The Smoke by Simon Ings (book review).

February 23, 2018 | By | Reply More

Simon Ings brings us an alternative Earth in his latest book ‘The Smoke’, where history has diverged at some point from what we know to produce something far more bizarre than usually encountered in alternative histories. This is due to the pivotal event where this world split from our own being a biological discovery rather than a physical or historical event.

The discovery of the biophotonic ray has led to the questionable reversal of death, the speciation of humans into various sub-species with varying degrees of separateness and a plethora of medical advances.

For much of the book I struggled to get an accurate picture of what this world was like. Much of history appears to have diverted since WW1, still known as the Great War in this book, and initially I thought the setting was in the 1920s, with descriptions of the cold Yorkshire town where Stuart grew up seeming almost Dickensian, maybe steampunky.

The sprinkling of more advanced technologies from the Bund, the most advanced group of humans, quickly caused me to revise estimate to the fifties but, as smart phones and anti-grav trams made an appearance, I realised it was best to give up the attempt at dating the story because the book’s history was so divergent from ours by this point. The strange things going on in the Bund territory are by turns fabulously advanced and eerily uncivilised, giving this world a truly unique feel.

The first section of the book is written in the second tense, which I always find off-putting. It becomes clear eventually who the narrator is and why, but it’s still a risky stylistic choice that I find makes it harder to engage with the story. The majority of the book reverted to the more traditional first-person narrator, which I found more engaging. In either case, the viewpoint character is a young architectural student named Stuart, who struggles to escape his dour Yorkshire upbringing and make a new life in London, known colloquially as The Smoke.

There are flashbacks and memories of his childhood to round out the picture of Stuart’s life, but mostly the story follows his relationship with Fel, one of the indefinably different people of the Bund. Her father is behind many of their medical advances and the contrast between these two characters and Stuart’s own salt-of-the-Earth father, Bob, is a wonderful character study.

Despite the science-fictional trappings and alternate-history feel of the book, the story veers away from having a definite Science Fiction feel. Odd, hallucinogenic happenings, fantastical inventions and the ever-present influence of the sub-human Chickies begin to weave a slipstream feel to the book.

Ultimately, this becomes a hypnotic ride through an uncertain journey, where Stuart tries to come to terms with his mother’s abandonment, his father’s taciturnity, his girlfriend’s quirkiness and the realisation that his chosen profession is becoming redundant in the face of scientific advances. Simon Ings has created a distinctive world and style that captures the weirdness of what might have been.

Gareth D Jones

February 2018

(pub: Gollancz. 295 page enlarged paperback. Price: £16.99 (UK)). ISBN: 978-0-575-12007-5)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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