All at sea

Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)

This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.

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Traveller between worlds

The Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Photo credit: Union Pacific Museum
Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Credit: Union Pacific Museum

Philip Reeve Railhead
Oxford University Press 2016 (2015)

Imagine yourself at the end of the second millennium. Or maybe a lot later. Everything around then would be unimaginable, right? Just like our current world would be unimaginable to anyone living under Norman or Plantagenet rule if they were plucked from their time into ours. But some things would be similar, surely? Perhaps the romantic appeal of train locomotives would somehow allow these machines to linger in some form, graffiti art still plastering the sides of engines and carriages, but maybe they’d have some kind of personality hardwired in. And people would still love train travel so much that, like petrolheads with cars today, they would be known as railheads.

This is just what Philip Reeve has concocted in the first of a new series of novels. Here he has trains taking on a similar nostalgia mantle with which his traction cities and airships were clothed for his earlier sequence, the wonderful future steampunk series beginning with Mortal Engines. As with Mortal Engines and its prequels he plays with themes exploring whether artificial intelligence can ever develop human qualities such as empathy, loyalty and even love. It is to his credit that, however preposterous his concepts might seem when baldly spelled out, he nevertheless manages to create a credible universe to house them, with enough back references to our own times to lever our suspended disbelief into this future dystopian cosmos.

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Making tracks

tracks

China Miéville Railsea Pan Books 2013 (2012)

Imagine a world covered in railway tracks, the occasional settlement sticking out like an island in the ocean. This is the Railsea, a non-aquatic environment sailed by merchants, pirates, navies, hunters, explorers and scavengers in trains of every size and shape, powered by every means of locomotion you can imagine. China Miéville’s collision of steampunk and dystopia has the young hero, Sham ap Soorap and a pair of siblings — orphans all — off on quests to find the answers to secrets that beset them, holy grails that reveal either whether a mythical goal is real or the truth behind the disappearance of their birth parents. Could it be that both quests are destined to converge onto the same single track?

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