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Inverted World (New York Review Books…

Inverted World (New York Review Books Classics) (original 1974; edition 2008)

by Christopher Priest (Author), John Clute (Afterword)

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1,195479,687 (3.86)1 / 56
Title:Inverted World (New York Review Books Classics)
Authors:Christopher Priest (Author)
Other authors:John Clute (Afterword)
Info:NYRB Classics (2008), Edition: 1st Printing, 336 pages
Collections:Your library

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Inverted World by Christopher Priest (Author) (1974)



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English (45)  French (4)  Italian (1)  All languages (50)
Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
This is a beguiling read. We're presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed 'facts' about what is happening, about what we're supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left -- literally and figuratively -- all at sea; and though it's indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we're on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It's towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it's imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward's point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann's autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider's perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the 'twist' that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn't take much to fathom what the 'reality' of this future world was well before the final sections.

The central concept of a city moving forward on four sets of tracks is so arresting that it carried this reader through most of the book till it was stopped, quite literally in its tracks, by a barrier no land-based transport can cross: the sea. Other writers have taken this, or a similar concept of a community on rails, and run with it, notably Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines (2001) and China Miéville's Railsea (2012) and Iron Council (2004), but here the solid ground I mentioned earlier is not as reliable as we at first thought: it's moving, and the city has to move inexorably forward or be doomed to extinction.

This novel at first appears to be in the so-called hard SF genre. There's discussion of hyperbolas, of infinite worlds bound within a finite universe and a mysterious energy that distorts time and space. To the distress of true scientific geeks none of it stacks up, however much it appears acceptably convincing to the innocent reader in terms of pushing the narrative on.

What Inverted World really boils down to, however, is perception: not just physical perception -- through our eyes, our sense of touch and so on -- but what our minds have been conditioned to believe is reality. This is Helward Mann's problem: the mental paradigm he has inherited and accepted through personal experience is challenged by outsiders who function according to different paradigms. Interestingly, Helward's challenges come from two strong independently-minded women who upset the status quo of this male-dominated urban society in ways that fundamentally question the parameters under which it has existed for two centuries.

I see this as a philosophical novel, one which looks askance at our beliefs in progress (towards what? an illusion?), our devastation of the earth (this was a novel written in the shadow of the Cold War) and blind acceptance of self-perpetuating political systems. Its successful attempts to disorientate us are underpinned by shifts in points of view and authorial voice and by its matter-of-fact prose stripped of any poetry or passion.

Whatever its failings -- and there are a few, such as a cast of characters with rather cold personalities whom it's hard to empathise with -- it's still a haunting read; and maybe those 'failings' are deliberate, attempts at opacity and distancing to serve as a warning of the kind of bleak future mankind is heading towards. Towards Hell, perhaps.

https://wp.me/s2oNj1-inverted ( )
  ed.pendragon | May 18, 2018 |

With “Inverted World” British science fiction writer Christopher Priest has written a work that is beautiful, powerful and profound. These are the words of critic, scholar and science fiction writer Adam Roberts. Equally important, at least for me as someone unacquainted with science fiction, is that Mr. Priest has written an accessible and enjoyable novel. And part of the enjoyment was having my imagination challenged and expanded -- I felt like I do after finishing a rigorous workout, only, in this case, my mind had the workout. Honestly, what a book, one I recommend especially for readers who do not usually read science fiction. More specifically, here are several call-outs:

The novel is divided into five parts, alternating back and forth between first-person and third-person – our first-person narrator is main character Helward Mann, a newly initiated apprentice guildsman of the city. Helward is pitch perfect as narrator since, in a very real sense, his story is the city’s story. Third-person part two and four underscore and clarify the challenges facing Helward and his city. A most effective narrative devise to drive the story and draw us into its unfolding drama.

Although science fiction in that the city is of a future time and must continually move by way of a system of tracks, cables and wenches toward an ideal point termed ‘optimum’, pacing of the day-to-day activities of the city are much akin to a city in 12th century Europe. Matter of fact, compared to the high octane writing of Philip K. Dick, ‘Inverted World’ reads like science fiction in slow motion, which is exactly the appropriate speed to make this story accessible, especially for those of us who ordinarily do not read science fiction.

The workings of the guild system was founded by the city’s founder, one Destaine. The guilds involve the specifics of surveying, laying of tracks, bridge building, securing cables and winching – all of the nitty-gritty of enabling the city to continue moving north. The guilds are exclusive and regimented and central to the overall government of the city. And the guildsmen take their guilds seriously, very seriously. All members have the mindset and work ethic comparable to members of those esteemed medieval guilds.

But, alas, the inhabitants of the moving city are not alone. There are hostile, half-starving tribes in the lands outside the city. And to add further complication, the city engineers need men from these various tribes to contribute to the heavy, backbreaking work involved in clearing land and laying track. And even more complication: the city must barter for the services of the tribeswomen. A nasty business to be sure.

So, we as readers join Helward moving along at the slow, methodical speed of medieval-like time for the entire first half of the novel. Then it happens: the jolt of the weird. I wouldn’t want to say anything more specific here but let me assure you, as a reader you will be every bit as shocked and jolted as Helward. Such is the high quality of Christopher Priest’s writing. At this point and beyond, the plot thickens, warps and bends.

We are familiar with George Barkley’s “To be is to be perceived.” Well, on one level “Inverse World” is a meditation on perception within the science of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Would we be upset and disoriented if we realized the way we have been perceiving the world and the physical objects contained within – the sun, the directions of north, south, east, west, the size and shape of those around us -- is completely false? You bet we would. Welcome to the bending space of an inverse world that plays with our mind.

Even a non-scientist like myself can see the author includes enough math and science to keep nearly everyone with a background in science both challenged and engaged. As a for instance, here’s a reflection from an outsider to the city: “In time a kind of logical pattern appeared . . . but there was one ineradicable flaw in everything. The hypothesis by which the city and its people existed was that the world on which they lived was somehow inverted. Not only the world, but all the physical objects in the universe in which that world was supposed to exist. The shape that Destaine drew – a solid world, curved north and south in the shape of hyperbolas – was the approximation they used, and it correlated indeed with the strange shape that Helward had drawn to depict the sun.”

At one point well into the tale, Helward reflects, “I did my guild work as quickly as possible, then rode off alone through the future countryside, sketching what I saw, trying to find in line drawing some expression of a terrain where time could almost stand still.” In a way, this is remarkable since the mindset of the inhabitants of the city, including the guildsmen, is totally practical – every drop of ingenuity and effort is geared to sheer, brute material survival. Within the city walls there is no reference to religion, philosophy, literature or the arts – to put it bluntly, these people lack a spiritual and aesthetic dimension. Yet, remarkably, through a stroke of artistic creativity, Helward touches the realm of the eternal, which is perhaps a consequence of being set free from the pull of the city. One theme worth keeping in mind.

The people of the city deal with life without powerful drugs, hallucinogenic or otherwise. They are a sober lot, not even beer or wine. No Dionysian frenzy; no dancing; not even the singing of songs within the city walls. In this sense, very different from our own world. However there are a number of challenges and problems the people and the city face that will have a most familiar ring. But this book is much, much more than simply social and cultural commentary. Christopher Priest has written a work of extraordinary vision, one to expand your mind and hone your imagination, and even if you become slightly warped in the process, exercising your grey matter will be well worth the effort.

This New York Review Book (NYRB) classic contains an informative Afterward written by John Clute, providing historical and social context for Priest’s writing. This edition also has a nifty, eye-catching cover sculpture by artist/futuristic designer, Lebbeus Woods.

(Special thanks to Goodreads friend Manny Rayner for clarifying for me the scientific ideas contained within this novel before I wrote my review). ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
The story of one inhabitant, Helward Mann, of a city on wheels named Earth, after the planet they left years ago. Mann discovers, during his apprenticeship into the city's guild system, why the city must constantly be on the move and the reasons for the guild system itself. He witnesses first-hand the dangers of going too far "back past" (i.e. south (sort of) of the city) and the strange things that happen "up future" (north, sort of).
I'm not doing this one justice in my blurb, because to do so would give too much away. I will say this: I LOVED it. A few twists that I really didn't see coming, despite my edge-of-the-seat wonder at what all the weird hints were actually hinting at. Steampunkish before steampunk was cool, and this was is very, very cool. ( )
  scaifea | Jan 15, 2017 |

The Inverted World is a cold book.

Most of Priest's books are told in a stiff and remote mode, which frequently suits the alienated subject matter. It's not the case here.


1 - The sterile environment depicted is reflected in the unemotional natures of the characters and of their relationships with one another: Helwood vs his wife Victoria and Helwood vs his father;

2 - The dialog is very stilted and stiff; it barely pretends to achieve more than information exchange. And as a result, it is difficult to become involved in the characters' lives or to care about their feelings;

3 - The leitmotiv of the book is abandoned three-quarters of the way through;

4 - It lacks an explanation on how the characters moved from this world to the Inverted World;

5 - The books wrap-up at the end, ie, The Explanation", leaves a lot to be desired. There're lots of questions unanswered. Intentional?

Redeeming factor:

1 - It has a mind-boggling idea that is at the very heart of the novel.

Compared to his later books I think it lacks the subtlety and ambiguity expected from him.

It's well worth the read simply for its basic concept (3 stars for that).

" ( )
1 vote antao | Dec 10, 2016 |
This book has the feel more of an extended thought-experiment than a novel at times, but the mystery of why the world through which Helward Mann's city-on-rails travels kept me turning pages, wanting to find out why the hell time moves differently north and south of the city, why the ground is pulling the city towards its destruction, why the sun appears as a hyperbolic solid rather than a sphere...

Other reviewers have complained that there is not a conventional story here, that the protagonist does not develop. There is some validity to this, but I think it misses the point to demand a personal touch in a book that poses such big an interesting conundrums. Helward Mann is merely the lens through which we view these, and the tool by which we come eventually to the truth.

I, for one, was never bored or impatient, except to find out what was really going on. I devoured this book in a day and a half and was sad, yet satisfied, when it was over. ( )
  KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
"... it is certainly one of the strangest SF novels of all time. Unfortunately the ending lets you down almost as badly as the traditional dream in Nineteenth Century stories."
added by RBeffa | editAnalog Science Fiction/Sciencd Fact, P. Shuyler Miller (Nov 7, 1975)

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Priest, ChristopherAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lye, MichaelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martin, BrunoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moore, ChrisCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nenonen, KariTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stephenson,Andrew M.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Whereso'er I turn my view,
All is strange, yet nothing new;
Endless labour all along,
Endless labour to be wrong
— Samuel Johnson
To my mother and father
First words
Elizabeth Khan closed the door of the surgery, and locked it. (From Prologue)
I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles. (From Chapter 1 of Part 1)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060134216, Hardcover)

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(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:59 -0400)

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The city is winched along tracks through a devastated land full of hostile tribes. Rails must be freshly laid ahead of the city and carefully removed in its wake. Rivers and mountains present nearly insurmountable challenges to the ingenuity of the city's engineers. But if the city does not move, it will fall farther and farther behind the "optimum" into the crushing gravitational field that has transformed life on Earth. The only alternative to progress is death. The secret directorate that governs the city makes sure that its inhabitants know nothing of this. Raised in common in creches, nurtured on synthetic food, prevented above all from venturing outside the closed circuit of the city, they are carefully sheltered from the dire necessities that have come to define human existence. And yet the city is in crisis. The people are growing restive, the population is dwindling, and the rulers know that, for all their efforts, slowly but surely the city is slipping ever farther behind the optimum. Helward Mann is a member of the city's elite. Better than anyone, he knows how tenuous is the city's continued existence. But the world--he is about to discover--is infinitely stranger than the strange world he believes he knows so well.… (more)

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