As far back as his 1973 breakthrough novel, the Hugo-nominated Inverted World, Christopher Priest has specialized in intricate, speculative-fiction mysteries. Even 1996's The Prestige — his most accessible work, and the source of the Christopher Nolan film of the same name — was a study in dizzying puzzle-craft.
With his latest book The Adjacent (published in the U.K. in 2013 and finally getting a stateside release), Priest has once again gone elaborate. He's also gone off the deep end — that is, a deeper end than he ever has before. Not only does he weave together multiple storylines that span millennia, he's added parallel universes to the equation — some of which echo back to his previous novels, ones that never seemed meant to do anything but stand alone. Priest has always worked on a large scale, but his canvas has never been more sprawling.
Interconnectedness is The Adjacent's salvation. Early on, the book establishes three distinct storylines: one set in a grim future fraught with climate-change catastrophes, one set in World War I, and one set in World War II. The three protagonists have similarity names — Trent, Tarent, and Torrance — and at first that similarity is left maddeningly unexplained. As the clues trickle in, it becomes more maddening still. Amid Priest's haunting mediations on the philosophy of weapons, war, hope, love, and loss, he draws together the threads of his plot until they eerily align. It shouldn't make sense. It can't make sense.
But Priest makes sense of it, exquisitely. A single symbolic motif, the triangle, not only casts meaning on the book's title, it holds together a volatile structure that threatens to splinter at every turn, and Priest controls it all with the cold hand of a rogue bomb-disposal tech defusing his own IED. When The Adjacent finally explodes into a head-spinning blast of blurred reality, Priest contains the fallout — then he orchestrates it all a stunning denouement, one that readers accustomed to his unforeseen-yet-inevitable twists might not even be prepared for.
In his grand symphony of strangeness, Priest hits a few off notes. His crisp, pinpoint prose sometimes verges on the antiseptic. The way the characters are emotionally removed from each other — and from themselves — may be exquisitely chilly, but it also undermines the powerful love story at the heart of the book. Everyone observes their own reactions from a distance, even as the actual distance between them grows from continents to centuries to dimensions.
Curiously, one of The Adjacent's most compelling characters is a real person. H. G. Wells' appearance as a walk-in character during one of the chapters set in World War I — which calls to mind Nikola Tesla's pop-up in The Prestige — adds a dash of much-needed color, but it also feels forced and gratuitous. It helps to remember that Priest's 1976 sci-fi novel The Space Machine was a loving tribute to Wells, one of his sci-fi heroes, and was even dedicated to him. If only Priest seemed half as invested in the cast he created himself.
What The Adjacent handles more graciously is its connection to Priest's own body of work. In particular, his 2011 novel The Islanders, and to a lesser extent the book he's best known for, The Prestige, are either mirrored or referenced outright. But The Adjacent is in no way a sequel. Nor is it obnoxiously meta, although it gets close when Priest, steering the story toward its most experimental stretch, reveals that in one of the book's imagined societies "experimental [art] is not encouraged." It's not necessary to have read Priest's prior work to fully appreciate The Adjacent, but it certainly doesn't hurt. The hunt for Easter eggs even acts a fun distraction when Trent, Tarent, and Torrance are ultimately forced to confront their identities — and the multifaceted nature of reality itself — in a frightening new light.
The idea of a multiverse isn't a new one, but it's been gaining more attention lately thanks to the recent discovery of gravitational waves that may have been caused by the Big Bang. Priest couldn't have predicted this development when he wrote The Adjacent, but the synchronicity drives home a point about the state of speculative fiction today. As a writer who has always navigated the gap between the realms of literature and genre, he infusesThe Adjacent with both a tender, subtle quietand sinister sci-fi technology. There is even, of all things, a mad scientist.
But there's also magic, or at least artful misdirection, just like in The Prestige. "Sometimes the most impressive illusions are based on tricks or procedures that are so elementary that the audience would not believe what had in reality taken place," reflects The Adjacent's Tommy Trent, a stage magician commissioned by the British military in World War I to make its fighter planes undetectable by the enemy — not camouflaged, but truly invisible. In much the same way, Priest hides the answers to his metaphysical mysteries just up his sleeve, waiting for the most jaw-dropping time to spring them.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club.