The Inverted World
The premise for The Inverted World, Christopher Priest’s recently-reissued 1974 novel, has a strikingly absurd horror to it: The City, last bastion of civilization after a planetary crisis, must be constantly winched forward along a short length of what is essentially heavy-duty railroad track?track that is constantly disassembled behind the city and re-laid in its path. It sounds like a gag Chuck Jones might have animated, yet in The Inverted World it is a demanding process fraught with difficulties. If the track should fail, if The City should encounter some insurmountable obstacle in its northward trek, it is in danger of being pulled back by the bizarre gravitational field of the planet across which it travels?crushed, distorted, and swept into oblivion. Thus the city moves constantly toward “the optimum,” described by a character as the ever-moving point
Where conditions on this world are nearest to those on Earth planet. At the optimum point our subjective values for time are normal. In addition, a day lasts for twenty-four hours. Anywhere else on this world one’s subjective time produces slightly longer or shorter days. . . .The optimum is important because in a world like this, where there are so many variables, we need a standard.”
Priest structures his novel around Helward Mann, a young guildsman in the city, whose apprenticeship and discovery of the mystery behind his society’s peculiar existence provide the main narrative thrust of the book. For the prologue and one of its five sections, the narration is provided by a different character entirely; Helward’s sections are sometimes first person, sometimes first. Usually, this would be a troublesome effect for an author to achieve without disrupting the novel, but Priest has little difficulty achieving it.
Part of this success is because his precise, detailed, unemotional prose remains essentially the same no matter what perspective the narrative takes. The other part is that the characters are generally dispassionate and not entirely three-dimensional. At first, Helward is relatable mainly because he fits the roughly-sketched archetype the reader expects from a bildungsroman. But unlike most authors working in that genre, Priest develops Helward only a little beyond that initial sketch: feeling betrayed as he watches a speech given by someone he was once close with, he thinks:
I confess I was prejudiced against her from her first words. It sounded to me like cheap rhetoric, but the crowd seemed to appreciate it. Perhaps I was not as indifferent as I supposed, for when she described the building of the bridge and threw in the accusation that many men had died, I started forward to protest.”
Helward is not the only character to suffer from this lack of dimensionality: other characters remain even vaguer ?though the repressed post-apocalyptic society Priest places them in can certainly assume a little of the responsibility for their lack of emotion.
It doesn’t really matter. In a sense, The Inverted World is a narrative that exists mainly to express the thought experiment that forms its foundation?and Priest’s concerns are less for the characters than for the ideas underlying the work. The effect of repression is one of them, but the novel also explores memory, honor, gender and racial tensions, perception. These issues are examined and questioned: sometimes awkwardly, sometimes more than necessary, but almost always subordinate to the novel’s main drive, which remains the mystery behind the strange nature of the city and the planet. Priest’s high concept for this new world must on its own propel and sustain the narrative at times, and it is to his credit that this idea?strange, fascinating, and perplexing?unquestionably succeeds in doing so.
Reviewed by David Sheffieck
Posted in Reviews