Inverted World is a hard science fiction novel that was republished by NYRB Classics, which might be a surprise considering the impressive, and obscure, titles that the imprint carries. If you visit NYRB’s online store and click science fiction, you’d see that there are only less than ten books under this tag. This is an intriguing choice and it begs the question why Inverted World? Surely, there must be something in it.
The novel opens with what I would posit as one of the most interesting opening lines: “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” It has the tone of Ray Bradbury’s “It was a pleasure to burn.” Both immediately set the worlds that they present. In Priest’s, age is no longer measured in years. It would dawn on the reader that this makes perfect sense for a city whose survival depends on how far they have traveled away from a gravitational force that pulls and destroys everything.
The citizens of the caged and walled city called Earth are unaware that their city is being pulled by guildsmen, sworn to secrecy with an oath of death, using a series of tracks, wheels, cables, and winches. This they do painstakingly, and there are rivers, hills, and wild tribes to add to their worries. Young men, such as the protagonist Helward Mann, are introduced to the nature of their city upon reaching a certain number of miles, which is 18 years old according to my rough conversion.
The novel proceeds to describe how the city survives. Everyday is a challenge because the gravitational force is incessantly pulling the city toward it. The book follows the trajectory of the hard science fiction novel. Helward leaves his city for a journey replete with danger, he tries to make sense of the real nature of their city, and he attempts to compromise the things that he has known all his life with the things that he has discovered. One the first things that he sees outside the city is the sunrise:
I looked again at the rising sun. In the short time I had been looking at the birds it had been transformed. Now the bulk of its body had appeared above the horizon, and it hung in sight, a long, saucer-shape of light, spiked above and below with two perpendicular spires of incandescence. I could feel the touch of its warmth on my face. The wind was dropping.
It’s a breakthrough of sorts, at least for Helward, and it’s not without physics and calculus. Of course, science fiction relies on these bodies of knowledge to explain how a world got into its state, and it is thoroughly done that one would not need the horror of revisiting calculus classes just to see what a strange world the characters are in. It is hard to put the book down because questions you’d want to be answered will constantly tug you. Why do members of the Surveyors guild age faster than the others? Why are members of Barter guild fluent in a language that sounds Spanish? Why aren’t the impoverished and unfriendly tribes running away from the gravitational force? Why do things flatten and warp when they are miles behind the city? Why is time so slow miles ahead of the city? What does a hyperbola have to do with everything?
In a way, this novel is Helward’s coming of age story filled with issues on government secrecy, on labor exploitation, and on loyalty torn between your duty and your loved ones. More importantly, questions about perception and reality are raised with much fascination and intensity. As the climax explains the physics of things, which is a shocking yet sensible one, and presents the futility of the guilds’ efforts to move the city further, Helward comes home to a world which has been, strangely, around him all along.
[Read in April 2015.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[322 pages. Trade paperback.]