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The Condition of Brit – Forty Years on the Atlantic Shore
Christopher Priest

GoH Speech – August 2005, Interaction

For those of you who have never done this, let me assure you that the prospect of making a guest of honour speech at a worldcon is a bit daunting. I've been to worldcons before, and I've been a guest of honour before, but this is the first time the two have intersected. Almost certainly the last time, of course.

For me, an extra feature is that although I've been a familiar figure at British and European cons for many years, I'm not very well known in the USA. I'm glad to see that so many Americans are here this weekend, having braved the terrors of life in modern Britain. I'm referring of course to our total lack of a Labor Day weekend, and the strength of the pound against the dollar.

I must say that I'm a bit nervous of American fans. I know that many of them have weird ideas about who I am. On my first visit to the USA in 1980 I went to the worldcon in Boston, where I spent much of the time hanging around and getting to know people, as one does. I was then a mere slip of a lad. I wore jeans and a T-shirt, like many of the people there that hot weekend. Whenever I was introduced to someone, and they realized who I was, they almost always jumped with surprise or incredulity or even horror. It was done in a friendly way, but for a while I did wonder if it was some kind of American greeting ritual that no one had warned me about.

I eventually realized that the reaction was caused by the difference between what they saw before them and what they had presumably been expecting to see. That expectation seemed to be a sort of amalgam. I never quite worked it out, but I think I was expected to have the portly demeanour of Arnold Bennett, speak like a BBC news reader from WW2, have the manners of John Gielgud playing a butler, and perhaps show the fashion sense of Darth Vader.

Instead they got me. I might add that more or less the same mis-identification had happened to me three years earlier, the first time I went to Australia. It seems that being a Brit conveys a shorthand image in some way.

So what is Britishness? Maybe your heart sinks at the thought of the next 30 minutes exploring that less than fascinating question, so perhaps it's best to skip it. But I've called this talk "The Condition of Brit", because Britishness is something that permeates my soul and which I can never throw off. Perhaps how it manifests itself in me will emerge indirectly as I go along.


Here's a start.

In 1972, the guest of honour at the British Easter convention gave a speech of mind-numbing tediousness. His presentation was not helped by the fact that he turned his back to the audience for most of the time, while mumbling inaudibly at some drawings he had brought along and pinned up on the wall behind him. I'm too polite to name him.

I should explain that all British people are in general polite, so the audience for this unfortunate chap sat there quietly, but they were deeply bored, and also embarrassed because they were bored. No one liked to interrupt the great man. Gradually a thinly controlled and highly contagious amusement started replacing the embarrassment. Suddenly, Brian Aldiss could stand it no more. He leapt to his feet with a handkerchief over his nose, yelled about unstoppable gushing of blood, and to wild cheers from the audience ran to the safety of the bar next door. The rest of us remained where we were ... while our honoured guest mumbled on interminably. I was greatly impressed by Brian's ingenious escape, a memorable event. I don't think the speaker even noticed.

A few years later, in 1979, I was myself guest of honour at a British convention, this one Novacon, in Birmingham. It was my first guest-of-honourship, and I was even more nervous about my speech than I am about this one today. The day before, I was talking to some friends about how nervous I was, and remembered aloud the embarrassing situation in Larry Niven's speech. (Oh sod it! Sorry, Larry ... your name just slipped out.) My friends reassured me that nothing I said could be as tedious as that. The next day, at 2.00 in the afternoon, I took up my position on the platform ... and noticed that everyone in the front three rows was holding a handkerchief at the ready.


Fortunately, that Novacon wasn't too well attended, because 1979 happened to be the year of another worldcon in Britain. That one had been in Brighton. It was, at the time, the largest convention I'd ever been to.

But it was not in fact my first worldcon. That had been in 1965, at a crummy hotel above some shops in London's Oxford Street. I was in those days an unpublished writer with high hopes of breaking in, but my chances were few and my real life was dull. I was a deservedly underpaid trainee accountant, surviving on a tiny stipend from the extremely rich and mean firm that employed me. The hotel's room-charge per day was more than my weekly salary, but I came up with it somehow. I was determined to be there. I was involved in fandom, publishing fanzines and travelling all over the country to fannish gatherings, so to miss the worldcon was not an option. For those of you experiencing the luxury of hotels in Glasgow a mere forty years later, you might be interested to know that the full-board room rate for a British worldcon in 1965 was £7 a day ... that's about $12.00, or €10.00. I hope you don't remember this snippet of information when you come to pay your bill on Tuesday morning.

That worldcon was the first time I was ever invited to take part in a program item. I had to go on a panel discussion about publishing. Before it began I was so frightened I thought I was going to throw up. A few minutes before the start I ran to the nearest toilet and locked myself in, trying to release some of the nervous tension in me. All I could manage were a few pathetic farts. But soon I was distracted by the noises emanating from the cubicle next to mine. I tried not to imagine what was going on, but the painful groaning, heroic farting and other noises were so thrilling that my own sense of nausea began to feel trivial. After a while I let myself out, and by chance the person in the next cubicle exited from his too. I immediately recognized him: he was a famous science fiction writer. Five minutes later, I found myself sitting next to him once again, this time on the panel discussion. It was reassuring, but only a little, to realize that no matter how high you rise in this game, it still takes strong guts to step on to the platform at a worldcon.


My second worldcon came five years later, when the con went to Heidelberg in Germany. This was the first convention I ever went to where with Germanic thoroughness the programme items started and ended on time. Until then I had thought late running of the programme was a force of nature, but German efficiency taught me otherwise.

My other main memory from that convention is of the Hugo ceremony, when most of us were driven in buses up to Heidelberg Castle in the hills overlooking the town. Sitting in the seat immediately in front of me was a young science fiction writer I am far too polite to name, talking to one of the fans. Suddenly, there was an explosion of noise. "What do you mean?" shouted this young writer. "You've never heard of HARLAN? My God, everyone's heard of HARLAN! How come you've never heard of HARLAN?" Suddenly, he jumped up from his seat, and waved his arms wildly in the air to attract attention. "Hey, everybody! There's someone here who's never heard of HARLAN!" Meanwhile, the young fan who had been sitting with Stephen Goldin was blushing to the roots of his hair, shamed by his ignorance. He probably didn't notice me crouching low in my own seat. I too didn't know what a harlan was.

After the Hugo banquet, we emerged from the castle to discover two important facts. The first was that the buses that had brought us up the hill were no longer there to take us down the hill. The second was that it was pouring with rain. A row of taxis was waiting to cash in on everyone's misfortune. I was too broke to be able to afford a taxi, so with my then wife I set off to walk back to the town. Within a few seconds we were soaked through. Taxis carrying plutocrats like Robert Silverberg, John Brunner and Gerry Webb whooshed by us in the dark, carelessly splashing us. Then one slowed down beside us, and a window opened. Inside the cab was a famous American writer and editor I'd better not name. "Hey, you kids!" he shouted. "Would you like a lift back to town?" Thankfully we clambered in and joined him, dripping all over the car. I can't remember what any of us said during the short journey, but I do know I was over-awed to be in his presence. Now some thirty-five years later, this act of simple kindness still makes me think of Forrest J. Ackerman, Forry, with great affection.


I missed the 1975 worldcon, which was in Australia, but I sorely wished to be there. For the first time I had something on the Hugo ballot. My novel Inverted World had been nominated. This felt like a breakthrough. It was a tough year, because the other novels included The Mote in God's Eye, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and the novel that eventually won, The Dispossessed. I've no idea if my novel came second, third, fourth or fifth, but it didn't seem to matter. It was keeping wonderful company. For the most part.

Incidentally, at the same convention, the Hugo winner in the novelette category was a writer I'm probably too polite to name, with a story called, in full, "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans, Latitude thirty-eight degrees fifty-four minutes north, Longitude seventy-seven degrees zero minutes and thirteen seconds west". I understand the story itself was almost as long as the title, but not as well told. I hadn't read it, but I was beginning to find out what a harlan might be.

Fast-forwarding four years, we come back to Seacon, which was in Brighton in 1979. On the first evening I overheard an outburst of seemingly uncontrolled rage. I listened in of course – there's nothing like eavesdropping an argument you're not involved in. It turned out to be about a hat. It seemed that pros who went to the pro party were given a funny little hat to wear, to distinguish them from the common folk. I obviously cannot name the writer who was complaining so loudly, but it seemed there had not been a hat for him to wear. Or maybe there simply wasn't one big enough for his head. After that, at intervals throughout the rest of the convention weekend, I seemed to hear the whiney complaining sound of Jerry Pournelle's voice, endlessly finding fault. I gathered he wasn't enjoying the convention.

On the other hand, I was having a great time. I was up for another Hugo that year. My story "The Watched" was on the ballot for best novella, but in the end I didn't win. John Varley did, with his remarkable story "The Persistence of Vision". Once again I went away with the consolation that at least I had been beaten by a good story.

More or less the same thing happened a year later, at Noreascon II, in Boston. It was my first American convention, and I was up for a Hugo again, this time with my novelette called "Palely Loitering". Once again I failed to win – it went to George Martin's "Sandkings". I was starting to get a bit tired of being magnanimous, but I was still happy for George.


There's a gap here from 1980 to 1995, too long for me to simply say, "And the next worldcon I went to was – " as if nothing happened in between.

So fifteen years went by. During this time I wrote four more novels, a couple of novelizations and some short stories.

I suppose I should use this temporary break in progress to say something briefly about science fiction.

In spite of rumours you might have heard to the contrary, I claim that all my novels are SF, or something close to it. But I would also say that all my better novels are further away from the centre of science fiction than the others. I believe in the inner workings of SF: the way the unimaginable or the fantastic can be made to stand for things the reader is interested in, or feels about, or can be made to be interested in, or to feel about. There's a lot of imaginative muscle in fantastic literature, but to date it remains largely unflexed. It's my belief that we are still in early days, that we are only gathering speed, that the best is yet to come. In other words, the truly great classics of science fiction are not the ones we think we know about now, but ones which will be written at some time in the future.

What I'm less comfortable with are what you might call the outer workings of SF. I've never been happy with those. The surface qualities of science fiction are easily adaptable or corruptible, a fact which can be seen in almost any film or TV adaptation. The curse of all genre fiction is inbreeding, when success begets imitation or adaptation, when we are dazzled by the glittering exterior, not stunned by the secret depths. It has always been my contention that science fiction and fantasy is difficult to write well, and should present a satisfying challenge to the reader, with intelligence rewarded.

Other surface qualities involve generalizations of some kind. Long ago, I realized that whenever someone says "Science fiction IS", or "Science fiction SHOULD BE", I immediately start thinking of exceptions to that rule. Those exceptions are almost invariably stuff I like precisely because it can't be pinned down. What we call science fiction as a kind of unified lump should consist of a literature of unexpected ideas, found in individual works, written by individual writers in individual ways. The rest is hackwork.

Anyway, during this fifteen-year gap between worldcons I also developed an interest in investigative journalism. I wrote a few such articles for general magazines about chainstore bookselling and public funding of the arts. I found I enjoyed this kind of journalism – researching the subject thoroughly, looking through printed sources, phoning people up and asking them leading questions, trying to find and expose the untruths that people utter when they are doing something they feel guilty about. In an idle moment I began musing about the possibility of finding some subject closer to home, perhaps in the sf world, on which I could use the same sort of journalistic techniques.

It didn't take me long to remember the ongoing scandal of an unpublished and almost certainly unpublishable science fiction anthology called The Last Dangerous Visions, edited by someone whose name I'm too polite to utter. I won't go over the familiar ground here, but let me just say that I wrote an essay about the lousy way the book was being edited. At that time it had been going on for more than a decade and things seemed bad enough ... although the phrase "going on" does tend to suggest movement or progress. "Movement" and "progress" are the two words least associated with the project. Nothing has changed in the twenty years since I wrote the first draft of the essay. Anyway, there was no personal motive in this project. I simply enjoyed the technique of turning up embarrassing information, checking it was true, then writing about it.

I originally published the essay myself, distributing it as a fanzine at conventions. Almost at once, responses started pouring in from variously aggrieved writers who had sold stories to the anthology. The facts about this non-book grew steadily more detailed and better supported by the complaints of its victims. As they did so it became ever more awkward for the nameless one to explain. I put the text on the internet, where for years it was available as a free download. It continued to grow. The essay was eventually published as a proper book in 1994 under the title The Book on the Edge of Forever. There followed, inevitably, a threatening letter from Harlan Ellison's lawyers, demanding the book be withdrawn. So much for freedom of speech, a subject Ellison has often banged on piously about. But I think even his lawyers realized they didn't have a leg to stand on, and the problem was short-lived.

The following year the worldcon took place, here in Glasgow. I came along to it, partly because I had a new novel out, The Prestige, and partly because, once again, I was on the Hugo ballot. This time it was with a non-fiction book called ... The Book on the Edge of Forever.

The truth is that for me the material in the book had been around so long I couldn't imagine anyone being interested in it any more. I know that almost anything PRO Ellison or ANTI Ellison will always be supported by lunatic fringes. But it seemed to me that the general appeal of my book was limited and that it wouldn't have much interest for most people.

Perhaps that wasn't true, though. A few months before the convention, a number of people told me that a groundswell of support was developing, and that the non-fiction Hugo category was going to be the hot ticket that year. I was briefly flattered, until I heard the rest. The groundswell of support was apparently not for me, but for a book of memoirs, published posthumously by Isaac Asimov. As Dr Asimov's readership is approximately a million times bigger than mine, it seemed likely the winner of the non-fiction Hugo would be a foregone conclusion. It turned out, though, that a lobbying campaign had begun in favour of the Asimov memoirs. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that he of the unutterable name appeared to be leading this campaign, exhorting all and sundry to do the right thing and Vote Asimov. What could he have been thinking?

Well, the Hugo ceremony came along, and once again the award was given to another book. It went, of course, to Isaac Asimov's memoirs ... and deservedly so. Once again, I donned a rueful face and consoled myself.

Later, I found I did have something to celebrate. It turned out that the voting in that category had been close, and that there were only four final-round votes between Asimov's book and mine. Just as well, perhaps, that there had been so much lobbying for him.

Better still, I discovered immediately after the worldcon that my friend with the unutterable name had had a Plan B in case I did win. Two of my professional colleagues had been recruited as his goons. The idea was that if by some terrible misfortune I should win the Hugo, they were to dash up on the platform and interrupt my acceptance speech by beating me up.

Of course, this time, joking apart, I can't possibly name names. Not even by accident in a moment. Incitement to assault is of course a criminal offence.

This year, you'll be relieved to know, I am not up for another Hugo. In fact, you couldn't be more pleased than I am. I said at the beginning what a terrifying prospect making this speech is, but I can assure you it has nothing on being at an awards ceremony, sitting in the audience, waiting for your name to be read out. My sympathies therefore go out to the writers on the list this year ... many of whom, as a lot of people have noted, are from the United Kingdom.

I'm afraid my experience of the Hugo has always been in a secondary role, so I'm not in much of a position to offer advice to the winners. All I can say is that if you win, and should you spot, say, John-Henri Holmberg or Norman Spinrad in the audience, keep your acceptance speech short.


In year 2000 I was at a conference of the fantastic in Venice. The final presentation was by an Italian film critic, whose name I cannot divulge. In fact, if I did you wouldn't have heard of him. Also, he'd probably sue me for what I'm about to say. He discoursed on the semiotics of SF films. In case this sounds even remotely interesting, I should explain that his method was to make obscure and Zen-like didactic statements illustrated by video clips. I know that still sounds as if it has possibilities, so here's a brief example.

He would say, with great seriousness, something like, "Science fiction IS." He would then show a three-minute clip of silent film, with a tree waving gently in a breeze. Bob Sheckley, Gail Dana, Pat Cadigan and Geoff Ryman were at the same conference. They will bear out the fact that I am not exaggerating.

I got the idea pretty quickly, as did everyone else in the audience, but we were of course trapped by politeness, and the refusal of our noses to bleed. Enrico Ghezzi, for he is the one you've never heard of, droned on like this for nearly two hours. Meanwhile, it was time to close the conference, and you could see the organizers becoming increasingly anxious to get this madman off the stage before their public liability insurance expired. Soon they were desperate. Two of them went on to the stage and forced him to stop. As Signor Ghezzi was carried vertically into the wings, he could be heard yelling, "But I have eighteen more important things to say!"

Well, I have been talking quite a while, but I have two more important things to say. I'll keep them as brief as possible. Then I'll finish.


The first is serious, and I raise it because this is the only moment in my career when I command what amounts to a world stage.

A few years ago I discovered that a young comics writer called James Owsley had changed his name to mine. It was a deliberate act, and he knew of my existence. The only reason he's ever given in public for this irrational act is his belief that the name "Christopher Priest" is cool. In fact, he said "co-o-ol." At first I thought it was a joke, then I thought it must be an error, and then at last I thought it was time for me to do something. When I contacted his publisher, an Owsley enthusiast called Brian Augustyn, I was told that the decision was made. It wouldn't now be reversed, and it was "Chris"'s inalienable right to call himself anything he liked. I should, in fact, praise the Lord for the good fortune of being born with such a co-o-ol name. When I pointed out, with good reason, that the worlds of science fiction and comics are perilously close to each other, and often confused with each other in the minds of certain people, I was told that the sheer excellence of Chris's writing would permanently set him apart from everyone else. Including, presumably, me.

Since then, "Chris" and I have been regularly and routinely muddled up with each other. Enter my name in and you'll see what I mean. A search in Google, or any other search engine, produces the same result. I often receive e-mails intended for him – I assume he often receives mine.

So without much effort this impostor has been not only irritating but seriously annoying. For several years I tried to take a tolerant, amused line on the problem, thinking that he'd get tired of the gag after a bit, but he shows no sign of it. Now, twice in the last twelve months, I have heard comments that publishers have had unpleasant experiences working with "Christopher Priest" and don't want to work with "me" again. So as well as him being irritating and annoying, his professional incompetence is damaging me.

I'm not amused any more. My message is this. If you hear my name mentioned in any context, please remember what I've said and ask yourself if you're sure which one of us it is. Beyond that, if anyone here has the least influence on him, please use it.

I don't bear him any ill-will. All I want him to do is change his name back. He's done it once, so there's no great difficulty in doing it again. In fact, I suggested this during my conversation with his publisher. I even proposed a new by-line for him. I said, "Why doesn't he call himself ... 'Harlan Ellison'?"

Mr Augustyn said, "That's not a co-o-ol name."


We are getting near the end. Of course, the irony of this wretched business is not lost on me. Many of my books are about identical twins, doubles, name-changes, doppelgängers, mistaken identity, separation, alternatives, parallels. If any writer deserves to have an impostor it clearly should be me.

My most recent novel, The Separation, is typical. It deals with twins and doubles, people who played ambivalent or diversionary roles during WW2.

One of them is probably the most famous protagonist of all from that war – Winston Churchill, who appears in my novel as a character. While I was writing the book I discovered that something had happened to him that was intriguingly similar to James Owsley's imposture of me. Early in his writing career, Churchill learnt that there was an American novelist writing under the same name. People were continually muddling them up. Just like I have found, letters kept turning up at the wrong address. In Churchill's case, the problem was less aggravating than mine, because by innocent chance both Winston Churchills had been born with the name. It was sorted out amicably over dinner in New York. During that meal Churchill, the famous one, agreed to modify his published name. This is why his subsequent books appeared under the name "Winston S. Churchill."

Similarities continue, because recently Owsley has taken to calling himself "Christopher J. Priest". Presumably he thinks that makes it all right. I wasn't consulted, I didn't agree to it, and I certainly didn't have dinner with him.

Twins and doubles seem to be everywhere, especially in a time of war. One of the things that our masters, the politicians, get up to is to employ physical doubles. These lookalikes have to stand in for them when the real man wants to be somewhere else. Sometimes it's dangerous. You may remember a novel by Robert Heinlein called Double Star, based on that idea.

Reading about World War 2 I discovered that both Hitler and Stalin routinely used doubles. Then I remembered that most of Churchill's famous wartime speeches were recorded by a voice double, the actor Norman Shelley. There was another well-known case, in which an actor impersonated Field-Marshal Montgomery in the weeks leading up to D-Day. All this goes on into the present day: Saddam Hussein is known to have used a dozen lookalikes ... probably the twelve worst jobs in the world.

There is a crank conspiracy theory (the sort I love) about Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy. The theory was one of the early driving forces behind my novel, although once I got stuck into it I found Hess took only a relatively minor part in the story.

However, the theory is wonderful. It suggests that when Hess famously flew to Scotland on his peace mission in 1941, it wasn't him at all but an actor who looked like him. A certain amount of evidence corroborates this astonishing idea, and intriguingly it was reinforced by a cover-up by the British government. In 1941 Churchill ordered the official files on Hess to be closed for seventy years. They remain closed today, and won't be opened for another six years.

A second crank theory about Rudolf Hess suggests that the double was himself replaced by another Hess lookalike, this one a Swiss agent who worked for the British. After the Nuremberg war-crimes trial in 1946, he loyally allowed himself to be thrown into prison for the rest of his life, a mystery in itself which the theory doesn't attempt to explain. The real Rudolf Hess had allegedly come to Britain by a different route and started secret negotiations for peace in 1941.

The more I delved into all this, the more I came to the conclusion that World War 2 had probably been fought and led by doubles, lookalikes and wannabees. Even our sacred royal family seems to have joined in. At least their involvement would explain why the Hess files have been sealed for so many years.

Our late king, George VI, was one of three brothers. Although the brothers weren't identical, they were close in age and they did bear a remarkable physical resemblance to each other. They also had curiously similar names.

To start with, King George wasn't called 'George' at all. His real name was Albert, and he was known to his family and friends as 'Bertie'. Bertie, or Albert, had three middle names, one of which was George.

Albert George became King George after the abdication of his older brother Edward VIII. Edward, who looked just like his brother Albert, had seven Christian names, and they included Edward, Albert and George.

Albert George and Edward Albert George had a younger brother who also looked just like them. His name was George and he also had the Christian name Edward.

The interesting thing about this royal George Edward, the younger brother of the two kings, is that he died in a plane crash. He was in a flying-boat that hit a mountain in the Highlands of Scotland.

That alone is a mystery, since flying-boats rarely flew over land, let alone through mountains. To this day secrecy surrounds the crash. One of the possible reasons for the secrecy is an intriguing one. When the rescuers went through the wreckage they found an extra body, someone who was not on board when the plane first took off.

Evidence exists that this extra passenger was Rudolf Hess, whom the plane had just allegedly picked up from a hideout next to a Scottish loch, surrounded by awkwardly high mountains. Very embarrassing, if the German Deputy Fuhrer was on the same plane as a member of the German-born British royal family. Could this be why Churchill sealed the files until 2011? It's only two or three years since the death of the Queen Mother ... so Churchill's seventy years starts to look like a good estimate. The Queen Mother was of course married to Albert George, Bertie, otherwise known as George VI.

Of course, it might have been Hess's double who was on the flying-boat. Or it might even have been Hess's double's double.

And it might have been one of the other Georges ...

If you're getting confused, welcome to my world.

I spent two productive years picking my way happily through this stuff, and the result was The Separation. This is the novel that every publisher in New York rose up with one voice to declare unpublishable, and which therefore is more or less unknown outside Britain, France and Spain ... where it has been on the scale of things a best-selling title. However, I'm pleased to say that a hardcover is at last to appear in the US, from Old Earth Books, so if you have any money left after paying your hotel bill, here's your chance. Almost nothing that I've just told you is in the novel, but was part of the background, the wallpaper of the mind, while I was writing.

The book opens with Churchill's discovery that one of his operational RAF bomber pilots appears to have a double life, negotiating peace with the Nazis. The complications unravel from there.


I seem to have run out of important things to say. Before my friends Holmberg and Spinrad run on to the platform to shut me up for good, let me express my sincere appreciation to the convention for making me Guest of Honour this year. It's been a wonderful treat for me and the family, my wife Leigh Kennedy and the kids, Simon and Elizabeth. I'm also grateful to you for sitting still for so long, with only a few handkerchiefs in sight.

Thank you.