But that mathematical impossibility was not taught to us for no reason, and the teacher had not without reason attempted to draw it for us. In the indirect manner of all our education, that day I had seen the shape of the world on which I lived.

Christopher Priest is something of an ‘Ideas man’. That’s ideas with a capital ‘I’, as for better or worse his novels tend to revolve around a mysterious central premise, generally kept under wraps until the end. That other mystery monger Christopher Nolan filmed his novel The Prestige some years ago and embargoed media reports on the twist until after its release. He is also fond of the using unreliable narrators, to ensure the mystery continues despite what the reader has been told.

Helward Mann has spent most of his life in a crèche, learning what little he is entitled to about the history of the City according to Guild law. The Guilds rule over the City with a series of strict regulations. No member of any Guild can reveal to an ordinary citizen what they have come to learn during their duties. The ultimate purpose of the City and its business is also a strongly held secret. Helward’s own father, a member of the Future Guild, has told him little of what he expects of his son once he is called to choose membership of one of the several organizations that run the City. In the end, when the callow youth is summoned to the ceremonial rite of passage, he chooses to follow his father’s example and joins the Future Guild. As part of his apprenticeship he is assigned to each of the remaining Guilds to gain essential experience, including the Track Guild, Traction Guild, Bridge-Builders Guild, Barter Guild and Militia Guild.

It is also arranged that he is to be married to the daughter of Bridge-Builder Lerouex. His future bride, Victoria, is a fiercely inquisitive young woman whom he knew during his time in the crèche. The oath he must swear as a Guildsman forbids him from speaking of his work, but she continues to pressure him. She has noticed that they are moving. Helward himself is sent out of the city to work on the tracks that the City travels along. The wooden structure is dragged along the ground by a series of winches and pullies. He sees the sun for the first time, a hyperbola hanging in the sky that resembles a spinning top. The ground itself shifts and time is relative to the distance he travels from the City. People measure their age in miles travelled, as it is the only reliable gauge. No one can explain to him why this is and Victoria grows increasingly frustrated with his reticence, perceiving that he is becoming just like the other tight-lipped Guildsman that run the society, murmuring only occasionally about unseen threats to their survival. The Guilds employ natives from the lands they cross in this alien world. The men are put to work on the tracks. The women are brought into the City for the purposes of breeding. Helward is dismayed by these barbaric practices of enslavement and exploitation, but his superiors only insist that it is necessary. Finally he is asked, shortly before the birth of his child with Victoria, to assist three women who were taken to the City in returning home to their village. What he learns during his travels alters his understanding of the City itself and the alien world they are trapped on, far away from Earth.

This novel reminded me a little of David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, a ground-breaking book published in the 1920’s and unfortunately for its unsuccessful author, too ahead of its time. Inverted World also bears many similarities to Philip Reeve’s excellent Mortal Engines series for children. Those novels also described societies living upon moving cities, practicing a form of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, that ensured the survival of strong, predatory municipalities by preying on weaker inhabited structures. An excellent series of books and strongly recommended.

Unfortunately, to my mind, Inverted World’s mysteries proved to be cumbersome and did not hold my interest for the duration of the novel. As an examination of irresolvable conflicts between opposing perceptions of the world, it managed to progress along reasonably well. All the same, I did not find myself compelled to continue reading to its gnomic conclusion.

Sadly this was a tough slog for me.