“The Islanders” by Christopher Priest


“The Islanders” purports to be a gazetteer describing several islands in the Dream Archipelago, which spans the world’s central ocean separating large northern and southern continents.  The nations of the north are constantly at war, but they duke it out in the south for reasons not totally explained.  Maybe they don’t want to mess up their home turf, or maybe the home turf is sufficiently well protected that it is easier to score military points far away on the other side of the world?  In any case, the islands have a long tradition of neutrality in spite of the constant military maneuverings taking place throughout their straits and seas.  Not exactly sure how the islands maintain that in the face of gigantic military powers, but that’s not really the point of the book.

Anyway, it’s kind of a book of short stories, with each story being about or taking place on one island or another.  Each island is unique and a little bit fascinating in its own way.  There are certain main characters that weave in and out of the stories, and some stories touch on the same events but from a different point of view.  The main thread is the mystery surrounding the murder of a mime, on stage, by a falling piece of thick glass.  A simpleton ne’er-do-well is executed for the crime but some other entries reveal his innocence and finger someone else as the main culprit.

The book is touted as having an “unreliable narrator” which is true. . . The foreword is by one Chaster Kammeston. (btw, I loved the names in the book… kind of European, but really un-placeable in our world.  A good way to show that this world is kind of, but not quite like our own.)  He supposedly has never left his home island, but then there are other references where he assuredly did leave it.  There’s other stuff too; I kind of took the whole book as something that was supposed to have been written by Kammeston.

There’s lots of just weird stuff going on, but it is kind of fun to see connections and try to figure it out… unfortunately, there are many, many loose threads by the time you reach the end of the book.  The “main” murder mystery is pretty well tied up, but there are other “big” stories embedded in here that we just get glimpses of — such as the secret drone base island; the island with the fear-inducing, ancient towers which drive a man crazy; the island depopulated due to super deadly thryme insects which threaten to spread uncontrollably to other islands.

My main explanation for what’s going on is tied up in the “temporal vortices.”   These physical phenomena somehow distort things and make navigation, flight, and accurate mapping very difficult.  One of the stories briefly mentions an island at the center of one such vortex.  The fishermen find that upon circumnavigation of the island, things are strangely different, like the shape of the shoreline is changed, or a mountain that was once in the east is now in the west.  I can’t remember if it is mentioned whether going back around the island in reverse “fixes” things, or just makes it different again.  In any case, I took this to mean that the vortices facilitate seamless travel between parallel universes – when one travels amongst the islands, one is really traveling between different realities, each with slight oddities compared to a familiar reference frame.  The main murder mystery is the primary plotline of the book in “our” universe; the other interesting threads not resolved are bits of the main plotline in some other universes.

That’s my take anyway.

I thought this chart of connections between the stories put together by Adrian Hon, as well as his summary of the key stories, did a very good job at pulling everything together in an understandable way (such as it is).

What do you think?

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