Priest has been writing about his imaginary Dream Archipelago, a world of varied, unmappable islands in an endless sea, since the 1970s. Back then the archipelago tended to feature in short stories, and the islands themselves had a sunny-skies, blue-seas Mediterranean flavour. After a time writing novels set in our world, including The Prestige, which was well filmed by Christopher Nolan, Priest has returned to his islands with 2012’s The Islanders and 2013’s The Adjacent. And now The Gradual, in which the islands have a greyer, more northern vibe to them. The Gradual is a time travel story, but one unlike any other I have read. Most examples of time-travel science fiction embody a simple formal pattern, most commonly a loop or circle shape, occasionally a branching-tree structure. The Gradual carefully constructs a much more filigree, intricate structure to embody its temporal slippage, and it is very much to Priest’s credit as a writer that this always feels coherent. It is expressive of the way the complications of time are full of curlicues and baroque folds as well as larger branches and trunks: the way time fractalises at the same time as it sweeps us along its strong currents. The result is amazing, haunting, eloquently baffling and clever.
Christopher Priest returns to the Dream Archipelago with his latest novel, the moving, imaginative and ultimately rather inspiring The Gradual. It follows the life of Alesandro Sussken, a native of the fascist state of the Glaund Republic, which has been at war for as long as anyone can remember. As a young man, the islands he can see from his window but is forbidden from visiting obsess him, and inspire him to turn his feelings into music.
With his fame spreading beyond his home state, Sandro agrees to take part in a musical tour of the islands of the Dream Archipelago. However, his journey to these incredible new places will have an lasting effect on his life, and will jolt him out of his (relatively) comfortable existence. The closer Sandro gets to his destination, the closer he gets to achieving inner peace, building towards an affecting finale. Priest’s writing is so engaging and persuasive that you’re quickly swept into this world of uncertain hours and buried voices, and it’s a journey that we can recommend taking.
In the three and a half decades in which Christopher Priest has been inviting us along to his colorful but shifty Dream Archipelago – including an extensive if inconclusive gazetteer with The Islanders in 2011 – he has mostly confined his viewpoints to those of the archipelago’s inhabitants. With The Gradual – which is a far more linear narrative than we had with The Islanders – we get to see what life is like in one of those bellicose societies on the continents, a gloomy dystopia called Glaund, that reads like a thoroughly unpleasant amalgam of North Korea and Orwell’s Airstrip One. But Priest’s focus on art and artists is more detailed than ever: his protagonist is a brilliant composer named Alesandro Sussken, who tells us that music and bombing “were the two main events of my childhood”, because of the constant hazard of the recurrent air raids on his coastal hometown of Errest. Sussken narrates his life in the straightforward manner of a Künstlerroman – this is the most formally traditional novel we’ve seen from Priest since The Extremes. In effect, what Priest has done – and he did much the same thing in The Islanders – is to literalize not just a metaphor, but to literalize an entire narrative technique involving the management of time. Even mainstream authors have all sorts of ways of shifting the reader back and forth in time, revealing characters from different perspectives and at different points in their histories, but Priest literally puts his narrator through such time shifts, and the effect is both dizzying and firmly grounded, even as it leads toward a conclusion which is, if a bit more conventional than we’ve come to expect from Priest, thoroughly satisfying.
[Gary K. Wolfe]
The Gradual is a dreamlike diatribe on the source of song and scene and story and so on, arranged, somewhat like a literary symphony, around one man’s lifelong journey through the tides of time. By design, I dare say, The Gradual is more like a dream than reality. It ebbs and flows, speeds along and then suddenly slows. Things that can’t happen happen – like the ten years Alesandro loses during the ten month tour that is the pivot-point of this novel – and that’s that. Conflated characters float in and out of focus, talk in tongues and act as if everything they’ve said makes perfect sense … then, before you could possibly have cottoned on to what’s going on, it’s gone, and the dream’s moved on. You’ll come out of the singular experience of reading The Gradual with more questions than you went in with—but read it you should, to be sure, because like a dream, baffling though it may be, it really could renew you. Intellectually, yes – the extraordinary ideas The Gradual explores are, as ever, brilliantly belied by the plainness of Priest’s prose – but also intimately. Like the gradual itself – “a kind of endless, inexplicable madness” that has something to do with the tempestuous relationship between time and space in this place – Priest’s latest take on the Dream Archipelago is “difficult to understand rationally [and] impossible to comprehend emotionally,” but if you simply let it sit, you might just get a glimpse of it, and a glimpse is more than most artists are able to share. The Gradual is a great many things – exhilarating, frustrating, hypnotic, semiotic – but above all else, it’s an inspiring novel about inspiration.
The veneer of the fantastic that is applied to this haunting, lingering novel is largely in the location: the Dream Archipelago, a collection of disparate islands in which Priest has been setting much of his work for four decades, especially his acclaimed recent novels The Adjacent and, before that, The Islanders. The Dream Archipelago is shifting and unknowable, inexplicable and unmappable. Classic fantasy fodder for sure, but in The Gradual Priest deals with universal themes which will be instantly appreciated by humans in any world. The writing is beautiful and like the Dream Archipelago itself, The Gradual is a thing of wonder, not always possible to comprehend or understand at first glance, but ultimately rewarding to those who devote their minds, their hearts and, yes, their time to exploring its abstract territories.
The Speculator (Barnes & Noble Review)
Perhaps the most archetypical sequence in Priest’s oeuvre is The Dream Archipelago. The short story collection that bears that title is accompanied by novels The Affirmation and The Islanders. Christopher Priest’s newest book, The Gradual, is the latest installment in his Baedeker of Oneiric Atolls and extends the effects and remit of the sequence admirably, while standing utterly and satisfyingly self-contained. Priest’s masterful prose is very sensual and concrete. The reader receives vivid and nigh-tangible impressions of the houses and streets, exteriors and interiors. This same vibrant specificity will apply when Sandro gets to his longed-for islands as well. In contrast, they will be all lush jungles, glaringly white buildings and oceanside promenades. Organically suspenseful in the manner of real life and not a contrived thriller, with feet planted in the gutter of daily living and head soaring into the empyrean, this book stands comparison to anything by David Mitchell or Mark Helprin or George Saunders. It begs to be filmed by Terry Gilliam or David Lynch or Michel Gondry. And it justifies and ennobles all the high ambitions of the New Wave of science fiction, whose banner Christopher Priest had unfailingly flown, through all of his imagination’s manipulation of space and time.
[Paul di Filippo]
A meditation on political totalitarianism and the unearthly power of music, The Gradual is a remarkable book. Christopher Priest’s peculiar genius here is to create a landscape and a world as remote and hyper-real as islands appearing in mist, the literary equivalent of a painting by Magritte.
Christopher Priest is Britain’s premiere novelist of ideas and is, in my opinion, the most important writer of stature to come out of this country since J. G. Ballard. The Gradual is the latest in the long anti-series CP has been publishing intermittently since the late seventies – The Dream Archipelago. Comprised of short stories and novels (and in some cases parts of his novels that intrude into narratives that appear unrelated otherwise to the sequence), this series is more of a state of mind, being non-linear, anti-chronology, anti-cartographic. In this sense, these stories and novels more resemble the work of Borges, Malaparte or Calvino than the world-building tediousness of the lesser genre authors. Priest’s series is about sleight of hand, discomfort, disorientation and also bliss, as despite the dark moments, they are amongst the most entertaining and moving stories I’ve read. You could read The Gradual as your first foray into the Archipelago, or, if you’re already a CP reader, your latest. It’s a book about travel – both through places, time, relationships and the development of one man’s art – and it’s a book about enjoying the journey as much as arriving. I’m not going to discuss the plot here, offer spoilers, analyse what it means, instead I’m going to simply say that this is a book of wonders that will thrill and entertain you, just hinting that maybe in this work, we’re seeing a lighter side to the great man’s work.
The Gradual is a book that will baffle you at times, but it will bear you off on a trip like no other. If you want everything cleared up and explained to you in life and art, read someone else. In the world of Priest, the legerdemain is part of the pleasure, as is the irresolution. But perhaps, this time, The Gradual is a story that resolves itself, or does it? You decide.
Once again, further proof that CP remains our finest living novelist of ideas. Sheer entertainment and wonder for the thoughtful reader. Just ensure you retain your stave once on board …
[Christopher Priest] touched on the differences between objective and subjective time in Inverted World (1974) and most of his work involves meditations on separation, duality, identity and illusion. In The Gradual, time is the ultimate determinant of these factors. With great subtlety, Priest explores the ways in which time escapes us, encompasses us, and how our perception of it shapes who we are. This is not a time-travel story that relies on the conventional paradoxes of the form, but one which examines the way our experience depends on time, and the mysteries of how that happens in both solid, practical realities and the entirely abstract, impressionistic — and possibly deceptive — world of the imagination.
The extraordinary achievement of this excellent novel is that none of this ever feels laboured or forced. Its hypnotic quality is not quite that of a dream, but rather of the strange connections of memory, the ways in which time seems to slip away, accelerate or stand still, the ways in which recollected moments from years ago acquire new and mysterious importance, and how distance and separation are imposed or annihilated by our understanding of time.
The Gradual is a resounding success. In it, Priest, who has always been an interesting and exceptional writer, is operating at the very top of his form. Find the time to read it.
[Andrew McKie, The Spectator]
Variation originale et unique sur le thème du voyage temporel, roman d’apprentissage, réflexion sur l’art, la guerre, le voyage et la fraternité, L’Inclinaison est un roman musical et poétique, onirique et politique.
A l’instar de L’Invention de Morel de l’Argentin Casares, la force évocatrice de l’île dans l’imaginaire collectif (que ce soit dans à la série Lost ou le jeu vidéo Myst) est telle que le lecteur se laisse docilement porter d’un endroit à l’autre avec la ferme intention de perdre inconsciemment tous ses repères.
Roman d’initiation 3.0, ode à l’inspiration artistique, réflexion sur la famille et la vie, il déploie formellement des dispositifs chers à Philip K. Dick, mais sous un aspect autrement plus poétique, ne laissant au lecteur que la possibilité de jouer encore et toujours à cet envoûtant jeu de piste impressionniste.
La distorsion du temps est en effet l’un des thèmes fétiches de cet auteur majeur du genre, dont les théories philosophico-poétiques ont été vulgarisées par le cinéaste Christopher Nolan. Loin d’une littérature d’anticipation dopée à l’action, L’Inclinaison fascine par son ton contemplatif, l’originalité de son univers techno-borgésien et sa théorie selon laquelle les lois du métronome sont parfois très subjective.
Times Literary Supplement
The Gradual itself seems like the record of a deep struggle between rationalism and the imagination, given metaphorical form in the struggle between the bureaucracy of travel and travel’s freedoms; between the glum order of Glaund and the highly coloured, ever changing dream of the islands; between Alessandro’s initial sense that his life is prewritten and his discovery that the sheer-forces acting between objective and subjective, social and private, allow him to write his music, live his life, for himself.
[M. John Harrison]