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Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

  (25 ratings)

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Book Information  
AuthorMichael Marshall Smith
TitleOnly Forward
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by Archren 
(Jul 26, 2006)

This books contains elements of science fiction, horror and mystery, combining them in ways that can best be described as surreal. Itís not for the queasy of stomach, and the horrific bits can really sneak up on you. In fact, I spent the first half of the book asking myself why the back cover talks about nightmares and the author blurb on the front is from Clive Barker. There didnít seem to be any horror in it at all. I was describing it to myself as Glen Cookís Garrett Files series meets Richard K. Morganís Takeshi Kovacs series. Violent and over-the-top, but enjoyable.

Stark is an investigator, although, as he says: ďContrary to appearances, I donít have a frosted glass door with my name on it, and I didnít use to be a cop.Ē He is called in by a friend to investigate a kidnapping. As heís doing the initial leg work to set up the story, we meet the City and his friends in it. The City is divided into Neighborhoods so everyone can live the way the want to. Corporate people hang out at the Action Center. People who appreciate aesthetics live in Color. People who prefer their quiet live in Sound. Cats live in Cat. Some Neighborhoods are better than others. This world-building was my favorite part of the book, whimsical without being ridiculous, always interesting.

The kidnapee is eventually found, but Starkís job is only beginning, and the fun satirical science fiction is ending. In order to help the kidnapee, Stark must act as his guide through Jeamland, a land that only a few can enter while awake. It is a land of dreams and nightmares that obeys dream logic. Stark guides his client in there to confront his inner demons. Personally, I thought there was nothing wrong with him that a few months of therapy couldnít cure, but thatís not the way this story works.

As they go through Jeamland the horror slowly ratchets up. I can mark exactly the point where it got too over-the-top for me, where I wouldíve stopped reading if I hadnít been reading it for a book club Iím in (plus I wanted to be able to fairly review it here). In my paperback copy itís on page 257. To give you a sample: ďThe Kingís teeth were flying out of his mouth as he whipped and writhed, shouting laughter, laughter that was tearing his throat and lungs apart.Ē (That is, of course, a milder sample.)

The real problem, however, comes at the climax of the book. As I mentioned above, this book combines the sci-fi, mystery and horror genres. Now, at the climax of a mystery novel, the protagonist finally puts the picture together and reveals the solution of the mystery to the audience. It is essentially expository instead of action-oriented, although some action often follows. Likewise, the climax of this book is also expository. In fact, it is about 20 pages of exposition filling in backstory to explain why everything is happening. The fundamental flaw is that everything that is explained is stuff that the first-person narrator already knew and chose not to tell the audience until the end. In other words, there was nothing new to the protagonist when the climax occurred. He could have told us everything from the last 20 pages in the first 20 pages and the only difference would have been the dramatic impact. It really felt like cheating to me.

In the end I felt this book suffered from trying to serve too many masters. It is a fusion piece where the story tries and fails to obey the conventions of each genre that it is fusing. This isnít to say itís a bad book. That level of graphic horror certainly isnít my cup of tea, but if youíre already a horror fan you might find this combination really suits you. It is eminently readable, with a lot of humor in the first half. The hero is sympathetic and his writing style has a solid voice to guide you through. Heís an unreliable narrator, but heís also very clear about that. Iíd recommend this to those who want something a little different, have strong stomachs, and donít take these sorts of things too seriously.

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