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An Intensely Imagined Future In 'Inverted World'

'Inverted World'

It's standard for book lovers and English majors to sneer at advanced math classes in college. "Do we really have to take this? It's not like we'll ever use it." But we were all wrong. Calculus does come in handy, at least when you're reading Christopher Priest.

Priest is probably best known for his prize-winning 1995 novel The Prestige, later adapted into a hit Christopher Nolan film. But in science-fiction circles, he's known as one of the best living British writers. NYRB Classics recently reissued Priest's 1974 novel, Inverted World, and while much of SF from that era is outrageously outdated (cough Heinlein cough), Priest's work has not aged a bit.

Helward Mann is "six hundred and fifty miles" old. His city is built on rails, constantly moving north to stay within range of "the optimum." His job is not only to maintain the city's motion but also to protect the secret of what lies outside the optimum.

The inhabitants of the city seem to be earthlings trapped on another planet, but if that's so, why do the hostile villagers speak Spanish? And why is the sun described as "a broad orange disk, slightly tilted down towards us. Above and below, tall spires of light rose from the center of the disk"? Those of you who managed to get beyond advanced algebra might have already figured out what's to come.

Not that the book is just for math geeks. Priest's intense depiction of a man's loyalty being torn between his truth-seeking, rabble-rousing wife and what his leaders tell him is best for the city makes this a blistering read, and the theme of governmental secrecy and exploitation of the natives still remains topical.

Inverted World is a tightly structured puzzle with an ending that, while shocking, makes perfect, mathematical sense. Priest is not hiding in the corners of the book, snickering because he fooled you. He's probably just happy you were so involved in the reading, even if you had to look up the word "hyperbola."

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Jessa Crispin