Inverted World (1974)
Christopher Priest (1943)322 pages
In the science fiction novel Inverted World by Christopher Priest, a city is gradually, moved across the landscape by its residents as they strive to keep it near a point referred to as the “optimum.” For the people of the city, the meaning of the optimum has been lost over many generations, and some are only dimly aware that it even exists or that the city must continue to stay close to its location. The responsibility for the critical task of moving the city onward falls to the members of a system of guilds.
A deeply secretive organization, the origins and even day-to-day function of the half-dozen or so guilds remain as hazy to the rest of the city’s residents as does the understanding of the optimum itself. Like the optimum, the guilds’ origins are shrouded in mystery, having been established in the city’s distant past. To ensure that the focus remains on the all important goal of keeping the city close to the optimum, the guilds have developed into a deeply entrenched political and social structure, responsible both for moving the city and for governing it.
As the novel opens the main character in the story, Helward Mann, comes of age and enters into an apprenticeship that will prepare him for a position in the same guild as his father. He begins this new phase of his life with a basic education, but only a most limited understanding of what the guilds do. The guildsmen perform most of their work outside the city, and only guildsmen are allowed out of the city, so the other residents remain largely unaware of what they do.
Helward must work through a series of assignments in each of the guilds before becoming a full-fledged guildsman. Once he takes up his work as an apprentice, he begins to slowly learn about and understand the reality of the city’s precarious existence, as well as the role of the guilds and the reasoning behind their seemingly dogmatic rules. As have apprentices for generations before him, he must experience first-hand the situation outside the city walls, in order to fully grasp the importance of the guild’s work.
Throughout his process of learning, however, he constantly struggles to square the preconceived notions he has carried over from his education and his life constrained within the city with the surprising reality he finds on the outside. What he cannot know as he works through his questions and doubts about the almost incomprehensible world he has been exposed to is that the future of the city is about to change in ways that will shake the foundations of all he has learned.
Built around the simple, single focus of the relentless need for the city to move forward, Priest has constructed in Inverted World an exciting story of adventure and discovery for Helward and for us the reader. With Helward as our narrator we develop our understanding about the strange world of this novel as he does, and we are limited as he is by the ways in which his preconceived notions and expectations color what he sees and experiences. Fascinating too is the social structure that Priest creates in the novel, and watching Helward deepen his understanding of it and of his place in it, his eyes finally opened by the broader base of knowledge he has as part of the guild system.
Our only advantage over Helward are the occasional facts that he mentions, but takes for granted, and that seem like they must be typo’s or mistakes by the author; but even these only leave us as readers in little better position than our narrator, uncertain whether to believe appearances. And when the whole becomes clear toward the end of the story, it comes as almost as startling a revelation for us as it does for Helward.
Other reviews / information: This is yet another wonderful book I have discovered through the series published by the New York Review Books (NYRB), which has searched out and re-published excellent fiction and non-fiction that had somehow slipped out of circulation.
The book includes an Afterword by John Clute that puts Priest’s novel in the context of his life and other work.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf