Many books of science fiction or fantasy can bend your mind, but few will bend it so deeply as Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, originally published in 1974 and now available in a new edition from the New York Review of Books.
That imprint, which generally steers clear of genre fiction, should tip you off that this is not light fare. In fact, in several distinct categories–including the inventiveness and believability of its scientific premises, the relentlessness of its political subversion, and the depth of its narrator’s tragedy–it belongs in a category all its own. On top of this, the book is psychedelic in the extreme. In several places, the things taking place in its physical world opened doors in my imagination I had never known existed. The only books that comes anywhere close in that regard would be those of Philip K Dick at his trippiest–say, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But where Dick’s playful insights are conveyed in language at times sloppy, Priest is stately, sometimes even cold, and extremely precise about his craft. The tone and (at least superficially) the setting are similar to what you’d expect from a novel of high fantasy in which the whole world revolves around the hero’s quest.
Inverted World opens in the first person, with the initiation of young Helward Ward into the guild of Future Surveyors. From the first sentence, “I had reached the age of 650 miles,” readers are aware that something is deeply wrong about this world. We know it has something to do with the relationship between space and time, but beyond this we can only guess.
Slowly, Priest allows the details to leak. The guild arranges a marriage for Helward, but before he can visit his wife they take him outside the City of Earth for the first time. He’s stunned at the sight of the sun. He had always been taught that it was round, but it now appears differently, “a long, saucer-shape of light, spiked above and below with two perpendicular spires of incandescence.”
Helward has little time to meditate on this discovery, however, because he goes straight to his apprenticeship with the Track Guild. These men concern themselves with moving metal tracks out from behind the city and putting them back in front of it. Helward soon realizes that the city is always moving north, which the guildsmen call “up future,” and away from the south, which they call “down past,” trying to keep pace with a place they call the optimum. Every Guild plays a part in this endless struggle. The Traction guild winches the city forward along the tracks; the Barter Guild purchases labor and borrows women from the ignorant locals (the city’s women are mysteriously unable to bear female children); the Bridge Builders arrange passage across rivers and ravines; and the Future Surveyors venture up north so that the Navigators can plan the city’s route. They return from the future curiously aged.
Interestingly, the need to keep the city moving also distorts the relationships between people inside. Helward’s wife, Victoria, wants to know things about the outside world, but he has been sworn to secrecy. When he dodges her questions about the sun by saying merely that it’s “very bright,” she responds, “I’d like to find that out for myself.” Helward has never before thought about women’s exclusion from so many areas of life in the City of Earth. He begins to question the guild’s intentions.
It’s not just the relations between men and women that are soured by the demands of this moving city, either. The locals hate the city-dwellers, who live in relative luxury, pay them for their labor, borrow their women, and quickly move away. The residents of the city recognize the irony of claiming to be more civilized than the “tooks” while simultaneously treating them barbarously, but the Guildsmen’s eternal response is that “The city must keep moving.”
At this point, the stage seems set for Helward to find a way to release the city from its strange bondage. If things turned out that way, the book would fall predictably into the category of Hard SF, which John Clute, defines in an illuminating new afterword as “that kind of science-fiction tale in which a clearly defined protagonist (almost always male) leaves his endangered home on a great adventure, during the course of which he begins to understand the true nature of his world and, through a clearly defined, science-based cognitive breakthrough, comes to grips with the danger that threatens it.”
But what takes place is far wilder than any problem-solving plot line. When Helward’s guild sends him down past to escort some native women back to their local village, we finally learn why the city must keep moving. It’s the ground itself that’s always drifting south, he learns towards a place where the fabric of reality seems to come apart at the seams. Priest depicts this in a series of increasingly terrifying yet exhilarating scenes depicted in paradoxically calm language.
Helward returns to find that years have passed and many things have changed. The city’s population eventually splits over the question of whether it should keep sacrificing everything to keep moving or soldier on, and Helward’s role in this conflict is far from that of the liberating hero. But the book’s real genius is that neither group is quite right. The curious knot in time that prolongs their suffering is not an illusion, as the resistance claims. After all, we’ve seen through Helward’s eyes the bizarre fate that awaits there. But nor is it quite true, as the Guildsmen argue, that that knot has always been or that it must always be.
What makes Inverted World shine like no other book is that it illustrates so perfectly how human beings create the context for their own suffering, yet this explanation never dulls the agony of Helward’s predicament. And while Helward’s story is tragic, the underlying narrative is hopeful. We create the chains that bind us, so therefore it must be possible for us to cast them off. But if we could do this, help one another to do it, would we know what to do when we got free?
Helward certainly doesn’t. But his journey is a fascinating one, and anyone interested in fiction that explores the most radical reaches of the possible world would do well to pick up Inverted World.