(Uh, I’m always spoilery, but the book I’m talking about is VERY difficult to talk about without spoiling–it’s one of those stories which is based around a couple of massive secrets, so, you know, tread carefully.)
That the book Inverted World by Christopher Priest has a bog-standard structure is kind of one of its strengths: The afterword in the edition I got goes so far as to talk about how it’s a typical “hard sci-fi” book in that it’s about a guy (the afterword mentions it’s usually a guy) who finds himself in a strange world and slowly learning the truth.
Hold up. I thought “hard” vs. “soft” sci-fi had to do with the plausibility and realism of the world. In other words, hard sci-fi is someone like Arthur C. Clarke, whose books are written with the aid of researching technology, of looking at the science and extrapolating what’s possible; soft sci-fi is Philip K. Dick, which has aliens and space and robots but it doesn’t matter whether or not something is possible according to the laws of physics. In other words, you have FTL travel, you’re definitely in soft sci-fi.
Well, no matter. Inverted World is some fairly standard myth-of-the-cave stuff. A guy comes of age; he’s living in some ambiguous City which turns out to be essentially a giant wheeled structure that continually travels across the land. An elaborate Guild system is in place which keeps knowledge of life outside the city secret. And the guy joins the Guild system, and things do progress fairly standardly. He’s told there’s a good reason for the City, and he finds out why and he agrees with it. He’s told that there’s a good reason for the Guild system, and he finds out why and he agrees with it. He’s told that there’s a good reason that women are not allowed to be full Guild members, and he finds out why and he agrees with it. For much of the novel, it’s ambiguous whether or not the City is on another planet entirely or whether some horrifying disaster has irrevocably destroyed the world, but either way it becomes clear that staying in one place *will* destroy the City.
A few characters–including the main’s wife–object to the system, particularly the role of women, and one of the major plot threads which emerges is a growing movement to stop the City. And in response, the Guild begins to become more transparent: Realizing that stopping the city will mean disaster, they begin to educate the citizens about the true nature of the world. It is unfortunate that it cannot stop, but the very survival of humanity depends on the City.
And…that’s entirely fucked up.
The Guild–I must admit that this novel can be heavy-handed–is a very clear and obvious Patriarchy construct. It decides when and how people ought to be educated about the truth of the world, it keeps power to itself, it determines which of its members are worthy of that power–in short, it’s quite literally a group of men who are the only people who know the true nature of the world. Stopping the city is strongly identified with feminist feelings–the book came out in I think ’74, so Women’s Lib is a definite Thing–and yet, everything the main character witnesses is another justification for the city. Everything he sees tells him that stopping the city will doom him.
The novel does some very clever tricks with point of view; its cleverest is that its main character is actually the furthest thing from the protagonist. Divorced, lonely, alienated, he’s outside the city one day and he meets a woman who’s an outsider in her own village, and for about five minutes it looks like they’ve got enough feelings in common to start a relationship and have a happy ending–the world has gone to hell, but at least they’re happy together.
And yet by the end of a couple of conversations, she puts together a couple of things, disappears while everyone in the city scrambles to get into place for the finale, and then shows up to announce some revelations and lead to the ending. Yes: Everything we’ve seen so far has led to the conclusion that the only way to survive in this world is to build a fortress, lock up the women, and constantly go north–but, it’s revealed, everything we’ve seen so far is a lie. The citizens aren’t actually in a post-apocalyptic world–well, they are, it’s a several-step premise–but are, rather, a weird little tabloid story like those guys who hid in caves in Japan for decades, thinking it was still World War II and ready to come out fighting at any time. They’re a wandering ark at the mercy of an experimental power source which distorts their conception of the world. There was no danger: They were viewing some illusions, essentially.
And yet while the novel ends with most of the people in the city receptive to the message, the city turned off and a Red Cross-type organization dispatched to help, our main character finishes up, staring at the ocean, furious that his life is about to be destroyed. He refuses to believe it–the evidence of his eyes, which confirms the necessity of the city, is too strong.
Yeah, it’s heavy handed. But ultimately Inverted World is about the fallacy of resisting Progress. An ideology based on conservatism, on esoteric knowledge, and on exclusion is only sustainable when one’s worldview is completely delusional. We leave pitying our main character; and yet the situation of the City improves beyond belief. It is believed to be salvation; it is genuinely a prison.
The novel gives the characters a limited amount of excuse; the Guild is never, ever seen doing anything which is for any reason but the welfare of its citizens. Its Militia might be violent thugs–but they’re responding to a hostile, violent world. The women might not be able to decide their life situation as well as men can–but given how crucial reproduction is in a post-apocalyptic society, and given that there’s a significantly lower birth rate of females, keeping them inside is more of a precautionary measure. They have done the wrong thing for the right reason based on incorrect evidence, and in fact at the end when all is being revealed, the word “inadvertently” is specifically used. That it’s implied the city will be abandoned as quickly as is feasible bolsters this–women are lower-class citizens not because of any particular misogyny but because it was believed that that was the right thing to do. As soon as an outsider points out why, everyone but our main character changes.
Again, the structure is standard cave myth stuff–he wakes up in a darkened place, sees the outside world–literally has to shield his eyes from the brightness of the sun!–and, in learning the truth of his world, understands its context. Unfortunately, the truth is based on a faulty perception. Inverted World, then, is about the consequences of false enlightenment. In coming up with the means to fix the world, one must first notice whether the problems are with the world or with oneself.