Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Review: 'Inverted World' by Christopher Priest

4 / 5 Stars

‘Inverted World’ was released first in hardbound in 1974, with this New English Library (UK) paperback edition published in June 1975. The trade paperback edition, featuring an Afterward by British sf critic John Clute, was released by New York Review Books in 2008.

‘Inverted World’ was Christopher Priest’s third novel. Priest is of course very well known as the author of the book ‘The Prestige’, which was made into a successful 2006 movie starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.

The protagonist of ‘Inverted’ is Helward Mann; his story unfolds in alternating first- and third-person narratives. Mann is born and matures entirely within the confines of a City named ‘Earth’, where the passage of time is measured in miles, not hours or days. There is an implication that the City is under some form of continuous movement, but detailed knowledge of the nature of this movement is withheld from the majority of the City’s inhabitants.

Day-to-day duties of life in this city are carried out by members of various guilds devoted to the creation or synthesis of food, clothing, and material goods. First-Order Guilds comprised of Navigators, 'Future Surveyors', Bridge-Builders, and Trackmen attend to the affairs of the movement of the City. 

When Mann comes of age, he asks to serve an apprenticeship in the 'Future Surveyor’s' Guild. His apprenticeship is granted, with the admonition that from now on, all knowledge of Guild affairs are to be kept solely within the circle of its members, under pain of instant execution.

The day after his apprenticeship is granted, Helward is allowed to exit the City. There he learns that the City is in fact a collection of structures with overall dimensions of 200 feet in height, and 1500 feet in width.

The City rests on a framework to which enormous wheels are attached; much of the work of various Guilds deals with the movement of the City along sets of rails which are continuously laid in front of its path. When all is going well the City moves at a pace of one mile per day. When the terrain presents obstacles, such as rivers, streams, or gullies, movement is halted until bridges are constructed from trees in the surrounding landscape. Once the obstacle is crossed the movement of the City resumes.

The landscape through which the City moves is one devoid of organized agriculture or other manifestations of human industry. Its inhabitants are poor, malnourished and ill-disposed towards the City; however, in exchange for food and clothing, they provide short-term labor for the construction of the rails and bridges demanded by the movement of the City.

As the chapters unfold, the reason behind the nature of the City, and the edicts that compel its continuous movement, are gradually disclosed to Helward Mann, and by extension the reader.

I won’t disclose any spoilers, save to indicate that the world through which the City travels is one that supplies constant revelations.

‘Inverted World’ is written with clear, straightforward prose, and cannot be neatly categorized as an archetypal New Wave tale, although its focus on human perception and psychology does give it a ‘soft-science’ component to go with the ‘hard science’ elements surrounding the City’s transits. 

The narrative unfolds with deliberation and care, and at times can be a little too indolent, as the Grand Disclosure seems oft-delayed by the time the novel’s later chapters arrive. However, author Priest delivers a satisfactory ending to his tale and I suspect most readers won’t feel cheated as they finish the past page.

In many respects, ‘Inverted’ serves as a kind of British counterpart to the influential 1975 sf novel by the American author John Crowley, ‘The Deep’. 

John Clute’s Afterward in the New York Review Books trade paperback edition is, not unexpectedly, awful. 

Clute’s writings (I am familiar with his entries in the 1995 edition of 'The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction') only get more pretentious with time; here, they involve the use of the verb ‘complexified’, and the phrase:

 “…abysses of indeterminacy and play.” 

Thus, the New York Review Books edition provides excellent examples of both good, and dire, prose simultaneously within its covers.

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