The subjectivity of perception is one of the classic themes of literature. From the existentialism of novels like Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea to more literal renderings like Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, the surrealism of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence or Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress to Barry Malzberg’s psychological examination of the multiplicity of experience in Beyond Apollo, reality is anything but concrete. Falling somewhere between the subjectivity of personal and social perception, Christopher Priest’s 1973 Inverted World is another quality novel to add to the list.
Part Jonathan Swift and part Keith Roberts, Inverted World builds itself from setting. The novel is set in a massive city residing on railroad tracks that are continually torn up behind and laid down in front as the hulking mass moves forever forward. Time measured in miles rather than hours or minutes, the guilds, engineers, laborers, and sundry support personnel perpetually lay track and winch the city forward, chasing the ever-elusive Optimum speed that remains just a few miles ahead. The countryside rolling by at roughly the rate of a tenth of a mile per day, no movement is felt by the city’s residents. In fact, due to guild regulations, most people inside the city have no idea what is happening outside the walls. Strict oaths of silence and secrets laid upon all guildsmen and their apprentices that keep its people the dark, learning the reality of one’s existence comes in fits and starts, and may not always be what the eyes tell you is real.
Son of an aging guildsman, Helward Mann (pretentious, no?) is sworn into the Futures Guild at the outset of Inverted World, a move planned throughout his upbringing. His bride likewise arranged, he is given his first assignment as apprentice that very night. Backbreaking labor to say the least, he is placed in a crew who work ‘down back,’ salvaging old rails for use ‘up north.’ Though watched by a guildsman, he is nevertheless nominally in charge of a group of lethargic workers who would rather be resting than digging. Immigrant labor, they speak little English and fight with the militia who guard the rails trying to prevent sabotage from the communities the city passes through. While his body toughens to the labor, Mann finds himself asking the question: to what purpose do my labors extend? Sent on an assignment deep ‘down back’ one day, answers begin forming. So shocking, in fact, it just may change his perspective on the city.
Forever chasing Optimum, the city of Inverted World sets itself up as a grand metaphor for the modern capitalist machine. With its hierarchy of status, wealth, and knowledge, and perpetually need to feed its own fire, there is more than one parallel to modern economics in the West. But to describe the novel as polito-economic analog would only be to sell it short. Hellward Mann the ingredient synergizing the elements, the social ills, class issues, and labor problems he witnesses serve to introduce other aspects that place him at the center of a couple of quandaries: does he believe the evidence of his eyes, and if yes, what to do about it? The novel’s conclusion appropriately tight-lipped, it leaves the decision in the reader’s hands.
Seemingly having found his authorial voice, Inverted World marks the first novel in Priest’s oeuvre where the lucid clarity of prose deceptively hides significantly deeper human concerns—one of Priest’s trademarks. As simple yet intriguing a hard sf premise as Niven or Benford could produce, Priest embeds his creation with rich symbolism. Worldbuilding junkies will love the unique, slowly revealed setting, as well as the linear coming-of-age of young Man, whereas readers seeking more substance to their text will find plenty to think over, particularly in the latter third of the novel when the proverbial and literal wheels start coming off the train.
While it remains unclear whether setting is ever fully synthesized with theme, Inverted World nevertheless provides plenty of food for thought regarding the way we perceive how others exist around us, as well as the systems we are a part of. Allegorical science fiction that starts with hard sf and ends on a strong humanist note, Priest gives every indication of being one of the tip-top writers in the field he would become.