A Dream of Wessex: Explores the meaning and perception of reality

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

Written in 1977, Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex stands at the midpoint of media questioning reality. Falling on the tail end of Philip Dick and his oeuvre’s continual exploration of metaphysical meaning, A Dream of Wessex is also an (unheralded) fore-runner to science fiction featuring uncertain realities that followed in the 1990’s. Many ideas that are exploited in films such as The Matrix or Inception can find their conception in Priest’s tale of a scientific experiment into alternate realities. In particular, the dream-within-a-dream and mind disconnected from body plot devices can be seen as strong precursors to these modern examples.

A Dream of Wessex also marks the midpoint of another aspect of literature: style. Lacking any embellishment or literary flourish — similes even — Priest tells the tale of Julia Stretton in a very straightforward, almost brooding fashion. The direct prose neither lifting the spirit or dropping it, Julia’s life as a geologist inside a social experiment plods steadily along, the details of the setting and emotional output described in a minimum of words.

The social experiment involves a group of people who willingly detach themselves from physical reality to mentally live inside a projection of their collective psyches. As the experiment moves on, some participants routinely remove themselves, returning for brief periods to their normal lives. Others, however, have been inside the fictional Wessex for more than two years, their bodies, in reality, atrophying slowly in a drawer. While the idea may be interesting and keeps the reader guessing as to which reality is the real reality, where the plot truly finds its impetus is when Julia’s ex-lover announces his intentions of joining the experiment. Threatening and violent in private, his effervescence seems to have charmed the board of trustees governing the experiment into letting him join. The psychological drama which unfolds for Julia is only heightened by the distance from reality the experiment seems to take her every time she links in. The climax is one only that Christopher Priest could pen.

Thus, the third midpoint is my opinion of the novel: it is neither gosh-wow nor forgettable. Its strong parts include competent plotting, excellent metaphysical questions, and an overall story structure which highlights the theme well. Where the novel doesn’t meet expectations, however, is in the blasé nature of its prose, the occasional gaps in logic of the projection premise, and the lack of a wholly motivated plot. Questions like: “Is that the only reason propelling Julia at the moment?” or, “Shouldn’t there be a stronger justification for the experiment to exist?” occur occasionally. That being said, the novel remains a well-told, brain-in-the-vat tale exploring the meaning and perception of reality. Those who enjoy Philip Dick or the premise of any of the aforementioned movies wouldn’t be wasting their time reading A Dream of Wessex and may have their eyes opened to the world of Christopher Priest in the process.


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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for this; it’s on the list now.

  2. Priest has written better, but Priest’s mediocre works are still better than a lot of of writers’ best…

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