Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Helward Mann is six hundred and fifty miles old, which means it is time for him to be inducted into his guild–and to venture beyond the walls of the city for the first time. But first, he must swear an oath never to reveal what it is like outside, where the city is being constantly winched along tracks through a hostile landscape in pursuit of the Optimum. Exactly what all of this is, nobody is quite certain, but they tell Helward that they have absolute faith in the way things are and he will come to agree in time–and he is to be married. Helward’s life is about to change dramatically.

The story unfolds through Helward’s discovery of the world, sometimes in first, sometimes in third person. At first the world confuses him and he shares his bafflement with his wife, but his experiences change him. As he learns about the world, Helward becomes increasingly entrenched with respect to the necessity of the traditional guild system. It is the only way to preserve civilization…except that the reader is well aware that there are functioning human beings outside of the closed circuit of the city.

Inverted World is a hard science fiction novel set in the distant future after a collapse reduced most of the world to anarchy. The bulk of the story, then, is the discovery of the concept as to how people in the city experience the world. Layered within this concept is an allegory about the relationships, economic and otherwise, between “civilized” and “uncivilized” people, insularity, and having an over-developed sense of importance in the world–and about facing the inevitable.

Certain aspects of the book felt dated, which is only natural since it was published in 1974, but many of the same concerns are relevant. The summaries I had originally read of the book made it sound like a post-apocalyptic class-based allegory along the lines of Snowpiercer , which made sense because the two were first published within a few years of each other. But the “isolated community circling the world to survive” is where the similarities begin and end, at least from what I know about Snowpiercer, which is, admittedly, not much.There are elements of class struggle here, but the principle concept deals with relativity and perception, with the other concepts, including the math-y science fiction ones that give the story its mystery (and lead to the perception issues), forming the scenery. Thus, Priest taps into the relationship between first and third worlds rather than into strata of the same society. The writing was at time choppy, but Inverted World was an excellent read that moved along quickly and spun out the mystery such that the core isn’t revealed until the final pages and Helward’s inner turmoil is left aptly unresolved.

I haven’t decided what is next yet because I am swamped by grading at the moment, but I am leaning toward Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky. My only hesitation is that I read a really negative review that called it a poor knockoff of Crime and Punishment without even being an interesting novel about Afghanistan.

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