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on 19 January 2003
...... or dreaming WITHIN Wessex??? What constitutes true existence as we know it? This book, another masterpiece by Christopher Priest, leaves no easy answers and is a seminal forerunner of the cyberpunk genre.
A Dream Of Wessex follows the path of one Julia Stretton as she participates in the Wessex Project, a network of people wired up to a form of virtual reality called the Ridpath Projector, set in 22nd-century Wessex, England, and set up with the aim of solving the problems of the real-world England. The real-world England is set in 1983 (the book was written in 1977) and 1983-England is a bleak dystopia with law and order breaking down throughout England, daily terrorist bombings and chronic housing shortages to name a few. The 22nd-century Wessex of the Wessex Project is one where Wessex has been separated from mainland England by catastrophic earthquakes, caused by mining, and the Wessex capital, Dorchester, has become a large tourist spot complete with beaches for surfing along with numerous casinos and mosques, side by side. In addition, the USA is an Islamic state known as the Western Emirate States and the bulk of Dorchester's tourists originate from there.
When Julia's abusive ex-boyfriend Paul Mason is introduced into the Wessex Project via the Ridpath Projector, the frail 'reality' of the project is seriously disturbed with interesting consequences for all those involved.
The book is not so much a study of virtual reality than mapping out the often intricate twists of the human mind. Christopher Priest has excelled at exploring the multiple-layered nature of reality, of what constitutes reality and true consciousness. Numerous dark possibilities and questions of existence abound in this book and make the reader question the reality of his/her own surroundings. Of particular interest is the near lack of visible violence, rather a kind of implied violence that endows the book with a dark, ominous feel. I found that I couldn't help but have feelings of unease, long after I had finished the book.
With its very 'British' qualities and more in-depth study of the human condition than that offered by the cyberpunk generation, this book makes for essential and fascinating reading. With Christopher Priest's meticulous approach as to what constitutes 'existence', seductive blending of elements and a dreamy, hallucinatory feel, this book once finished will not be forgotten.
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Julia Stretton is a researcher for the Ridpath projection, a machine that has generated a completely convincing simulation of what the world may look like in the early 22nd Century. In the projection, the south-west of England has broken away from the rest of the island of Britain due to an earthquake and has become something of a holiday resort, tolerated by a communist government in London for the sake of international relations. In this vision of the future Julia finds herself drawn to a man named David for reasons she doesn't quite understand, but in the real world the arrival of her ex-lover on the project's staff causes chaos for Julia and the project...

A Dream of Wessex was originally published in 1977 and was Christopher Priest's fifth novel, following up on the extremely well-received An Inverted World and The Space Machine. Like many of Priest's books, it contains musings on memory, identity, consciousness and reality. The book also describes what looks suspiciously like a prophetic virtual reality cyberspace simulation some years ahead of such things becoming fashionable thanks to cyberpunk.

The novel features Priest's traditional narrative hallmark, namely being written in clear and readable prose through which the author laces several narrative and thematic time bombs that explode in the reader's face at key points (dubbed 'The Priest Effect' by David Langford), including several hours after you finish the book when you suddenly go, "Hang on, does that mean..." and you have to go scurrying back to re-read half the book to confirm your suspicions. Characterisation is excellent, with Julia an interesting protagonist who spends part of the book in fear of her ex-lover, but eventually coming to terms on how to deal with him through internal reasoning rather than a more obvious and melodramatic external form (beating him up or having some big speech, for example). As usual with Priest, what he doesn't say about the characters can be as important as what he does say, leaving the reader with some intriguing interpretive work to do.

However, it's the incredible ending that will sit for the longest in the reader's mind. It maybe isn't as completely mind-blowing as The Separation's conclusion or as deeply haunting and unsettling as The Prestige's, but it's still astonishingly well-written and haunting.

A Dream of Wessex (*****) is a very strong work of science fiction, powerful and thought-provoking and the work of an imaginative author at the height of his powers. What's even more startling is that it isn't even Priest's strongest work. The book is not in print at the moment, although some older copies can be found on Amazon UK and USA.
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on 17 May 2008
How do we know a dream was a dream? One criterion, certainly, is that it was not shared with anyone. No one else had it. But this book raises the possibility of a collective (artificially induced) dream. And that in turn raises the possibility of re-visiting the question posed above. And it also raises the possibility of infinite regress: a dream of a dream (of a dream etc.) In what sense are these dreams not reality? So much for the sci-fi framework, which is original and interesting. Christopher Priest is also a more than competent writer; the book keeps moving, the world of the "dream" is fun, and the characters are well sketched in what is a fairly short book. It was written (and set) in 1970s Britain, a pretty grisly period, which comes across well, so it's also a nice period-piece.
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on 22 June 2011
In the early 22nd century, the world is divided into two main power-blocs, one Communist, the other Islamic. England is part of the Communist bloc, whereas the USA has become an Islamic state known as the Western Emirate States. The south-west peninsula has become separated from the English mainland following a series of catastrophic earthquakes, and is now an island known as the Isle of Wessex. Wessex is now England's prime holiday destination, known for its casinos and mosques, built to cater for visitors from the Western Emirate States.

Or is it? This 22nd-century Wessex does not, in fact, exist, except in virtual reality. (Christopher Priest does not actually use that expression, which was not in use in the 1970s, but he clearly anticipated the concept). The "real" part of his novel, which was written in 1977, is set in the year 1985. A mysterious group known as the Wessex Foundation has set up what is known as the Wessex Project. A device known as the Ridpath Projector has created an imaginary future into which the participants can be projected. Once inside the Projector they believe themselves to be living their lives in the Wessex of the 22nd century and are unable to remember their lives in 1985. Upon their return to reality, however, they can remember the lives they have been living in Wessex. The main character, Julia Stretton, is one of the participants in the scheme, and much of the plot derives from the conflicts which arise when Julia's abusive ex-boyfriend Paul also enters the projection.

Priest's vision of 1985 is one of a world confronted by many social problems; the cities are plagued by terrorism, crime and lawlessness, and there is a severe housing shortage. (In some ways his prediction did come true, although not quite to the degree that he imagined). The purpose of the Wessex Project is to suggest possible solutions to those problems by envisaging a future in which they have been overcome. The Communist England of by no means an idealised Utopia; it is, like the real Communist societies of the 1970s, bureaucratic and authoritarian. Neither, however, is it an Orwellian dystopia, but a relatively peaceful society, free of crime and shortages.

What it is not, however, is a futuristic society. In many ways the England of the 2130s is still the England of the 1970s with a different political system and a different geography. There have been no startling scientific innovations in the intervening sixteen decades; about the only invention that we would not recognise is the "skimmer", a device used in the popular sport of wave-riding along the tidal bores which race through the narrow channel between Wessex and the mainland. Priest suggests that mankind needs crises in order to make progress, as the search for solutions to social problems can lead to advances in science and technology. If those problems are somehow made to disappear by other means, the result could be a scientifically and socially conservative society, something like 1970s Communism preserved in aspic for a century and a half.

The most interesting theme of "A Dream of Wessex", however, is not the politics but the science, and the philosophical implications of that science. The book is an early example of that sub-genre of science fiction dealing with computer technology and artificial reality which has become known as "cyberpunk", although that term did not exist in 1977. If a virtual reality machine like the Ridpath Projector could actually be constructed, how would this alter our perception of reality? Would it even alter our perception of the basic concept of "reality"? Priest ends his story with a neat circular twist which brings these questions sharply into focus.

"A Dream of Wessex" is a multi-layered work. On one level it is simply a science-fiction adventure story. It is written in clear, transparent prose and the growing sense of tension in the latter part of the book had me turning the pages quickly in my anxiety to find out how Julia and her companions would resolve their difficulties. (This was the first full-length novel in several years that I finished in a single day). On another level, however, it fulfils that other essential function of intelligent science fiction, that of imaginative speculation about possible future developments in technology and the social implications of those developments. (In the "Star Wars" era of the late seventies, its "artificial reality" scenario must have come as a refreshing sci-fi alternative to the all-pervasive space travel theme). Finally, it is an intriguing philosophical speculation about the nature of reality.
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on 27 November 2011
A dream of Wessex is about a group of scientists attempting to predict the future by using a hypnotic, virtual-reality projector that links together minds in a future, would-be Britain while the bodies of the subjects remain inert in a stasis-like hypnotic trance. The idea is intriguing, and the characters are likeable and interesting enough, but unfortunately, the novel doesn't deliver what it initially seems to promise.

- Possible minor spoiler alert -

A dream of Wessex is one of Christopher Priests lesser known works and after having read it, I understand why. It's simply not as good as his later efforts (The Affirmation, The Separation, The Glamour etc) because the particular "Priest-style" so evident in those is, if not absent, so at least not nearly as well realized. When reading ADoW I found myself wondering: "This can't be all, surely there must be at least one or two more twists to the plot before the end", but as I got closer and closer to finishing it, I realized that there weren't going to be any. Don't get me wrong, the book is decent enough, but if you like me have read his later, far more intricate work, to read this after having read those feels like eating moldy bread and porridge after you've just had a three course dinner at a fancy, guide Michelin-class restaurant.

- End of possible minor spoiler alert -

To sum it up: A passable effort, but if you're looking for a novel to serve as a good introduction to the amazing world of Christopher Priest, I suggest you read The Affirmation instead.
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on 27 April 2015
A most unusual book. I was pleased I had to keep thinking throughout. An intriguing idea; a scary plot twist and a satisfactorily unusual ending.
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on 14 July 2015
Brilliant vision of a future VR unit from back in the late seventies; prophetic, involving, disturbing; a dream indeed.
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on 31 December 2014
Very pleased with my purchase
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