The inverted world, p.1
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       The Inverted World, p.1

The Inverted World




  Christopher Priest

  The city of Earth is steadily winching its way forward on tracks picked up and laid anew every day, for if it were to stand still it would be swept away in the constant southward movement of the land itself.

  The inhabitants of the city have been moving the city for two hundred years, waiting always to be rescued by the mother planet, Earth, from which they have somehow been separated. Over the centuries, the physical and social structure of the city has become highly ingrown and medieval, with an intricate system of work guilds that are responsible for all the city’s functionings.

  Young Helward Mann chooses to follow his father into the Futures Guild to serve as a surveyor of the problems that may lie ahead for the city. After an intense and grueling apprenticeship with various other guilds, Helward takes up his duties and begins riding up future. There, he finds an apparently insurmountable obstacle, a body of water with no visible farther shore, and some strange, unsettling people.

  Gradually and shockingly, the beliefs that Helward, his fellow guildsmen, and all the city’s inhabitants have held about their situation and their city, beliefs two centuries old, begin to crumble.

  Christopher Priest’s city of Earth—its social structure and its physical existence—is one of the most creative conceptions to appear in science fiction. Priest’s descriptive writing is extraordinarily effective—the visual impact of the city on tracks, and the author’s perspective of the environment, are as spectacular as the story’s twists and surprises. The Inverted World is a spellbinding and totally engrossing tale.

  THE INVERTED WORLD. Copyright © 1974 by Christopher Priest. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.


  my mother



  Wheresoe’er I turn my view,

  All is strange, yet nothing new;

  Endless labour all along

  Endless labour to be wrong.



  Some of the situations described in this novel were incorporated into a short story entitled “The Inverted World,” which was first published in England in New Writings in SF-22 by Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd.

  Beyond a slight duplication of background and the inclusion of a few similarly named characters, there is not much between the two that is common.



















































  Elizabeth Khan closed the door of the surgery, and locked it. She walked slowly up the village street to where the people were gathering in the square outside the church. There had been a mood of expectancy all day as the huge bonfire took shape, and now the village children ran excitedly in the street, waiting for the moment when the fire would be lit.

  Elizabeth went first to the church, but there was no sign of Father dos Santos.

  A few minutes after sunset one of the men put a light to the dry tinder at the base of the pile of wood, and bright flame crackled through and up. The children danced and jumped, crying to each other as the timber popped and spat sparks.

  Men and women sat or lay on the ground near the fire, passing flagons of the dark, rich local wine. Two men sat apart from the others, each lightly fingering a guitar. The music was soft, played for its own sake, not for dancing.

  Elizabeth sat near the musicians, drinking some of the wine whenever a flagon was passed to her.

  Later, the music became louder and more rhythmic, and several of the women sang. It was an old song, and the words were in a dialect Elizabeth could not follow. A few of the men climbed to their feet and danced, shuffling with arms linked, very drunk.

  Responding to the hands that reached out to pull her up, Elizabeth went forward and danced with some of the women. They were laughing, trying to show her the steps. Their feet threw up clouds of dust that drifted slowly through the air before being caught and swept up in the vortex of heat above the fire. Elizabeth drank more wine, danced with the others.

  When she stopped for a rest she realized that dos Santos had appeared. He was standing some distance away, watching the festivities. She waved to him, but he made no response. She wondered if he disapproved, or whether he was simply too reserved to join in. He was a shy, gauche young man, ill at ease with the villagers and as yet unsure of how they regarded him. Like Elizabeth he was a newcomer and an outsider, although Elizabeth believed that she would overcome the villagers’ suspicions faster than he would. One of the village girls, seeing Elizabeth standing to one side, took her hand and dragged her back to the dance.

  The fire burned down, the music slowed. The yellow glow thrown by the flames dwindled to a circle about the fire itself, and the people sat on the ground once more, happy and relaxed and tired.

  Elizabeth refused the next flagon that was passed to her, and instead stood up. She was rather more drunk than she had realized, and she staggered a little. As some of the people called out to her she walked away, leaving the centre of the village, and went out into the dark countryside beyond. The night air was still.

  She walked slowly and breathed deeply, trying to clear her head. There was a way she had walked in the past, across the low hills that surrounded the village, and she went that way now, lurching slightly on the irregularities of the ground. At one time this had probably been rough pastureland, but now there was no agriculture to speak of in the village. It was wild, beautiful country, yellow and white and brown in the sunlight; now black and cool, the stars brilliant overhead.

  After half an hour she felt better, and headed back towards the village. Walking down through a grove of trees just behind the houses, she heard the sound of voices. She stood still, listening…but she heard only the tones, not the words.

  Two men were conversing, but they were not alone. Sometimes she heard the voices of others, perhaps agreeing or commenting. None of it was her concern, but nevertheless her curiosity was piqued. The words sounded urgent, and there was a sense of argument to the conversation. She hesitated a few seconds more, then moved on.

  The fire had burned itself out: now only embers glowed in the village square.

  She walked on down to her surgery. As she opened the door she heard a movement, and saw a man near the house opposite.

  “Luiz?” she said, recognizing him.

  “Goodnight, Menina Khan.”

  He raised his hand to her, and went inside the house. He was carrying what appeared to be a large bag or a satchel.

  Elizabeth frowned.
Luiz had not been at the festivities in the square; she was sure now that it had been him she had heard in the trees. She waited in the doorway of the surgery a moment longer, then went inside. As she closed the door she heard in the distance, clear in the still night, the sound of horses galloping away.



  I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles. Beyond the door the guildsmen were assembling for the ceremony in which I would be admitted as a guild apprentice. It was a moment of excitement and apprehension, a concentration into a few minutes of all that my life had been until then.

  My father was a guildsman, and I had always seen his life from a certain remove. I regarded it as an enthralling existence, charged with purpose, ceremony, and responsibility; he told me nothing of his life or work, but his uniform, his vague manner, and his frequent absences from the city hinted at a preoccupation with matters of utmost importance.

  Within a few minutes the way would be open for me to join that life. It was an honour and a donning of responsibility, and no boy who had grown up inside the confining walls of the crèche could fail to respond to the thrill of this major step.

  The crèche itself was a small building at the very south of the city, except by way of a door which was normally locked, and the only opportunities for exercise existed in the small gymnasium and a tiny open space, bounded on all four sides by the high walls of the crèche buildings.

  Like the other children I had been placed in the charge of the crèche administrators soon after my birth, and knew no other world. I had no memories of my mother: she had left the city soon after my birth.

  It had been a dull but not unhappy experience. I had made some good friends, and one of them—a boy a few miles older than me called Gelman Jase—had become an apprentice guildsman a short time before me. I was looking forward to seeing Jase again. I had seen him once since his coming of age, when he returned briefly to the crèche, and already he had adopted the slightly preoccupied manner of the guildsmen, and I had learned nothing from him. Now that I too was about to become an apprentice I felt that he would have much to tell me.

  The administrator returned to the ante-room in which I was standing.

  “They’re ready,” he said. “Can you remember what you have to do?”


  “Good luck.”

  I discovered that I was trembling, and the palms of my hands were moist. The administrator, who had brought me from the crèche that morning, grinned at me in sympathy. He thought he understood the ordeal I was suffering, but he knew, literally, only half of it.

  After the guild ceremony there was more in store for me. My father had told me that he had arranged a marriage for me. I had taken the news calmly because I knew that guildsmen were expected to marry early, and I already knew the chosen girl. She was Victoria Lerouex, and she and I had grown up together in the crèche. I had not had much to do with her—there were not many girls in the crèche, and they tended to keep together in a tight-knit group—but we were less than strangers. Even so, the notion of being married was a new one and I had not had much time to prepare myself mentally for it.

  The administrator glanced up at the clock.

  “O.K., Helward. It’s time.”

  We shook hands briefly, and he opened the door. He walked into the hall, leaving the door open. Through it I could see several of the guildsmen standing on the main floor. The ceiling lights were on.

  The administrator stopped just beyond the door and turned to address the platform.

  “My Lord Navigator. I seek audience.”

  “Identify yourself.” A distant voice, and from where I was standing in the ante-room I could not see the speaker.

  “I am Domestic Administrator Bruch. At the command of my chief administrator I have summoned one Helward Mann, who seeks apprenticeship in a guild of the first order.”

  “I recognize you, Bruch. You may admit the apprentice.”

  Bruch turned and faced me, and as he had earlier rehearsed me I stepped forward into the hall. In the centre of the floor a small podium had been placed, and I walked over and took up position behind it.

  I faced the platform.

  Here in the concentrated brilliance of the spotlights sat an elderly man in a high-backed chair. He was wearing a black cloak decorated with a circle of white stitched on the breast. On each side of him stood three men, all wearing cloaks, but each one of these was decorated with a sash of a different colour. Gathered on the main floor of the hall, in front of the platform, were several other men and a few women. My father was among them.

  Everyone was looking at me, and I felt my nervousness increase. My mind went blank, and all Bruch’s careful rehearsals were forgotten.

  In the silence that followed my entrance, I stared straight ahead at the man sitting at the centre of the platform. This was the first time I had even seen—let alone been in the company of—a Navigator. In my immediate background of the crèche such men had sometimes been spoken of in a deferential way, sometimes—by the more disrespectful—in a derisory way, but always with undertones of awe for the almost legendary figures. That one was here at all only underlined the importance of this ceremony. My immediate thought was what a story this would be to tell the others…and then I remembered that from this day nothing would be the same again.

  Bruch had stepped forward to face me.

  “Are you Helward Mann, sir?”

  “Yes, I am.”

  “What age have you attained, sir?”

  “Six hundred and fifty miles.”

  “Are you aware of the significance of this age?”

  “I assume the responsibilities of an adult.”

  “How best can you assume those responsibilities, sir?”

  “I wish to enter apprenticeship with a first-order guild of my choice.”

  “Have you made that choice, sir?”

  “Yes, I have.”

  Bruch turned and addressed the platform. He repeated the content of my answers to the men assembled there, though it seemed to me that they must have been able to hear my answers as I gave them.

  “Does anyone wish to question the apprentice?” said the Navigator to the other men on the platform.

  No one replied.

  “Very well.” The Navigator stood up. “Come forward, Helward Mann, and stand where I can see you.”

  Bruch stepped to one side. I left the podium, and walked forward to where a small white plastic circle had been inlaid into the carpet. I stopped with my feet in the centre of it. For several seconds I was regarded in silence.

  The Navigator turned to one of the men at his side.

  “Do we have the proposers here?”

  “Yes, My Lord.”

  “Very well. As this is a guild matter we must exclude all others.”

  The Navigator sat down, and the man immediately to his right stepped forward.

  “Is there any man here who does not rank with the first order? If so, he will grace us with his absence.”

  Slightly behind me, and to one side of me, I noticed Bruch make a slight bow towards the platform, and then he left the hall. He was not alone. Of the group of people on the main floor of the hall, about half left the room by one or other of the exits. Those left turned to face me.

  “Do we recognize strangers?” said the man on the platform. There was silence. “Apprentice Helward Mann, you are now in the exclusive company of first-order guildsmen. A gathering such as this is not common in the city, and you should treat it with appropriate solemnity. It is in your honour. When you have passed through your apprenticeship these people will be your peers, and you will be bound, just as they are, by guild rules. Is that understood?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “You have selected the guild you wish to enter. Please name it for all to hear.”

  “I wish to become a Future Surveyor,” I said.

  “Very well, that is acceptable. I am Future Surveyor Clausewitz, and I am your chief guilds
man. Standing around you are other Future Surveyors, as well as representatives from other first-order guilds. Here on the platform are the other chief guildsmen of the first order. In the centre, we are honoured by the presence of Lord Navigator Olsson.”

  As Bruch had earlier rehearsed me I made a deep bow towards the Navigator. The bow was all I now remembered of his instructions: he had told me that he knew nothing of the details of this part of the ceremony, only that I should display appropriate respect towards the Navigator when formally introduced to him.

  “Do we have a proposer for the apprentice?”

  “Sir, I wish to propose him.” It was my father who spoke.

  “Future Surveyor Mann has proposed. Do we have a seconder?”

  “Sir, I will second the proposal.”

  “Bridge-Builder Lerouex has seconded. Do we hear any dissent?”

  There was a long silence. Twice more, Clausewitz called for dissent, but no one raised any objection to me.

  “That is as it should be,” said Clausewitz. “Helward Mann, I now offer you the oath of a first-order guild. You may—even at this late stage—decline to take it. If, however, you do swear to the oath you will be bound to it for the whole of the rest of your life in the city. The penalty for breaching the oath is summary execution. Is that absolutely clear in your mind?”

  I was stunned by this. Nothing anyone had said, my father, Jase, or even Bruch, had said anything to warn me of this. Perhaps Bruch had not known…but surely my father would have told me?


  “Do I have to decide now, sir?”


  It was quite clear that I would not be allowed a sight of the oath before deciding. Its content was probably instrumental in the secrecy. I felt that I had very little alternative. I had come this far, and already I could feel the pressures of the system about me. To proceed as far as this—proposal and acceptance—and then to decline the oath was impossible, or so it seemed to me at that moment.

  “I will take the oath, sir.”

  Clausewitz stepped down from the platform, walked over to me, and handed me a piece of white card.

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