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Authors: Christopher Priest

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BOOK: Inverted World
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The subject of conversation turned to our life in the crèche, and this immediately brought a new doubt to the surface. Until I had actually left the city, I had had no clear idea of what I would find. The teaching in the crèche had seemed to me—and to most of the others—dry, abstract, and irrelevant.

There were few printed books, and most of those were fictional works dealing with life on Earth planet, so the teachers had relied mainly on texts written by themselves. We knew, or thought we knew, much about everyday life on Earth planet, but we were told that this was not what we would find on this world. A child’s natural curiosity immediately demanded to know the alternative, but on this the teachers had kept their silence. So there was always this frustrating gap in our knowledge: what by reading we learned of life on a world which was not this one, and what by surmise we were left to imagine of the ways of the city.

This situation led to much discontent, evidenced by a surplus of unspent physical energy. But where, in the crèche, was the outlet? Only the corridors and the gymnasium gave space enough to move, and then with severe limitations.

The release was manifest in unrest: in the younger children emotional outbursts and disobedience, in older children fighting and passionate devotion to what few sports could be played in the tiny gymnasium … and in those in their last few miles before coming of age a premature carnal awareness.

There were token efforts at control by the crèche administrators, but perhaps they understood these activities for what they were. In any event, I had grown up in the crèche, and I no less than anyone else had taken part in these occasional outbursts. In the last twenty miles or so before coming of age I had indulged myself in sexual relationships with some of the girls—Victoria not among them—and it had not seemed to matter. Now she and I were to marry, and suddenly what had gone before did matter.

Perversely, the more we talked the more I found that I was wishing we could lay this ghost from the past. I wondered if I should detail my various experiences, explain myself. Victoria, however, seemed to be in control of the conversation, directing it along channels of mutual acceptability. Perhaps she too had her ghosts. She told me something of life in the city, and I was of course interested to hear this.

She said that as a woman she was not automatically granted a responsible position, and only her engagement to me had made her present work possible.

Had she become engaged to a non-guildsman, she would have been expected to produce children as often as possible, and spend her time on routine domestic chores in the kitchens, or making clothes or whatever other menial tasks came along. Instead, she was now able to have some control over her future, and could probably rise to the position of a senior administrator. She was currently involved in a training procedure similar in structure to mine. The only difference was that there appeared to be less emphasis on experience, and more on theoretical education. Consequently, she had already learnt far more about the city and how it was run internally than I had.

I didn’t feel free to speak of my work outside, so I listened to what she said with a great deal of interest.

She said that she had been told that there were two great shortages in the city: one was water—which I knew from what Malchuskin had said—and the other was population.

“But there are plenty of people in the city,” I said.

“Yes … but the rate of live births has always been low, and it’s getting worse. What makes this even more serious is that there is a predominance in the live births of male babies. No one is really sure why.”

“It’s the synthetic food,” I said sardonically.

“It might be.” She had missed the point. “Until I left the crèche, I had only vague notions of what the rest of the city might be like… but I had always assumed that everyone in it had been born here.”

“Isn’t that so?”

“No. There are a lot of women brought into the city in an effort to boost the population. Or, more specifically, in the hope they’ll produce female babies.”

I said: “My mother came from outside the city.”

“Did she?” For the first time since we had met Victoria looked ill at ease. “I didn’t know that.”

“I thought it would be obvious.”

“I suppose it was, but somehow I never thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.

Abruptly, Victoria fell silent. It really wasn’t of much concern to me, and I regretted having mentioned it.

“Tell me more about this,” I said.

“No … there’s not much more. What about you? What’s your guild like?”

“It’s O.K.,” I said.

Quite apart from the fact that the oath forbade me to speak about it, I felt no inclination to talk. In that abrupt silence from Victoria I had gained a distinct impression that there had been more to say, but that some discretion prevented her from doing so. For the whole of my life—or at least as much of it as I could remember—the absence of my mother had been treated as a matter of fact. My father, whenever we spoke of it, talked factually about it, and there seemed to be no stigma attached. Indeed, many of the boys in the crèche had been in the same situation as I and, what is more, most of the girls. Until the subject had provoked this reaction in Victoria, I’d never thought about it.

“You’re something of an oddity,” I said, hoping to get her to return to the subject by approaching it from a different direction. “Your mother is still in the city.”

“Yes,” she said.

So that was to be the end of it. I decided to let it drop. In any event, I hadn’t especially wanted to discuss matters outside ourselves. I had come to the city to spend my time getting to know Victoria, not to talk about genealogy.

But the feeling persisted; the conversation had died.

“What’s out there?” I said, indicating the window. “Can we go there?”

“If you like. I’ll show you.”

I followed her out of the room, and along the corridor to where a door led to the outside. There was not much to see: the open space was no more than an alley running between the two parts of the residential block. At one end of it there was a raised section, reached by a wooden staircase. We walked first to the opposite end, where another door led back into the city; returning, we climbed the steps and came out on a small platform, where several wooden seats were placed, and where there was room to move with some freedom. On two sides the platform was bounded by higher walls, presumably containing other parts of the city’s interior, and the side by which access was gained looked down over the roofs of the residential blocks and along the alleyway. But on the fourth side the view was uninterrupted, and it was possible to see out into the surrounding countryside. This was a revelation to me: the terms of the oath had implied that no one but guildsmen should ever see outside the city.

“What do you think?” Victoria said, sitting down on one of the seats which looked out across the view.

I sat next to her. “I like it.”

“Have you been out there?”

“Yes.” It was difficult; already I was finding myself in conflict with the terms of the oath. How could I talk to Victoria about my work without breaking what I had sworn?

“We’re not allowed tip here very often. It’s locked at night, and only open at some hours of the day. Sometimes it’s locked for several days on end.”

“Do you know why?”

“Do you?” she said.

“It’s probably … something to do with the work out there.”

“Which you’re not going to talk about.”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I can’t.”

She glanced at me. “You’re very tanned. Do you work in the sun?”

“Some of the time.”

“This place is locked when the sun’s overhead. All I’ve ever seen of it is when the rays touch the higher parts of the buildings.”

“There’s nothing to see,” I said. “It’s very bright, and you can’t stare at it.”

“I’d like to find that out for myself.”

I said: “What are you doing at the moment? In your work, I mean?”

“Nutrition.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s determining how to work out a balanced diet. We have to make sure that the synthetic food contains enough protein, and that people eat the right amount of vitamins.” She paused, her voice having reflected a general lack of interest in the subject. “Sunlight contains vitamins, you know.”

“Does it?”

“Vitamin D. It’s produced in the body by the action of sunlight on the skin. That’s worth knowing if you never see the sun.”

“But it can be synthesized,” I said.

“Yes … and it is. Shall we go back to the room and have some more tea?”

I said nothing to this. I don’t know what I had expected by seeing Victoria, but I had not anticipated this. Illusions of some romantic ideal had tempted me during my days working with Malchuskin, and from time to time these had been tempered by a feeling that perhaps she and I might have to adapt to each other; in any event it had never occurred to me that there would be such an undercurrent of resentment. I had seen us working together towards realizing the intimate relationship formed for us by our parents, and somehow shaping it in such a way that it would become a realistic and perhaps even loving relationship. What I had not foreseen was that Victoria had seen us both in larger terms: that I would be forever enjoying the advantages of a way of life forbidden to her.

We stayed on the platform. Victoria’s remark about returning to the room had been ironic, and I was sensitive enough to identify it. Anyhow, I felt that for different reasons we would both prefer to stay on the platform; I did, because my work outside had given me a taste for fresh air, and by contrast I now found the interior of the city buildings claustrophobic, and I supposed Victoria did, for this platform was as near as she could come to leaving the city. Even so, the undulating countryside to the east of the city served as a reminder of the newly discovered difference that separated us.

“You could apply to transfer to a guild,” I said in a moment, “I’m sure—”

“I’m the wrong sex,” she said abruptly. “It’s men only, or didn’t you realize that?”

“No …”

“It hasn’t taken me long to work a few things out,” she went on, speaking quickly and barely suppressing her bitterness. “I’d seen it all my life and never recognized it: my father always away from the city, my mother working in her job, organizing all those things we took for granted, like food and heating and disposal of sewage. Now I
have
recognized it. Women are too valuable to risk outside. They’re needed here in the city because they breed, and they can be made to breed again and again. If they’re not lucky enough to be born in the city, they can be brought from outside and sent away when they’ve served their purpose.” The sensitive subject again, but this time she didn’t falter. “I know that the work outside the city has to be done, and whatever it is it’s done at risk … but I’ve been given no option. Just because I’m a woman I have no choice but to be kept inside this damned place and learn fascinating things about food production, and whenever I can I have to give birth.”

I said: “Do you not want to marry me?”

“There’s no alternative.”

“Thanks.”

She stood up, walked angrily towards the steps. I followed her down, and walked behind her as she returned to her room. I waited in the doorway, watching her as she stood with her back to me, looking out of the window at the narrow alleyway between the buildings.

“Do you want me to go?” I said.

“No … come in and close the door.”

She didn’t move as I did this.

“I’ll make some more tea,” she said.

“O.K.”

The water in the pan was still warm, and it took only a minute or so to bring it back to boiling.

“We don’t have to marry,” I said.

“If it’s not you it’d be someone else.” She turned and sat beside me, taking her cup of the synthetic brew. “I’ve nothing against you, Helward. You should know that. Whether we like it or not, my life and yours is dominated by the guild system. We can’t do anything about that.”

“Why not? Systems can be changed.”

“Not this one! It’s too firmly entrenched. The guilds have the city sewn up, for reasons I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. Only the guilds can change the system, and they never will.”

“You sound very sure.”

“I am,” she said. “And for the good reason that the system which runs my life is itself dominated by what goes on outside the city. As I can never take part in that I can never do anything to determine my own life.”

“But you could … through me.”

“Even you won’t talk about it.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I can’t even tell you that.”

“Guild secrecy.”

“If you like,” I said.

“And even as you’re sitting here now, you’re subscribing to it.”

“I have to,” I said simply. “I was made to swear—”

Then I remembered: the oath itself was one of the terms of the oath. I had breached it, and so easily and naturally that it had been done before I’d thought.

To my surprise, Victoria reacted not at all.

“So the guild system is ratified,” she said. “It makes sense.”

I finished my tea. “I think I’d better go.”

“Are you angry with me?” she said.

“No. It’s just—”

“Don’t go. I’m sorry I lost my temper with you… it’s not your fault.

Something you said just now: through you I could determine my own life. What did you mean?”

“I’m not sure. I think I nieant that as the wife of a guildsman, which I’ll be one day, you’d have more of a chance of.

“Of what?”

“Well … seeing through me whatever sense there is in the system.”

“And you’re sworn not to tell me.”

“I … yes.”

“So first-order guildsmen have it all worked out. The system demands secrecy.”

She leaned back and closed her eyes.

I was very confused, and angry with myself. I had been an apprentice for ten days, and already I was technically under sentence of death. It was too bizarre to take seriously, but my memory of the oath was that the threat had been a convincing one at the time. The confusion arose because unwittingly Victoria had involved the tentative emotional commitment we had made to each other. I could see the conflict, but could do nothing about it. I knew from my own life inside the crèche the subtle frustrations that arose through being allowed no access to the other parts of the city; if that were extended to a larger scale—allowed a small part in the running of the city, but given a point beyond which no actions were possible—that frustration would continue.

BOOK: Inverted World
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