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The Inverted World

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  7,774 ratings  ·  715 reviews
The city is winched along tracks through a devastated land full of hostile tribes. Rails must be freshly laid ahead of the city & carefully removed in its wake. Rivers & mountains present nearly insurmountable challenges to the ingenuity of the city's engineers. But if the city does not move, it will fall farther & farther behind the optimum & into the crushing gravitation ...more
Hardcover, 239 pages
Published May 28th 1974 by Harper & Row (NYC) (first published May 1974)
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Allan The central theme of this novel is arranged adulthood. The protagonist is sheltered within a cossetted, compartmentalized, need-to-know society until …moreThe central theme of this novel is arranged adulthood. The protagonist is sheltered within a cossetted, compartmentalized, need-to-know society until suddenly he comes of age, with both a career track and a marriage to leap into with both arranged feet.

The narrative style begins local and myopic. Extremely myopic. Dear diary: Sam-I-Am. Adult themes are pushed to the narrative sidelines, while simultaneously acting as the primary character motive. Few 12-year-olds will be able to situate the sidelines, especially given the episodic and tersely codified "adult" interactions, between characters who haven't yet figured out "adult" themselves yet. What I noticed on reading this book last night is that the spartan introduction has some parallel elements with David Lean's Dr Zhivago. Where's Waldo in this case is an APB on Pavel Pavlovich "Pasha" Antipov, had the screenplay been developed by John Wyndham. This is the kind of narrative tensor metric that gives this book its "trippy" character.

Maybe by age 15 some of this will make a bit more sense. But many SF enthusiasts at that age fail to notice something wrong when the inaugural bridge crew of the 2009 Star Trek reboot—not a cosmic garbage scow, but a fleet flagship—failed to include a single person over the age of 23, give or take. Adulthood 101, hold-my-beer edition of the Star Trek franchise.

Perhaps a serious SF reader by the age of 16 would be sufficiently attuned to the peculiar rifts in this particular narrative universe.

However, the actual filter you need is unlikely to exist to any great resolution before the age of 25, around the time that the human brain finishes fleshing out its primary wiring plan. That's the age where negative space begins to develop: the ability to see the thing as much for what it's not doing, as for what it is doing. This "inverted" world is all about negative space. If you don't notice that the narrative conventions are as badly messed up as the strange physics, you're missing most of the point of the entire exercise.

Probably the best plan is a first read at 15, a second read at 25, and a third read in your fifties.

When I was 15, I already understood I was pre-reading some difficult books that would require a proper read later on with more maturity under my chin. An early YA reader with no visceral sense of anything wrong with the Star Trek reboot film from 2009, who has never noticed the difference between pre-reading and reading, isn't going to get much out of this one in my opinion.

Part of the problem is that the difficulty of this book is not obvious from the prose style. The prose seems simple. Sometimes too simple. That's your first clue. There's no direct train to this twisted galactic quadrant from platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station, for a child who considers that kind of thing standard fare.

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Average rating 3.92  · 
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Glenn Russell
Jul 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorite-books

With Inverted World Christopher Priest has written a work that is beautiful, powerful and profound. These are the words of critic, scholar and science fiction writer Adam Roberts. Equally important, at least for me as someone unacquainted with science fiction, is that Mr. Priest has written an accessible and enjoyable novel. And part of the enjoyment was having my imagination challenged and expanded - I felt like I do after finishing a rigorous workout, only, in this case, my mind had the workou
Apr 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sci-fi, 2016-shelf
This novel is actually all kinds of amazing when it comes to the exploration of a few core ideas and more than very decent when it comes to exploring humanity, perception, and irreconcilable differences.

The story is ostensibly a coming of age story, an acceptance of one's world, and then, eventually a deep dissent without a true solution, but it comes across so easily, so effortlessly, that I'm truly unsurprised that this was nominated for the Hugo in '75 and won the British SF award in the same
Jeffrey Keeten
Jul 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
”We are a long way from Earth. Our home planet is one I doubt we shall ever see again, but if we are to survive here we must maintain ourselves as a microcosm of Earth. We are in desolation and isolation. All around us is a hostile world that daily threatens our survival. As long as our buildings remain, so long shall man survive in this place. Protection and preservation of our home is paramount.”

---Destain’s Directive

 photo Inverted20World20Altered_zpsfah79ixs.jpg

There is certainly the ring of Winston Churchill in this directive, but
Sep 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sci-fi, favorites
Some science fiction books are written just to entertain, some are depiction of the author’s vision of the future, and some are for conveying the author’s philosophical or political ideas. Occasionally I come a across sci-fi books that are pure thought experiments, where the authors sets out to explore some outlandish idea to its logical conclusion. For all I know Christopher Priest had some other intent for the book but clearly thought experimentation appears to be the primary purpose.

Dec 09, 2008 rated it really liked it
So, we know from Einstein that space and time are both part of a larger concept that unifies them, and moreover that spacetime is curved.

Much to his credit, Christopher Priest manages to turn this observation into a metaphor which forms the basis of an imaginative, well-written science-fiction novel. There are some startling images, and he gets you curious right from the start. Why is the city on rails? Why does it have to keep moving? Why do they refer to the direction it's come from as "the p
Aug 21, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Feeling really burned after Nixonland, I meandered about my home horde, reading some Gass and Kronenberger essays, some of Prestowitz's Three Billion New Capitalists, dipping here and there into Borges, Scruton, and Posner, but nothing was really sticking other than my skin to the back of my chair. Then I espied my good ol' shelf of NYRB Classics, so beautifully formal, so stiffly aesthetic, redolent of that pulpy pureness that engenders almost a postcoital bliss—so why in the hell not? Summer a ...more
L.S. Popovich
Jul 17, 2020 rated it liked it
This was like China Mieville, but without the Baroque prose indulgence. Christopher Priest wrote it in an unadorned style, and the characters and world are not as unbounded by mundane constraints as the forward led me to believe. Too straightforward and not surprising enough to engage me all the way through. A slow-crawling novel, which slithers like the Leviathan city-snail at its heart. The imperceptible character development was stunted and bland. As a metaphorical concept, there was a lot to ...more
Krok Zero
You know how dumb-asses will describe something as being "like ___ on acid." This book is like if Philip K. Dick wasn't on acid. Like, if Dick had been a studious young man into engineering and physics instead of a drugged-out freakazoid. The content of Priest's novel is wacked-out and mind-bending in a sort of Dickian way, but the tone is dry and the prose is stilted (well, in that one respect it's not so far from Dick) and the details are scientific. Somehow it manages to be highly engaging an ...more
Apr 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scifi, sfmasterworks
SF Masterworks (2010- series) #14:
Helward Mann, like all children had spent his entire life in the Creche, but now he has come of age he will be free to live in The City and take up a Guild. In a city where people only know anything, on a need-to-know basis, Helward step-by-step begins to find out the very surprising reality of The City and its eternal race against time!

Another SF Masterwork that kicks the ball out of the park! A story awash with innovative ideas and concepts, with continual mys
Oct 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.

The mystery shrouding the bizarre world of the mobile city on a relentless march of survival is devilishly captivating. What? Where? When? A city on wheels (OK, tracks)? Huh?? Many questions you have. Time this will take ...

This mystery is peeled back in stages as we follow the coming of age of Helward Mann, city resident, on his journey as junior apprentice and later senior guildsman. Helward gradually uncov
Rachel (TheShadesofOrange)
Feb 09, 2022 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science-fiction
4.5 Stars
This was a fascinating piece of science fiction that blended hard science into a coming of age, post apocalyptic story. I loved the mystery, slowing learning about the narrative of the world along with our young protagonist. The worldbuilding was amazing. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an underhyped science fiction novel that explores some interesting mathematical ideas.
Spencer Orey
Nov 10, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow this was a mind bender. I imagine when it came out it was even better, but it's still great. Some gender stuff hasn't aged well of course. The overall puzzle and story is cool and such a strange twisted thing to piece together. It was a blast. ...more
4.0 stars. Outstanding science fiction novel. This is the first novel by Christopher Priest that I have read and I plan to read the rest of his wroks based on the strength of this novel. Great premise, good characters and and tightly woven plot that is never boring. Unlike some other reviewers, I thought the ending was great. Highly recommended!!

Winner: British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel
Nominee: Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel
Nov 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: SF readers who enjoy abstractions and mysteries
Shelves: reviewed
I found this book both fascinating and frustrating. Overall, I would highly recommend it, but with caveats.

I had never read Priest before, but I picked this up randomly when I was on travel and running out of reading material. It was shelved next to The Prestige, his 1996 (IIRC?) novel that was recently filmed. Susan and I really enjoyed the movie, so I thought that this Priest guy might be worth a gamble. I avoided The Prestige as a first cut because I wanted something new. (And I knew how tha
Apr 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-fiction
Though my knowledge of SF is obviously nearly less than zero – surpassed only on the downside by my understanding of science in general, I’m going to hazard a few thoughts about what seems (from my point of view, at least) to be wrong with this genre.

Browsing today through the Sci-fi lists of some of the GR people I follow, I’m stunned to see that even those who are big, BIG readers of this genre think most of the books that they’ve read are, basically..., crap (or mediocre, anyway – two and thr
Bart Everson
Feb 05, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: both science fiction fans and people who think they don't like science fiction
Shelves: octavia-sf
I've enjoyed an ongoing debate for a few years with a friend about the role of characters in literature. My friend argues that great characterization is more than just a hallmark of great writing. According to him, it's kind of the whole point.

I disagree. In the main he's right, but there are exceptions. Borges comes to mind immediately. And also this novel by Christopher Priest

When I first read Inverted World some thirty years ago, it made a huge impression on me. It might make an impression o
Andy Wixon
Jan 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: to-re-read
This is a warning as much as a review - I'm sorry to say that I haven't looked at this properly in about a decade - but basically I just want to say: this book will mess with your head.

Really. The first time I heard of it, it was preceded with the words 'hyperbolically strange' and that's a better capsule description than any I can give. Basically, it's the story of a young fellow named Helward Mann (possibly a crashingly unsubtle piece of metaphor, possibly not) who's just coming of age as a ci
Jan 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Reads like a simple adventure story, but with an unexpected level of cleverness and complexity, both of underlying concept and usefulness as cautionary fable. I can't entirely speak for some of the underlying physics (some "hard" sci-fi what-ifs mix well with social concerns here), but its terribly interesting and seems well-thought-through enough that I have no complaints.

Starting simply but intriguingly with a city that must constantly move through an uncertain and perhaps threatening world on
Jun 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The middle section of ‘The Inverted World’ is extraordinary. It’s going to be difficult to write about it without giving too much away, but if you want me to reach for easy and cliched shorthand to describe it then, well, it’s like an acid trip. I’ve always liked the big desert landscapes in Sergio Leone movies and I’ve also always liked the way that his best films have a certain dream-like quality to them; well, the huge and daunting vistas are present, but there’s also a trip of the imaginatio ...more
I'm no great fan of Science Fiction, but this novel transcends the genre. It has a corker of a plot, which I won't spoil here. The only thing I was not crazy about was the way Priest uses dialog throughout to relay a lot of exposition. That's okay early in the novel because the narrator is a young apprentice of a guild; it's natural for him to ask questions about his new duties and surroundings. Toward the end of the book, however, the device shows its creakiness. But don't let me put you off th ...more
Paul Bryant
Dec 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sf-novels-aaargh
She was now a little more than twelve inches high, and her body – as the other girls’ – was nearly five feet broad. It was impossible to recognize them as once having been human, even though he knew this to be so.

Well here is one of the strangest of all worlds. I shouldn’t really say too much about it, as that would spoil all the fun, but that’s okay because I couldn’t explain it if I tried. The first 100 pages are rather dull, it has to be admitted, but after that not even the sky is the limit.
Joseph Delaney
This book is set on a world with different physical laws than we experience on earth. The explanation for why things are so is only revealed close to the end of the novel and is a real surprise!
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
March 2009

I'll just say what everyone else is saying: this is not an easy one to review. On one hand, Inverted World appears pretty straightforward: Helward Mann comes of age in the city of Earth and ventures outside for the first time, where he learns that the city rests on wheels, forever rolling north along tracks. But as we learn what the city is moving towards--and what it is moving away from--the central mystery of the story becomes weird, strange, eerily convoluted, and--for me, at least-
Leo Robertson
Feb 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I LOVED this one!

I do enjoy reading the SF Masterworks series, but as a science fiction writer, I mostly consider it homework, and a lot of the stories have dated. I don't think that this one has, and it's one of the few novels where I really had to read to the end to find out what happened (mostly I'm just like, "I can take it or leave it but I'll at least feel like I've achieved something if I get to the end of this", haha.)

I won't spoil anything but I really enjoyed how the plot unfolded. I t
NYRB, you have never failed me. This was a book group pick, and, though it was an NYRB, I didn't think I was in the mood for this. Turns out, this was exactly the book I needed. Hard sci-fi, yet surprisingly accessible, with a blow-you-away premise. There are a couple of issues I'm still troubling over, but I think that's a sign of a good read -- I want to figure it out, I'm engaged enough to keep puzzling with it, long after the last page. Priest's writing reminds me a lot of George R. Stewart, ...more
ash | spaceyreads
Unassuming, coming-of-age, you will say, "wait, what?" a couple of times.

I really shouldn't be surprised by Priest by now. Having already read The Prestige (biggest mindblower of all) and The Adjacent, I can safely say Priest doesn't disappoint. Every book starts off with a quiet, unassuming story rooted in a reasonable, relatable reality. What throws you off is the discrepancy seeping into the plot, the little distortions in real life. Priest loves to play with perceptions, either that of the c
N.K. Jemisin
Jun 12, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People who like hard SF, people who like mind-blowing original ideas
Recommended to N.K. by: James Trimarco
Chewy and mind-blowing on the conceptual level, but not very engaging on the story/characterization level.
For sure it is not an easy book to be read. There are parts too dense talking about numbers, functions and electric fields that I guess some will enjoy, but not the most, at least not me.

But let’s talk about the more interesting idea that, for me, it’s this one which let me thinking about all the truths we assumed like that, like truths, because someone has told us that, just because. We don´t question, we accept and go for another thing. Maybe sometimes we should be more like a child that, alth
Jonathon Von
May 26, 2022 rated it liked it
3.5 Some brilliantly imaginative ideas and rather weighty metaphor for an ultimately doomed colonialist empire. But the story and the characters are not quite on the same level as the bonkers sci fi. After some thought, I think it does make sense, but I could see how taken at face value it could be a little disappointing. My first Priest and I’m certainly intrigued.
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Christopher Priest was born in Cheshire, England. He began writing soon after leaving school and has been a full-time freelance writer since 1968.

He has published eleven novels, four short story collections and a number of other books, including critical works, biographies, novelizations and children’s non-fiction.

He has written drama for radio (BBC Radio 4) and television (Thames TV and HTV). In

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