Skip to main content

The Gradual (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

Christopher Priest may not be a prolific writer, but he was writing when I first got interested in science fiction, and he's still producing remarkable novels - most recently The Gradual. It's a remarkable book - mysterious, intriguing and with a main character who really takes the reader along on his sometimes dream-like experience.

But for one problem, it would have a solid five stars - and that's that it shouldn't really be here at all, because it's not science fiction, it's fantasy. (Unless you take the old definition that 'science fiction is what science fiction authors write.') I need to note a few specifics to explain why, but I'll try not to make them spoilers.

What makes it fantasy? Firstly it's set on a world that clearly isn't Earth, yet absolutely everything about the culture and environment (other than the fantasy elements we'll come to) is exactly like Earth, from the alcoholic drinks to the musical instruments and gramophone records. That's a relatively minor aspect. But then we've got a world where traveling from island to island causes shifts in time - you could just about set up an SF explanation for this, but it is not attempted. And most of all, these time shifts are countered by what can only be described as magic.

If we get over the book sneaking in here under false pretences, though, it is marvellous. It's not a book to read if you like everything set out just so from the beginning. Like the great Gene Wolfe, Priest enjoys leaving us confused about what's going on, only gradually revealing what's happening near the end. (Frustratingly so, to an extent, as the main character really doesn't try very hard to get an explanation, other than from people whose job it is not to give it.)

The best parts are those involving the nastiness of living in a dictatorship and anything connected to music. Throughout the book, music is a powerful theme - Priest really puts us in the head of a true musician and it's a wonderful experience.

Just occasionally there seem to be logical gaps. For example, the main character is advised that just moving around on a particular island will cause him big problems - yet everyone else, who should have the same problems, seems to do so just fine. And some of the supporting characters, particularly the female ones, could do with a bit of rounding out. But this doesn't stop this being a remarkable piece of writing.

In the past, I've found that it has been hard work to read some of Priest's novels (Inverted World springs to mind) - and the outcome sometimes didn't reward the effort. The Gradual reads like a dream (both metaphorically and literally in places) - it's excellent just as a highly approachable novel, but is also inspiring. Probably the best book by Priest I've ever read.


Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…