Pursuing Christopher Priest: Inverted World

A couple of years ago, I did a series on Christopher Priest’s work. I confessed at the time to not being familiar with his earlier works nor, from what I’d read, being particularly attracted to them. I subsequently decided that was an unfair attitude and I’ve acquired the missing books and will be completing the series by looking at these.
Inverted World was Priest’s third novel and the end/culmination of his career as a genre SF writer. It’s a well-respected SF book, whose opening line – “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” – is celebrated as one of the great opening lines of SF. I read it many years ago, out of the library, and re-reading it for the first time in literally decades, I was immediately reminded of why I’d long avoided any of Priest’s work prior to A Dream of Wessex.
Which is not to say that Inverted World is a bad book, but it is a book of a kind that offers very little to me. I found it very dry and uninvolving, and slow to read because I couldn’t engage with either its subject or its principal character.
The story centres upon Helward Mann, who we first meet when he is about to leave the creche in a city called Earth, on a planet far from Earth, to take up his apprenticeship in the Futures Guild, one of six that preserve the safety of the City, following in the footsteps of his emotionally and physically distant father.
Earth, the City, is in consistent motion, drawn across the landscape of its planet upon railway tracks that are laid before the City on its perpetual journey north, having been removed from the wake of the City south. The City is in pursuit of something called the optimum, and must move one mile every ten days if it is to keep up. For most of the book, the City is trying to catch up to the optimum.
After a brief, third party prologue, Priest organises the story into five parts, the first, third and fifth of which are narrated by Mann, the second being third person about him, the fourth third person about Elizabeth Khan, who appears in the Prologue. Each section grows progressively shorter, as the City moves closer to, and overtakes, the optimum and consequently moves faster and more freely.
But Khan’s arrival in the story leads to revelations that completely invert (ha, ha) the basis upon which we have been led to understand the City.
The problem, for me, is that the story is no more than an intellectual puzzle: an SF trope. Priest creates a situation that is physically impossible within the laws of Physics as we understand them at present, and explores the reality of life under such conditions. Earth, the City, believes itself to be effectively a colony, stranded on an alien world among primitive tribes. This world is itself an inversion: the sun is not a sphere but rather a disc, with two hemispheric poles. Imagine it as one of those cheap plastic Xmas cracker prizes, where you spin the disc by balancing it on one of its poles.
Time and dimension become subjective on this world. Apprentices who travel north, surveying the ground for the best path forward, can be away for two months whilst returning to the City where only a few days have passed. The inverse effect of heading south is even worse: as well as the time factor – Mann is away for about two weeks on his journey and returns to find he has been gone two years, his wife has divorced him, believing he’s dead, has remarried and is pregnant –  there are spatial effects.
Mann’s mission is to return three traded women to their home village. Women in the City produce only male babies so the City barters for native women, who are kept for one pregnancy (if a girl, kept by the City, if a boy, returned with the mother if she chooses) and escorted back. The women start off tall, lithe and desirable (Mann screws two of them) but the further south they go, the shorter and broader they become, as does the landscape, until Mann finds himself being dragged by a near irresistible horizontal gravitational force until mountain ranges are barely inches high and he is bigger than the planet itself.
The revelation, at the end, brought by Elizabeth Khan, is that this entire construct is wrong. The City – little more than a mobile office block to Khan’s eyes – is on Earth the planet. We are two hundred years into the future, after the Crash, a breakdown of civilization from which the planet is now only beginning to recover. The City is the subject of an experiment into maintaining an unusual but seemingly perpetual energy source, which distorts the perceptions of all the folk from the City, causing them to perceive reality as inverted. The City is actually heading south-west, not north: it started from China and the optimum it is pursuing is a concentration of energy that circles Earth on a Great Circle. The City is now crossing Portugal, and the ‘river’ that confronts them is the Atlantic Ocean.
But Helward Mann refuses to believe this. His and Elizabeth’s perceptions are inverted and though she can recognise the unbridgeable gulf that stands between them (of which the Ocean is a concrete symbol), he cannot begin to comprehend any apprehension of the world but his own experience.
So the story ends in, essentially, stalemate. Mann is extreme among his City fellows but he is their representative – symbolically Everyman(n)  – and his inability to exceed his perceptions indicates that the City will not be able to break out of its own trap, whilst Khan brings the word that nobody in the world of Earth cares about the City or its predicament. Help will not be forthcoming. Te City, physically, cannot travel further.
As I said, it’s an intellectual, conceptual, scientific puzzle, and even at the height of my fascination with SF, I rarely read Hard SF, because it did not appeal to me, because I am not scientifically knowledgeable. My interest, in fiction, has always been with the effects on people caught up in situations, and there is nothing for me to take hold of in Inverted World. Helward Mann is a cold, emotionally subdued person. His intended, and later wife, Victoria, is a more vivid character, desirous of breaking out of the restrictions she faces, where Helward is content to accept them. She’s the far more active character, but she gets far too little room. The breach in the pair’s marriage carries no emotional weight, and after that such part Victoria has to play is dull and fanatic, based in a complete ignorance of the circumstances of the City, as we are fed them by Helward.
That’s not to say that the book is wholly without interest. I’ve characterised Christopher Priest’s central theme, from A Dream of Wessex onwards as being Unreality: each of his novels thereafter deals in differing manner with different and incompatible layers of reality. Though it’s barely developed here, Inverted World does represent Priest’s first, almost subliminal brush with this theme.
Helward Mann and Eliabeth Khan live in the same physical world, but they are separated by their diametrical approach to that reality, their perceptions – induced from birth – causing them to see the same thing from inverted positions. Though they can speak, hear, touch face-to-face, there are as good as living in two worlds, just as Peter Sinclair in The Affirmation lives in both our familiar world and the Dream Archipelago.
And there’s also a subtle physical form of the theme. Elizabeth Khan appears in the prologue, in the Portuguese village where she is acting as a nurse. She joins in a dance, goes for a walk to clear her head, returns to the village where she hears two strangers conversing with the village leader. Deciding it is none of her business, she walks away, later hearing horses gallop away.
But when she reappears, in Part Four, the scene is transformed. The scene is daylight, not night, but this time, Elizabeth pursues her curiosity, and what she hears leads to her taking the part of one of the women bartered to the City, with results we have already seen. But the Prologue and Part Four are incompatible. We are seeing Priest’s central theme being formed for the first time in his novels.
It will be far better dealt with in future years.


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