Ian's Reviews > Only Forward

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
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's review
Feb 13, 2008

liked it
Recommended to Ian by: Philip K
Recommended for: Sci-fi/Lit fans. But not sci fi or lit fans.

I'm giving this one a good review because I thought that elements of only forward were greater than the sum of it's parts. As a collective, the novel really doesn't hold together all that well but when you examine it's finer pieces there are some really beautiful things at play here.

I picked up Only Forward because I am presently going back and reading all the Philip K Dick award winners. For those of you who don't know, the award is given each year for the best annual sci-fi novel that did not receive a hard cover publication. Dick never received a hardcover publication in his lifetime which was why the award was created. I've read some phenomenal books as a result, including one of my favorites 'Altered Carbon' by Richard K Morgan. Altered Carbon is brutal, hard-boiled, and very conventional cyberpunk and I think that when Michael Marshall Smith gave some of the readers who left bad reviews here a taste of something similar they fully expected him to run in that direction.

Instead, at almost exactly the halfway point, Only Forward slips right off the deep end. All of the conventional worlds and detail that Smith has established are eliminated and it's almost as though we start completely from scratch again. It's quite a leap of faith he makes with his readers to expect them to come along for the ride and I have to admit I found the next 75 or so pages to be a little bit of drudgery.

Eventually he started to reel me back in with characters and backstory that I found extremely compelling. Perhaps I was in just the right mood for it but the ending was a perfect pitch of sadness and satisfaction, despite the fact that (due to the unreliable narrator) Smith jammed a TON of exposition into the last 50 pages.

So I suppose I was finally able to suspend my disbelief enough to let the themes play out and just come along for the ride, though I can understand enough why some readers just couldn't. Upon reflection I found that the sci-fi aspects of the book were actually pretty conventional and cliche, almost satirically so. It's the plunge and what follows after which was really unique and satisfying.

There is a lot here that DOESN'T work though. While I found the Douglass Adams-y aspects of the writing entertaining (the bug finder made me laugh out loud), eventually they just dissapear and also it just DIDN'T fit together with the brutal and hard boiled aspects of the first half. To go from humorous jokes about the main characters shirt to women defecating on each other (an isolated element here but still) was just too much of a stretch for me. Also some of the material suffers because Smith just attempts to do too many things at once and it becomes unclear exactly WHAT he's shooting for. If the cyperpunk-ish city is meant as sci-fi than aspects of it (the cat city) need a clearer explanation for their existence than what he gives. If the incidental to what he was really trying to accomplish than (in my own limited opinion of course) he shouldn't have spent SO much time establishing it's rules.

If this all sounds vague and unclear than you have some idea of what it was like to read the second half of the novel.

Either way I found each of the individual elements of the story interesting individually even if they weren't cohesive. There were moments that I found Michael Marshall Smith actually managed capture horror in a way that you're conventional blood drenechd "horror" novels can only stab at (pun intended.) There are nightmares here that left me a little sick and uneasy as though they'd been my own. Parts of it are really funny. And some of it is really exciting. If you can get past the fact that it is inconsistent and just take the story as it evolves you may just have a good time.

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