Monday, August 1, 2022

Review of The Smoke by Simon Ings

The first 100 or so pages of Simon Ing's 2021 novel The Smoke are like watching an archer shoot at a target; each arrow strikes a new location. With one of the first arrows, readers learn that the world took a new direction in the early 20th century when the Russian embryologist Gurwitsch created a biophotonic ray. This technology has since widened the gaps within our species, social class taking on a whole new meaning. With another arrow, readers get a view to life in in London's the Bund where the upper class exist, and with still another arrow a view is given to the lower class where modified humans, called Chickies, stumble about in what is left of civilization, building nests, reproducing, and scavenging for sustenance. In still another arrow, the largest from Ings' quiver, the reader meets Stuart Lanyon. A wannabe architect, his ambitions never quite come to fruition. He does, however, fall in with the daughter of a billionaire tech entrepreneur, a woman named Fel. Money and time mean little to her family, and so Fel's mother puts Stuart to work drawing and designing set pieces for her pet project, a low budget sci-fi television series. Stuart's social class not quite up to snuff, things eventually come to a head as the technology Fel's father is developing encroaches on Stuart's life, challenging him to define precisely what he wants his reality to be.

The concepts of The Smoke are as varied as the directions the novel seems to go. And yet Ings drives with purpose, keeping things contained. Gene therapy, immortality, space travel, aliens, dystopia—all would seem to be too much for one book to bear. Yet character and the human condition sit front and center. What normally appears as sensawunda in most sf books is here informative without being overbearing, tantalizing without being cheesy, and conducive rather than spotlight-hogging. There are times in the middle sections of the novel the reader starts to wonder whether Ings even needed science fiction's tool chest at all. But then the conclusion happens...

The Smoke ends on a brilliant fevre dream that sits astride multiple fences—realism, hallucination, pulp science fiction, and/or exposé on the human condition. There are some writers who are able to conflate two, possibly three things, but in The Smoke Ings really stretches the number of ways literature can bear symbolism, metaphor, realia, and speculation, and does so reasonably. For readers who want a concrete handrail to hold upon the final pages, look elsewhere. Ings offers the reader several, all of which hold weight.

As such, given the literary nature of the novel, The Smoke will not be for every reader of science fiction. Like Ian Watson, Olaf Stapledon, Pat Cadigan, Michael Bishop, Brian Aldiss, H.G. Wells, and other writers of humanist sf, potential readers should appreciate a writer's ability to engage with the world beneath the surface. Ings engages with multiple without always being clear or offering the reader pat answers.

In the end, Ings makes a strong argument for quality over quantity. Readers who enjoy his fiction must be patient, but after several years when a new novel hits store shelves, like The Smoke, it proves worth the wait. The Smoke is multi-layered, thought provoking, and anything but a mainstream take on technology, space, society, etc. With the daily struggles of relationships and career, impacts of mind-boggling tech, class difference, and the subconscious meaning of family and friends, existence and humanity are center stage.

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