IT IS, PARADOXICALLY, a sign of trust in an author when a reader is constantly asking themselves, “what in the world is he up to now?”. In most other walks of life the suspicion that there is a plan, an agenda, beneath an innocuous surface might be characterized as paranoid — a sign that the subject of our wary eye may not be a person in whom it is worth placing much faith. In a writer, however, this presumed trickery can indicate that the author has previously impressed, and may be trusted to do so again.
Simon Ings has earned his readers’ trust in exactly this way: from his earliest work, such as Hot Head (1992) and Hotwire (1995), through to his much non-sf later works, The Weight of Numbers (2006) and Dead Water (2010), he has shown a serious playfulness, paired with an ambitious breadth of vision. In the last of those four novels, he took his perennial interest in perception and patterns to the Nth degree, charting the impossible course of stories and McGuffins through an intricate mathematical formula of shipping containers and deterministic plot. The idea that there is a plan at work in the novels of Simon Ings is less a speculative supposition and more a statement of experienced fact: “It's like jumbling the lock on a suitcase,” says one of Dead Water’s characters on the topic of code-breaking. “The difficulty, if you don't have the combination, is getting the damned thing open again.”
Thus we eye Ings’s most recent — and sometimes startling, sometimes uneven — novel, Wolves, with a keen awareness that it is up to something. Quite what, however, is down to us to discern, stethoscope pressed to the novel’s tumbling parts, unsteady hand gently turning its dials. On the surface, the problem seems simple: Ings’s first self-identifying science fiction novel in some time, Wolves strikes the pose of the bildungsroman, following its first-person narrator, Conrad, from childhood to a cracked kind of maturity. Conrad becomes an Augmented Reality engineer, and in the time-honored cyberpunk manner his work begins to break down the walls between “reality” and “perception”; he lives in a cosily catastrophic world, a nameless city in a nameless country which seems to exist at the edge of what we might think acceptable, in the midst of conditions we would not, and yet whose inhabitants go on with living as if there is nothing to be done — which there isn't. So it goes.
There is, though, of course, much more to all this than that. Ings does not write conventional SF — this fact may be why he has spent so long outside the genre’s confines, and why even his return, at first as editor of the important Arc magazine and now with Wolves, is potentially so innovative for the genre, particularly in its British incarnation. This is a novel about surfaces, not structures, and how they change. In his life as an AR engineer, Conrad loses grip on the consensus reality his supposedly counter-cultural friends in fact entirely accept, drinking organic coffee or wearing fair trade cotton: “I enter my meeting in the grips of an awful dream where every solid thing, every brick and kerbstone, has come adrift and floats before me, contingent, weightless, and untrustworthy.”
The reader will forgive me that structural flourish: trust is key to this entire enterprise. Ings is a skeptic, and urges us to share his questioning approach. Conrad’s childhood best friend, a would-be survivalist who once believed passionately that the end of the world was nigh (and becomes one of the "tweedy vegetarians" I refer to above), also comes to write best-selling escapist epic fantasy. “On and on and on,” Conrad (or is it Ings?) says of his friend’s work, "over half a million words of this shit and counting, the literary equivalent of diarrhea - once begun, why stop?" Literature, for Ings, is not for escape. Do not read this book for that reason, he tells us. And yet, also, he might say, we should distrust this book — it is after all an entertainment. So, we ask again: what is it, and what is today’s Simon Ings, up to?
In part, Ings is lending his hand to the work of a select group of British science fiction writers who are at the coalface of the genre, defacing it in discomfitingly attractive ways. Most obviously, M. John Harrison’s superlative Kefahuchi Tract trilogy — Light (2002), Nova Swing (2007),and Empty Space (2012) — feel like the touchstone for Ings’s sardonic, liminal style. There’s a moment in Empty Space, in which a garden house in the near future is burning from the quantum backwash of a far-flung interstellar civilization, in which image Harrison metonymically situates all the significance and weight of speculative fiction, where a literary writer may settle for mere metaphor. Ings, too, uses in Wolves science fiction’s potential not just to query but to deconstruct our realities. AR, after all, “gimmicks and games the entire world”, and Conrad's story — the suddenly pat resolutions to the central mysteries of the novel’s childhood sections (e.g., who killed his mother? What was his father really doing when fitting perception machinery to blinded soldiers?) — comes to resemble less and less a novelistic exercise and more and more a weird kind of video game, a staged progress through a predetermined landscape.
That is, an important element of Ings’s project is to make a statement about what the novel — what literature — should now, must now, be. He has returned to SF, one suspects, because he wants, like Harrison, to fuse the seriousness of the literary novel with the transformative potential (so rarely realized) of a speculative form. Conrad’s school, for example, makes no sense in his crumbling twenty-first century world: “the clock tower and the low, slate roofs of the quad [...] seemed utterly strange to me, grandiloquent and Gothic, not any part of my real life”. Likewise, in a crowd-sourced, Singularity-transformed world, even the capacious talents of Conrad’s business partner cannot leverage the plot as an exceptional character might in a Dickens novel: “We are not living in the nineteenth century. The pace of change far exceeds any individual talent”.
This eschewal of the individual asks questions of the medium, and if Wolves doesn't entirely answer them — there is insufficient satisfaction in its plot-by-fiat, and a grating element to Conrad’s deliberately repellent interiority (for instance, Conrad is fond of self-obsessed and corrosive aphorisms such as “without love, lust blooms”) — but that it asks them is significant. Ings occasionally loses control of his material — in his depiction of women, for example, his approach seems unsure. Bluntly put, Conrad objectifies women habitually, and that none of these women in the novel are allowed to offer a countervailing voice is Ing's unambiguous artistic choice. There are fleeting attempts to suggest something else perhaps; an erotic dancer wears AR lenses, and “however exposed she is to our gaze […] she is in her own private world” — but this is clumsy and insufficient. The violence done to women echoes, too, a gratuitous beating in Dead Water; if Ings is up to something here, it makes the reader queasy. This imbalance lies elsewhere in Ings’s work, too: all that apocalyptic stuff doesn’t quite go anywhere (except to undermine our familiarity and perhaps comfortable preference for “yet another apocalyptic science fiction 'masterwork'”); its defining vision of reality isn't quite as radical as the way it tears it down (“From the little data granted to us, we extrapolate a model of the world”); and the idea that “the future hurls itself at us piecemeal” feels like something we've read before. Ings has said that Wolves is partly autobiographical, and that it proceeds from a difficult period in his life. Perhaps its occasional murkiness is also related to these mixed origins.
Indeed, the pattern in Wolves can be difficult to discern; it is an awkwardly ambitious novel perhaps a little over-aware of itself, its code overly convoluted for the content it protects. There are bum notes and odd moments. And yet, he is up to something. That much is clear, and the vision is welcome at a moment when SF needs bold ideas and new ambitions. “There are details which ring with such a nice irony,” Conrad observes of another story, “[that] I wonder whether life could really have thrown them up”. This kind of knowing slippage is quintessential Wolves, and a sign that Ings has a purpose, that this curiously callow, occasionally wrongheaded novel nevertheless has a real seriousness of purpose, and a considerable momentum. It is a statement of intent, not a final declaration. The reader, or Ings himself for that matter, might not yet know what it is that he is up to, but Wolves gives notice that our trust may yet be rewarded.