I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.
–Christopher Priest - Inverted World - c.1974
Helward Mann was born, and grew up, in the city of Earth. Like all children he was raised in the creche, his father sometimes came to visit him. He never saw his mother, she left the city after he was born, returning home to her village. And that village is a long way in the past, for the city moves. If it stops for too long it will be destroyed. Most of those who live in the city don’t really think about the world outside all that much. The guild system is organised so that those who have the knowledge about why the city is moving, and how, don’t share it. The Oath forbids it.
But as Helward learns more about the truth of the city and the danger it is in, the people of the city begin to feel the bonds placed upon them. They want to know why they have to keep moving. And why are their so many boys born and so few girls?
Inverted World has been sitting on my shelves for years now. I picked it up because it just about fits into the Vintage Science Fiction Not-A-Challenge, having been published in 1974, and I’m so glad I did. It is a fascinating book. Then again, Priest’s books always are. His writing is so precise and detailed. The ideas so original. He really does tell fascinating stories.
Usually it is the characters that make a book work for me, but in Priest’s fiction it is usually the story and the originality of the central idea. This is no exception. Helward isn’t a character that inspires me to read all about him. He does the job of introducing me to his world and developing the story, but he is very much an every man. He follows the rules, does what he should, but he does question things. At least, at first he does. He isn’t a boring character, I don’t want to give that impression. He is the central protagonist after all, if he was boring the whole book wouldn’t work. And there are moments when you really feel for him. He has no idea, at first, of why he, and the others of the city, are doing things the way they are. He wants to change things. He wants to make things better.
And then he begins to understand why things are the way they are. And suddenly the status quo seems just about perfect to him.
Only are things really the way he thinks they are?
The book is divided into different parts. In some Helward is a first person narrator, in others he is the point of view character of a third person narrator. And then there is the only other point of view character, Elizabeth, who we meet in the prologue as well.
It is a great story. However, I’m not so enamoured of the roles of the majority of the female characters. The only woman from the city that we get to know is Victoria, Helward’s wife. Part of this is because there simply are less women and so they are too important to risk outside the city, where our protagonist spends most of his time. But there are also the women who are taken into the city. In effect these women are kept purely for their ability to have children. They are sex slaves, sold by their villages, although that is never really examined to any great extent. It disturbs Helward, until he grows used to it.