Only Forward

by Michael Marshall Smith

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 1994
Printing: September 2000
ISBN: 0-553-57970-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 341

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Only Forward starts out with a fascinatingly quirky setting, a continent-spanning city where each neighborhood has gone its own way, catering to different personalities, different wants, different laws. The viewpoint character and narrator appears to be some sort of freelance troubleshooter, the sort of person who's handy with weapons and takes on jobs that need doing. With an irreverant tone and a bizarrely off-beat world with wonderful gadgets, the story launches into what seems to be a weird adventure story.

I found Stark's commentary mixed in with the story delightful. Between recounting his adventures, he occasionally banters with the reader quite effectively. The world is just nuts; for example, Stark lives in a neighborhood in which the streets color-coordinate with the passers-by, and there is a mandatory period of black clothing every evening to allow everyone's eyes to relax. He's working for the denizens of the neighborhood of corporate ladder-climbing, where everyone works as hard as they can to get things done and better themselves and get promoted. Somehow, though, it hangs together in an odd way. One doesn't exactly believe in the world so much as have so much fun in it one is willing to ignore the fact it doesn't make a great deal of sense.

Then, nearly halfway through the book and after meeting several wonderful supporting characters, the bottom falls out of the story with a noticeable ka-chunk and it suddenly becomes something very different. The tone changes, going more introspective, more metaphorical, and more serious. The narrator starts becoming affected by what's going on, and something bigger starts to surface.

This was very disconcerting when it happened, and not a little disappointing. I badly missed the strange world of the first section of the book and was a little annoyed that I had to read through this heavy psychological stuff that didn't make a great deal of sense in order to get back to more of that story.

Then there's another ka-chunk, the bottom falls out of the story again, and suddenly everything is deeper, larger, more complicated. Far more is going on than it appeared. Then it happens again. And again. And the ending is absolutely brilliant, tying everything back together and showing how much more was truly going on from the beginning.

I was annoyed at Smith for taking me away from the initial world; by the end of the book, I'd forgiven him completely. Despite the bump partway through, I've rarely seen plot twists and an unreliable narrator (who is telling you all along that he's unreliable) handled better. By the end, I was completely hooked on his story. And amidst Stark's struggles with his own past and demons, there are some beautifully phrased observations:

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 forever 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, colors the rest of your life, but worse than that, it's alive. Trapped forever at that moment, and alone in the dark, that part of you is still alive.

It takes until the very end of the book to realize why, but the title is absolutely perfect.

This is the first truly excellent Philip K. Dick award winner that I've read. I still want to read a complete novel set in that initial world, but I wouldn't have wanted this story to be any different. I'll warn that the whole book isn't light adventure and should be saved until you're in the mood for something deeper, but highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-06-26

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