Here is a book that I don’t want to give away the ending for. It is the kind of book that can’t have a foreword, but can have an afterword. Inverted World is a work of hard SF most of the way through, but in the end it isn’t. So how is that possible?
Well, I won’t tell you. The whole story is about finding out what is going on, and let me tell you: it is compelling. Not that it is well written, but it is well conceived. There are moments of unnecessary detail, moments that are not presented to the best dramatic advantage, and other such mistakes. The writing is a bit tedious early on . . . and, well, throughout, though it improves near the end. If one of the rules of hard SF is that the writer has to be a literary amateur, then this book qualifies. But for all that, once you get into it, if you make it past the prologue, which I almost didn’t, the first sentence of the first chapter is arresting, and it really has to be for you to keep going.
It is a story about a dilemma, and when you have at last discovered the dilemma, then you are in for a further surprise. It is a story about a city that is drawn on rails over the land, escaping from something and seeking a mysterious ‘optimum’ which is not, apparently, stationary, and the great question is, Why? Priest did ingeniously plan the reader’s discoveries, and in the end one is glad one stuck with the story and found out.
I picked it up because it has been reprinted by the New York Review of Books, and I thought it had to be well written to be republished by them. It isn’t, but it is compelling, and I see why they did it. The story is supposed to arouse questions, and in the end it succeeds. It asks questions about perception and necessity, and if not in the best or more useful way, still it asks them, drives at them, and ends the book with them hanging, haunting. Paranoid? Yes, that too, but what other reason is there to read hard SF that is not hard SF?
In the end, it seems to the story is subversive to hard SF because technology IS the problem. The thing is ingenious in its dilemma and not without its technicalities. How accurate those technicalities are, I do not know, but they maintain the illusion, and that’s what’s needed, no more.