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Michael Marshall Smith
Only Forward
Harper Collins / HarperCollins
UK Mass Market Paperback First Edition
ISBN 0-586-21774-6
Publication Date: 06-14-1994
310 pages ; £.99
Date Reviewed: 12-26-1998, 11-05-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Science Fiction  Fantasy  Horror  Mystery

Editor's Note: This book originally came my way via Mark V. Ziesing books, a reason to buy from his site and subscribe to his wonderful newsletter. It was my introduction to a writer who would, in the following years become one of my favorites and who remains so. Michael Marshall Smith's work incorporates humor, horror, fine prose and finely-drawn characters, sometimes in an utterly fantastic setting, such as you find in this novel, and sometimes in seemingly straightforward thrillers with a soupcon of the surreal and the fantastic.

Because of one of those oddball publishing quirks, Michael Marshall Smith is known in the US as "Michael Marshall." But you'll know his work instantly when you come upon it. This review is of a version of the book no longer in print; look for the Subterranean Press limited edition hardcover. This book won a 1995 August Derleth Award and, published in the US, A 2001 Philip K. Dick Award. It's available as a mass-market paperback in the US, easily found or ordered.If you've not yet read it, I envy you. You're in for a special treat.

If you follow the rules, science fiction novels are only supposed to have just one big surprise. You can have a world filled with a given technology and many wonders, but in that world you only get to spring something new on us once. In 'Only Forward', Michael Marshall Smith may follow the rules, but he does so in such an unorthodox way that it almost feels like he's cheating. The reader is delighted to see him get away with it.

Stark does not want to answer the phone. When he does, he's called over to the Action Centre, the part of town where all the highly motivated over-achievers live and work continuously. He's from Color, where the residents all agree to work together to create a continuous palette of beautiful colors. His shirt shifts to match the scenes he walks through. The world that Smith presents us with in 'Only Forward' is a fascinating mix of high satire, great writing and ingenious invention.

Stark's assignment is to find a missing man. It sounds simple enough, but Smith's world is constantly surprising, threatening, and wonder-filled. Stark manages to find his man, and then the novel introduces Smith's invention which, it turns out, was not the intricate world he has created and kept so fascinating. There's something really weird happening. Smith takes us right there to witness the unfolding.

Smith laces his prose with a lower-key version of the kind of British humor that makes Douglas Adams books so popular, but does not succumb to the cartoonish impulse that such satire can lead to. And he keeps his wonders wondrous, his surprises surprising. It's a difficult feat considering how high he sets the bar, but he manages it with aplomb. 'Only Forward' is a spectacular debut novel for a writer who has kept his promise to keep getting better.

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