Inverted World by Christopher Priest (1974)

Coming to Christopher Priest after reading Alfred Bester is like leaving an all-singing, all-dancing, high volume production of Guys and Dolls and walking into a vicar’s tea party.

Priest’s prose is flat and bland and colourless. Things are described at a steady even pace. There are hardly any metaphors or similes. There are no colours. People are described as either men or women and that’s your lot, that’s as much descriptive excitement as you’re likely to get. The two female leads are named Victoria and Elizabeth. There are no nicknames. There is no humour.

Reading Priest’s prose is like crawling across a drab and barren plain BUT – that turns out to be a weirdly appropriate style for this profoundly uncanny and disturbing novel.

Inverted World

For the majority of this 300-page novel we are transported to a world lightyears from earth, and into the mind of young Helward Mann, citizen of Earth City.

As I’ve discussed in various other reviews, one basic science fiction trope is the Stranger in a Strange Land, also known as The Sleeper Awakes or, if it’s an Ursula Le Guin novel, The Anthropologist Explores trope.

The author has conceived a science fiction future or alternative world in great detail and now faces the problem of how to explain it to us. Well, there are a number of tried-and-tested tropes or approaches:

  • someone has fallen asleep (or been put into cryogenic sleep) who now awakes and is now shown round this brave new world and has it all carefully explained to them (Looking Backward, News from Nowhere, The Sleeper Wakes)
  • a visitor arrives from a strange planet who is shown round the new world, or from a more primitive/unspoilt part of the world, and has it all carefully explained to them (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, Brave New World)
  • a teenager comes of age, explaining to the reader what they know of the world they’ve grown up in, and now taking us though the process of being inaugurated into its adult secrets

Inverted World is the last of these. It is told in the first person (although later on there are sections told by a third-person narrator, and from then on the book alternates between Helward’s view [1st, 3rd and 5th sections] and the objective narrator [prologue, 2nd and 4th sections]) by young Helward Mann who, in a typically disorientating move, we are told is now 650 miles old and so has come of age.

Up to now Helward has been raised in The Creche of Earth City and the story opens with him choosing which to join of the half dozen or so ‘Guilds’ which run the City.

A city on rails

Slowly, slowly, very slowly, Helward is introduced to the mysteries of his world and so is the reader. He discovers that: the city is built on a massive steel plate which is attached to railway wheels. The entire life of the guilds is devoted to picking up railway track from behind the city, lugging it in carts round to the front, and laying it out again. When half a mile or so has been laid, the engineers attach winch cables to stanchions out ahead and then slowly and agonisingly winch the city, inches at a time, that half mile or so, and then it stops and is secured. Then the workteams go round the back and dig up the rails it has just come over and begins the process of laying them at the front, to extend the railway.

Why? He slowly gets introduced to the idea of ‘the optimum’. There is an optimum. Optimum what? Don’t ask. The optimum moves beneath the earth’s surface and the city must follow it. Why? Don’t ask. Just because. It is in the oath of the guilds and it is described in Destaine’s Directive, a document written by the city’s founder.

Later in the novel we discover this has been going on for over 200 years!

Thus the guilds include a guild of Futures, who ride out ahead on horses to scout the future path of the city, equipped with maps and surveying equipment; Track, who supervise the laying of the track; Navigators, who make the executive decisions; a Militia armed with crossbows to guard the workers from occasional attacks by stray natives, who the citydwellers refer to as ‘tooks’. Back inside the city, there are castes of food engineers, carers for the city’s children, teachers and so on.

Young Helward is slowly introduced to the hard manual labour all this requires, and discovers that the City co-opts the labour of nearby villagers, groups of surly men who reluctantly work as packs or teams under the supervision of Track guildsmen. A little later he discovers that the reason these tooks are often surly is because the City ‘buys’ some of their women. The process is known as transference and there is a Transfer centre where eligible men meet with these women and pair off.

Why? Because for a reason no-one understands, the birthrate of female City-dwellers is always low; female foetuses are aborted or stillborn. Therefore the tradition has grown up of buying local women from the villages the city passes, impregnating them, looking after them well: if they have female children the city keeps them; if they have male children, they can choose whether to take them back to their settlement. Now he thinks about it, Helward realises that his own mother left him when he was small and his father didn’t like talking about it. Obviously she was a ‘native’.

At the same time as Helward had to choose a Guild to join, he was ‘married’ to a young woman his own age, scion of a respectable City family, Victoria. Through the first half of the novel, we trace their uneasy relationship, in which she takes a feminist view that why should he have all the adventures outside the city while it is her role to be stuck in the City, never allowed outside, and just get pregnant and have babies, hopefully female ones?

Outside Helward begins to grasp why most of the inhabitants are never allowed outside: it is too weird and upsetting. In his first introduction to the outside by a slightly older colleague, Future Denton, Helward is shown dawn over their world and sees the sun appearing as a kind of spindle, a fiery ball with prongs at the top and bottom. He is told that the City is on a planet a long long way from the mother planet Earth referred to in Destaine’s document, and that the older guildsmen live in a long-held hope that rescuers from planet earth will one day find them, arrive on the planet, and save them from this endless toil.


Having conceived this extraordinary scenario, you can see how a novelist would then want to ring the changes or submit the situation to it logical consequences. And so:

– Helward gets caught up in a riot by the tooks which is only put down with some violence by the militia

– The city comes to a significant hurdle, a bridge over a ravine with a fastflowing river at the bottom. The process of a) building the bridge across the ravine, and then b) of winching the city across the scarily swaying bridge, and then one of the massive cables pulling it dramatically snapping when it is half-way across, is genuinely nailbiting.

By this stage, Priest’s slow, pedantic boring prose has utterly pulled you inside his conception. It is an imaginative triumph.

Down past

But then Priest takes the fantasy to a whole new level, and gave me – at any rate – a fictional experience of unparalleled weirdness and intensity. When the transferred women have delivered their babies, they are sent back to their villages, accompanied by a guildsman. It is Helward’s turn to do this and so he is given provisions and a map and told to head south, what the citydwellers call ‘Down Past’.

What he finds is that, as he travels south, the world around him, including the native women, becomes subject to an amazing distortion. The women become shorter and shorter and wider and wider. They come to the ravine he remembers crossing a few weeks earlier and it is now a much shallower, narrower canyon.

In an utterly convincing, extended passage Helward grasps why the city must keep moving: because the world behind the city becomes distorted in time and space. Eventually the women he’s accompanying become so flattened as to become invisible, and the landscape appears to drop off into darkness. What had been mountains in the distance become small bumps in the landscape as he finds himself hanging by the crampons and mountaineering rope he had been given for his expedition.

It is an astonishing imaginative feat, a really mind-boggling stroke of the imagination. I’ve never read anything so terrifying and so convincing. Slowly Helward pulls himself back up the cliff, using what were mountains as slight ledges under his feet, as the world slowly slowly spreads out again, becomes more level and comprehensible. Eventually he is merely walking up a steep slope. Finally the world reverts to something like flat again. Even so, when he finally makes it back to what had once been the ravine he finds is a shallow ditch with a stream at the bottom.

Terrified, he finally identifies the city’s tracks, though these are distorted, appearing very wide, very shallow and very close together. It would seem that the ‘optimum’ is the place where ‘normal’ conditions of time and space apply, but anywhere south of it rapidly distorted in the bizarre ways described. He meets another guildsman coming in the opposite direction – heading down past – with a couple of native women he is meant to be returning, and struggles to put into words what he is likely to encounter, as the guildmen in the city were all strangely coy and oblique about what he would meet.

Because Priest’s prose is so slow and steady and undramatic, the reader is utterly drawn into this paralysing, terrifying alternative reality, in a way few books I’ve ever read have managed to. I, too, became terrified at just the thought of a world like this, a world where one mistake could mean the city coming to a halt and rotating with the planet’s movement further and further from the optimum, into a zone where time and space become so utterly distorted that life would become impossible… but in a peculiarly upsetting and terrifying way…

It is one of the lesser consequences of the whole thing that when Helward gets back, he discovers that a year has passed and his uneasy relationship with his wife, Victoria, has collapsed. She had their child, who was stillborn, went through grieving for it and her missing husband, and now has married another man. Although this failed relationship is a big issue for Helward when he finally arrives back at the city, sunburned, haggard and aged, it is not for the reader, who is still reeling from the nightmare scenario Priest has so terrifyingly conjured…


And then, in the book’s final 30 pages or so, comes one of the most humongous twists in all science fiction, a revelation which turns everything you’ve read and experienced about this horrifying world on its head, upside down, inside out. It’s so awesome, that, for once, I won’t reveal the plot. You should read it for yourself. It is a genuinely mind-boggling novel.

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Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actua life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

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1 Comment

  1. Well that’s quite a cliffhanger of a review! I may need to pick up the book just from your build up. If it’s not up to snuff, I’ll come looking for you!


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