British science fiction author Christopher Priest has won the British Science Fiction and Fantasy Award four times and World Fantasy Award for probably his most well-known novel The Prestige. But in his more recent novels it feels like Priest has been creating fictional scaffoldings with a slightly speculative edge, to deliver exposition on a range of issues that interest him. In his last book Expect Me Tomorrow, that interest was climate change but also a fascinating case of fraud and mistaken identity from the late 19Th Century. In his most recent book Airside, his fascination seems to be the null-space of airport waiting areas (the “airside”) but also the film industry and film criticism. Unfortunately Priest does not bring these two concepts together to any great effect.
Airside opens with a great hook. It is 1949, famous movie star, Jeanette Marchand, flies from LA to New York and on to London. There are some odd aspects of her journey but the oddest is that she was first off the plane in London but then disappeared somewhere between the plane and the immigration tent, never to be seen again. Enter film student and later famous film critic Justin Farmer, who ends up being the protagonist. The narrative takes us through Justin’s life, his loves, his achievements. It quotes some of his film reviews and scholarly articles about movies like King Kong, Le Jetée (the inspiration for the film 12 Monkeys) and The Terminal. And eventually, it has him kind-of investigating the disappearance of Jeanette Marchand and in doing so finding out about other strange disappearances connected to airports.
That’s it. The book is much more a biography of a particular individual than it is about the solving the mystery of the missing film star (which is kind of does in a fairly prosaic way that is telegraphed about half way through the book). Which is fine if readers are interested in film and film criticism, or the vagaries of air travel but underwhelming either way. Every now and then the concept of airports as liminal spaces gets a run, no more so than in a Kafka-esque sequence set in Seoul’s Gimpo Airport.
The confusion of this idea is epitomised by conflicting expository statements like this:
The airport itself was constantly in a state of shifting stasis, always being changed or expanded or replaced while remaining the same.
And later this:
An airport embodies temporary stasis, the nullity of transit.
So that in the end the author seems to say that airports are both a state of shifting stasis and temporary stasis, as if these concepts mean anything. And even if they do, they end up having very little impact on the resolution of the original mystery.
A book in which airports stand in as some kind of bizarre portal into the unknown might have been interesting. Airside is not that book. It is a book in which the author has seemed to take what might be his own or observed international travel stress and tried to work it into a completely different novel that explores the history of cinema. Some of this will be interesting to some readers but little of it is resonant.