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Having tired of the violent sterility of much modern Sci-fi, I've recently been reading a number of works from the Gateway, SF Masterworks series. I have thus been introduced to some excellent novels, by stand out authors such as Ursula Le Guin. And then I came to this, touted as a classic of British SF. If that is the case, then Lord help British SF.

It is the story of Helward Mann. Problem no.1. I shall later consider whether this is a allegorical novel, but by naming his central character in that way, author Priest may just be seen as handing the reader a sledgehammer with the word ALLEGORY cast into the metal.

Helward lives in a city which is set on rails and is constantly moving. As it progresses it exploits the countryside around it materially, sexually and for the labour of the people. At the start of the story he is a young man just entering an apprenticeship with the guilds which run the city. It is thus a fairly bog standard coming of age story. Young person finds out about the realities of the world around him/her. Problem no.2. For 90-95% of the book that is all it is. Helward finds out about the physical realities of the world around him. Aside from that there is little else. There are sub stories which peter out to nothing, and the characterisation is non-existent. The inhabitants of Edwin Abbot's Flatland have more emotional depth than the cardboard cut outs who populate Inverted World.

Actually, for a long time I thought he was going to get away with it. Despite the shallowness of the characterisation, the central idea of the weirdness of the physical environment seemed so extreme it looked like it might be heading for something interesting. With strange things happening to gravity, time and geometry, I was hoping for things to be set in a relativistic environment. Perhaps it would evolve like Baxter's Flux or Niven's Integral trees, with humans adapting to a non-planetary environment. However, then the twist comes at the end, and it is simply rubbish. It is as if Priest doesn't know where to take his story, loses the courage of his convictions and comes up with an utterly unconvincing explanation for everything which has occurred. Bobby Ewing in the shower is the height of credibility compared with this.

So, this doesn't work as a straightforward story, does it work as an allegory? Well, no. That is not to say that Priest doesn't raise some interesting issues:-

How dedication to a cause an tip over into monomania
Perception vs reality
How customs adopted for the good of society can lead to ossification
The rape of the environment by industrialised society.
How good intentions can decay into immoral acts.

It is just that he seems to say "here is an interesting question", but then doesn't take it anywhere, there is no detailed exploration.

In summary, this book made me quite grumpy. It could've done something quite interesting, either as hard SF, or as a metaphor, but it fails to follow through in either direction.
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on 19 May 2010
I keep meaning to read more Christopher Priest - all I have read until now is the excellent The Separation (also unreservedly recommended).

This is an absolutely superb novel - and I'm not entirely sure why it's been so neglected until now.

The main character, one Helward Mann, comes of age at the start of a novel and, following in his father's footsteps, joins the "Futures Guild." It's quickly clear that the world his people inhabit is an extremely unusual one. The details of this are drip-fed to the reader as Mann learns more about his world: essentially the (high) concept is their world is an infinite world within a finite one.

The plot itself is well-handled; Mann travels as far as he can in order to discover (and reveal to us) why things are the way that they are. This is done in beautifully spare prose. It never feels at any stage as though any words are wasted. Which is pleasant in of itself; it has the pleasing effect of making this an almost poetic novel (indeed Adam Roberts, in the introduction, reflects on the inherently poetic nature of the infinite within the finite). One does suspect that in a lesser author's hands we could have ended up with a horribly bloated doorstop of a fantasy novel.

There *is* a twist. Helpfully, they tell you this on the front cover...argh!

Finally, although this was written in 1975, I don't feel that it has dated particularly badly. What technology there is isn't central to the working of the novel and the concept itself (though fairly dubious) though central to the novel doesn't feel particularly bound by any time.

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on 8 January 2011
I bought this book to read on the beach on holiday but was so captivated I finished it in the first two days of my holiday! I won't describe the plot because others have already done that but will say this is one of the most innovative and original sci-fi books I've read in a while (and I've read a lot). Not the usual space opera/end of world stuff you get now-a-days but a story with a great twists at the end. When I ledt the resort I donated the book to the book share scheme - I hope others get to enjoy it as much as I did.
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on 24 October 2014
Great idea but I'd forgotten about the abrupt ending - wish it could have been longer!
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 April 2017
The one thing I know for sure about this slow burn of a science fiction novel is that it's definitely not going to be toevery reader's taste. It feels strongly like there are two ingenious premises bolted together in a way that more or less works, but the characters are almost an afterthought. The first premise (and the one that sucked me in), is that the book opens with a city (the scale isn't really clear until near the end) that is continuously winched along a set of railroad tracks.

The reader learns the mechanics of this through the eyes of Helward, who is almost an archtypical genre hero. We meet him as he emerges from the kind of nursery/school that all the city's children are raised in. He is made an apprentice into one of the city's guilds, is married, and undergoes training -- this last part of which exposes him to the social and geographic context that's behind the city's rolling plight. As he ventures away from the city on various missions, the book's other big idea comes forth -- and readers without higher-level math training will likely be hitting the internet to look up "hyperbola."

It's both kind of cool, but also kind of psychedelic in a hokey, early 1970s kind of way. All of a sudden, near the end of the book, a new narrator is introduced in a way that's pretty clunky and almost feels rushed. Through this new character, the reader gets the reveal that explains all, and it's the kind of semi-twist that some will love and others will shrug at. I think I'm a little ambivalent overall -- I'm glad I read it, but I wished it had either been much shorter, or had been much longer and with much richer characters that I actually might care about.
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on 15 November 2010
An entire city, its inhabitants closed off from the outside world by high walls and a code of secrecy, is steadily made to traverse a treacherous landscape. It has to keep moving. The truth about its perilous condition is known only to an elite group of guild members who, down the generations, have been responsible for keeping the city on the move, allowing the citizens to live in benign ignorance. With that enticing picture, we follow the life of a young man, newly initiated into the guild system, as he gradually learns the reality of the city's situation. Then things start to change. The idea of the city being dragged along was enough to lure me into buying this book. The images conjured up by it stayed with me long after finishing it. A unique, imaginative tale.
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on 24 February 2009
The city of Earth is a strange place. Few of its inhabitants are ever allowed out of the city. The few that are allowed are confronted by a bizarre situation. The city, all its buildings and inhabitants have been hoisted onto tracks and it is being slowly winched across the land. The reason for this and the ultimate destination of the city are unknown. Even stranger is the fact that no one is interested in straying far from the city. Those who do stray are often gone for years and then come back changed, distant and withdrawn, unwilling to talk about what they have seen.

Clearly the central protagonist of the novel is amongst the few who will get to leave the city and slowly learn the secrets of this bizarre world.

Of all weird world novels this novel is set in the weirdest world of them all. The revelations as to what the situation is and why it exists is gradually presented at just the right speed to keep you hooked.

Although in reality the book follows the age-old fantasy travelogue style of merely allowing the central character to wander from one edge of the world to the other, in this case it is worth going along for the ride. The situation is so bizarre that exploration is just what you want to read. The only real fault is that the ultimate revelation as to just what it has all been about is a trifle contrived, but that is ok, otherwise this book would have been perfect and perhaps not be such a forgotten gem.
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VINE VOICEon 10 August 2010
Although none of Priest's novels can be described as conventional, I thought this was perhaps one of the very oddest. The setting is mind-bendingly bizarre. At first the characters seem to inhabit a comparatively normal city, and much of the novel is spent discovering (alongside the hero) its true nature - and exploring the even stranger world which lies beyond its walls.

Inverted World is an extremely compelling novel, which combines a hard sf core with plenty of human interest - in fact at times `Inverted World' reads (superficially at least) like a heroic fantasy novel as we follow the progress of the hero, Helward, through his initiation into an elite guild, his arduous training, and his call to adventure. Priest's is a highly individual voice, and he resists pigeonholing. Reading `Inverted World; is a very strange, but very rewarding, experience.
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on 17 May 2008
On his website, Christopher Priest includes a damning review of this book by Martin Amis, presumably on the grounds that if Martin Amis says it's bad, it must be good. In fact it is good, very good indeed. Certainly in my top ten SF. The idea behind it is utterly original. It is set in a universe where all the "spheres" (incl. the earth and sun) are (or appear to be: that is the question) hyperboloids. Some of the passages were responsible for more powerful dreams than any other book has ever caused me.
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on 20 April 2011
Inverted world has as its central conceit a small "city" which is built on wheels and propelled on tracks ever forwards towards an elusive "optimum". The city is run by several guilds who's central purpose is to ensure the city never stops moving whilst keeping the reasons, and even the fact it is, a secret from the other inhabitants. Helward Mann is a youngster joining one of these guilds who then goes through an apprenticeship giving him an insight into the workings of both the city, and the world it is moving along.
It slowly becomes apparant to Helward that the world is very odd and this, along with conflicts with the "natives" brings his city to crisis point and (for want of a better term) civil war.
The nature of the city, the world and what happens will be a considerable surprise to any reader and forms an astonishingly original idea in sci-fi. Which considering how imaginative a genre it is, says quite a lot.
Personally, though, I found the novel more admirable than engaging, more intriguing than enthralling and ultimately more cerebral than emotional.
Undeniably well written, still oddly unsatisfying in the final analysis. A bit like haute cuisine, lovely, clever but not filling!
Buy this book: If you want to challenge yourself and keep your mind limber
Don't buy: If you like to really care about your characters and outcome.
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