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The Extremes
Christopher Priest
St. Martin's Press, 400 pages

The Extremes
Christopher Priest
Christopher Priest's awards include receiving the 1974 BSFA Award for Inverted World and the 1996 World Fantasy Award for The Prestige. He is married to fellow-novelist Leigh Kennedy, and lives in Hastings, UK with their twin children.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Prestige
Christopher Priest Interview
Review of The Prestige
Review of The Prestige

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Christopher Priest is one of the best SF writers around, and he seems much less well-known in the US than perhaps he should be. He made quite an early splash with books like Fugue for a Darkening Island and The Inverted World, and with short stories like the remarkable "An Infinite Summer." His later books (such as The Affirmation, The Glamour, and most recently The Prestige) have been typically on the boundary between SF and the mainstream, which perhaps accounts for the diminished notice he has received within the American SF field. (As well, he published no novels in the US for 12 years between The Glamour and The Prestige, which might tend to lower an author's profile. (And this period featured only one novel in the UK, the mainstream work The Quiet Woman.)) His newest novel, The Extremes, published in 1998 in the UK and just now coming out in the US, is also on that boundary, and it's another good one.

Teresa Simons is an FBI agent married to another agent. When her husband is killed in Kingwood City, Texas, trying to capture a serial killer, Teresa, recovering, ends up travelling to England where she was born. She visits a seaside town named Bulverton where another serial killer went on a rampage the same day Teresa's husband was killed.

In Bulverton, Amy Colwyn and Nick Surtees are trying to make a go of Nick's parents' hotel/pub, which Nick inherited when his parents were murdered by the killer who also killed Amy's husband. However, neither knows much about running a hotel, nor is it what they really want from life, and their dissatisfaction is affecting their rekindled relationship.

It is to Nick and Amy's hotel that Teresa comes. Teresa is trying to make sense of her feelings about her husband's murder, and somehow thinks that it might help to study other people who have gone through the same thing. However, people don't want to talk to her. Teresa ends up spending more and more time at a place called Extreme Experience (ExEx), where virtual reality re-enactments of interesting activities are made. And the most popular activities, it turns out, are sex and famous murders.

Teresa has already used ExEx as part of her FBI training: FBI agents (as Priest would have it, for this book) use it to re-enact murder scenes from various points of view, trying to learn better how to handle these situations. While Teresa is drawn to the serial killing simulations, including, inevitably, those two which happened on the same day in Bulverton and Kingwood City, Nick and Amy face decisions about their futures when an Extreme Experience company offers them a lot of money to contribute their memories to a simulation of the Bulverton killings.

So far, this is a fairly straightforward near-mainstream novel. It's apparently set right about present time, and Priest has inserted the unlikely virtual reality technology as if it exists now. The scenes in ExEx are well done, believable and scary, and comment on our fascination with violence -- and to some extent on our complicity with it -- subtly, without lecturing. The writing is excellent, and the characters are fairly well drawn, although Teresa did a couple of things that I didn't quite buy.

Ah, but this is Christopher Priest. Anyone who has read a lot of Priest, especially, say, his very fine early novel A Dream of Wessex (aka The Perfect Lover), won't be terribly shocked at the direction The Extremes takes towards the end. Priest seems fascinated with reality and how our consciousness creates our reality, and as such could hardly be expected to resist the temptation presented by a subject such as extremely realistic VR simulations. His speculations here jump off the extrapolation track a bit, in my opinion, but they are fascinating, and the ending of this novel takes on a certain logic of its own. It's moving and interesting, and well constructed. I had a little trouble, as I've hinted, quite believing in it, but it works on its own terms.

That said, I was left feeling a bit like I'd read two books: one about what a cover blurb calls "the pornography of violence" and how people react and adapt to it; and another about consensus reality, and how VR might expand or alter that reality. Both subjects are interesting, and I still found this an absorbing novel, one of the best of 1998.

Copyright © 1999 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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