The Inverted World

Review From User :

With Inverted World Christopher Priest has written a work that is beautiful, powerful and profound. These are the words of critic, scholar and science fiction writer Adam Roberts. Equally important, at least for me as someone unacquainted with science fiction, is that Mr. Priest has written an accessible and enjoyable novel. And part of the enjoyment was having my imagination challenged and expanded - I felt like I do after finishing a rigorous workout, only, in this case, my mind had the workout. Honestly, what a book, one I recommend especially for readers who do not usually read science fiction. More specifically, here are several call-outs:

The novel is divided into five parts, alternating back and forth between first-person and third-person - our first-person narrator is main character Helward Mann, a newly initiated apprentice guildsman of the city. Helward is pitch perfect as narrator since, in a very real sense, his story is the city's story. Third-person part two and four underscore and clarify the challenges facing Helward and his city. A most effective narrative devise to drive the story and draw us into its unfolding drama.

Although science fiction in that the city is of a future time and must continually move by way of a system of tracks, cables and wenches toward an ideal point termed 'optimum', pacing of the day-to-day activities of the city are much akin to a city in twelfth century Europe. Matter of fact, compared to the high octane writing of Philip K. Dick, Inverted World reads like science fiction in slow motion, which is exactly the appropriate speed to make this story accessible, especially for those of us who ordinarily do not read science fiction.

The workings of the guild system was founded by the city's founder, one Destaine. The guilds involve the specifics of surveying, laying of tracks, bridge building, securing cables and winching - all of the nitty-gritty of enabling the city to continue moving north. The guilds are exclusive and regimented and central to the overall government of the city. And the guildsmen take their guilds seriously, very seriously. All members have the mindset and work ethic comparable to members of those esteemed medieval guilds.

But, alas, the inhabitants of the moving city are not alone. There are hostile, half-starving tribes in the lands outside the city. And to add further complication, the city engineers need men from these various tribes to contribute to the heavy, backbreaking work involved in clearing land and laying track. And even more complication: the city must barter for the services of the tribeswomen. A nasty business to be sure.

So, we as readers join Helward moving along at the slow, methodical speed of medieval-like time for the entire first half of the novel. Then it happens: the jolt of the weird. I wouldn't want to say anything more specific here but let me assure you, as a reader you will be every bit as shocked and jolted as Helward. Such is the high quality of Christopher Priest's writing. At this point and beyond, the plot thickens, warps and bends.

We are familiar with George Barkley's "To be is to be perceived." Well, on one level Inverse World is a meditation on perception within the science of Einstein's theory of general relativity. Would we be upset and disoriented if we realized the way we have been perceiving the world and the physical objects contained within - the sun, the directions of north, south, east, west, the size and shape of those around us -- is completely false You bet we would. Welcome to the bending space of an inverse world that plays with our mind.

Even a non-scientist like myself can see the author includes enough math and science to keep nearly everyone with a background in science both challenged and engaged. As a for instance, here's a reflection from an outsider to the city: "In time a kind of logical pattern appeared . . . but there was one ineradicable flaw in everything. The hypothesis by which the city and its people existed was that the world on which they lived was somehow inverted. Not only the world, but all the physical objects in the universe in which that world was supposed to exist. The shape that Destaine drew - a solid world, curved north and south in the shape of hyperbolas - was the approximation they used, and it correlated indeed with the strange shape that Helward had drawn to depict the sun."

At one point well into the tale, Helward reflects, "I did my guild work as quickly as possible, then rode off alone through the future countryside, sketching what I saw, trying to find in line drawing some expression of a terrain where time could almost stand still." In a way, this is remarkable since the mindset of the inhabitants of the city, including the guildsmen, is totally practical - every drop of ingenuity and effort is geared to sheer, brute material survival. Within the city walls there is no reference to religion, philosophy, literature or the arts - to put it bluntly, these people lack a spiritual and aesthetic dimension. Yet, remarkably, through a stroke of artistic creativity, Helward touches the realm of the eternal, which is perhaps a consequence of being set free from the pull of the city. One theme worth keeping in mind.

The people of the city deal with life without powerful drugs, hallucinogenic or otherwise. They are a sober lot, not even beer or wine. No Dionysian frenzy; no dancing; not even the singing of songs within the city walls. In this sense, very different from our own world. However there are a number of challenges and problems the people and the city face that will have a most familiar ring. But this book is much, much more than simply social and cultural commentary. Christopher Priest has written a work of extraordinary vision, one to expand your mind and hone your imagination, and even if you become slightly warped in the process, exercising your grey matter will be well worth the effort.

This New York Review Book (NYRB) Classic contains an informative Afterward written by John Clute, providing historical and social context for Priest's writing. This edition also has a nifty, eye-catching cover sculpture by artist/futuristic designer, Lebbeus Woods.

(Special thanks to Goodreads friend Manny Rayner for clarifying for me the scientific ideas contained within this novel before I wrote my review).

Christopher Priest, Born 1943, British Novelist and Science Fiction Writer

The city is winched along tracks through a devastated land full of hostile tribes. Rails must be freshly laid ahead of the city & carefully removed in its wake. Rivers & mountains present nearly insurmountable challenges to the ingenuity of the city’s engineers.
Expand text… But if the city does not move, it will fall farther & farther behind the optimum & into the crushing gravitational field that has transformed life on Earth. The only alternative to progress is death. The secret directorate that governs the city makes sure that its inhabitants know nothing of this. Raised in common in creches, nurtured on synthetic food, prevented above all from venturing outside the closed circuit of the city, they’re carefully sheltered from the dire necessities that have come to define human existence. Yet the city is in crisis. People are growing restive. The population is dwindling. The rulers know that, for all their efforts, slowly but surely the city is slipping ever farther behind the optimum. Helward Mann is a member of the city’s elite. Better than anyone, he knows how tenuous is the city’s continued existence. But the world he’s about to discover is infinitely stranger than the strange world he believes he knows so well.

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