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  1. #1
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    August '06 SF BOTM: Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

    Discussion is open for August. I haven't been able to catch up with Luke yet for kickoff questions, but feel free to get going anyway.

  2. #2
    Member of the Monthô Ropie's Avatar
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    Archren and I already posted some thoughts on this at the IBlist forums, we just couldn't wait.

    This is the third 'new' (published within the last ten years or so) book I have read for the book club, and it just reminded me yet again why I don't read more contemporary SF.

    The writing; oh, the pain! Ten years on and already sounding largely very dated though obviously trying hard to get beyond the boundaries of its contemporary language. I know most of the book is narrated by the central character, a man of questionable morals and upbringing, but this is no excuse for sloppy prose and I actually think Smith used the character as a screen to hide his lack of literary skill behind. In a sense this is quite a clever technique but the result was low quality prose for the most part.

    That said, I found parts of Only Forward very exciting, exciting enough to forget about the writing. Like when Stark was rescuing Alkland from Stable for the first time - this was extremely well paced and imaginative.

    There were great ideas all through the book too: the entrance to Jeamland through the sea; the city as one large organism composed of very distinct areas; the idea of a street you walk up being a different place to the same street walked down (not sure if this was an original idea or gleaned from some locational philosophy). And there was a very nice paragraph about how you think you know what's happening in your life but really it's the devils that represent what you'll never know that are important (I'll have to dig this quotation out later)!

    All the silly (tm) marked technology and talking walls, etc, got on my nerves. This was probably a very cool thing to do in the 1990s - maybe the influence of Iain M Banks - but Smith over used it.

    A good example of the dumb prose: Dreamland is called Jeamland because that's what a child would call it if they tried to pronounce it!! The whole Dreamland idea was quite good, the mixture of fantasy and horror (though I didn't appreciate the gore) but it all went off the rails in the protracted, predictable, gory, cod-dream-psychology, build up to the ending. This dragged on for the whole final quarter of the novel and got very tiring. All the stuff with lost friendship, abortion, uncaring parents - yawn, yawn and thrice yawn. Is this SF? It was like a TV movie script simultaneously forced into horror, fantasy and science fiction shoes. I love it when genres collide (Christopher Priest) but they have to do it for a reason, not just because the author feels he or she can manage it.

    On the covers: why is the US cover a straightforward SF city scene, whilst the UK release is a minimalist, single repeated graphic? I have to admit I really liked the UK cover but I don't think it suited the story.

    As you can tell I had mixed feelings about this one. Not boring enough to be 2 stars, too many flaws to have 3 stars, but I don't do half stars so I'll give it 3 as I'm feeling generous.
    Last edited by Ropie; August 1st, 2006 at 06:24 AM.

  3. #3
    BookWyrm Archren's Avatar
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    I'm out of town (business travel) right now, so I'm just going to post the review I put on my website. I'll hopefully be more responsive in a couple days. Cheers!

    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.

  4. #4
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    I agree with a lot of what Ropie and Archren have already said here.

    My first thing though straight off, is that this is NOT a SF novel- this is a fantasy novel with SF elements. The SF elements, what little there really are, are often whimsical or satirical, and there is very little explanation or internal logistics at work in their use. Cases in point: what are the economics of this future society? When the main character gets into Stable one would think that a sure way of seperating the inhabitants from the outside world would be the use of a differrent currency system. He probably knows this, so what does he do? He doesn't deal with it at all. The character lights another cigarette. So, he has a future world with a cat neighborhood, and neighborhoods where you have to be silent, and another where everything is color coded, and he expects us to accept all this, not as an alternative fantastic reality, but a real SF extension of our own world, because he has to set off the even more far out aspects of the novel. And he has the central character find out that he's in the future by using the "Planet of the Apes shock ending" as a device. That's just crap, sorry.

    I remember John Cleese quoting Marty Feldman, as saying (and I'm paraphrasing),that if you have a skit where everyone is dressed as a clam, and you have someone come out dressed as a lobster, you better have a damn good idea why, if the skit is going to work. That's the problem here. The author wants to dazzle you with all the crazy things in his head, and he's not interested in having that dampened down by mundane things such as internal logic, and plot. He has a dramatic shift in approach halfway through the novel, dispensing with the few rules he bothered to lay out. He decides to tie the whole book together with an eleventh hour exposition, which posits amongst other things, a love interest that is different from the one already established in the book, and a rivalry/ friendship that is supposed to be what the story is about. He then goes on to set up a dramatic confrontation with this rival, the supposed point of the book, AND IT DOESN'T REALLY HAPPEN!!!

    He has a prob with characters as well, he believes that if he shows you a character crying, or trembling with fear, that's enough to set up your emotional response. Might work in the movies, doesn't work with prose. His "jeamworld" (the name and equally emetic explanation for it, are fanboy clever, that is- not at all ), events are often neat, but uneven in this regard. Digital tigers and jungles are not menacing. The above mentioned laughing king moving back and forth as a blur is a visual reference to the film effect that's been used in movies like Jacob's Ladder.If we've reached a point where fantasists are lifting imagery from special effects in movies, we might be in trouble here. Sometimes I felt during my reading, that the novel might have started out as a screenplay.

    And yet, in spite of all the probs I had with with the novel, I sort of liked it. It was funny when it started, and I like things like the cat town. And it wasn't 900 pages. So it gets two and a half stars from me, but in green. A seriously flawed and undisciplined effort, and with a little whiff of fanboy coming off the pages, yet it's somehow engaging and likeable. Maybe it's the cats.


    **1/2
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; May 11th, 2007 at 11:51 PM.

  5. #5
    Member of the Monthô Ropie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArthurFrayn
    And he has the character find out that he's in the future by using the "Planet of the Apes shock ending" as a device. That's just crap, sorry.
    Wasn't this obvious all the way through?

    The author wants to dazzle you with all the crazy things in his head, and he's not interested in having to have that dampened down by mundane things such as plot
    The book's whole problem comes down to this, I think.

    His "jeamworld" (that name and the explanation for it is a real chunk blower)
    Especially as such a mystery is made of why it's called Jeamland and not Dreamland, and he won't tell Alkland why until later in the book.

    And yet, in spite of all the probs I had with with the novel, I sort off liked it.
    Absolutely. I think we have to remember though this was his first novel and as such has all that infectious enthusiasm that has been building up, with very little authorial skill to really nail (or in some cases find) the big ideas and plotline. I've read that his later books are more crafted, but less exciting.

  6. #6
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    Wasn't this obvious all the way through?
    I didn't see it coming, and was NOT pleasantly surprised. I really didn't know wtf he was doing at the end, to be honest. I'm not sure he knew either. I thought he was going to end it with "wake up" as in, "it was all a dream", and then he stuck on the pointless epilogue which didn't make things better.


    Absolutely. I think we have to remember though this was his first novel and as such has all that infectious enthusiasm that has been building up, with very little authorial skill to really nail (or in some cases find) the big ideas and plotline. I've read that his later books are more crafted, but less exciting.
    I think it's the cats.
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; August 2nd, 2006 at 09:37 AM.

  7. #7
    BookWyrm Archren's Avatar
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    I have to agree that this isn't really science fiction, it's fantasy. Since all the science-fictiony stuff happens within the fantastical dreamland context, in the end it's all fantasy. Maybe the explanation of the perceptional congruences of the ocean landscape is enough, but it sounds like magic to me I'm afraid.

    BTW, let me second the whole "Jeamland" being lame thing. And what Ropie points out: "Especially as such a mystery is made of why it's called Jeamland and not Dreamland, and he won't tell Alkland why until later in the book." ends up being one of my big problems with the whole novel. Instead of discovering things *with* the character, you've got the character hiding knowledge from the reader until it's dramatically appropriate to reveal it. It's forced and awkward and feels like cheating. Probably, as you say, it's a first-time-author problem. Actually, the writing here showed enough promise that I'd be willing to try one of his other books, but only if they don't have the horror stuff in them. That I'll just stay away from, thanks!
    Last edited by Archren; August 3rd, 2006 at 05:32 PM.

  8. #8
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    How he handled Alkland, is all bad;he basically tossed that character in the street.
    Incidentally Archren, I know I warned you about Soul of a Robot-nothing remotely as heartless and gorey as the events in this book.
    Only Forward pivots between reckless gore, and easy sentiment, a little uncomfortably for me, to be honest.
    Hate to say it -fanboy at work.
    Both you and Ropie are more generous than I. I have too many authors I love, and new ones I have yet to sample, before I'd ever consider reading this guy again. And I sort of liked the novel.
    I've got to catch that spark of something that touches me, even in the bad ones, that'll compel me to the next one. When it's on, I don't even think about it.
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; May 11th, 2007 at 11:51 PM.

  9. #9
    Member of the Monthô Ropie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Archren
    you've got the character hiding knowledge from the reader until it's dramatically appropriate to reveal it. It's forced and awkward and feels like cheating.
    Yes. This was what kept the whole book going but ultimately was the cause of most of the flaws. Although it's a long time since I read it, this is very much how Iain M Banks' Wasp Factory is structured, with the central character all through the book being aware of something we are not. Actually the two books are stylistically very similar though I remember enjoying Bank's more even though it was just as gory.

    I have to say I won't be tempted to read anymore by this author. Like early Banks', this is the kind of book that is marketed (in the UK at least) to appeal to young, inquisitive, types who like to think of themselves as a bit risque but are too busy to find affiliation with a genre like SF, fantasy or horror. Instead they want all the cheap thrills that can be squeezed from the genres and repackaged in a format that they can admit to their friends that they have read. Not really my kind of thing and I'm always wary of a book that has a recommendation from 'Time Out' magazine on the cover.

    Quote Originally Posted by ArthurFrayn
    Only Forward pivots between reckless gore, and easy sentiment
    This should be written on the front of the book - it is absolutely true!
    Last edited by Ropie; August 4th, 2006 at 05:10 AM.

  10. #10
    Seems that no one has posted about the book for about a week but this is my first time and I got started a bit late.

    I had a hard time getting the feel of this book, sometimes it felt as though Sith was attempting the humor found in Hitchhiker's Guide, but it just wasn't there; then I tought the City was being used as a sort of social allegory, but that wasn't working either. Still the first 2/3 of the story moved well.

    That said, I found parts of Only Forward very exciting, exciting enough to forget about the writing. Like when Stark was rescuing Alkland from Stable for the first time - this was extremely well paced and imaginative.
    I agree and think this was the best part of the book. But, then Alkland reveals that he wasn't really kidnapped, and Stark says that was a thought in the back of his mind that he didn't reveal to the reader earlier, The book began it's turn for the worse. I had already sort of assumed Alkland wasn't kidnapped and the fact that Stark hadn't entertained that idea was dissapointing to me as I read it. Then come to find out he had thought of it, but it didn't really matter because he had to do the job of getting him out anyway, I felt cheated from this point forward.

    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.
    one of the biggest cheats before the climax that really bothered me was the glossing over of Alkland's sister. Stark does all of his investigating finds something strange about the little girl then dissmisses it. I'm reading the book and scresming in my head 'It's the sister, she's the one the nightmares are about.' The same Stark who had figured that maybe Alkland wasn't kidnapped, but didn't feel it nessesary to inform the reader, now passes on the obvious again.




    When the main character gets into Stable one would think that a sure way of seperating the inhabitants from the outside world would be the use of a differrent currency system. He probably knows this, so what does he do? He doesn't deal with it at all. The character lights another cigarette. So, he has a future world with a cat neighborhood, and neighborhoods where you have to be silent, and another where everything is color coded, and he expects us to accept all this, not as an alternative fantastic reality, but a real SF extension of our own world, because he has to set off the even more far out aspects of the novel. And he has the central character find out that he's in the future by using the "Planet of the Apes shock ending" as a device. That's just crap, sorry.

    Yes, different currency, dress and probably the was they spoke would have given him away. Funny how in every neighborhood, even Stable, no one minded, or noticed him smoking all the time. Bad, bad plot device.



    BTW, let me second the whole "Jeamland" being lame thing. And what Ropie points out: "Especially as such a mystery is made of why it's called Jeamland and not Dreamland, and he won't tell Alkland why until later in the book." ends up being one of my big problems with the whole novel. Instead of discovering things *with* the character, you've got the character hiding knowledge from the reader until it's dramatically appropriate to reveal it. It's forced and awkward and feels like cheating.
    I'll third it

  11. #11
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    I'm a little late this month, but I think everything I would say has been said in some form or another. I generally liked the book, but had the usual issues with it. I like not knowing where a book is going to go before I read it, but I do like a book to have a narrative structure that makes sense. Things that happen in the beginning of the book should have relevance to the end of the book. Things that happen along the way should fit into some kind of logical progression from the beginning to the end. These were the things I felt were most lacking in this book.

    The whole premise of the beginning was only there to get us to the middle, which was only there to get us to the punchline. Nothing from the beginning really had any relevance at all to what happened at the end other than being a device to get us to Jeamland. So, as everyone else has pointed out, I think there were serious structural problems going on that usually had me sitting there going, "WTF?!?" rather than just enjoying the ride.

    I think the main reason that these problems happened is because of the "stingy narrator." If he had somehow spread out the knowledge of the last two chapters into the rest of the book, he could have somehow thematically tied it all together, rather than just going from detective novel, to acid trip, to fantasy book, to mainstream coming-to-terms-with-ones-past lit novel. Any number of authors have done the whole issues in the past eventually tie into the story at hand thing much, much better than Smith handled it.

    Horror elements? Can't say that they bothered me or that at any point I ever really though that there was anything over the top or unusual going on, aside from the general unusualness present, of course. And had you guys not said anything about it, I would have never imagined that anything happened in the book that would make anyone uncomfortable. I found that interesting, and if I'm ever stranded on a desert island with just this book and nothing at all else to do, I'll maybe give parts of it a reread with that in mind to see where you guys are coming from.

    I keep most of my books. I think poor little Only Forward has a trip to the used book store in its future.

    (no time to reread all that now. Hopefully it makes some sense.)

  12. #12
    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    I read the book on time but then I somehow forgot/didn't find the time to join the discussion Sorry fot that.

    Anyway, I'd like to quickly share my opinion on this book. I really liked it in the beggining. I have read some other books by MM Smith and I like his way of constructing unusual metaphores and his straightfoward way of telling stories. However, after some pages and, specially as in this case, when the plot seems to be going nowhere, the presumed wittiness begins to wear very, very thin.

    Consequently, when I was half my way through the novel I was really, really wanting to finish it and begin reading some other thing It's really sad when that happens, but...

  13. #13
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    After trying and ultimately failing to work my way through C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station, I switched over to Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward and was pleased by the first fifty or so pages. I actually found Smith's prose style quite enjoyable and I didn't mind the fact that the book's protagonist would drop hints here and there regarding aspects of his backstory which I assumed would come into play later on. I was a little uncertain about the introduction of the various off-the-wall neighborhoods but, ultimately, accepted these unusual elements and went along for the ride. Unfortunately, the ride was shortlived and when the book veered off the hitherto shaky path of science fiction and into the realm of fantasy, I started to lose interest.

    There were many inventive elements of the book that I enjoyed, and the narrator's dark humor kept me engaged, but the whole mid-section of the book - the trip through Jeamworld - felt silly to me. In some ways, it reminded me of David Brin's Kiln People, another darkly humorous book with an engaging prose style that lost me mid-way through with a turn into an airy-fairy metaphysical realm.

    Unlike most, I actually felt for the protagonist and, in particular, the loss of his childhood and his parents, but like most, felt the introduction of his nemesis came too late in the novel to be truly effective. And while I'll give Smith points for bringing everything together at book's end, the last couple of chapters were such an information dump that I felt like I was watching an incredibly ponderous episode of Murder She Wrote or, say, any of the Harry Potter books.

    A fun read on some levels (hey, at least I was able to get through this one) but ultimately undone by poor structuring.

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