The Inverted World – Christopher Priest

I started reading sci-fi in a roundabout and silly way – having watched Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, I decided to give the book a read (not being able to imagine that books could be about such things) About that same year, a friend had recommended Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and not finding it in the book store, my dad recomended Stranger in a Strange Land instead. Not stellar parenting from his part, but I enjoyed Heinlein enough to later seek out some of his other books, notably his juveniles, and down the rabbit hole I fell.

Particularly with Heinlein, I noticed a common characteristic of science-fiction. At some point, someone has to stop the story and give you an explanation of something. Later, I would learn that there were better and worse ways of doing that, with varying results. I, like many others, came to dislike the information dump style of exposition which early sci-fi authors tended to commit (that last verb selelcted intentionally, as it collocates with ‘sin’ and ‘atrocity’). The matrix by which I judge science-fiction books includes many factors, by the presence of this is one.

Now stick a pin in all that for a moment. Some spoilers below.

Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World is the story of a group of humans living on a city moving along a line of tracks. As famously put by the opening line, they messure time not with hours and minutes but by distance. The story follows a main character who works an apprenticeship (and later graduates into) with a guild meant to survey the land the city will soon pass over. He is thus given a ‘tour’ (described cynically) of the relevant aspects of his sci-fi setting: the removing of past tracks, the laying down of new ones, the exploited populations helping with the labor, and the women bartered for to help with a not understood reproduction problem. Later, you come to find that due to sci-fi reasons, the people of this city live in a field of some kind that makes them perceive the world as a tractricoid (alternatively, ‘weird ass geometric shape, fanning out to in infinity on one end, and coalescing to infinity on the other’. I had to wikipedia this to get ‘tractricoid’).

The plot is interesting. I get why this story has the laurels that it does. No one tells the protagonist anything useful, and so you watch him piece much of it together on his own. Until that stops. The novel then gets dangerously close to concluding without a conclusion, and the author indulges in an exposition dump.

It has an explanation chapter. Right there towards the end. It’s not just an explanation, but it is literally a minor character giving an expository presentation about what’s going on. It’s practically a TED talk. And that is just kind of disappointing.

Ok, I am being mean again. The Inverted World kept my attention. I read it while simultaneously

  • rereading Where does Mathematics come from
  • working on a dissertation
  • taking a class or two
  • looking for a new job

It kept my attention despite all that. That is some merit. But the novel certainly had some problems. It was hard for me to really figure out what the protagonists stakes were, and at some point I figured out he didn’t have any. This may be why he is largely abandoned as a POV character later in the book. There were also some things either not or poorly explained in it. But mostly, I really thought this was a plot wanting of a real story. It most closely resembled Heinlein’s Orphans in the Sky, a much better book that is permanently engraved in my memory.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

3 thoughts on “The Inverted World – Christopher Priest

  1. I really liked this, but for the ending indeed, which killed the book for me. But I judged it with the wrong set of metrics: I think I expected some realist, hard SF explanation, and I´ve come to understand Priest is not about that at all.

    Liked by 2 people

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