Sometime in the mid-1970s there was a change in Christopher Priest's writing. It was signalled by a pair of short stories, "An Infinite Summer" (1976) and "Palely Loitering" (1979), atmospheric tales whose emphasis on psychology and strangeness was a move away from the overtly science fictional pieces that had preceded them. His novel of that period, A Dream of Wessex
(1977), in retrospect, can be seen as a harbinger of the themes and manners of his later work. But it was the stories set in the Dream Archipelago that really trumpeted the fact that here was something disturbing, challenging and new. There were only five stories, the first appearing in 1978, the last in 1980, but they must loom large in any appreciation of Priest's subsequent writing.
The Dream Archipelago stories are set in a world in which the large continent in the north is home to sophisticated nations whose technology and culture are roughly on a par with our own. The two largest of these nations are engaged in a seemingly endless war, which is fought out in the barren and largely uninhabited southern continent. The sea between the two continents is dotted with a string of islands so profuse that there is no island from which it is impossible to see several others. The islands of the Dream Archipelago have maintained a strict neutrality, though the terms differ from island to island. Some allow no outsiders to land, others allow no outsiders to leave once they have landed, still others allow troopships to visit for the purposes of rest and recreation. There are many whores in the Dream Archipelago.
Overtly based on the Greek islands, just becoming a popular but still exotic package holiday destination at the time the stories were being written, the islands of the Dream Archipelago are presented as warm and alluring. But for the visitors we follow in four of the five original stories (in "The Negation" (1978), the Dream Archipelago is an aspiration that is never achieved), it is a place where sexual dreams become nightmares, where the desirable becomes a trap, and where perverse psycho-sexual dramas are played out to a generally fatal conclusion. The Dream Archipelago sequence reached its climax with The Affirmation
(1981), which revealed our world to be a psychotic echo of the Dream Archipelago, and vice versa, a self-deluding mobius strip of realities which drained the setting of all further figurative and psychological value. After that stunning tour de force of a novel, it seemed, there was nothing more that could possibly be said about the Dream Archipelago.
Then, in 1999, twenty years after his first visit to the islands, Priest gathered the Dream Archipelago stories (all revised to some extent) into one volume, with a linking thread of narrative. The enterprise clearly reawakened the narrative energy that the setting had once provided, and he followed the collection with a new Dream Archipelago story, "The Discharge." With such a genesis there is one inevitable question: has the Dream Archipelago emerged intact from its twenty-year hiatus? To which the answer has to be: yes. The sheer nastiness of the fate that awaited visitors--the islands can feel like a sort of Venus fly trap, tempting their victims in to a sweet and sticky end--is no more. Indeed the story ends, if not with a note of redemption, then at least with a sense of continuity, of survival, possibly even of some sort of achievement. But if that is different, the casual cruelty of the islands along the way is the same as ever, and the perverse, unsettling, psycho-sexual overtones remain dark and foreboding.
"The Discharge"--as in so many of Priest's fictions, the title is a simple declarative that yet hides a dizzying multiplicity of interpretations: electrical discharge, military discharge, ejaculation, pus, among others--is a story of lost identity, of the uncertainty of our place within the world. One of the things that the Dream Archipelago allowed was the displacement of the individual, the cutting loose from context. When, in The Affirmation
, that displacement became possible within our contemporary reality, it opened up the road that Priest's fictions have followed ever since. As our unnamed narrator "emerge(s) into my memories" in the very first line of the story, it places him immediately in the company of Peter Sinclair in The Affirmation
, Richard Grey in The Glamour
(1984, revised 1996), and J.L. Sawyer in The Separation
(2002), all characters whose memory is unreliable, hence weakening their grip on who they are.
Our narrator is, we discover, a new recruit in a northern army marching down to the troopship that will take him away to the battlefields of the southern continent. But as the troopship carries him past the mysterious islands of the Dream Archipelago, the litany of their names found on an illicit map (maps have been a recurring feature of Priest's work since at least the one found in Inverted World
(1974)) reawakens something in our narrator's fragmented memory. It seems he was an artist, or at least had an interest in art, or at least in the works of one particular painter, Rascar Acizzone, from the Dream Archipelago island of Muriseay. Acizzone was a leading exponent of an art style known as "tactilism," which employed a new technology, "ultrasound microcircuity." Like the scintilla in "The Watched" (1978), this new technology is used within the Dream Archipelago to lay bare the sexual self and then entrap the user within that sexuality. In this instance, Acizzone's paintings are layerings of colour that more than anything seem to resemble the work of Rothko, but when anyone touches the paintings the ultrasound reveals a representation of their deepest sexual imagining. Over time, we discover later in the story, the ultrasound can also destroy one's memory, which probably explains what happened to our narrator (and almost certainly explains why Acizzone's paintings have now fallen out of fashion and are all but forgotten).
Then the troops are given shore time in Muriseay. The narrator goes in search of Acizzone (and, implicitly, his own memory), but without success, and in the end finds himself drawn to a nightclub already crowded with soldiers. He is targeted by the whores in the club and led away into a dark labyrinth of rooms and corridors where, inexplicably, he finds himself witness to sexual tableaux which recreate two of the most charged images he had found in Acizzone's paintings. Then, abruptly, he escapes and returns to the troopship which takes him on to the war zone. During the years he spends in the army in the freezing wastelands of the southern continent, he experiences an almost constant diet of fear and boredom, but no actual fighting. The war itself seems to be always somewhere else. But as the three-thousandth anniversary of the start of the war approaches, the troops become convinced that a major push is about to happen. On the eve of the campaign, the narrator deserts. By giving over all his accumulated army pay, he persuades a group of whores to smuggle him across to the Dream Archipelago, only to discover he is just one of a very large number making the same journey.
Since the Dream Archipelago is so clearly identified with sex, at its most alluring and its most threatening, it is inevitable that it is a network of whores who provide his safe refuge on island after island as he makes his way across the Dream Archipelago. He discovers, or rediscovers, an artistic talent of his own, and funds his journey by painting for tourists along the way. His destination, inevitably, is Muriseay, where he starts to experiment with ultrasound. Eventually he produces a series of pictures whose hidden sexual imagery is overlaid with images drawn from the fear and isolation he experienced in the army. To store his pictures he rents an abandoned building which contains a curious labyrinth of corridors and rooms, and which is surely the same night club where he experienced the strange sexual visions on his journey to the war. Then military policemen catch up with him at the store house. They are here to give him his discharge--a euphemism for beating him up and perhaps killing him--but though injured, the narrator escapes because the policemen accidentally touch the paintings, and the images they contain prove too powerful for them. A fire starts, caused by the use of their electric batons against the paintings; but even if they were not killed in the fire we might safely assume that they had been destroyed by the images in the pictures.
And our narrator flees to another island, to face more mysteries of the Dream Archipelago. For once, the islands have not killed the one caught in their sexual trap, but for all that they remain as potent and disturbing as ever. "The Discharge" is a measure of how far Priest has come in the last quarter century. The evocation of islands with a beautiful surface but which are considerably less beautiful underneath, is perhaps more subtle. These are real, working places, as contradictory as anywhere else we might visit. But what is really interesting is how the familiar setting proves so adept at staging a story of fragmentary identity, uncertainty of self, the sort of theme that has become more and more central in novels such as The Prestige
(1996), The Extremes
(1998) and The Separation
(2002). In the early stories the exotic landscape of the Dream Archipelago was a place where the sexual imaginings of the characters could be made visible and then turned against them. In "The Discharge" these same sexual imaginings serve a more subtle purpose, not to establish an identity--the narrator remains as unknown and unknowable at the end of the story as he is at the beginning, even to himself--but to make a damaged personality whole enough to survive. It is more positive than we are used to in the Dream Archipelago, but it forms a fascinating development in the way Priest is exploring how our sense of identity shapes our understanding of and our engagement with the world about us.Link to story.