Only Forward

February 20th, 2005

Every once in a while, you’ll find yourself reading something that defies any sort of convenient genre classification. This one goes one step further than that, it is simultaneously several different genres, and perhaps fits best into none of them at all. For the first half of the book, it reads like straightforward, slightly pulpy, adventure sci-fi, but there are some niggling inconsistencies to it. Smith tells this story through a tight 1st-person perspective, and it seems (at first) like a pretty typical worldbuilding-style SF novel with touches of hard-boiled in the mysterious, but private-detective-like lifestyle of our protagonist, Stark. The world Smith creates is certainly interesting, an indeterminately far future society of super-metropolises (nations don’t really exist anymore, no one seemed to be terribly interested…) that cover most of the land mass, divided into politically sovereign Neighbourhoods that are organized, loosely or strictly, based on the preferred interests and lifestyles of their inhabitants. Stark lives in a mostly quiet Neighbourhood called Color, where everything (literally…walls, floors, lighting…all of it computer controlled by ubiquitous AI) is color coordinated in as aesthetically pleasing a fashion as possible, and changes on the fly to suit the mood and wardrobes of its inhabitants. At one point, Stark receives a message from one of the Neighbourhood’s coordinators, complementing him on what a pleasure it had been working with his pants that day. Color is just one of the neighbourhoods we are introduced to though. We also see the Action Center, a hypertensive Japanese executive’s idea of Heaven; Red, a near-anarchic sprawl of gangs, drugs, crime and poverty; Stable, a closed in colony of isolationists, living for centuries in their own little version of “The Truman Show”; and several other odd spaces. It’s an interesting idea, that a society enabled with instant mobility, ubiquitous information, and devices intelligent and flexible enough to replace humans for almost all menial and most intellectual labor, would divide themselves geographically into those areas which are dominated by people who share the same interests. You can’t help but envision other neighbourhoods that Smith doesn’t describe, and wonder what it would be like to live in the Star Trek neighbourhood, or the Anime neighbourhood, or whatever… But few books manage to just be about a setting, without having a plot, and this is no exception. Stark is hired by an old friend to search for a missing person, and goes about using his extensive personal contacts to do so. He gets into some action-packed adventures as he does so, in fashions that seem Matrix-esque to this reader, and wisecracks and ass-kicks his way through several scrapes as he tries to find his man, but as he describes all this action to us, something (to the attentive reader) just won’t seem to fit. Why does the narrator’s voice seem like it belongs to someone of our time? It’s hard to put a finger on where the anachronisms lie or why they might be there, as Stark rarely divulges any of his past and, most of the time, seems to fit into the fantastic world around him like it was built just for him to kick ass in…but there’s definitely something out of place, and Smith lets you in on it eventually. Suddenly, this book stops being Science Fiction featuring technology that is almost indistinguishable from magic, and starts being Fantasy. Fantasy of an elaborate sort, even, requiring a whole new round of world building and reconceptions of the characters and settings we’ve been exposed to so far. Eventually, you find yourself questioning everything, and everyone, around Stark…and finally Stark himself and the nature of his reality. This is a challenging book that sneaks up on you. It starts in as easy-going fun, and doesn’t lose its sense of humor throughout, but the plot is anything but straightforward and the setting is fractally complex. A surprising read, but if what I describe sounds interesting, I’ll recommend it. (P.S.: I have to thank “Greg G,” who recommended this book to me as “A Writer For People Who Like Warren Ellis” in one of Making Light’s open threads. There are numerous other interesting and excellent recommendations for reading material in that thread, and if you’re ever at a loss as to what to get when you’re headed out for a book, that would not be so bad a place to start.)

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