Review: The Adjacent Is Confusing, Maybe Unfinished

Cover image for The Adjacent
The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest
Cosmologists are embracing the idea of parallel universes or the multiverse, which writers of science fiction and fantasy have portrayed as mirrors or different versions of our own universe, with passageways between them. Other sciences have noticed that the laws of nature often lead to repeat, parallel performances, such as adaptations in unrelated creatures to similar environments. It’s said that eye of the octopus has a complicated structure comparable to the human eye, but the two species could not inhabit more unlike worlds. And we humans in middle-class societies think each of us lives in a world separate from our neighbors, when in fact all are on parallel tracks, with only minor differences among them. When we visit each other across the fence, it’s as if our separate, but parallel universes touch. Christopher Priest’s 2013 novel The Adjacent explores the next-ness of things, taking the reader down paths at once exciting and confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying, even frustrating.

Priest is probably best known for his award-winning 1995 novel The Prestige, adapted as a motion picture in 2006. In The Adjacent, Priest presents three stories in different times but with protagonists whose names all start with the letter “T.” The opening story begins with a photographer who has lost his wife to an attack with a new weapon of terrifying power that has baffled the security forces of a mid-21st century Islamic Republic of Great Britain. One aspect of this world is the shift of hurricane-style storms to higher latitudes as a result of climate change, but the devastating weather is tame compared to the annihilating effects of “the adjacency field.” Priest riffs on the gymnastics of quantum particles, which perform disappearing acts worthy of Las Vegas, without the smoke and mirrors. The characters are often unsure which reality they inhabit, leaving them, and sometimes the reader, disoriented.

What begins as a conventional dystopian mystery switches directions and timelines with the second and third threads. One takes place early in World War I, and the other during and after World War II. One ends in tragedy and failure, the other with a mysterious triumph. But it’s difficult to see the threads that connect the two, beyond a few motifs, such as magic and misdirection, flight and freedom, and the grand idea that love can transcend universes. The triangle–long a symbol of the occult–appears frequently in The Adjacent, reminding the reader of the strangeness of other realities, and the destruction that occurs when they clash. The last third of the book has a fourth fantasy with some crossover ideas. It’s almost a book within a book, like the famed Russian dolls, though its end becomes the beginning of the end of the first thread. Got that?

The stories touch and interweave, but none is complete and too much is unresolved for my taste. Few explanations are given, though some are hinted. For example, Priest suggests a defensive weapon based on adjacency that moves a threatening object, like a bullet, into a different quantum reality without destroying it. It’s a fascinating idea: Just tell the incoming missile to go somewhere or somewhen else. After suggesting a compelling problem–that the defensive weapon has been twisted into an offensive weapon by a terrorist organization–”adjacency” as a technology isn’t developed any further. Tell me more, Chris! In many ways, The Adjacent is a missed opportunity, or an unfinished work published too soon. Next time I see my neighbor across the fence, I’ll suggest something else to read.

Have you read The Adjacent? What do you think?

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