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Only Forward Mass Market Paperback – September 5, 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
The dazzling pyrotechnics of British author Smith's last two future noir spectacles, Spares (under option to DreamWorks) and One of Us (under option to Warner Brothers), are prefigured in his promise-filled debut novel, a 1994 U.K. paperback original now seeing its first hardcover publication. Set in a stylized future City where individuals live in neighborhoods organically responsive to their moods and lifestyles, the story begins as a routine missing persons case for its narrator, Stark, an irreverent soft-boiled detective type who specializes in "finding people, or things." Stark's retrieval of Fell Alkland, a scientist who has fled the driven environment of Action Center for the placid Stable neighborhood, proves relatively easy. But pursuit by Action Center operatives and Alkland's crippling work-related nightmares force Stark and his quarry to escape to Jeamland, a collective repository of dreams and childhood memories that Stark appears to know very well, and to which, as he discovers only belatedly, he has been lured back deliberately. The genius of Smith's narrative is its casual revelation that the detective scenario and detailed elaborations of the City that pull the reader into the story are clue-filled set-ups for the real story of Stark's self-discovery in Jeamland. Ultimately, this requires chapters of explanatory exposition that slow down the finale and betray the awkwardness of a new writer growing into his skills. Nevertheless, the story blazes with a visionary intensity that fires its imagery and fuels its premise that "once you've gone forward, you can't go home again." (Dec.)Philip K. Dick award for distinguished science fiction published as a paperback original in the U.S.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
When a senior member of Action Center disappears, the authorities hire Stark to find him. Stark succeeds in his mission"and then the trouble begins. The author of Spares sets his latest sf action thriller in a color-coded near future, where independent neighborhoods vie for dominance in a dangerous and deadly high-tech world. Smith combines a whirlwind plot with a genially laconic hero to produce a fast-paced tale that belongs in large sf collections.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
This, omg, this is truly one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read; by turns haunting, hilarious, gripping, and utterly mind-bending, but also, perhaps surprisingly, quite deeply moving.
It opens with a brief, disturbing vignette, a scene at once poignant, horrific and surreal, leaving us with a mind-boggling mystery that won’t be solved until nearly the end of the book.
The first chapter starts with quite a different feel: We immediately meet Stark, our first person narrator, who introduces himself and his world in a comically wry, self-mocking voice. Stark’s world is a strange one, almost like something out of a futuristic board-game, a place divided not into nations but into a patchwork of sectors known as Neighborhoods, each of them with its own unique theme, ranging from amusing to dystopian to variations of “normal”. There’s the one where everything is silent, and the one devoted to color coordination, there’s the one about living like the good-old-days, and the one inhabited entirely by cats . . . You get the picture.
And then there’s Stark himself. Stark is a . . . fixer, of sorts, the man always brought in by the powers that be to solve a very particular sort of problem. Stark is quirky and charming, his exploits typically hilarious, often exciting, always entertaining, but he also hints, cagily, that there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. Beneath the surface of Stark, as well as of his world. And slowly you realize that pretty much nothing is what it seems.
Except, as Stark himself might observe, for when it absolutely is . . .
We spend a bit of time getting to know Stark and the strange world he lives in. And it’s all very intriguing and amusing. But once the story really gets going, it becomes completely enthralling! I read the first couple of chapters rather slowly, but fairly tore through the rest of it, literally on the edge of my seat.
However there’s another aspect of this story that is, I think, the core of it, the whole point of it. A darkly melancholic thread runs through it, of heartache, loss and regret, of tragedy, and cruelty, but also of hope, humanity, and love. That was the part of this book I truly loved, the part I found so moving, painful but also beautiful. Because it’s like a map of the human heart in there. Which the really good stories always are, I think. The psychological underpinnings of this story are dead on. And some of that spoke to me so loudly it was almost triggering. I mean, there’s resonance, and then there’s *resonance*. There were a few times when the main character’s observations felt like they could have been drawn from my own thoughts or feelings or life. And there’s not much a book can do that feels more powerful than that.
Toward the end, I confess this stuff kind of tore my heart out. It was harrowing, but then, it was okay again. There was sadness, more than a little, but there was healing and resolution too. And ultimately, there was a wonderful surprise; a happy ending. Not something you can really count on in Science Fiction :)
I’m going to wrap this up with some of my favorite quotes:
This one is a life metaphor I find particularly salient, and particularly poignant. It also kind of felt like the universe speaking to me when I first read it. But there seems to be a lot of that going around in this book:
“People always find it so frustrating that there’s no structure they can see, that they just have to follow the river downstream and see what they find. They want to know the plot so they can guess the end, because they’re afraid of what it might be. I can understand that, even though I know it’s not the way things work. I never know what the hell’s going to happen next, but I can live with that.”
And there’s this which, I think, speaks for itself:
“When you're born a light is switched on, a light which shines up through your life. As you get older the light still reaches you, sparkling as it comes up through your memories. And if you're lucky as you travel forward through time, you'll bring the whole of yourself along with you, gathering your skirts and leaving nothing behind, nothing to obscure the light. But if a Bad Thing happens part of you is seared into place, and trapped for ever at that time. The rest of you moves onward, dealing with all the todays and tomorrows, but something, some part of you, is left behind. That part blocks the light, colours the rest of your life, but worse than that, it's alive. Trapped for ever at that moment, and alone in the dark, that part of you is still alive.”
But *this*, omg, I find this to be one of the most heartbreakingly true and perfectly, succinctly expressed observations of the human condition I’ve ever read:
“Everyone's alone in their world, because everybody's life is different. You can send people letters, and show them photos, but they can never come to visit where you live.
Unless you love them. And then they can burn it down.”
I’m not a tattoo person? But those words almost tempt me. They have a lot of meaning for me, and have haunted me since the first time I read them in someone else’s review, long before I ever read the book itself. In fact, it was sharing this quote in a Facebook group recently that prompted me to finally read the book, which had been languishing inexcusably in my TBR for about 2 years. And I’m really, really glad that I did.
I’m also linking to the full quote here, which you should read because it expands upon the short version above in important ways, I think: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/123899-only-forward
In a way though, the best quote of all was this one, because it was how the book ended:
“Everyone deserves a happy ending.
This is another of those books I'd like to give 6 or 7 stars, if I could. Very highly recommended.
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.