The Smoke by Simon Ings. Book Review

THE SMOKE by Simon Ings
Gollancz, p/b, 304pp, £8.99,
Reviewed by Chris Limb

In 1916 a nuclear warhead was detonated over Berlin killing 40,000 people instantly but ending the Great War. However some of the biophotonic technology developed and used during the war has had far reaching consequences, splitting the human race into three distinct species.

Later in the 20th century the Yorkshire steelworks are churning out parts for the atomic powered spaceships Humankind is planning to send to Jupiter, the Bund are pushing medical science towards practical immortality and the feral Chickies remain as unfathomable as ever.

Stuart, a human, is back home in Yorkshire, recovering from a break up with his partner Fel, the daughter of Bund high-flyer Georgy Chernoy. However unfinished business means he has to return to London and once there he is drawn back into the mutating world of the Bund, surrounded by the memories of his life there with Fel…

The Smoke is an astonishing novel. From the premise it would be appear to be an alternate history SF tale, but it is in actual fact far much more than that.

The story is told from a ground level perspective, showing that no matter what bewildering events and technologies there are in the world, on some level people’s day-to-day lives still resemble our own. People drink pints in run down pubs; make cups of tea and travel by tube.

With three separate species here, culture shock is almost a way of life, and many people find it easy to fall back on their old emotional crutch, prejudice.

Of course the world depicted in the story is a mutated reflection of our own. Humanity’s reaction to the Bund and their ubiquitous “screens” will be very familiar to anyone who has ever sat, puzzled and confused, in a train carriage full of people staring at their phones. The Bund’s burgeoning technology is a worrying to Humanity as the internet currently is to those who grew up long before the days of the modem.

The world building here is vivid, complex and believable, creating a solid backdrop against which both human and inhuman dramas of love and loss are played out in a novel that is fulfilling and thought provoking.