Favourite re-reads: Only Forward (1994) by Michael Marshall Smith

Only ForwardThere was a recent article in SFX magazine about Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith. It made me determined to re-read it when I got the chance. And so the chance presented itself, because I’ll read what I want when I want, thank you very much for asking. I first came across Smith with Spares (1994) which I’d loved. I’d missed Only Forward on release but soon caught up, loving it at the time. I eagerly read and enjoyed One of Us too in 1998. Then nothing. No more science fiction from Smith. Seems he’d re-invented himself as a thriller writer, returning to speculative with the supernatural The Servants in 2007, again which I enjoyed, but it wasn’t what I remembered that I loved about his writing.

I picked up my battered old copy of Only Forward and headed off for a train journey, looking forward to an hour in its company. Sadly, my carriage (and pretty much the whole train) was full of loud and in some cases drunken lads – not bad for a Saturday morning – so my enjoyment was tempered. Sticking some Brian Eno on my ipod, I persevered.

Page 1. The Beginning. Once… I love stories that start at the beginning and with the world ‘once’. I feel like I’m going on an adventure and that there is a depth to it. And despite the distractions I was soon lost in Smith’s world of Stark, a kind of anti-hero noir-ish fixer, living in the far future with cool gadgets and cooler friends. Soon, the noir-ish quality is forgotten (although it’s narrated as if Stark is a detective and it has that black and violent quality to it) and it’s a proper science fiction adventure. There’s an element of exposition in the world-building, tell rather than show (but then I guess the novel would have been twice the size and subsequently less punchy) and bit of Checkhov’s gun rule early on as both Shelby and Brian are mentioned for no real reason (at the time).

Plot? Oh, of course. Someone has gone missing from a place that no-one usually wants to leave. Stark is tasked to find that someone, cos no-one else can. Stark’s future is one where a giant, sprawling city is divided into Neighbourhoods with distinct characteristics. He lives in Colour. His cat, Spangle (coolest name for a cat ever) lives in Cat. His friend (?) Zenda is from Idyll. So Stark goes off to find the missing someone and encounters old friends, adversaries and the truth about himself.

The style Smith writes in is a very dark version of Douglas Adams brought up on hard-boiled noir. Stark’s narration is written in such a way you feel he’s in the room talking to you and no-one else. He feels like your friend. There are even passages when it is like a conversation with the reader and Stark answers your questions or reacts to your facial expressions. Early on, you pick up on the humour “The elevator I took was clearly very annoyed about the whole thing…” which permeates throughout the novel, tempering the darkness and the brutality of the violence. I love the line about coffee kicking the shit out of alcohol molecules. Brilliant. Then the reaction when Stark is being shot at. His incredulity. Priceless.

And the plot moves on. Stark finds the missing someone but not all is as it seems. About half way through, it feels like this science fiction story is coming to an end. There is a niggle, by this point, however. This city, this City is meant to huge. Yet it doesn’t seem to take Stark long to cross Neighbourhoods. Maybe the scaling is a bit off, or maybe we’re not meant to think too about things like that. After all, the science fictional elements, such as the gadgets and technology are all described with an element of humour (the anti-bug device with a grudge against its owner, for example). Then, out of what seems like nowhere, the story takes an abrupt turn and becomes something else altogether. It doesn’t feel wrong, either. All part of Stark’s journey. Around this point, Stark admits he’s been lying to the reader too. Not everything is as it seems. I’d forgotten about this element to the storytelling. I began to wonder if it was a conceit Smith was using because he’d run out of ideas or he’d got the plotting a tad wrong. I started to wonder…

As the finale arrived everything seemed wrong. The set up and the reason why Stark came to find Jeamland was all wrong. It didn’t make sense. The clues – a stereo and mention of New York in particular – really jarred. This was a far future science fiction story with a side-step into another reality. Stark couldn’t exist in all three places. Could he? It made me think that Smith had perhaps couldn’t write an ending to his story. Was I right about the nature of the City feeling wrong? Had my doubts a solid ground? No. I was wrong. Me.

Should have trusted him, should’ve trusted the book – but I’m glad I hadn’t remembered the ending because when the reveal came, it made me think just how clever Smith is. I miss the science fiction of MMS. I miss the concepts and the characters he fills his world with and his vision of the future (interesting – and I positively hate the idea of science fiction as a predictive tool for the future – Smith almost nails it describing Google Maps on a Smartphone with a piece of tech Stark uses). I miss this kind of book. No-one else writes anything quite like Michael Marshall Smith and he is massively under-appreciated in the genre.

There are plenty of ideas and themes in Only Forward but I guess some of that depends on what the reader is bringing with them. I get a strong anti-capitalist, ant-corporate, almost anarchistic view of the world. It is about our own personal demons and how we carry them through our life and sometimes they make us a better person and sometimes a worse one. Monsters. Always about the monsters. Smith makes this as clear as you’d like “Monsters are always the most significant thing” I guess they are. However they’re defined, fiction wouldn’t work without monsters. It is about friendships and lost love. Flames that burn brightly and die too quickly. It is a love story to the past staying the past and the potential of the future. It’s also about books to some extent and the power of a story, although that only becomes clear towards the climax. I’ve written a few short stories in my time. Annoyingly, both in terms of style, world-building, message and characters, this is exactly the book I wished I’d written.

In the end, however, with the way the coda finishes (the final sentiment, closing the loop in the style it begun), it’s clear what this is. A fairy-tale. And a pretty darned good one at that.

I’m thrilled to had re-read Only Forward and while I didn’t recall the detail, I do remember the thrill I had from reading it the first time, and that thrill returned, especially when the plot all wove together in the conclusion. I’m going to keep my copy safe and pick it up in another couple of decade’s time and relish in it all over again.

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