Inverted World

I used to be a astrophysics nerd wannabe.

The “wannabe” part is an apt qualifier: I was into the more popular culture and easily digestible aspects of astrophysics, but never quite pursued the college education that would vindicate that interest with the math and hard science techniques. I read popular science books like A Brief History of Time and Hyperspace fascinated by the topics discussed and the implications drawn, but knowing that I’d be utterly incapable of understanding the field equations and rigorous mathematical theorems that underlay the arguments made1.

Fortunately, there is an outlet for wannabe science nerds, and it comes in the form of science fiction. Sci-fi is satisfying because it gets to selectively employ just enough science to make stories seem believable, but not so much so that the rules constrain its worlds to boredom nor non-drama. Peter Hamilton, for instance, takes just enough scientific terms and facts and then blows them into pure unabashed crazy. For great entertainment.

I felt some of that vibe with Inverted World. The initial sentence is all sorts of amazing:

“I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.”

And the world which the protagonist and the story take place is intriguing precisely because of how abnormal and unconventional it seems, even as it uses terms and ideas that ought to be familiar. In thinking about the core premise a bit more, though, I’m not sure the actual science part of it holds up to even cursory scrutiny; when the rules of the universe aren’t backed up by more fundamental rules, then the book is not too far removed from the stacks of fantasy stories, two bookshelves over.

That said, Inverted World is considered a sci-fi classic for very good reason. It’s a wholly fresh take on the genre, builds an interesting world, tells its story with layers of subtlety and mystery, and does not overstay its welcome. It fleshes out systems that are realistically non-scifi, and continually provokes and invites interpretation via the use of loaded and familiar terminology. For my inner science nerd, this was a filling and wholly satisfying romp.

  1. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that at Cal, I was intending to minor in astrophysics or astronomy, but was persuaded to drop the ambition after my counselor said that my computer science major was hard enough alone. I still regret listening to that advice.

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