I read a lot of novels and it is perishing rare for me to feel genuinely intimidated by the intellect of an author but here we are! Simon Ings’ terrifying intelligence is palpable throughout the pages of The Smoke, with my only quibble being why London is called such, as the text doesn’t seem to offer any explanation. Is this a British thing that has eluded me as a foreigner, albeit an Anglophile?
Anyway, a bright if otherwise ordinary young man named Stu breaks up with his girlfriend, Fel, the daughter of a prominent scientist who has pioneered a means of prolonging life. Stu and Fel lived in The Smoke, near The Bund, as the colony of Fel’s people — a hyper-intelligent race who are evolving to hyper-efficiency — is known. Years ago, Stu had an unsettling encounter with a member of another of the human races, known somewhat disparagingly as Chickies, that continues to haunt him. Stu’s family begins to fall apart as war and destruction loom, and Stu finds himself at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
Mr Ings switches masterfully from third- to second- to first-person narratives and back again in a stylistic carnival ride that takes us from alternate history to space opera to classical mythology homage, all the while touching on class conflicts (in a world cheerfully devoid of America with all its complicated geopolitical neuroses,) anti-Semitism and the sociopolitical ramifications of advancing technology. It is at once an homage to classic British SF and a weirdly bold paean to love, tho not perhaps in the way you’d expect. Personally, I thought the main weakness of the book was in Stu and Fel’s relationship. Like everyone else in the novel, I had no idea why she loved him.
The Smoke is a truly weird, profoundly intelligent science fiction novel that dares to extrapolate a richness of both wonders and horrors from our own modern world. Pick it up and prepare to be dazzled by its sheer inventiveness.
Interview with Simon Ings to come soon!