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Having managed to read a bit more fiction in the past little while than I've thought with mixed emotions to have got through for some time now, I found myself going a little deeper down a pile I'd bought from a library book sale to begin a science fiction novel that had managed to catch my eye there. The back-cover blurb for Christopher Priest's Inverted World had described a city being winched along tracks laid down in front of it and taken up from behind, struggling to pursue a moving "optimum" with fatal consequences should it keep falling back. I could think of other works of science fiction where humans struggled to survive in inexplicably altered worlds, and wondered how this one would turn out.

The story begins with its viewpoint character Helward Mann emerging into maturity at "the age of six hundred and fifty miles." He gets out of the city for the first time, and we get some suggestions of just how different things are from what we're used to and he'd been taught about even as he gets involved in the work of moving the enormous structure. Then, at last, he's sent further away from the optimum.

It's at this point where I have to face how part of what most intrigued me and drew me on while reading the novel was "discovering things for myself," and to say much more does seem to threaten taking that surprise away from anyone else. All I can think of taking the risk to say is that the story seemed to thread an interesting needle among the familiar outcomes of the unique predicament becoming clear but not its ultimate reason (beyond, perhaps, the author's own fiat trying to insist we're in a larger but no less fatalistic fix ourselves) and the arbitrariness of the initial situation being pointed out by an escape clause being devised. In the process, the enigmatic prologue is explained in a way different than I'd supposed while reading the book, and I could also see some interesting interpretations of parts of the story, if ones that might point out just when it had been written.

At the end of the book, there's an afterword by the critic John Clute. He happens to make a point of the second of the familiar outcomes I mentioned before, but connects them to the term "Hard SF." While I'm not certain I can define that term myself, I'm convinced it's been invoked over a broader spread than the familiar tales of discovery. However, in noticing the particular edition I happened on was part of a line of books with a literary rather than science fiction bent, I focused a bit more on having heard Christopher Priest's later works seem to ride along the careful edge between "genre" and "literature." I'm not sure how many of them I'll manage to seek out from here on, but this was an interesting book.

October 2017

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