When is an ending? A review of The Separation by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2007, 374 pages

My wife’s review of this book is: “Engaging but unsatisfying.  Not so good for people without a good knowledge of history.”  I am rarely so pithy, direct, clear, definite or unequivocal, so shall proceed to spin out my review over hundreds of words.  I may even reach a different conclusion.


Christopher Priest the author came to prominence through the British science fiction (SF) magazines, New Worlds and the like.  Perhaps it’s because the British writers inherit the tradition of Wells, who predates ghettoised genre SF, that the UK writers see SF as a mode rather than a market.  These authors and others write books which happen to be categorised in a particular way, but are not written to the category, so to speak. Priest has made a career of that, beginning relatively close to the (UK version of) the heart of genre SF, especially with his early classic, Inverted World, and then manifesting his preoccupations with what is real and what is not and whether we can tell the difference in more and more subtle and ambiguous ways, using fewer and fewer genre tropes, to the benefit of his work, which at its best (The Prestige, perhaps, The Affirmation, perhaps, The Islanders, probably) pays no heed to where the bookseller will shelve it, and whether it is slipstream (is that just the genre of things that don’t easily fit in any other genre?  Who has worked out the Venn diagram for this?), SF or literary fiction or magic realism or anything else.  Labels are not relevant.  The author tackles something worth tackling, and the book takes the shape it needs to. This is admirable.

My big problem with this novel is that I am not sure what it is tackling, though that may well be my own lack of perceptiveness.  

There are a few classes of alternate history stories, generally considered to date back to Murray Leinster‘s ‘Sidewise in Time’ of 1934, such that an award dedicated to the idea is called the Sidewise. Some explore an alternative history as if it were the only one, just an only one different to our only one.  Stories like SS-GB or A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! fall into this category; there is a single event that turned out differently, and the ramifications are explored.  Some use the multiple parallel universes as the main plot device, an infinity of parallel worlds exfoliating from every possible outcome of every (suitable) event, often invoking the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics and some more pseudo-science to allow travel between the parallel worlds.  A lovely, forgotten example of this is Ring Around the Sun by Simak, but other examples that come to mind include The Timeliner Trilogy (Richard C. Meredith) and Paratime by H. Beam Piper.  A third category is something of an amalgam of the two — it explores the very point at which two (or possibly more) possible worlds diverged, with events often hinging on the most minor of causes.  The archetype here is (I am tempted to say ‘of course’) ‘A Sound of Thunder’ by Ray Bradbury, though many of us will be more familiar with the Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror version, where Homer and his toaster create various universes.

The Separation falls into the last category.  It explores the lives of twin brothers, J. L. (Joe) Sawyer, conscientious objector in World War Two, and J. L. (Jack) Sawyer, RAF Wellington bomber pilot.  The historical turning point is the success (or as in our world, lack of success) of Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess’s attempt to broker peace with Britain in 1941, prior to the German invasion of Russia.

The structure of the book is somewhat obfuscated.  The framing story uses an author of popular histories, clearly an inhabitant of the universe where Hess’s efforts succeeded, who wants to trace the story of J. L. Sawyer; he does not know if Sawyer is two people.  Since the story includes doubles for some other key characters, this question of identity is a recurring one.  The first Sawyer memoir we read appears to be our own world, from the point of view of Jack, who had met Hess at the Munich Olympics before WWII and got involved in the events around the peace mission.  In the second half we get  patchwork account of the lives of the two Sawyers in the alternate reality, with Joe as the focus.  Joe survives the Blitz but suffers injuries.  He may or may not take part in a conference that brokers peace in May 1941.

(I am going into the plot in more detail than I usually would because to some extent this review is me working out what the hell went on in the book.  I won’t go on.)

The book has the strengths I have come to expect from its author.  Priest has the bestselling author’s ability to make you turn the page, yet a dislike for the easy answer.  From his early work he has shown the ability to describe the impossible in calm, reasonable tones that ground the story, even something as horrible as ‘The Head and the Hand’.  His characters are not cyphers — this is an important strength in an alternative history novel, where the characters can be little more than bland cogs in the grinding gears of the universe (or at least in the logic chopping in the story).

But I’m not sure what the book is trying to do.  Is it a fictionalised essay on a possible world?  Is it an illustration of how history can turn on the smallest, most unpredictable of events?  These are neither deep nor terribly subtle points.  It is definitely a successful rendering of the lives of a pair of young men that got caught up in the war, and of how their different personalities lead them in different directions, so in that sense it works well as a literary novel of character.  Like most of Priest’s major works, it is often unclear what is actually known, which is one of the points of it, I suppose.  At times Churchill refers to a pacifist RAF bomber pilot, clearly conflating the two Sawyers.  But they really are two people — they rowed the coxwainless pairs in Munich…

I think the book can be read as the story of parallel versions of two lives, and how the two worlds came to be. Then, at some point the story, or the bit of it included in the book, ends.

Perhaps it is unfair of me to ask what the book is about.  If it had aimed lower — to simply tell an adventure story set in the parallel universe — I would not be asking this question.  Because the book looks so closely at the men at the centre of the separation of the two worlds, it seems to be working to say something about the fragility of history, and how it is built on incomplete knowledge and misunderstandings and personalities as much as forces of history, and how easily our world could be different.  Yet surely this is obvious.  Or do most people wander along assuming that the world is how it must be, rather than how it happens to be?

The book is gripping.  It kept me up late reading.  It plays with time within the timelines, and ‘memories’ seem to go forwards as well as backwards.  The prose is precise, and at times precisely misleading, the characters believable, the background almost too solid (‘gee, his research was thorough’ is not what the author wants going through your mind as you read, I suspect). It’s a good book, a fine book, and a lovely example of how Priest inhabits his own space, one he has created for himself, in the literary landscape.  He is a major author of speculative fiction, science fiction, fiction that explores our fraught relationship with the ‘real’ world, whatever you want to call it (how about ‘fiction’?).  Not recommended if you insist on endings that tie it all up with one stunning revelation.  Otherwise, highly recommended.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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