Fugue For A Darkening Island by Christopher Priest (1972) 125 p.

This book was bundled in an omnibus (how quaint!) with Inverted World, and I’m not entirely sure why. Aside from being science fiction novellas written by the same author, they don’t have much in common. One is a gripping, creative science fiction mystery, while the other is a fairly generic dystopian apocalyptic story, which was both unremarkable and somewhat disturbing.

Fugue For A Darkening Island presents a tale of gradual social collapse that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever read Wyndham or Christopher; typically the only variable in these stories is what causes the collapse. In this case it’s a nuclear war in Africa sending millions of refugees flooding onto British shores.

And this is the disturbing part. For much of the book, I thought it was severely racist: a story of thuggish blacks invading the white British homeland and causing death, anarchy and destruction. It was written more than thirty-five years ago, before the UK became the multi-cultural melting pot it is today, when the idea may have reflected the concerns of many British citizens (or, alternatively, the concerns of many citizens in modern-day Australia). As the book progressed, it seemed somewhat less racist – the British government in the story is extremely right-wing, fascist and engaged in overt genocide, and the narrator is portrayed as a hapless civilian refugee caught up between the two forces, light and dark. He sums it up in the last few pages:

In my unwitting role as a refugee I had of neccesity played a neutral role. But it seemed to me it would be impossible for this to continue in the future. I could not stay uncommitted forever.

In what I had seen and heard of the activities of the Secessionist forces, it had always appeared to me that they had adopted a more humanitarian attitude to the situation. It was not morally right to deny the African immigrants an identity or a voice. The war must be resolved one way or another in time, and it was now inevitable that the Africans would stay in Britain permanently.

On the other hand, the extreme actions of the Nationalist side, which stemmed initially from the conservative and repressive policies of Tregarth’s government (an administration I had distrusted and disliked) appealed to me on an instinctive level. It had been the Africans who had indirectly deprived me of everything I once owned. Ultimately, I knew the question depended on finding Isobel. If she and Sally had not been harmed my instincts would be quieted…

Priest appears to be arguing here that while we will always harbour a natural instinct to distrust the Other, defend our family and fight off outsiders, we should rise above that with our intelligence and civilisation, and hold to the better part of human nature. This is a wise argument, which is also the defining theme of Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite books of all time.

Yet there are certain elements of Fugue For A Darkening Island that still seem racist – white Secessionist forces always treat the protagonist more humanely than black militants, there’s an unrealistic shallowness to the portrayal of African refugees (a fairly unified force that speaks Swahili across the board), and there’s the squirming feeling I get simply from reading this scenario put into words. It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis – the population of the Third World greatly outnumbers that of the First, and Europe and Africa are geographically close… though you’d think continental Europe would cop the brunt of it, rather than Britain. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the handful of Muslim riots in France, which right-wingers interpret as evidence that immigration has turned Paris into a corpse-strewn wasteland identical to Mogadishu, and that some kind of apartheid should naturally be introduced.

I digress. I don’t want to accuse Priest of being racist. Science fiction is all about exploring speculative scenarios, especially with a political bent to them, and while significant parts of the book made me uneasy I’m not going to cast judgement on his decision to write it.

But, having barely cleared the political correctness board, Priest must now pass the literary merit test. And he fails. Fugue For A Darkening Island, allegations of racism aside, is simply not a very good book. The bulk of it consists of the protagonist scavenging, conflicting with other parties of survivors, picking up what bits of news that he can and wandering through refugee camps and ruined towns looking for his family. It’s not a badly realised world, but neither is it an original or compelling one. This isn’t helped by Priest’s decision to tell the story in four different timeframes at once, rapidly switching between them, mixing up pointless adolescent sexual misadventures and taking us through the protagonist’s marriage problems. Finally, the cold and detached tone that seemed perfectly natural in Inverted World does him a great disservice here, portraying the narrator as an emotionless bastard with a tediously analytical mind. Fugue For A Darkening Island is a fairly unremarkable book, which is why I was so puzzled at the decision to bundle it with Inverted World, an excellent science fiction classic.