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August 15, 2012

The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest

I read The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest whilst on holiday on the Croatian coastline, near Dubrovnik. I mention that because there was an large amount of resonance with the stories and the location I read it in, whilst reading I could look up and see islands off the coastline, see boats and yachts travelling between them, see the walled city of Dubrovnik which only twenty years ago was under siege. It was a deliberate decision to wait to read it until I was in that location and it was the right one, not only did I get to read it in a few days (I was on holiday, yay! etc.) but the atmosphere of my location really sparked my thought and let me feel a part of the stories.

Here's the review I wrote in my notebook immediately after finishing The Dream Archipelago: Odd, ambiguous, sexual. At times unsatisfying. Layered with meaning. Evocative prose. Less complete than The Islanders? Reminded me of Vermillion Sands by JG Ballard.

I'll try and elaborate, but that micro-review really does sum up my thoughts quite accurately.

The book is an anthology of stories set in The Dream Archipelago, the same setting as the recent novel The Islanders, a world with thousands of islands around its waist trying to remain neutral whilst the two mainland powers fight an everlasting war. The Dream Archipelago suffers from having read The Islanders first, whereas the stories in The Islanders were linked in subtle and wonderful ways, the stories in The Dream Archipelago share only the world and the history not the same narrative threads. Most of the stories were written in 1978 and published in various magazines, a couple were published later, which explains why. (I was reading the latest, expanded and revised edition published by Gollancz.) In many ways The Islanders takes what The Dream Archipelago was and makes it better and more complete.

I found the stories in The Dream Archipelago surprisingly sexual. Lots of sex, lots of sexual tension. I found the ending of many of the stories unsatisfying, leaving unresolved questions and a feeling as if the story had just lost interest and given up. However throughout the writing is great, extremely evocative, with layers and layers of meaning to peel away or puzzle over.

Many of the stories are about outsiders coming to the islands and misunderstanding the cultural differences, or struggling to come to terms with those cultural differences. The islands and their inhabitants remain very much a mystery, nothing is spelt out in black and white, lots is inferred and deliberately ambiguous. The result may be frustrating if you're not in the right mood but you have to give yourself into it and go with the stories flow.

If you're after a straight ahead Science Fiction thriller this isn't the book for you, if you're after wonderfully evocative and ambiguous tales of cultural clashes however, you're in luck, read this then The Islanders.