“I made a mental note to tell the next Street Engineer I met that they were doing a damn fine job. Sort of an embarrassing thing to think, but I knew it was safe; I always lose my mental notes.”
Glad I’m not the only one. I had some intelligent things to say about Only Forward, but I can’t find my mental sticky notes. I do know that I found the beginning undeniably clever and almost unputdownable. My reading updates show chuckling and snerking through the first hundred pages.
“Working out what that might be was going to be important, and I put a memo in my mental file to have a crack at it when I could be bothered. My mental memos are different from my mental notes: I always do something about them eventually, and they’re typed so I can read what they say.”
And then suddenly my updates stopped, because, damn, that shit started to get real, going from world-weary, cynical humor to semi-thriller to something deeper and more devastating.
“I could defend myself, say it isn’t easy… but I won’t, because that’s not the point. The point is too deep, too personal and too small to explain. The point is not for spectators. Nothing that’s important, really important, looks impressive, because it only means something to the person that does it. Staying alive, for example, not dying: it looks so easy, but sometimes it’s almost too difficult to be borne.”
A really good book that is unlike most things I’ve read, but perhaps similar in tone and scope to The Gone-Away World, Cursed or Pandemonium. Probably some people might feel there is a similarity with Vonnegut, but it’s been a very long time since I read him, and I found Stark to be far more accessible than any of Vonnegut’s characters. All take a skewed view of the world, people sort of making connections and an emotional undercurrent to make something quite interesting. First published in 1994, it feels amazingly current in 2017. Note: also an award winner, with the British Fantasy Award in 1995 and the Philip K. Dick award in 2000.
Set in an America of the future, it is one we can almost recognize, where cities have become something like gated communities known as Neighborhoods, where people of a kind can band together and really support what they believe in. Some of these cities make perfect sense, such as Idyll, “an old Neighborhood, where people come and go quietly and peacefully. They don’t care about anyone else, and they have no argument with anyone. They just want to be left alone to be kind and gentle to each other. I know that sounds kind of weird, but it works for them.” Some are just futuristically weird, like Color, where the narrator, Stark lives. Color has color rules, including a strict after-dark black jacket code.
Someone who is clearly quite important to Stark, although it isn’t exactly clear how or why, asks him for a favor, to find someone who has gone missing from the Type A Neighborhood. It is unprecedented, and while Stark wonders “which kind of job this might be,” it seems straightforward so he agrees.
Much of the story is like that; Smith tells us what we need to know, but we know Stark is holding things back. And that’s fine. He’s wit is as dry as pixie dust, but it’s as funny as hell. For instance, take his description of trying to answer the phone:
“It was a long and arduous journey, full of trials, setbacks and heroic derring-do on my part. I was almost there, for example, when I ran out of cigarettes, and had to go back to fetch another packet.”
Then there’s catching up with an old friend:
“We chewed the rag for a while. I recapped the last few months, mentioned a couple of mutual acquaintances I’d run into. Ji told me his land had expanded another half mile to the north, which explained his bars continued existence, recounted a couple of especially horrific successes and used the word “fuck” just over 400 times.”
At his business meeting:
“‘Uh-huh,’ I said, reeling under the impact of so much bad film dialogue. “So put a trace on him. “
The humor eventually fades somewhat, leaving a different, more emotionally sincere tone in its wake. It ended up having more of an emotional impact than I expected, particularly for a book that had me giggling through the beginning.
Visiting different Neighborhoods gives Stark a chance to engage in entertaining social commentary. It’s soon apparent Mr. A has left his Neighborhood, which means we get to visit some of the other ones nearby. The world-building doesn’t make a ton of literal sense; I suppose one could think of it as metaphorical, and indeed it is a commentary on how we choose to live with those like us, but his vision is also extremely interesting.
I unquestionably enjoyed it most of the way through, but found the ending… not at all what I expected. It took a turn that didn’t entirely work for me and called into question most of the preceding story. That’s an unsettling feeling to have in a book, but I think it was unsettling in a good way, raising questions about authorial intent, narrators, etc. Wastrel has a nice analysis of the book. I admit, most of that didn’t occur to me when reading, which is, I think, the better kind of revolutionary story. It was only much later after reading that I thought of the Vonnegut comparison, who honestly, was kind of a chore in high school, even when I read him for fun. I actually started re-reading this all over again, enjoying it just as much. One of those book you keep thinking about after finishing. Read at your own risk.