Social Commentary in *The Inverted World* In which I wax pretentious
I spoil plot points. So stop reading if you intend to read The Inverted World by Christopher Priest.
How do you feel when you read that a work of literature or film is a work of social commentary? Personally, and I don’t think I speak only for myself, this phrase introduces that unique queasy feeling, a sinking suspicion as it were, that the work in question will be boring, pretentious, and juvenile, despite a few shining counter-examples that hold out hope. Consider the career of George Romero. Night of the Living Dead was a great horror movie and worked well as social commentary, largely by forcing into the audiences consciences their own preconceptions. Want a hero? We’ll make him a handsome black man. Cool with that? Let’s give him a few anti-hero quirks. And let’s make one of the major points of conflict in the film a disagreement he has with an unlikable, misanthropic, vaguely racist middle-aged white man. And let’s make the unlikable white guy right in the end and imply that, by siding with the film’s hero, as we the good audience are supposed to do, we are complicit in the lost lives of nearly every character. Excellent, excellent movie that quietly and, I suspect, laughing all the while, forces the audience to confront themselves. Unfortunately, with each new zombie movie, George Romero makes the commentary louder, more obvious, more ridiculous, and more boring, until by the end of the cycle, the zombies are identified with proletariat revolt and living humanity with the sheltered and pampered rich. Or something equally eye-rolling.
Inverted World is more like early Romero, and achieves it largely by playing with a similar formula. For those that haven’t read it, and who are still reading this review, (you should really stop, go read it, it is only about 150 pages, and come back then) here is the setup. A city exists under a highly-regimented totalitarian government, ruled by an oligarchy of secretive guilds, with the most secretive of all being the “Futurist” guild. This entire city is on a train track and is constantly moving at a speed of one mile a day, and all life in the city is organized around keeping the city moving. Some guilds lay track, other guilds scout for places to lay track, another guild manages the engines of the giant city train. The government never explains why, but is quite adamant to the city’s very survival that this progression continue, and that to fall behind the speed of one mile a day will mean death for the city and everyone in it. Just in case you sympathize, the city has to practice a kind of white-slavery to survive, offering the primitive civilizations they pass technology in exchange for women, because almost all women born in the city are born infertile.
Our hero is born into this city and is slated to join the secretive Futurist guild. As a young man, he and his wife are repulsed by the nature of the government in their city, and secretly plan to change things. She will climb the ranks of the guild that administers internal city affairs, while he climbs the ranks of the Futurist guild that has the greatest influence, but whose purpose is also the most unknown.
This is around page 50, and the reader is thinking “Okay, this kind of book. That’s cool, interesting setup at least.”
Wait a minute. I will not spoil how, but our hero, during the course of his work in the Futurist guild, learns the terrible secret that requires this way of life, and why, no matter what, no matter how inhumane the life required to keep the city moving at one mile per day, the city must stay moving at the rate of one mile per day. The threat of death and annihilation is very real, and very close, and, worse, the city has been falling behind its quota. There is no time, and his former idealism and progressivism now looks like well-meaning, but ignorant, suicide. His wife does not know what he knows, and his marriage becomes estranged as his wife becomes involved with a guerilla army seeking to overthrow the Futurist guild that the hero now knows must be preserved.
Let’s stop there and see what we have? We have something that both progressives and conservatives would recognize as describing their political beliefs. The progressive believes that the current status quo is unjust and that a few basic reforms, opposed by people whose power would be threatened by the change, would greatly improve it. And the conservative believes the progressives are ignorant of how the world really is, and that their well-meaning reforms are ignorant and ultimately dangerous. And Christopher Priest has succeeded in making us, the readers, identify with both sides. That’s a neat trick, one few other writers pull off.
He does resolve the underlying dilemma: the radicals end up being right all along, but by accident. They never really understood what the risk was until after it was too late. This comes back to Night of the Living Dead. The basement turns out to be the “right” place, not because the white character was actually smarter than the film gave him credit for. It was just dumb luck.
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