EXPECT ME TOMORROW by Christopher Priest (BOOK REVIEW)
“How much longer could they continue to live here? The impossibility of life in this constant heat, the risk and inconvenience of venturing outside, the sense of disaster about to strike, the feeling of only being able to survive by holing up in a house clearly doomed to become unliveable soon. Britain was a place that was still somehow pulling through, but those who lived there managed that only by closing their minds to the horror of what was happening almost everywhere else.”
Christopher Priest’s latest novel Expect Me Tomorrow (2022), unlike his previous novel The Evidence (2020), is not set in his Dream Archipelago, but it is very much involved in the weighing up of evidence and the eternal Priestian theme of the fallibility of our own personal perspectives. It’s also very much a novel about climate change, a book that portrays a near future shaped by anthropogenic changes in the climate and investigates the geological history of the planet. Priest achieves this by focusing on the personal lived experience of his characters, in a narrative that mixes historical fiction with the speculative near future. It stands as an excellent work of imaginative speculative fiction and one of Priest’s most urgent and engaged novels across his remarkable career.
Expect Me Tomorrow is told across two narrative strands, featuring two sets of identical twins, another one of Priest’s favourite recurring motifs. The first strand, taking place in the late 19th century, focuses on Adolf and Adler Beck. Adler is a glaciologist who has become obsessed with the potential threat of a looming ice age coming into existence as a result of the changes to the climate caused by humanity and the industrial revolution, whilst Adolf, the more wayward brother, travels to South America to become an opera singer before getting involved in a variety of investments, none of which work out particularly well for him. The brothers are both haunted by a mysterious voice that contacts them inside their heads, asking confusing questions. The second strand is set in the 2050s, and follows the twins Chad and Greg Ramsey. Greg is a political journalist, whilst Chad is a psychological profiler who has recently been let go by the police force. Equipped the IMC, a cutting edge invasive piece of technology permanently installed in his head, and with ample free time on his hands, Chad begins investigating the mystery of their disgraced Uncle Adolf, an obscure relative of the Ramsey family who is known to be disgraced and to have spent time in prison. As the two narratives progress, Adler’s anxieties about the coming ice-age are played against Chad’s lived reality in a near-future Hastings blighted by scorching heat and rising sea levels. Matters are further complicated when Chad’s friend, Pat O’Connell, gets him a freelance job untangling the future climate projections of pharmaceutical company Schmiederhahn AG, and Chad finds himself confronted with Adler’s long-forgotten warnings of global warming being followed by a global ice age.
Expect Me Tomorrow is a novel about the difficulties of discovering the truth and the complexities of weighing evidence against personal bias. We see this in the complexity of climate change, of how navigating the complicated future patterns of global climate shifts reveals how little we know about the long term geological behaviour of our planet and how it might adapt to anthropogenic climate change. As with many of Priest’s characters, Chad’s perspective is inevitably shaped by his lived reality, a world in which the effects of climate change we see around us are becoming more and more a part of everyday life. Priest brilliantly portrays a Hastings under siege, constantly under threat from the rising tides and the horrendous heat, the infrastructure that the UK has relied on for so many years finally having collapsed completely. Yet even here, England’s self-absorption and isolationism are apparent. As more and more of the world becomes unliveable and huge numbers of refugees are displaced, there is still a sense of this as something happening “over there”, a cultural myopia that allows England to “keep calm and carry on” as the world burns. In its exploration of this cultural fallout from Brexit, Expect Me Tomorrow uncannily echoes Priest’s earlier and disturbingly prescient depiction of a future UK collapsed under the pressures of its own racism and isolationism in Fugue For A Darkening Island (1972), updated in the light of our recent history.
Expect Me Tomorrow also draws on the mixture of fiction and nonfictional research that shaped Priest’s book on 9/11, An American Story (2018). Adolf Beck is a real person, who was accused of being a swindler by numerous eye-witnesses, only for it later to emerge that he was entirely innocent and was being mistaken for another man. His wrongful conviction led to the creation of the English Court of Criminal Appeal, and demonstrated just how unreliable eyewitness accounts could be. It’s easy to see why Adolf Beck’s tragic story, with its doubles, mistaken identities, and problems of perception and intrinsic bias, appealed to Priest. Expect Me Tomorrow mixes well-researched reflections on Adolf Beck’s case, with photographs of Adolf and his criminal double “John Smith” as well as samples of their handwriting. The mistakes in perception that led the court to convict an entirely innocent man run parallel to Chad’s investigation into the possible futures of climate change. Chad sees Schmiederhahn AG’s findings as optimistic, that there is evidence that the global temperature might be decreasing after the increases of global warming as the homeostatic mechanisms of the Earth kick into effect, a finding that challenges his perspective as someone living through endless heatwaves and the obvious destruction caused by climate change. Yet Chad’s optimism is tempered by Alder Beck’s dire warnings of an oncoming ice age, a timely reminder that the homeostatic mechanisms of the planet are not here to serve us or save us, and that our brief time in the sun has geologically been a blip surrounded by brutal ice ages. By giving Adler the last word, Priest brings the novel back to his terrifying predictions.
Expect Me Tomorrow is a powerful and challenging work by one of speculative fiction’s key voices. In its mixture of fact and fiction, it is formally inventive and satisfyingly builds on the experiments of his recent work, whilst linking profoundly to the concerns and themes that have always shaped Priest’s fiction. It is an uncompromising and thought-provoking novel that will stay with the reader long after the final page, and leaves me once again excited to see where Priest’s writing will take him next.