Thursday, August 26, 2010

SF Masterworks #74: Christopher Priest, Inverted World

For millennia, cities have represented a sort of metaphorical movement.  Whether it be the increased hustle and bustle within the teeming masses found in the largest cities or the steady stream of people that would flow into cities during both times of prosperity and crisis, there is something about cities, whether it be "the city that never sleeps" or "the city of lights," that attracts us to them.  In SF, there have been several stories that have tapped into this envisioning of cities as objects of movement.  James Blish's classic Cities in Flight (to be reviewed here at a latter date by another) portrays cities as being lifted up physically from the Earth and sent into orbit.  More recently, in his Iron Council, China Miéville utilizes a train full of those discontented with New Crobuzon's dictatorial rule to symbolize the movement of a city's masses for greater change.  There is great power in cities and their masses that still inspires some of the most powerful images in literature.

Christopher Priest's 1974 novel, Inverted World, is perhaps the most compelling of these novels that concretize this sense of "city as movement."  Influenced to a degree by Blish's earlier novels and certainly an influence in turn on Miéville's more recent novel, Inverted World takes the notion of "city as movement" and it twists it.  Instead of a sense of "moving toward," there becomes a realized "moving away from" over the course of the novel, as the city/world of Earth travels slowly in tenths of a mile increments across a landscape, fleeing something behind it and attempting to reach what is called "the optimum," always a few miles in front of the city and ever moving.

Priest sets himself a very difficult task in writing a tale of a city on rails that never can stop, lest something ominous behind them overtakes them.  Smartly, he does not reveal the nature of this city/world at once, but rather in drips and dribbles, as seen through the eyes and mind of the story's main protagonist, Helward Mann, whose very name perhaps might be a clue to unraveling the mystery surrounding the city-Earth:

I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.  Beyond the door the guildsmen were assembling for the ceremony in which I would be admitted as a guild apprentice.  It was a moment of excitement and apprehension, a concentration into a few minutes of all that my life had been until then.

My father was a guildsman, and I had always seen his life from a certain remove.  I regarded it as an enthralling existence, charged with purpose, ceremony and responsibility; he told me nothing of his life or work, but his uniform, his vague manner, and his frequent absences from the city hinted at a preoccupation with matter of utmost importance.

Within a few minutes the way would be open for me to join that life.  It was an honour and a donning of responsibility, and no boy who had grown up inside the confining walls of the crèche could fail to respond to the thrill of this major step. (p. 7)

Almost from the very beginning we are thrown into a different world, where time is not measured by the earth's rotation around the sun, but rather around the city's movement across the plains, hills, and valleys.  We also learn of a guild and a secrecy that surrounds it, a secrecy that seems to extend even to family relationships, rendering the whole cold and distant.  As young Helward progresses in the guild, learns its secrets, and swears its oath of secrecy on pain of death, the reader learns just a little bit more about the city-Earth.  We see that the sun is not a spherical object, but rather shaped like a parabola.  We learn that there are other settlements that the city passes, as it barters and takes from them supplies and even women for a period of time.  Yet Priest does not rush to explain what is occurring; we witness all of this through Helward.

As a character, Helward is a conflicted and imperfect soul.  He has his doubts about the entire affair, doubts that infects his new wife, Victoria, and which ultimately causes irreparable breaks in their relationship.  He covers these doubts with a thin veneer of certainty in the guild's mission, in the worry of that vague threat looming behind the city.  As he (and the reader) learns what that threat is, the meaning of the actions depicted in earlier chapters shifts.  This continues up until the fourth part of this five-part book, when the character of Elizabeth Khan, previously mentioned in the Prologue, is reintroduced into the plot.  Her role, as an Outsider, is to reveal just what the city-Earth really is and how perceptions affect understanding and even concepts of reality.

These final two sections, comprising less than 1/4 of the novel, are problematic.  Here, after a laborious attempt to restrain the flow of information and knowledge, the proverbial shit hits the fan, leaving a bit of a mess as the central mysteries of the city, its origins and why it is moving, are revealed.  Elizabeth's character, although she executes well the author's apparent intent in terms of revealing the "inversions" of Helward's world, serves as a deconstruction of every thing that had occurred up until that point.  The mysteries, the weirdness surrounding Helward's visits outside the city, the apparent horrors of the nebulous force trailing miles behind the city, all of these come across as being little more than that little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz's throne room.  Perhaps that is the point, showing just how distorted our own fears and dreams can be, with the disconcerting effect of diminishing the seemingly infinite (said analogy can be applied to the apparent "inverted world" here as well) down to a drab, reduced entity.

Yet despite this, Inverted World on the whole works, both as a novel of deceptive intents and as a brutal deconstruction of those built-up constructions of purpose and theme.  It certainly is a powerful work in regards to its thematic use of "city as (realized) metaphor for movement" and its conclusion lays bare several contradictions that can be found in the building of edifices on the backs of dreams and fears.  Although the cold, sometimes distant characters may not be appealing to those readers more accustomed to vivid dialogues, even those reserved interactions serve a larger purpose here.  While I believe the conclusion fails to live up to the promise of the beginning (again, this may be exactly Priest's intent), Inverted World certainly is a work that deserves to be read and re-read, along with other "masterworks" of the late 1960s and early 1970s.


  1. An excellent novel - glad to see it back in print.

    Incidentally, what did you think about the comments Martin Amis made about this one (reference on Christopher Priest's website)? I have to admit that I kinda thought he was somewhat missing the point.



  2. It's Martin Amis. Doesn't he usually miss the point when it comes to conceptual works? I read his comments the other day and was struck by how willfully misconstrued Priest's points were in that travesty of a review. Funny that they are quoted on Priest's site.

  3. Cannot praise this novel enough as one of the "ultimate" SF novels - right up there with Dune. About as perfect as a SF novel can get.