(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The opening sentence of this novel is “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles”; it has justly become one of the most famous in science fiction. In its skewed perception, it neatly encapsulates the radical and original idea that lies behind this book. The inverted world is one of the few truly original ideas to have been developed in contemporary science fiction.

The slow revelation of the nature of the world is beautifully handled, and Helward’s journey to the South, full of vivid images, dramatically demonstrates both the nature and the threat of the world. Christopher Priest contrasts this closed universe with the closed society of the city, which, because of its isolation in a threatening environment, has become rigid and hierarchical. Helward starts by being opposed to the hierarchy and to the institutionalized secrecy, but as he learns more about the nature of his world he comes to accept the need for these restrictions, even though they come to separate him from his wife, Victoria.

In a devastatingly effective coup de théâtre, Priest produces a final revelation that twists everything that has gone before. The more Helward has accepted the hierarchy, the less he is able to accept the truth about the real nature of his world.

Elizabeth, the intruder from the normal world who appears at the end to reveal the truth about Earth City, is rather like a deus ex machina, nowhere near as fully realized as...

(The entire section is 516 words.)