Wednesday, March 30, 2011

100 Books 21 - Christopher Priest's INVERTED WORLD

I tore through Inverted World as if the world was falling apart behind me, swept along with the City of Earth on its rails. It's one of the most peculiar, brain-hurting novels I've ever read, more akin to a Douglas Hofstadter treatise or an extended thought experiment than an ordinary genre tale, but more, rather than less engaging for this fact.

It snuck up on me, though.

I took this one up for two reasons: I like Christopher Priest and the old-school British science fiction writers like he and John Wyndham represent, and I've developed a curious fascination with a very specific and peculiar sci-fi trope of which Inverted World seems an early (1974) example: the railroad in perpetual motion, pulling up its tracks behind it and building new ones ahead, on and on perhaps forever. This peculiarity appears in the culmination of China Mieville's Iron Council, in which the convict laborers building a railroad through the badlands of Mieville's baroque and unsettling fantasy universe of Bas-Lag seize control of the works and turn the train and the railroad into a perpetually moving city that disappears into the physics-defying Cacotopic Stain; it shows up again in Alastair Reynolds' Absolution Gap (Revelation Space) in the form of a parade of mobile cathedrals traveling a planet's equator in order to keep an astronomical anomaly always in view. It's a deeply weird thing and if you, my few but wondrous readers, know of other examples, please share them!

The perpetual railroad in Inverted World carries a whole city on its back. It both is and isn't what you are thinking now; the city contains a few thousand inhabitants and is a multistoried warren, but it's built mostly of wood in various stages of weathering. When finally seen by an outsider, it's a bizarre and baroque monstrosity. The city, which the inhabitants refer to as Earth (sometimes specifying Earth city as opposed to Earth planet, on which they do not believe they live and from which they continually await rescue), moves along at a pace of about a mile every ten days, in fits and starts. Tracks are pulled up and moved to the front and then vast winches within the city's structure pull it forward. Occasionally this is delayed when natural obstacles like rivers appear, when a crack team of bridge builders hurries to construct a suspension bridge that can bear the city's weight, which bridge is then just as quickly torn down that its materials may be used in the next bridge.

The city moves in pursuit of the ever-receding "optimum," a locus in their world at which time and space behave normally. This is vastly important because time and space manifestly do not behave normally elsewhere; north of optimum, bodies (living and otherwise) lengthen and thin and the subjective time of a visitor speeds up so that weeks spent north of the city pass as mere hours back home. South of optimum, bodies broaden and splay (even mountains flatten out into something that can be clutched in one hand as one hangs off the ground, feeling gravity as a pull southwards rather than down) and time slows so that a few weeks spent south pass as months or years (or actually "miles" as the city measures time; hence our protagonist starts his tale as a young man of 650 miles old). The sun and the world (which can be seen in its near totality from the northern and southern extremes of the city's route) appear as hyperbolic solids rather than spheres.

And the very ground is moving, too, southward, it too pulled by the same "centrifugal force" that pulls on the poor man hanging on to those tiny, flattened mountains by his fingertips. If the city stops chasing the optimum, it will be destroyed by this force and all will perish.

Within this universe is contained only a slight narrative; we experience the plight of Earth City through the aformentioned youth, who rejoices in the hilariously apt name of Helward Mann. Following in his rapidly aging father's footsteps, he becomes a member of the guild of Future Surveyors, those who travel north and scout out the city's route. In doing so, he becomes privy to the nature of the world he inhabits in the way most other residents of Earth City do not, for it was decreed long ago that it would be best of ordinary citizens were kept ignorant of the city's true plight. No windows look outside of the city at the hyperbolic sun, and children are still taught that they live on a spherical planet.

The crisis of this civilization does come as a result of our hero's actions, as well it should in anything that could claim to be a novel, but as I said before this book really isn't about the plot. An explanation is eventually given for why Helward's world is so deeply weird (and the theory I developed as I read turned out to be wrong, but the "truth" was better than my theory, so I was satisfied) and I finished Inverted World quickly but sorry to see it end. My pulse did not pound, I never feared for the hero's safety, there was no romance, but the mystery of the inverted world obviated the need for these and kept me turning the pages just as quickly as one might in a cracking good suspense novel.

I wouldn't say this book is for everyone, but it was definitely for me.

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