Presenting the city in:
Inverted World by Christopher Priest:
'The city is winched along its tracks through a devastated world. Rails must be laid ahead of it and removed in its wake. If the city does not move, it will fall behind the 'optimum' and into a crushing gravitational field. The alternative to progress is death.
The rulers of the city make sure its inhabitants know nothing of this. But the dwindling population is growing restive. And the rulers know that the city is falling further and further behind.' - Inverted World, Christopher Priest 
Inverted World delivers on its promise, presenting the story of Helward Mann (a fitting name if ever there was one) as he grows up in the city of Earth, coming to terms with the world around him in Earth's desperate struggle for survival. The people of Earth haul their city ever northwards, aiming for the ever elusive 'optimum' ahead of them, navigating a hostile landscape to do so. Helward Mann, thanks to his father's prestigious position, joins the guild of Future Surveyors and embarks on a journey that takes him away from Earth, learning about the world outside the city, the truth behind Earth's constant struggle north and the fate that awaits the city in the south.
The story is set in a universe that is the inverse of our own. We live in what is effectively (though not actually) an infinite universe on a finite planet. However, Inverted World is set in a finite universe upon an infinite planet. There's a rather impressive and enjoyable twist at the end, so not much more will be said on this beyond an explanation of the Inverted World premise.
Inverted World is told primarily from Helward Mann's point of view with only a few parts told from Elizabeth Khan's point of view, though nothing will be revealed of her either for much the same reason as above. Despite being entirely cryptic about book, I recommend reading it as it delivers a fascinating world setting and a twist that leaves you feeling delighted at the end.
Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):
The book opens with a prologue, starting with Elizabeth Khan's point of view. She appears to be a visitor to a village of people, witnessing their dancing and some parts of their lives, though she is a visitor like Father dos Santos. The villagers appear to live a simplistic lifestyle but as Elizabeth goes through the village she spots Luiz, someone she had not seen at the festivities, clutching a satchel of supplies and in the darkness of the falling night she hears the sounds of a horse galloping away.
The story picks up again from Helward's point of view who had just reached six hundred and fifty miles in age. He is a young man who has become 'of age' and is readying himself for the initiation into the life of a guild apprentice, following the steps of his father who is a guildsman himself. He had grown up without a mother, a woman who had left Earth shortly after his birth and been raised in a creche. Helward's life is planned for this moment, his marriage to Victoria Lerouex already arranged. A guild administrator ushers him into a chamber filled with guild representatives who ask Helward to confirm his identity and age for them. Having done so, they ask all of those who are not part of the first rank guilds to leave the room. Once the room is clear, they ask Helward what guild he intends to join to which he replies the Future Surveyors. His nomination to the guild is proposed by his father (Future Surveyor Mann) and seconded by Bridge-Builder Lerouex. Having been proposed successfully, Future Surveyor Clausewitz (head of the Future Surveyor Guild) asks Helward to decide there and then if he is willing to take the oath of the guild. The oath is not to be taken lightly as breach of the oath would be met with death. Helward decides to take the oath, repeating the words required by the Lord Navigator. However, contained within the oath is a mention of keeping confidential whatever Helward should see and learn of the nature of the world beyond Earth. Having taken the oath, Helward is greeted as an apprentice of the Future guild.
Helward notes for the first time that his father and fellow guildmembers' ages don't seem to match quite right with their peers in other guilds. He continues to brood on his acceptance into the guild, pleased with the idea that his promotion into the guild proper as a guildsman was said to be based on ability rather than time. He decides to ask one of the Traction guildsmen about Gelman Jase, his friend from the creche (though a several miles older than him), only to be told that he was away on guild business and would be away for many miles to come. The administrators are invited back into the hall and food prepared as they announce Helward's acceptance into the Future Surveyor guild to the administrative staff, though not before reminding Helward that the terms of his oath and the secrecy inherent applied immediately. Before starting the ceremony, Clauswitz announces the arranged marriage between Helward Mann and Victoria Lerouex. Though Victoria is brought into the festivities, the two of them are given no opportunity to talk to each other.
Helward is given a key to the city's creche and told to continue using his cabin there until accommodation with the guild could be sorted out for him. The next morning, he is awoken very early by one of his fellow guildsmen, Future Denton, who takes Future Mann silently through Earth, leading him to a dark and cold place. As his eyes adjust slowly, Helward realises he is outside of Earth for the first time in his life, standing with his hands on a rail with the enclosed and opaque city behind him. New sensations such as the cold wind and the smell of the soil excite Helward as he goes on to witness the first sunrise in his life, though the sun Helward sees is not the one we know. The sun is described as a rounded light with two spires of light above and below the rounded part. He is then left in the care of Track Malchuskin who makes a coffee for Helward, telling him he knew his father, that the two of them had been in the creche together, though Helward finds it hard to believe Track Malchuskin and his father were the same age. Track Malchuskin tells Helward not to worry about it, that he would find out the hard way just like other guild members had. He orders Helward to come with him and uses a wrench to wake up a collection of men, telling Helward that he was not to spend too much time with these men as they were not from the city and prone to creating some trouble (though Malchuskin's meaning is that these people are lazy and prone to stopping work at the slightest excuse). Malchuskin goes on to point out Rafael, the leader of the group as he was the one with the best knowledge of English.
After a few hours with these men, Helward is given the same impression of their lack of work ethic, despite being hired and paid by the city. Though Helward is able to empathise with them because the weather was hot and the work exhausting. Helward's work applies to four rail tracks that stretch south of the city for half a mile, each capped by a timber sleeper that was built on a sunken concrete foundation. The hired labour and two guild members work on shortening the rails south of Earth by digging up the tracks and moving the sleepers forward, though a large concrete buffer is left in place to prevent Earth sliding back on the rails should the winches that towed her ever break. Malchuskin adds that the Earth had slid back once before and that the buffer wouldn't really put up much resistance to the city's slide, but was nevertheless left in place. At the end of the day, Malchuskin reveals his distaste for the hired labour, mentioning that procuring a workforce was the domain of the Barters guild and that he'd prefer city folk but due to the guild system could not be expected to tell the city-folks of the outside world and its requirements. Before sending Helward to sleep, he suggests he should stay behind to watch the sundown during which Helward observes the same sun as he had seen that morning, a spherical shape with a line of solid light both above and below the sphere. Malchuskin points out to Helward that the guild believed in throwing their apprentices into the deep end, the better for their apprentices to realise that the world was not the same as they had been taught. He adds to Helward that he should think on the nature of the sun he had observed, before letting Helward go to sleep.
The next morning, Helward awakes in great pain, his body simply unused to the physical labour he had demanded from it yesterday, though he is given some comfort from Malchuskin's comment that it is always the same for the apprentices fresh from Earth. Malchuskin sends Helward off to eat breakfast then take a hot bath within the city. From the city's exterior, Helward is able to gain an understanding of his home, taking from his excursion outside that his home was smaller than he had imagined it to be. Earth, by Helward's reckoning, is not more than 200ft high and almost entirely constructed from timber. He estimates Earth's length at around 500ft, giving the impression that this is not a city in the modern understanding of the word. Far from it. On finding the doorway back into the city though, Helward realises he has no idea how to enter Earth and has to be shown by Malchuskin. After some initial awkwardness, he manages to find his way to the fourth floor and is directed to the baths. When he finishes, he decides to explore some of the city, using an elevator system to travel along several of the floors then settles on finding Victoria. Failing to find her, he returns to Malchuskin who hardly notices his return.
Helward continues to work with Track Malchuskin for a week before Malchuskin tells him that in three days he would be given leave, then he should return to him for another mile's work. Helward asks Malchuskin how he was rationalising using both miles and days for his measurement of time. The work supervisor replies that despite the fact that the city was currently immobile, the city made an average of one mile every ten days, giving 36.5 miles in a year. Rather than work out time based on how far the city had moved, he uses the 'optimum' or the distance which the city should have moved. To maintain the optimum, the city is required to move a minimum of a tenth of a mile per day. He goes on to mention that currently the city was three miles behind the optimum, that since he had been working he had not known a time when the city had reached or exceeded the optimum, but that his father had once known the city to be ten miles behind optimum. Track Malchuskin adds that the optimum is not a fixed point but if the city got ahead of the optimum they would be able to relax and move slower.
The country the city moves through is ideal for the Track guild, mostly smooth without too many distinguishing features. Malchuskin tells Helward that the issues that bothered him the most was rough terrain. Ridges could be rounded, but forests and rocky ground caused trouble and the very worst was rivers, because though rivers solved the city's permanent shortage of water, a river had to be crossed. After finishing the buffers for the city, Helward asks Malchuskin where the labourers went each day after work. He is told that they come from a village not too far from Earth and though they might dislike the work, there was always pressure to work for Earth because Earth provided synthetic food for the labourers (and it is implied that their alternative is starvation). Malchuskin also adds that this wasn't all the local people did for Earth, but refuses to comment further on that though he does explain to Helward about the guild system, that the guilds preferred their apprentices to learn about the nature of their world through practise not theory.
The next morning Rafael returns with most of the men from the previous day as well as some replacements for the ones missing. They work to knock down and replace their temporary work shelter, moving their work site to the top of a ridge line ahead of the city. In the dark, Helward is challenged by one of the guards who spots him approaching, though they relax when they realise it his him, stopping only to ask how long he had been a guildsman for and what guild he is part of. When he answers the Future Surveyors they laugh and tell him they prefer a long life. Helward realises that the two guards were about his age and asks them if they had been raised in the creche like he had. They tell him they had though Helward does not recognise them at all to which they tell him that they had been 'down past.' They warn him about remaining out at night, that the tooks (their term for locals) might attack at any time as there are a great many that do not like the city.
Helward is given two days leave after another two days with Track Malchuskin who tells him that he needed Helward back immediately for they would be winching the city and he would have need of Helward's help. During his leave, Helward meets his wife, Victoria who decides to take leave to spend time with her husband. Victoria asks him, when they are alone, if Helward had been outside yet, causing him to wonder what he should tell her, it being in direct conflict with his oath. She tells him to relax, that she already knew that secret. Future Mann doesn't feel like talking and listens to Victoria discuss some of the city's problems, including the fact that not everyone is born in the city and more worryingly, for reasons they could not determine, the majority of births were male and is combined with a low birth rate. Their conversation is stilted and formal though with Helward showing little inclination to talk at all. Victoria asks him if he goes outside at all, showing him a viewing platform that provided views of the city's exterior, though the room is locked during most of the daylight hours. Mindful of his oath, Helward doesn't provide Victoria with much information. Helward comes to realise that Victoria is resentful of his life, jealous of the advantages he benefits from, benefits she is forbidden. When Helward suggests applying to a guild, Victoria tells him that the guilds only accept men, that women are too valuable to the city's population requirements to be endangered outside.
Helward asks Victoria if she wanted to marry him though she tells him that the point is moot. If it wasn't him, she would have to marry someone else. She invites Helward into her home, telling him that it was nothing she had personally against him but with the guild system and the entrenchment of their positions. Victoria manages to pry from Helward the fact that the first-order guilds demand secrecy when he accidentally mentions the oath he had been forced to swear. That night, Victoria comes to him and they sleep together. After the act, they talk together for a moment and Helward shares with Victoria the fact that his oath comes with a death penalty for breaching any of the terms. Though she manages to pry out a few answers from him about the nature of the sun, learning that the sun is not at all how they had been told.
The next day, Helward is shown about town by Victoria, discovering that the city was larger than he had thought and also that the layout of the city had been changed in the past from old plans that rested beside new ones. He also notes that some of the directions are not only in English but also French and other languages, including German, Russian, Italian and Chinese. Later, Future Mann heads back to work with Victoria's promise that she would look into the formalities involved in their marriage. He rejoins Track Malchuskin and gets to work, though the other guildsmen on the site are concerned. When he asks why, he is told that there had been some delay in setting up the winches meaning that by the time the city started winching at two miles a day, they would nevertheless end up falling behind the optimum which moved forwards two and a half miles each day. Worse, the Traction guild is concerned about the presence of hills to the north, though it is still faster to go straight up the hills than it is to go around them because of the optimum's northward movement. The tracks are not finished being lain by the evening, though Track Malchuskin points out that they would be ditching the locals who had been working for them as the Future guild had found a larger settlement to the north that was desperate for work (something that meant they'd accept the conditions and work harder than the prior group). Helward spots an argument between Malchuskin and the Traction guildsmen. Track Malchuskin tells him that they had suggested winching ahead of schedule while they continued to lay the tracks, though Malchuskin had refused. Helward points out that it sounded quite reasonable, especially given that it was theoretically possible, but Track Malchuskin pointed out that with the city under motion there would be incredibly large strain on the cables. A broken cable would cut a man in half before he even heard the bang.
As the Traction guild prepares to winch the city, Helward stays to watch, seeing armed militiamen with crossbows guarding the winches. He presumes that in the past the tooks must have attacked the winches and stopped the city's motion. He decides to walk over to get a closer look but is quickly waved off by the Traction guildsmen who tell him to stay well clear now that the cables are under strain. Returning back to the labour gang, where Malchuskin had told him to remain, he is met by Jamie Collings of the Barter Guild who is there to pay off the workers. Barter Collings asks Helward about the nature of the men, how they had performed, who their leader was. As Barter Collings talks to Rafael, Helward spots an antagonised crowd form around him and asks if he can help, to which the other man tells him to fetch four of the militiamen. The militia arrive, a group of ten, who wade into the crowd, bludgeoning them aside. Helward enters the melee to help Collings though ends up suffering badly for his trouble. He asks Collings what had caused the men to attack him and Barter Collings tells him that he had told them that some of their wives were staying with the city, that the city had bought them.
Later, Track Malchuskin tells him off for being instrumental in causing a brawl. He tells Helward that the city came through these poor regions and took what it needed for minimal pay because it didn't have to offer anything more than the bare minimum and soon they would be gone again, returning the region back to its poverty stricken level. A new group of workmen are taken from the village to the north of the city and trained up as Malchuskin tells Helward he is most concerned about the tracks that remained south of the city. He tells him that the city was quite far south of the optimum and that the southern tracks would be in danger of buckling if they remained in place. Helward is shocked at the condition of the tooks they receive, many of them malnourished, though Track Malchuskin tells him not to worry, that most of the tooks they hired started like this but a few days work and proper meals would see them fit and able again. The next day they start early, travelling south to inspect the tracks. There, Helward sees the buckling effect in the form of the tie bars having been bent out of shape and some of the sleepers had their wooden portions split. They recover as many of the rail segments as they can.
With his ten-day allotment to the Track guild finished, he is given two days leave in Earth once again where he meets Victoria. She tells him that she had asked why the city had moved, though simply been told that it was not her concern. Helward's question to her lets her realise that not once had she ever felt the city move through her life, prompting the suggestion that perhaps she had acclimatised to its movements from an early age. Helward shares with Victoria that the city moved on rails and that its goal is to reach the optimum ahead of it, though it cannot stop and must continue to chase the optimum. Helward admits that he is not clear on the reasoning but merely that it was the case. Victoria tells Helward that she is rather frustrated with the guild system, that the system appeared designed to withhold information though he tells her that from his talks with Track Malchuskin, there is the definite suggestion that the city does not move because it can but because it must. Helward cannot bring himself to promise Victoria to tell her what he discovers through his work in the guild causing a brief argument though in the end the two of them decide to continue with their marriage.
After the Track guild, Helward is assigned some time with the Militia guild though he first sees Future Clausewitz, asking why he couldn't join the Future guild as he was now. Clausewitz tells him that it is necessary at times for the city to recruit extra militia from the other guilds and so it is vital that those guildsmen be given some basic training with the militia. With that, Helward finds himself Crossbowman Second Class Mann. Helward detests working with the militia, something that undoubtedly made him the least popular of the recruits. By the end of three miles with the militia, he learns to defend himself and is then transferred to the Traction guild and is at once happier. He had not enjoyed working with the militia but finds his apprenticeship much more pleasant with the other guilds. Within the Traction guild he discovers that the city housed a large nuclear reactor that powered the whole of Earth. The primary function of the reactor used complex recycling devices to re-use any liquids. To Helward's horror he finds out that the synthetic food producer is linked to the sewage filtration devices. The Traction guild frequently discussed the merit of switching from the five winches they used normally to four or six. Four would allow more time for bearing servicing, though using six helped reduce the wear and tear on individual units. During his time with the Traction guild he asks about Gelman Jase, his friend from the creche who had signed up with them, though he confirms that his friend had joined the Traction guild he is told that Jase had left the city, headed down past and that his friend would be away for a while.
After the Traction guild, Helward is sent to the Barter guild where he meets Barter Collings once again. Barter Collings asks him how he fared with languages, though Helward admits he was not particularly gifted with them, something that amuses Barter Collings who tells him it was just as well he hadn't applied to join the Barter guild, languages are their trade. The Barter guild mostly hires men for the Track guild though sometimes would hire gangs of men for the Bridge-Builders too. They also dealt with 'transference' which was the city's term for hiring the women of the land to stay with the city for a while and perhaps even give birth to new citizens of the city. The women stay to give birth to a child and are then returned to their villages. If the birth is a girl, the city keeps the child, but if the birth is a boy the decision to keep the child is left with the mother. Helward's mother had come from outside the city.
He is taught later by Barter Collings how to ride, something that he tells Helward he would need for his work with the Futures guild. Barter Collings and Helward look into two settlements ahead though do not negotiate with them, the city's needs having been met for the time being. The city's route continues through a level area though would need a bridge to cross a large chasm and as a result, much of the city's available manpower from the guilds is apportioned to the Bridge-Builders who are even now designing and assembling a bridge for the city. The chasm is about sixty yards across and without much time to prepare, the Bridge-Builders decide on a suspended design. As Helward helps work on the bridge with the other men, he is told that the optimum had caught up with the bridge's location, though he fails to see anything special about the optimum. With the bridge being such high priority, his apprenticeship is momentarily suspended as he is drafted into the labour force for the bridge construction. It is during one of his leaves while working on the bridge that Victoria tells him that she is pregnant, something that delights him. The Bridge-Builders grow more worried with each day after the optimum's arrival for the same reasons that Track Malchuskin had been worried about the south rails. They fear that if the optimum goes too far north of them that there would be the buckling problem to contend with. Victoria's questions about the outside renew as Helward finds himself confused at the two worlds that seem so far apart, from the frantic building outside the city and the calm, unaware nature of Earth's interior.
When the bridge is officially declared as ready, the city is winched across slowly, in a worried silence as Bridge-Builders keep a close eye on the load meters. As Earth crosses, one of the winches snap, slicing through a line of militiamen, though no delay is made, the remaining four winches continuing to draw the city across the bridge. The city crosses without further issue, though by now Earth is four and a half miles behind the optimum.
The story resumes with Helward riding a horse, returning from a settlement to Earth. He looks forward to seeing his wife who is healthy and many miles pregnant. He is given more time off as a result and is thankful the terrain ahead remains unbroken ground for he is aware that another bridge would strip him of the time he had with his wife. He waits for his apprenticeship to end, the one guild he had not yet worked with being his own Future guild. Helward is to see Future Clausewitz that very day to discuss his progress thus far. During his work up north he occasionally had met his father, though his father seemed to harbour some discomfort with his son, something he had been hoping their shared work might alleviate. As the end of his time with Barter Collings draws near, he shares his two worries, namely that of the optimum and the oath. The former, Barter Collings tells him that he cannot help him with but assures Helward that he would understand in time why the optimum always moved north, the latter, Collings tells him not to concern himself with, that as far as Barter Collings saw it he had not violated his oath by telling Victoria what he had. Barter Collings goes on to tell Helward that he should bear in mind that the optimum is stationary, that he had been misinformed about the optimum moving, instead it is the ground that moves southwards from it.
Arriving at the city, Barter Collings says goodbye to Helward, telling him that Helward would be away for a very long time. Helward goes on to meet Future Clausewitz who tells him that he considered Helward's apprenticeship to be over barring one last task. He also tells him that he should not worry about his results from the militia, not everyone is suited for military life after all. Despite his wife's pregnancy, Helward is told he may be away for hundreds of miles of time. Future Clausewitz tells him that he must take the Took women whose time with the city was up, back to their villages. Clausewitz gives him no choice and tells him that it must be done, failure to accede to the guild's requirement would see his oath drawn into light and appropriate punishment delivered (that being death). Future Clausewitz also adds that the oath meant he had promised to act in the interests of the city's security first and foremost and that Helward's trip southwards would help him understand why Clausewitz had to be so inhuman, why he could not be present for the birth of his child. Clausewitz ends the talk with Helward, telling him that he had a mile (five days) to spend with his wife but would then need to head south where much would become clear as a result, though not all.
After spending the night with Victoria, who tells him he should go, to find out the truth of the matter, he meets Clausewitz at the Futures' room who provides him with gear and a map, though Clausewitz tells him that the map that one inch equates to one mile and that the map would prove unreliable. He tells Helward that distance and direction would become confusing, that he should follow the city's tracks both going down south and returning. With a distance of only forty two miles to cover, Helward cannot understand how he might miss the birth of his child, thinking that he should be able to complete the trip in only ten days. Clausewitz goes on to warn him that he should not expect to live off the land, that as he travelled further south of the city, away from the optimum, even the foods would change and would likely make him sick (something that had happened to Clausewitz). Before he leaves, he is visited by his father and at the end, Helward comments that his father looked so old, older than his years, to which Clausewitz tells him it is an occupational hazard.
Helward goes on to meet the three women he is set to escort back, one of them taking with them a boy (whom she hadn't wanted to leave with the city). He discovers that his early estimation of time it would take to complete the journey is overly optimistic. The women move slowly and complain to his annoyance. He doesn't understand their language much, but is amused by the fact that they share his complaints about the synthetic foods. He is later angered by delays from the women as they deliberately stall moving off for a little extra rest. As they travel further southwards, the girls warm a little to Helward, no longer glaring at him with silent resentfulness. Helward realises that there was no way he could possibly have maintained the rate of travel he had wanted to do in the first place thanks to the hot sun and hard ground. On the way south he meets a fellow apprentice coming the other way called Torrold Pelham. When Helward asks Torrold about what is down south, he is told that it could not be explained. Torrold expresses some surprise at how far the city had gone, though after talking with Helward comes to realise that he had been away for only nine miles, something that shocks him because Torrold is certain he had been away longer than that. When Pelham leaves, he leaves telling Helward cryptically that if he decides he wants to 'spend some time' with the women, he is advised to do so before it is too late. The baby is ill as they travel further south, but the event brings the group closer together after Helward shows his concern for the child. That day though, the women's shoes are almost entirely worn through.
Later, the women are ill, the synthetic food giving them severe stomach upset. Helward can determine nothing wrong with the food though and when he eats it, it fails to upset his stomach. The women are able to make do with apples found along the way though, recovering slowly. Later that day, Helward reaches the chasm the city had crossed earlier and finds himself confused. The chasm appears only ten yards across where the city had crossed, though Helward distinctly remembers the city having to cross sixty yards. He compares measurements of the rail and suspension towers, finding all the distances to have warped. He is both confused and worried as he returns to the camp. There, the girls appear healthy, though they tell him the baby had been ill again. Helward comes to think that perhaps Clausewitz is right. That he would find the local foods dangerous for his constitution because he was of the city, but so too would the women find the city food dangerous because they were not of the city. The baby that one of the women had was of the city and testing this idea, he asks the mother for permission to feed the child synthetic foods, something that the baby takes to. As they continue southwards, one of the girls, Lucia sleeps with him causing some jealousy between her and another woman, Caterina. When he decides to negotiate with one of the local settlements for food for the women, he takes with him Rosario (the mother of the baby) to avoid giving a show of favouritism to the other women. As they journey further south, Helward notices another change occurring. The women with him begin to appear shorter and squatter than he recalled and it becomes apparent that as they travel further southwards the women continue to grow shorter and squatter, ruining the city clothes they had been issued with. The land appears to become 'shorter', landmarks passing faster, though each marked section of the city's rail is vastly wide. By this stage, the women are no taller than three feet and grossly distorted, though the baby isn't, something that seems to horrify Rosario. Clearly, the baby and Helward, being of the city are unaffected by the phenomenon he is observing. A little later he finds himself discovering a strange pull on him from the south, although the land appears to be flat towards the south. Likewise, when he tries to head north he feels as though he is walking uphill despite the ground being flat.
As they draw closer to their destination the women share their fears with Helward, becoming reluctant to return, worried their husbands might kill them for their infidelity within the city. By this stage the women are no more than twelve inches high and about five feet broad. He goes further south, telling the women to wait only to find himself pulled so hard southwards that it negated gravity itself. He finds himself thrown against a mountain range that even as he watches begins to spread towards the east and west, shrinking in height until it is flat. Fortunately, he makes use of a grappling hook within his pack to secure himself. The world flattens in the south, almost entirely two dimensional as Helward is forced to lie low on the ground to continue breathing. He watches the sun set, realising that the sun was an echo of their world, a broad flat disk with two pillars of light at its north and south poles.
With great difficulty he crawls northwards, finding the pull of the south diminishing as he continues north until once more he can crawl and then finally stand. He puts some distance between him and the south, not keen on being drawn back into that incredibly strong field of gravity towards the south. However, the event has taught him that the guilds were right to keep the city moving, that the city had to move for to stop moving was to let the city get drawn south and flattened into a smudge that ran east to west. Though Helward does not understand the reasons behind the world they live on, he fully accepts what the guilds had been advocating. Disturbed by the realisation that he could feel the pressure from the south on him, he continues northwards. After a night's sleep, he looks back south only to see the mountain range returned. Walking back south sees them shrink and become lateral stains while walking northwards sees the mountains regain their height. He continues onwards, shocked when he reaches the chasm once more, this time the chasm is only five or six yards across.
The following night sees Helward returned to terrain that appears more normal. He continues north, unsure of the fate of the baby that had travelled with him and as he continues northwards he is struck by the same impression that Torrold had had, believing that somehow the city must have made better speed than he had anticipated and perhaps even crossed the optimum, something Helward hopes means that the city could enter a region where the land didn't move under it and perhaps even stop its frantic journey north. He is brought aid from an apprentice travelling down past, someone he recalled from the creche called Li-Chen. He realises the similarities between the meeting with Li-Chen and his with Torrold. He gives Li-Chen the same answers that Torrold had given him, and departs, learning that the city remained five miles ahead of him. He takes from Li-Chen one packet of food, warning him that he would need the rest of his food and repeats the advice Torrold had given him about the women. Continuing north, Helward still fails to catch sight of the city, something that aggravates him. In the falling night he is attacked by a guildsman who turns out to be Gelman Jase, neither of them immediately recognising the other. Jase tells him that things had changed in the city, that normally the city sent back apprentices every mile or so, but the tooks had caught on and were killing apprentices and taking their uniforms. Jase himself, had been attacked on his way back. The two of them travel together, making their way towards the city. As they walk they discuss the anomaly they had observed to the south, neither of them able to make sense of it. Jase's experience had been different to Helwards, his journey south resulting in the deaths of the women with him and an attack on him from a band of tooks. He'd been caught in the same zone as Helward had, where the land had mysteriously flattened out and the suction from the south threatened to pull him away. Jase had got lost on the way back north and so was a little more aware of the surrounding area than Helward was. He shares with Helward that he had seen a city to the west, a city unlike Earth. This city was owned by the tooks and lies flat on the Earth, immobile. Most of the city seemed abandoned though the entire city was gigantic, far larger than Earth. Jase warns Helward that as time went on they might find themselves attacked by the tooks from the city, once they had become organised enough, Earth is hated.
They are both shocked when they catch sight of the city, spotting a blackened, misshapen patch on the rear section of Earth. They are stopped by a line of militia and have their identities checked. The city had been attacked twice by the tooks, the last resulting in the deaths of twenty three militiamen while bodies within the city were still being counted. The creche had been razed, the children within having died in the attack. Helward's father had died from angina shortly after Helward left the city. His apprenticeship is over, Victoria had given birth to a boy who had died in the creche. He learns that his wife had signed papers pronouncing their marriage over and taken up with another man, pregnant once more. Finally, Helward discovers that in the midst of his world having been turned upside down, Earth had moved a total of seventy-three miles and was eight miles behind the optimum. Subjectively he had been away for thirty days (three miles), but had in fact been away for two years. However, an attack is due again and he is given little time to brood on this.
Of concern to Helward is the fact that the tooks from the city have rifles, about one hundred and fifty armed men while the city had only its crossbows and twelve rifles taken from the bodies left behind, though the ammunition the city had looted had been expended in the previous attack. The main advantage the city has is its appreciation of information gathering. In the growing darkness, three ranks of crossbowmen stand ready around the city, while Helward is part of the counter-attack force. Earth is crossing a bridge at the time of the attack as the tooks begin to open fire in the darkness towards the city, a target hard to miss for both its size and the noise of the winches winding. Arc-lights set up upon the city are ignited, blinding the attacking tooks as the three rows of crossbowmen open fire before dowsing the lights. They shift position and repeat the procedure, catching the tooks out once again. With the city on the bridge there comes a shout and the tooks charge towards Earth. From his position, he hears and spots an explosion and then another, the first striking the city, the second the bridge itself. As the tooks begin to take care, aiming at arc lights the reserve force with Helward attack, throwing them into confusion once again before the tooks withdraw. The city manages to cross the bridge, though the superstructure remains alight as it reaches the other bank, fought by men within the city. However, the tracks and bridge remain on fire.
The tally of lives for the city is relatively minor, fortunate overall, but Earth itself had suffered some damage including the loss of one of its great wheels with no option but to discard it. No replacement can be made. The bridge had collapsed resulting in the loss of several hundred yards of rails. After two days salvaging work, Helward is requested to meet with Future Clausewitz. As he heads through the city he is disturbed by the change in atmosphere, noting how those working outside seemed caught between despair and desperation. Gone is talk of reaching or chasing the optimum, all minds focused instead on the crisis with the tooks and Earth cannot hire took labour anymore, forced to use what little manpower it has available to see it through the crisis. Instead of meeting Clausewitz he is met by Future Denton who tells him that Helward is set to accompany him. Denton is a man who keeps to himself though he shares their assigned duty, namely to map and survey the areas ahead of the city to ensure that the city might continue to make its way northwards. The Futures guild would normally send teams on differing routes and then return to share these mapped routes out with the council of Navigators (who would then determine which path to follow).
As Helward works with Denton, he comes to realise that the education he had received in the creche was always directly relevant to the work that the guilds required. The history lessons he received about Earth (the planet) teach him the similarities between the city and the world they had left and helped prepare the way for those who would seek to become Barter guildsmen. Helward had not been given any understanding through his education as to how Earth (city) had arrived on this world. Helward picks up the Futures trade quickly, working well with Future Denton. Before the work is finished and they head back towards the city, Helward decides to record the sunset and examining the stored image is reminded of something. It is as they are heading back towards the city, in no rush (because there is no 'hurry up future'), that he recalls where he had seen an image like that. He recalls being taught theoretical mathematics and the shape of a hyperbola. He muses that perhaps those lessons had been included to teach the nature of their own world in a subtle manner. After thirty days, Helward grows alarmed that they had not yet seen the city, believing that the city should have made much more progress. Future Denton explains to him that north of the optimum time was subjectively sped up, an opposite to the effect that occurred down past. Denton explains that even if the city were to move north of the optimum the city could not stop, it would need to continue moving, though it could do so at a slower pace. The problem lies in the fact that north of the optimum time moves subjectively faster, but the concept of time on Earth (city) is derived as a mile equalling ten days worth of motion, so being north of the optimum would result in lost motion (due to faster days). He goes on to say that the city's founder, Destaine, had suggested that the world was infinite, stretching millions and millions of miles to the south. The optimum is named so because the optimum is the point at which Earth (planet) conditions can be found, where subjectively one day equates to twenty four hours. When they return to Earth, Denton suggests that Helward read the Destaine Directive, a document mentioned in his oath to the guilds. He is given three days leave by Clausewitz before being detailed back to the Tracks guild for work.
During his leave, he attempts to meet Victoria, though is told from her work colleagues that she is unavailable. Some time later he meets another member of his guild, Future Blayne when he enters the Futures' room, looking for a copy of Destaine's directive. As they talk, Blayne tells him that he should not have filmed the sunset, tape was considered a rare resource, however, Blayne goes on to share with him the nature of their world which in theory is infinitely large due to the hyperbola effect. To the north, the land stretches almost infinitely vertical and to the south, the land stretches almost infinitely horizontal. He tells him that though the guilds could not explain it, the world spun at a near infinite speed at both infinite points, explaining the force Helward had experienced down south. The universe they are in is completely at odds with that of planet Earth's, as in theory the sun too was infinitely large, yet occupied a finite space.
Blayne continues, telling Helward that Destaine had theorised their world was stationary at the north pole and that the apparent spin (that distorted the land) at the equator to the south was caused by the infinite speed of rotation. Destaine also believed that the 'southern hemisphere' a borrowed word to explain land behind the equator would suffer the reverse, moving towards the south pole and slowing down until stationary. Though it is impossible to rationalise, Destaine believed that the north and south poles are identical and that any ground that reaches the south appears immediately at the north. Effectively, Destaine believes their world is a solid hyperbola, that all limits on their world are infinite in value. After Blayne leaves, Helward reads through the Destaine directive, learning that Destaine had founded the guild system to ensure that the city continued its run towards the north, hoping that they would be rescued by Earth one day. The city's maxim would be survival at any cost. The tracks continue to be set in good time and the city's inhabitants are pleased by the fact that they were able to move the city away from the river without further issue. As a guildsman, Helward finds out that he is entitled to sit in on the sessions of the Council of Navigators (though not as an active participant). During the session, it is decided by a majority of one not to reintroduce the 'closed city' arrangement for the time being and that the city would be switched to continuous running on less winches and shorter distances (due to the loss of valuable rails) but through this method the city hopes to catch up with the optimum within twenty to twenty five miles. From the session, Helward is left with the realisation that the Council of Navigators were well appraised of the situation both within and without the city (unlike the general stereotype of a bunch of stuffy-headed people out of touch of reality).
Future Mann is detailed to a survey mission in the north. When asked if he would prefer to go alone or with another Future guildsman he decides to ask if he can have Blayne accompany him (which is granted). The night before he leaves he meets Victoria, catching her for a moment and talking with her. They share a moment of grief over their child David but Helward does not wish to tell Victoria about the exact reason his journey south had taken so long. However, the two have long gone separate ways. Victoria remains adamant that the guild system should be removed entirely and the city stopped, while Helward cannot bring himself to accept either of those propositions now that he understood the nature of their world. Over time the city returns to its placid state, the new system of winching being deployed with ease. To much relief the new system is faster and more efficient allowing the city to make detours from true north and still catch up to the optimum. Within a short amount of time the city catches up with the optimum, helped by the downward gradient of the land as they continue onwards. However, as the city re-introduces the Barter guild's work the division in the city grows and a group called the 'Terminators' begins to acquire public support. After they storm one of the public sessions of the Council of Navigators in an attempt to seize the chair, the sessions are turned into private councils once more, serving to bolster public support for the Terminators. The guilds respond with a re-education programme, adopting a hyperbola as the motif of the city but in spite of the resistance offered by the Terminators, the city continues ever northwards. Helward's work is mostly future surveys and as time goes on he begins to appreciate the problems with working in the north as he notes that he is ageing faster than those within the city. He settles with a transferred women called Dorita and applies to change to the Traction guild as a result of her pregnancy and also a result of the sensation that time was slipping by. When Dorita is returned, Helward rejoins the Futures guild, feeling too much of a misfit within the city to do anything else. He takes up drawing as a hobby as he continues his work north of the city.
The story switches over to the perspective of Elizabeth Khan who spots one day a deal being struck between the local villagers and two caped men from elsewhere. She watches the men depart and asks Luiz what they had wanted. He tells her that they had desired their labour in exchange for food and other supplies. Elizabeth follows after the second of the two men, following him to a river where she watches him use a camera to film it. When she tries to approach she startles him and freezes when she spots him with a rifle. He questions her in terrible Spanish but she surprises him by telling him she can speak English after she overhears him muttering in English. They talk and it is revealed that this man is Helward who tells her he comes from Earth, a city nearby. Helward refuses to tell her more than that though but before departing asks if he can sketch her. As Elizabeth looks over his completed sketch she is thrown by the strange perspective he seems to have, having drawn her too tall and skinny. Looking through his sketchbook though she spots other strange issues with his drawings. Helward is clearly very skilled but only his self-portraits and drawings of his horse appear to be correctly in proportion, his landscapes feature a sense of wrongness about their shape. She asks what the strange four-pointed object in one of his drawings is, only to be told it is the sun.
Back at the village, Elizabeth finds she has no more appetite for work. She tells Luiz to try to find out what the men had wanted and tells him that if they should come again, to stall them and try to find out where they were from. She heads back to her headquarters, arriving by evening where she meets a man named Tony, someone who fancied her. She asks Tony if he had heard of a settlement to the south called Earth and is told that he had not heard of one, something that is confirmed by the maps she reads, all of them agreeing that there are no large settlements in the south for sixty miles. She finds even the paper puzzling, discovering that the paper had been perforated and was signed IBM Multifold™.
The next day, Elizabeth puts through another request for a doctor to the village she was working as a nurse for before she returns. Luiz tells her that the two strange men had not returned and after some half-hearted work she departs on horseback hoping to find Helward who intrigues her. She finds Helward by the same river they had met before and they settle down to talk. As they talk, Helward is alarmed to discover that Elizabeth is not from the settlement he had visited. Helward asks her where she is from to which she tells him England. Helward grows even more agitated on discovering this, asking if she was from planet Earth. Thoroughly confused, Elizabeth confirms this which seems to ignite Helward as he exclaims that they had found them at last. He doesn't understand how she cannot know what Earth city is, nor can he understand how she fails to understand that Earth city is differentiated from Earth planet. She is also confused by his reference of Earth city being only twenty five miles away today. When Helward explains that the city had survived for two hundred years waiting in hope for rescue from Earth he is confronted by more confusion. Elizabeth tells him that he is on Earth. Angrily, Helward takes Elizabeth and points at the sun, demanding to know what she sees, and Elizabeth tells him she sees the sun, causing Helward to stab a finger at his drawings insisting that this was the sun. She flees from him, returning to the village.
She returns to the village late that evening and learns from Luiz that the villagers had made a deal with the men from Earth and would be giving them their women. A show of hands reveals the men are happy to take up the deal though none of the women are vote. In the night, Elizabeth ponders the questions that Helward raised. There is the issue with the sun, something that doesn't make sense to her, and another issue with the computer paper. Elizabeth is aware that there is only one computer within one thousand miles of her current location and that computer was neither made by IBM nor produced paper. Certainly no IBM machines had been created since the Crash. She makes a swift decision and visits Maria, borrowing her clothes. Wearing her disguise she takes the place of one of the women promised to the city. She is taken to the city, at first not understanding what it was and aware that the term 'city' was perhaps unfair as the structure was no more than seven storeys high and more closely resembled a pre-Crash office block. Within the city Elizabeth is passed a clean bill of health and taught rudimentary English (as she was pretending to be one of the local girls). She explores the city and comes across a copy of Destaine's Directive, reading it allows her to understand the mindset that Helward and others of the city had, but it is founded on one major flaw. Elizabeth looks at the flaw, a huge ball of light that is the sun.
Later, Elizabeth finds Helward within the city and talks to him. They apologise to each other over their last meeting but neither of them are able to convince the other of the reality of their situation. Helward insists that the sun and world he had experienced is the reality, that Elizabeth is mistaken (and he had experienced the centrifugal force in the south) while Elizabeth maintains that they are still on Earth and had never left it. Helward adds that after she had left the other day he had discovered some information that only the Navigators were privy to. Something that could drastically alter the city's situation. On a trip north to witness the issue that troubled Helward she talks with Helward's friend, Blayne, realising that they are all sincere in their understanding of the world, but she cannot think of a way to break their perception. They take her to a large body of water and begin surveying the area. Neither of them had seen the bank on the other side nor could they find a shorter area to cross. They ask Elizabeth what she made of the river, only to be told it was not a river. Neither of the men understand Elizabeth entirely nor take any effort to learn from her, instead continuing their work. Unable to convince them of the fact that they are in Portugal, she mounts her horse and heads away from the Atlantic.
Helward and Bridge-Builder Lerouex stand together, watching the ruins of their most recent bridge smash against the surf. Lerouex tells Helward that they simpy need more timber and prepares to design another bridge. He tells Helward that they had a great amount of subjective time to build a bridge and that he is untroubled by the fact that he could not see the other bank. North of optimum dimensions are shifted/stretched linearly (north and south) and if necessary the city could wait south of the optimum to allow the distance to be subjectively closed. Helward is not so easily convinced, but is interested to hear that both he and Lerouex had been suggested as Navigator candidates. Lerouex cannot face the other idea currently bandied about the city, namely the construction of a ship.
Later, Lerouex tells Helward that they had been suggested as Navigators as part of a new policy to bring active guildsmen into the policy making council. The two of them discuss Victoria for a brief moment who is now a main leader of the Terminators' movement. In this time there have been three failed bridge building attempts at the Atlantic shore due to storms and even Lerouex admits to Helward that perhaps a ship is the only option, that the Bridge-Builders had clearly failed. Helward rejects his invitation to the navigators when they tell him that the Council had decided to reach a compromise with the Terminators and build a ship to cross the 'river' and once across they would rebuild the city. When Helward goes to an open meeting of the Terminators with Gelman Jase he is shocked to see Victoria's father supporting their idea of stopping, clearly broken by his failures with the bridge, but he grows alarmed when he spots Elizabeth Khan standing behind him. He tries to push through the crowd, desperate to prevent her from speaking but to no avail. Elizabeth explains she is from England, on Earth and that she had returned from England with information that affected the city. She tells the assembled crowd about the truth behind the city's nuclear reactor, explaining that Francis Destaine had been a particle physicist who had lived in Britain. Destaine had developed a technique to provide near limitless electrical energy without any apparent fuel though his work had been discredited by scientists until the Crash occurred, when nations all over the world collapsed when fossil fuels ran out. Elizabeth continues, telling them that Destaine's original concept was both crude and dangerous unlike the more modern developments that utilised the same technology. Destaine had created a generator that created an artificial field of energy which when combined with another field could provide limitless electricty. His detractors had pointed out that it required far more energy to power the generators than was received. However, Destaine had found a natural window for the generators' fields which followed a circle around the globe and had set out to Guan Dong province in China to begin his research. He was never heard from again. She tells the crowd that Destaine had ignored the warnings of side-effects, of permanent damage to perception and genetic issues. Helward is disheartened by the way the people of Earth city listen to her message. Helward cannot believe Elizabeth because he had been down past. He had experienced the force in the south, had seen a child grow ill from the distorted foods, seen city made clothes fail to fit native women as they distorted. The story ends with Helward at the beach of the bridge building site, treading water as he watches the four-pointed sun sink below the horizon, watched by Elizabeth Khan.
Food for thought:
Naturally, there is one immediate problem with the book's premise. The concept of a world that has an infinite plane in two perpendicular directions is topographically impossible (the two planes would intersect each other after all as they rotate into infinity). However, that said, the concept and twist in this book is lovely. It is a complete reversal of the world we know, a world where the struggle to survive is paramount to all other things.
One of the major themes in the book is the power of perception over our reality. We have no real way of knowing if what we perceive is actually 'real' in a factual sense, only that what we understand of the world can be verified by what we perceive. In fact, in our daily lives we take alot of things for granted which in theory are impossible, things which are verified by our perception but not by our scientific knowledge. The world around us is very different from what we perceive without the help of specialised equipment. Quantum physics proves that things exist because we detect it existing, even if we can't necessarily explain what they really appear as. For example, the electron is characterised as a physical sphere of negative charge within an atom, and there are experiments that can prove its nature as a particle. However, there are also experiments that prove the electron is not a particle but instead a wave. Quantum physics accepts that the electron displays the characteristics of a particle and a wave (despite the mutual contradictions) at the same time. It is comforting to think of electrons as a particle as this makes it easier to imagine the atom and we're all made of atoms. But even the concept of an atom is at odds with the day to day reality we observe. Atoms are proven to be 99.99% (recurring) emptiness. Given that we are made entirely of atoms then in theory we too are 99.99% emptiness and yet we perceive and interact with physical objects all the time. Likewise in Inverted World, while we accept Elizabeth Khan's perception as 'truth' (as we live in her perception of reality) we cannot necessarily say that Helward's perception of the reality around him is wrong. Reality and its perception is entirely subjective and quantum physics points out that we change the world by observing it.
Likewise with one final example of the complexity of perception, there is no guarantee that any of use experience the same reality at all. When I look at the sky I can say 'the sky is blue.' You may be inclined to agree with me if you were to stand beside me. However, you and I could not prove that the colour we saw in the sky was the same, only that we had a mutually agreed term for what we perceived as 'blue.' As a quote, I would leave you with:
'All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.' - Friedrich Nietzsche
There are no truths, only agreed upon interpretations that are endorsed by the majority.
The book is also a fantastic celebration of human determination. The power to survive and prosper despite the odds arraigned against us is an uplifting tale. The world of the ironically named Helward Mann is grim, founded upon a need to survive at any cost and sustained by a weak hope and yet despite this, their civilisation has existed, triumphed against the odds for two hundred years. Two hundred years of stubbornness and refusal to simply give in. In a way, it is an analogy for our own personal lives, of our own personal struggles against the world around us for our own measures of survival.
The alternative to progress is death.