Donovan's Reviews > Only Forward

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
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Feb 06, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: sci-fi
Read in September, 2011

A mind trip!!! If you want something that is off the wall, then this is it.

Plot ***Spoilers***
Only Forward opens with a small boy left on his own in a flat. The boy answers a knocking on the front door of his high rise flat to find a man with no head standing on the doorstep. The man cannot speak, but the boy knows he is asking him for help. Upon hearing the 'ping' of the lift door bell - indicating the return of his mother - The boy apologises and explains that he cannot help him, he closes the door and returns to playing games like most children.

The first chapter opens with the main character Stark accepting a job from actioneer Zenda Renn. Stark is a private detective in The City and is charged with the task of retrieving missing actioneer Fell Alkland from the hands of kidnappers, Alkland is a high ranking Actioneer in The Action Centre, his disappearance is causing concern for the whole Centre.

Stark uses his contact Ji, a ganglord in Red neighbourhood, to discover that Alkland is being held in Stable. Stable is a closed and heavily guarded area of the city whose residents believe they are the only survivors of a nuclear war. This is an ideal place for the kidnappers to hold their victim as no-one can get in or out. The neighbourhood is zealously guarded by its authorities to perpetuate the inhabitant's belief that there is nothing beyond the city walls but a radioactive wasteland.

After some initial difficulty entering Stable, Stark locates Alkland easily. Together they escape the hotel that Alkland is staying at just as the Stable police arrive - presumably to arrest Alkland and find out why a non-resident had suddenly appeared in their city. Stark and Alkland make their way to the roof of Stable, escaping from the police on an antique heliporter, with the help of a friend of Stark's named Shelby. During the escape Alkland explains to Stark that he wasn't kidnapped, but left the Action Centre of his own free will. He was able to enter Stable with the help of a contact, by hiding inside a weather control computer provided to Stable by the scientist neighbourhood of NatSci.

They make their way back to Stark's flat in Colour to find Zenda Renn waiting there. She discovered a bug in her office at the Action Centre and was frightened enough to leave and ask Stark for help. Stark notices that Alkland has been looking ill since he left Stable, and in particular seems to be suffering from bad dreams. After ordering some pizza and deciding what to do, an explosion from a proximity bomb in the flat's kitchen is set off by the pizza delivery girl. Stark, Zenda and Alkland leave the flat - Zenda returning to The Action Centre with Spangle (Stark's cat) and Stark and Alkland escaping the ACIA (the Action Center police unit), who arrived on the scene after the bomb they planted exploded.

Stark and Alkland make their way through Sound and onto a monorail to Eastedge, where Stark thinks that he can cure Alkland of a 'something' which has been causing Alkland to suffer from bad dreams, and get progressively sicker. With the help of another friend in Eastedge, Stark and Alkland are able to enter Jeamland by walking off the beach and onto now solid ground where the sea was. Stark explains that Jeamland is a kind of collective unconscious where it's possible to reach the place which your dreams come from, and in Alkland's case find the 'something' that is causing him to have bad dreams. Within Jeamland, Alkland meets and faces down one of his monsters - a giant tiger-like animal from the depths of his nightmares. After encountering the tiger, they reach the relative safety of a castle. Whilst taking the opportunity to relax and recover, Stark is tricked into waking up, and does so - reappearing on his sofa in Colour and leaving Alkland behind in Jeamland.

After waking up, Stark decides to look further into Alkland's history, trying to find out whether there is anything that could be causing Alkland's 'something'. He discovers a former schoolfriend of Alkland named Bellrip, now a scientist within NatSci and presumably the contact that was able to get Alkland sumggled into Stable inside the weather computer. Stark travels to Natsci to pay Bellrip a visit but finds only a bloody corpse with its skull punched out from the inside. Recognising this as the MO of one of an old friend named Rafe, Stark pays Ji another visit in Red. Rafe was a childhood friend of Stark's and together they both found Jeamland. Ji also knew Rafe and explains to his brother Snedd that Rafe had to be killed because he was too dangerous to be allowed in Jeamland. Ji goes back to The Centre to fetch Zenda and Stark heads back home to Colour, falls asleep and enters Jeamland.

Stark wakes up and finds himself in the castle where he left Alkland, several hours have passed and it becomes clear that Alkland has already left and the atmosphere has changed. Instead of the welcoming friendly place the castle was when they arrived, things have taken a darker turn. After a disturbing encounter in the main hall, Stark wakes up elsewhere and is chased across the landscape by two frightening police officers. He escapes them and discovers that he has wandered into Alkland's dream. He finds Alkland collapsed on the ground in a snowdrift, obviously very ill. Stark wakes up back in his apartment in Colour, with Alkland.

Stark calls Shelby and asks her to come and collect them from the roof of the apartment building with the heliporter. He and Alkland escape through the ceiling of the apartment to the roof, where they take off just in time from the pursuing ACIA. The heliporter and Alkland both take hits, and Shelby is forced to make a crash landing just outside Cat neighbourhood. All three escape into Cat and meet up with Zenda, Snedd and Ji in a hotel.

Realising that Rafe is the cause of the trouble and presumably wasn't as dead as they thought, Ji and Stark make their way back into Jeamland to find him and kill him. Both face down the ghosts of their past, Ji is killed, his head ripped off by a nightmare of his mother. Stark continues after Rafe and follows him into Memory - they watch how they left home years ago, and Stark realises that his friend really is dead and was only alive in his own memory. His bitter memories of the conflicts between them were the root of the unrest. He had inadvertently brought Rafe back to life in Jeamland, and by extension into The City. He turns to embrace his old friend, and after he looks up again Rafe has disappeared. Stark makes his way from Memory back to Jeamland and doesn't bother to find Ji's body, he knows Ji has gone to find the small boy in the flat.

Stark wakes up in Cat to find that Alkland is dead. The ACIA have been called off, the only reason they were pursuing Stark was on the whim of an over eager Actioneer chasing a promotion. Snedd accepts his brother Ji's death and returns to Red to carry on as a ganglord. Zenda returns to The Centre but continues to see Stark, who finally comes to terms with his past and the fact that although he'll never be able to get home again, he has found a new one.
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