BSFA Shortlist Reviews: Wolves by Simon Ings

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Ings’ novels were just released in the U.S. All of them have Jeffrey Alan Love covers. If there was ever a reason to start book hoarding…

Wolves by Simon Ings

Setting: Near-future, pre-flood England.

Summary: Conrad is an unremarkable millennial twenty-something who works in AR tech (Augmented Reality) and has a girlfriend with prosthetic hands. His best friend, and his best friend’s girlfriend, are remodeling a boat because the ocean is rising. The narrative flashes back and forth between Conrad’s formative and adult years, and his friends do remarkable things while he sorts out his past, and maybe he comes to terms with some things about himself, but not really, because he’s too noncommittal to really give a fuck.

Surface synopsis quote:

I have revealed too much of myself. The inner shallows. [87]

Actual synopsis quote:

One by one we are transforming the spaces we have cleared. [206]

Biggest reader question: Where’s the SF?

Biggest reader answer, three-quarters in: OH, THERE’S THE SF.

How it feels: Bleak and gray. Casual characters in a brooding environment. Metaphors are like wow.

A taste:

This is my home with its inner chaos exposed, no more now than a ghastly iteration of the same salt crystal. City as tumour. A spreading circle of dead tissue. City as leprosy. [199]

Typical reader criticism: Conrad is an indolent, selfish dick, and his friends are indolent, selfish dicks.

My response: And?

Narrow-minded criticism: Conrad is confused about his sexuality.

My response: No, he is not confused. And sexuality is not static for many people, anyway.

Harshest criticism: All style, no substance. Just postmodern cool kids with no real struggle.

My response: The plot is “the adaptation of millennials in a pre-decay, pre-flood world.” But the story is actually about the human interpretation of and human effect upon space: landscape space, memory space, relational space. It is about how things change, and how we adapt to it and reconstruct our own stories about it. How our own manipulations of the landscape of life dehumanize us and remove us from the truth. Not a new interpretive plot, but compelling from a millennial POV.

Possible other criticism: It’s sexist. The female characters are mere ancillaries, annoying contrivances by design, cast in bad situations without much narrative sympathy.

But: Coming from the first-person POV of an indolent, selfish dick, that’skindathepoint. This is a critical depiction of the male POV within the hip, tech subculture. How timely.

My only real criticism: There is a cringe-inducing trunk scene that I think will hook most readers with its suspense, but I thought it was silly and interrupted the thematic arc.

Why it’s special: While the narrative slings back-and-forth in time, the novel’s motif of flooding landscapes builds momentum with a circling, swelling pattern full of consistent metaphorical themes. The spiral feels meandering, but is conclusive to the tale. The plot trickles, then swells, then engulfs.

Why it’s really special: The definitive near-future, post-modern tale for/about the millennial generation.

Should you read this: No. This was my favorite novel of 2014 and it’s all mine.

***

And that concludes my 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist! The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5. Sure, I have my favorites, but every book on this list is progressive and special in some way.

And remember that as the SF world collapses in dismay due to other big SF announcements this weekend.

Thanks for keeping it classy, British SF-ers! And thanks for such a delightful reading list!

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North