'Fugue For A Darkening Island' was the second novel published by Christopher Priest and -as he has admitted in print - his first true novel, since its predecessor ('Indoctrinaire' -reissued as a singleton for the first time in decades by Gollancz in 2014) was composed by bolting together two novellas. It is undoubtedly an utter and absolute classic of New Wave SF writing and a key British disaster novel. It stands alongside such masterpieces as the 1960s and early 1970s novels of J G Ballard and matches - arguably surpasses - the disaster fiction of John Wyndham and Keith Roberts. It is, in my opinion, a massively underrated novel. In its bleakness and prophetic power, it almost matches Orwell too.
The premise is simple. A near-future UK where a right-wing government has come to power is beset by a massive influx of African refugees (or as they are known in the book 'Afrims' - a compound word in Orwellian newspeak style that meshes 'african immigrants' into a staccato bit of slang) who have fled to Europe in the wake of African civil wars that have incolved nuclear weapons and we see how one man -an ineffectual, vaguely liberal college lecturer- deals with the reality of a civil war in Britain as the country divides into factions according to their different responses to the arrival of a number of Africans who reach he UK on ships and who are soon embroiled in the resultant conflict themselves, more often than not aggressively.
It may be important to note here that Priest derives 'Afrims' from the word 'immigrants' rather than 'refugees', as this novel was partially inspired by Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech. 'Immigrants' of course, has different (arguably pejorative in our current political climate) connotations to the word 'refugees', which is a word that encourages our humanitarian impulses. The author is perhaps subtly, but pointedly making clear that the subject of the book is immigration and perhaps that this word is often read as 'invasion'. Priest has gone on the record regarding the Powellite inspiration, has not to my knowledge stated his own political stance on the issues the novel raises - he is, of course, a novelist, whose only duty is to tell a story well and vividly in accordance with his own aesthetic aims of self-expression - but he has said that when the book first appeared in hardcover, it was reviewed positively in the New Statesman as being a great anti-racist work, while a review of the paperback edition a year later in the same magazine criticised the book for its racism. My point is that this book is fiction and that readers should not and cannot with any authority divine what the authors' stance is- all too often readers make the utterly groundless assumption that a central character (or indeed any character) in a book is the mouthpiece of the author. I'm not saying some authors don't do this (Robert Heinlein was allegedly famous for creating didactic characters who supposedly muttered the authors' beliefs), but you can't assume anything about an authors' personal views from a characters' opinions. Priest is, as anyone who has read him knows, a master of misdirection, disorientation and unreliable narrators and has been for many decades (suddenly, the general reading public are finally getting a handle on this due to a few recent thrillers that have used these techniques clumsily) and it is a big part of his art that you cannot ever know what reality is in an objective sense. Like Philip K Dick - whom I believe Priest should be compared to a lot more than he is in this respect - Priests' ultimate message is (in my informed opinion) the nature of subjectivity.
Several reviewers here have made much of how fractured, disorienting and oblique Priests' narrative technique is in the book, which is comprised of multiple flashbacks throughout. You can, in fact, read the book in conventional linear narrative order if you wish, as one study of Priests' work points out ('Christopher Priest' by Nicholas Ruddick, number 59 in the Starmont Reader's Guide series, published 1989, actually lists the chronological order of the 69 segments that make up the book) and having tried the this once, the book is utterly consistent and elegantly constructed. However, to avoid the pitfall of what Brian Aldiss called the 'cosy catastrophe', Priest took a more subjective, kaleidoscopic, Burroughsian approach that was completely in line with the formal experimentation of British New Wave writing (Priest, of course, coined this term for the new literary/experimental SF of the 1960s) and entirely suitable for the subject matter. What could be more jarring, assaultive and terrifying for a mildly cowardly liberal repressed English minor academic than a violent situation that forces him to actually stop thinking of his 'values' as carefully selected politically correct reaction postures that reflect the 'progressive' social beliefs of his circle and confront the true reality of his situation and the actuality of his beliefs?
'Fugue' is a deliberately uncomfortable book as it addresses our own discomforts about what we actually think, what we say we believe, how we think we'd act in a crisis of massive paradigm-shifting proportions and how we'd actually act. Do we really know what we'd do in a situation like that the protagonist of the book is faced with? At times we as readers hate him, at others we sympathise. Some readers have said the book is too cold, that there is no empathy, that there are no sympathetic characters. Again, in fiction, there are no rules about this sort of thing - least of all in New Wave SF - characters don't have to be sympathetic and writers don't have to make it easy for readers to create beings they can 'identify' with, My own feeling is that there's uncomfortably more in the main character in this book to identify with than may readers will think.
The abrasive and unforgiving nature of the novel is something I personally found very exciting and thought-provoking. It does work as great SF entertainment and shouldn't challenge any reader who goes beyond blockbusters as it is lucid and readable due to Priests' celebrated flat, clear prose style. It's also a rare example of an SF novel that has grown more and more relevant as the years go by - it predates the original boat people crisis by many, many years, it reflects the current civil wars in Africa (caused more prosaically by the folly of traditional tribal beliefs and the spread of fundamentalist Islam) and the current diaspora to a Europe that some believe is too soft and accomodating of 'alien' non-enlightenment cultural beliefs, TV news regularly telling us of hundreds of refugees drowning or being rescued by the Italian navy. Luckily, none of the non-Western nations that have nukes have used them yet, nor have any of the middle eastern 'people of the book' got hold of them yet (may that situation long continue!), but this book reveals that Priest was dead on in terms of prophecy...but let's hope things don't go as far as they do in the novel. It's very fashionable in SF circles to say that good SF isn't meant to be prophetic, but metaphorical instead, and while I agree with this up to a point, the very best speculative fiction can work as both metaphor and prophecy. 'Fuge for a Darkening Island' does both.
So while this book does lack a simple linear structure, 'sympathetic' characters (Priest can, does and has written these, you just need to read his work thoroughly - there are very sympathetic and realistic female characters in 'The Extremes', 'The Quiet Woman' and 'A Dream of Wessex' to name just three that spring to mind) - and a definitively positive message, instead it is uncompromising, clever, breathtaking and visionary. Not all novels have to be the same and I for one am very, very thankful to Chris that he continues to produce amongst the very best SF - and indeed the very best novels - since the rise of modernism and the spread of postmodernism.
To sum up: 'Fugue' is arguably the most relevant novel of its kind published in the last forty years, standing alongside 'Molly Zero' by Keith Roberts, 'Crash' by J G Ballard and 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' by George Orwell as a towering example of speculative literature. Once the likes of Michel Faber, Ishiguro, Atwood and all those other (often very talented, often not) mainstream movelists who have dismissed magazine-originated SF in the past (claiming they are not doing SF when they write a 'dystopia' or a 'fantasy') can come up with something as muscular and vital as this, the cardinal inspiration, influence and audacity of British New Wave SF will finally get its rightful place in the sun.
Stephen E Andrews, author, '100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels'