This article contains spoilers, and will probably be hard to comprehend without having read the novel in question. I highly recommend reading it, but for the purposes of this article, it should be sufficient to read Timarco’s (or Wikipedia’s) plot synopsis. Beware: It will not be the real thing.


In his review of “Inverted World”, James Timarco discusses the psychology and philosophy of the characters in the book:

What makes Inverted World shine like no other book is that it illustrates so perfectly how human beings create the context for their own suffering, yet this explanation never dulls the agony of Helward’s predicament. And while Helward’s story is tragic, the underlying narrative is hopeful. We create the chains that bind us, so therefore it must be possible for us to cast them off. But if we could do this, help one another to do it, would we know what to do when we got free?

Helward certainly doesn’t.

Inverted World by Christopher Priest
— James Timarco

The question Timarco poses is a very interesting and important one. As a general point, it definitely deserves a deeper discussion. Reasoning further, however, isn’t the question that follows immediately an even more profound one? A question that not only deserves, but merits a thorough philosophical examination and application to our lives? Why does Helward not know what to do? Why does he stubbornly refuse to accept “reality”? What is reality?

You could see his refusal as a loss of purpose and an existential angst. Essentially, Helward fears his newly-found freedom. But there is also another - more important - reason that directly follows this line of thought: Not the loss of purpose, but rather the loss of meaning.

Purpose and Meaning

First of all, what is purpose and what is meaning? Purpose is a direct need a person fulfills. In the context of the universe and evolution, no living thing has a purpose because no need is fulfilled. In the context of society, a person can have purpose. A farmer, for example, fulfills the need for food.

Meaning is something else entirely and there is no clear definition. In the existential sense, meaning is the significance one imparts on one’s own life. In what way that significance is imparted upon one is unique to the person. For the purposes of this text, meaning is lived experience and the reality that follows from it.

Suffering, sacrifice and reality

It is very important to acknowledge Helward’s anguish and the sacrifices he made for the city. For Helward (and Timarco also recognizes this), the hardship was real - he “create[d] the context for [his] own suffering”. The sacrifices and the suffering they bestowed upon Helward are no less real, no less tangible after he is told the “truth” about the world. After all, he experienced them; he was being shaped by them; they existed.

Helward’s whole life was the city. It gave purpose, but it also gave meaning. It made possible an interpretation and affirmation of one’s experience. For Helward, its struggle was real. Elizabeth tries to take away the most integral part of his existence. What would his life be without the city? But even more, what would it be without the world he knows is real? There would have been no need to keep the city moving, so the struggle would be meaningless. There would have been no need for labour, so bartering and murdering for it would be meaningless. In 200 years, the city travelled from China to the coast of Portugal, but that impressive feat would be meaningless. All of Helward’s experiences: suffering, toil, loss, but also love, joy, affirmation, and exaltation; all those would be meaningless because the world in which those experiences happened would not be real anymore.

A man can lose purpose (if there ever was one) and still enjoy life to its fullest, but he cannot lose meaning, for the loss negates everything he does. Creative art is still fulfilling without purpose, but if your life is meaningless, how can art - which is based on one’s experience, and therefore, one’s life - be meaningful? In sharing art, one shares one’s personality, the innermost part of oneself, with the world. There is not a purer form of expression than art. In trusting Elizabeth with his drawings, Helward reveals his experiences and his reality to her. She wants to understand, but never experienced the inverted world. His drawings would help, but Liz largely disregards them - she sees them as untrue, not fit for her reality.

After Elizabeth describes it, Helward knows that he cannot fit into this “new world”, and in truth he does not even want to. Accepting it would nullify everything, it would betray everything he did. His experiences now exist only in memory. But if he accepts reality, does he not also have to accept that his memories are not real? He cannot form a compromise, it must be one or the other.

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away."
"How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later"
— Philip K. Dick

Helward’s reality is that of the city and the inverted world around him. Will it go away if he stops believing in it or will it go away if the city’s reactor is stopped? If it is the latter, then his idea of reality cannot be less true than anyone else’s, for it was - in its time - true. Therefore, his life would have meaning. If it is the former, he will lose everything.

Does experience form reality or does reality form experience? And if you find your notion of the world challenged by a reality that would shatter your every experience, would you accept it? I certainly would not.