I am fond of islands. I might try to attribute this to salt water in my veins, dating back many generations on my father’s side. I might also attribute it to many happy days spent on Scilly. On the other hand, those very vacations allowed me to make friends with island people, and taught me that the reality of island life is far from the Edenic paradise that literature often presents. The glorious island summer can alternate with a ferocious island winter, the community is small and gossipy, and resources are forever problematic.
What I am probably fond of, therefore, is the idea of islands; the idea of being away from it all in a quiet little backwater with sunshine, beaches, the sounds of the sea, friendly and unthreatening wildlife, fresh fish, mangoes, no tabloid newspapers. Islands, we tend to feel, are places where time stops; or perhaps, like Talelorn, they exist outside of time, and anyone might turn up on the next boat.
That view of the timelessness of islands lies at the heart of Chris Priest’s latest book (I hesitate to call it a novel, for many would disagree with that description). It is set primarily in a place called the Dream Archipelago, a vast, mostly mid-tropical network of islands on another world where the northern continent is full of warring nations and the southern is a wasteland where the northerners fight their endless battles so as to avoid destroying their own lands in the process. The book purports to be a guide to the islands, but for the most part it is anything but.
When I started reading The Islanders I found it reminiscent of Jan Morris’s magnificent Hav, a delightful invocation of a very real place that might be in our world, but is actually entirely made up. Very soon, however, I was disabused of this notion. Firstly, Hav has a central character and a more or less linear plot. In contrast The Islanders distributes its few main characters surreptitiously throughout its sections in the manner of a parent hiding treasure hunt clues around the house and garden in preparation for a children’s party. As for the plot, it lies, twisting and mysterious, far beneath the surface of the narrative like one of Jordenn Yo’s legendary tunnels. You may only notice that it is there when the wind blows the right way across the island you are visiting and an eerie moan sounds in the back of your mind, reminding you spookily of something you think you read somewhere else; somewhen else.
Alex of Galactic Suburbia has written a review subtitled “Some advice on reading The Islanders”. That’s delightfully meta: a tourist guide to the reading of a book that purports to be a tourist guide. It is also essential, because this is a book that you have to work at. It is slow, the many short and seemingly unconnected sections discourage immersion, you have to concentrate. It isn’t quite as challenging as Gene Wolfe. I don’t think you need a notebook by your side to jot down anything that you think might be a clue, but you do need your wits about you. Consequently, this is a book that I suspect will get a lot of one-star reviews on Amazon.
It is also not a book to which you should bring a science fiction sensibility. That doesn’t mean that there are not SFnal ideas in it. The world on which The Islanders is set exhibits “temporal vortices” that allow high-flying aircraft to travel from one part of the world to almost any other in a very short time. There is also an island where a treatment that prevents aging has been developed, though expense and a general suspicion of the consequences of immortality prevent most people from taking it.
I don’t think that Priest intends us to take these things as serious scientific worldbuilding, any more that he expects us to take the bizarre politics and economics of the world at face value. There is an island called Foort which is basically a giant condominium. Priest says that it has a self-sustaining economy with virtually no imports or exports. This makes no sense to me. Condominium societies, especially if filled with primarily with the aged and service workers as this appears to be, are huge resource sinks. Ask Kevin about the nightmare that Florida is for trucking companies.
One of the oddest aspects of the book is the introduction. It is written by the famous novelist, Chaster Kammeston, and it is written in such a way to suggest that he has read the book. He is also one of the most prominent characters in the narrative. And as we read through the book, we learn that Kammeston is dead. Indeed, he died at least seven years before some of the events described in the book took place.
That’s the sort of thing that happens here. After all, this place isn’t called the Dream Archipelago for nothing. Perhaps I should leave the final words to Kammeston himself.
None of it is real, though, because reality lies in a different, more evanescent realm. These are only the names of some of the places in the archipelago of dreams. The true reality is the one you perceive around you, or that which you are fortunate enough to imagine for yourself.
Then again, unlike a dream, The Islanders has physical reality. Consequently, having come to the end, you might find yourself wanting to start again immediately from the beginning to find all of the concealed clues and cunning conceits that you must have missed the first time through. If you can read to the end (and many people won’t) then there is a good chance that you will have exactly this reaction to the book. I know I did.
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