Here’s a science fiction tale where it helps to know your concave from your convex, spheroids from hyperboloids, centrifugal forces from angular velocities, and y=1/x. But if you don’t, just follow bewildered Future Apprentice Helward as he joins a secret directorate in a city built on tracks. The tracks are continuously ripped up behind and laid down in front, because the city must keep moving or be destroyed.
I had never before read Christopher Priest’s classic from 1974, Inverted World. The book contains more thoughtful speculation than violent action. The book is 40 years old, so don’t expect cutting edge physics.
I found the gradual reveal of this truly weird world fascinating. Conveniently, apprentices are kept in the dark, told they have to experience the strange time and space effects outside the city for themselves to understand. That trope allowed me to travel with Helward as he learns both puzzling and terrifying things about his planet. Things that threaten his life, his city, and his relations with friends and family – including the wife in his arranged marriage. Like many works from that era, the restricted woman’s role dates the book.
The story opens with a prologue that seems to have mistakenly landed here from a different book, but have faith – towards the end it all comes together. Helward is often puzzled by what he sees (me, too!), but I found events interesting enough to keep reading. Just when I thought the weird world had been explored and the tale would end, a twist opens up a new aspect of the world’s strange physics. In the end, Priest does explain what’s going on.
I’ll avoid spoilers. Late in the book, women finally take some independent action in this male-dominated world. It’s a woman who discovers what’s happening and explains it to them. She admits she’s no expert, and Helward counters with contrary evidence – since I just went through those experiences with him, his arguments are compelling. But there’s evidence for the explanation, too.
Priest leaves even more up in the air – the ending is uncertain and you can decide for yourself what Helward finally believes and what’s likely to happen next.
That may sound like a knock on the story, but I’m still thinking about it – still going back in the book to re-read sections. What’s real and what’s perception? Does the final explanation truly account for Helward’s experiences? If not, what’s actually happening? The rulers’ secrecy serves the story well, but does it make sense from a social point of view? Whether being left with questions is good or bad depends on your tolerance for ambiguity.
I’d love to talk to someone about the story.
What others say
Inverted World gets 4 1/2 stars from 41 Amazon customer reviews. Most readers love the “topsy turvy” physics and the final twist, but not all of them. Complaints say the final twist was too rushed. This probably comes from the heavy use of “explaining” in this part of the story. “Explaining” or “telling” is one of the fatal errors in writing, at least according to current writing tips.
Others say the physics was fantasy rather than science fiction (though I think this is pretty common in modern scifi, too.) Some readers had better ideas about dealing with the social problems in the city than Priest had.
If you prefer your scifi with feet firmly on the ground – even if that ground is on Mars – try my story. Eight settlers have journeyed to Mars to establish a colony. Now Emma and her team are about to join them. Days before the launched, one of the colonists commits suicide. Something’s not right on Mars.