Thursday, February 04, 2010

NYRB does scifi

The New York Review of Books Classics line is so good that I will often pick up a book just because they published it. I'll do the same with few others ( Black Lizard and the Library of America come to mind, but the LOA books require a significant time investment.) So, on the rare occasion that the NYRB puts out a scifi book, I get pretty excited. It's such a joy to get my nerd on, while also basking in the glow of the annointed. Inverted World is an early (1970s) novel from Christopher Priest, best known for the Prestige.

The story is set in a bizarre city that rolls down a set of rails on a bizarre planet. The rails are limited, so one set of people takes up the old ones and another sets them down as the old ones come up. The residents of the city do this thanks to a peculiar geophysical effect on their planet. The city is ruled by guilds of engineers that manage the cumbersome process of moving the city. The story is told from the perspective of Helward, a young guildsman. Using a coming of age scifi storyline, Helward, and the reader, slowly comes to understand what is happening to this world and he eventually faces two great crises that threaten to destroy the city.

It's a great adventure tale and it is well told, but this is Christopher Priest, who likes to play with narrative and the ideas of reality, so you know something odd is afoot. As the afterword by John Clute notes, Priest was critiquing the prevailing style of American science fiction at the time. I am happy this was included as an afterword, rather than as a forward, as it is spoiler rich. I don't want to spoil it either, but I do say pay attention to the changes in narrative mode and keep the peculiar introductory chapter in mind. You can enjoy this as a straight scifi novel, but I suspect you will appreciate it more after you read Clute's piece.

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