Book: Only Forward - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Only Forward
Thursday, 03 February 2005 at 09:37 pm
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Author: Michael Marshall Smith

Details: (c) Michael Marshall Smith 1994; Pub 1998 Harper Collins Publishers; ISBN 0-00-651266-6

Verdict: Only Forward is well-written and surprisingly profound despite the packaging.

Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: lethargic_man gave it to me.

I don't think I could describe Only Forward in a way that would convince me to read it. lethargic_man didn't say much about it other than that the humour is fairly dark, but anyway, it's really not the kind of book I read at all. It has a lurid turquoise and orange cover with stupid taglines all over it. It's seriously violent and gory, and gratuitously and self-consciously weird, and it's in every way a boy's book. The first person narrator is the standard OTT laddish stereotype: he swears constantly, speaks about women as something between objects for aesthetic appreciation and alien beings, and is embarrassed to admit to any sort of emotion or kindness, though he's basically a decent guy underneath the facade.

Despite all this, I loved it. All the stupid annoying stuff is the backdrop for a really penetrating and well-executed portrait of Stark. And he's a wonderful character, really wonderful; I'm absolutely bowled over by the way Only Forward presents a real, believable human being starting from such an apparently banal literary stock character. In a way I suppose he's the modern equivalent of the Victorian professional gentleman, who always reminds you that he's a modern, rational, serious man: he keeps going on about how he's not a sucker, he doesn't have time for all that new-age bullshit etc, as if to reassure the reader that all the weird happenings are actually happening.

Having the narrator address the reader directly can be annoying, but it works really well here; I really felt I was building up a rapport with Stark and began to care about him with a depth of feeling that's fairly rare for a fictional character. Also, he is genuinely funny, even though his humour is sometimes cruel or scatological and not the kind of intellectual humour that normally appeals to me. The main twist in the plot is the way that Stark gradually reveals the aspects of his past that he doesn't initially discuss.

The action part of the story is so surreal that just about anything might happen so anything happening isn't really surprising. That said, considering the plot revolves around successive acts of violence in successively weird situations, I was surprisingly interested in it. The narrative is so pacey and engaging that I got caught up in the action. I don't think I've ever read a 'thriller' and found it actually thrilling, before now. The pace varies a surprising amount, even though most of the story is a basically simple thread about a guy on the run from lots of much more powerful but less intelligent villains. And even though the setup is rather unfair, in that it takes place in a world the reader doesn't have enough information about to work out what will happen and where normal cause and effect don't really apply, I thought that the way Stark got through impossibly dangerous situations was quite elegant. He was in enough danger to make things really scary, but his narrow escapes were just about plausible enough to be acceptable.

And there's a whole load of emotional and psychological and even spiritual stuff which is put in really subtly so that I almost didn't realize it was there until I reached the final section. I felt as if I was reading a zany, wacky thriller, but it's a thriller which covers a lot of serious issues which would seem ill-matched with the setting if they weren't done so brilliantly. Only Forward touched me in some of my darkest places; it's partly about a really deep friendship which falls apart for no obvious cause, and about hurting loved ones and not being able to bring back the past. And it conveys very intensely the sense that life doesn't mean anything, but that even if you can't justify it intellectually, there's some worth in going on anyway and trying to be as kind and decent as possible. And it does it entirely without seeming to preach or veer off into pretentiousness. It's funny and exciting and clever-clever and zeitgeisty and readable too; it just really socked me emotionally at the same time. Wow.

Thank you very much, lethargic_man. This is easily the best book I've read in months, and I'm very pleased to have a copy of it that I can come back to or lend to people who might appreciate it.


Moooood: impressedimpressed
Tuuuuune: Sting: Fields of gold
Discussion: 18 contributions | Contribute something
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:February 3rd, 2005 09:47 pm (UTC)
10 minutes after journal entry, 05:47 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I'm not sure I can quite be fair to Only Forward at this distance; partly because much of what I liked about it, Smith seemed to recapitulate in his next two novels, Spares and One of Us, without really moving on, and I kind of went off his work at that point. Though I have found his more recent, much more straightforwardly realistic thrillers under the fairly obvious pseudonym "Michael Marshall", The Straw Men and The Upright Man [ called The Lonely Dead in the UK edition IIRC, though I may have that wrong way round ] absolutely excellent, very very strong on a character level.

The other thing is that I read it pretty much immediately after reading Use of Weapons for the first time, and while still reeling from what that does with pacing of information and reliability of narration, compared to which the technique on that in Only Forward, which I remember being basically Stark saying "well, actually I was lying to you about that bit" felt like going from witnessing real miracles to watching Tommy Cooper fumble a simple conjuring trick.

I suppose to be fair to it I should read it again, but it will be some time before I get around to it.
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:February 3rd, 2005 10:16 pm (UTC)
39 minutes after journal entry, 10:16 pm (livredor's time)
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The other thing is that I read it pretty much immediately after reading Use of Weapons for the first time,
I hope this doesn't offend you, but I can actually imagine having this sort of reaction to Use of Weapons if I'd understood it better. I think I didn't ever really get into the story because I was too busy failing to work out what on earth was going on with the chronology. But I can see something of the same power of a very human, personal story set in a complex and exciting as well as violent and disturbing background.

what that does with pacing of information and reliability of narration, compared to which the technique on that in Only Forward,
On a technical level I agree, the two books aren't remotely comparable. That's kind of what I meant by saying that the plot twists aren't particularly clever. What got me really excited with Only Forward was not really literary pyrotechnics so much as Stark as a person. Reading OF was a bit like getting to know a really cool person, and getting to the point of the relationship when you move beyond superficial conversations and they really open up to you. I really cared about Stark's past; the way he covered stuff up at the beginning when he didn't, as it were, trust the reader yet, seemed to me more like a realistic portrait of someone who doesn't dissemble well, rather than an innovative way of doing the unreliable narrator thing.
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usuakari: default
From:usuakari
Date:February 4th, 2005 01:01 am (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 12:01 pm (usuakari's time)
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It's been years since I read Only Forward. I remember it as being dream-like, but that may just be a memory-problem rather than a quality of the book itself. I liked it, but a lot of the detail is hazy, so it's probably due for a re-read. Like, rysiel, I think it suffered by comparison to some of the other things I was reading at the time.

Use of Weapons (and all of Iain M. Banks other Culture-based books) is wonderful. Remains one of my examples of what good sci-fi should be. I think it was the topsy-turvy sequence of telling the story that originally intrigued me, and then the characters. Zakalwe reminds me of at least one of my friends...

"All my friends are fuck-ups, but they're fun to have around..."

('You Sound like Louis Burdett' The Whitlams)
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:February 4th, 2005 12:36 pm (UTC)
14 hours after journal entry, 12:36 pm (livredor's time)
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It's been years since I read Only Forward. I remember it as being dream-like
It definitely is, significant sections of it are set within dreams.

Like, rysiel, I think it suffered by comparison to some of the other things I was reading at the time.
Fair enough. I've not read much recently that's really grabbed me, which may make it stand out more. And Only Forward does particular narrow things well, it's not truly great literature over a broad scope of achievement.

Use of Weapons (and all of Iain M. Banks other Culture-based books) is wonderful. Remains one of my examples of what good sci-fi should be.
I've only read that and The Player of Games. I liked the latter a lot better; I can see that Use of Weapons is unquestionably brilliant, but it didn't speak to me personally in the same way.

I think it was the topsy-turvy sequence of telling the story that originally intrigued me
Whereas I just found that confusing. I need to reread it now I understand what's going on so I can focus on the other parts of the story. It is very clever, and I do feel rather stupid for not getting it, but the fact is that it made the book less accessible to me.

Zakalwe reminds me of at least one of my friends...
Now, that's a scary thought! He is a very impressive character, though.
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usuakari: default
From:usuakari
Date:February 4th, 2005 09:28 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, February 5th, 2005 08:28 am (usuakari's time)
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It definitely is, significant sections of it are set within dreams.

So desu. I read a number of other books around it, such as Vurt and another one I can't remember the name of (dealing with techno-sidhe and memes spread by airborne viruses, or was it pollen?) that were also very dream-like. I think they all have a tendency to blur into each other in my head.

I've only read that and The Player of Games. I liked the latter a lot better; I can see that Use of Weapons is unquestionably brilliant, but it didn't speak to me personally in the same way.

Fair enough. The first I read was Use of Weapons, followed quickly by Consider Phlebas (which is classic space opera). UoW remains one of my favourites, in part, because it was first. And it reinforced, along with Pratchett, the art of non-linear story-telling.

His later Culture novels got some bad reviews from readers on Amazon, but I think that they're being a little harsh. I'd actually rate Excession and Look to Windward as two of the best, dealing with themes such as revenge and redemption, and the historical habit of one odd thing/crisis suddenly bringing other pots and plots to boil.
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tinyjo: default
From:tinyjo
Date:February 4th, 2005 09:33 am (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry, 09:33 am (tinyjo's time)
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Ah yes, MMS. Most people I know consider Only Forward to be his best book but I preferred Spares (his second), which I recommend trying. It's quite similar in some ways and, as with Only Forward, it's the characters which make it.
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:February 4th, 2005 12:45 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 12:45 pm (livredor's time)
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I preferred Spares (his second), which I recommend trying. It's quite similar in some ways
I shall certainly look out for it. I know a lot of people object when authors write follow-ups which are really similar to an initial success, but I don't mind that much. I like reading several variants of the same good book, especially as I rarely reread. (Obviously writing several totally different but equally brilliant books would be even better, but not every writer can be a genius.)

it's the characters which make it
That definitely sounds like an incentive for me to read it!
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 4th, 2005 09:52 am (UTC)
12 hours after journal entry, 09:52 am (lethargic_man's time)
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Thank you very much, lethargic_man. This is easily the best book I've read in months, and I'm very pleased to have a copy of it that I can come back to or lend to people who might appreciate it.

My pleasure. <pleased, if mildly puzzled> I wasn't at all sure you'd get on with it; perhaps I ought to just give up trying to work out in advance if you'll like books.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:February 4th, 2005 10:12 am (UTC)
12 hours after journal entry, 10:12 am (livredor's time)
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I wasn't at all sure you'd get on with it;
Fair enough, it wasn't in the least obvious that I would. As I've said in my review, it's really not the kind of thing that I like; I can imagine hating lots and lots of stuff which most people would classify as similar to Only Forward.

perhaps I ought to just give up trying to work out in advance if you'll like books.
No, that's a daft idea. You've been right a lot more often than you've been wrong. The only thing I can think of you expected me to like more than I did was Dracula, and you said yourself you hadn't read it in years. And really, I wouldn't have been able to work out in advance that I would like Only Forward.
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lethargic_man: beardy
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 4th, 2005 09:54 am (UTC)
12 hours after journal entry, 09:54 am (lethargic_man's time)
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Only Forward is well-written and surprisingly profound despite the packaging.

Oh, you wouldn't judge a book by its cover, would you? ;^)
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:February 4th, 2005 10:22 am (UTC)
12 hours after journal entry, 10:22 am (livredor's time)
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Oh, you wouldn't judge a book by its cover, would you? ;^)
Well, to an extent, yes. Covers are part of a marketing strategy, and generally publishers stay in business because they are good at marketing. Covers with lurid colours, ultra-modern fonts and 'cool' soundbites are meant to attract a particular kind of audience, and it's generally a kind of audience that doesn't include me. Looking at recently published novels, I'm vastly more likely to enjoy a book with a reproduction of a classic painting or an arty black and white photo and old-fashioned typography, than a bright turquoise book with electronics-related symbols for the only imagery.

And when I said 'packaging', I didn't just mean the cover. I meant the way that from the first few sentences it's presenting itself as a particular kind of book. Snark's constant swearing and cynicism, and the violence which comes in pretty quickly, the importance given to alcohol and casual sex, set it up as being pitched at a young, male, anti-intellectual sort of audience. The tone of the book is part of the packaging, as well as the appearance.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 4th, 2005 11:58 am (UTC)
14 hours after journal entry, 11:58 am (lethargic_man's time)
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Covers are part of a marketing strategy, and generally publishers stay in business because they are good at marketing.

This I can't deny.

Covers with lurid colours, ultra-modern fonts and 'cool' soundbites are meant to attract a particular kind of audience, and it's generally a kind of audience that doesn't include me. Looking at recently published novels, I'm vastly more likely to enjoy a book with a reproduction of a classic painting or an arty black and white photo and old-fashioned typography

I personally find it irksome how once a book is deemed a classic, the cover changes completely. Merely being fifty plus years old does not change the type of novel a book is!

than a bright turquoise book with electronics-related symbols for the only imagery.

It's not electronics related (assuming you thought it was a transistor symbol or something); it's the "fast forward" symbol you get on tape recorders -- with a reverse symbol opposing it at the end. Assuming it's this cover that you're talking about:



Would any of these covers strike you any better?


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livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:February 4th, 2005 12:20 pm (UTC)
14 hours after journal entry, 12:20 pm (livredor's time)
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I personally find it irksome how once a book is deemed a classic, the cover changes completely. Merely being fifty plus years old does not change the type of novel a book is!
Point taken, which is why I restricted my comparison specifically to recently published novels. And you've given a very interesting example of the phenomenon by including a 'Classics' edition of Only Forward. (I'm a bit scared that a book merely 10 years old can qualify as a classic, but there you go).

It's not electronics related (assuming you thought it was a transistor symbol or something);
No, I meant 'electronics' in the department store sense, not in the engineering sense! I knew it was a fast forward symbol; I'm assuming the intended association is flash electronic gadgetry of the kind that is mainly marketed at men. You know, DVD player / sound system / home cinema / ridiculously huge plasma TV as status symbols.

Would any of these covers strike you any better?
Ooh, what an interesting selection! (Though your samples are possibly bigger than they need to be, but that's a quibble.) The Bantam one strikes me a fairly standard hard SF sort of cover, which don't think is entirely appropriate for Only Forward; it's not the kind of book where predicting future tech is the point. It seems to be marketed at genre readers; to put it in very simplistic terms, the turquoise cover says 'lad' where that Bantam cover says 'geek'.

That German cover looks stunningly retro to me, I'd have guessed 70s or 80s. Again, it's more conventional SF than I think the book really is (and not just because it says 'Science Fiction Roman' in big letters!) I don't know enough about German covers to be able to say much about it, but with that cover I'd expect a reprint of an Asimov or AC Clarke novel, or someone trying to imitate that kind of thing.

I'm most attracted to the 'Voyager Classics' design, though I'm assuming that's a series and it's just a standard look they use for everything. But again, it doesn't give much impression of the book. The typography is modern without being futuristic, and they're still using that fast forward symbol, which looks very different in this context. That could be anything from a book of philosophical essays onwards though, but purely aesthetically I really like the design.
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 5th, 2005 07:28 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:28 pm (lethargic_man's time)

Only Forward.

(Link)
I'm a bit scared that a book merely 10 years old can qualify as a classic, but there you go

In today's world in which publishing houses are owned by multinationals and run as aggressively profit-driven businesses, books go out of print really fast. "Classic", in this context, means, I reckon considering a book which has been out-of-print for a little while good enough to bring it back into print. (Cf. the SF, Fantasy and Crime Masterworks series, some of which are not that old either, though others are.)

I'm assuming the intended association is flash electronic gadgetry of the kind that is mainly marketed at men. You know, DVD player / sound system / home cinema / ridiculously huge plasma TV as status symbols.

None of which existed, bar only the sound system, at the time this book was written. :o)

The Bantam one strikes me a fairly standard hard SF sort of cover, which don't think is entirely appropriate [...] That German cover looks stunningly retro to me,

Mmm. I thought the German one captured the book better than the Bantam. The Bantam has an SFnal appearance, but there's nothing about it that's at all futuristic. As for retro, I found on rereading the book recently the future portrayed in it came across as rather retro, both wrt to recent developments in SF (though tbh, the Singularity as a concept, though I had not come across it at the time I first read Only Forward, does antedate it), and to recent developments in RL technology and its place at the heart of everyday life.

it's not the kind of book where predicting future tech is the point. It seems to be marketed at genre readers; to put it in very simplistic terms, the turquoise cover says 'lad' where that Bantam cover says 'geek'.

I'm not sure I agree with you about the target audience here. Laddish geeks, maybe, not not non-geekish lads. And I enjoyed it, and I'm not exactly the most laddish of men, as you know.

As an aside, note the change in title in the German edition: For people like myself who don't read the blurb, it at once takes the mystery out of the early chapters, but replaces it with tantalising the reader from the word go.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:February 6th, 2005 10:24 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 10:24 pm (livredor's time)

Re: Only Forward.

(Link)
In today's world in which publishing houses are owned by multinationals and run as aggressively profit-driven businesses, books go out of print really fast.
Mm, I think I'm not very aware of this because I don't buy new books much. But I remember being fairly shocked when you pointed me to some stats about the lifetime of new books.

Classic", in this context, means, I reckon considering a book which has been out-of-print for a little while good enough to bring it back into print.
Well, I'm glad that people are doing that for some books at least.

None of which existed, bar only the sound system, at the time this book was written. :o)
Pedant. Pedantpedantpedant. *raspberry*

I thought the German one captured the book better than the Bantam.
I do like the picture, but it's the typeface and layout which spoil it by being so out of date!

As for retro, I found on rereading the book recently the future portrayed in it came across as rather retro, both wrt to recent developments in SF
Possibly. I know there's a kind of ongoing debate about what SF is accessible to people who don't keep up with the scene, but Only Forward is a book that works on its own. It doesn't require the reader to have read all the big names of the past decade of SF writing in order to make sense.

recent developments in RL technology and its place at the heart of everyday life
That's a good point. And I think socially it's of its time too in some ways, though only a very small section of it is set in the contemporary world so it doesn't matter too much.

I'm not sure I agree with you about the target audience here. Laddish geeks, maybe, not not non-geekish lads.
I'm not sure that targeting the book at lads (if indeed that is what the turquoise cover is doing) is correct for the actual writing. But it's not a book that fits easily into a niche, I think.

And I enjoyed it, and I'm not exactly the most laddish of men, as you know.
I could very well say the same thing about myself. As far as it's a type of book at all, it's a type that I don't like, which is why I was surprised by how much I got out of it.

As an aside, note the change in title in the German edition: For people like myself who don't read the blurb, it at once takes the mystery out of the early chapters
Yes, calling it 'Dream detective' is a little spoiler-ish, isn't it?!

but replaces it with tantalising the reader from the word go.
I was actually grabbed right from the beginning, even before I realized how original it was going to be.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 13th, 2005 07:29 pm (UTC)
9 days after journal entry, 07:29 pm (lethargic_man's time)

Re: Only Forward.

(Link)
I'm not sure that targeting the book at lads (if indeed that is what the turquoise cover is doing) is correct for the actual writing.

I was in a bookshop the other day, and saw another book by him with a similar cover; evidently they're using that theme for all his books now. (Likewise Neal Stephenson; I saw copies of his older books all with the same theme cover as for his most recent, Baroque Cycle, books.)
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lethargic_man: beardy
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 4th, 2005 01:07 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 01:07 pm (lethargic_man's time)
(Link)
Snark's constant swearing and cynicism

Hang on a tick. Snark? *giggle*
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livredor: hands
From:livredor
Date:February 4th, 2005 01:15 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 01:15 pm (livredor's time)
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*crinnnnnnnge* I can not believe I said that!
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