‘If bugs in a jar reproduce once every minute, and by midnight the jar is full, at what time is the jar half-full?’ This Stella had remembered. Familiar enough as I was with the riddle, it still took me an incredulous moment, a split-second of scepticism, before I confirmed the answer in all its enormity: ‘At one minute to midnight the jar is still only half-full.’
THE SMOKE, by Simon Ings, is a surrealist alternate history the likes of which I haven’t seen in some while, if ever. It is truly off its trolley, but written with superb control. There is a strain of alternate history that imagines the futures of things that weren’t true but were believed to be. My own AETHERIC MECHANICS did some of that. Ings goes off with Alexander Gurwitsch and his biophotonic rays and morphogenetic field theory. A world in which World War 2 didn’t happen, Gurwitsch’s theories are carried by the Jewish Bund to a Russian homeland and developed to the point where the people of the Bund speciate.
This is where the book begins to get uncomfortably tricky. The Bund become a global elite, playing on the readers’ conceptions of Silicon Valley techno-elites but also unavoidably raising the murky ghosts of Jewish world order paranoid delusions and racisms. They’ve speciated – they’re not homo sapiens any more, they’re more than human.
And, at its heart, this is a book about a love affair between a normal, “unaccomodated” man and a woman of the Bund.
But everything wrapped around that broken heart is… let’s just say “mad.” The protagonist is from the North of England, and what follows is the part that seemed to confuse a lot of reviewers. The book, when in London, appears to be roughly contemporary. (Though there are clues that it could be the1970s.) But in the North of England, well, it’s grim oop north, and there are steam engines, and no televisions, and tin baths by the fire. Time is broken. Something happened to the world and now it’s in splinters.
The clue is that one of the characters is developing a tv show that is literally Gerry Anderson’s UFO, which made me laugh a lot. But it’s called D.A.R.E., like Dan Dare. (Which ties into the subplot about the British Space Force launching their first interplanetary rocket, which is a Project Orion nuclear pulse propulsion job.) These are late entries in the legends of Britain, simple futures from this tired old island. (Which, it turns out, is the point.) There are other legends of Britain here, or things that feel like it – a biophotonic experiment during World War 1 leads to a race of “sub-men” who embody thedark mischief of pixies, Puck and spriggans.
I make it sound like a mess, I know, because it’s hard to get your arms around the whole thing, especially without spoiling it. I will say that the book is structured so carefully that it all holds together. A lot of questions it raises go unanswered, and you may find yourself thinking about them for a long time after you finish the book. But it also feels complete.
(I also have to note that there’s a syntactical trick, a switch between second and first person, that made me curse in admiration at Ings’ wit and sleight of hand.)
It’s a difficult, twisty and often uncomfortable book. But it’s that kind of book I love – the sort that has five other books jammed into it. It is deeply strange, with a strong sense of the wyrd, and yet at times feels powerfully grounded in real life. THE SMOKE is a singular, uncompromising achievement.