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A book review by Steven Wu
November 30, 2002
|Rating: 9 (of 10)|
Stark is a private investigator who lives in a far-future Earth where the entire living surface has become a patchwork of independent (and independently run) Neighborhoods. Advances in transportation mean that each Neighborhood can cater to the most bizarre types of people: Stark, for instance, lives in Color Neighborhood, which attempts to change the neighborhood's surroundings to match its denizens' outfits. At the beginning of the book Stark gets a job from Action Center, where workaholics spend a lot of time doing stuff (one character, for instance, is the under-supervisor of the Really Hustling Things Along Division of the Department of Doing Things Especially Quickly). It seems that one of Action Center's engineers, Fell Alkland, has disappeared--and the Center fears a criminal conspiracy. Because Stark is who he is, he gladly accepts the job--but it soon sucks him into a past that he thought he had long forgotten. Weirdness ensues.
Smith writes Only Forward in a hip, insouciant style with a strong bent toward the hard-boiled. Stark is, after all, a private eye, and what private eye novel would be complete without the slick prose and careless attitudes that characterized the classics? The result is hilarious. Stark rarely takes himself seriously, and he never takes anybody else seriously--even when they're shooting at him--so you end up feeling strangely uplifted as he capers here and there in his search for Alkland.
All of this bustling takes place in one of the most imaginative science-fiction settings that I have had the pleasure to read. Smith fires a zillion ideas at you all throughout the book, starting with the Neighborhoods and ending with some very strange stuff indeed (you'll see). As zany as Stark is, the world he works in is even zanier. Early on, for instance, Stark enters Action Center and is given a bracelet to wear. Stark then turns to the reader and confides,
"The deal with the bracelets is this. When you visit the center, they want to make damn sure you leave again. They can't have just anyone slouching around the place, diluting the activity pool. So they give you a bracelet, which has a read-out for how long you've got. If the read-out gets down to zero and you're still in the Center, it blows up. Simple, really."Each Neighborhood is weird, distinct, and fully realized. They're also almost all stocked with bizarre machines and weapons, including the Gravbenda, the Flu Bomb, and the Buganaly (one of the more hilarious inventions). You will definitely never be bored by Smith's vision.
You may be left breathless, though, by the swiftly moving plot, which starts picking up speed about three pages into the book and barrels relentlessly on until just about three pages before the end. It's a fun ride, with plenty of pretty scenery and enough twists to keep things exciting, without so many convolutions that things become confusing. And behind it all is a steadily growing mystery that nags more and more on Stark's memory, until he is forced to confront a part of his past that never really died.
And when Stark turns to confront it, about halfway through the book, the book just goes haywire. Almost nothing from the first half can quite prepare you for what happens thereafter. Now, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I will say that if you read through the sudden transition and on to the end in a single sitting--as I did--and you don't think too hard about what's going on, the book remains an enjoyable romp until the third-to-last page. In retrospect, however, the plot (and the ideas Smith suddenly introduces) hangs together a bit loosely and is a little too weird to be completely satisfying. But despite these faults Smith maintains a breakneck pace that makes it easy to ignore the flaws and concentrate on the fun that you're having.
Steven Wu's Book Reviews