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Inverted World (1974)

by Christopher Priest

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,580569,689 (3.87)1 / 64
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 crèches, 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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English (49)  French (4)  Italian (1)  All languages (54)
Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
Loved it. Interesting physics, good story. ( )
  ELockett | Sep 26, 2022 |
review of
Christopher Priest's The Inverted World
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - January 6, 2015

When I was a young teen, a door-to-door Science Fiction Book Club salesman came to my door & talked me into subscribing to the club. I got Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold & Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy & I thought a bk by Priest called something like The Possessed.

As far as I can tell, Priest never wrote anything w/ that title. Arthur C. Clarke, another author whose work I might've gotten thru the SFBC, wrote a short story called "The Possessed" but I'm sure I'm not confusing the 2. I tried searching the SFBC website but didn't have any luck there.

I have a copy of Priest's Indoctrinaire wch I've probably read but don't remember at all & a copy of his The Extremes wch I'm sure I read but also don't remember at all. In other words, it wd seem that Priest's work is considerably less than memorable to me.

THEN, I read The Inverted World & was not only engrossed but even enthralled. I was even tempted to give it a 5 star rating in the heat of passion.

So why did this one do it for me so much?! For one thing, I liked the illustrations by Andrew M. Stephenson. It's not often (like never?) that I call attn to illustrations - but that's not really the reason. Basically, I knew there was an explanation for the oddities of the novel & I eagerly awaited receiving them. One of these oddities was the opening sentence: "I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles." (p 3) At 1st this seemed primarily to be another 'coming-of-age' novel (like Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage wch I recently reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2155065.Rite_of_Passage ):

""Are you aware of the significance of this age?"

""I assume the responsibilities of an adult."

""How best can you assume those responsibilities, sir?"

"" I wish to enter apprenticeship with a first-order guild of my choice."" - p 5

As the main character is sworn in he says: ""That I shall place the security of the city of Earth above all other concerns" (p 7) providing yet another oddity to be explained: the city of Earth?!

"One evening, Malchuskin said to me: "How long have you been out here?"

""I'm not sure."

""In days."

""Oh . . . seven."

"I had been trying to estimate it in terms of miles.

""In three days' time you get some leave. You have two days inside the city, then you come back here for another mile."

"I asked him how he reckoned the passage of time in terms of both days and distance.

""It takes the city about ten days to cover a mile," he said. "And in a year it will cover about thirty-six and a half."" - p 29

What exactly is this CITY of Earth that moves, that reckons time in terms of distance? It's less surprising that an idea for a bk that started in 1965 & reached publication by 1974 wd touch on sexual discrimination:

""You could apply to transfer to a guild," I said in a moment, "I'm sure—"

""I'm the wrong sex," she said abruptly. "It's men only, or didn't you realize that?"

""No . . ."

""It hasn't taken me long to work a few things out," she went on, speaking quickly and barely suppressing her bitterness. "I'd seen it all my life and never recognized it: my father was always away from the city, my mother working in her job, organizing all those things we took for granted, like food and heating and disposal of sewage. Now I have recognized it. Women are too valuable to risk outside. They're needed here in the city because they breed, and they can be made to breed again and again.["]" - p 44

Where the oddities really started to get intriguing for me was in descriptions of the sun & moon:

""O.K." I had already said too much, but what could I do? "You can't see it properly during the day because it's so bright. But at sunrise or sunset you can see it for a few minutes. I think it's disc-shaped. But it's more than that, and I don't know the words to describe it. In the centre of the disc, top and bottom, there's a kind of shaft."

""Part of the sun?"

""Yes. A bit like a spinning-top. But it's difficult to see clearly because it's so bright even at those times. The other night, I was outside and the sky was clear. There's a moon, and that's the same shape. But I couldn't see that clearly either, because it was in phase."" - p 50

"The sun was setting. Red to the north-east, it glowed against the impossible horizon.

"The shape of it was the same. A broad flat disc that might be an equator; at its centre and to north and south, its poles existing as rising, concave spires.

"Helward had seen the sun so often that he no longer questioned its appearance. But now he knew: the world too was that shape." - p 123

"I knew that Earth planet was part of a system of planets, which were orbiting a spherical sun. Earth planet itself was circled by a spherical satellite, Again, this information seemed always to be theoretical . . . and this lack of practical application had not concerned me even when I left the city, for it was always clear that a different circumstance obtained. The sun and moon were not spherical, and neither was the world on which we lived." - p 153

"["]If we were now on Earth planet we would be living in a universe of infinite size, which would be occupied by a number of large, but finite, bodies. Here the inverse is the rule: we live in a large but finite universe, occupied by a number of bodies of infinite size."

""It doesn't make sense."

""I know," said Blayne. "I said you wouldn't like it."

""Where are we?"

""No one knows."

""Where is Earth planet?"

""No one knows that either."" - p 165

Helward & his father are Future Guildsmen. Why do they age so quickly? "He had seen his father last not more than ten days ago as the man was riding north; now, in that short period, it seemed to Helward that his father had aged suddenly and horribly." (p 98) Everything is out-of-whack, time is measured by distance, the city is named "Earth" but its inhabitants don't know where the planet is that it's named after, the inhabitants are taught that celestial bodies are spherical but can only see ones that aren't, people age differently depending on wch direction they go. It just gets curiouser & curiouser:

"He remembered that when the city had been crossing the bridge the rail-way itself had been at least sixty yards long. Now it seemed that at the point the bridge had been built the chasm was only about ten yards wide." - p 113

"The shirt was tight across her chest, compressing her breasts . . . and the sleeves were too long. Also, the girl seemed to be far shorter than he remembered her from even the day before . . ." - p 116

"I was still thinking about the awesome experience of seeing the whole world lying before me. As an event, it was enough; understanding it was something else." - p 152

Indeed, it was the description of the above experience (not quoted here) that really hooked me into this bk. What cd be happening here? Is the planet that Earth city on being sucked into a black hole? Everything is distorted. Helward draws a woman he meets:

""God, am I as skinny as that?" she said without thinking.

"He tried to take them away from her. "Give them back."

"She turned away from him, and flicked through the others. It was possible to see that they were of her, but his sense of proportion was . . . unusual. Both she and the horse were drawn too tall and thin. The effect was not unpleasing, but rather weird." - p 193

The illustration opening Part Three shows a man holding what looks like an early video camera (such as the author might've come across at the time of this bk's writing). This surprised me. The technology of Earth city had been mostly 'steam-punk' until now. "a miniature video camera and recording equipment. I was given the video kit to use, and Denton showed me how to operate it." (p 150)

I'm usually alert to the way that language has changed even in my lifetime. "Her hair and scalp were inspected for infestation, and she was given a test which she could only imagine was to determine whether or not she had VD." (p 210) Do any younger people say "VD" anymore? For all I know its replacement, "STD", may've already been replaced too.

When/where is this all taking place?

"This room was situated next to the transference section. It had a small bar at one end with, Elizabeth noted, a distinct shortage of choice, and next to this an ancient video set. When she switched it on a tape device attached to it showed a comedy programme that she frankly couldn't understand at all, although an invisible audience laughed all the way through. The comic allusions were evidently contemporary, and thus meaningless to her. She watched the program through, and from a copyright notice at the end learnt that it had been taped in 1985. More than two hundred years old!" - p 211

Ha ha! Priest is being sloppy here for the sake of furthering just one aspect of the story. The thought of a person just casually knowing how to switch on a 200 yr old system & the thought that it wd still even work is far-fetched in a different way than the rest of the novel. How many young people now would be able to turn on, say, a reel-to-reel audio deck only 40 or 50 yrs after their heyday?

But, then, Liz is an 'anomaly', at least in contrast to the residents of Earth city:

"She glanced up at the sun, shielding her eyes with her hand. The sun was as she had ever known it: a brilliant white ball of light high in the sky." - p 212

Alas, Priest eventually resorts to the exhausted cliché to explain part of this: "It was curious how she succumbed so readily to the various involvements of these people. Perhaps it was because she could identify with some of them, and perhaps it was because the society within the city was a curiously civilized existence—for all its strange ways—in a countryside that had been wasted by anarchy for generations." (p 218) Yep, "wasted by anarchy": we all 'know' what a bad effect self-rule can have on those little people. "You have survived in this city for nearly two hundred years, or seven thousand miles by your way of measuring time. About you has been a world in anarchy and ruins. The people are ignorant, uneducated, stricken with poverty." (p 223)

Fortunately, Priest's use of 'anarchy' is really more of a passing misuse rather than something central to the aforementioned oddities. His central explanation, wch I refrain from giving here for the sake of avoiding a spoiler, is far far more interesting. ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
I rarely read science fiction, but must have read something somewhere that put me onto this one. Not sure I “got” it, but the story and characters were compelling and the world it created satisfyingly mind-bendy. The Audible narrator Steven Cree is great, with a terrific Scottish accent. ( )
  jdukuray | Jun 23, 2021 |
This is one of those books that draws heavily from the Flatland school of math-as-narrative, and it sort of works. It's also a book that to discuss is to spoiler, since the whole story critically depends on the central gimmick: that the book takes place on an Earthlike planet that's shaped like an inverse sphere. Wikipedia calls it a "pseudosphere" if you want to look up the math on it, but the point is that the book's narrative follows the same hyperbolic path that the main character's does. This is sort of cute in theory, but in practice it just meant that the very beginning and ending don't make much sense, and the book is so short that I didn't get to spend as much time among the bizarre world Priest creates as I would have liked to. The setting reminded me a lot of the Gormenghast trilogy - a self-contained gothic ruin of a society kept barely alive by seemingly meaningless rituals. The difference here is that the society moves: it's really a mobile city with several guilds that collaborate to continuously lay track in front by reusing the old track so that the inverse Coriolis forces caused by this anti-Earth's rotation don't pull the city off into infinity if it slows down for too long. I thought the main stretch of the book was great, as protagonist Helward Mann takes his place in the city's guild system and slowly learns the truth about the strange world he inhabits, how he moves from opposition to the city's hermetic elders to loyalty based on his harrowing experiences. It's just that the ending, which I think goes for a Perception vs. Reality thing, is totally incongruous with the rest of the book, and made the rest of the book feel like a waste. I thought this book was cleverer in concept but not execution than The Prestige (which ruled), maybe because it was expanded from a short story. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Interesting. Ending felt kinda dumped on me and had some loopholes but it's fiction so I don't have many problems with that. ( )
  garrettjansen | Mar 27, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 49 (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
Christopher Priestprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cap, YomaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kurz, KristofTranslatorsecondary authorsome 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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Epigraph
Whereso'er I turn my view,
All is strange, yet nothing new;
Endless labour all along,
Endless labour to be wrong
— Samuel Johnson
Dedication
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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

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 crèches, 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.

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