Monday Book: A trip to the edge of catastrophe

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The Independent Culture
IT IS not an easy task to put the novelist Christopher Priest in his place. He began his career in the Sixties in the literary ghetto of science fiction, but published his first novels with the conspicuously non-ghetto house of Faber & Faber. In the Seventies, he left Faber and he left science fiction, too. In the Eighties, he published multi-faceted novels constructed like houses of mirrors and, in the Nineties, he continues to do so.

His previous novel, The Prestige, won the World Fantasy Award in 1995 for its adroit manipulation of problems of identity through the twinned lives of feuding magicians from the era of Gaslight Romance. (One gains an edge on the other by engaging the services of Nicola Tesla, the man who invented AC current.)

Through these ploys can be descried the puzzles of perception and identity familiar to most readers of ambitious literary fiction at the end of this century. The Prestige, a compulsive, haunting and clever novel, also deservedly won the mainstream James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And if its author always seemed to have a card or two up his sleeve, this may have been a result of his great competence in the use of genre-fiction methods to illuminate the non-genre novel. After all, it is all too easy for writers to sound incompetent to describe - or else to be frustrated into incoherence by - the savage speed at which the human condition is altering today.

Even more visibly than with The Prestige, that same competence pervades Priest's new novel, The Extremes. This time, it is focused on the mechanics and implications, both personal and corporate, of Virtual Reality. And once again we reach the end of a Priest novel caught up in a prestidigitation. With all the well earned facility of a genre novel whose author is steeped in the literary techniques of science fiction and fantasy, The Extremes slingshots at the end into a quicksand terrain, where its protagonists flow into one another like viruses. Here, the face in the mirror is anyone's; no one's; mine.

The story is told with an appearance of flatness, but it is the flatness of a monitor about to register a catastrophe. Teresa Simons is an FBI agent on compassionate leave, following the death of her agent husband in a spree shooting in Texas. At the same time, there has been a similar shooting in the Kentish town of Bulverton, very close to Hastings. Teresa, who was born in England and removed to America as a small child, goes there under an impulse. She is not sure why; only that the two spasms have somehow mirrored one another.

Slowly, she begins to gain some understanding of the terrible banality of what has happened to Bulverton - an understanding that Priest conveys through deadpan recountings of events, that make, at some points, almost intolerably painful reading.

She also grasps the terrible tenuousness of any meaningful links between one spasm and the other in the "real" world. At the same time, it begins to appear that her own FBI training through ExEx, or Extreme Experiences - Virtual Reality immersions into historical scenes of carnage, which are constructed through computer readings of participants' memories - has subtly unfixed her from any basic faith in the reality of what has happened.

Mildly harassed by a team of executives from GunHo, a private firm that plugs customers into ExEx versions of real-life atrocities, Teresa slowly paints herself into a virtual reality corner. Her obsessive investigations into the Bulverton spree killer have both nauseated her and implicated her in his psyche. She finds herself riding the ExEx version of this terrible little person, and "editing" the experience for herself. And then, she falls through.

She falls through into a mirror dance of realities and identities. She begins to edit her own past life, in order to free herself from the killer's life, which has begun to grow hyperlinks into her own. Caught in the dance, she moves, as the novel closes, into what may be a dream, or Utopia, or a real world that has become rewriteable.

In the end, The Extremes is perhaps a nightmare, perhaps not. Most extraordinarily, for most of its length it is both. Teresa is both a meat-puppet victim of the new world, and one of those who writes our futures for us. Swift, haunting, cruel and kind, The Extremes is a guidance manual for the maze we face.