Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

Only Forward

Michael Marshall Smith

Harper Collins

ISBN 0-00-651266--6

UK Mass Market Paperback

Publication Date:

310 pages; £6.99

Date Reviewed: 08-14-01

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Science Fiction, Horror

08-26-02, 12-13-02, 06-14-04

If you follow the rules, science fiction novels are only supposed have one big surprise. You can have a world filled with given technology and wonders, but in that world you only get to spring 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 nd work sontinuously. He's from Color, where the residents all agree to work together to create a continuous pallette 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 condsidering 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.

For those who missed this on the original publication, there have been a few reprints, both in a very nice UK trade paperback (well worth the import price), and in the US as q mass market paperback. Subterranean Press has this on their schedule this year, and you might want to wait for them, as it is likely to be the nicest edition out there.