In Christopher Priest’s newly reissued 1974 sci-fi novel, a young man learns, literally, how the world works: how his society’s routines are structured in observance of the laws of physics. Helward Mann is an apprentice “future surveyor” (making his proper title “Future Mann”) in the city of Earth, a seven-story hive of wood and metal — as he learns when he exits the city for the first time, to lay railroad tracks ahead of the city and re-lay them after the city is winched a mile or so along, chasing the northbound “optimum.”The city, where time is measured in miles, is equal parts futurism and anachronism: the food’s synthetic and the power nuclear, but it’s ruled by a hierarchy of guilds and a “Council of Navigators,” and defended by a crossbow-wielding militia from the peasant tribes populating the surrounding landscape. The proto-steampunk vibe lasts until Helward is sent “down past” for an immersion course in general relativity.
The paradox of the fictional alternate universe is that an author must establish a world whose workings and stability the reader cannot take for granted, without neglecting narrative momentum; but narrative momentum implies changes in the world that the author must establish as normal and stable. How to ensure that the conflict fueling your story appears less normal than what came before, when what came before is a figment of your own imagination? A coming-of-age story — albeit one, here, time-dilated from development to calcification — ensures proper proportion: an inverted world is the only one Helward knows.
But our tendency to cling to the known world as if sliding off a cliff is the ultimate target of Priest’s allegory (give or take some early peak oil prophesizing), as evolution is resisted in the face of a revelation perhaps less devastating than Priest intends it to be. Even The Prestige, Priest’s yarn about magicians, is in both form and content more about the construction of an apparatus than its dazzling payoff (his prose is more functional than phantasmagoric), and to the extent that Inverted World’s terminus satisfies, it’s because the route there is marvelously engineered.