Saturday, August 07, 2010

Book Review – Inverted World by Christopher Priest

Inverted World
Christopher Priest
NYRB Classics
Trade Paperback
336 pages
ISBN: 1590172698
Literary Awards - British Science Fiction Association Award for Novel (1975)


Once upon a time there was a great City known as Earth that constantly, slowly, and persistently moved ever-forward on rails towards its grinding goal to reach, or , at least, pace “Optimum.” Slowly, at a tenth of a mile a day, the City slouched northward toward the horizon. To fall behind was unthinkable and deadly or so the denizens had been taught. Behind this lumbering behemoth, the Traction Guild strained to remove the ties and rails and quickly transport them to the front of the City. The Navigator Guild would send scouts great distances to determine the best routes forward. Rivers, canyons, lakes, and other natural impediments were spanned by the Bridge Guild. Protecting them all from dissident villagers along the way was the Militia Guild. So begins the quirky story of “Inverted World” by Christopher Priest.

Normally, I would label my evaluation of “Inverted World” as a classic book review since this story was first published in 1974. However, and shame on me, I did not read this marvelous work of fiction until recently and therefore I cannot in good conscience label it a classic. However, had I read it twenty or thirty years ago I think I’d have deemed it an instant classic then. The characters are believable and well-written but trapped within the confines of their Guilds. Some search for answers while others, like the City, plod ever-onward without question or purpose. Strange “distortions” follow the City and those who travel too far behind it suffer physical and temporal changes to themselves and their surroundings. The mystery of how this “world” came to be unravels slowly but expertly in Priest’s hands. The main premise of the book consists of pure hard science and while the laws of physics appear to be strained at first, all is explained in the end. And, in my opinion, the wait is definitely worth it. The mysteries of the planet and the city are skillfully, although slowly, unraveled throughout the narrative and kept me interested until the very last page. If there is a flaw with this story it is that it is much too short and the open ending might have been expanded to full closure (which I won’t spoil here with explanation.)

Written with compact and concise detail this too short novel drew me in from the very first paragraph and the themes of respect, responsibility, parity, warped realism, and discovery were woven together in such a way that kept me totally engrossed and my imagination working in hyper-drive. Overall I became lost in the story and its enormous sense of wonder, buildup of mystery, and ever-present suspense as Priest’s portrayal of this interesting society grew. Ah, to become lost in wonder while reading… isn’t that all we ever ask from any intelligent book?

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative

Southeast Wisconsin

More information about Inverted World

Steven Wu’s Book Review

Fantasy Magazine’s Review

NPR Review (with excerpt)

Author Website

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