‘Inverted World,’ reissued and reconsidered

Sept. 13, 2008 | 4:28 p.m.

Cp_1973_2Christopher Priest writes novels where memory and truth are slippery and the nature of your narrators can’t quite be trusted. And then there’s his passion for the masterful plot twist, which moviegoers got a sense of when the great Priest novel “The Prestige” was brought to the screen by director Christopher Nolan.

About a decade ago, the science fiction author described those amazing story pivots to interviewer David Langford: “They aren’t the same kind of jolt you get from a horror movie…. My shocks are based on a sudden devastating reversal of what the reader knows or believes.”

There’s a new reissue of Priest’s 1974 novel “Inverted World” and Los Angeles Times deputy books editor Nick Owchar, a good friend of the Hero Complex, has written an enlightening review about this tale of a crawling city. Here’s an excerpt, but do go and read the entire piece.

It’s nearly impossible for me, a native Angeleno, to imagine a city like the one in Christopher Priest’s newly reissued novel “Inverted World” (New York Review Books: 322 pp., $15.95 paper). Here we have a city surrounded by high walls and a populace unaware that the entire polis sits upon tracks, pulled by a giant winch in order to stay ahead of a crushing, slowly moving gravity field. Thinking of the suburban sprawl that I call home, it is difficult to grasp living inside a portable society so finite as this one — and that perhaps is one reason why the story is so intriguing.

But another reason for the story’s appeal is the way in which Priest, with the novel’s very first sentence, immerses us within a strange new reality:

“I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.”

The narrator, Helward Mann, is an apprentice in a guild system that keeps this city moving. There are guilds for laying track that recruit laborers from the areas the city passes through to survey the land ahead (which makes the menacing gravity field puzzling: Why don’t the locals try to escape it?). Mann’s proud declaration about his maturity is a jarring revelation — time in this world is measured best by distances.

We follow Helward’s training in the guilds, in sections of first and third person point-of-view, and gradually learn that “the city of Earth,” as it is called, has been crossing rivers, chasms and broad expanses for 200 years. Prior to that, some vague apocalyptic event called “The Crash” changed life on the planet. While various guilds concentrate on moving the city, its populace is shielded from the truth and focuses on raising and educating children and creating synthetic foods. (The cover of an omnibus edition of Priest novels published by Earthlight presents an interesting image of what the city looks like.) Such an imperiled world. There are many in recent imaginative fiction — more than it is possible to list here, though Armada comes readily to mind, a floating city in China Miéville’sThe Scar” that uses sea beasts to tow it across the ocean; and Deepgate, which balances in chains above a vast abyss in Alan Campbell’sDeepgate Codex” series (of which the second installment, “Iron Angel,” has just been published); as well as “Daltharee,” a story by Jeffrey Ford about a world in a bottle in a new anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, “The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

If you’d like to learn more about Priest, you can find his official website here.

– Geoff Boucher

Photo: Christopher Priest in 1973, the year before “Inverted World” was released. Credit: Dick Howett, courtesy of Christopher Priest’s website.

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