Sunday, June 14, 2009

Oh, Inverted World

Fac de Droit - Angers (Image by clic-me, via Flickr and creative commons license)

Years ago I dreamed that I was climbing up a summit in a blinding snowstorm. The climb was difficult, the escarpment nearly vertical. I remember having trouble securing a handhold on the mountain's cold, grey face. But this ordeal was amplified by the simple fact that I was dragging, of all things, a kayak. I would look down below and see it dangling below me, a pointed, red fiberglass pendulum swaying in the freezing storm. I had no idea why I was carrying such a burden, but when I looked up, I knew where I was supposed to take it.

This was because as I climbed higher and higher, I began to notice a strange glowing. The clouds around the peak shined with a warm, blue ambiance. And once I got to the top and looked up, a brilliant, turquoise field of water hung above my head. Yet this shimmering, warm transparence was no ceiling. Staring at it, I realized that it was a tropical sea. My task was now to maneuver the dangling kayak, to push it above my head. And as I started, at some point, the pushing became more of a pulling. Feeling the weight stretch my arms towards the water, I let the kayak go, watching its fiberglass body pierce the water. It went under only for a couple of seconds. The rippling surface revealed a strange crumpled shape, wrinkling between various sizes. The kayak finally bobbed up above the surface of the water and floated there, its red hull now glistening with water. I then planted my feet firmly on the snowy peak, bent down, and jumped up so I could dive into the water.

This dream, fantastic as it may seem, was on my mind while reading a novel -- Christopher Priest's The Inverted World (1974) (reprinted by NYRB as Inverted World). Although the action takes place in the future, here is a science fiction novel at its most architectural. I use the term "architectural" because one of the novel's main protagonists is a city -- a dense, seven story agglomeration of wood and metal siding, floor plates, wiring and plumbing that moves along a series of tracks towards a mysterious point in the distance called "optimum." I won't reveal why the city is constantly in motion (it would, in effect, spoil the entire novel).

Like Constant's New Babylon, Inverted World's city is a haphazard, bric-a-brac urbanism that responds to its users' needs. Tracks are reused and constructed so that the city moves something in the order of half a mile per day. The city's own management even features an antiquated system of labor division organizing the male population into various guilds -- all involved in the city's constant movement. Helward Mann, one of the novel's narrators, is an apprentice in the city's surveying guild. And it is through his eyes that we see the rest of the guilds interact with each other: acting on geographical data provided by Surveyors, Navigators plot the city's future course; Track and Bridge Builders provide the materials and human capital to construct the city's limited infrastructure; a Barter guild buys labor from the various indigenous settlements scattered throughout the landscape.

But it is the novel's opening sentence that really draws out another important aspect to the novel. "I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles", says Mann. The statement is telling not only because suggests how the inhabitants of the city measure time in terms of distance, but it also because it echoes what Raymond Williams would refer to, only a year earlier, as a "Problem of Perspective." In Inverted World, a very important difference in literal perspective drives the narrative and explains the novel's peculiar, yet normative universe. But let's just call this a "Problem of Orientation." In the dream I described above, ceiling and floor, mountain and ocean, warm and cold all collapsed into a single, confused moment. Take that moment, translocate it to the architectural and urban scale .... and there is the true genius underlying Priest's Inverted World.


Geoff Manaugh said...

A minor, but still interesting, architectural detail is that the cover art on the NYRB addition is by Lebbeus Woods.

enrique said...

Ah, yes ... I totally overlooked that. I wonder if the book designers chose that particular detail because it is disc-shaped? The city, as described in the book, is anything but.

Geoff Manaugh said...

Something tells me they just chose it because it was by Lebbeus...!

Incidentally, that should have been "NYRB edition." Oops.