Wednesday, April 14, 2010

NYRB Challenge #27: The Inverted World

I do not read a lot of science fiction, but I have enjoyed the titles that NYRB Classics has published in this genre. I read The Chrysalids back in high school which led me to a frenzied John Wyndham binge, and both Tatyana Tolstoya's novel The Slynx and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's collection of short stories Memories of the Future , were fascinating reads, and could be classified at least as speculative fiction. So I was looking forward to picking up Christopher Priest's The Inverted World, not least because I enjoyed the movie The Prestige which was based on another of his novels. And once again, NYRB did not let me down.

This was a terrific, intriguing tale, even if it gave me an unpleasant flashback to calculus class (always my worst subject in high school). Helward Mann has lived in Earth - the city, not the planet - all his life. As he comes of age, and after swearing an oath of secrecy, he becomes an apprentice to the many Guilds that run the city and has to rotate between them, working a few weeks with each. This allows him to actually go outside of the city where he becomes obsessed with watching the strange way that the sun rises and sets. Most importantly his new responsibilities show him that his city is always on the move. Literally. Resting on huge wheels, it is constantly being pulled forward on tracks which are then dismantled and reassembled ahead of the city - all in a massive effort to get ever nearer "the optimum", whose geographical importance proves crucial to the city's survival. The Guilds are responsible for laying the tracks, building bridges over rivers, surveying the territory ahead, and bartering with the impoverished local people for labour and their women (the city has a population problem, particularly when it comes to giving birth to girls). But it is only when Helward travels "down past" on assignment to return three women to their village that he encounters the full horror of why the city needs to keep moving.

To write any more would be to give away at least two major and very enjoyable (if eerie) plot twists. Suffice it to say this is a novel full of suspense but also a poetic examination of perception, not just visual and spatial, but also in terms of storytelling (the sections are sometimes intentionally narrated in the first person, sometimes in the third) and time and its effects. Any initial head shaking over the science and mathematics - don't worry, it doesn't detract at all from following the story- is explained in the afterword (and I was very glad it was an afterword and not an introduction, as it's hard to talk about this book without spoilers). A very enjoyable read.

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