Christopher Priest is one of the most underrated authors I know of, perhaps only matched by Paul Kearney. Priest writes some of the best work I’ve ever read yet his books can be extremely hard to find. So when I saw that New York Review Books was reprinting one of his earliest novels, The Inverted World, I of course jumped at the chance to get my hands on it.
Because of the way the book is written, it’s difficult to give a summary without going too heavily into spoiler details. The book’s main character, Helward Mann, grows up unaware of the details of the City’s existence and circumstances. He is then inducted into one of the guilds that govern the city’s administration and slowly learns the details of the city’s situation. The City is winched along on tracks through a harsh, unyielding land full of hostile peoples. Rails must be laid ahead of the city and removed in its wake. Terrain such as rivers and mountains present extreme challenges for the city’s engineers, but if the city fails to move, it falls further behind the “optimum”. To fall behind means the destruction of the city and all its inhabitants. Or does it? This is the mystery behind The Inverted World.
One of Priests hallmarks is the vividness and reality of the characters he creates. The Inverted World has all the indications of this trait, although being an earlier work it stands to reason that Priest’s technique is not as developed as in later novels. Because most of the plot is revealed through Helward’s experiences as they happen, there is just as much emphasis on setting as on the character. So solving the mystery of the book’s premise takes up a large portion of the story. The physics behind it is sometimes hard to grasp but I like how the reader only understands as much of it as Helward himself does. As with all Priest books, perception of reality plays a role in the novel and an important part of the climax. And then I was surprised at how quickly the ending was resolved.
The Inverted World is not as strong as some of Priest’s later work, but even his weaker stuff is heads above other books out there. Highly recommended.