Christopher Priest, science fiction writer whose book The Prestige was made into a film – obituary

Priest: ‘developed an arid mindscape of his own’
Priest: ‘developed an arid mindscape of his own’ - Andrew Hasson/Alamy
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Christopher Priest, who has died aged 80, was one of Britain’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors, although the description hardly conveyed the variety and originality of his work – as he was the first to insist.

Priest’s early novels, including The Space Machine (1976), an exuberant pastiche of H G Wells, and Inverted World (1974), set in a mobile city called “Earth” on a planet colonised by humans, came to be regarded as classics of science fiction. However, his later books and short stories, often set on a vast chain of equatorial islands known as the Dream Archipelago, were less easily categorisable and baffled many SF enthusiasts.

“My problem is that I came into serious writing from the wrong direction, from science fiction,” he observed in 1990. “The trouble with writing the kind of stories that interest me now is that you end up being made to bear the burden of the preconceptions people have of them.”

The best-known of his later books was The Prestige (1995), a tale of two stage magicians in Victorian England whose rivalry leads one of them to invent a teleportation machine. It was both an ingenious yarn and a minutely researched study of the art and history of prestidigitation, and in 2006 was filmed by Christopher Nolan with a cast including Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and David Bowie.

The book received the James Tait Black Prize, Priest being a rarity among genre writers for the esteem he enjoyed within the literary establishment.

The Prestige (1995) was a tale of two stage magicians in Victorian England whose rivalry leads one of them to invent a teleportation machine
The Prestige (1995) was a tale of two stage magicians in Victorian England whose rivalry leads one of them to invent a teleportation machine

In 1983 he was one of the elect on Granta’s generation-defining list of the 20 best British writers under 40. But although he consented to be photographed by Snowdon with the other authors on the list, Priest displayed no gratitude for being elevated to the literary elite and wrote an article in The Bookseller scorning the whole exercise as a gimmick.

Over the next four decades he rarely missed an opportunity to knock the work of his fellow nominees Ian McEwan (“he has an unoriginal mind and an unadventurous approach to fiction”), Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, who observed after one such broadside in 1993 that “Priest always was a chippy bugger.”

He was certainly not afraid to make enemies, among them the volatile American S F writer Harlan Ellison, whose lies and evasions Priest chronicled in The Book on the Edge of Forever (1987): this was a study of one of SF’s great debacles, the non-appearance of an anthology for which Ellison had bought up the copyright of several short stories, one of Priest’s among them.

In 2011 Priest called for the “incompetent” judges of the Arthur C Clarke award to resign for picking a “dreadful” shortlist. And although he admired the film of The Prestige, he made no secret of his disappointment in Christopher Nolan’s subsequent career. “He’s sold out – sold out to Batman! – and that’s a great, great tragedy. He could have been the new Hitchcock,” Priest told The Daily Telegraph in 2020.

Priest in 2011: he gave no quarter to books he disliked, even if they were written by friends
Priest in 2011: he gave no quarter to books he disliked, even if they were written by friends - Future via Getty

Priest had high standards and saw no reason not to publicly criticise those who in his view failed to meet them. As a reviewer of SF and fantasy he famously gave no quarter to books he disliked, even if they were written by friends. But it was a tribute to his essential decency and loveability that he never lost a friend by doing so.

Christopher McKenzie Priest was born in Cheadle (then in Cheshire) on July 14 1943, the son of Walter Priest, an executive in a company that made weighing machines, and his wife Millicent, née Haslock.

He left Cheadle Hulme School in 1959 and worked, as he put it in Who’s Who, in “junior clerical posts”, while writing short stories and becoming a slightly detached member of the coterie centred on Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, a forum for intelligent and innovative SF.

He became a full-time writer in 1968 and in 1970 published his first novel, Indoctrinaire, an apocalyptic tale set, prophetically, in a future in which the Amazon rainforests have been destroyed.

His work gradually became more outlandish: The Glamour (1984) included a description of a threesome in which one of the participants was invisible, described by Ian Rankin as the most erotic sex scene he had ever read. Priest adapted the novel as a radio play, but was delighted that a mooted film starring Barbra Streisand and Christopher Walken – a proposition that “10 years later still has the power to make my goolies shrink in horror,” he observed in 1995 – did not materialise.

An early work regarded as a classic
An early work regarded as a classic

Much of Priest’s later work, including such novels as The Affirmation (1981), The Extremes (1998), The Separation (2002) and The Islanders (2011), was far more cerebral and inward-looking than conventional SF. He favoured troubled narrators whose version of events often turned out to be at odds with the truth, allowing him to explore his favourite themes of the unreliability of memory and the precariousness of sanity.

“I can no longer take a plot seriously enough to go with it as bare plot,” he told the fanzine Ansible in 1995. “I’m always thinking: where’s the flaw in this, where does the idea leak? Unreliability soon starts creeping in, and I cheer up no end.”

His friend and mentor Brian Aldiss observed in his memoirs: “Priest has put difficulties in the way of his own career by not wishing whole-heartedly to write SF – or, for that matter, non-SF. He has developed an arid mindscape of his own.” There was certainly an austere quality in Priest’s work, a preoccupation with ideas and a lack of warmth towards his characters that perhaps prevented him from attracting as wide an audience as he deserved.

His refusal to compromise in his fiction made for some lean times, and he kept afloat by writing pseudonymous novelisations of films such as Short Circuit and Mona Lisa; in the 1990s he ghost-wrote the memoirs of the British astronaut Helen Sharman and the Olympic athlete Sally Gunnell. His work was always revered in the SF community, however, and he won the British Science Fiction Award for best novel an unmatched four times.

A tall figure with a bookish stoop, Priest lived in Devon for much of his life, but latterly moved to the Scottish island of Bute, despairing of England after the Brexit vote. His 18th novel, Airside, was published last year, and in his final months while being treated for cancer he was working on a biography of his late friend J G Ballard.

Christopher Priest’s first three marriages, to Christine Merchant, Lisa Tuttle and Leigh Kennedy, were dissolved. Last year he married the SF novelist Nina Allan, who survives him with the twin daughter and son of his third marriage.

Christopher Priest, born July 14 1943, died February 2 2024

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