Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Inverted World - Christopher Priest

On re-reading this I remembered why I did not keep what Christopher Priest books I had. This is because, in common with his other work, he has taken a single interesting idea and woven around it what is the dullest book I have read in a very long time.

The central conceit is of an energy crisis that brings modern civilization to ruin. One man’s answer is the discovery of a means of producing energy that involves putting a very large research facility on caterpillar tracks to follow an energy field as it migrates around the earth. All well and highly implausible - it is, after all, science fiction. The problem with this solution is that the energy field alters human perception of the world.

Two hundred years later, the research facility is still crawling along and we see its final days through the eyes of one of its inhabitants. And here it all falls apart. The notion of an inverted world is fine. It would make a good short story or even stretch to a novella. But a novel requires a great deal more than the working out of a single idea. For one thing it needs good characters. And this book singularly fails to deliver.

It fails on other points as well. There is no tension. The collapse of a small, fanatical society; conflict between those on the moving ‘city’ and the lands it passes through; interpersonal relationships are all painted in two dimensions with a prose that plods along at the same speed as the city itself. Which is slow. And we are told everything, jumping from first person to third person for no apparent reason.

This recent edition has an introduction by Adam Roberts (I had to look him up) which itself reads like a pastiche of a dull literary essay. It earnestly explains how clever the book is and all the uses of inversion to be found therein. Frankly, it felt like it was trying too hard to convince. Who, I am not sure. Not me, for one.