Priest has been strongly influenced by the science fiction of H. G. Wells and in 2006 was appointed Vice-President of the international H. G. Wells Society.
Priest was born in Cheadle, Cheshire, England.
Priest's first story, "The Run", was published in 1966. Formerly an accountant and audit clerk, he became a full-time writer in 1968. One of his early novels, The Affirmation, concerns a traumatized man who apparently flips into a delusional world in which he experiences a lengthy voyage to an archipelago of exotic islands. This setting featured in many of Priest's short stories, which raises the question of whether the Dream Archipelago is actually a fantasy. The state of mind depicted in this novel is similar to that of the delusional fantasy-prone psychoanalytic patient ("Kirk Allen") in Robert Lindner's The Fifty-Minute Hour, or Jack London's tortured prisoner in The Star Rover.
Priest also dealt with delusional alternate realities in A Dream of Wessex, in which a group of experimenters for a British government project are brain-wired to a hypnosis machine and jointly participate in an imaginary but as-real-as-real future in a vacation island off the coast of a Sovietized Britain.
His most recent novels are The Islanders (2011), set in the Dream Archipelago, and The Adjacent (2013), a multi-strand narrative with recurring characters.
Priest wrote the tie-in novel to accompany the 1999 David Cronenberg movie eXistenZ, which contains themes of the novels A Dream of Wessex and The Extremes. Such themes include the question of the extent to which we can trust what we believe to be reality and our memories.
Priest was approached to write stories for the 18th and 19th seasons of Doctor Who. The first, "Sealed Orders", was a political thriller based on Gallifrey commissioned by script editor Douglas Adams; it was eventually abandoned due to script problems and replaced with "Warriors' Gate". The second, "The Enemy Within", was also eventually abandoned due to script problems and what Priest perceived as insulting treatment after he was asked to modify the script to include the death of Adric. It was replaced by "Earthshock". This falling-out soured the attitude of the production office to the use of established literary authors, and no more were commissioned until Neil Gaiman authored the episode "The Doctor's Wife" in 2011.
A film of his novel The Prestige was released on 20 October 2006. It was directed by Christopher Nolan and starred Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. Despite differences between the novel and screenplay, Nolan was reportedly so concerned the denouement be kept a surprise that he blocked plans for a lucrative US tie-in edition of the book.Priest uses the pseudonyms John Luther Novak and Colin Wedgelock, usually for movie novelizations. As well as the eXistenZ novelization (which undermined the pseudonym by including Priest's biography on the pre-title page), he has novelised the movies Mona Lisa (as John Luther Novak) and Short Circuit (as Colin Wedgelock).
Priest has co-operated with fellow British science fiction author David Langford on various enterprises under the Ansible brand.
Priest has written for The Guardian since 2002, largely obituaries of such figures as Robert Sheckley, Stanislaw Lem, Jack Williamson, Diana Wynne Jones, John Christopher and many more.
Priest has won the BSFA award for the best novel four times: in 1974 for Inverted World; in 1998 for The Extremes; in 2002 for The Separation and in 2011 for The Islanders.
He has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and the World Fantasy Award (for The Prestige).
He won the BSFA award for short fiction in 1979 for the short story "Palely Loitering"; and has been nominated for Hugo Awards in the categories of Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Non-Fiction Book (this last for The Book on the Edge of Forever (also known as Last Deadloss Visions), an exploration of the unpublished Last Dangerous Visions anthology). The Space Machine won the International SF prize in the 1977 Ditmar Awards . Priest's 1979 essay "The Making of the Lesbian Horse" (published as a Novacon chapbook) takes a humorous look at the roots of his acclaimed novel Inverted World. He was guest of honour at Novacon 9 in 1979 and Novacon 30 in 2000, and at the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention in 2005.
In 1983 Priest was named one of the 20 Granta Best of Young British Novelists. In 1988 he won the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis for The Glamour as Best Foreign Fiction Book.
Between 7 November and 7 December 2007, the Chelsea College of Art and Design had an exhibition in its gallery Chelsea Space inspired by Priest's novel The Affirmation. It followed "themes of personal history and memory (which) through the lens of a more antagonistic and critical form of interpretation, aims to point towards an overtly positive viewpoint on contemporary art practice over any traditional melancholy fixation".
Priest lived in Devon but now lives on Isle of Bute. He was married to writer Lisa Tuttle until 1987 and to Leigh Kennedy until 2011, with whom he had twins. He currently lives with SF writer Nina Allan.