And this is the review of Wolves by Simon Ings that appeared in Interzone 251 alongside the interview with Simon that I reprinted the other day.
Conrad’s father has devised a jacket studded with sensors that allows blinded servicemen to see again; his best friend, Michel, gets into trouble for taking inappropriate photographs; Conrad himself gets into the new industry of Augmented Reality which can affect everything we see, and eventually brings this technology to the work of a major film maker. Everything in this stunning novel is about perception, or failures of perception. In the opening pages, Conrad is disturbed by the sight of his girlfriend’s artificial hands, the consequence of crash that happened when he failed to see oncoming traffic. Later we learn that, as a child, Conrad disposed of the murdered body of his mother just so his father wouldn’t see. What we see shapes what we make of the world, but our perceptions are easily deceived. I don’t know that Conrad is an unreliable narrator, but what he perceives isn’t necessarily the truth.
And what he perceives is a world quietly running down. We are in a near future where technology is starting to make up for so much: artificial hands, artificial sight, augmented reality. But technology cannot compensate for other failings. Conrad’s father’s groundbreaking work on restoring sight brings no adequate financial recompense; eventually he is forced to give up his own researches to take a job with someone else, and so begins a downward career path that eventually sees him on the breadline. His failure stands for the economic problems we see all around in the background of the novel. Meanwhile, the environment is itself failing. When he and Conrad are children, Michel is obsessed with the end of the world. When we first encounter him as an adult, he and his wife Hanna are effectively building an ark, while he writes a novel about a flooded world. The novel is a success, the ark is abandoned, but by the end of Wolves the flooding has started.
A flooded landscape has long been a staple of British catastrophe fiction, and Ings recalls that tradition in this novel. But he twists it: we don’t see the aftermath of catastrophe but its beginning, and only a brief extract from Michel’s book hints that the heavy rains and swollen rivers may actually lead to such an effect. But catastrophe is there nevertheless, in lives increasingly detached from a world that isn’t fully seen. Our first understanding of what augmented reality can do comes when Ralf, the technical wizard who is to be Conrad’s business partner, gives him a demonstration and suddenly Conrad can no longer see the furniture he knows is in the room they occupy. It is a metaphor that hangs over the entire novel.
How much does Conrad fail to see of his psychologically damaged mother, his increasingly distant father, the obsessive and vaguely threatening Michel, the sexually available Hanna? What other word but catastrophe could you put to the way so many things are falling apart in small ways? Near the beginning of the novel, a house in the country is trashed during the course of a party; near the end, Conrad and Michel trash the childhood home they once shared. It is a novel about despoiling things because we don’t see they are there. In haunting prose that often recalls the work of M. John Harrison, Simon Ings has produced a work that is surely going to be one of the novels of the year.