‘I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.’
As far as first sentences in a story go, the one in Inverted World took me completely by surprise by throwing a question at me immediately; what did it mean to be that old? Was the protagonist human? What was significant about that age? And so the 1974 novel pulled me in right from the start, lured with the promise of answers. I’d picked the book up initially from an antiquarian bookstore because the cover caught my attention and the brief blurb on the back sounded strange. I knew nothing about its author Christopher Priest or the award that the book won; it won the BSFA in the year it was published and was nominated for a Hugo Award the year after. What I did know was that there was a twist ending according to the reviews on the book, a surprising revelation to be given before you’ve even read the first line. I expected a light and silly read into far-fetched science fiction and instead was presented with a world that had to be seen to be believed and disbelieved.
Written mostly in the first person, Inverted World focuses primarily on Helward Mann, a resident of the city of Earth – a settlement that resides on a planet as then unknown – who at the start has come to a significant age. He’s to leave the crèche that has been his only home and enter the wider world of the city as an apprentice guildsman, a ceremony of great significance and secrecy. The book continued to throw questions at me while with no definite answers, that his father was a guildsman and that he’d be joining the same guild and seemed far older than the other guildsman at the ceremony. Six guilds exist; Track-Laying, Traction, Barter, Militimen, Bridge-Building and Future Surveyor, the last of them the guild Helward joins. A few of the guilds made sense to me but what importance did a person who built bridges have to make them so critical? Out of the six guilds that one stumped me the most, fuelled my desire to read on and find out what was happening. The book hadn’t even answered the question of Helward’s age and yet I kept reading, eager to find the answers and learn more about the situation Helward was in.
So begins a theme in the book that persists through most of it, one of discoveries that both illuminate more about the world around Helward and open up more questions and unknowns to be discovered at a later point. The reader’s perception of what’s going on in the story changes with each big reveal – of which there are more than a couple- but rarely do they feel forced; the revelations come naturally as part of the plot’s progression and while some of them took both Helward and me by surprise they made perfect sense. One of the first things that is revealed is why Helward’s age is measured in miles rather than years, part of a larger explanation of what his role as a guildsman is all in aid of. At no time in my reading did I think that the novel wouldn’t reveal to me the answers to those questions and for me. For instance, the question of why bridge builders were important was answered and when Helward discovers the reason it makes perfect sense to him and the reader, part of a large reveal that goes a long way to opening up what his own role in the city of Earth is.
The descriptions in the book are quite direct and devoid of huge amounts of detail. Conversations between characters often avoids describing how it’s spoken, sticking to the bare minimum as if to pass by it quickly and move on to other plot points. Many characters have only sparse descriptions of themselves and some went only by name. While it gives the book a quite fast pace it’s often filled with the statement of events happening rather than the protagonist’s state of mind. I found myself wanting more detail in the surroundings Helward and the other characters were in. Most characters tend not to get a description beyond their name and even now I don’t have a definite picture of what the protagonist looks like in my mind; if the book even described it his appearance wasn’t important save how it changes. Helward thinks little on his emotions and while he ponders to himself about situations he’s in its often factual musings over anything else. In a way the lack of detail wasn’t a bad thing; it allowed my mind to fill in the gaps and paint the picture with what I imagined the world to be. It also means that you take notice of when extra description is given, an emotion displayed bearing even more significance than it normally would. Two examples of this are the first time Helward leaves the confines of the city and sees the outside world, a sight of wonderment and marvel to him that’s conveyed in all the mystery and amazement he experiences. The second major example of this is in the middle at a startling revelation for him that I won’t go into detail about as it would spoil one of the biggest twists in the story. All of this left me guessing as to if it was the author’s way to write like that or if another reason was there for it.
I had to think very carefully when considering if I would go into detail about the book’s plot; Inverted World‘s arching story is difficult to talk about without spoiling many of the big reveals. This is because it lacks an antagonist save the setting of the book itself. Inverted World has no scheming villain twirling a metaphorical moustache or a legion of darkness waiting to eradicate the City of Earth from the ever-expanding and discarded map. Action scenes in the story are few and far between and of them only a few are large significant plot points. There are the inhabitants of nearby settlements known as Tooks, often dishevelled and malnourished people described as savages by some who are hired to work for one of the guilds but they can hardly be described as the plot’s big bad guy even if certain groups of them pose differing degrees of problems for the city. No, on the outset there appears to be no problem which gets the reader’s mind wandering as to just what conflict will emerge that’ll spur the story onward. Instead it’s up to Helward to discover the plot-driver for himself through observation and questions time; by watching and participating in events as an outsider to them all he tried to comprehend why a myriad of unusual activities are critically important along with the reader. By that point I was more curious than ever to discover what was going on. I didn’t know it at the time but I was going to read it all in one sitting, unable to put the book down for more than an hour before diving back into the world being painted for me, filling in the blank spots of an ever-expanding canvas but leaving even more spots empty in doing so. All the while the story smatters hints that there’s a lot more to the city and setting than even the characters in the know understand, occasional facts and objects that made me curious of why they’re there.
Helward himself starts off as someone initially eager to find his place in the world but comes to suspect early on that it’s the guild system itself that’s at fault somewhere, a group that tries to keep secrets from the population through the oath he had to swear when becoming an apprentice along with outside the city being for guildsman only. None of the information he learns while outside the city to begin with appears to be dangerous to the general populous but the warning of death if he reveals them lingers in his mind and the readers when considering the secrecy. Wanting to learn the reasoning for the rules of being tight-lipped spurs him on through each transfer to the respective guilds to learn his trade, filling in pieces of a puzzle that’s always perceived to be somewhat incomplete. As he learns more his attitude and opinions change in ways that completely make sense but also are far from how he perceived he’d be at the start of his journey; ideas that at first horrified him he grows to accept, comfortable concepts slowly grow to be alien as he comes to realise the city’s place in the world and more importantly about how the world itself functions. This is especially true when he goes on some very specific trips in the story, ‘going past’ and ‘going future’ as the characters within describe it.
Inverted World is a setting where there’s hard science thrown at you by characters who understand and can communicate it eloquently between one another. A hard science fiction book for the most part, the text does a good job of explaining a lot of the principles behind some of the larger reveals through character dialogue and Helward’s own internal musings and he considers various problems presented before him by the setting. I had to look up one term while I was reading and a few small sections required a second read but in all most of the science fitted in well with the story and made sense to be discussed.
In all of this, Helward never encounters a single female member of the guilds. Why is explained by Victoria, one of the more important characters in the story. At the same time as Helward’s graduation he’s told that he’s now engaged to be married to Victoria, someone he grew up with from the crèche yet had little contact with. It’s a surprise to him and he continues to have little contact with her despite his efforts to meet until some time into his apprenticeship. Upon meeting Victoria, the first true tension of the book unfolds as Helward is bound by his oath of secrecy and yet very much wants to answer her insatiable curiosity about the world outside the city. Victoria is very intelligent, fully aware of her position in the city and feeling like there’s little she can do to change it. Over the story her role becomes increasingly more important as events around the city change, spearheading a plot that slowly grows in significance as the story works towards a conclusion that’s poised to be full of internal conflict. There is another woman later in the story who quickly becomes the most important character in the whole book but to reveal information about her would spoil the ending quarter.
Women in the city of Earth are far less expendable than men because they’re far fewer in number. The reasoning for this in the story is written into the fabric of the text so that the survival of the city hinges on it; it’s the reason for Helward and Victoria’s tension that comes and goes throughout the story as well as heightening the tensions between the Tooks and the city but its inclusion is something that I feel was added in only to provide that tension. I feel the story could’ve been written without this and a few others aspects while still retaining its structure and flow. It’s a sign of the time this book was written and I feel that were Inverted World to be written today this wouldn’t have been in it.
The ending section of the book is a stark contrast to the rest of it in that it provides a very different perspective on what’s going on in the world. This took me rather by surprise when reading and suddenly I started to see far more clearly what was going on in the story. It was then that the book’s theme struck me; throughout the entire novel, Inverted World is all about perception. How the setting is perceived changes as the plot progresses, in some instances quite literally. Helward learn new things throughout the book that completely change how he sees the world and in turn how the reader does as well. Each revelation brings you both closer and further to understanding what’s going on, revealing more questions as things are answered. There is however a gap that’s ever more apparent as this different perspective continues to explore the city of Earth and the world around it, suddenly opening up new holes in the reader’s knowledge that can’t be filled by what the characters know. What spoils the end a little is that at the book’s conclusion the final reveal is far too convenient despite the book’s efforts to build up that it’s coming, a case of deus ex machina that is almost dumped on the reader to comprehend just as it is the assembled characters. It makes sense in the setting but I believe a slower burn on this final twist would’ve served the book a lot better, made it feel more organic; as the final obstacle in the plot loomed ever closer the characters you’ve grown to know and like slowly piecing together of all the information fed to them throughout the book could’ve let to some fantastic conflict and debate. Watching as the city comes to terms with an idea that’s slowly gaining momentum without any way to stop it would’ve been a fantastic capstone to the book in my opinion. Instead that debate is about something else entirely, throwing the city in turmoil as they argue and debate on the a future course of action that in the ends turns out to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. The character who tried previously to make Helward see what they do has done all the thinking and debating beyond the descriptions of the book, popping up at the most convenient moment to say what’s needed for the plot and for me that’s a disappointing point in the novel.
But even this takes a very different light when you consider that the book is all about perception. When this is considered parts of the ending make sense in a way that only sitting and pondering the meaning of the book for a week has made clear; the very reason why the character had to deus ex machina the solution was because the others couldn’t even begin to perceive that that was a problem to begin with. They lacked the information to come up with the book’s conclusion and were never able to attain it and so the reason for the holes in the story’s explanation make sense. Even as you think all the gaps are being filled in there’s one that’s been there the whole time in the background, an enveloping void of mystery that they’ve no ability to fill by themselves save by the most amazing of lucky chances that would likely never happen in a thousand thousand miles of time. A person can only ask a question when there’s something that needs an answer and so it is that the characters of the story cannot see the full scale of if all, unable to comprehend the true situation they’re in. The reader has the liberty of seeing for an extended period through the eyes of someone who can, someone who can reference what they experience to knowledge impossible for the residents of the city of Earth to know and so it makes sense that in some way the reader initially feels cheated by the ending. There’s no entirely excusing the deus ex machina of how the plot is resolved but even with that flaw it does what it sets out to achieve; perception is as much an important character as Helward, if not more so and it’s that which will be tested as you read Inverted World.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Inverted World. It proved itself to be an engaging read that kept it hooked right through to the end. While the ending is a little disappointing and there are parts that would’ve been done differently were it written today I still think it’s a great read. I grew to care for Helward and the other characters as well as the city as a whole, engrossed in the setting and driven to read on so I could learn more about the mysterious world they inhabited. A slow burner, it’s not suited to those who want high octane action and daring adventures filled with peril and danger. What it does give is a story where the threat is rarely direct but instead an ominous mystery of the unknown which reveals a far more palpable enemy so to speak as more is revealed, a story where you watch an wide-eyed apprentice learn how the world he lives in works and be changed by those revelations and more beyond. That I’ve been thinking on it even when not writing this speaks volumes on how much I enjoyed it, enthusiastically telling my friends who are fans of science fiction to pick it up. This book most certainly will remain on my shelves, one that I’ll doubtless return back to in the future to once more ponder the world Helward Mann inhabits, one where everything is familiar and yet not all at once.