Only Forward – Michael Marshall Smith

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:31 am

I’ve submitted this review of one of my favourite novels to Slashdot but it’s still pending.

When I try to describe Michael Marshall Smith‘s Only Forward to people, the one-liner is usually “starts out cyberpunk and gets much weirder from there”. That doesn’t completely do it justice, but it’s a place to start. It’s impossible for me to understand, based on this amazing debut novel, why Smith isn’t a huge star in the Gibson/Stephenson/Stirling orbit. It’s hard to explain – guess it’s just the vicissitudes of the market, and perhaps the fact that his stuff is just a little too strange for even the SF crowd. That and the fact that it’s pretty difficult to fit into a genre label – is it science fiction, fantasy or psychological thriller? His Spares is also wonderful, but just doesn’t display quite the same control as Only Forward. The author seems to have moved on to ‘straighter’ (though that’s a relative term) crime fiction published under the name ‘Michael Marshall’.

Anyway, enough fanboyish gushing, on with the review. Stark, the kind-of-noirish, deadpan first person protagonist, lives in a highly urbanised near-future world divided into Neighbourhoods where likeminded souls have congregated and created the world just the way they like it. Colour Neighbourhood features computer-controlled streetscapes that change to match the clothing of passersby, and form complex patterns that can only be seen from above (almost no-one flies). Sound Neighbourhood is silent, NatSci is full of geeks, Stable is a little utopia – if you like life predictable – and Red is… Not a Nice Neighbourhood. There’s even a Cat Neighbourhood, populated entirely by cats.

The beginning of Chapter One (not the prologue, which is just strange and evocative) competes with the Deliverator introduction of Snow Crash for funny coolness:

…I was still sitting there, waiting to die, waiting to fossilise, waiting for the coffee in the kitchen to evolve enough to make a cup of itself and bring it through to me, when the phone rang.
It was touch and go whether I answered it. It was right on the other side of the room, for Christ’s sake. I wasn’t geared up for answering the phone, not this morning. … So I let myself sag gently to the floor and climbed up it like a mountain. I established a base camp about a third of the way across, and had a bit of a rest there…

Stark is a kind of private eye, and maybe something more, so when he gets the call that tells him Alkland, a prominent executive from Centre Neighbourhood, has gone missing, he takes the case – although mainly to please Zenda, the Actioneer he has a bit of a crush on… It turns out that going missing is the least of Alkland’s problems.

The book is scary, horrific and mind-blowing by turns, but a lot of the time it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The descriptions of Centre Neighbourhood are priceless: Zenda is the Under-Supervisor of Really Hustling Things Along in the Department of Doing Things Especially Quickly, the monorail attendant is reading Total Quality Management and getting tips from the Actioneer passengers about how to keep his ticket stubs really neat and the monorail suggests productive things you could be doing during your trip. The descriptions of the other Neighbourhoods are equally funny and creative, but there are no great lumps of exposition and scenery description – the world is exotic, but Smith describes it so casually that the story is always at the front of your brain.

Smith plays with dreams, reality and the subjective nature of our experiences (you’ll never drive down a new road and then back up again, or see the ocean from a plane, again without thinking of this book), and for me, at least, the way I think about time, memory and the effects of both on our present has been deeply changed by this book.

What’s good?

The humour, the inventiveness of the world, and the character of Stark are all great, and the Neighbourhoods are just brilliant. At the end, though, what stays with you is a much deeper emotional impact and a slightly different perspective on the world… and a desire to re-read this book soon.

What’s not so good?

If I have to pick a flaw, it’s that the first part feels a bit picaresque (just one damn incident after another), and the plot really only comes together later in the book. It does, though – those who hate Stephenson’s ending should enjoy this one.


Probably not a novel for everyone, or even everyone at Slashdot, but if you enjoy William Gibson and Neal Stephenson – Gibson for the loas and Stephenson for glossolalia – you’re likely to enjoy Only Forward. The best referent, though, is probably Clive Barker: like him, Michael Marshall Smith re-enchants the world.

4 responses to “Only Forward – Michael Marshall Smith”

  1. Shevchyk says:

    Bravus, if you enjoy the Stephenson/Smith/Gibson/Sterling “orbit” (interesting choice of word to apply – I like), seek ye out a writer by the name of Jim Dodge, and look for the books Stone Junction and Not Fade Away and Fup. They’re enormous hoots, and a wild crank of a funny ride. Somewhere on the strange empty highway between Tom Robbins and Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson, to over-simplify what is otherwise a magnificent unknown writer.

    And Richard Brautigan as well: Seek thee out Sombrero Fallout. Or any of his early work.



  2. Gromit says:

    I found “Only Forward” sitting in a “3 books for $10” bin outside a bookshop somewhere. Read it and liked it. Re-read it a year later and still liked it.

    I’ve not found anything else by MMS, but when I spot another of his titles I’ll grab it.

    Oh, and the guy likes cats. Nuff said.

  3. remotepush says:

    not sure if i would make comparisons between michael marshall smith and richard brautigan at all, but i would back up reccomendations of some of his work – with “sombrero fallout” being a particularly good choice, as is “the abortion”

  4. Gromit says:

    Spurred by your review, I just re-re-read “Only Forward”. It’s still a striking novel, but **SPOILER ALERT** the pacing is a little odd. It’s as though the author wrote as far as Stark’s “rescue” of Alkland, took a break for a few weeks, then kept writing and created a very different book from that foundation. The whole thing does a 90-degree turn and heads into uncharted territory.
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that…!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.