Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith used to be a comedian. I never saw him perform, because he was long, long before my time, but I get the feeling he would have been one of those guys who tells the same old jokes in the same old ways, but is somehow funny despite all that. And then spends the second half of the evening telling a long long joke and wandering off before the punchline.

That’s not a criticism.

I’m serious about re-using material, though. A lot of things about this book are very familiar, particularly the jokes. The underlying tone is something in the vicinity of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, and Grant Naylor. It’s laid-back post-modern wittily ironically flippant British sci-fi humour. And it’s not just the style. Actual jokes are recycled, not in the form of words, but in the sense of concepts and scenes. In particular, there are five or six things lifted straight from Red Dwarf (some comic, some played straight). In that respect, it reminds me of the kind of collage-of-scenes effect in the Red Dwarf novels themselves, where familiar things from the series are rearranged and given new significance in the books.

Strangely, I didn’t find any of this a problem. Perhaps because he’s just so laid-back and post-modern and wittily ironically flippant about it all that it’s hard to get annoyed. A lot of it’s down to the fact he’s just really, really good at this. And part of it is the fact that this book isn’t about the humour. Take all of those comic writers, and then add some more specific, post-modern pastiche of Raymond Chandler, and of modern thrillers, and of William Gibson, and of some really nasty horror writers… and then make it not just be a pastiche, but also be seriously like that. This book is a) poking fun at the seriousness of other books and b) being serious in exactly the same way as those other books, and c) poking fun at itself for being serious while still being, deadly, serious. In other words, this book is genuinely ironic, in the way that doesn’t just mean “sarcastic”, or “culturally aware” or “cool”. Don’t read this book looking for a comedy. It’s a totally straight, totally serious thriller – which also happens to be very self-aware, and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

The narrator of Only Forward is also the protagonist, and he’s fully aware of his dual role. He sets out his stall as an unreliable narrator early on, and it just goes downhill from there. Repeatedly he refuses to tell us important things, instead suggesting that he may tell us later, “if it’s relevent”; other things, he refuses point-blank to go into. And of course just because he says something doesn’t make it true. This isn’t one of those “change the story every chapter” novels where you can’t take anything at face value, but… you can’t take everything at face value either. And that’s because the narrator isn’t playing some clever little game with the reader (he seems to dislike that sort of thing, dislikes us for trying to play, mocks those of us who realise things before he’s told us and think we’re ahead of the game), he’s just a real person. He doesn’t want to tell us everything, because people don’t like telling you everything. He tries to stick to telling just the facts, and whenever possible he refuses to talk about his emotions, or his history. In some ways, the story of the book is really us, the readers, interrogating the narrator until we get to the bottom of things, get everything dragged out in front of us.

I’ve started in the wrong place, but never mind. This narrator I’m talking about is Stark, and he’s not a private detective, and he doesn’t have a frosted glass door with his name on it, and he’s keen to tell us so. Any similarities between his voice and something from film noir are purely coincidental, or better still ironic. Because Stark is ice-cool, postmodern, totally detached. He just observes things, and does things, and is able to keep up a steady monologue that distances himself from them emotionally, including from himself. It’s made completely clear to us again and again: he just doesn’t care. When happens across a room full of decaying bodies stored by a serial-killing cannibal, for instance,  he wears his nonchalence upon his sleeve: “This particular human being was storing his kills and eating the oldest ones first, the babies cooked, the adults raw and seething with maggots. I wondered where he was now: out in Red somewhere, trawling for more, stocking up for the winter. I’m a broadminded guy, but honestly, some people.” Honestly, some people. Oh, and yes, this is a book with piles of corpses in it – and a book where purpose-bred prostitutes defecate on each other in bars for entertainment purposes, and where people stamp through the heads of talking foetuses. It’s really funny, though.

Of course, while Stark doesn’t care, it’s also obvious that he does care, about a lot of things – for Zenda Renn, for instance, the obligatory femme fatale who lures the cynical PI into an investigation that gives him more than he bargained for. Except she’s not some sultry seductress, she’s “a zappy, can-do kind of girl”, who “doesn’t take any shit” – she has to be, because she’s the Under-Supervisor of Really Hustling Things Along, at the Department of Doing Things Especially Quickly of the Action Centre. And today, she needs his help, because there’s an ultra-important Thing that Needs Doing and he’s the only man for the job…

Stark and Zenda live in the City, which is a city, divided into Neighbourhoods, which are neighbourhoods, only this is in the future, so the neighbourhoods are self-governing communities with no central authority. With hundreds of self-governing Neighbourhoods, everyone can live in the community they want, so naturally these communities have gone a little extreme. Or insane, depending on your point of view. The Action Centre is one of those Neighbourhoods: it’s where people go who really need to be doing things, all the time. Stark, meanwhile, lives in Colour – where the streets are controlled by supercomputers to change colour to complement the clothing of the people walking down them, and the walls inside houses change colour to show the time of day.

I don’t have to tell you that there’s more to Stark’s “Thing that Needs Doing” than meets the eye. Because there always is, isn’t there? But not like this – honestly.

Only Forward is a taut, slick, gripping, dark, hilarious thriller-noir, for the first third of the novel. Flicking back through it, it’s incredible how much is packed into that first third. It’s maybe 100 pages, but I’ve read books five or six or seven times that size that have less action in them. Which isn’t to say that it feels rushed, oh no: there’s lots of details, lots of descriptions, lots of internal monologue and distractions and jokes. Going back to influences, I think there’s a fair bit of The Stars My Destination about this book, including the manic, rollercoaster pace and enthusiasm, but Smith does it better than Bester. I don’t read thrillers, I don’t read popular mainstream books, I barely read mainstream books at all, but I’m really tempted now to buy some of Smith’s (as “Michael Marshall”), because the guy can pound the heart!

But Only Forward isn’t about that either. The first third of the book is like the femme fatale at the beginning of the noir – the alluring, inviting, promising hook that gets us caught in something far bigger, far nastier, and far more dangerous than we first thought. It’s like going down very fast on a rollercoaster… and then having the tracks derail at the bottom, and there’s a horrible moment of hanging in the air, or in this case thinking to yourself “what the fuck is going on?”, which is particularly cruel, as somebody’s very kindly just explained what the fuck is going on, and that seemed like an interesting thing at the time but now we’re just on a whole nother plateau of what-the-fuck.

From that point on, things slow down and start to think a little more, only not really in a plot sense, because there’s still a lot of running away and escaping from things. Only now there’s more walking slowly around wandering what the fuck is going on, too. And a lot more psychological stuff; and in terms of what’s going on, things have turned in a direction that almost can’t be reconciled as the same book as the first third. And then things turn around again, because the third third takes it in another new direction, or more than one, because those gaps in the tracks get more frequent, to the point where you can’t tell if they’re there or not. By which I mean: I don’t know if there’s an incredibly massive twist at the end or no twist at all, because when you’ve been spun around that much, it’s hard to judge what’s straight and what’s twisty. If I wrote down what happened I’d think there was a massive twist, but when I read it, it all seemed to happen very naturally… the title of the book is appropriate here, because there’s no going back in this book. It continually adapts and evolves, in the way that dreams change what they’re about as you go through them. And no matter how much you want to go back to the earlier part, no matter how much you want to wrap things up neatly before you go on, you can’t. As Stark says, you can never plan it all out in advance, because things just happen, and you just have to react to them one thing at a time.

It’s still a thriller, just as it’s still noir, it’s still sci-fi, it’s still comedy, and maybe it’s still horror, but it’s more than any of those things. This is work that really captures the spirit of the speculative genre: not adherence to old rules and to old classifications, but an infusion with a sense of wonder, a sense that anything can happen, a sense that anything can be happening because what really when you get right down to it the fuck is going on? It’s unclassifiable.

I’m sure some people will take exception to all this and wish it were a simple thriller in a simple, rather comic, SF setting. And they’ve got a point, because the first third of the novel is definitely the best part of it. But that’s kind of like a guy saying that he thinks his girlfriend’s breasts are the most beautiful part of her body, and that he therefore would prefer it if her entire body were made solely out of breasts. Aesthetically speaking the man may have a point, but he’s also missing the actual point completely. If the whole of the book were like the start of the book, it would only be fairly funny and extremely fun. And like a well-formed nipple, that’s no bad thing. But Only Forward endeavours to be a lot more than just that. By going down so many different directions – and remaining gripping throughout! – it forces itself, twists itself, into additional dimensions. This isn’t a book that leaps out of the page at you – it’s a book that drops down into it and lets you fall into the void it’s created.

People may also complain about the end. There’s kind of a brick-wall quality to it, with the final one-page epilogue being the most contemptuously wrappy-uppy summary I’ve ever read. It will probably piss a lot of people off, but I think that might be intentional. The real story, after all, has been wrapped up by then – it’s just that there’s a lot of unreal story to be dealt with too, so to speak.

I think there are, beside the THWACK issue two potential problems with the end. One is that I’m not sure it makes sense. Or rather – it does make sense in itself, but I don’t think it’s the only “solution” possible, the only interpretation that makes sense, and the fact it’s accepted as one so quickly makes me suspicious. It’s conventional in unreliable narrator books to have the truth be arrived at in the end, but I can’t shake the feeling that maybe the entire book is a lie, and the actual conclusion is exactly the opposite of the one we’re given. I have no evidence for this at all. I just… I don’t know. And the second thing is that the end might seem a little twee, a little simple, a little shallow for what’s gone before. Then again, that’s sort of the point, I guess, in a way. I think it’s true that we don’t arrive at the end with any great insight that we wouldn’t have had before. It’s the story, and the telling of it, that matter, not the conclusion.

The novel is perhaps a little shallow, a little predictable-in-hindsight (though utterly not so when you’re actually reading it), a little re-used, a little rough around the edges, and ultimately not quite as satisfying as it might be. But that doesn’t stop it being a remarkable book – because this isn’t high literature, it’s a thriller-that’s-a-little-more. A lot more, really, but it keeps the priorities of something more strictly entertaining, and doesn’t worry too much about perfection.

In other words, this is an excellent book for people who like mindless thrillers but want a touch of class and variety and can cope with extreme confusion, or for people who like serious, interesting books but like a little guilty pleasure too. If you’re purely a popcorn reader, you’ll probably find this too weird and incomprehensible for you, and if you’re purely an art reader, you’ll find this a little too clunky and cliché. If you like a good crossover, however, this may be the book for you…

Adrenaline: 5/5. The first third is the most exciting, but the rest, if you can cope with the sudden changes in tone and direction and the more thoughtful orientation of the later book, is a very long way from dull. I read the entire book in one day, almost in one sitting.

Emotion: 3/5. The book begins very callous and unfeeling, but a lot emotion comes into it later, particularly toward the end, and if I were being more generous I might give it a 4.

Thought: 4/5. It doesn’t get top marks, because it’s not quite perfectly measured enough to be a great mystery, and the moral and metaphysical questions aren’t explored sufficiently. However, the setting presents some great ideas, the constantly mutating plot keeps your brain constantly on its feet trying to work out what’s going on, let alone what’s going to happen next and what it turns out happened before, and the conclusion is provocative, if not wholly convincing.

Beauty: 2/5. There are the odd lines that are nice, but by and large the prose doesn’t aim for prettiness. Some of the imagery and the concepts could be beautiful, but that’s not their focus. Meanwhile, in purely content terms, there’s a lot of really hideous, repulsive (physically and morally) stuff in here.

Craft: 4/5. The writing is excellent – exciting and funny and even affecting. No complaints there at all. I do feel, however, that the structure could have been a little better. The derailments will put a lot of people off, and felt a bit rushed and unsophisticated, and likewise the end didn’t quite fit together smoothly (and one minor element of it really doesn’t make sense, come to think of it). Actually, exposition in general was a weakness, sometimes feeling too much like infodump. Then again, this was the man’s first novel, a certain roughness is to be expected.

Endearingness: 4/5. Not perfectly satisfactory when you put it all together, and some ugliness along the way. On the other hand, it was really fun to read, and very funny, too, and I’ll certainly be reading it many more times in the future.

Originality: 4/5. The result is totally different from any other book; but a lot of the componants, from scenes to images to concepts to maybe some dialogue, to tone, to tropes of plot, are borrowed from elsewhere (probably intentionally in most cases, since a high degree of familiarity is part of how thrillers work).

Overall: 6/7. Very Good.

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Question

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Should I continue to post nothing in the hope of soon becoming the most famous empty blog on the internet?