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Literature / The Inverted World

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"I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles."
— Opening line

The Inverted World (also published as just Inverted World) is a science fiction novel by Christopher Priest, taking its concept (but none of its plot or characters) from a short story of the same name. Originally published in 1974, it was republished in 2010 as part of the SF Masterworks Collection. The Inverted World won an award from the British Science Fiction Association and was nominated for a Hugo.

Helward Mann is a citizen of the City of Earth, a massive rail-mounted structure which has somehow become Trapped in Another World. Upon coming of age, Helward joins the Future Guild, allowing him to explore the world outside the City for the first time. The story follows Helward as he tries to understand the nature of the strange inverted world in which he finds himself, and learns why the people of the City must forever struggle to keep moving it endlessly forward.


This novel provides examples of:

  • After the End: Earth after the Crash.
  • Alien Geometries: Encountered far North and South.
  • Arranged Marriage: Helward and Victoria.
  • Base on Wheels: The City of Earth.
  • City in a Bottle
  • Contrived Coincidence: The fact that up until the end of the novel, the city just happens to have been travelling over land for thousands of miles, never encountering a sea or major lake. Subverted, as the Atlantic Ocean is simply the first body of water flat-out impossible to drive around.
  • Cool Train: Earth-city.
  • Downer Ending: The perception distortions caused by the translat generator are permanent. The people from the city will never be able to go more than a few dozen miles from optimum without suffering increasingly severe hallucinations, possibly leading to insanity. If optimum stopped moving when they switched the generator off, then they're stuck on the shores of Portugal. If, however, it kept on moving with the translateration window, then they're faced with the task of building a ship that can cross the Atlantic Ocean at a rate of a tenth of a mile per day with no outside support, using hand tools, in less than six months.
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  • Earth All Along: The device which powers the city severely alters human perceptions of space and time.
  • Eldritch Location: The far south.
  • Fantastic Measurement System: A very strange example. Because of the weird features of the hyperboloid world, units of distance and time are used interchangeably. A "mile" can mean a distance of one mile, or the time period over which optimum moves one mile. The direction in which the City travels is called both "North" and "Future"; backward from the city is "South" and "Past" (and "North" and "South" aren't the same thing for the natives).
  • Heroic Bastard: Helward Mann; his mother was a native woman who didn't remain in the City after his birth. This is the norm in the City; Victoria is noted as unusual for having two parents.
  • Mars Needs Women: Inversion — due to skewed birth rates depriving them of women, the men of the city need to interbreed with the native women to keep the population up.
  • Microts: To the reader's initial confusion, the City uses "miles" as a measure of time: 1 mile = 10 days. This eventually receives justification when it is explained how optimum moves a tenth of a mile per day.
  • The Reveal: Elizabeth's speech at the end reveals what has been going on with the world's shape the whole time.
  • River of Insanity: The City's sisyphean struggle forwards towards optimum as it constantly moves away from them. A hopeless journey towards a nonexistant destination...
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Because of the City's population problem, women aren't allowed to join the Guilds; their job is to marry early and produce as many children as possible.
  • Superweapon Surprise: Those "primitives" the City's been exploiting? Turns out the City's only encountered deeply impoverished villages so far. Word of its rape and pillage has been spreading to the North, where the natives have rifles and grenades...
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: If Elizabeth is correct, much of what Helward sees throughout the novel is delusions caused by the translat generator.
  • Time Dilation: Due to the planet's bizarre hyperboloid shape, time moves faster to the north of optimum and slower to the south of optimum.
  • Toxic Phlebotinum: Destaine's translat generator.
  • Trapped in Another World: The inhabitants of the City. Or not.
  • Unit Confusion: The inhabitants of the city use "miles" as a measure of time.
  • The Unmasqued World: Though the inhabitants of the City are initially kept in the dark about the true nature of the world, the Guilds are forced to reveal everything when it becomes apparent how dangerous their ignorance might be.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Though the natives look human, the people of the City treat them as having no rights at all. This eventually bites them in the ass big-time.
  • World Shapes: The story takes place on a hyperboloid planet. Or does it?

Alternative Title(s): Inverted World