- some of his influences, and the motives for constructing these early efforts. Each story is followed by notes dated Then, giving a measure of contemporary context, and Now, with unsparing analysis of flaws and occasional grudging admission of improvements in technique. Instructive indeed. I wish I could have read these reflections when I myself was first flailing around in the attempt to shape words into fiction. The final piece, "The Interrogator", is the most familiar: this is the initial version of the tale which E.J. Carnell rejected but then bought for New Writings in SF after a rewrite that doubled its length; it subsequently became the opening of Priest's first novel Indoctrinaire (1970). One key item of Carnell's advice was to change the interrogator's name from Arstourd, "because it sounded like 'arse-turd.'" (It became Astourde.) Even if you prefer to skim the prentice fiction, the commentaries are fascinating and illuminating.

"It" Came from Outer Space is a collection of occasional nonfiction -- reviews, essays, introductions, autobiography, a few obituaries -- ranging from 1973 to 2008. Such assemblies of disparate material from a skilled writer are easy and enjoyable to read, harder to review. You feel the author is chatting in person about his interests and enthusiasms rather than declaiming from behind the various masks of fiction. After the usual introduction, the 56 pieces are gathered under eight headings which convey something of the flavour: "Fragments of a Life", "Lost friends and colleagues", "Things that come along", "An Enthusiasm for H.G. Wells", "Some science fiction", "Writings of War", "Books and Writers" and "Distractions and Occasions". There are surprises, entertainments, polemics, erudition, treats. The strangest, perhaps, is a Migraine News account of a seeming migraine hallucination experienced in and near Hungerford on the day of (and eerily related to) the 1987 spree shooting in that town, an experience which took Priest ten years to assimilate into his novel The Extremes (1998). I wanted this collection to be longer. "'It' Came from Outer Space", by the way, is the title of an included review-cum-manifesto (1981 Foundation) which -- at considerable length -- takes a dim view of Lester del Rey's The World of Science Fiction: 1926-1976.

GrimGrin's covers are chiefly eccentric photographs taken by the author/publisher himself. The shrouded figures (statues?) on The Magic are particularly teasing and enigmatic -- Priest was of course unable to use any still from the film which the book is about -- while an assessment of the extra stories in Real-Time World + 2 is suggested by an image of two huge spheres. Ersatz Wines is fronted by a detail from that very odd steel engraving The Pastor's Children by G.P. or maybe J.P. Hasenclever. Christopher Priest now feels he's used up his personal backlog of material, and is wondering what if anything GrimGrin will publish next.