by Christopher Priest
"I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles. Beyond the door the guildsmen were assembling for the ceremony in which I would be admitted as a guild apprentice. It was a moment of excitement and apprehension, a concentration into a few minutes of all that my life had been until then." (p 7)
Seldom does a science fiction author create a world that is as believably scientific as Christopher Priest has in his 1974 novel, Inverted World. Beyond the science, there is the hero/protagonist Helward Mann who, as a member of the city's elite, guides us through the world as he completes his apprenticeship as a member of one of the "Guilds" that effectively run the city. Perhaps even more important is the character of Elizabeth Khan, although after her appearance in the brief prologue she does not reappear for almost two hundred pages. It is she who stands in for the reader and in doing so provides Helward with information that will change his life and those of his fellow dwellers in the "City of Earth". The miles that Helward grows over the course of the novel move faster and slower taking the reader on a journey into a land that is stranger than any alien planet ever imagined yet ultimately closer to Earth than any planet, real or imagined.
Helward lives in a city called "Earth", a giant structure that is slowly winched along on a set of tracks forever northward. The pulling of the city has been going on long before Helward was born - and although he is puzzled by the need to keep the city constantly moving and its need to reach "the optimum", he nevertheless joins one of the Guilds - the elite that ensure the constant motion and survival of the city.
All the inhabitants of the city Earth believe that they are lost a long way from planet Earth, and that one day they will be found and rescued but until then they must go on surviving in the little microcosm they have constructed of planet Earth. The populace of city Earth is strictly controlled by the guilds with the youth sheltered in a special area called the "creche". A few of the inhabitants - chosen males - are offered positions with the guildsmen. These are the only inhabitants of the city given access to the outside world, and it is these alone that know the secret of the city. At the opening of part one Helward Mann is just beginning his apprenticeship to join the Guild and much of the novel involves his exploration of the outside world.
Beyond the walls the true nature of the city is revealed, and the great lengths that must be achieved for its continued survival. Constructed on top of great wheels, the city is slowly winched along railway tracks, moving forever northward. The tracks are constantly reused; as the city moves past one section that part is ripped up, carried to the front of the city and relaid once more. Once the tracks reach a suitable length, giant wheel-pulleys are moved into position and slowly, smoothly - so that no resident of the city realizes - the city is dragged along to its new location, and track laying can once again begin in earnest.
It is the responsibility of the guildsmen to ensure the movement and survival of the city. Come river, ravine, valley or mountain, the city must never stop its relentless movement, as there had been severe detrimental effects the more the city lagged behind in the 'past'. As directed originally by Francis Destaine, a physicist who was one of the first residents of the city, the best way to achieve the city being near the 'optimum' is to have a selection of guilds, each responsible for specific jobs. At first there were four Guilds: Track Guild, Traction Guild, Future Guild and Bridge-Builders Guild. An additional two were added later on: Barter Guild and Militia Guild. Representatives from each of the Guilds formed a Council called the Navigators that effectively governed the city.
The Track Guild is responsible for the laying and removing of the tracks; the Traction Guild are responsible for the pulling of the city; the Future Guild map out the land ahead of the city to determine the best route for the city; the Bridge-Builders are responsible for ensuring the city can navigate safely across ravines or rivers. As the city moves through its environment it passes by villages and it is the job of the Barter Guild to employ labor to help the Track Guild and to 'invite' surrogate mothers from poor local native clans, since women in the city tend to bear mostly male offspring. Occasionally some of these villages can be aggressive and it is the Militia Guild's job to protect the city from them.
Critical to understanding the novel is the structure. It is divided into five parts with a short prologue. The opening and third sections of the book are narrated in first-person by the protagonist, Helward Mann; the middle part is in third-person. Each of the sections are progressively shorter in length. The significance of this and the narrative structure becomes clearer as the reader nears the climax of the novel. But, I believe that there is a connection between the structure and the story itself. Like many aspects of this novel, the reader needs to discover this for himself.
At the center of the novel are the physical principles that were established by Destaine. This is a hard science fiction novel with a novel approach. Helward's journey is in one sense a variation on the classic hero's journey that has been a cultural metaphor since the days of Gilgamesh. But in another sense there is a separate exploration of the nature of perception and the effect that our beliefs have on the way we see the world. It is this journey that the reader takes along with Helward, Elizabeth and the other characters. It is this journey that made this book a wonder that I will not soon forget.
Inverted World by Christopher Priest. New York Review Books, 2008 (1974).