"The tide was going out, and for a moment Harkman had an hallucinatory image of some bottomless drain far out at sea, into which the water was emptying, drawing back from the shore and leaving the bay sodden and bare, the muddy remains of the twentieth century scattered like shipwrecks across the land."
In 'A Dream Of Wessex', a group of thirty-nine academics experience a collective dream of an optimistic future, by way of the Ridpath projector. The hope is that by submerging themselves in an utterly realistic and convincing version of a better future they can discover beneficial paths to take in the present. However, in the projection their conscious will becomes subsumed to an alter ego who lives in that time, and David Harkman, one of the academics, has gone missing within the projection for two years and refuses to come out. Meanwhile the board of trustees have decided the project isn't delivering results, and hires Paul Mason to redirect the projection. Unfortunately for all of the academics, and especially Julia Stretton, who used to be in a relationship with Paul, Paul is a selfish, manipulative and abusive sociopath with delusions of grandeur whose warped perspective threatens to swallow up the entire projection.
'A Dream Of Wessex' comes at a point in Priest's career when he was moving away from works like 'Inverted World' and 'Fugue For A Darkening Island' which play games with the boundaries of genre and their protagonists' perception but can still be comfortably classified as SF, towards his later works, such as 'The Affirmation' or 'The Glamour', which have a more ambiguous relationship towards their SFnal elements. 'Wessex' still has a central SF element in its dream machine, especially in the very Philip K. Dick-esque climax, which echoes the stripping away of subsequent layers of reality and illusion that runs through all his work. Towards the end the academics in the future dreamworld have reactivated the Ridpath projector within the dream world, and the spiraling of layers of reality rivals that in UBIK or 'Inception'.
However the narrative focus remains almost entirely on the characters, specifically the destructive relationship between Paul and Julia, which Priest explores with almost surgical precision. The dream Wessex of the future has provided Julia with a realised escapist fantasy that she can retreat to following her disastrous relationship with Paul, one that his presence in her new life threatens. Roger Zelazny used the metaphor of a dream machine to explore the effects of an obsessive and deranged personality on another person's mind in 'The Dream Master', but that was just between two people. Paul's obsessive drive to possess Julia is so powerful it disrupts a consensus reality shaped by thirty-eight other people. Priest derives some dark humour from just how twisted and egotistical Paul is. When he enters the projection, despite being the newest member his subconscious makes him the leader of the whole project, and his projected self is sickeningly handsome, charming and loved by everyone. When Julia regains her memories in the projection, she realises that this is genuinely how Paul sees himself. Paul is also unable to share the same optimistic future that the other members of the projection enjoy. While all the academics have created the future Wessex as an island paradise, an idyllic tourist resort that is still self-maintained and governed, Paul believes this to be an unrealistic and childish fantasy, so when he joins the projection Wessex becomes a polluted oil field, bickered over by large companies. His ultimate plan is to send off all the other academics into the future a second time, using the projector in the real world, leaving Julia trapped forever with him in the projection. He is a truly loathsome character, and his ultimate fate, trapped alone in the nightmare of his own consciousness, is well deserved.
While Julia is a more sympathetic character, she shares with all the characters in this book a tendancy towards escapism and solipsism. In the end, she escapes Paul's malign influence, but decides to stay in the dreamworld with David Harkman, who has figured out the nature of the reality they live in but has become immune to the conditioning that the scientists use to wake them and has decided to stay in the dream world. By this stage in the book, everyone has passed through at least two dream projectors, and there is no guarantee that any of the surviving characters are sharing the same reality anymore. The David Harkman that Julia rides off into the sunset with could just be a figment of Julia's imagination, or he could be the real one and she could be a figment of his. David and Julia's love for each other has led them to reject reality and their original philanthropic mission and possibly even their own real company. Inadvertently, they may both be sharing Paul's fate.
It is entirely appropriate that 'A Dream Of Wessex' was written at the turning point in Christopher Priest's writing career, as in many ways it is a metaphor for the artistic process of writing, and specifically writing SF. Like the academics in the projection, the SF writer imagines a future different from our own to tell us an important message about the present day. The fictional worlds created by writing provide us with a refuge from the harsh realities of real life, but can also give us succour and strength. However, perhaps in the ambiguity of the ending it is possible to detect Priest's frustrations with the constricting boundaries of genre fiction, the escapism and solipsism of a clique of fans and writers who have gotten lost in their own fantasies and forgotten what they came here for in the first place.