Novel Review - Inverted World by Christopher Priest
by Christopher Priest, 1974, 303
"I had reached the age of 650 miles."
More than any other kind of book, I like to read mind-bending SF on my winter tropical vacations. Maybe it's because it feels more like a trip when your mind is also torn from its normal reality as you lave cold, dark, winter to sit on a jungle hillside for two weeks to listen to tree frogs. In this regard, Inverted World certainly delivers.
The inverted world in question is the city of Earth, located on a planet that isn't earth. The city of Earth is winched along 4 sets of tracks, trying to keep up to an optimum position somewhere ahead of the city as the ground moves beneath it. To accomplish this, the Track-layers, Traction, and Bridge-Building guildsmen all work together to lift the old track from behind the city, lay it down in front, build bridges over obstacles, and winch the city forward. Forward of the city (up future, that is) and backward (down past, naturally) both space and time are distorted, so it's imperative that the city keep moving. The conceit here is that the city of Earth inhabits an infinite, hyperbolic space within a finite world.
We explore this world through the eyes of apprentice Helward Mann, who must work for each of the guilds in turn before taking his place in the Future Surveyors guild of his father. His personal journey is one of discovery, and what he thinks he understands of the world will be upset more than once. Meanwhile, the city strives to hold the optimum in site while the world moves beneath it.
This was a very enjoyable read for me, and exactly what I was looking for when I first picked it up. Here we have an unusual world explored through the eyes of a neophyte character. In exposing this world, Priest manages to hold an optimum between the stark exposition of a Kim Stanley Robinson style hard SF world, and the draw-your-own-occlusions style of someone like China Mieville, and I found this worked very well.
Helward Mann's story arc is also parabolic, which is another feat by the author in my opinion. By the end of the book, Mann feels like he's drawn very close to the end of his story, but never quite reaches it. Some may find this dissatisfying, but I rather enjoyed it.
This book isn't for everyone. The book is high-concept, and while I think Priest does a good job with his characters and their relationships, they really aren't what the book is about. Nor is it about telescoping into the future, or exploring exotic places - though really it has some of each of these things in decent measure. It's one of the more purely speculative SF novels I've read in a while. The writing is clean and enjoyable, and this book features one of the best opening lines in all SF, I think (quoted above).
Recommended for fans of high-concept, mind-bending, weird-world SF. If you like China Mieville, you'll probably like this as well. 5 out of 5.