Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wolves - Simon Ings

I received a copy of this novel through Worlds Without Ends some time ago. It must have taken quite an interesting route because it took no less than two and a half months to get here. I had already given up on it when it arrived in the mailbox. When it did, it had to wait another month for me to get around to reading it so we're quite a bit past the publication date (January 2014) by now. Wolves is the first novel by Ings I've read. I must admit that, until being offered this copy, I'd never heard of the man. He is not exactly unknown in British science fiction though. Wolves is his eighth novel and there are quite a few pieces of short fiction out there as well.

Wolves is a near future science fiction in which Augmented Reality plays an important part. Think glasses or contacts that make you see more than your eyes would. The real world overlaid by whatever the programmer chooses to show you. The main character, Conrad, is working for a company trying to develop the technique. His friend Michel looks at the world differently. Convinced that the economy is going to collapse in his lifetime he prepares for the end. He even makes a lucrative career out of it by writing post-apocalyptic novels. When a financial backer appears that wants to combine the two into a new form of entertainment, their professional lives as well as their personal ones become intertwined. Things get even more interesting when his job leads Conrad to a clue about his mother's death many years ago.

During the first half of the novel I was frequently tempted to put the book down. Augmented reality plays an important part in this book and Ings has created a main character completely immersed in this life. It is as if he's always one step removed from reality. We get to see the entire story through his eyes so it comes across as if looking at things from a distance. It becomes impersonal, filtered. Even the girlfriend he has at the opening of the book can't really touch him since her hands were lost in an accident and replaced by artificial ones. His life is dreary in the extreme. In later stages of the novel it gets so bad Conrad longs for unaugmented reality. To be able to look into someones eyes and not see a contact hiding the depths of their souls.

It doesn't help that Conrad is not really a nice fellow. He has the annoying tendency to think of people as selfish, vain and desperate, always managing to ascribe the most negative motivations to people around him. It often makes him behave like an asshole. Quite frankly, I don't understand why he didn't jump off a bridge long before we reach the final part of the novel. Especially in the early chapters of the novel, he is utterly pathetic. The picture painted of Conrad is that of a boy from a dysfunctional family, growing up to be a man who can't seem to find happiness in life. The one thing that probably saves him is the fact that he accepts the dreadful things that happen to him with a scary kind of fatalism. He is not a character the reader will easily connect with.

The final part of the novel is quite a different creature from the opening pages however. For some reason Ings doesn't introduce the mysterious death of Conrad's mother until quite late in the novel, making the first part appear a bit aimless. His mother suffers from manic depression and it is no surprise to him that she dies when Conrad is still a teenager. It's one of the parts of the book the reader feels the resignation that plagues Conrad most clearly. He is upset over a lot of things that happen back then, but not the actual death of his mother. While augmented reality plays a part in this novel as well, his father experiments with it to provide sight for blinded servicemen, these memories are the most clear look we get into his mind. I still felt removed from Conrad though, like even in his memories, he is the spectator in someone else's script. He employs this effect in the sections about Conrad's work and achievements in later life but this bit left me wondering how much of it is actually Conrad's outlook on life rather than technology messing with his perceptions.

I felt the early part of the novel was a bit aimless, but it has to be said that Ings pulls the strands of the story together nicely in the final few chapters. With the floodwaters rushing in (given what happened in the UK this winter Ings' timing is impeccable) and the economy collapsing, we return to the physical reality of the world and the characters deepest motivations. Strip away all the technology and you'll still find basic human emotions underneath. It's an odd sort of collapse. Suddenly it is upon the reader without much in the way of reflections on what went wrong. The characters saw it coming a long while before it actually happened so there is no sense of surprise or desperation. In a sense, Conrad is once again living out a script someone else wrote. That of his friend Michel.

Wolves is a bit of an odd novel. It contains elements of a techno-thriller, murder mystery and apocalyptic tale without actually being any of those three. Even several days after finishing it I'm not quite sure what to make of it. The last part of the novel, where I started to get a sense of where things were going, was quite a good reading but if I hadn't promised someone I'd review it, I'm not sure I'd have made it that far. I guess it is a novel that requires a bit of patience and some reflection because after mulling over it for a couple of days, I do think it is a decent read. Maybe not giving into the urge to put a novel down is not such a bad thing once in a while.

Book Details
Title: Wolves
Author: Simon Ings
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 295
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-11973-4
First published: 2014

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