Children wave at me as their coach trundles by. I grin back at them but I keep my hands in my pockets, reluctant to commit myself to the game. (p. 25)
So, the prodigal returns. Simon Ings entered the genre as a writer at the same as I was doing the same as a reader, publishing a string of science fiction novels in the early nineties: Hot Head (1992), City of the Iron Fish (1994), and Hotwire (1995). But, by the time I was starting to review, he was already exiting: 1999's Headlong giving way to non-genre published Painkillers (2000), before he moved into pure science writing. He resurfaced as a novelist in 2006 with The Weight of Numbers, a sort of literary mash-up of the secret history and the technothriller, which was eventually followed by the similarly composed Black Water (2010). Both are excellent, unlikely novels that are science-saturated but contain SF only in homeopathic doses—much like the more po-faced Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010) that William Gibson produced in the same period.
I only read Hot Head a couple of years ago and it seemed amazingly fresh; much more modern than most contemporary British SF, in fact. So I'm very pleased that as well as publishing Ings's new novel, Gollancz are re-issuing his back catalog—less the two most recent titles which are still in print form Atlantic—with wonderful cover art from Jeffrey Alan Love. They are unsurprisingly keen on describing Wolves as a "spectacular return" but, whilst it can definitely be understood as a re-commitment to science fiction (a process begun a couple of years ago when Ings became editor of new SF magazine Arc), it is by no means a simple embrace, since he seems to be deliberately following in the footsteps of one of the most ambiguously committed men of the genre, M. John Harrison.
Conrad, the narrator of the novel, who is quoted at the opening of the review, has also made a commitment in his formative years that dogs him into adulthood, often unwelcome but always inescapable. We meet him in the aftermath of a car crash from which he emerges unscathed but which claims both of his girlfriend's hands. As Mandy struggles to adapt to her scars and prostheses, he struggles to adapt to her. It is an opening that in some ways recalls the intense, splintered work of the young, thin Ian McEwan, but this turns out to be a red herring. Soon Conrad is off:
I wonder if Mandy's hands are dexterous enough yet to allow her to unlock her front door? They must be. She managed all right the day she walked out on me in the restaurant. Only that was a Tuesday. Maybe the cleaner was in.
I don't know.
Anyway, I should phone her, if only to warn her, to tell her I'm gone. (p. 21)
When he closes the door, this world is forgotten. Indeed, Wolves suggests several entrances into its story that prove to be illusory; Ings likes to wrongfoot. Instead, the novel initially makes an impression on the reader at the sharp end of things, through a series of arresting sentences and scenes:
I touched her clitoris with my toe. It was wet there. It felt all wrong—wine spilt on a carpet. (p. 14)
In the centre of the square, a man and a woman in smart-casual clothes trot in circles, round and round. Every so often they point at random into the air, as though firing imaginary weapons. . . . The couple's gestures are ungainly and unpracticed. I lean back in my chair, and now I see that I have been watching them through a flaw in the glass; that they are smaller and nearer than I thought. That they are children. (p. 16)
Even so early in the novel, none of this is merely for show (though more SF writers could stand to be a little showy). The first quote echoes forward in time from an episode of Conrad's past that lies in our future as well as heralding a general sense of sexual dis-ease permeating the novel; the second hints at the entire conceptual underpinning of the whole novel, that perception is independent of reality. For all its darts and judders, this is a layered, methodically thought through text.
The base layer—the unstable bedrock—is Conrad's childhood in an unnamed backwater town. Unnamed and unnameable; in contrast to Ings's globe-trotting previous two novels, Wolves is ageographic. It takes place on some other island, an unnamed place linked only to Earth itself by the odd reference to things like "the Turkish quarter" and by the ghost of the British landscape. The combination of the tongue-tip familiar and the estrangingly alien is all part of the highly effective destabilizing strategy Ings is deploying.
Conrad's past holds enough baggage for several novels but at the heart of the book is his one true commitment, the relationship he forged with Michel whilst at school. The pair are initially brought together because their personalities and family circumstances conspire to make them outsiders but it is more than this; Michel's charismatic oddness exerts a powerful hold over Conrad. It becomes inevitable that their relationship—equal parts fraternity and rivalry—will be heightened and complicated by sex.
Adolescence is a potent time of transition and, as such, hugely fecund novelistic territory. At the same time, there can be something dark, troubling, and obsessive about the intensity of childhood's end—something deliciously Banksian. Ings makes the very most of both. So, on the one hand, he gives us the flexibility and potential of adolescence, of relationships and thoughts not possible at other times within the same society. On the other hand, experimentation can shade into abuse, such as in an impressively horrid scene in which Conrad is "initiated" into heterosexual intercourse by a friend of his parents: "At last she took pity on me. 'Well,' she said, gathering her clothes, 'that was naughty.'" (p. 61)
As the book opens, the pair have drifted apart, perhaps to the point where their relationship is on the cusp of permanent rupture. To escape from Mandy and the grip of a burgeoning quarter life crisis, Conrad accepts Michel's offer to come and visit his retreat. On arrival, he finds his old friend planning for the end of the world, building an Ark and intending to underwrite his survival by publishing—what else?—a post-apocalyptic bestseller. As it happens, his book does get published and does become a bestseller and this ultimately sets the plot in motion (though not for some time). But it also allows Ings to critique the enterprises of literature, genre, and post-apocalyptic fiction. When they are first reunited, Michel dismisses the piles of research surrounding him: "This stuff's just the scene-setting, the research. In the end, so long as you've done it, so long as the important bits of it are parked in the back of your head, none of this world-building nonsense matters" (p. 67).
Ings is not afraid to push the directness of the meta-fictionality to the extreme. Chapter eleven gives way not to chapter twelve but "The Shaman," an extract from Michel's eponymous novel. But first this unsigned introduction: "the opening passages . . . go something like this" (p. 158). And then, in the final paragraph, before chapter twelve belatedly appears: "(on and on and on, over half a million words of this shit and counting, the literary equivalent of diarrhea—once begun, why stop?)" (p. 164). Are the annotations Conrad or Ings? This blurred line is a persistent presence from the off. Wolves is not just ageographic but, much less successfully, atemporal too; there is always the nagging sense that the era of Conrad's youth is actually that of Ings. It is similarly in evidence when, through Conrad, he advances a series of aphorisms of collapse:
It is an unpleasant reminder that the human world falls apart, not through catastrophe, but from mounting internal failure . . . The world ends, not with flood or plague or famine, but with a man torching his own house. (p. 73)
Michel's bleak, muscular view of collapse was no more than a boy's romance. No one can say what will succeed our present dispensation but one thing is for certain: it will not resemble the past. (p. 103)
When civilization collapses, it's because they fall out of joint. They deafen on their own feedback. They can no longer imagine themselves. (p. 265)
But the mask slips. Conrad is certainly arrogant enough to believe in the certainty of his own judgement but not high-minded enough to do so dispassionately. He is a caustic, cynical man and Ings gives this perhaps too much rein: "Come the end times, we shall have no chairs, no beds, no blankets for our children. We shall have folk-singers, and we shall kill them with rocks and cook thin strips of their flesh over fires conjured from their smashed guitars" (p. 75). The target there is some anonymous kid with a guitar but here is Conrad talking about his best—his only—friend and the woman he professes to love:
Do these two seriously imagine the global collapse might still be averted—averted by everyone clubbing together for the common good? They are becoming the sort of tweedy vegetarians who take used carrier bags with them when they drive to the supermarket in search of organic salad. Seeing them sip their microbrewed coffees, it's not hard to imagine what the End Times will actually look like: a planet of corpses clad in 'I Told You So' unbleached cotton Tees. (p. 123)
In the words of Jeffrey Lebowski: you're not wrong; you're an asshole. It is Conrad's character which is revealed but it is the author who indulges him, who allows him time on stage for this soliloquy. Unfortunately, Ings shares another Banksian trait: the late, great man's fatal weakness for tub-thumping and characters who climb on soapboxes. Is the journalist slipping into devil’s advocate editorializing?
This uncertain phasing between artist and text is most troubling when it comes to the representation of women. For the most part they are entirely absent but, when they do manage to press through onto the page, they are always seen through the filter of Conrad's misogyny. This is first signaled when, amongst the beauty and power of the prose of the establishing scenes, we are confronted by a weird and unflattering parody of the Greenham Common protests. When Conrad goes to visit his mum at an anti-war camp, he discovers a pack of sub-human earth mothers:
There were women all around me, hidden, hissing at me. They were squatting in benders made from old tent canvas. They were crouching in teepees and yurts and behind screens of dead branches. They were hiding in nettle patches, hunkered down there like animals. (p. 55)
A decade later, after fucking Michel's girlfriend the first time he meets her, he reflects: "She is the most beautiful thing I have taken to bed in my life" (p. 87). It is as concise a distillation of objectification and ownership as you are going to get. The only other time we see him have sex with a woman, she is a prostitute who uses Augmented Reality technology to render herself literally faceless. The scene ends with her banging on the toilet door, demanding that Conrad lets her in so she can have a shit. These encounters are all seen from Conrad's perspective but they are all situations that Ings has engineered. They are also all too on the nose to be anything less than intentional but I can't fathom what the intention is beyond the obvious.
By this time, our protagonist has navigated a decade long career in AR from wage slave to start-up entrepreneur to establishment figure. His company are now world leaders in making the world disappear. This is the SF bit, as Jennifer Aniston might have it, but it builds on and consolidates Ings's long standing interest in perception (including 2007's non-fiction The Eye: A Natural History). This gets its ultimate expression in an answer that is chillingly delivered by Michel in a particular circumstance but applies to most of the questions the novel examines: "How will you know?" (p. 265). But Ings is always quick to derail the philosophy and I found myself longing for a bit more of Gibson's clinical maturity, a bit less of the masculinity uber alles of Barleypunk.
Which is part of the point. This is a novel which is constantly in motion, whether through time, space, or subject. It is organic rather than mannered: it has the ebb and flow of the tide, the capriciousness of the weather, the unpredictable escalation of climate change. Unfortunately, sometimes what the tide brings in stinks—such as the plot. If we hold our nose when it comes to Conrad's character—something that might be easier for men than women—then the only thing that seriously mars the novel is a belated attempt to impose a personal arc on the surge of ideas and images. This seems like a hangover from Ings's previous two novels where the coherence of the big picture from signs and portents was the whole point, but here the hinges of coincidence and revelation seem cheap and melodramatic. In particular, the appearance of a central figure from Conrad's past as his boss, a senior member of the military-media complex, strains credulity.
Wolves, then, is best understood not as a triumphant return but as a fascinating work of transition. Ings is taking bold, vigorous steps forward but this is treacherous terrain and it is no surprise that he slips backwards from time to time. Sometimes though, he is just too cavalier. I've mentioned several authors as reference points throughout this review, each with a strong personality; the point is not to hold Ings to another's standards but to set out the company he is confidently keeping. These are some of the most important figures in SF and Ings is moving into this territory; he just needs to fully commit. If he currently seems stranded half way to Harrison, I don't think it will be for long.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.