One of Us
UK Hardcover First
Publication Date: 1998
307 pages; £14.99
Date Reviewed: 05-29-02
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 1998
With 'Only Forward' and 'Spares', Michael Marshall Smith made a splash across the entire spectrum of weird fiction. Science fiction, horror, literature fans and movie development executives all found something to like in these excellent novels. 'One of Us', his much anticipated follow-up, lives up to the standard set by 'Ony Forward' and 'Spares'. This surreal cyber-mystery has all the humor, less of the horror and a bit less weirdness than 'Spares', but the overall effect is the same. Michael Marshall Smith is a genuine discovery.
'One of Us' starts out in Philip K. Dick territory, with Hap Thompson, an average loser, finding his niche working as a REMtemp, someone who will have your dreams for you if they are making you uncomfortable. It doesn't take long for his life to get complex, and after that illegal. When he takes on not just dreams, but memories, the SF elements drop into the background and the mystery plot kicks in. Someone is using someone else, a cop has been murdered, and before you can say 'frame-up', Hap is on the run with someone else's thoughts in his head, acting out a part in someone else's plans.
As the teller of the tale, Hap is an enjoyable character. Smith's rendition of his voice is like that of an actor in a very comfortable part. He disappears into the material. He's a tad less successful with his female characters, who seem a bit on the annoying side even when they're not supposed to be. Part of this is that the reader doesn't like to lose Hap's sense of humor, which tends to get a bit crushed by the problems his women are having.
Smith's spare prose does a lot of the heavy lifting for the conceptual underpinnings. He's capable of writing that is both resonant and laugh-out-loud funny, often in the same sentence. He's dealing with identity and its absence here, so the sparse prose works with his subject. He also effectively shuttles back and forth between descriptions of a wolrd that is very much like our own to his science-fictional creation. He weaves one into the other, making the familiar seem strange and the strange familiar. He's also smart enough not to run any of his signature riffs into the ground. Instead they're like welcome friends -- you'r happy to see them again, not annoyed that they've returned.
What makes the novel work so well is Smith's combination of wry, dry humour and a structure that slowly peels away not only the layers of the mystery, but of reality itself. Smith's resolution of this mix comes from an unexpected direction, which is quite an accomplishment. He's already pretty far out in left field to begin with, so when he finds left field from the stadium next door, well, the reader cannot help but be enjoyably surprised. 'One of Us' is an excellent entry is a genre that Michael Marshall Smith is still in the process of inventing.