Top critical review
Hanging on in quiet desperation
on 11 May 2017
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.