This is the trippiest book I’ve read in a long time, one that goes places only science fiction can go. It’s nice to have someone really use the genre to explore things only this particular genre can explore.
Like what would it be like to live on a world turned inside out.
Christopher Priest’s Inverted World is really about the setting. Take the idea of world building to its extreme and you basically end up with a kind of travelogue. Inverted World is not entirely travelogue, there’s a very good plot in fact, but large chunks of it are spent explaining how this particular world works.
We see the world through the character of Helward Mann who has just come of age. Because he is becoming a guildsman, he is able to go outside of the city where he has spent his entire life. Outside he will be working in service of the navigators, laying track for the city to move along as it tries to reach the optimum position. The city is a great machine, nuclear powered, built on top of four sets of railroad tracks along which it moves. The tracks are taken up from behind and relaid in front of the city as they have been for generations.
Helward travels south of the city to return several women to the villages they left behind as the city moved through. Along the way the women and the world itself begin to physically change, they grow shorter and wider while Helward remains as tall and thin as ever. When he returns after what he thinks have been a few weeks, he finds the people he left behind in the city have aged over two years.
These are all effects of relative time and space, what happens when you’re travelling through space faster than the place you left behind. They are what might happen inside an inverted world where centrifugal force has replaced gravity.
Stories like this one are always set during the end of such civilizations. Utopias and dystopias both are at their most interesting point when they are about to collapse. Helward returns to the city to find a revolutionary movement has taken hold, one that wants the city to stop moving. While he is convinced the city must continue moving or end up like the primitive people he has seen, a growing number of citizens believe they have been duped for years, that there is no reason to devote all of their lives to keeping the city in motion.
What happens kept me entertained right up to the end, which is a little bit too cursory for my taste–I would have liked something a little more clear cut, a little more final.
But I will certainly keep an eye out for more by Christopher Priest.