Monday, May 18, 2009

Living in an inverted world

When you mention the genre of science fiction to people, they immediately conjure up images of spacecraft zooming into space, aliens hovering in the background, and apocalyptic events looming over the protagonists. These are probably the same themes that make critics somehow look down on the genre. What people don't realize is that science fiction has different categories, and one of these is Hard SF. In a Hard SF novel, there is almost always a male character who sets out to leave his endangered home for an adventure. And also, this protagonist eventually begins to understand this different cosmos and realizes the danger that threatens his world.

I must admit that I haven't read that much Hard SF. I sometimes feel that the alternate universe the author conjures up can be a bit hard to swallow despite the author having to justify all the technologies with sound, empirical research. So it was a pleasant surprise to find out that I enjoyed Christopher Priest's Inverted World immensely. Priest may not be as big a name as the giants of sci-fi such as Asimov, Bear, Baxter, and Herbert, but he did write some memorable novels (not all of them sci-fi though) such as The Prestige and The Separation. Priest's versatility to write different genres shows in his novels, resulting in works that you can dissect in different layers. The Prestige's main appeal was probably the magical elements woven into the story, but it also works as an exploration of the clash of two personalities in a time and place that has only room for one of them.

In Inverted World, the focal point is the city, a man-made structure that is shut off from the outside world. People go about their business in the city, with men who come of age joining professional guilds (Bridge Builders, Track Layers, Future Surveyors, Navigators, Militia, Barter, etc.). When the book's central character, Helward Mann comes of age, he decides to become a future surveyor and is shown the outside world for the first time. Much to his amazement, he discovers that the sun is shaped differently from what he's been taught (it's actually a hyperbola) and that the city has to be moved north one mile every 10 days to reach the "optimum." All the members of the guild are in on this secret, employing men from the city and surrounding villagers to lay tracks so that the city can travel the requisite mile up north.

It was only a matter of time when Helward discovers the reason for this constant moving of the city. When he's assigned to bring back three women to their villages south of the city, he experiences a strong gravitational field as he moves south. This magnetic field is so strong that mountains and even the women get deformed -- they become flat. Also, he learns that the ground is moving, causing the magnetic field to also creep up north slowly. The city thus has to move the same speed north just to evade this destructive field. Time also behaves differently when you travel south- or northwards. When Helman returns to the city after travelling south, he finds out that he's been gone for a much longer time than he expected. As future surveyor, Helman is tasked to go up north to map out the terrain that the city will be passing through. When he comes home to the city afterwards, it seems that he's only been gone for three days when he thinks that he was gone for 30 days at least.

Halfway through the novel, you would expect that Helman would be instrumental in coming to a solution for this dilemma, or at least inform the citizens about it. But Priest does not go this usual route. Instead, the voice of reason is heard through two women -- Helman's ex-wife and Elizabeth Khan, a nurse from one of the villages outside the city. Helman, however, becomes so immersed into the system of secrecy espoused by the guild. In the book's main sections, the first-person narrative of Helman has a resigned tone; Elizabeth's account, on the other hand, attains a sense of urgency, often enlightening the reader on the true nature of the city and the world outside it. Helward embraces this cruel inverted world because he has no other choice; Elizabeth does so because she loves it and seeks to free the city from its warped perspectives.

There's not much technology that Priest expounds into this novel. The way the city powers itself has to do with nuclear reactions, which Priest seems to tackle in his narrative at arm's length. Priest's attempt at infusing mathematics (e.g., the graph of the hyperbola, the inverse function) feels contrived. Nevertheless, these minor distractions does not take away the enjoyment one would have reading Inverted World. It's Hard SF with a soft twist. Readers wouldn't feel threatened by all the technical jargon they would've expected from a work of sci-fi -- there are only a few instances of these in the novel. Inverted World was written in 1974, yet the issues being explored are as timely as ever.

Read this book if:
  1. You're not a sci-fi fan but want to sample the genre.
  2. You're fascinated by the concept of space and time.
  3. You've always dreamed of living in another world.


line of flight said...


Budd said...

great review. I have read the prestige and I would consider it as Scifi as well. He is a talented writer and I may just have to give this one a shot.

Anonymous said...

spatio-temporal ruminations... Ursula Le Guin, particularly "The Dispossessed" might interest you