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An American Story (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

I’m cheating a tad by reviewing An American Story here, as it’s not really science fiction - but Christopher Priest is one of our leading SF authors, and there are elements of science and mathematics in what is principally a straight novel exploring the impact of 9/11 on relatives of those who were killed, riffing on the experience of loss and the nature of memory.

To do this, Priest makes uses of a mathematician who seems to be involved in a project that draws a parallel between a mathematical conjecture and a psychohistory-like concept where reality is forged from perception. I say ‘seems to’ as almost everything that happens in the book has a dream-like uncertainty. For example, the main character’s mother-in-law claims to have been in a car with his former girlfriend years after she was killed on American Airlines Flight 77.

I usually find books that jump backwards and forward in the timeline really irritating, and Priest does this a huge amount, but given the nature of the topic, the effect just added to the sense of mystery and connections that may or may not be true - although done differently, I was reminded of the way Alan Garner plays around with time in his masterful novel The Owl Service.

This was, then, a fascinating novel, and very readable too for a book that surely could be considered literary fiction. However, I also found aspects of it irritating and disturbing. This started with the probably unintentionally hilarious fantasy that after Brexit, Scotland would benefit financially from coming out of the union, losing its subsidy from England, and would magically get straight back in the EU and be able to pass the economic tests to join the euro.

I also was a little disappointed by the most science-related bits. The main character is a freelance science writer - but he simply didn’t ring true. As a science writer myself, I’ve never come across a real one who like the fictional Ben had no specialisation or apparent expertise. This particularly came through when he interviewed a mathematician, who also spoke totally unlike any mathematician I’ve ever come across, more like a liberal arts lecturer than a mathematician - all indirect and waffly with none of the precision you’d expect. 

The sense of unease came to a head when it became clear that Priest was basing his story on 9/11 conspiracy theories, making the 9/11 event an act of the US government as an excuse for war, and naively blaming every negative thing that has happened since on it. If this had been pure fiction without a basis in real life, it wouldn’t have mattered, but when there are so many real families who suffered as a result, it’s distinctly creepy to impose this on them. In an author’s note at the end, Priest claims to find the conspiracy theories plausible, though he does also seem to acknowledge that they have been comprehensively debunked (I’d recommend reading the book 9/11 Myths, based on the article Priest mentions), which makes me wonder whether the line is more political than down to actual belief.

Despite my concerns, I think this is a really interesting novel and one I would recommend reading, not because I think the conspiracy theories are right, but rather because it does what all good novels do and makes the reader think - even if the resultant thoughts are very different from those that I suspect Priest intended.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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