The key unwritten law for travelling on the London Underground is that you should never interact with fellow passengers, with the possible exception of offering your seat to someone visibly more in need of it. You may, however, people-watch a bit more openly than is usually advisable on the street. At peak times, the proximity of bodies, odours, and hormones leads to a suffused comingling of fear and desire, as the drives of the collective unconsciousness rise uncomfortably close to the surface.
Towards the end of The Smoke, there is a scene in which the protagonist of the mainly first- but sometimes second-person narration, Stuart Lanyon, undergoes the full Tube experience in one unbroken swoop of transformation. Looking up from a newspaper he finds on the seat, he notices a shaven-headed young builder standing, holding on to a pole by the door. This man looks so tired that Stuart considers offering him his seat, but then becomes absorbed in contemplation of the man’s “powerful hands,” and the thought of his fingers “trembling, swollen with blood.” Allowing his gaze to move first slowly up the man’s arm and over the body beneath the fabric of his jersey, then on past his “strong chin,” Stuart suddenly finds himself locked in to eye contact:
Your breath catches in your throat. Are you afraid? Why are you afraid? Look: the man is smiling. Such a burst of liquid warmth under your skin! You want to leave your seat, not to give it up for the man, but so that you can stand beside him, bathing in the light cast by his smile. To be any distance at all from that smile, even a few feet, is unbearable. (p. 266)
However, before Stuart can rise fully to his feet, the young builder becomes caught up in a slow-motion ballet of desire with the young student and the Indian businessman who are also standing beside him by the Tube door, as the three come together in a single, sweeping embrace:
You have to join them. You have to. But you can’t, the woman next to you has her hand on your thigh, her grip is like a vice, and her other hand is between her legs, lifting her skirts, revealing the smooth, full black flesh of her thighs, and even as you lean into her, toppling into her lap, the whole carriage gives a sickening lurch, and the blind black windows, caught in mid-tunnel, erupt suddenly with colour and motion. (p. 268)
This sudden eruption unspools like an accelerated version of Gary Ross’s 1998 film, Pleasantville, in which a 1950s Midwest town is released from black-and-white conformity by the spread of colourful sexuality. A similar but more profound and revolutionary transition is happening here in Ings’s London, which—despite the obvious contemporary markers of the Tube scene described above—has in part the feel of the repressed city of the immediate postwar decades, its walls adorned with peeling posters of British stars from that period such as Hattie Jacques, James Robertson Justice, and Dirk Bogarde. It is almost as though the 2016 Brexit-voters’ wish to return Britain to the past in order “to get our country back … to the way it was before” has been realised in full, glorious monochrome. However, rather than fulfilling the demands of nostalgia, Ings’s period markers have the uncanny effect of representing the Britain of the postwar decades as a fading dream, or a pocket universe slowly blinking out of existence.
This abrupt intrusion of sexual desire into an atrophying world is due to thousands of “chickies” racing past the carriage as they flee London in the face of an imminent attack. When we first encounter the chickies in the Yorkshire hills above Stuart’s native town of Huddersfield, they appear to be primitive humanoids, capable of making items such as the corn dolly that Stuart finds as a boy, when out with his older brother, Jim. The dolly has the effect of sexually arousing Jim and, after he has hidden it beneath his pillow, leads to his first experience of masturbation. We are told this story as a flashback triggered by the adult Jim’s picking up of the dolly from his childhood bedroom, as he prepares to return to London after a brief spell staying with his father. However, the final act of his childhood memory is his destruction of the dolly after washing himself clean in the outside privy. “How can that be?” the narrative asks us before continuing:
It must be a replacement.
From where, though? They none of them last more than a few months.
Let’s say you bought this one in London from a shop east of Charing Cross Road.
You have no memory of this.
And then (I’m good at this) you do. (p. 39)
So we know from early on that the second-person narrator is manipulating Stuart’s consciousness; but it is only much later, in the immediate aftermath of the Tube scene, that it occurs to Stuart that the chickies might be manipulating everyone, and doing so well beyond simply triggering a physical sexual response. While this is indeed actually happening, the specific relationship of the chickies to Stuart is both simpler than this and yet more unexpected, requiring us to rethink the perspective from which we are reading the book. I don’t want to give the ending away entirely; but, because The Smoke is a complex and overdetermined novel, it is necessary to discuss this perspective because otherwise a plot summary leaves it open to misinterpretation. In effect, the novel is being narrated from the perspective of one particular chickie, who acts out of love as a kind of guardian angel for Stuart. What the chickie tries to save Stuart from are the potentially toxic consequences of masculinity: the cycle by which Stuart wants to be like his brother and his friends, who in turn want to be like the men they see in military posters—and therefore engage in violent and destructive acts while suppressing the capacity to feel.
In an interview with The Fantasy Hive, Ings explains how the chickies originated as part of an earlier version of the novel focused on gender:
One of the versions of the story was about gender invention. It was going to be a society in which only men existed, so femininity had to be manufactured. [...] So the chickies were a desire to create a non-binary target for human desire. And of course the consequence is because they’re a target for desire no one really thinks about what they’re doing. And, without giving too much away, they’re kind of important, and nobody knows it. [...] The chickies were the last vestige of the version of the story that was about the construction of gender, so it’s a little bit of archaeological material left in the book, but I was able to make it work in the end, for the purposes of the final version.
There is perhaps more “archaeological material” left in the final novel than Ings suggests, because it is noticeable that it is still principally constructed around three male-female relationships: between Stuart’s father and mother; between Stuart’s aunt, Stella, and the Bundist, Georgy Chernoy; and between Stuart and Georgy’s daughter, Fel. All are estranged by the particular circumstances envisaged in Ings’s alternate history. The fact that The Smoke is set in a world in which North America has effectively disappeared, following the “Yellowstone eruption” of 1874 and a subsequent ten-year global winter, is not without significance: it means that the British Empire is the dominant world power. But the main differences between Ings’s world and ours result from the invention of the Gurwitsch ray.
Alexander Gurwitsch was a real-life Russian biologist and biochemist who is best known for discovering biophotons—photons of light produced by biological systems. In The Smoke, Gurwitsch develops a biophotonic ray that he claims has healing properties and can guide foetal development in order to sculpt organic life. The ray is used in the winter of 1916-17 by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society to treat the dead and dying troops on the battlefield of the Somme; the following spring, a horde of diminutive needle-toothed creatures, the chickies, emerge—and survive by feeding on the dead. In response, Europe succumbs to an existential horror of pogroms against all the usual forms of the other; but this has little negative effect on the chickies themselves. The subsequent attempt by German industry to use the chickies as “subhuman” industrial labour is undermined by their capacity to promote a sexual response in humans. We are told that the German economy was bankrupted in 1937 by the participation of the entire Ruhr Valley workforce in a summer-long orgy, and it is plain that this event averted the threat of a second world war. By the end of the novel, we understand that the chickies are not just some sort of manifestation of a return of the repressed, but a telepathic species who are trying to intervene in and thereby transform the gendered sexual violence of male human beings.
There is another key alternate-historical development in the novel. As a result of the 1917 pogroms, the remnants of the Jewish Labor Bund, a Marxist secular organisation, flee to Moscow before accepting Lenin’s offer of Birobidzhan in Siberia as a homeland. Here, they go on to make history in the space of thirty years because they have the Gurwitsch ray:
Gurwitsched wheat averted the ’21 famine, saving Saint Petersburg. Gurwitsched horses twenty-five hands high pulled rocks out of the path of the White Sea Canal, connecting the Arctic to the Baltic. All Europe fed on Gurwitsched pigs, Gurwitsched apples, Gurwitsched lemons. Until at last their mastery was such, the Bundists dared to try again, and in a much more careful, targeted fashion, what had been tried in 1917. They turned the rays upon themselves. (p. 51)
The result is that the Bundists become technologically advanced transhumans who, we are told through the chickie’s second-person narration, have by the time of the novel’s present, shaped all the world’s big cities. The back story of Stuart’s training as an architect allows Ings to map out how the Bund’s use of 3-D printing techniques revolutionises construction and contributes to the radical transformation of London’s built environment and skyline with “great shining towers of plastic stuff, all glass curtain walls and weather-responsive bricks.” On the one hand, this is an ingenious fictional version of the transformation of London in recent years: think iconic skyscrapers, from the Gherkin to the Shard. On the other hand, it is seriously disturbing, for all the chickie’s assurance that no one “talks about ‘enclaves’ any longer, far less ‘ghettos’” (p. 21). The racial othering of financial and technological development as semi-alien Jewishness is uncomfortable for the reader, especially given recent concerns over antisemitism in public life in Britain.
So what is going on here? On one level, Ings is clearly trying to discomfort the reader. In the Fantasy Hive interview he admits: “You want to get hold of the readers of the two star reviews and shake them. ‘I did that on purpose to wind you up!’” He is actually talking specifically about his inclusion of a scene in which Stuart can’t figure out how to use a smartphone, but the wider point behind that is to skewer a specifically British resistance to social change, technology, and alterity—values that can be dismissed as belonging to “unBritish metropolitan liberals”—that dates back to the postwar decades. If Ings was merely transposing the antisemitic attitudes of 1950s and 1960s Britain—even as part of an obvious pastiche—to our contemporary global context in order to discomfort or provoke us, it would be highly problematic. Satire or playful context is no justification for circulating time-old negative tropes. However, I think Ings is doing something more subtle than this.
The chickie’s second-person narration of Stuart’s attitude to the Bund functions to chide, or even goad, both him and the reader to either overcome or honestly admit this resistance, and the related structural failure to accept otherness. This is close to the bone at times, as when the chickie suggests Stuart’s thoughts: “The Bund’s in every country now, with enclaves in all big cities. The obvious metaphor for this process—a tumour metastasising—fails because of its unkindness” (p. 52). Yet because of the complex structure of the novel we are always aware that the narration is mediated and that Stuart’s inability to overcome his resistance to Fel, even as he is overwhelmed by both desire for her and the desire to be like her, has blighted his life. There is further the question of whether the chickie is motivated by their own resistance to Fel, and jealousy over her relationship with Stuart. Ultimately, The Smoke is a novel that addresses the complexity of personal and political relationships in our world, which has been marking time since 1917, by fictionalising the development of a form of socialist alterity. Whether Ings had to make the Jewish Bund the proponents of this socialism is open to question, but there is some historical logic to this and there is never any doubt that the sympathies of the novel lie with the prospect of a transformed future overcoming the legacies of the imperial past.
As mentioned above, one of the key features of Ings’s alternate history is that, in a world with no America and in which no Second World War has happened, Britain remains—at least in conventional terms—the pre-eminent global power and committed to a full-blooded imperialism. However, the global spread and technological advances of the Bund have called into question the real extent of British hegemony and so triggered a reaction. Accordingly, The Smoke opens with an account of the preparations in the Australian desert (still British territory) for the launch of the nuclear-bomb-powered, Union-Jack-emblazoned HMS Victory—including Stuart’s brother as one of its crew—on what turns out to be an ill-fated spaceflight to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, and beyond. By establishing territorial domination in Space, the British intend to reassert their mastery: a mastery that is equated with superiority over others and a straight-laced masculinity—reflected by the choice of Lanyon, with its intertextual connection to one of the characters in Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as Stuart’s surname.
From the perspective of Stuart and Bob, everyone else in the novel is othered—and not just the Bundists, who clearly represent a group that can be openly joined. By having the Lanyons come from Huddersfield, one of the former hubs of the industrial revolution, once again booming with “spaceship yards and bomb manufactories” (p. 20), Ings is able to critique some of the founding myths of contemporary Britishness. The industries might be unfamiliar, but the northern experience represented by Stuart’s trip with his dad, Bob, for fish and chips by the canal—and then on for five pints in the pub—is straight out of postwar British kitchen-sink drama. For all the work, however, no one seems to be happy, and resentment is directed, as in the real-world north of England in 2019, squarely at the perfidious southern world of London. Later, Stuart is attacked despite his local roots simply, he suspects, for having “the temerity to leave town in the first place, head for the capital, scholarship under my arm, to better myself” (p. 244). Calling the novel The Smoke highlights the ever-increasing incongruity of London’s nickname, as its slick high-rise developments and financial growth take it further and further away from everyday life in the industrial north. There is no British common culture of the type claimed by postwar British intellectuals, and to pretend there is avoids the choices which would otherwise have to be made. Like Jekyll, Stuart comes to realise that he can’t keep the two worlds he lives in apart and that he needs to choose between the working-class way of life represented by his dad or the transformed, and implicitly feminised, future represented by Fel.
The incompatibility of the two, and what is at stake in the choice between them, is neatly encapsulated in Stuart’s recollection of Bob’s trip south to visit them in Fel’s flat a few years before the novel’s present:
He might have been visiting a fairy’s castle. The place astounded him: its size, its light. It was only a flat on the Barbican Estate. A self-igniting hob. An electric piano. Tablets. A phone without a chord. Nobody he knew owned such things as he saw there. (p. 19)
The standard trappings of late capitalist modernity are here estranged, and thus revealed to us afresh as the product of a form of magic which is utterly alien to the supposed common ways of life underpinning Britishness as a shared identity. For much of the long twentieth century, this fault line ran through individual experience as technology—the car, the telephone, the washing machine, the television—slowly opened up the possibility of not just changed forms of behaviour but also, more significantly, led to a divergence of social values from the traditional patterns of morality, respectability, and deference.
In our own world, the British EU referendum of 2016 saw an eruption into the open of what had by then become a radical binary opposition between incompatible belief-sets. This revealed a nation divided from itself. In The Smoke, Ings represents this division by overlapping it with a divide between British men, such as Stuart, his brother and father, and everyone else, such as Fel, and Stuart’s mother and aunt. Stella, for example, represents that recognisable postwar British phenomenon of the girl who escapes the working-class streets of her youth through success on screen and stage. It is her beauty and celebrity status that take her into a relationship with Georgy and subsequently bring Stuart and Fel together. However, one of the pivotal moments of the novel is the description of how Stuart’s mother, Betty, who had previously seemed the stereotypical stay-at-home sister, undergoes the “Chernoy Process”—developed by Georgy—by which she gives birth to a regenerated transhuman version of herself.
These familial and social divides converge in a disastrous dinner party hosted by Stella and Georgy on Christmas Eve, which takes place without any Christmas trappings (much to Stuart’s disappointment). When the conversation moves from the impending Mars-bound departure of Jim on the Victory, to whether the Bundists could use their birth technologies on the moon, Georgy responds:
“Quite why everyone is so fascinated by the population curves of the Jewish race, I’ll never know. It has always been like this. As if we’re a sort of human isotope. Don’t let them reach critical mass!” (p. 166)
Tellingly, this “defensiveness” irritates Stuart, who wonders why Georgy is referring to his community by “the old unhappy name,” when all acknowledge the Bundists as the triumphant modern and materialist figure to emerge from the Great War, “crushing the rabbi under his proletarian heel.” Here Stuart manifests several different levels of bad faith. The latent hostility of British society to the Bundists, of which he is not immune himself, is evident throughout the text, and his annoyance at Georgy’s direct acknowledgment of antisemitism is characteristic of how members of a dominant culture resent having their structural biases exposed. Moreover, in criticising Georgy for not being consistent in his socialist modernity, Stuart is implicitly voicing his own mixed feelings about the level of change it requires to move from proletarian roots to a transformed future. It is this ambiguity that undermines his relationship with Fel; and yet Stuart evades this hard truth, too, by denying his own unwillingness to commit—instead ascribing their break-up to her difference from him. He takes refuge in characterising their relationship as that between a “native” informant and an ethnographer. By seeking to avoid responsibility for his own shortcomings, Stuart in effect aligns himself with the British Empire and his brother’s participation in the Mars mission intended to establish dominance over the Bundists from space. Ings’s discomforting of the reader through identifying the Bundists as the agents of transhuman progress thereby forces them to face the racism, antisemitism, and resistance to otherness implicit in the characteristically male-British moral evasions that Stuart personifies.
Despite the fact that Ings manages to effect some sort of resolution before the end of the novel—through a superbly weird scene bringing Stuart, Fel, and the chickie together—The Smoke’s strange blend of gender politics, British social realism, alternate history, and futuristic technology does not dovetail into a neatly unified whole. Nethertheless, the overdetermined, messy feel of the text, filtered in parts through the chickie’s second-person narration, conveys a picture of British life that seems emotionally true. When we look back on the chaos of the late 2010s—perhaps from an extraterrestrial transhuman vantage point—this will be one of the few novels that will communicate to our altered descendants the full limitations of the culture they have left behind. Ings has covered similar endgame territory to varying degrees in the past, most recently in Wolves (2014), which Martin Petto described in his review for Strange Horizons “as a fascinating work of transition,” and on the road to having the same kind of sustained contemporary relevance as M. John Harrison’s work. Following the publication of The Smoke, I think we can safely say that Ings has reached that destination. It is a subtle and sophisticated work of fiction that combines emotional power with intellectual depth to produce a novel with the power to transfigure the tawdry world surrounding us in Britain.
While there are plenty of writers who excel at depicting the claustrophobic interactions between social class, sexual repression, and unsatisfactory personal relationships which characterise the British psyche, I don’t think anyone has previously managed so well to capture the full humiliating awfulness of what it feels like to be trapped within this backward-looking, jingoistic, introverted culture while it lurches drunkenly forward, trousers round ankles, slap-bang into the relentlessly onrushing future of climate catastrophe, technological singularity, post-binary genders, and transhumanism. Like Stuart, we’ve reached the point of no return—and the hard choices can no longer be avoided.