Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest

InvertedWorldGround that slips. Warped horizons. Variable forces. The limits to which genre fiction can be stretched and altered to accommodate its own metafictional boundaries are far and wide, yet few authors dare to test their tales against those limits. Straightforward stories of unique characters in unique circumstances carry their own appeal, but some authors move beyond that. In 1974’s Inverted World, Christopher Priest manages to probe those appraising, distant boundaries, while capturing the visual imagination of his readers, and without mangling the central tale of a boy becoming a man in a city of passive incomprehension.

We see the words “mind-bending” and “mind-blowing” thrown around a lot when describing speculative fiction novels, and it’s not without good reason. Most spec fic readers seek more than just a good story—they want to alter their reality, stretch their minds. But reading spec fic is a bit like mind yoga, and while there are many styles to choose from, some of them just aren’t very challenging. Still, it is with great hesitation, yet utter sincerity, that I deliver the following pronouncement:

Christopher Priest’s Inverted World is mind-bending. No hyperbole intended. (Although there are some hyperbolas.) (sorry.)

In his hyperbola-shaped world, Priest plays with geometry, perspective, and style, while bending both the mind and the genre. He proves that fluctuating grav is not only interesting, but is an excellent tool for literary expression and genre subversion.  A description of the world is enough to deter the physics-phobes, but Priest’s most significant feat of engineering is in the literary joints and struts of the tale—quadratic equations not required.

Helward Mann is the age of six hundred and fifty miles and lives in the city of Earth. Having recently come of age, he must leave the confines of his city to train as a guildsman, apprenticing for the different guilds that contribute to the welfare and movement of the city. His first apprenticeship involves the construction of a set of tracks, on which Earth must be laboriously winched closer to the ever-moving “optimum.” (“It takes the city about ten days to cover a mile… and in a year it will cover about thirty-six and a half” p. 41.) Another apprenticeship sends him south, to guide home the native women recruited to help bolster the dwindling population of Earth. His voyage to the south reveals strange truths about his world, where the ground slips across the planet, gravity intensifies to a suffocating, crushing pull, and the natives shrink and widen into inhuman shapes.

Just what is this planet?

InvertedWorld2It takes a little bit of brain juice to picture the world that Priest has engineered, and to explain it too much here would spoil the pleasure of discovery for future readers. To sample the flavor, one must consider a blend of the exotic gravity of Clement’s Mesklin in Mission of Gravity, the enormous engineering feat of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mercurial city on tracks in 2312, and the supernatural “thinny” from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. The story of an apprentice learning his trade through a series of heuristic lessons provides an ideal platform for uncovering the mysteries of his strange world to the reader. Priest does a masterful job of teasing and revealing.

In addition to playing with physics, Priest also plays with the tools in his writer’s chest. His language is precise and direct, and his characters demonstrate little emotive value, both of which contribute to this world of desperate survival. Within his narrative, Priest uses first and third person perspectives to mimic the effects of this perception-altering gravity, where Helward’s first person account is vague, distorted, and frustrating, much like the world he is exploring. Elizabeth, an occasional lead supporting character, is narrated in third-person with more exactness, often acting as the axel on this rickety ride, and as the tale’s own optimum.

But Priest’s greatest exercise in literary play comes through as genre subversion as the reader learns that not all is exactly what it seems. This can be frustrating for the physics fetishists* if things don’t fully make sense in the end, but that’s not the point. Inverted World is a direct response to the Hard SF subgenre, specifically to books like Clement’s Mission of Gravity, which sacrifice story and art for scientific fact. For this reason, Inverted World can be classified as both mind-bending and genre-bending. Such a satisfying development for this reader.

In addition to mathematical concepts and literary play, Priest also addresses critical social themes. Earth’s inhabitants’ interact with the surrounding native populations, providing enlightening scenes and subtle critiques of exploitation and ethnocentrism, while illustrating cultural attitudes toward the value of women, labor, and good citizenship. These issues do not drive the plot, but they are always in the periphery, and are just as insidious as the weird grav that perpetuates the edges of their world. Even our good hero Helward (an apt name for a guy who is meant to travel away from his comfortable optimum) is not a hero, not an anti-hero, but something else—a leader who follows, a sheep in shepherd’s clothing.

InvertedWorld3Priest packs a lot in, but the prose is clean, clear, and it never fuddles up the plot. A passive reader can enjoy the narrative without the depth. An active reader can explore the depths without losing track of the plot. In the end, it is a tale about the exhausting, callous, futile things that people will do to survive. It is a cautionary tale against passive acceptance. It is a tale about the importance of questions.

But it is also a tale about the importance of story in a genre that is sometimes crushed by the force of its own scientific gifts.

A must read for any SF fan seeking more than the average read. Inverted World is full of wonder, and it just might bend your mind.

*I’m not talking about you, Hank. 😉

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24 thoughts on “Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    This will definitely have to be the next SF Masterwork I read now. You sold me harder on this than you did Sam Delany :p Great review!

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  2. unsubscriber says:

    Sounds like an intriguing read, although I don’t think the covers are up to much one this one unfortunately

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  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    I sort of like the Jack Faragasso cover which you didn’t include in your review. It’s probably the best in the publication history of the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I very nearly used this one, but I went with what I thought at the time would best convey what I was trying to describe, even though the others aren’t as attractive. I’m having second thoughts now…

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  4. Widdershins says:

    I loved what KSR did in 2312 … so I think I’m going to find myself a copy of this and indulge!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I picked up a copy on the cheap when New York Review Books brought it back… your review just convinced me to go find where I put it. Sounds amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] reviews: Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest Jewels of Aptor (1962) by Samuel R. Delany The Southern Reach trilogy […]

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  7. […] might like: Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Mieville Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest Southern Reach trilogy (2014) by Jeff […]

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  8. […] late, but I posted my eagerly awaited review of Christopher Priest’s 1974 Gollancz SF Masterwork Inverted World. It is mind-bending. It is genre-bending. It has hyperbolas. Yesyoumustreadthis. It’s so […]

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  9. Wow, great review! This is what I call a ringing endorsement. Now I’m going to have to search for a copy on Amazon later.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. […] 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 […]

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  11. […] Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest […]

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  12. Warstub says:

    And a great “parable about perception” as John Clute put it in the Illustrated Encyclopedia of SF.

    I’m also in awe of your review. You have done such a detailed analysis without giving away too much, and still pointing out all its strengths – strengths I wasn’t even aware of. Inverted World is a well deserved classic – as much as I love PK Dick, some novels appearing in the Masterwork series are highly dubious (Time Out of Joint? The Simulacra? The Penultimate Truth? Seriously?), but this novel has been long loved and admired by myself, and it deserves its place without question.

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  13. […] having a hard time deciding between the anarchic experiment The Dispossessed and the mind-bendy Inverted World as a first pick. Both are delicious; I love them so much. Maybe they should tie. In […]

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  14. […] questions that Wilson begs you not to ask. Like Christopher Priest’s Inverted World (1974), the mind-bendy setting serves as schema for more important things, rationale need not […]

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  15. […] Gradual is a detrimental loss. I am a growing Priest-head (Inverted World is still my favorite) but it can’t be included on our list, and the link above explains […]

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