If Christopher Priest has a formula, it can be summed up as two worlds = one character. In A Dream of Wessex, one of Julia Stretton’s worlds is an experiment conducted by the other: a utopian future based around the island of Wessex, formed when seismic activity formed a channel between part of Dorset and the rest of England.
Julia is part of a team that’s supposed to be exploring what a better future might look like. A Dream of Wessex was published in 1977, when Britain was feeling bleaker by the day, though the desire to lose oneself in a better future makes as much sense today as it did then. I’d certainly like to visit the Wessex conjured by the Ridpath projector, though a combination of parameters programmed into it and a blend of the subconsciouses of the characters dreaming inside it. It’s a place where the sun shines, where naked surfers gather around the tidal bore that sweeps through the channel between Wessex and Dorset and where problems are minor and usually self-inflicted.
It wasn’t entirely clear to me how the insights gained in Wessex were supposed to help the austere real world, but then the government soon starts asking the same question. Presumably they’re not employing a gang of experts to indulge in happy dreams, and they’re certainly not impressed by the Soviet-style government of the envisaged future of Britain.
That’s where the serpent enters their Eden, in the form of Julia’s ex-boyfriend. He’s abusive and controlling in his personal life and a bean-counting civil servant in his professional life. It’s impossible not to hate him and when it becomes evident that there’s no way to keep his subconscious from entering, and so joining the shaping of, the paradise of Wessex, it’s not hard to see that this is not going to end well.
A Dream of Wessex carries Priest’s trademarks in that it starts slowly and ends with what-the-hell-happened-there? I found myself reading it more as a literary novel that makes use of a science fiction setting than as a traditional science fiction novel, though as far as I know, it was the novel that introduced the science fiction device of shared dreaming. It’s probably too slow for the dedicated science fiction reader and too imaginative for the dedicated literary reader but if, like me, you enjoy both genres, you’ll appreciate Wessex.