Tuesday, January 06, 2015

the last book I read

Inverted World by Christopher Priest.

Helward Mann, is, well, a man. A man who lives in a city. Nothing so very unusual about that, you might say (well, except that the city's inhabitants call it "Earth"), and Helward would probably agree with you, at least until he comes of age, is initiated into the city's complex guild system and begins to understand some of the city's secrets.

Big Secret #1 is revealed when he is permitted to venture outside the city. Well, actually I suppose Big Secret #1 is that there even is such a thing as "outside the city", and Big Secret #2 is that the city moves, not exactly constantly, but in fits and starts, averaging about a tenth of a mile a day, across what appears to be mainly semi-desert scrubland. Most of the guilds are devoted to keeping this process going, so they have names like Track, Bridge-Building, Traction and Navigation. Basically the process is that the city moves on a constantly rebuilt set of four parallel railway tracks a few miles long, which are taken up after the city has passed over them and then re-laid ahead of it. The surrounding land looks broadly "normal", but the sun, instead of being the glowing circle that everyone's been taught about, is a sort of flattened saucer-shape with two great spikes protruding out of it above and below.

The city can't just wander about anywhere, though - it's engaged in a constant pursuit of something called "the optimum", the epicentre of some weird spatial and gravitational anomaly. If the city ever gets too far behind this point then it gradually starts to become subject to some very undesirable effects, which new guild inductees are invited to experience at first hand by being sent on a mission "down past", i.e. in the direction the city has come from (the opposite direction being referred to as "up future"). Helward embarks on his own quest in this direction and experiences both some weird spatial distortion (everything seeming to be flattened and widened the further from the city you go) and an inexorable gravitational pull to what he calls "the south" (i.e. away from the city). He makes it back to the city OK, though we are invited to infer that some who make the trip never return. He finds on his return that there is some weird time dilation happening as well; while he perceives that he's been away for three or four days, a couple of years seem to have passed in the city.

Part of Helward's purpose in making the trip "down past" was to deliver three native women back to their village. By no means everyone on this world lives in the city, and those who don't (variously known as "natives" or "tooks" by the city-dwellers) don't seem to be affected by the gravitational anomaly. One of the other ways in which the city-dwellers are different is that they disproportionately have male children, which inevitably results in a dwindling population. So via a bartering system goods are given to the natives in exchange for local women to live in the city temporarily and bear children, in the hope that some of them will be female.

While this bartering system makes raw economic sense, it inevitably causes tension and resentment among the natives, and the city is increasingly beset by attacks, some of which cause considerable damage to the city's superstructure and necessitate a rethink of the policy of keeping the plebs ignorant of the outside world (since there are now great big holes in the outside walls that people can look out through).

Helward's trips "down past" and "up future" lead him to draw some conclusions about the world the city travels on, principally its shape: it and its sun are hyperboloids (imagine the graph of y = 1/x rotated about the y-axis) and the city's endless pursuit of the "optimum" is just a desperate attempt to avoid sliding off along the x-axis to infinity and destruction.

There's not much time for theorising, though: problems are afoot. Firstly, the new availability of information to the city-dwellers leads to a protest movement developing within the city which demands that the people-trafficking should stop and the city be brought to a halt. This actually turns out to be what has to happen in the short term anyway, as the tracks arrive at a vast expanse of water seemingly far too wide to be traversed by the usual method of building a bridge.

Secondly, an external factor has intervened: Elizabeth Khan, an English-speaking aid worker in one of the nearby villages, has taken an interest in the city and done some historical research, and has disguised herself as a local woman to be bartered in order to get access to the city. At a public meeting to discuss the city's future she makes a speech wherein she reveals the truth (so, obviously, SPOILER ALERT): the mysterious planet on which the city of Earth travels is Earth, the same old spherical Earth it's always been. The city itself is the repository for an experimental power source, invented a couple of hundred years before in the aftermath of a world energy crisis caused by the final exhaustion of the world's fossil fuel supply, which works by hooking up a man-made reactor to a focus point of some newly-discovered electromagnetic phenomenon. This is the "optimum" they've been following, along a great circle that just happens, luckily for them, to have described a route following one of the longest routes of unbroken land on the planet (though not quite as long as this one), from its starting point in China to the Atlantic coast of Portugal, where they are now.

One of the side-effects of the prototype technology they're using (since perfected elsewhere in the world) is that it permanently skews the perception of people exposed to it, resulting in exactly the strange inverted distorted view of the world (and the sun) that Helward has been trying to make sense of. So now the city-dwellers have no choice but to switch their reactor off, wait for the "optimum" to drift off into the ocean away from them and the city, and see what happens.

Christopher Priest is most famous as the author of The Prestige, winner of the venerable James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1995 (this blog features the winners from 1972, 1981, 2002 and 2006), and subsequently made into a pretty good film by Christopher Nolan. I can't speak for the book since I haven't read it, but the film doesn't reveal itself as having any science fiction elements until right at the end, by which time I have to say I felt obscurely cheated by them, the rest of the movie having been a fascinating story of deceit and misdirection. To have the biggest illusion of them all explained by essentially saying "yeah, that bit actually was magic" was a bit of a dampener.

Anyway, Inverted World (which dates from much earlier, in 1974) is clearly a science fiction novel from the outset, and makes use of a number of speculative fiction tropes, most obviously the one of having the protagonist inhabit a strange confined world with arbitrary rules and gradually arrive at an understanding of how his little world fits into the larger one. There are plenty of other examples of this, most obviously THX1138Logan's RunZardoz and Brian Aldiss' first novel Non-Stop, but also several JG Ballard short stories like Thirteen To Centaurus and The Concentration City. Like most novels featuring a population held in check by a knowledge-denying elite it can be read as a satire on organised religion. The other trope of switching from an internal, subjective, first-person voice for most of the book to an external, objective, third-person voice at the end to provide a jarring shift of perspective is familiar from both I Am Legend and also William Golding's The Inheritors.

I don't read a lot of "hard" science fiction these days; the only books on this list which would unambiguously fall into that category would be the ones by Iain M Banks plus possibly The Sirens Of Titan, Snow Crash and Roadside Picnic, with lots of others existing in a sort of ill-defined netherworld between there and "proper" fiction. That category would include Riddley Walker, Virtual Light, The Memoirs of a Survivor and O-Zone. So it's nice to dip back in occasionally, and I enjoyed Inverted World very much. For all the engineering detail and dizzying mathematical concepts there's a strong human story here, and in many ways the central message is the same as the one in Never Let Me Go (another maybe-it's-science-fiction-maybe-not sort of book): you never know what's going to happen next, so you just do your best to survive from day to day and enjoy the moments when they present themselves, however bizarre your day-to-day situation might seem. It's a nice touch to have the two most sensible characters in the book - Elizabeth Khan and Helward's wife (and subsequently ex-wife) Victoria - be women, science fiction being a pretty male-dominated area generally.

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