Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Only Forward’

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews, Reviews Leave a Comment

I first read Only Forward 20 years ago when I was 18, shortly after it came out. Now I’m 38 and just reread it, and it blew me away just as much as it did back then. For a debut it is phenomenal. For any book it is phenomenal – there is just SO MUCH STUFF in it, all of it cool, fascinating, prescient – I highlighted a section and got my wife to read it too and it made us both smile – about a tablet screen that shows where you are on a map and gives you directions and flashes up relevant information with little beacons. Published in 1994. Come on!

It’s about a badass detective type of noir sci-fi guy Stark, whose snark is worse than his bite, who we get to see in 3 sort of incarnations. First up is the City, superb sci-fi following the puzzle of a kidnapped ‘Actioneer’. Michael Marshall Smith (MMS) whizzes us around various Neighborhoods, like Colour and Cat and Turn and Idyll and others, all of which contain people who live for certain things and certain things only. Colour is fashion. Turn is, uh, violence? Idyll is peace and calm. Cat is cats. Etc..

It’s a great premise and great fun to whomp around in. Then at the midpoint things shift dramatically. We leave the City and enter Stark’s area of true expertise, the mind. There’s a whole bucket load of cool, dreamy stuff in here. It goes fantasy, kind of, and spiritual dream wandery, and what we might call litRPG these days. The pace may slow a little, the horror grows pretty nauseating and we do spend a lot of time questing, but it’s all inventive and it holds me through.

Finally, we get the third story – I won’t lay it out as that would be a major spoiler – it’s more a short story than a novel-sized section, but it serves as the spine of everything that came before, gives us Stark’s backstory, and connects both the previous story-halves to the real world in a way that kind of presaged everything MMS (and Michael Smith and Michael Rutger – the author’s latter incarnations) would go on to write: fantasy, sci-fi, and how these things underlie ‘real’ reality like dreams beneath a frozen wave.

A major trip. I love it. As another reviewer on Amazon said – I’ll leave it another 20 years and reread. There’s so much here I probably didn’t fully grasp the first time round – like Stark’s world-weary comments on his own life choices, displaying some real understanding of ‘the human condition’. I look forward to it – and in the meantime, I’ll be picking up One of Us for sure to reread, then moving on to Hannah Green, and pretty much the rest of MMS/MS/MR’s ouevre.

Read it now, and then 20 years later too!

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