11. ‘Only Forward’ by Michael Marshall Smith

Only Forward is the latest read for my sci-fi and fantasy book club, and I was pretty excited to read it, especially as my edition featured a glowing introduction by Neil Gaiman. He promised weird, wacky, rule-breaking fiction. I suppose I got that, but sadly not in a good way.

[There are some plot spoilers in this review.]

Only Forward is set in the ‘City’. It is the future, and the City has sprawled so as to cover its country’s entire landmass. The City is so large, in fact, that it has divided into Neighbourhoods, which cater to their residents’ very specific interests, so every citizen can find the place that is perfectly suited to them, and they never have to leave. For example, if you like colour, you can live in Colour, where the streets will change colour to match your outfit. Or if you’re a workaholic, you can live in the Action Centre, where everybody is always in a meeting. In this way, humanity has divided itself up and stagnated. But there are a few adventurous types who haven’t, and one of these is our hero, Stark. He’s a private investigator, and when the story begins he’s about to be enlisted to find a missing man.

I started out liking this book. I found it fresh and exciting, and I enjoyed how Smith played with storytelling conventions. For example, Stark would allude to things and then say to the reader, “I might tell you about it later, if it’s relevant.” I liked the world of the City and the weirdness of the Neighbourhoods. I liked the sarcastic, emotional AI, and Stark’s “oh, I forgot to tell you that, use your imagination” asides to the reader. Maybe in a short story that tone would have sustained its impact, but stretched over an entire novel it started to feel forced. And that’s before I get into the other problems I had with this book.

First, oh my God, I have had enough of the ‘I am gruff and damaged and nobody understands me’ lead male character. Even more, I’m sick of that character being absolutely brilliant at everything, but nobody else appreciates how great he is (looking at you, Ready Player One). Stark is exactly the kind of emotionally repressed, uber-talented, faux-humble protagonist who gets right up my nose. There’s a moment in this book when Stark is with someone else (let’s call them Person B), and something scary is happening primarily to Person B, and Stark’s narrator voice says something like, “In terrifying moments, the human spirit can rally and you can find a deep well of strength you never knew you had.” Oh good, I thought, Person B is really going to come through here. And then Stark does something to save Person B, and you realise that when he was talking about the incredible strength of the human spirit, he was talking about himself. Yay.

Secondly, the women in Only Forward are eye-roll-worthy. They are all attractive, they are all attracted to Stark, and they all turn into weeping messes whenever they’re left alone with him. They might hold their own when other people are around, but as soon as he gets them by themselves they crumble and cry and ask him what, oh what should they do?! Also, there’s a moment where Stark is saying goodbye to his cat (who can kind of understand human speech) and a woman, and he tells the cat to look after her. A cat is higher up the handling-things scale than a human woman.

OK, I can feel myself getting wound up now, so I’ll just briefly mention the fact that most of the hijinx were so ludicrous and unlikely that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, and that I ended up rolling my eyes at every other page. Let’s get to the real meat of my problem with Only Forward, which is this: it is at least 50% a dream sequence. About halfway through, we leave the rich and interesting world of the City and enter ‘Jeamland’, a magical place that we all go to when we dream, but which Stark (because he is a Very Special Man) is able to access while he’s awake. Now, I don’t like dream sequences in 99% of cases, but they’re usually blessedly short. Not so in the case of Only Forward. From when he first enters Jeamland to the end of the fucking book, Stark spends almost all his time there. We are ‘treated’ to extended descriptions of weird jungles (it’s like a real jungle but kind of pixelated!), bizarre medieval castles (you can climb the tower by, like, not worrying about falling!) and gross-out nightmares (there’s a policeman chasing me, and now there’s a scary baby, and now someone’s stabbing themselves! Woah!). And the whole rest of the novel plays out in this bloody place. Imagine someone describing their dreams to you for three hours. Nobody enjoys that. It’s famously tooth-grinding. What on earth possessed Smith to do that with half of his book?!

In the end, I couldn’t have given less of a toss what happened to Stark, or the missing man he was hunting, or his bevy of teary-eyed admirers. Or even his cat. Only Forward tries to make decent point about growing up, moving past tragedy and putting your past behind you, but it does so in such an unbearable, misguided way that I absolutely couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Oh, book club will be fun next week!

“I’m surprisingly gentle with my clients. I wish someone would be that nice to me.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If (for someone reason) you want to read it, you can buy Only Forward here.


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