Interviewing Christopher Priest for Literatura Fantastica RBA

Recently, Francisco García Lorenzana, director of the Literatura Fantastica RBA imprint, interviewed Christopher Priest as a sort of appetizer before the publication, next week, of the spanish translation of his novel The Space Machine in the imprint, with the title La Máquina Espacial and a wonderful cover by Alejandro Colucci. It was a really interesting interview and García Lorenzana has been so kind as to allow me share with all of you the english version of the interview. I am really happy and I hope that all of you enjoy the interview as much as I did.

 You can find the spanish version of the interview at the Literatura Fantastica RBA blog. I also encourage you to read the introduction to the Spanish edition of the novel written by one of our main fantasists, Javier Negrete.

 I’m very happy to introduce… Cristopher Priest!




In 1976, Christopher Priest was a young author who had published three novels very well received by audiences and critics, and had just won the BSFA in 1974 with The Inverted World and suddenly dares with two of the most important works of the British literature, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, posing an unauthorized sequel linking both storylines, in a clear tribute to HG Wells. Viewed from 2013, was it a stroke of genius, a daring or a youthful folly?

I think it was more youthful folly than genius. I just had the idea that maybe the Martians had a point of view that Wells had not described, and that the only existing description of the invasion was Mr Wells’s book, which I treated as a journalistic account. But as I wrote the drafts I gained a real respect for Wells, and his skilful writing, so my book quickly became what I hoped would be recognized as homage to a great writer.

Which role plays The Space Machine in your literary career?

The three books that had preceded it were all in different ways serious novels, and I wanted to show that I could also write in a more light-hearted vein. For a long time, The Space Machine was my personal favourite amongst my novels, but as time went on and I wrote more books that did change. But I am still fond of it.

Why Wells and not another British author of his generation, or from the Golden Age of American science fiction, or Verne, to give some examples?

There is no one else to match Wells, in my opinion. He is not only an «early» writer of science fiction, he is still one of the best. The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, in particular, do not look like period pieces. But as well as his SF, Wells was a major writer – social novels, political journalism, campaigning journalism, comedies, satires, etc. Anyway, from my point of view when I wrote The Space Machine, no one else had written those two classic novels, so it had to be Wells.

priestIn Literatura Fantastica we have just published an omnibus edition of four major novels by Wells, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau, do you think that his work is still relevant today? And if the answer is yes, do you think The Space Machine is still interesting and can bring something to the modern reader?

Yes, I would say those are the four «best» SF novels by Wells, although you could add First Men in the Moon and perhaps In the Days of the Comet, plus many of his short stories. All of Wells’s early work is still of great interest to modern readers. With his later books you have to be a bit more selective, because he wrote a huge number of novels and some of those are a bit, well, out of date. But Kipps, Tono-Bungay, Ann Veronica, Christina Alberta’s Father and The Croquet Player are still excellent books by any standard.

As for The Space Machine – I don’t know. I hope readers will enjoy the plot, the relationship between the two main characters, the amusing events, and the various small insights into what Wells was writing about. One of the main motives for writing it was that there have been many dramatic adaptations of The War of the Worlds (from Orson Welles’s radio play in 1939 onwards), some good, some not so good, but they all have one thing in common: they have invariably «up-dated» the story. But this has always seemed to me to miss the unique pleasure of the novel: the vastly superior military technology of the Martians was fought by ordinary soldiers using rifles, artillery hauled by horses, communications using heliography, and all the general materiel of the 19th Century. There was real charm in that … so in one sense The Space Machine was a sort of dramatic adaptation set in the correct period.

Besides borrowing from the two storylines, The Space Machine is a conscious exercise to reproduce the literary style of the Victorian era, was it hard to imbibe the Victorian spirit?

I tried to write The Space Machine as a modern novel, not as an imitation of a past form, but within that modern ethos I wanted to try to re-create the mood, the environment, the comparative innocence of a past time. It was largely a question of choosing the characters and how they would behave, and the locations they would move about in, and the technology they would use … the vocabulary and style of the novel followed quite naturally from that.

Our edition of The Time Machine has a foreword by Javier Negrete which highlights the eroticism that distils the relationship between the two protagonists. Obviously this is a perfectly gentlemanly Victorian erotica, far from the current boom, but deep down, could we speak of this book as a «romance» and a «scientific novel»?

Oh yes! The subtitle of the English-language editions of The Space Machine was «a scientific romance». This was Wells’s own description of his work at the time. I saw my novel as including a romance between two characters which a modern reader would enjoy, even though the characters would be properly restrained by the customs and social pressures of their time.

If now you had the idea for a similar tribute to HG Wells, would you write the same novel or it would be completely different?

I wouldn’t write The Space Machine again, or anything like it. I try to make all my books noticeably different from each other, and I wouldn’t want to «go back» to that sort of novel. However, my new novel, called in English The Adjacent, has a definite Wellsian theme, and explicit references to the great man: H. G. Wells himself. But what happens in the book is for the time being a secret!

Now a look at the immediate future, what are your next projects? Are you writing right now? Is there any prospect of your works adapted to film or television?

The Adjacent will be published in the UK in June 2013. I’m at present working on the next novel, which will probably be called The Mariners.

 My novel from 1984, The Glamour, is about to be filmed in the UK, directed by Gerald McMorrow, who a few years ago made a film called Franklyn. This film disappeared almost as soon as it came out, but it is easily one of the very best SF films made in Britain in the last 20 years. It is an amazing film, and starred Eva Green, Ryan Philippe, Susannah York, and others. Check it out on DVD if you can! After I saw Franklyn I made contact with Gerald, we became friends, and he decided he wanted to make The Glamour. We are hoping it will go into production this summer. I also have a stage play based on The Prestige, which is planned to open in the West End of London just before Christmas this year. (It is also being staged as a musical in Russia, but that is likely to be two years in the future.)

One last question: you have been very critical of the selection of the shortlist for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award, which are your ideas about science fiction and literature in the last years?

The Arthur C. Clarke Award suffered from incompetent judging last year. I don’t know what the judging panel were thinking, but for some reason they ignored most of the genuinely interesting or ambitious novels published in 2011, and chose one decent novel (The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, which in the end was the rightful winner), a mediocre novel from China Miéville (Embassytown), and four others of the most unimaginative and familiar kinds of traditional SF. There were many other novels that were better or more stimulating or just more adventurous in their subjects, but the judges seemed unaware of them. As I consider the Clarke Award to be one of the best and most reliable literary awards, one which has supported good or ambitious writing many times in the past, I felt the 2012 judges had failed horribly and embarrassingly. I said so in print, and got into trouble for doing so. But in the end I think it focused people’s minds on what modern SF should be doing, and how writers should be encouraged to try new or difficult material.

As for this year: some of the same judges are still there, so we can only HOPE for the best, but we should fear a return of their tame and conservative values. (There are a couple of new judges this year, so maybe they will improve things. Let’s hope so.) As for me – I have spent the last 12 months researching my next novel, so have not read any of this year’s SF books, and therefore have no plans to say anything about whatever happens …

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