At the age of six-hundred and fifty miles, Helwad Mann is old enough to leave the crèche and start his apprenticeship with the Futures guild in the city of Earth. Before he can become a fully-fledged member, he must first spend three miles with each of the other guilds. His first task is to assist the Track guild with digging and re-laying the tracks that the city travels upon, on its never-ending quest to reach a place called optimum which is always moving, miles ahead and always just out of reach. Then he’ll spend time working on the city’s nuclear reactor with the Traction guild, and defend it as part of Militia. But his most important apprenticeship comes when he’s tasked with going down past, returning three local women to their village—the trip that causes Helward to realize the warped and distorted truths. Despite what Mann was taught this planet is a hyperbola, a realization that will stick with him during all his travels up future…
As my synopsis should indicate, this novel’s setting is wonderfully bizarre, the concepts and expectations of this planet in a constant state of flux—the world is just plain off, which is why it’s so entertaining to read about. Inverted World is about Mann coming to know his world, but it’s centered around this mobile city called Earth, pulled along on rails in an attempt to catch up with the ever-moving optimum. It’s a novel that plays with time and space, toying with math equations to create a world that defies the traditional Hard SF rigor yet is just as scientifically accurate. Most of all, it’s a novel of perspective, which plays a key role in the fourth of five sections. And it’s a story about what it means to be human—human adaptation to survive against the environment, human frailties and the context in which we create our own heavens and hells. For all its straightforward plotting, Inverted World has a wealth of thought-provoking implications at every twist and turn.
Reading this novel, I was struck by how little Helward knows about his world. He’s clearly had an education in the crèche, but left it knowing next to nothing about how the city operates, its struggles or the planet he lives on. That’s not the surprising part; the city administration—the guilds—keep the populace in the dark, and don’t even explain their grim reality to apprentices. No, it’s that Helward doesn’t seem to care or show much interest in finding out why things are the way they are—sure, he asks a few half-hearted questions, but it takes him a while to become a proactive questioner. And that’s only after his wife Victoria peppers him with questions he realizes he himself should have asked. Not the most active protagonist, is he; Mann is the everyman we observe as he tries to find his place in the world.
Priest’s writing is always calm despite the often bizarre and thrilling visions he presents, a cold precision in contrast to book’s mercurial structure: it changes format with each section, reflecting the world’s unstable nature and its chaotic fluctuations. The first-person chapters told from Mann’s perspective are Victorian-esque in their stiff formality and complete lack of emotion, echoes of the dystopian society’s drive for survival at all costs. Another section follow Mann in third-person, the point-of-view distanced and uncertain as Mann descends into the chaotic south and learns the horrific truths of this hyperbola-shaped world—its geometric and gravitational fluctuations. The prologue and yet another section follow Elizabeth Khan, another third-person perspective but with more grounding and stability, as Elizabeth is a sort of touchstone to normality that helps ground the novel. It’s an interesting effect to see the prose toy with perspective as the novel deals with the theme of perspective.
Speaking of perspective and metaphor, economy is a not-so-subtle dig at capitalism and colonialism. These women for which the city of Earth barters are on “loan” from their village for the simple purpose of procreation, much as their menfolk are bartered to perform manual labor. The city’s Barter guild appears, offering goods and favors that the locals need, asking in return that they give their bodies for the use of the city. They give gifts of life and labor in return for synthetic porridge—a briefly better life in a world beset by starvation and want. The many locals are carrying the burden of the secluded few in the city—many of whom have no idea how the really works or what’s outside the city walls, much less how their society is built on the backs of locals. Yet the benefits of the city are fleeting: as it progresses on without a care to the locals’ needs, they fall back to their miserable starting point as the city moves on to offer the next village the gifts of hard work and foul-tasting porridge.
Writing (and reading) in the SF blogosphere, it’s become all too common to applaud something as “mind-blowing” or “mind-bending;” I can never tell if a book really is mind-bending or if the reviewer is just grasping at a devalued descriptor for lack of words. (Trust me, I’m an expert—I use those all the damn time in comments and on Twitter.) Inverted World I can certify as mind-bending, as bent and warped and mercurial as the planet it’s set on. The science will make the Hard SF fans guffaw, at least until it’s explained how this is possible, but that’s not the point: what’s important is perspective, sensawunda, a deep and engaging plot. It’s a very readable novel with plenty of depth to plumb, leaving me with plenty to think about. One of the top classics from the 1970s I’ve read thus far.
I bought this one a few months ago when the NYRB edition was a Kindle daily deal, but the review over at From Couch to Moon convinced me that, rather than sitting idle and wasting spare kilobytes, it’s a book that should be read. I’m very glad that I did.