Christopher Priest, Expect Me Tomorrow (2002) and Some Thoughts on Temporal Structure and Whether It is an ‘Overshoot Novel’

One of the thoughts I had while reading Niall Harrison’s very recent, excellent article for Strange Horizons, ‘In Search of Green Overshoots’ – in which he discusses multistranded time-hopping novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and defines a particular category of these as ‘overshoot novels’ because their trajectory takes us from the past, through the present, and into the future – is how does Expect Me Tomorrow fit into this typology. Having looked at the novel again carefully, I’d say more awkwardly than I first thought for a couple of reasons.

First, it doesn’t follow a regular structure in the same way as Cloud Atlas does. As Harrison explains:

A simple notation [demonstrates the] structure … of Cloud Atlas: if we use [P] to indicate the present, or the strand set closest to when the novel was published, and the letters A to O to indicate strands set before the present (with A being the earliest), we can reserve the letters Q to Z to indicate strands set after the present (with Z being the latest)—and Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA.

In particular, what Harrison defines as an ‘overshoot novel’ has a linear structure which extends into the future. For example, another novel by Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014), has a structure which he represents using the same notation as ABC[P]YZ. However, the category doesn’t always have to be so clear cut, as is demonstrated by the structure of a 1998 novel by Mona Clee with the actual title of Overshoot, which Harrison came across while researching uses of ‘overshoot’ in literary contexts and notates as: YAYBYCYDYEYEYEYE[P]YZ. This variation is due to the novel being narrated in retrospect through a framing narrative, but, despite this, we can still see that the underlying temporal progression of the novel is linear.

This cannot really be said of Expect Me Tomorrow, which I tentatively translate into Harrison’s notation as DJBC[X]EHF[X]GHI[X/I/X]J[X/A/X]K/X (!). This is obviously much more messy and fluid, although I think we can see that there is at least some sort of broad linear progression. I haven’t used [P] to indicate the present because ‘the strand set closest to when the novel was published’ is set in 2050 and the novel does not extend any further into the future. If I labelled the scenes set in 2050 as [P] – the future represented in them is a recognisable extrapolation of current trends – then the novel wouldn’t be an ‘overshoot’ novel at all. However, I think there is a future implied beyond the scenes set in 2050. Furthermore, I had the feeling at times that the narration of the novel was from the vantage point of our present. By this, I mean more than the fact that Priest wrote the novel during the pandemic year of 2020 (see below). In places, such as the first chapter describing a court case from 1877 (and the eighth, tenth and twelfth chapters describing court cases from 1896 and 1904), the implied narration could be taken as coming from our present. Priest might have presented these chapters as extracts of a specific source from 2050 but he doesn’t; it reads like authorial narration: ‘In May 1877 a trial took place at the Central Criminal Court in London, and became the first act in the story that follows.’ The second chapter is narrated from the first-person viewpoint of Adler Beck writing in 1904 (J in the above notation), which I take as the present for his sections of the novel, which, run from B to K (so, you can see that there is an ‘overshoot’ to the Beck arc of the overall narrative). The 2050 scenes, which mostly centre on Chad Ramsey, are written in the third person, but we might choose to understand these as a story being told to us by the narrator of the opening sentence of the book and, therefore, it is not correct to label 2050 as [P].

The other reason Expect Me Tomorrow is perhaps an awkward fit as an ‘overshoot novel’ is that some of the time hopping is due to a sort of time travel, enabled by use of the below-mentioned ‘IMC’ device in conjunction with another gadget. I’ve indicated this in the notation through the use of the diagonal slash: X/I/X. I don’t think having an explicit time-travel device necessarily disqualifies a novel from being considered according to overshoot criteria. It would depend on how the story is narrated, but there is the issue that once you have some kind of time-travel device then it is possible to short circuit the basic linearity which underpins the category. So, it’s another complicating factor. Of course, such devices come in a number of forms and Priest uses more than one in the novel. Perhaps the most commonplace piece of time-travel technology in general use in our world is the book, which allows one-way communication between the past and future. The final chapter of Expect Me Tomorrow, which is dated both 1905 and 2050 (K/X in my notation), ends with Chad reading the postscript of Adler Beck’s book, published in the earlier year. The other time-travel, or perhaps time-condensation, moment occurs when a receding glacier in 2050 reveals material from 1853, the earliest point in the novel (a section of the narrative I have designated as X/A/X).

So, I have explained in some detail why Expect Me Tomorrow is, at best, an awkward fit for the overshoot paradigm. Why then discuss it in these terms? Because as Harrison notes: ‘The majority of overshoot novels which I have encountered or been able to research are, like Overshoot, focused on environmental, anthropocene-era concerns’. Such novels are, of course, ‘green overshoot’ novels, hence the title of Harrison’s article. In developing this argument, he quotes Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions to the effect that ‘climate change is not just a “theme” in fiction. It remakes basic narrative operations’. On this point, I would direct you to Harrison’s discussion in the article and the various critics he refers to. However, I couldn’t help wondering whether there are actually two parallel processes going on here: one being how the need to make sense of climate change drives a shift in how narrative functions and the other being how the sustained commitment to rework narrative (such as demonstrated over Priest’s career) itself drives a paradigm change, with the potential of opening the doors of human perception, and thus releasing us from the consensus reality of industrial modernity, so that we can actually change our ways. In other words, Expect Me Tomorrow continues the overshoot trajectory of Priest’s own oeuvre, which I have described as ‘a persistence of the New Wave’ that refuses to collapse into the imposed coherence of consensual capitalist realism. At which point, let me insert this slightly revised version of my review of Expect Me Tomorrow which first appeared in BSFA Review 19 (Winter 2022).

Expect Me Tomorrow by Christopher Priest (Gollancz, 2022)

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

As reported on his blog, Christopher Priest wrote Expect Me Tomorrow, his seventeenth novel, over the course of the 2020 pandemic period, submitting the manuscript at the end of October of that year at more-or-less the same time as his previous novel, The Evidence, was published. It has therefore taken nearly two years to come out in English, although a French edition, Rendez-vous demain, has already been published in April 2022. In the meantime, Priest has written another ‘new book’, which is due out next year [i.e. 2023]. It’s not clear, but I presume this will also be a novel [it will indeed be a novel, with the title Airside]; at which point Priest will have published seven novels and a substantial collection of short stories since 2011. In other words, he has produced a major body of internationally respected work in the twenty-first century proper (understood as beginning after the financial crash of 2008) that deserves to be considered highly significant in terms of both artistic creation and (admittedly sometimes oblique) social commentary. In Expect Me Tomorrow, decades of writerly craft are honed to produce not the great British novel, but a deadpan, darkly comic anti-novel charting the attenuated social life of the island we live on against the backdrop of radical climate change across a period of nearly 200 years.

The novel begins with a third-person omniscient (possibly authorial) discussion of the 1877 trial of ‘John Smith’, a petty con man preying on women, before skipping forward briefly to 1904, to the first-person account of glaciologist and climate scholar Professor Adler J. Beck, who is completing the proofing of his forthcoming book, Take Heed! – A Scientist Warns of the Terror to Come. Beck looks back at his career over the previous decades and also ponders the relationship with his bohemian twin brother, Adolf, which is mainly conducted via the letters that ‘Dolf’ dictates to passing acquaintances found during the course of his travels. Meanwhile, in 2050, Adler’s descendant Chad Ramsey lives in an increasingly heatwave- and sea-ravaged Hastings, where he works as a profiler for the police, and occasionally communicates with his twin brother, Greg, a freelance political journalist. The set-up sounds familiar, but Priest has teased on his blog, ‘To anyone who has read some of my past books I should mention that this time there are two sets of identical twins, but no one muddles them up and none of them is a magician.’ This is also misdirection because despite the 19C sections, Expect Me Tomorrow bears far less resemblance to The Prestige than to the counterfactual alternate history of The Separation; indeed, at one point we are told that ‘Chad and Greg Ramsey were born in 2002’, which was the year of publication of that latter novel.

Chad, who allows an ‘instant mental communication’ (‘IMC’) device to be inserted into his brain while away on a training course, which turns out to be shortly followed by his redundancy, is possibly the most extreme example of distracted detachment in (in)action within the entire Priest canon. At some level, he embodies what we all, by falling for misdirection, have allowed to be done to us by climate change, which is a man-made artefact of capitalism. However, there is a lot else going on in this novel, which in an unexpected parallel with Kim Stanley Robinson’s equally climate-centred The Ministry for the Future, led me to look up a fair amount of science, not to mention British legal history and even the changing name of Norway’s capital city, on Wikipedia (there is also a useful bibliography at the end of Expect Me Tomorrow). To be sure, Priest is not as didactic as Robinson, although he might be read as strongly suggesting it would be a good idea to move away from the South-East coast and possibly go as far as Scotland or Norway. Indeed, the title of this novel might best be understood as a warning.

Afterword: Or a promise. We usually talk about ‘tomorrow’ in the present tense as though it is in fact part of the present and will be a straightforward continuation of today; we go to bed and then we wake up and we’re already there in tomorrow. The vast majority of people never experience the alarm clock’s call as presenting a Sartrean existential choice. But that’s misdirection. Tomorrow isn’t part of the present and as Priest’s novel demonstrates, the promise of tomorrow can be redeemed from even more than 150 years in the future. Or, rather, we are still awaiting, as we have been for more than 150 years, for the arrival of the ‘tomorrow’ to the Age of Industrial Modernity…but it will come. As Harrison writes, ‘It’s that tipping-over [into the future] that gives [overshoot] novels with this structure, for me at least, a distinctive affect: the compelling sense that, for one reason or another, they cannot be fully resolved without extrapolation’. That’s the feeling that Priest’s novels have always given me and why I continually go back to them (and forward to each new one). Not always in relation to climate change to be sure, but definitely in this case. So, my conclusion is that Expect Me Tomorrow is not a typical green overshoot novel but exactly what you would expect to result from Priest setting out to write a green overshoot novel.


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