Early last year I picked up Christopher Priest’s 1974 science fiction novel The Inverted World. Briefly, The Inverted World takes place in a city whose survival depends on the work of a secretive guild whose members winch the city forward on rails, deconstructing and reconstructing the system as they go along, to keep the city safe from an impending and ruinous gravitational field. The city aims for something called the optimum, a theoretical point at which gravity is more or less normal, but which is doomed to fall further out of reach as the city, despite its workers’ best efforts, inches towards its own oblivion.

The world reveals itself to Helward Mann, the novel’s protagonist, when he is sent south of the city on assignment. As he ventures away from the optimum and the crush of the world’s gravity magnifies,...