Thursday, November 10, 2011

REVIEW: Inverted World, by Christopher Priest

Inverted World, by Christopher Priest. Originally published 1975; this edition published 2008 by NYRB Classics. Science Fiction.

Inverted World is one of those books where the less you know when you start, the better. That said, there a couple of basic things. Unlike The Prestige, the other Christopher Priest book I've read (and reviewed here), Inverted World is much more straight-up science fiction. Like The Prestige, it's a puzzle, and a book whose premise and reality unwind slowly.

You could almost think of Inverted World as a kind of coming of age story. When we start, Helward Mann is reaching adulthood; he's entering a Guild, a professional society sworn to secrecy, and he's getting married. He lives in a giant moving, self-contained city called "Earth" that travels the world on tracks which have to be constantly laid, on a path that has to be constantly calculated, mapped and planned. He's never been outside the city before and knows nothing of the world that awaits him. Neither, it seems, do most of the city's inhabitants. And the people outside the city have a very difficult relationship with the city, as we come to understand.

As Helward comes to understand his world, so do we, and meanwhile we have Priest's characteristic puzzles to unravel. As in The Prestige, perspective is very important, but unlike The Prestige, we have characters whose perceptions of reality differ from each other- greatly. And we don't know where we are for most of the book. Is Helward on Earth, our Earth? What happened to this planet, whatever it is? What apocalypse lead to the world that exists, and the way people live now? Why is it some but not all people live like this? What is the nature of the outsiders? What is the nature of the city? What is its future?

Inverted World is a fantastic novel. It's not a white-hot page-turner per se but I'll bet that once you get started you'll be so intrigued by the mysteries Priest sets up you'll want to keep going and going. When the big reveal comes, it's pretty good; there's a truly jaw-dropping moment near the end I still can't get out of my head and I read this book back in the summer. Between the stunning The Prestige and this engrossing novel, Christopher Priest is a science fiction author that literary readers really need to get to know!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.