‘The US au­thor­i­ties can’t ad­mit what they’ve done and 9/11 gets big­ger’

Sci­ence fiction writer Christo­pher Priest on his lat­est un­set­tling novel ex­plor­ing false be­liefs and mem­o­ries

The Herald Magazine - - Arts BOOKS - MARK SMITH

IT IS some time in the fu­ture. Scotland has uni­lat­er­ally de­clared in­de­pen­dence from the rest of the UK. A jour­nal­ist who lives on Bute is cross­ing the Bor­der into Eng­land, but it isn’t easy. There are ex­tra se­cu­rity checks: reti­nal scans and res­i­dency per­mits. He also finds, once he gets there, that the Eng­land he knew has changed: many of the shops are boarded up, some of the houses have high se­cu­rity fences and the au­thor­i­ties are prowl­ing around Lon­don look­ing for il­le­gal im­mi­grants. “I had the un­easy sen­sa­tion that I no longer spoke the lan­guage,” says the jour­nal­ist, “as if I was abroad.”

In some ways, this is clas­sic Christo­pher Priest. Bri­tain’s pre-eminent writer of lit­er­ary sci­ence fiction is ex­pert at tak­ing the present and giv­ing it a dark fu­ture twist, but there’s also some­thing more to it this time, some­thing more per­sonal. The jour­nal­ist who crosses the Bor­der from a fu­ture Scotland to a fu­ture Eng­land is Ben Mat­son, the central char­ac­ter in Priest’s new novel An Amer­i­can Story. How­ever, at least some of Ben’s story comes from what’s hap­pen­ing now, from the dark and twisted present, from Priest’s own ex­pe­ri­ences.

He tells me about a taxi trip he took a while ago in Devon, where he used to live. “We were in Devon, which is ru­ral and peace­ful and all of that,” he says, “but I was in a taxi be­ing driven by a Lithua­nian guy and I asked him, ‘Do you ever get ha­rassed?’ and he said, ‘Ev­ery day,’ and I said, ‘What? in Devon?’ Peo­ple also had UKIP flags and I thought I don’t like this. Some­thing hor­ri­ble is go­ing on, and af­ter Brexit I said it’s time, let’s move. I don’t want to be in Eng­land any­more.”

And so Priest and his part­ner Nina Al­lan, also a writer of sci­ence fiction, got in their car and drove to Scotland look­ing for some­where to live, stop­ping at Dum­fries and Kirkcud­bright and Kelso be­fore set­tling on Bute. They now live in a house that was once a doc­tor’s surgery and rem­nants of those days re­main: above the door to what is now Priest’s library and of­fice is a sign in big let­ters that reads: “wait­ing room”. I sug­gest jok­ingly that maybe he could set up here as a con­sult­ing nov­el­ist and give ad­vice to young writers. “I’d ad­vise them not to start,” he says.

He’s jok­ing re­ally. Priest, who is 75, has had a long and suc­cess­ful ca­reer as the cre­ator of great sci­ence fiction nov­els, in­clud­ing his most fa­mous The Pres­tige – it’s just that his ca­reer as a nov­el­ist has been a lit­tle on his mind of late, be­cause the day we meet, Au­gust 28, marks the 50th an­niver­sary, to the day, of him be­com­ing a full-time writer. Un­til Au­gust 28, 1968, he was work­ing in ac­coun­tancy, but he gave it up to write fiction. What made him do it, I ask. “Two words: you’re fired.”

At first, it was dif­fi­cult – he only had about 50 quid in the bank – but by the early 1970s Priest had emerged as one of the most ex­cit­ing prac­ti­tion­ers of the Bri­tish novel of ideas. It was prob­a­bly, look­ing back, a bit of a hey­day for sci­ence fiction, al­though Priest says it didn’t feel like it at the time. He also says the prob­lem now is there’s just too much sci­ence fiction and most of it is ter­ri­ble or triv­ial – none of which helps what he sees as the con­stant prob­lem of read­ers, lit­er­ary ed­i­tors or crit­ics dis­miss­ing sci­ence fiction. “Peo­ple have a s*** de­tec­tor,” he says. “Ooh, that smells of sci­ence fiction.”

Ob­vi­ously Priest is op­er­at­ing at the other end of the scale with se­ri­ous nov­els that of­ten ex­plore how il­lu­sions can feel like re­al­ity, and An Amer­i­can Story is a fine ex­am­ple. The premise is that the jour­nal­ist, Ben, is still try­ing to deal with the fact he lost his girl­friend in the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, or at least he thinks he did, as her body was never found. Twenty years on, an uniden­ti­fied plane is re­cov­ered from the sea and it is ap­par­ently the same plane that crashed into the Pen­tagon – the plane that Ben’s girl­friend was on. So how is that pos­si­ble? What hap­pened? Did the plane crash into the Pen­tagon? Did his girl­friend re­ally die?

Sit­ting in his of­fice talk­ing about the novel, sur­rounded by some of the books on 9/11 he used for re­search, Priest is aware that he is sail­ing into dif­fi­cult ter­ri­tory here. Was he cautious about tack­ling 9/11 in case peo­ple saw him as one of those con­spir­acy nuts who spread their the­o­ries on so­cial me­dia? “I don’t do so­cial me­dia for that rea­son,” he says. “What we’ve done with so­cial me­dia is we’ve given every­one an equal right to be heard and most of those voices aren’t worth hearing. Facts have been re­placed by wacky opin­ions.”

An Amer­i­can Story is dif­fer­ent: it’s a plat­form for ex­plor­ing se­ri­ous ideas about 9/11 and the way we ex­pe­ri­enced it and re­mem­ber it, some of which touch on Priest’s favourite themes: how our per­cep­tion of a sit­u­a­tion can be wrong, how mem­ory can be false or how we can build a whole pyra­mid of facts based on our prej­u­dices. All of this ap­plies to 9/11 big-time, be­lieves Priest.

The ideas around the plane that was crashed into the Pen­tagon, af­ter ter­ror­ists stormed the cock­pit, are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing. “The weird­est thing for me,” says Priest, “was the flight data recorder of the plane – this is in the book. It fol­lows what the flight did and the data comes on a spread­sheet. It’s got about 4,000

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