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May 05, 2008

Our first science fiction book. That wasn't so hard, was it?

1379041746_0e11636e82 Today NYRB Classics enters a new, technologically advanced era. Today we publish Christopher Priest's mind-bending 1974 novel, The Inverted World. Christopher Priest has a chestful of science-fiction medals. He's won two British Science Fiction Association awards (the first for The Inverted World), an Arthur C. Clarke, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and the World Fantasy Award, his book The Prestige was made into a film by Chrisopher Nolan of Memento fame. He's the real deal.

In describing The Inverted World, the phrase "Hard Science Fiction" invariably comes up. I'm sure I used it myself with feigned authority on several occasions. It was only when I read John Clute's informative introduction to the book, that I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. Thank you Mr. Clute for setting me straight, and also for sending me to the dictionary to look up several unknown words that were strange and wonderful enough to require immediate clarification.

Hard SF can be defined as that kind of science-fiction tale in which a clearly defined protagonist (almost always male) leaves his endangered world on a great adventure, during the course of which he begins to understand the true nature of his world and comes to grips with the danger that threatens it through a clearly defined, science-based cognitive breakthrough. A new world is then born, which the hero will monitor for the sake of his folk, in a manner consistent with Joseph Campbell’s description of the culture hero in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). The Hard SF tale carries its hero from cognitive darkness to conceptual light, and no stylistic fog, no problematic of any sort, should compromise that powerful movement.

And then Clute proceeds to explain the ways in which Priest's novel confounds and subverts the genre it had taken on. It all makes for agreat, perplexing, absorbing reading experience, one that's unlike any other to be found on the NYRB Classics list.

Illustration by Clic Me via Flickr


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