Dunkirk : The Separation. Inverted World. The Adjacent.

The Separation. Inverted World. The Adjacent.

In The Separation, Christopher Priest related the story of two identical twin brothers, Joe and Jack Sawyer, and their different experiences during World War II. The story is set in three different time periods, the modern era, when author Stuart Gratton is considering a book about the twins, 1936, when the twins traveled to Berlin to compete in the Olympics, and during the war itself.

Researching the war between Britain and Nazi Germany, which ended in May 1941, historian Stuart Gratton becomes intrigued by the enigma of J. L. Sawyer, an obscure figure who played a key part in bringing the conflict to its conclusion. As he digs deeper, he discovers there were two J. L. Sawyers – identical twins Jack and Joe, one a bomber pilot and the other a conscientious objector – divided both by their love for the same woman and their attitudes towards the war. But as the brothers’ story emerges from books, letters, and diaries, the evidence does not all add up, and there may be an even wider separation between them – divergent realities, in which different possibilities and unexpected truths emerge, and nothing is quite what it seems.

Both a brilliant historical novel about World War II and one of the best works of alternate history ever written, Christopher Priest’s The Separation earned the Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA Awards and ranks among his finest achievements. Like his classics The Affirmation and The Prestige, it is an engrossing literary puzzle that will keep readers turning the pages until its startling conclusion.

After taking a bronze medal in the Olympics, the brothers leave Germany and help Birgit Sattmann, a young Jewish girl who has caught both men’s eyes, to escape from the Nazi régime. Initially told through the eyes of Jack (JL), the story seems reasonably straight forward as he tells of his own course of action, becoming an RAF flyer while Joe became a conscientious objector. Priest quickly introduces some questions about events, by mentioning that the war ended on May 10, 1941, but then continuing the story with the war continuing. Given JL’s own role, it seems that he wasn’t speaking of the war ending only for himself.

Nearly all the actual events which are covered during the course of the book are very ambiguous. Confronted with a plethora of contradictory facts, it quickly becomes apparent that Priest is playing with the tropes of alternate history to present a world in which the history is fractured. Different outcomes result in different world histories and Priest has the desire to follow several of them throughout the book. Joe’s death in one version is averted in another, Birgit’s marriage to Joe seems a constant, but the reader does begin to wonder if Jack’s comment that he is married to her is true in one of the myriad worlds Priest’s story touches.

Priest allows a couple of historical figures, notably Winston Churchill and Rudolf Hess to appear in the course of the novel. Rather than play up the traditional views of these figures, Priest presents them through the very different eyes of Jack and JL, with the result that Churchill is seen, for instance, by turns as a great statesman and a warmonger.

The Separation’s greatest strength is Priest’s ability to portray all his characters, and their motives and opinions, in a realistic manner. Jack is not shown as a peace-at-all-costs activist, although there is some of that, but rather as someone who, despite his understanding of the situation, remains somewhat naïve. JL is also shown as naïve, although about different things. In the RAF, he is doing his duty and servicing his country as best he can without worrying about the ethics which disturb his brother.

Throughout The Separation there is no consensual reality except what the reader brings to the novel. As the chapters pass, the situation changes for JL and Jack and the world(s) which they inhabit. The reader is forced to see events which seemed straightforward and understandable in a different light, whether during the World War or in the person of Stuart Gratton who is writing about the Sawyer brothers. However, given the constant switching of the world and the characters, it is difficult for the reader to build any sympathy for any given version of JL or Jack.
Priest believes in challenging his readers and The Separation does an excellent job in this function. The story he presents is riveting and the ideas which drive the story go beyond the reasonably simple dichotomy of good versus evil which afflicts so many alternative history novels. The characters are interesting, even if there is little to connect the reader to an ultimate version of any of them and as long as the reader can accept the unannounced reversals, Priest's treatment of them shouldn't cause a problem to the ability to enjoy the novel.

That imprint, which generally steers clear of genre fiction, should tip you off that this is not light fare. In fact, in several distinct categories–including the inventiveness and believability of its scientific premises, the relentlessness of its political subversion, and the depth of its narrator’s tragedy–it belongs in a category all its own. On top of this, the book is psychedelic in the extreme. In several places, the things taking place in its physical world opened doors in my imagination I had never known existed. The only books that comes anywhere close in that regard would be those of Philip K Dick at his trippiest–say, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But where Dick’s playful insights are conveyed in language at times sloppy, Priest is stately, sometimes even cold, and extremely precise about his craft. The tone and (at least superficially) the setting are similar to what you’d expect from a novel of high fantasy in which the whole world revolves around the hero’s quest.

Inverted World opens in the first person, with the initiation of young Helward Ward into the guild of Future Surveyors. From the first sentence, “I had reached the age of 650 miles,” readers are aware that something is deeply wrong about this world. We know it has something to do with the relationship between space and time, but beyond this we can only guess.

Slowly, Priest allows the details to leak. The guild arranges a marriage for Helward, but before he can visit his wife they take him outside the City of Earth for the first time. He’s stunned at the sight of the sun. He had always been taught that it was round, but it now appears differently, “a long, saucer-shape of light, spiked above and below with two perpendicular spires of incandescence.”

Helward has little time to meditate on this discovery, however, because he goes straight to his apprenticeship with the Track Guild. These men concern themselves with moving metal tracks out from behind the city and putting them back in front of it. Helward soon realizes that the city is always moving north, which the guildsmen call “up future,” and away from the south, which they call “down past,” trying to keep pace with a place they call the optimum. Every Guild plays a part in this endless struggle. The Traction guild winches the city forward along the tracks; the Barter Guild purchases labor and borrows women from the ignorant locals (the city’s women are mysteriously unable to bear female children); the Bridge Builders arrange passage across rivers and ravines; and the Future Surveyors venture up north so that the Navigators can plan the city’s route. They return from the future curiously aged.

Interestingly, the need to keep the city moving also distorts the relationships between people inside. Helward’s wife, Victoria, wants to know things about the outside world, but he has been sworn to secrecy. When he dodges her questions about the sun by saying merely that it’s “very bright,” she responds, “I’d like to find that out for myself.” Helward has never before thought about women’s exclusion from so many areas of life in the City of Earth. He begins to question the guild’s intentions.

It’s not just the relations between men and women that are soured by the demands of this moving city, either. The locals hate the city-dwellers, who live in relative luxury, pay them for their labor, borrow their women, and quickly move away. The residents of the city recognize the irony of claiming to be more civilized than the “tooks” while simultaneously treating them barbarously, but the Guildsmen’s eternal response is that “The city must keep moving.”

At this point, the stage seems set for Helward to find a way to release the city from its strange bondage. If things turned out that way, the book would fall predictably into the category of Hard SF, which John Clute, defines in an illuminating new afterword as “that kind of science-fiction tale in which a clearly defined protagonist (almost always male) leaves his endangered home on a great adventure, during the course of which he begins to understand the true nature of his world and, through a clearly defined, science-based cognitive breakthrough, comes to grips with the danger that threatens it.”

But what takes place is far wilder than any problem-solving plot line. When Helward’s guild sends him down past to escort some native women back to their local village, we finally learn why the city must keep moving. It’s the ground itself that’s always drifting south, he learns towards a place where the fabric of reality seems to come apart at the seams. Priest depicts this in a series of increasingly terrifying yet exhilarating scenes depicted in paradoxically calm language.

Helward returns to find that years have passed and many things have changed. The city’s population eventually splits over the question of whether it should keep sacrificing everything to keep moving or soldier on, and Helward’s role in this conflict is far from that of the liberating hero. But the book’s real genius is that neither group is quite right. The curious knot in time that prolongs their suffering is not an illusion, as the resistance claims. After all, we’ve seen through Helward’s eyes the bizarre fate that awaits there. But nor is it quite true, as the Guildsmen argue, that that knot has always been or that it must always be.

What makes Inverted World shine like no other book is that it illustrates so perfectly how human beings create the context for their own suffering, yet this explanation never dulls the agony of Helward’s predicament. And while Helward’s story is tragic, the underlying narrative is hopeful. We create the chains that bind us, so therefore it must be possible for us to cast them off. But if we could do this, help one another to do it, would we know what to do when we got free?

Helward certainly doesn’t. But his journey is a fascinating one, and anyone interested in fiction that explores the most radical reaches of the possible world would do well to pick up Inverted World.

In the near future, Tibor Tarent, a freelance photographer, is recalled from Anatolia to Britain when his wife, an aid worker, is killed—annihilated by a terrifying weapon that reduces its target to a triangular patch of scorched earth.

A century earlier, Tommy Trent, a stage magician, is sent to the Western Front on a secret mission to render British reconnaissance aircraft invisible to the enemy.

Present day. A theoretical physicist develops a new method of diverting matter, a discovery with devastating consequences that will resonate through time.

Epic Fail on the part of Dormouse7. Said the film wouldn't be adapted by any Priest novel. Can I offer a word of advice? PR isn't your calling dumbass.

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”
― Mark Twain