The Inverted World (Christopher Priest, 1974)
WARNING: I am totally going to give away vital points of the plot of this novel. I don’t expect everyone to want to read it, but it is very, very good, and has an extremely interesting application to the current state of culture, so if you have any desire to read it, you really, REALLY, should stop reading before you scroll down past these pictures of hyperbolas and fan art.
Okay. Still here? The Inverted World (or Inverted World) is the story of Helward Mann, an apprentice in the guild of future surveyors working in the city of Earth. The city, an enormous structure described as a “misshapen office block”, somehow became stranded on an alien planet shaped like a hyperbola1. The planet’s surface is constantly slumping southwards; therefore the city must continually be dragged to the north along tracks, against the pull of centrifugal force. Helward discovers firsthand, far to the south of the city, the intense physical distortions which would destroy the city if it were to ever stop its northward journey.
All of this is revealed to Helward (and us) gradually, as he completes his apprenticeship and becomes a guild member. At the same time, forces outside of the guild’s control accumulate to a point of crisis; the native people are resentful of the city’s advanced technology and resources, feel exploited, and attack the city, destroying part of it. The inhabitants of the city, who are shielded from knowledge of their own precarious existence, begin to grow restless and demand more openness about the city’s situation. Helward himself meets Elizabeth Khan, a social worker stationed in one of the native villages, who doubts the truth of Helward’s entire worldview. The crisis happens when the city reaches the coast of an enormous body of water. Elizabeth does some research and finds that “Earth” was built by an eccentric scientist two hundred years ago who claimed to have discovered an endlessly renewable power source traveling underground; after a worldwide economic collapse, he persuaded a group of disciples to build “Earth City” and follow the power source slowly across the landscape.
Elizabeth explains to Helward that his perceptions of reality have been distorted by exposure to the power source’s radiation, and that his people never left earth, which is a sphere, not a hyperboloid, and that the city is now next to the Atlantic ocean. Helward is unable to accept her explanation, and rebuffs her, committing himself to the guild’s attempt to build a bridge across the ocean.
I can’t emphasize enough the shock that comes to the reader when all of this is revealed—with Helward, we have been gradually getting used to an extremely unexpected and bizarre concept of reality, one which Christopher Priest masterfully gets us to accept; that concept is then smashed to pieces for Helward (and us) with completely disorienting results. The way Christopher Priest manages this is one of the best twist endings I know of in any novel, story, or film. And it relates, in a troubling way, to how mainstream culture responds to the more dubious currents of our contemporary discourse.
I know someone who talks about how he had a friend in his late teenage years who felt pretty confident about her ability to interpret information on her own and come to a reasonable conclusion; gradually, however, this healthy skepticism of “experts” changed from basic critical thinking to unquestioning acceptance of fringe ideas. At some point she began listening to content produced by proponents of a flat earth. When my friend tried to engage in dialogue with her, she began distancing herself from him, claiming that, if he believed in a spherical earth, he must be “part of the conspiracy”. Eventually, she cut off all contact. He lost a friend because she could not bring herself to associate with someone who did not share her beliefs.
Christopher Priest’s novel asks us to examine how we cope with the mental strain that can come with exposing ourselves to differing views. Are we insulating ourselves from ideas which might cause us to question our thinking and beliefs? Why are we doing so? I understand that engaging with ideas can be exhausting and disheartening. It is a huge temptation to give up, and only talk with people who are expressing ideas that we are comfortable with. But we can’t do that. We need to resist the temptation to treat our intellectual opponents as The Other.
In The Inverted World, Helward Mann experiences near-overwhelming cognitive dissonance when his worldview gets challenged by an alternate epistemology. This is a real feeling, and the desire to avoid that feeling causes people to break off relationships. I think such a course of action is tragic. We don’t have to agree when people bring up ideas or theories that we don’t believe, but we must treat people with respect and great patience. I’m getting worried by what I see as a tendency, in our culture, to weaponize our relationships in an effort to compel people to see things the same way we do.
This is not kind; this is not loving. We need to realize that people are humans who are under enormous pressure to interpret reality in a sensible way. Sometimes they make mistakes; sometimes they can’t see their own mistakes when those around them can. Our capacity for self-delusion is enormous, so our capacity to show love, both to people who don’t accept us and to people whose ideas we don’t accept, should have no bounds.