He brought us The Prestige and The Separation — but Christopher Priest isn't done beguiling us. Priest's new novel The Adjacent includes stage magicians, weird physics, near-future super-weapons and tons more. And we've got an exclusive preview chapter!
The Adjacent comes out April 8 in the United States from Titan Books, and here's the synopsis:
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.
And here's a chapter from the book:
The train was moving when I awoke, but it must have been travelling slowly because there was hardly any noise from the wheels and the only rocking motion was gentle. Sunlight poured in from a small window in the opposite wall. My companion Bert had moved his chair across to it and was staring out.
A railway official had joined us – le chef de train. He wore a dark jacket and cap and was sitting on a stool in a corner at the back of the compartment. He took no notice of either of us and was also staring out of the train through a small window beside him. I was impressed by his full but drooping moustache. As he noticed me rousing he acknowledged me with a raised hand.
'Bonjour!' I said.
That exchange more or less exhausted my knowledge of the French language so without wishing to seem unfriendly I nodded to him in a companionable way, stood up, straightened my clothes and went across to where Bert was sitting. He greeted me with his customary informal friendliness, told me the lance-corporal had been in earlier and that there was a promise of food to come. He also pointed out a cubicle in the corner of the van where, he said, the usual offices would be found.
The physical relief that immediately followed was only marginally spoiled by the primitive arrangements: for a toilet there was a circular hole in the floor above the track sleepers, which I could see moving slowly beneath the train, the low morning sunlight angling across them. There was however a cold-water tap over a crude basin, so I was glad to wash my face and hands, even without a towel.
As I returned to our cage, shaking the drops from my hands, the lance-corporal appeared at a narrow door that connected with the next carriage, presumably across the open couplings.
'Morning, sirs!' he said politely. 'Captain Wells, Lieutenant Trent, sir!' He saluted. 'I thought you'd like some good old British bully to help you through the day. No expense spared by His Majesty.' He was carrying a couple of opened cans of the beef, wrapped in a cloth, and laid them out for us. 'We'll be making a halt later, to give the lads a break. So there will be a mug of tea for you with everyone, and some hot food. A tot of rum too, no doubt, seeing as you're a naval gentleman, sir.'
I was glad to be offered something other than bread, but we ate the rest of that too, Bert and I, sitting side by side in our cage.
Afterwards, wiping his mouth, Bert said to me, 'Lieutenant-Commander Trent, is it?' I confirmed that. 'Tom Trent? Thomas Trent? Sounds familiar. Should I know that name?'
'You might,' I said, still feeling the need to be guarded. 'I'm best known as Tommy Trent.'
'It rings a bell,' he said.
'Look, I don't think we should speak too freely—'
'You're worried about our friend over there.' Bert turned around and acknowledged le chef with a quick wave of the hand. 'I tried to have a chat with him before you woke up. I found he speaks no more English than you speak French. Somewhat less, I suspect.'
'Hardly possible,' I said.
'I doubt it. Now then, Lieutenant-Commander Tommy Trent, I'm not the sort of chap who likes being secretive. Nor inquisitive for that matter. If I've got the measure of you right you feel much the same. But I think we have a bit of finding out to do about each other.'
'All right, indeed. Let me start by asking you something. Have you visited the British lines before? Out at the front line, I mean, which is where I assume we are both headed?'
'No,' I said. 'Have you?'
'Yes, I told you I had been to France, but in fact I went up to the lines near Ypres, which is in Belgium. I suppose you know what the conditions are like at the front?'
'Well, yes. The newspapers don't tell the whole story, but I think I understand the trenches have become a hell.'
'Hell is an understatement. The trenches are unspeakable, and unspeakably dangerous. So here is my next question, Lieutenant Trent. If you are going to the Western Front as a naval officer, and you have no illusions about what things are like, what the devil do you need with a satin cloak?'
He was in earnest, but he had a merry look in his pale blue eyes.
'I was intending to explain—'
'And, while I am on the subject, why is it a satin cloak with silver and gold stars sewn into it?'
The garment in question was still where I had left it, pressed up in something of a heap against the carriage wall. When I put it down I had deliberately folded it so that the satin side with the stars was not uppermost, but I must have moved around while I slept, exposing the gaudier side of the garment.
I was embarrassed by Bert's question. Now that I was here, really here, in a theatre of war, or at least in its imminence, I saw everything in a new light. At home I had assumed I was being summoned to the front lines to entertain the troops. Entertainment is my job, my career, my vocation. I knew of music hall artistes, singers, dancers and comedians, who had already travelled out to perform for the soldiers at the Front. If I was to perform my act I would need my usual apparatus and props, and that included my cloak.
After searching around for adequate words I finally said, 'You told me you thought my name was familiar.'
'I can't say more than that.'
'Then the situation is this. Tommy Trent is my real name, but I also used it for a long time as a stage name. I am a music hall artiste, an entertainer. Does that help?' He shook his head. 'These days I am billed as The Lord of Mystery, but until two years ago I performed as Tommy Trent, Mysterioso.'
'You are a magician?'
'I prefer to be known as a conjuror. Or as an illusionist. But yes.'
'If I may say so it explains everything, and nothing at all.'
'Then we are in accord,' I said. 'I know almost nothing about why I am here, dressed up in the uniform of a naval officer, heading for the Western Front.'
I briefly related my story, such as it was. About five weeks earlier I had been performing at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, in west London. After the Saturday night show I was relaxing in my dressing room when one of the theatre staff brought a visitor to see me.
His name was Flight Lieutenant Simeon Bartlett, a serving officer of the Royal Navy. He complimented me on my performance, saying he was much impressed by one particular illusion. This was the trick with which I normally brought my act to a finale. In it I made a pretty young woman (it was my niece Clarice, who regularly worked with me) disappear into thin air.
Backstage visitors usually arrive with compliments, but their real purpose, I often find, is to try to elicit my secrets from me. All magicians are bound by a professional code of honour not to give anything away. In fact, the trick that had so impressed the young lieutenant looked complicated on the stage, because of the apparatus that was needed, but its secret was simple. 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.
But that is the case. So it had been that evening at the Lyric Theatre. My guard was up, and in spite of the young officer's pleasant demeanour, and his increasingly determined efforts to have the method explained to him, I stood my ground.
Finally, Lieutenant Bartlett said to me, 'Do I have your assurance that you are using a practical or scientific method, and that you are not going in for that sorcery business?' Of course, I had no hesitation in confirming that was so. 'Then I think there is small doubt you shall be hearing from us soon.'
What he meant, as it turned out, was that the following week I received an official letter from the Admiralty offering me a short-term commission, in order, in their words, 'to aid the war effort.'
At a subsequent interview with senior naval officers I was again questioned closely about my secret method, but to honour the magicians' code all I could say was to repeat my assurance that it was, in their word, scientific.
The more they interrogated me, the less I felt confident in the science involved in some strategically positioned lights and a pane of glass.
'So you are going to a shore-based naval unit,' Bert said thoughtfully. 'That can mean only one of two things. Balloons or aeroplanes. Both are being operated by the Royal Naval Air Service. I still don't understand why you need your cloak, though.'
I said, 'I brought it with me because it is so much a part of my act that I would feel naked without it. But I do see what you mean about the inappropriateness. As for balloons, or whatever, I imagine I'll discover what's going on as soon as I am there. What about you?'
'Me? I have nothing to do with balloons.'
'I meant the finding out. I should be interested to know more about you.'
'Oh, much the same,' he said, and I realized it was his turn to feel discomfited, although I could not see why.
'Are you a magician too?'
'No, not at all. Well, maybe some people would like me to be, but I'm much more humble.' He was bracing himself with his cane, because the train was at last moving more quickly and the van was rocking from side to side. 'I think I might be described as a meddler, which is what some of my accusers call me. That about sums me up. I can't seem to stop myself from pointing things out to people who are going about something the wrong way. The trouble is that no one listens! And it's even more irritating when they carry on, then they get everything wrong just as I warned them, and afterwards they turn round and blame me for not warning them more forcefully. So the next time I change my tack, try other arguments, but in the end the same thing happens. I try to keep calm, I try always to appeal to their reason. But I go on, because what they call meddling is what I call the declaration of ideas. I am a believer in the human mind and ideas are my profession. I suppose that belief is why I have ended up on this train with you, Lieutenant Tommy Trent, Lord of Magic, Mystery, whatever you said you called yourself. It's my reward for being a busybody and a meddler, and no doubt deserved.'
'Deserved reward?' I said. 'You make it sound like a punishment.'
'I speak ironically, of course. You know, Tom, back in the days when this blessed war broke out, I wrote a series of little articles for a newspaper. I am known for having Opinions, and I had several of those about this war. Afterwards those articles came out in a book. When I get steamed up about something, writing about it is my only way of releasing the energy. I saw this war coming, saw it years ago.
'Now, I have a horror of war, you understand, but I'm not completely opposed to this one, either. I have nothing against the German people, but they have allowed twin evils to arise. They are ruled by Prussian imperialism, and their economy is dominated by Krupp, the maker of armaments. Krupp and the Kaiser stand side by side. It has become an inhuman system. We must raise a sword against it, a sword raised for peace. I don't want to destroy Germany, just do enough to change the so-called minds who are running the place at the moment. When the war is won what we must aim to do is re-draw the map of Europe, form some kind of league of all nations, one where ordinary people have a say.'
I was staring at him in excitement and recognition.
'That was The War That Will End War,' I said.
Bert grunted his agreement.
'I read that!' I went on. 'I have a copy of the book at home. It made cracking good sense to me.'
'I'm no longer so sure about it, now I've seen some of what's really going on—'
'But you couldn't have written that book. It was by H.G. Wells!'
Captain Wells nodded again. I stood up in astonishment, then sat down again suddenly, because the carriage was rocking. I gripped the edge of my seat.
'Then you are…' I said.
'Please – go on calling me Bert,' said the great man. 'Safer that way all round, I think. Do you suppose we'll be stopping soon? I could make short work of a nice cup of tea.'