Waiting in Null Space

Dan Hartland reviews Christopher Priest’s “Airside.”

By Dan HartlandJuly 9, 2024

Waiting in Null Space

Airside by Christopher Priest. Gollancz. 297 pages.

HOW DO YOU account for a disappearance? How do you explain a sudden absence? Take the case of Jeanette Marchand, the character at the center of Christopher Priest’s final novel Airside (2023). In the novel, Marchand is a Hollywood A-lister who disappeared in 1949: her flight landed at Heathrow, and she was seen leaving the airplane—but then she seemingly vanished from the face of the earth. Her case has become an obsession of film critic Justin Farmer: Was she a skilled escapologist? Was it magic or aliens? Did she die or live on?

When Farmer notices that Teddy Smythe—a minor actress who began appearing in British film and television around 1950 and who has lived a reclusive life for many years—keeps a photograph of Marchand’s first husband on her mantelpiece, yet professes to have no idea who he is, the critic begins to wonder: what if Marchand and Smythe are the same woman, and the former’s disappearance was mere prelude to the latter’s quieter, less public career?

“[I]sn’t it a coincidence?” Farmer asks, reaching to account for a disappearance, to explain a sudden absence. His lover, Matilda Linden—Smythe’s biographer—simply looks at him skeptically. “Let’s stay real,” she advises.

Priest’s own death was announced on February 2, 2024, by his wife, writer Nina Allan, less than a year after Airside appeared on bookshelves. Final novels can come to exert—at least for a little while—an undue gravity on a writer’s reception. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia (2008) or Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling (2005), for example, have both in recent years attracted a good deal of commentary that may not entirely reflect their proper place in their author’s respective oeuvres. On the other hand, like Prospero throwing his books in the sea, we should pay attention to a magician’s final act—and, in suggesting that we might wish to eschew seemingly fantastical accounts in favor of apparently rational explanations, Airside is knowing, almost mischievous, about its legacy.


When Linden tells Farmer to “stay real,” she is speaking almost pointedly against the decades-long fictional project of her author, which has almost always emphasized the ineffable, the pointedly improbable. Priest’s very earliest works—such as Indoctrinaire (1970), set in a deforested future in which poison pervades the air, or perhaps most famously The Inverted World (1974), set on a planet eventually revealed to be a far future Earth, where a city traverses the equator on tracks laid before it as it moves—were deeply indebted to, if not entirely embedded within, science fiction.

Later, Priest would create the Dream Archipelago, a woozy topography featured in novels and stories such as “An Infinite Summer” (1976), The Affirmation (1981), and The Islanders (2011), in which time, space, and even personality are noncontiguous, dilated, and relative. In his more superficially quotidian novels—The Prestige (1995), featuring 19th-century magicians, or The Separation (2002), which focuses on the Second World War—Priest doubles realities and personages in a willfully fabulistic fashion, so that nothing in their pages is quite certain. The real, in other words, has always been in question in Priest.

So what does it mean that one of the heroes of Airside—Linden emerges from this novel’s pages as wiser, calmer, more insightful than Farmer—is so committed to the quotidian? Nor is she its only character to be so disposed. Another of Farmer’s key witnesses, an associate of Marchand’s who joined her on that fateful transatlantic flight before disembarking during a refueling stopover, halts the critic in his tracks: “I don’t believe what they say happened,” he shrugs, when asked about those who believe Marchand simply faded bodily from the world. “No one can disappear in the way they said. It’s impossible.” Airside routinely commits itself to the written past, to film and its cameras that reputedly never lie. There are no spaceships, no time slips, no trickery of any kind: just an odd story, and some people who are intrigued by it. What does it mean—pace the novel’s recent short-listing for the British Science Fiction Association’s Best Novel award—that Christopher Priest’s final novel is not science fiction at all?

In The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (2020), critic Paul Kincaid carefully records the novelist’s lifelong ambivalence toward the genre to which he nominally belonged. Priest’s long-term publisher was Gollancz, a canonical house for science fiction; as we have seen, his work called on the tools and techniques and tropes of SF from early on. He proceeded out of—as well as remaining in touch with—the gestalt known as “fandom,” that collection of a certain stripe of SF reader who gathers around conventions, journals, and semiprofessional reviewing. He sometimes owned up to writing SF (as to Kincaid himself in a conversation for Vector in 1999), but at other times was rejected by the genre itself (“Priest no longer owns to being a science fiction writer,” fulminated Brian Aldiss in 1986’s Trillion Year Spree). What Kincaid ultimately concludes is that Priest was always suspicious of “the conservatism and formalities of […] the sf establishment.” His books, then, were science-fictional; it’s just that they challenged what that term meant.

Perhaps that’s why Priest was included in Granta’s first, much-heralded “Best of Young British Writers” list in 1983, among superstars of literary fiction including Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Rose Tremain: his science fiction credentials were certainly underplayed in the promotional material, but then they could be. Certainly at that point in their careers, both Tanith Lee and M. John Harrison, Priest’s near contemporaries, for example, would have been much harder sells for the squeamish readers of Granta. And in this sense, Airside is a coming-around-again, a return to the novelist Priest might once have chosen to be: subtly subversive, for sure, but fundamentally mimetic, a Julian Barnes writing England, England (1998) or a Salman Rushdie indulging in a spot of magic realism. In this reality, Priest would still have haunted a feast, but it wouldn’t have been science fiction’s.

That is not the career, however, that Priest—for want of a word to which he may have objected less—enjoyed. The Granta kerfuffle subsided, and Priest’s work became instead partly defined by an uneasy relationship with SF, as in Airside’s sly aside when Farmer interviews a famous movie director at a conference and the latter marches onto the stage to the triumphant strains of the theme of his science-fictional magnum opus. “Everyone loved Space Warp Heroes,” we’re told, even as we also know that Farmer’s own tastes are rather more rarefied: Casablanca (1942), Playtime (1967), La Jetée (1962). We know this because Farmer’s criticism forms an important part of the novel: we have extracts from it, and he considers film and filmmakers in the course of the third-person narration. He ruminates on King Kong (1933) and Frankenstein (1931) and fictional films such as Westminster Bridge (1931) or the mysterious Death in the Auvergne (1956), a shocking film about fratricide that starred Teddy Smythe and in which Farmer becomes especially interested.

The act of critique—of interpretation—comes to be central to Airside. Priest himself was interested in and encouraged biting criticism, wrote and edited reviews throughout his career, and indeed penned an essay of his own on La Jetée (see the Mark Morris–edited 2011 anthology Cinema Futura), to which Farmer’s is at times identical. Lending Priest’s own critical frameworks to Farmer in this way feels significant: how characters see can, after all, be as important to a novel as what they perceive. In Airside, criticism is posited as a means of making sense of a world, but Priest’s habitual ambivalence starts to tell, since it is also true that criticism is of course on its own insufficient to this task.

In other words, Farmer emerges as a not entirely incisive critic. He argues of Casablanca that “we remember great fantasy for the dreams it fulfils, the hope it inspires, the love we feel for the characters depicted.” This feels at best a partial reading of what fantasy is for, and it is certainly an inaccurate summary of how a writer like Priest himself uses it: fulfilling dreams has rarely been his goal. Tellingly, Farmer’s La Jetée piece leaves out a productive comparison with Godard that concludes Priest’s. Something is missing, and one wishes the critic might push further. Early in the book, we see Farmer “paused, reacting to the vague feeling” of déjà vu in an airport, an “uncomfortable feeling of unfocused dread.” The lack of specificity is crucial to the novel’s vision, and we read later in the book that Farmer “opened his eyes, but the room was profoundly dark.” Try as he might, Farmer cannot see.

We read that “on a deeper level he completely understood” the novel’s central mystery, the disappearance of Jeanette Marchand. Yet, as the qualities of his criticism betray, Farmer is not able fully to perceive, or at least express, that understanding. At the novel’s end, the reader is left in a similar position, unable fully to explain its final flourish within the frameworks the book has established: another disappearance can only be explained by impossible escapology, magic, or aliens, but nothing in Airside has previously led us to believe these forces are active in its world.

This sort of thing is very common in Priest’s novels: there is often a gap between what is felt and what is experienced, and this has sometimes led to his work being described as cold or attenuated. This isn’t right: Priest’s novels are simply alive to the disconnect between sensation and experience. At one point, Farmer describes his investigations into airport disappearances—he moves beyond Marchand to explore what he discovers to be an epidemic of unexplained vanishings in the spaces next to aircraft—as “uncanny and somehow significant.” Airside is so compelling because, coming as it sadly has at the end of a career spent refining this technique, it somehow captures profound comprehension alongside complete confusion: in another scene, Farmer stumbles around a terminal, impossibly lost and possibly (improbably) slipping between realities. Priest’s work manages to locate us in this feeling, a sense perhaps of profundity, whilst withholding all the usual explanation and explication that might provide a grounding codicil. At another point, an airplane on which Farmer is a passenger must change route while in the sky, due to “some kind of action.” Farmer reflects that “the phrase was chilling: what kind of action could close several airports? Why didn’t they say?” Because, reader, they are in a Christopher Priest novel.

In The Adjacent (2013), a near-future Britain has adopted Islam as the state religion; Priest never explains why or who or even to what effect. In The Gradual (2016), the workings of the various wands used by travelers between the Dream Archipelago’s islands to manipulate the time their trips might take is never even a focus of interest, much less a rule system. Even in The Inverted World, in which a callow Priest perhaps felt a little more duty-bound to do some “world-building,” the functionality of existence is itself the question asked of and by those mechanics: “How was a bridge fundamental to the city’s survival? Why was a militia necessary? Indeed, what was the future?” These are radical questions, and Priest’s was a radical fiction, especially in terms of its techniques and effects. Airside isn’t science fiction—but as a work by Christopher Priest, it nevertheless sits in perfect symbolic order with all the “science fiction” novels that came before it.


In a recent essay on J. M. Coetzee, another quasi-symbolist, Nicholas Spice argued that, for Coetzee, “the idea that we have a stable self—that we can account for ourselves consistently across time—is unsustainable in the light of the fragmentary and unreliable nature of memory.” There is something of Coetzee in Priest. Just as the plot in Disgrace (1999) is left hanging, its resolution merely predicted by the protagonist, the central mystery in Airside is not resolved but redoubled. “Everyone is in transit,” it tells us, and it sets itself squarely in “the blank spaces created by a society always on the move.”

Across Priest’s career, he depicted individuals in states of flux, of inconstancy. That Airside caps this investigation not with fantasy but with mimesis may or may not lead us to a conclusion. Neither science fictioneer nor realist, fabulist, or objectivist, Christopher Priest developed a body of work that is unique, a particular and lasting contribution to letters. His novels are their own thing, flitting between destinations and termini, but never quite landing at any of them. We will not replace a writer of this sort, nor easily adjectivize him. But, if we wish to account for the absence he has left behind, we’ll always have “Priestian.”

LARB Contributor

Dan Hartland is reviews editor of Strange Horizons and a columnist at Ancillary Review of Books. His reviews have also appeared in Foundation, Vector, and others.


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