Fiction Reviews

The Smoke

(2018) Simon Ings, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 295pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09844-2


First, the cover: a man stands looking at a street, an ordinary street. Perhaps, a bit old-fashioned. Smoke rises from the houses and the other buildings, in fact, all of them, which turns into larger buildings, perhaps, city buildings, taller buildings, industrial buildings. Smoke from those buildings rise to become other buildings. More modern buildings, futuristic buildings. Smoke only rises from one of them to become a black sky. If anyone has been to London recently that upper scene is reminiscent of The Shard or The Gherkin building and all the futuristic buildings that have shot up the past decade around Liverpool Street Station. This cover and the three cityscapes mirrors the way humanity has changed as in Ings novel as it has been split into three different species. Mutual incomprehension has fractured the globe. As humans race to be the first of their kind to reach the stars, another Great War looms.

That back cover explains that for you that means returning to Yorkshire and the town of your birth, where factories churn out the parts for gigantic spaceships. You're done with the pretentions of the capital and its unfathomable architecture. You're done with Georgy Chernoy and his questionable defeat of death. You're done with his daughter, Fel, and losing all the time. You're done with love. But soon enough you will find yourself in the Smoke again, drawn back to the life you thought you'd left behind. You're done with love. But love's not done with you.

Intriguing?  Well, The Smoke isn’t what you would expect, at one level it is almost a kitchen sink drama, an old fashioned story of the clash of different classes, about the “haves” and “have nots” brilliantly exposed in a tense dinner party scene which somehow has a nod to the old Gerry Anderson TV series UFO in it (a fact mentioned in the acknowledgements at the end). In many ways, perhaps, because of the Yorkshire setting , it reads like a novel an angry young man of the 1950s or early 1960s might have written because there are some fine character studies, and depth of description against a background where we are in an alternative reality, where history, in fact, mankind, has taken a different path, not because of some Victorian steampunkery or technological advance although there has been a Great War which ended with Berlin being nuked in 1916 and early there was a global winter because of an eruption at Yellowstone.  Those aside, things have really changed because of advances in medical science which have given us a world where death has been conquered and mankind has split into different species, some of which are more technologically advanced, and some are able to cast a sexual glamour on others.

For me, this wasn’t an easy read. The tale unfolds in three parts over ten chapters, but the first part is told in the second person, a device that works well in short horror stories with a twist in the tale – Ramsey Campbell has written a couple of cracking stories this way, and Iain Banks used it for the murder scenes in Complicity but here it seems to act as a barrier to getting immersed in the story which reverts into the first person later from the viewpoint of Stuart a young architectural student who has been brought up in Yorkshire who escapes to London – The Smoke. Although the story does revert to the second person right at the end and becomes a stream of consciousness conversation between characters not helped by the lack of punctuation and some narrative quirks.

Stuart has a relationship with Fel, the daughter of a scientific genius, but Fel is one of the Bund, the most advanced and most privileged of all humans who own great swathes of London, and Stuart is a fish out of water in a city where there are all sorts of technological advancements in the background riffing off our own advances and perhaps the things that were speculated about in the 1950s as to how the future might look now.  The Smoke isn’t an easy read, but it is a worthwhile, thought-provoking one and easily a world that Ings could return to. It would be a shame if he didn’t.

Ian Hunter

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