With regards the reviews I write, I feel it is necessary to provide this caveat.
The initial section right up to the button that opens the full synopsis is the teaser where I try to give a look into the book without revealing too much.

The section within the button is a full synopsis. No detail will be hidden at all.

Be warned!
The final section (Food for thought) is a series of thoughts on the book. This is a personal take on the book and does mention important parts of the books. It should be considered as much of a spoiler as the previous section!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Book Review: Inverted World by Christopher Priest - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall. This week's book review will skirt the edges of science fiction to a story about a city that cannot stop. No, I'm not talking about New York City.
Presenting the city in:
Inverted World by Christopher Priest:
Cover art copyright of Chris Moore/Artist Partners

'The city is winched along its tracks through a devastated world. Rails must be laid ahead of it and removed in its wake. If the city does not move, it will fall behind the 'optimum' and into a crushing gravitational field. The alternative to progress is death.

The rulers of the city make sure its inhabitants know nothing of this. But the dwindling population is growing restive. And the rulers know that the city is falling further and further behind.' - Inverted World, Christopher Priest [1974]

Inverted World delivers on its promise, presenting the story of Helward Mann (a fitting name if ever there was one) as he grows up in the city of Earth, coming to terms with the world around him in Earth's desperate struggle for survival. The people of Earth haul their city ever northwards, aiming for the ever elusive 'optimum' ahead of them, navigating a hostile landscape to do so. Helward Mann, thanks to his father's prestigious position, joins the guild of Future Surveyors and embarks on a journey that takes him away from Earth, learning about the world outside the city, the truth behind Earth's constant struggle north and the fate that awaits the city in the south.

The story is set in a universe that is the inverse of our own. We live in what is effectively (though not actually) an infinite universe on a finite planet. However, Inverted World is set in a finite universe upon an infinite planet. There's a rather impressive and enjoyable twist at the end, so not much more will be said on this beyond an explanation of the Inverted World premise.

Inverted World is told primarily from Helward Mann's point of view with only a few parts told from Elizabeth Khan's point of view, though nothing will be revealed of her either for much the same reason as above. Despite being entirely cryptic about book, I recommend reading it as it delivers a fascinating world setting and a twist that leaves you feeling delighted at the end.

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food for thought:

Naturally, there is one immediate problem with the book's premise. The concept of a world that has an infinite plane in two perpendicular directions is topographically impossible (the two planes would intersect each other after all as they rotate into infinity). However, that said, the concept and twist in this book is lovely. It is a complete reversal of the world we know, a world where the struggle to survive is paramount to all other things. 

One of the major themes in the book is the power of perception over our reality. We have no real way of knowing if what we perceive is actually 'real' in a factual sense, only that what we understand of the world can be verified by what we perceive. In fact, in our daily lives we take alot of things for granted which in theory are impossible, things which are verified by our perception but not by our scientific knowledge. The world around us is very different from what we perceive without the help of specialised equipment. Quantum physics proves that things exist because we detect it existing, even if we can't necessarily explain what they really appear as. For example, the electron is characterised as a physical sphere of negative charge within an atom, and there are experiments that can prove its nature as a particle. However, there are also experiments that prove the electron is not a particle but instead a wave. Quantum physics accepts that the electron displays the characteristics of a particle and a wave (despite the mutual contradictions) at the same time. It is comforting to think of electrons as a particle as this makes it easier to imagine the atom and we're all made of atoms. But even the concept of an atom is at odds with the day to day reality we observe. Atoms are proven to be 99.99% (recurring) emptiness. Given that we are made entirely of atoms then in theory we too are 99.99% emptiness and yet we perceive and interact with physical objects all the time. Likewise in Inverted World, while we accept Elizabeth Khan's perception as 'truth' (as we live in her perception of reality) we cannot necessarily say that Helward's perception of the reality around him is wrong. Reality and its perception is entirely subjective and quantum physics points out that we change the world by observing it. 

Likewise with one final example of the complexity of perception, there is no guarantee that any of use experience the same reality at all. When I look at the sky I can say 'the sky is blue.' You may be inclined to agree with me if you were to stand beside me. However, you and I could not prove that the colour we saw in the sky was the same, only that we had a mutually agreed term for what we perceived as 'blue.' As a quote, I would leave you with:
'All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.' - Friedrich Nietzsche
There are no truths, only agreed upon interpretations that are endorsed by the majority.

The book is also a fantastic celebration of human determination. The power to survive and prosper despite the odds arraigned against us is an uplifting tale. The world of the ironically named Helward Mann is grim, founded upon a need to survive at any cost and sustained by a weak hope and yet despite this, their civilisation has existed, triumphed against the odds for two hundred years. Two hundred years of stubbornness and refusal to simply give in. In a way, it is an analogy for our own personal lives, of our own personal struggles against the world around us for our own measures of survival. 
The alternative to progress is death.