Only Forward


Michael Marshall Smith


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

March 22, 2005

hen I started reading Only Forward, I was delighted. I was sure I had found a 5 star book. Only Forward begins with a rather straightforward plot - Stark (the hero) is hired by Zenda (his sorta-girlfriend) to find Fell Alkland, an important person who has gone missing. Several things really liven up this tale: the writing is clever and fun, smart-alecy but fun too. Stark has a sense of cool worldliness, for vague reasons, this reminds of the delight I got reading Snowcrash, which was also a "hip" book. (Only Forward was published in 1994, Snow Crash in 1992, but I don't mean to imply that MMS has ripped off Neal Stephenson, I am just trying to give a sense of the book's style. Only Forward was considered original enough to win the Philip K Dick award in 2001. Why does a book published in 1994 win an award in 2001?) Click here for 2001 Dick Awards

Stark's world is the distant future, when the planet has been covered from end to end with Neighborhoods (with a capital N). Each Neighborhood covers 5 or 20 square miles and has a completely unique culture. MMS really lets his imagination lose here, conjuring up a bunch of societies with outlandish customs and inhabitants. One Neighborhood is occupied only by cats. Fell Alkland, the missing VIP, is from Action Center, where the citizens work in a frenzy to be productive. Stark lives in Color Neighborhood, and there is a great description of Stark walking down the street in turquoise slacks and the AI of the Neighborhood changing the coloration of the buildings to match.

Clues lead Stark to believe that Alkland must be kidnapped and held in Stable, a closed Neighborhood that no one is ever permitted to exit or enter. Of course, this means Stark must find away in to investigate. All of this makes for an entertaining story.

About halfway through the book, Stark discovers why Alkland has gone missing, and it looks a big adventure is about to kickoff - and suddenly the book completely changes. The first half of the book is a SF romp through a well imagined future. The second half of the book is sort of an experiment in surrealism. When Stark heads off to Dreamland (called Jeamland "because that's the way kid's would pronounce it), it isn't SF any more. Maybe it is future fantasy? Not that there is anything wrong with bizarre fantasy worlds, the Physiognomy trilogy by Jeffrey Ford is a wonderful example of a horrific surrealism - but Only Forward seems to be hijacked by a different tangent, as if MMS had decided to write a completely different story. Either piece, written as a whole, would make a great tale, but together they didn't quite fit, in my opinion. The second half of the novel is darker, much less concerned with clever gizmos or wry asides, and a lot more time is spent exploring Stark's history and nightmares. It is still interesting reading, and I give the book 4 stars, but I am also disappointed because it seemed like this could have been a classic if MMS had stuck to one tale or the other, or written two books instead.

About halfway through Only Forward, I looked up on Amazon to see what else Michael Marshall Smith had written, and they only list two other books - Spares (1996) and One Of Us (1998) - and I wondered why such a talented author had apparently stopped writing. So I visited his website at MichaelMarshallSmith.com and happily discovered that he IS still writing, but now he publishes under the name Michael Marshall. For example, last year he came out with The Upright Man. Unfortunately, it looks like he doesn't write SF titles any more.