down past

hyperbolaSometimes the simple act of moving a few feet can change the way you see the world.

(possible SPOILERS below; take this seriously because the book has a twist)

In Christopher Priest’s novel The Inverted World the inhabitants of Earth city frantically outrace a crushing gravitational field by winching their city along massive rails that they constantly build, move along, and then tear up for reuse.  The majority of the population knows nothing of this; only the collection of guilds (Track, Barter, Militia, Future, Traction, Bridge Building) responsible for moving the city have any idea of the danger it faces if it does not keep traveling northward in its unending pursuit of an ever moving “optimum.”

The basic organization of society and the guilds is based on “Destaine’s Directive”, a set of rules created by the founder of the city.  For myriad reasons–the terrain, the hostile locals, even its own restive citizens–Earth city is falling behind in its travels.  Some in the city are beginning to question the guild system and even guild members are beginning to wonder how much longer they can keep up the pace.  An integral rite of passage for a guild apprentice is going “down past”, traveling some distance behind the city, usually for the purpose of returning “borrowed” women to their tribes.  Although no one will describe what exactly happens south of the city, it has the nearly universal effect of convincing guild members to keep the city moving.

The main protagonist in the book is Helwood Mann, a new apprentice to the Future Guild.  Like everyone else in Earth city he believes that its inhabitants are marooned on an alien world and they await rescue from Earth planet, their original home.   Other characters are more or less incidental, at least in part due to the odd time fluctuations experienced by people who move too far from the city itself.

Although the book is a good, quick read, it suffers some from perspective shifts that I’m sure are supposed to tie into the overall theme of the book but which end up being distracting.  For instance, Helwood sometimes narrates the book in first person but is a third person character in other parts.  The book was written initially in 1974 and has aged quite well but the characters probably don’t appear dated because they really aren’t all that fleshed out to begin with.  The book is more concerned with its theme than its plot or characters.  The reader doesn’t really feel for the characters, their predicament, or the difficult personal and moral choices their circumstances force upon them.

Much has been made in descriptions of this book of its surprise ending.  It wasn’t all that.  If you pay attention to the anomalous characters and some of the terminology used in the book, and if you have a rudimentary understanding of geometry, you’ll probably figure it out and even if you don’t, Earth city’s true nature won’t come as much of a surprise.

Overall, the book is generally well written and fast-paced and although the ending seems unexpectedly flat and tacked-on after all the careful preparation, the trip there is still enjoyable.  I read it on the plane back from the UK and I finished it with enough time to watch a movie.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on July 30, 2010.

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