Inverted World by Christopher Priest

The most striking thing about Christopher Priest’s novel Inverted World is its narrative structure. The book is divided into five parts, narrated as follows:

  1. 1st person, by Helward Mann
  2. 3rd person, following Helward Mann
  3. 1st person, by Helward Mann
  4. 3rd person, following Elizabeth Khan
  5. 1st person, by Helward Mann

Inverted WorldHelward Mann, the narrator for most of the book, is a young man coming of age on the city of earth, a city built on a platform and winched ever forward on rails, for mysterious reasons. Mann’s coming of age entails his entering the city’s guild system. The workings of the guilds are shrouded in secrecy, and the apprenticeship process is designed to teach through doing, and to let the apprentices draw their own conclusions about why the city must always keep moving. And we learn about his strange world exactly as Helward does.

We learn the most during the passages narrated by Helward, though we learn slowly. He asks the same question twice, is generally uninquisitive and somewhat unobservant, and doesn’t put two and two together right away. His most revelatory experiences happen during passages of third person narration, passages characterized by quicker action and more immediacy than the first person sections—but he doesn’t process the meaning of those experiences until we return to his slower-paced narration. It makes for an unusual, not to say inverted (ha ha), experience.

Priest also inverts the role of the science fiction protagonist. We meet Helward when he reaches maturity, at the age of 650 miles. He’s entering a fragile guild system protecting a mysterious way of life that is soon under attack. Helward, rather than side with the revolutionaries, bringing enlightenment and release from the old ways, is converted by the guilds’ pedagogical philosophy successfully to their side, making him a stalwart guardian of tradition. In fact, his enlightenment brings him further from reality, further from the information that will really save his people.

Instead that information is brought by Elizabeth Khan, the focus of the second passage of third-person narration (as well as of the prologue to the novel). She doesn’t appear until well past the halfway mark in the book, where we realize we have been led astray by Helward and his apprenticeship. The hero we’ve followed thus far has had the wrong idea all along—which was surprisingly hard on me as a reader. And the crazy inverted world where the ground moves under your feet and nothing is as it appears turns out to be the planet earth, and nothing is as it appears.

Despite Helward’s narration being somewhat sluggish, and some emotionally frustrating twists and turns, this world was fascinating to read about and the unconventional twists on science fiction were well-executed.