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Literature Review

Only Forward – Literature Review

Only Forward – Literature Review

Author: Michael Marshal Smith

How much do I love this book? Well, I love it a lot. I’m biased, but it’s for a very good reason. Only Forward is awesome. Only Forward is tremendous. Only Forward is remarkable. Yes I’m using the synonym feature on my computer. After this review is posted Q-Dog will post a reply backing me up how splendid (still using it) this book is. On those irritating My-space surveys people email me, I always struggle with my favourite movie, song, TV show or album. Not with my favourite book. Bang! “Only Forward”. No thinking, no analysis, no weighing up. There is no competition. How manically I’m plugging this book to you the reader, is how it was plugged to me by this girl called Kate in the late 90’s. Those whom I give or lend this book to (I bought five copies just to give and lend and I’m down to one dog eared copy), have the same reaction I did, in how awesomely, tremendously, remarkably, splendidly overwhelming (still going) this book is. I re-read this book every six months.

You will think the first half is cool and witty. THEN- you will sit there and say “What the…” in amazement about half way through- just like Sam did while we were working at a SITEL call centre in 2004. My friend Jill and I were watching him. She had already read it and had the same reaction. His eyes widened and he looked at us and mouthed “What the…” We both knew which bit he arrived at. He was hooked. Just as Kate, Q-Dog, I, Jill, were. It has a twist in it, you see, a sharp turn into the truly weird but beautifully engaging. The twist isn’t as horridly abrupt and clumsy as the twist in Dusk till Dawn (fuck I hate that movie) but Only Forward’s “twist” is as profound and executed far more skilfully. The second half is clever, poignant and breath-taking in its genius. This book gets COOL +. I’d even go as far as to add more +’s on there but I think I have made my point. Phew- what a rant, I need a cold shower…

The cover of the version I first saw (Ed.) No clues to it's depth here.

The cover of the version I first saw (Ed.) No clues to it's depth here.

OK Only Forward is Michael Marshal Smith’s debut novel. His other works include “Spares”, a story about clones being made and kept ignorant of the outside world on a secret island. Kept in a utopian society, they were eventually harvested for their rich progenitors for spare body parts. Apparently was going to be made into a movie by Dreamworks. The license expired, they canned it and then they released The Island

In Only Forward, however, we meet the charismatic enigma- STARK. If you need Stark you are in kind of deep shit or in some rare cases- in REALLY deep shit. But thankfully, Stark is very good at what he does. What does Stark do? Um… he’s a kind of freelance fixer? (And he also is able to do something, that no one else can do… and I’m not going to say what because it will spoil the book – anyway back to the review). We meet a thoroughly exhausted Stark in his apartment recovering after completing one of his more difficult… assignments. Alas the gravity machine (Grav Benda) in his room ran out of power and Stark had the gravity set to the wall. When it failed, everything fell into a heap on the more traditional interpretation of the floor. The world is totally Sci-Fi and there’s lots of cool gadgets- talking bug detectors, flu bombs, talking yet insubordinate infomation elevators and much, much more.

Stark lives in COLOUR Neighbourhood. You see, there are no countries anymore; they became obsolete so people live in Neighbourhoods. Capital N. These Neighbourhoods are based on a particular lifestyle. You live in the Neighbourhood that suits your personality. In Colour Neighbourhood, the city changes in colour continuously. The streets change to suit what you are wearing. The ACTION CENTRE Neighbourhood- basically think of a place for academic, engineering scientific workaholics. Then there’s RED- basically a demilitarised zone of death and destruction dominated by the psychopathic, yet shrewd crime lord, Ji. It is a highlight of the first half as we are introduced to the concept that countries are long gone and you live in a place that fits your character. Stark lives in Colour but he doesn’t belong there. He doesn’t really belong anywhere in this world. This kind of helps him be so good at what he is able to… do. Smith goes into great detail describing elements of these various locations in Stark’s life. The detail he goes into engages the reader to gathering a completely bizarre yet accurate vision of what Stark encounters on a day-to-day basis.

One of the less visual covers.

One of the less visually striking covers.

My favourite neighbourhood is CAT. Ages ago, an eccentric billionaire left an abandoned neighbourhood to his cat and now millions of cats live there. You visit your cat there and you are only allowed through the gates IF you are a cat person. Smith’s story goes in to top detain gear explaining HOW weird Cat neighbourhood is (the stores always have fresh food and the streets are immaculately clean). He then changes gear entirely by not explaining WHY cat neighbourhood is like what it is. This sort of ambiguous narrative is heightened when he mentions TURN neighbourhood. It’s a bad place. Not bad like Red. Red is a violent place but even the gang lord of Red- Ji, fears the idea of being in Turn. Imagine a little kid describing a nightmare but not having the vocabulary to explain it properly. It’s a… bad place. What goes on? Smith doesn’t say. It’s up to you as the reader to consider the how bad Turn really is. Now that is creepy. Now that is brilliant.

It’s this kind of exquisitely detailed writing, counter-balanced by innovative ambiguity, which makes the book such a cool read. Normally that type of narrative irritates me, but with this it works. Why? Because we hear it from Stark’s point of view. He’s a guide in this weird world. The narrative is in first person in Stark’s head as if he’s explaining it to you. It’s written much like a futuristic “gumshoe” private eye detective perspective. Very quickly you come to like Stark, you respect him for what he does but he doesn’t necessarily spell out what he actually does. Smith’s writing is that good. Smith, through Stark, tells you what you need to know and leaves out what you don’t need and what he can’t entirly explain i.e. why Cat Neighbourhood is like it is.

In Only Forward, Stark has been hired by the Action Centre to find an “Actioneer” called Alkland who has disappeared and it’s pretty obvious that it’s a kidnapping. OK, so Stark has to find someone. Now this is one of types of the problems Stark can solve – a run of the mill kidnapping retrieval. I’ll ruin it for you- he finds Alkland. This is not the point, however. Stark realises that there is something more to this situation. Something is wrong with Alkland. Not something… a Something.  Capital S.  Luckily Stark knows what to do, how to do it (kind of- it’s not an exact science), and, just as importantly where to do it. To top it off, Stark is the only one who knows how to deal with this type of… problem (confused? – just read on and buy the damn book). Then the story takes the sharpest left into left field of all time and the coolest narrative of all time really begins. It works thanks to Smith’s technique of leading the reader into accepting very quickly that- “sometimes things are how they seem… and sometimes they are not as they seem.” I’m not going to tell you what happens. There’s no spoiler alert because it really will spoil it for you.

This image will make so much more sense when you read the book.

This image will make so much more sense when you read the book.

If there was only one minor problem I had with this book is the occasional offensive language. I’m no prude- I love Kevin Smith movies and I’ve sworn in this very review. My main gripe is that the swearing in the Only Forward doesn’t allow me to have it as my class novel for my Grade Eight Literacy class – we’ve read the Princess Bride instead. Also from a personal standpoint, I don’t like swearing in the narrative. When Stark is getting shot at and swears in surprise- that’s fine. Even though the narrative is from Stark’s point of view, much it’s written from his internal narrative and swearing here just doesn’t work for me. This is a minor issue however, as I found myself able to overlook it, by being totally engrossed in Stark’s journey.

I’m pretty sure that Smith admitted he wrote the story on the fly. There was no plot or structural planning and each ensuing event was something that came to him as he wrote. The left turn was not planned and normally this could mean that a story staggers about, the rhythm suffers and reading it becomes laborious. In this case… it doesn’t. It works. It really works. It takes the book from being an entertaining Sci-Fi detective story into one of the most compellingly intelligent pieces of writing I have ever read. You are introduced to such a weird universe, filled with so much cleverly written ambiguity and or detail, you roll with it easily. The second half is so well done – you empathise with it immediately because so much of it you can relate to. (The evil babies and forgetting – you aren’t expected to understand that previous phrase, but once you read this novel you will understand it TOTALLY). The climax is horrifying, inspiring and emotionally moving all at once. The schizophrenic narrative is awesome. The characters are tremendous (Stark’s cat Spangle is wonderful). The story is remarkable. Only Forward is a superb novel. Don’t Wikipedia this book. Damn it dear reader! Buy, lend, hire or download this marvellous book. Michael Marshal Smith is a genius. Again, I’m not going to ruin it for you. Read this book and be blown away. Just as I was.

COOL+… +… +.

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About The Author


Noel went to university with Q-dog. He also gained notoriety within the Cool-Shite universe by ruining the Lord of the Ring experience for Q-dog by whispering "I'm not dead, just very badly hurt" when Gandalf fell off the bridge. Funny stuff! A 30-something Speech & Drama teacher, he balances being a sci-fi nerd with setting a proper example to a bunch of rowdy teenagers. All while trying to make them appreciate the musical talents of Megadeth. He has a cat- Diablo. If he had a pet shark he would call it Steven…

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3 Responses to “Only Forward – Literature Review”
  1. Best. Book. EVAR.

  2. avatar Aussie T says:

    If swearing in teenage literature is an issue for you, try Dangerous Days: The Autobiography of a Photojournalist, by J. William Turner. No obscene language, even when the boys are being shot at by drug traffickers or stalked by international terrorists.

  3. avatar Q-Dog says:

    couldn’t agree more. a truly freaking amazing book. i have seen SO many copies around the place because people just keep buying it and giving it to people.

    this book will fuck you up. it may rape your mind off.

    you have to love it for sure man!

    nice review brotherman! want to re read it again.

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