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The Inverted World

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The city is winched along tracks through a devastated land full of hostile tribes. Rails must be freshly laid ahead of the city and carefully removed in its wake. Rivers and mountains present nearly insurmountable challenges to the ingenuity of the city's engineers. But if the city does not move, it will fall farther and farther behind the optimum and into the crushing gravitational field that has transformed life on Earth. The only alternative to progress is death. The secret directorate that governs the city makes sure that its inhabitants know nothing of this. Raised in common in creches, nurtured on synthetic food, prevented above all from venturing outside the closed circuit of the city, they're carefully sheltered from the dire necessities that have come to define human existence. Yet the city is in crisis. People are growing restive. The population is dwindling. The rulers know that, for all their efforts, slowly but surely the city is slipping ever farther behind the optimum. Helward Mann is a member of the city's elite. Better than anyone, he knows how tenuous is the city's continued existence. But the world he's about to discover is infinitely stranger than the strange world he believes he knows so well.

239 pages, Hardcover

First published May 1, 1974

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About the author

Christopher Priest

416 books941 followers
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 2006, The Prestige was made into a major production by Newmarket Films. Directed by Christopher Nolan, The Prestige went straight to No.1 US box office. It received two Academy Award nominations. Other novels, including Fugue For a Darkening Island and The Glamour, are currently in preparation for filming.

He is Vice-President of the H. G. Wells Society. In 2007, an exhibition of installation art based on his novel The Affirmation was mounted in London.

As a journalist he has written features and reviews for The Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, the Scotsman, and many different magazines.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 797 reviews
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,377 reviews12k followers
June 26, 2023

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 workout. Honestly, what a book, one I recommend especially for readers who do not usually read science fiction. More specifically, here are several call-outs:

The novel is divided into five parts, alternating back and forth between first-person and third-person – our first-person narrator is main character Helward Mann, a newly initiated apprentice guildsman of the city. Helward is pitch perfect as narrator since, in a very real sense, his story is the city’s story. Third-person part two and four underscore and clarify the challenges facing Helward and his city. A most effective narrative devise to drive the story and draw us into its unfolding drama.

Although science fiction in that the city is of a future time and must continually move by way of a system of tracks, cables and wenches toward an ideal point termed ‘optimum’, pacing of the day-to-day activities of the city are much akin to a city in twelfth century Europe. Matter of fact, compared to the high octane writing of Philip K. Dick, Inverted World reads like science fiction in slow motion, which is exactly the appropriate speed to make this story accessible, especially for those of us who ordinarily do not read science fiction.

The workings of the guild system was founded by the city’s founder, one Destaine. The guilds involve the specifics of surveying, laying of tracks, bridge building, securing cables and winching – all of the nitty-gritty of enabling the city to continue moving north. The guilds are exclusive and regimented and central to the overall government of the city. And the guildsmen take their guilds seriously, very seriously. All members have the mindset and work ethic comparable to members of those esteemed medieval guilds.

But, alas, the inhabitants of the moving city are not alone. There are hostile, half-starving tribes in the lands outside the city. And to add further complication, the city engineers need men from these various tribes to contribute to the heavy, backbreaking work involved in clearing land and laying track. And even more complication: the city must barter for the services of the tribeswomen. A nasty business to be sure.

So, we as readers join Helward moving along at the slow, methodical speed of medieval-like time for the entire first half of the novel. Then it happens: the jolt of the weird. I wouldn’t want to say anything more specific here but let me assure you, as a reader you will be every bit as shocked and jolted as Helward. Such is the high quality of Christopher Priest’s writing. At this point and beyond, the plot thickens, warps and bends.

We are familiar with George Barkley’s “To be is to be perceived.” Well, on one level Inverse World is a meditation on perception within the science of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Would we be upset and disoriented if we realized the way we have been perceiving the world and the physical objects contained within – the sun, the directions of north, south, east, west, the size and shape of those around us -- is completely false? You bet we would. Welcome to the bending space of an inverse world that plays with our mind.

Even a non-scientist like myself can see the author includes enough math and science to keep nearly everyone with a background in science both challenged and engaged. As a for instance, here’s a reflection from an outsider to the city: “In time a kind of logical pattern appeared . . . but there was one ineradicable flaw in everything. The hypothesis by which the city and its people existed was that the world on which they lived was somehow inverted. Not only the world, but all the physical objects in the universe in which that world was supposed to exist. The shape that Destaine drew – a solid world, curved north and south in the shape of hyperbolas – was the approximation they used, and it correlated indeed with the strange shape that Helward had drawn to depict the sun.”

At one point well into the tale, Helward reflects, “I did my guild work as quickly as possible, then rode off alone through the future countryside, sketching what I saw, trying to find in line drawing some expression of a terrain where time could almost stand still.” In a way, this is remarkable since the mindset of the inhabitants of the city, including the guildsmen, is totally practical – every drop of ingenuity and effort is geared to sheer, brute material survival. Within the city walls there is no reference to religion, philosophy, literature or the arts – to put it bluntly, these people lack a spiritual and aesthetic dimension. Yet, remarkably, through a stroke of artistic creativity, Helward touches the realm of the eternal, which is perhaps a consequence of being set free from the pull of the city. One theme worth keeping in mind.

The people of the city deal with life without powerful drugs, hallucinogenic or otherwise. They are a sober lot, not even beer or wine. No Dionysian frenzy; no dancing; not even the singing of songs within the city walls. In this sense, very different from our own world. However there are a number of challenges and problems the people and the city face that will have a most familiar ring. But this book is much, much more than simply social and cultural commentary. Christopher Priest has written a work of extraordinary vision, one to expand your mind and hone your imagination, and even if you become slightly warped in the process, exercising your grey matter will be well worth the effort.

This New York Review Book (NYRB) Classic contains an informative Afterward written by John Clute, providing historical and social context for Priest’s writing. This edition also has a nifty, eye-catching cover sculpture by artist/futuristic designer, Lebbeus Woods.

(Special thanks to Goodreads friend Manny Rayner for clarifying for me the scientific ideas contained within this novel before I wrote my review).

Christopher Priest, Born 1943, British Novelist and Science Fiction Writer
Profile Image for Baba.
3,619 reviews986 followers
December 16, 2022
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 mysteries and reveals. One of the huge pluses is that there's almost zero faux/proto-science, which allows the book to be all story. I very much want to read more of Priest's work now! A 9 out of 12, strong Four Star read.

2020 read
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,101 followers
February 9, 2017
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. So the characters are good, the story is very solid... then what, exactly, makes this novel stand out?

The concept. An intersection of our Earth with these people's Earth. Not original enough? No problem. How about an infinite space of earth along a fluid time? The city is on rails, a direct concept that is carried over to Railsea, travelling slowly into the future and away from the past, which doesn't sound so surprising except when you realize that if the inhabitants actually walk in one direction or another, they actually explore the real past or the future. Infinite space along a traversable time, the inverse of the Earth we actually live in.

But this is where the story gets interesting. There's guilds and explorers and the crossing over along very predefined instants where the two Earths meet, and then we start asking questions about perception.

It's truly much more than this, but it gives you a nice taste and it's truly a grand exploration of ideas across many points. :)

Truly a great recommendation for any SF lover. :)
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
July 31, 2018
”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 what Churchill understood better than anyone was finding a cadence which allows each sentence to build nicely on the one before it. Churchill wanted to rattle the cage of nationalism, prick their eyes with tears, and bring them to their feet.

”...We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender….”

Still Destain, not bad. You make a good case that the inhabitants of this city you have created are truly alone. Reliant only on one another. They are bonded together by a common goal to reach a mathematically created goal of optimum.

Are you confused yet?

If you are confused, then the author of this book, Christopher Priest, has you right where he wants you to be. I would like to tell you, fair reader, that you are going to be parachuted into this world with plenty of time to gaze upon the terrain, chat with a pretty bartender about the local scene, and wander the streets with a mystifying smile upon your lips.

The problem is... this is no holiday.

It is going to be more like being dropped into a swampy pond with your legs tucked up against your chest in true cannonball fashion. The world is a swirling blur just before you feel your puckered ass break the surface of the water.

We have a guide, a Helward Mann, a young lad just 650 miles old, who is making his way through guild training. He is made of soft clay. It will be many more miles before he is fired in the kiln and ready to assume his duties as a full guild member. He has been raised in The City, in a creche, on a steady diet of synthetic food, sheltered from the world, completely oblivious of what exists out there beyond the walls of The City.

That is about to change.

Part of Helward’s guild training is achieving a deeper understanding of the function of The City. He works on the crew which lays the tracks that The City moves on. They lay track, move The City forward, tear up the track, and lay it back down so The City can move again. They are, after all, chasing the optimum, and if they fall too far behind optimum, the world they are escaping will crush them, destroy them. They use Took labor, tribal starving cultures along their route, who need food and will do whatever The City needs to help alleviate, even temporarily, their subsistence existence. They even lend their fertile women to The City.

To put it mildly, things are out of balance, and a certain level of desperation is starting to guide the decisions of The City. Morality is set aside in the interest of protecting The City, but the real question that haunts Helward and a growing number of people in The City is, are those decisions protecting The City or protecting the directives? With growing unease, Helward is starting to question everything, including the whole concept of chasing optimum.

He meets a young Englishwoman on one of his excursions away from tTe City, and the way she sees things casts even more doubt in his mind. We get to see through her eyes exactly what The City is.

”She had heard the men refer to it as a city, and Helward too, but to her eyes it was not much more than a large misshapen office block. It did not look too safe, constructed mainly of timber. It had the ugliness of functionalism, and yet there was a simplicity to its design which was not altogether unattractive. She was reminded of pictures she had seen of pre-Crash buildings, and although most of those had been steel and reinforced concrete they shared the squareness, the plainness, and lack of exterior decoration.”

 photo Inverted20World_zpsxktkgcho.jpg

We accumulate more understanding right with Helward as he uncovers the warped truths, sometimes in the midst of psychedelic apparitions. We start to question along with him what is really going on with The City and with the world that surrounds it. Is this a post-apocalyptic society or something else? Why is the sun squished instead of round? What happens to the world behind them? What happens when they catch optimum? Why? Why? Why? Does anyone even remember the truth?

Christopher Priest has a vibrant imagination, and he certainly had me muttering to myself as I was trying to understand the concepts of this inverted world that I willingly allowed myself to be cannonballed into the middle of. I can now safely say that I can navigate The City with some level of acquired street sense. Ahh, yes, and for those travelers that find themselves in similar circumstances, do bring a supply of your own protein bars and a bottle or two of good bourbon. You will thank me later.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at: https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
May 15, 2009
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 past"?

It occurs to me suddenly to wonder if there's a link to a passage in Simone de Beauvoir's Les Mandarins. One of the characters has done something truly despicable, and finally confesses it to a friend. He expects the friend to be appalled, but he just looks thoughtful. After a while, he says,

- In a curved moral space, there are no straight lines.

I have always liked this gnomic sentence. It's not out of the question that it inspired Priest's book.

Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews806 followers
June 9, 2016
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.

Inverted World (“The” is added to the title in some editions) is often found in “best science fiction books” lists, it is a Hugo nominee and the winner of the British Science Fiction Association award for best novel in 1975. All well deserved accolades and perhaps the book is even a little underrated. Certainly it is one of the oddest sci-fi conceits I have ever come across.

Basically Inverted World is about a city on wheels called Earth that is being moved in the northerly direction on a railway track that has to be laid ahead of the city’s route and removed after the city has passed to be laid down again ahead. An idea reused in China Miéville's 2004 novel Iron Council, but Inverted World is much more bizarre though as it is an entire city being moved, for unknown destination and even purpose. The “Earth” city’s citizens only know that if their city stops moving they will all die. The weirdness does not stop there, the law of physics appears to work differently away from the city. People and objects become wider and flatter to the south of the city and thinner and taller to the north.

In spite of the bizarre premise Inverted World is really quite readable and accessible. Priest writes in clear, uncluttered prose with a linear timeline and a single plot strand. Characters are not developed in much depth but their behavior and motivation is always understandable. I can not help but sympathize with their strange plight.

The world building of Inverted World is exemplary, once you accept the weirdness of the book’s universe it becomes a fascinating place to spend some time in. The author often throws me for a loop with the strange developments in his storyline. Once I settled into the groove of the book reading it becomes quite an exhilarating and jaw dropping experience. In some ways this book reminds me of Hal Clements’s classic hard sci-fi Mission of Gravity as it is also set in a world where the law of physics appears to change from location to location. However, Inverted World is not hard sci-fi as such, there are just too many bizarre concepts for that particular subgenre label. In fact the reality warping aspect of the book where the relationship between time and space become unreliable puts me in mind of the legendary Philip K. Dick. So if you imagine a collaboration between Arthur C. Clarke and PKD you may have a fair idea of what to expect.

Most of the mysteries are explained by the end of the book and almost everything make sense. If I have one complaint it is the rather abrupt ending which makes me feel as if a few pages have gone missing. In any case Inverted World is like a gymnasium for the imagination and I can not imagine a dedicated sci-fi fans not liking it. It is already on my Favorites shelf here on Goodreads.
Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,257 followers
August 25, 2016
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 and ciencia ficción go together like weed and inhalation psychosis, so it's Inverted World for the win.

Which proved not to be much of a victory. This is one of those Eh books, so common, in my experience, to the milieu of science fiction—entertaining, certainly intriguing at the outset, but marred by paper-thin characters, clustered action, expository text that dissipates the sense of otherness so necessary to such fantastic fiction, and an ending that proved tricky but, ultimately, unsatisfying. What's more, I've got a few questions about the point-of-view of the City dwellers that haven't been answered in the course of the story's completion, and I believe that these questions undermine an integral aspect of the resolution provided: to wit, the aging effect, which I shan't get into further for fear of spoiling the plot for those yet to partake of Priest's imaginative offering, but it seems a gaping flaw that the developments at the end fail to deal with.

I still mostly enjoyed this—stories that feature dystopian futures set amidst apocalyptic wastelands inhabited by the crude and regressive remnants of a once highly civilized humanity and centered upon an isolated collective vessel of said vanished civilization's descendants—struggling to preserve the faith, mores, and technologies of the old ways in the face of the mutations and temptations for a newer set to override and/or supersede them—always rock my boat: in this particular case, the conceit consists of a block-sized, multi-tiered City winching itself northwards along a tetrad of railway tracks that are immediately disassembled in the rear and positioned anew in the front as the city structure edges along, forever chasing the elusive optimum whose invisible geometric parameters are of a vital necessity to keep within a few miles of the city's physical structure. There's cool physics, archaic and hierarchical governing guilds, apprenticeship rituals, female population imbalance, and nifty perception perturbations that drive the story onwards, with a few narrative shifts that cast a new light upon what is taking place. Furthermore, Priest has crafted some sly allusions to our own hypertrophied hydrocarbonic era overlaid with a spicy sprinkling of Cold War bifurcations.

So, there you have it—a book to which I bestow a somewhat tepid three-star rating. I'm sure that I've inflated its flaws in my mind, and downplayed its cleverness, but the bottom line is that my initial enthusiasm, which was appreciable, began to deflate roughly around the third part of the story, never to regain its momentum. I cannot shake the sense that I should be partaking of more serious fare, that such frivolous and flimsy material, whilst fine for a dude in his twenties, has been outgrown and should be consigned to my days of bong hits, beers, and Bits-n-Bites™. How in the hell can I possibly continue to leave Proust and Powell and Kundera and Serge and Marías idling upon the shelf to follow a track-bound city turtling across the open plains? Perhaps this explains why my Culture collection—Phlebas, Games, Weapons, Excession—gather dust in a corner. If I actually got into them, that recently promoted literary section of my reading consciousness would berate my escapist self to no end—and if Banks' fare proved no better than Inverted World, it just might have a point.
Profile Image for Diana Stoyanova.
604 reviews130 followers
August 2, 2021
" Преобърнатият свят" ме изненада приятно. Много добра фантастика, майсторски написана, с увлекателен стил, без излишни подробности.
Идеята е страхотна, макар и доста странна, но пък се разгръща плавно, така че човек да има възможност да осмисли детайлите.
Историята е антиутопична, поне моето усещане беше такова. Действието се развива в град, наречен Земя. Той се придвижва по релси, от миналото към бъдещето, през една доста предизвикателна среда. А времето се отмерва в изминати мили. Градът се управлява от няколко гилдии, чият основна цел е да осигурят придвижването му напред. А това е изключително отговорен и къртовски труд. Извън града могат да излизат само членовете на тези гилдии, които трябва да пазят в тайна всичко, което се случва отвъд него. Към една от гилдиите, тази на Изследователите на бъдещето, се присъединява Хелуърд Ман, като чирак. Той поема по стъпките на своя баща и има ключова роля в книгата, защото именно той ни разкрива защо Градът трябва да се движи и да бъде максимално близо до Оптимума( там условията на живот и земното притегляне се доближават до тези на планетата Земя). Чрез неговото осъзнаване и опитност се доближаваме и до интересни концепции за време- пространството.

Това определено е една от най- добрите научно- фантастични книги, не само заради интересната и оригинална идея, но и заради прекрасното изпълнение.
Profile Image for L.S. Popovich.
Author 2 books342 followers
July 17, 2020
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 like about the set-up for this novel. However, the storytelling did not elevate the concept to a viable level of vividness. Until I finish all of Mieville, I see no need to return to Priest's work.
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,206 reviews3,204 followers
February 10, 2022
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.
134 reviews200 followers
February 27, 2012
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 and basically boring at the same time. Frankly I have no idea why NYRB reissued it, as it's really more of a curio than anything else and probably could have stayed out of print without the general reading public suffering too much. But kinda cool that it's out there, and if the description or Lethem's blurb intrigues you, you could do worse and you'll finish it within a couple days probably.
Profile Image for S̶e̶a̶n̶.
861 reviews363 followers
April 2, 2023
About five years ago I went on a Christopher Priest binge but then he fell off my radar. I think of Priest as kind of the Queensrÿche of science fiction, and no one wants to listen to Queensrÿche all the time (or possibly ever). Anyway, I particularly enjoyed his books that are based in the Dream Archipelago—a chain of mysterious islands where seemingly anything is possible. The Inverted World is one of his earliest novels (published in 1974 when he was just 30 years old) and it’s built around an intriguing premise involving a 'city' traveling on rails through what seems to be a primitive world. However, in the time since I’d last read him, I’d forgotten how slow Priest is in his storytelling. So, we get a lot of detail around that premise. It’s all somewhat interesting, if a bit arcane in its 'science' at times, but it’s not until probably three-quarters into the book that it really picks up in terms of dramatic plot shifts. Along the way there are also some POV changes to keep less attentive readers on their toes. The book raises interesting questions around perception that are certainly relevant today in the midst of our divisive, silo-driven sociopolitical information wars. Priest may have been too ambitious in all the points he’s trying to hit on here, some of which get crammed in very close to the end, but it was an early novel and still impressive for such a young writer. While I prefer his later books where he’s refined his style and focused his thematic concerns to more manageable levels, it’s kind of remarkable to see how what would come to be the fundamental building blocks of his fiction were in place from so early on.
Profile Image for Emi.acg.
495 reviews149 followers
March 19, 2021
Al fin lo terminé 😣 no me gustó nada de nada, muy lento, llegué a la mitad del libro y me seguía introduciendo el mundo, además que al inicio no entendí nada lo releí como 3 veces y no logré saber que pasaba jajahs 🤷🏻‍♀️ el prólogo no lo entendí 🤔
Por otra parte los personajes me desagradaron y era horrible su sociedad, los tipos de los gremios estaban en la cúspide luego las esposas de y al final los demás, y de todos estos solo los tipos de los gremios tenían el poder y las mujeres a tener hijos y ya está, incluso "negociaban" para traer mujeres de pueblos pobres y que decir que se aprovechaban de todos al final, por un pago miserable, varios decían que era injusto pero no hacían nada por cambiarlo 🤦🏻‍♀️
En fin, fue mi culpa por dejarme engañar con la portada jajajaj me había imaginado algo totalmente distinto 🤣🥺 pero bueno al menos salí de la curiosidad 🤷🏻‍♀️
Profile Image for Jamie.
1,195 reviews114 followers
October 30, 2019
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 uncovers the nature of the world outside the city's cloistered environment, where knowledge of the outside is suppressed under threat of death by a closed system dominated by secretive guilds. Initially on a quest for the truth, Helward undergoes an unexpected transformation from hero to anti-hero.

Is this metaphor for man's relentless march into an unknown future? The danger of a society slipping into irrelevance? Perhaps the exploitative nature of "civilized" man as he runs roughshod through the environment and local indigenous people? The instability inherent in "closed" societies? Maybe yes, maybe no, but there is some mind blowing, if perplexing, hard science underpinnings here that make the story a gem of sci-fi mystery. Ultimately it is a tale of the constraints we create for ourselves, personally and as a society, which harden and yet lose meaning over time.

Though vastly different in style, and with a hard science foundation, the concept reminds me of Nick Harkaway's incredible and bizarre-o The Gone-Away World. I wouldn't be surprised to learn it served as an inspiration, directly or indirectly.
Profile Image for Ira (SF Words of Wonder).
63 reviews18 followers
May 18, 2023
Check out my full, spoiler-free video review HERE.
Check out my spoiler video review HERE.
Great writing, great story. The reveals at the end were awesome. Fun and entertaining review.
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews140 followers
November 10, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,115 reviews112 followers
August 8, 2022
This is a classic SF novel that was nominated for major awards and translated into many languages. I read it as a part of monthly reading for August 2022 at Hugo & Nebula Awards: Best Novels group. The novel was first published in 1974 and was nominated for Hugo and Locus in 1975, lost to The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The story starts with a prologue we meet characters absent from a major part of the following story and then shift to the life story of Helward Mann. He has just left the Creche and is about the work for the city as did his father before him. Mann is to become a member of one of the guilds which ruled the city. Moreover, for the first time in his life, he’s to venture outside for his work is related to moving to the city. For the city is constantly moving to some, not initially clearly defined optimum and has to move to avoid destruction.

Upon his first appearance beyond the walls of the city, he sees the Sun. and it is strange: “Now the bulk of its body had appeared above the horizon, and it hung in sight, a long, saucer-shape of light, spiked above and below with two perpendicular spires of incandescence.” What follows is the life of Mann (a pun to ‘man’ I guess is evident) as he tries to understand the environment around him, which is quite different from what he has read about the world in Earth’s books.

This is an interesting story with a twist, which was spoiled for me by the fact that SF Masterworks edition has a preface by Adam Roberts, who spills out the idea behind the story (and which therefore had to be put at the end, not at the start!). Even despite this drawback, the story is interesting and fully in line with ‘science’ part of SF, even if what is proposed is physically impossible.

A special note is the end of the story, which turns it upside down once again and leaves readers wandering. It is definitely a worthy SF read, but be prepared that its pace is rather slow, and experiences, as with many late 60s and early 70s SFF are sometimes verging on psychedelic.
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,078 followers
March 25, 2011
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 the scent. The suspense is beautifully handled. You never quite know where the narrative will end up. I think the book's real strength is its masterful use of omission. It withholds beautifully the information the reader needs to solve everything. But at the same time one is not frustrated by that because one is borne along so expertly. Priest subtly hints at resolutions which never occur. Just when you think you know where he's going, he doesn't. Read it.
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11.2k followers
March 19, 2010
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
Profile Image for Dave.
3,104 reviews353 followers
July 29, 2023
Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest is an amazing tour-de-force. As Aldous Huxley once said, the doors of perception are always open and that sense of perception is tested and tested in this science fiction novel. As you read through it and begin to understand the strange society, you will find yourself pondering how much of Plato's allegory of the cave is manifested here. The novel is divided into five parts, told in the first person in two parts by the lead character, Helward Mann, in the third person about the lead character's point of view in two other parts, and one part by a minor character who does not appear till near the end: Elizabeth Khan. There is a bit of a big reveal in the final part of the novel, which I will try to avoid discussing in this review. The flow through the different parts of the novel despite the changes in perception by the point of view is flawless.

As it opens, we see the world through Helward’s point of view. He is an apprentice to the Futures Guild (or being welcomed by oath and pain of death into the guild) and lives in a traveling city, Earth. The city travels on tracks and the tracks behind are constantly being lifted and placed in the front (northbound) as the city travels toward Optimum. Along the way, there are hostile primitive tribes, which the city barters with for temporary access to women for the city strangely has a low number of female births and needs the primitive women to bear children, particularly girls. This practice has caused a strong resentment among the Tooks, what the city-dwellers call the primitive tribes.

Most remarkable is that time is measured not in hours, days, or years, but in miles as in miles that the city travels, trying constantly to reach optimum. And, away from the city, time speeds up when one travels north and slows down when one travels south. Thus, one can travel for weeks and years can have passed in the city. It is a problem with time perception that Edgar Rice Burroughs once explored in his Pellucidar series with its eternal mid-day sun.

But, time is not the only twisted perception as Helward finds as he travels south, returning primitive women to their villages after they have been used for breeding. He perceives the women differently as they travel south. Their clothes become tight and don’t fit right as they travel south and eventually they are flat cardboard figures. The physics of this world makes little sense, but Helward knows only that the city must keep moving or all will be lost and optimum will be out of reach.

There are so many incredible concepts at work here, not just time and space, but all of perception and Priest expertly weaves these ideas throughout the novel until the big reveal towards the end.
Profile Image for Terran.
105 reviews
November 18, 2008
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 that ended. At least, I knew how the movie version ended. Someday I'll check its verisimilitude.)

The Inverted World is reminiscent of Iain M. Banks, the more recent British SF/horror phenomenon, and of Robert Charles Wilson's Spin. Like Spin and many of Banks's works, The Inverted World presents the reader with an enigmatic world seen through questionably reliable eyes. It is told with a prose also reminiscent of Banks's: generally spare, but lucid and carefully drawn. Like a Sumi-e painting, Priest evokes a vivid mood and location with a chosen paucity of pen strokes.

I found the central mystery compelling -- so much so that I read most of this (relatively short) novel on a plane flight. (Granted, a transatlantic flight.) Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about it without spoilers, so you'll just have to trust that I found it compelling. ;-) He succeeded in misdirecting me a couple of times, and it wasn't until very late in the story that I made a close guess as to what was going on.

Yet I found the ending ultimately dissatisfying. The revelation, when it comes, is incomplete (at least, to my reading). There were certain elements that I felt were unexplained and that left highly nagging holes in the narrative. Some of this seems deliberate: like John Fowles's The Magus, we readers are left a bit adrift at the end, on our own hooks to make what we can of the conundrums of the text. I guess the satisfaction of such a resolution is individual-specific, but I found both of them a bit lacking. This dissatisfaction is primarily what inclines me to give this book 4 stars rather than 5.

Secondarily, I wonder a bit about the characterization. My initial impression was that the protagonist is underdeveloped, serving primarily as a foil for the mystery of the story. But on reading John Clute's effusive afterward, and reflecting on the story a bit, I have to admit that the protagonist's flattened affect may be deliberate, rather than clumsy -- a symbol of the mystery and a reflection of the environment in which he finds himself. But that still doesn't make him sympathetic

Overall, a very engaging read. I will definitely look for more of Priest's books.

If you've read this as well, and would be interested in discussing it in +spoiler mode, please drop me a line.
Profile Image for AC.
1,721 reviews
April 27, 2012
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 three stars abound). That’s DEFINITELY not a good sign….

I think the problem is two-fold. First of all, SF – *good* SF – must be incredibly hard to write. It requires that one be a good writer, obviously – no, an excellent writer – and be able, of course, to develop wonderful plots and characters…, and ALSO have the imaginative genius of a Nabokov… (otherwise, all the fantastical material comes off, as it often does, as merely contrived)…; well, ALMOST Nabokovian, since a REAL Nabokov would be producing literature, and not genre.

On the other hand, there’s a huge appetite for SF; …hence, a supply-demand imbalance…. In other words, a lot more SF, than there are brilliant writers around… Moreover – this appetite comes heavily from that part of the brain that’s (still) a 12-year old boy (when a lot of these GR reviewers admit they read this-or-that book which they say they loved so much….). This creates a problem for someone approaching this genre in maturity and without any baggage.

Also – a lot of this stuff is simply written too quickly – people writing 20, 30 books in a career shows a certainly carelessness… That sloppy use of phony-sounding names that I keep harping (let’s take anything that pops into our head approach) is a sign of this…

My guess is that a lot of the best SF probably comes in the form of short stories, rather than novels, where the shorter format is probably better able to sustain the reach that’s necessary… So maybe I should try to focus more on those.

Anyway – this may all be completely wrong.... So I reserve the right to look unashamedly stupid here six months from now…

And that said – this PARTICULAR book just knocked me out – flat-out loved it.
Profile Image for Xfi.
433 reviews52 followers
January 19, 2021
Libro frío y descriptivo muy en la línea de la ciencia-ficción dura de los años 70.
Lento y duro de leer, es por momentos aburrido, no profundiza en los personajes ni en las relaciones entre ellos más centrado en la descripción de un mundo muy interesante.
Ese es el punto fuerte, la premisa de la novela es muy buena y la evolución de los hechos interesante. Las explicaciones científicas están a la altura y no olvidemos que fue escrita en los 70 y los miedos y luchas de la época están reflejadas en esas referencias a la crisis del petróleo, a la libertad sexual (tal y como era entendida en esa época) y al control de la información por la clase dominante.
El final es demasiado abrupto y deja demasiadas cosas en el aire.
La parte que más me ha gustado son las connotaciones filosóficas que se pueden extraer: ¿Qué es la realidad? ¿La realidad es lo que vemos, o lo que nos dicen que vemos? Cuando la experiencia coincide con lo que nos dicen que debemos ver nos quedamos tranquilos, pero aun así, ¿nuestra experiencia está sugestionada por lo que se supone que debemos ver?
Elucubraciones aparte, no se por que, pero el libro me ha recordado el inicio de Bohemian Rapsody (es de las pocas canciones en inglés de las que me se la letra, no tiene mérito ,jaja)

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,595 reviews1,029 followers
December 31, 2012
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 tracks, subsequent iterations move us into an elegant mathematical delerium, sociopolitical questions, problems of perception and reality, then still further inversions.

Checking my recent reading again, I'm gonna hypothesize that there's a pretty specific window, maybe 67 through 74, Ice to Dhalgren, that encapsulates all my favorite sci-fi impulses, and which this falls into.
Profile Image for Bart Everson.
Author 5 books34 followers
July 12, 2012
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 on you, too, if you approach it as I did, which is to say: I was young and, well, impressionable.

Also, I had no idea what the book was about. There were no back-cover blurbs to spoil the discoveries within. That's key, because the sense of mystery is one of the things I found most appealing.

(Needless to say I won't reveal any such details here. Just go and read the book if you're curious. And I hope you are.)

For thirty years I've recounted the basic premise of the book to people I knew were unlikely to ever read it. The fact that I could recall so many details for so long, while other books fade away, surely says something. Perhaps my friends were just humoring me, but nearly everyone to whom I've described the book has been intrigued if not astonished.

Therefore it was with great relish that I returned to this book when it was selected by another member of my reading club. I also felt a little trepidation. What if it did not live up to my memories?

To my delight, the book was just as I remembered it. It's a fascinatingly bizarre story. While there are people in it, I don't think anyone would call them "great characters." The building of another world is the main thing.

It was just as I remembered it — up to a point. About three-quarters of the way through, I encountered developments which I had entirely forgotten. Significant events from the latter part of the story had simply evaporated from my recollection.

I was also surprised to see how the mysteries of the book were resolved in a rather satisfying fashion. I'd forgotten that they were resolved at all. The story in my mind was one of insoluble weirdness. I remembered the final image more or less correctly, but the details of the last quarter were mostly forgotten.

This edition includes a splendid afterword by John Clute. (How fortunate the editors had the wisdom to put this essay at the end rather than the beginning.) As Clute points out, the structure of the novel adheres closely to certain genre conventions — up to a point.

It's precisely at that point at which the narrative begins to subvert (and invert) conventional expectations that my teenage memory failed.

In other words, I read and understood the book on a very basic level when I was younger. The wonder and the strangeness of the basic premise are what stuck with my youthful imagination. The subtleties of how Priest turns the heroic structure in on itself were lost on me then, simply discarded, but it gave me something to appreciate as an adult.

Now that I've gotten the whole of Inverted World inside my head, I can spin it on its axis, regard it from different angles, and aver that it is indeed a thing of weirdly elegant beauty.
Profile Image for Andy Wixon.
23 reviews2 followers
January 9, 2011
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 citizen of his city - the opening sentence 'I had reached the age of one hundred thousand miles' may tip you off as to the weirdness of what's to follow'. And as part of learning what makes things tick around the place, Helward is sent off to supervise the ripping-up of some railway lines south of the city, and then see them shipped up north of it...

...and at this point your head sort of turns inside out, as you realise all of your assumptions about what's been happening are wrong - the technical term is, I suppose, 'conceptual breakthrough', but I just think of it as Chris Priest messing with my head. To do this so effectively once would be enough to make this a notable book, but the fact is that it happens again... and again... and again... with each subsequent expansion of your perception of the situation as startling as the previous one.

I know, I know I'm being vague. I could have put *spoiler warning* on this and gone into detail, but why bother? Suffice to say that the book incorporates some of the most astonishing imagery in SF, and - it ultimately turns out - has a point beyond the display of pyrotechnic conceptual legerdemain that Priest manages to sustain for most of the distance.

It is possibly a little bit dry, solemn, and highbrow, like all of Christopher Priest's work, and someone has pointed out to me an allegedly serious goof, in that it shouldn't be possible for the sun to rise and set on an inverted planet. I'm prepared to give Priest the benefit of the doubt on that. I would recommend you do too. Maybe you won't like it, but you certainly won't forget it.

Profile Image for Ivan Lutz.
Author 29 books125 followers
December 10, 2015

Mislim da nikada nisam pročitao roman koji me je tako matematički razvalio da me je naprosto bolio mozak od silnog poimanja svega što je autor naveo i opisao. Nisam ranije čitao Priestov roman - iako sam čuo da je odličan - pa samim time i kasnim za reakcijom dobrih 40 godina jer je napisan davne 75. godine.
Što reći o svijetu koji je opisan rotacijom funkcije y=1/x ? Nešto nevjerojatno. Neki dan sam barem dva sata crtao hiperboloid i ucrtavao mjesta na kojima bi trebao biti optimum, a na kojima bi trebala biti distorzične pojave poludjele gravitacije i divlja centrifugalna sila. Po mom skromnom mišljenju, ovo je jedan od najluđih opisa nekog svijeta unutar SF literature i nevjerojatno je koliko je izučavanja dovelo do same postavke ovoga svijeta.
Priča prati Grad u svom vječnom lovu na nedostižni optimum gdje je polje gravitacije relativno normalno pa svi žitelji Grada mogu normalno funkcionirati. Grad je zatvorena tvrđava koja nema doticaja s vanjskim svijetom gdje samo pripadnici tajnih službi koje veže zakletva u vlastiti život mogu ići van grada. Zbog nedostatka vlastitih sredstava ljudi iz Grada moraju tražiti radnu snagu u kolnim selima, boriti se s pokretom otpora i podivljalim domicilnim stanovništvom koje želi uništiti grad.
Neću više govoriti o radnji. Iako je Priest zadnju trećinu knjige napisao kako bi sve razjasnio, ali težište romana bacio na ljudsku psihu i percepciju, ovo je uvrnuto remek djelo ma što bilo tko mislio o tome. Čak i sam završetak knjige je upravo filozofičan i pun sjete, te lijepo govori o tome kako trebamo braniti i boriti se za ono u što vjerujemo. Preporuka svima koji vole matematiku i fiziku.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,216 reviews9,893 followers
December 13, 2018
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. I’ll give you a couple of hints –

Later, I said : “Why does the ground move?”
“I’m not sure,” said Blayne.
“Is anyone?”


“We live in a large but finite universe occupied by a number of bodies of infinite size.”

Uh huh. I see. And, er, would any of these bodies belong to 12 inch high girls by any chance?

Profile Image for F.R..
Author 31 books199 followers
June 13, 2016
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 imagination which feels like a fever dream. What makes it more astounding is that before then I thought I was reading a very ‘blocky’ novel. Obviously ‘blocky’ is a highly cerebral term used by the finest scholars to have ever studied English literature, so I’ll try to make myself a bit clearer to any laymen out there. The first section reads like a story which is moving in precise, straight lines; it read like it was going to move from one block of events to another and that the whole would be those blocks piled up on top of each other. The fact that the setting is a large and domineering block-like city undoubtedly tipped me further into that kind of thinking. But what’s really clever here is that while the opening section largely in and around the block-like city does feel as if it’s following harsh and straight lines, it’s when it leaves the block-like city that it swerves sharply from those straight lines and those blocks are smashed apart to create something other.

We are in a city called ‘Earth’, which – and this is by anyone’s standards a tremendously striking image – is pulled on rails around the circumference of the globe. Our protagonist is Hellward Mann who was born and raised within the city and at the start of the novel joins The Guilds, the organisation that keeps the city moving through hard work, bartering and the constant laying of tracks. Most of the populous doesn’t really understand why the city has to move, but as a guildsman Mann is let into the terrifying secret of what they are leaving behind on this terrible planet.

Of course there’s no way back to blockiness after the middle section, so the final third of the book ups the game even more by challenging all assumptions of the book so far. ‘The Inverted World’ is a work of astounding confidence; a fantastically ambitious piece of sometimes surreal science fiction which truly rewards patience.
Profile Image for Joseph.
34 reviews3,425 followers
August 4, 2016
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!
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