Inverted World by Christopher Priest (1974) 251 p.
I read this book after going through the “Classics” section in the New York Review of Books and noting down the ones that seemed interesting. I’m glad I did – it’s been a long time since I read science fiction so intriguing in its ideas and concepts that it had me reading well into the early hours of the morning.
Helward Mann has reached “the age of six hundred and fifty miles,” when he becomes a man and joins one of the guilds of “the city.” The city is in fact a moving vehicle, constantly travelling north at a rate of about one mile every ten days, through an arid landscape where the local populace is stricken with poverty and disease. It is unclear, at first, where this book takes place – the citizens speak English and the locals Spanish, yet the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and is not spherical but instead shaped like an inverted hyperbola.
Mann is put to work with the Traction Guild, constantly dismantling the rail tracks to the south of the city and reassembling them to the north. Here Mann learns that the city is travelling towards something called “the optimum,” the ideal position for it to be in. He asks his supervisor if they will be able to stop when they get there, but is told that they will never get there, because the optimum is always moving. As Mann is shifted amongst the guilds, learning about the strange world he lives in, it gradually becomes clear that the purpose of the city’s movement it is not about what they are trying to reach, but rather what they are trying to escape.
The ominous foreshadowing Priest applies throughout this story, developing the fascinating mystery of the terrible thing that lies to the south, is brilliantly executed and makes for very compelling reading. I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to sit down and read rather than do anything else, because I was so drawn into this world and determined to discover its secrets just as Mann was. I stayed up reading Inverted World until 3.30 AM, which is late even for me. So, yeah, DO NOT READ ANY OTHER REVIEWS OR SYNOPSES OF THIS BOOK, because you want to know as little as possible going into it, and quite a few of them (i.e. Amazon.com) give away significant parts of the mystery.
It is classic science fiction, mind you – the kind of dry characterisation, dialogue and description (just the facts, ma’am) that can only be supported by an excellent concept, as in the case of John Wyndham or John Christopher. Priest’s concept is excellent indeed, so no complaints there.
The issue I have with Inverted World is the ending. The mystery of what lies to the south is resolved, quite satisfactorily (it involves very hard science fiction, but is explained perfectly well to the layman). But it doesn’t answer all the questions about the city – about its origin and history, and certain outrigger mysteries – and it is in this second resolution that Priest falters a bit. He seems to have felt the need to bring the more outrageous aspects of the world down to earth, so to speak, and it results in an explanation that robs Mann’s world of some of its magic, does not actually answer certain things, and seems almost crammed in at the last second – again, I’ll compare Priest to Wyndham.
But this was only a minor issue in an otherwise excellent science fiction novel. Inverted World is a brilliantly crafted mystery that is original, intriguing and certainly worth the time of any science fiction reader.