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Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsMichael Marshall Smith became one of British SF’s biggest names to watch in the ’90s. Occasionally he drops the “Smith” from his name for mainstream horror thrillers like 2002’s The Straw Men. His debut Only Forward, which didn’t arrive on US shores until 2000, is a highly energetic piece of writing that makes a bizarre attempt to cross the sensibilities of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick with those of Douglas Adams or John Brunner at his most acerbic and satirical. It’s Blade Runner done up as a peculiar farce, and only some of the time do you feel like you’re in on the joke. There’s no denying the book is very readable and entertaining, and often quite funny. The problem is in determining whether or not this was the appropriate approach to the material for Smith to have taken. There are many scenes that are very dark and suspenseful, and the whole book has that gritty edge to it that dystopian fiction is known for. Frequently, this clashes with often cartoonish characters and scenes in which our hero argues with sarcastic household appliances. But overall, Only Forward is the work of a fertile imagination running wild, and we could always do with more of that SF.

The story’s future is one of those so outré it could only exist in a book such as this one. There are no more countries or even cities. The human race has developed self-governing Neighborhoods with distinct rules and boundaries, many of which are outlandish. There’s a Neighborhood just for fat people, one for computer geeks, and one where no noise at all is allowed. The one where our hero lives, Color, has buildings and sidewalks that change color to match your outfit as you walk down the street. I can tell you right now that if you’re not able to suspend your disbelief for something this outlandish, you’re not going to warm to this book. But Smith’s brisk sense of humor, though it may take a chapter or two to acclimate to, helps you along. 

Our hero, Stark, is an investigator specializing in missing persons. Stark is hired by a friend from the Neighborhood of Action Center — comprised entirely of office buildings where busy bureaucrats called Actioneers work for places with names like the Department of Doing Things Really Quickly — to find a missing colleague named Alkland. Kidnapping is suspected, but who would have the resources to abduct an Actioneer?

Stark traces Alkland to the Neighborhood of Stable, which has sealed itself off from the outside world so completely that most of its populace are unaware there even is one. Risking the mandatory death sentence that sneaking in to Stable usually brings, Stark locates Alkland, and when he learns the real story behind the Actioneer’s disappearance, he and Alkland find themselves on the run for their lives.

I couldn’t be more impressed with Smith’s inventiveness. This plot consistently keeps you guessing, and there are more than a few swell surprises to trip you up just when you think it’s safe to grow complacent. Is Smith in control of his creation at all times? I don’t think so. As I mentioned, some scenes, characters, and concepts take absurdism to realms where many readers won’t wish to follow. But it’s pretty clear that any excesses are the result not of talent failing ambition, but working its damnedest to rise to it. The career of Michael Marshall Smith, both in and out of SF, is one worth following, and this is a fine place to get started.