The Smoke (2018)

The human race has been split into three different species. Mutual incomprehension has fractured the globe. As humans race to be the first of their kind to reach the stars, another Great War looms.

For you that means a train journey back to Yorkshire and the town of your birth, where foundries and factories churn out the parts for gigantic spaceships. You’re done with the pretensions of the capital, its steel and glass, its incomprehensible architecture. You’re done with the people of the Bund, their easy superiority and unstoppable spread in the city of London and beyond. You’re done with Georgy Chernoy and his questionable defeat of death. You’re done with his daughter, Fel, and losing all the time. You’re done with love.

But soon enough you will find yourself in the Smoke again, drawn back to the life you thought you’d left behind.

You’re done with love. But love’s not done with you.

A novel about love, loss and loneliness in an incomprehensible world.
Gollancz, 2018

Wolves (2014)

WOLVES BEGAN with an argument. One Christmas, my nephew had a school project to do about grandparents. He asked to copy some wartime photographs of Dad, who’s been dead more than twenty years now. Mum wouldn’t dig any out for him. When I tried to intervene, Mum said my brother must have “got to” me. “I’m not having you two stamping about in my things,” she said. She was in tears.

Well, it’s not much of a step from that to the tale of the Three Little Pigs, is it? A vision of two great rough men huffing and puffing outside the little old lady’s door. And so the title of Wolves – a book that features no such animal – was fixed. What does it mean to discover you’re a wolf? You don’t just wake up one morning and choose to be a predator. It’s a role people hand you sometimes –the dearest, least likely people, often as not. And, whether you want it or not, that’s your mask now. Get used to it.

There were other monkeys on my back at the time. One in particular was John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass.

For my money, this is the best disaster novel ever written. First published in 1956, it tells the story of a man’s journey from London to a valley hideaway as a virus eradicates all grasses. The science is robust enough but Christopher’s focus, and the book’s lasting value, lie elsewhere: in the sympathetic account of how an ordinary, likeable family man becomes an ordinary, likeable mass-murderer, intruder, kidnapper and procurer of children, fratricide and — finally — King. Because if John doesn’t adapt, disaster will overtake and destroy him, his family, and his followers. “Before all this is over… are we going to hate ourselves?”

I wrote a sort of chatty homage to Christopher for Interzone, some years ago. Wolves is my attempt to do him greater justice – to write a disaster novel for the media-saturated 2010s and say something about why civilisations collapse – almost never through natural disasters; almost always from mounting internal collapse. (Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies is the other big influence on Wolves, and on much else.)

Wolves began as a memoir and I kept it as close to memoir as I could, even when it began to dawn on me that it might be worth publishing. Everything in Wolves is true apart from the events. How this works is, you wreak a small number of tiny, devastating changes upon your own memories. The nearness of the army base at Sandhurst to where I grew up becomes wounded veterans of Iraq become blind servicemen via the prosthetic vision experiments of Paul Bach y Rita become faceless plastic army men via Toy Story. The skill is in the selection rather than in the free-association itself, just as the secret of a good pizza lies in what you leave out.

What else? I wanted to write something about my brother. But some old and long-lost faces nudged their way in and eventually my two-hander about siblings became a one-hander about a boy’s love of a school friend, and where that leads them both as they grow into adulthood: into power and personal commitments and middle age.

When I was done with it, Mum died, and I went and had a ridiculous affair that destroyed my marriage. I began seeing my brother a lot more, and bought a strange cold flat on a hill and fell in love again. And all the while Wolves – this short, strange tale of personal and globe collapse – was sitting unsold in the back of a drawer, somehow predicting every damned change in my life.

It’s hard for me to remember just how different things were when I wrote the thing, back in 2011 or so. I remember my lovely wife reading and discussing early drafts with me and a shudder rolls down my back.

My editor at the time told me Wolves was not publishable. He went so far as to say that publishing it would spoil my reputation (I have one?). When I told my agent this he grinned from ear to ear; I’d handed him exactly the sort of ammunition he needed as he set about moving me to a new house.

All we had to do was sell the idea. And as for that:

Augmented reality – this Google-glassed business of dropping seamlessly contextualised digital artefacts into your visual and auditory frame – is one of a handful of technologies that are likely to transform our lives in the very near future. People talk about the great things AR can show you. Every wall becomes a picture! Every picture becomes a movie! Every object becomes something other, something better than itself – or seems to.

Oddly nobody talks about AR’s ability to hide things. It’s this ability to subtract from the real which interests me the most.

AR has the potential to render the world down to a kind of tedious photographic grammar – the kind employed by commercial image libraries, whose job it is to illustrate stock ideas like ‘busy at work’ or ‘looking after the children’.

This is nothing new. Photography has the ability to do this, obviously. But photography cannot be stuck over (or in) your eyeballs twenty-four hours a day.

The problems thrown up by AR will not be new. They will be old. They will be fairytale-like problems. The school friends of Wolves create a world that looks modern, looks mediated, looks cool and entertaining and very West Coast. In truth, what they’ve made is a deep, dark wood straight out of the Brothers Grimm. Realising this, they eventually come to see others as sheep, themselves as wolves.

So there you are. That is how we sold the thing. It’s an honest pitch. It tells the truth about the book – though not maybe the deepest truth.

The deepest truth is that for over a year Wolves sat in my drawer, unsellable, malign, predicting, chapter by chapter, the worst year of my life.

So maybe there are wolves in the thing, after all, howling at a CGI moon.

What the reviewers said

Ings has managed to create a convincing present that is, at the same time, as saturated with the comfy patina of the 1970s as Instagram and as prescient as any futurologist – now that Ballard is gone – is likely to get.
Toby Litt, The Guardian

Dead Water (2011)

I’d cut my teeth on Arthur Ransome, consumed everything of Joseph Conrad’s down to the letters and the science fiction, and had recently read Outerbridge Reach, Robert Stone’s haunting riff on the fraudulent and eculiar voyage of Donald Crowhurst. But by the time I reached Muscat and the shores of the Arabian Sea my “simple sea adventure” had already fallen through several rabbit holes.

For a start, in the bar I was drinking in, the parrot by the door turned out to be a robot. It squawked at precise, thirty-second intervals. For another, the policeman I’d arranged to meet turned out to have spent his youth shooting up South Korean trawlers with an “A-Kay”. (Portly, friendly, a family man, he wanted me to know he was still on first-name terms with automatic weapons.)  Around us, the walls were hung with photographs taken from old travel books. Graham Greene shading into Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Little boats. Little harbours. A lot of boats disgorging hemp sacks and balsa crates on to a lot of ramshackle quays. This was the moment I realised that Dead Water was not going to be a straight story.

Two thirds of the earth’s surface has been lost to us, stolen away by vast corporations, complex algorithms, robot cities, and ships as big as towns. Everything ends up in a box these days. According to my policeman friend, even the pirates are trapped. Their motherships, controlled from as far away as London, São Paulo and Toronto, are serviced by patrol boats. They never see land. The sea has become a kind of negative of itself: a trap, rather than an escape, a fusion of disappointment and terror.

The real sea rovers these days are the boxes. Shipping containers lead lives far more exotic, complex and glamorous than their human handlers do. Their stories are cryptic, of course: hidden in paper, buried among figures, turned to logic gates and light. What if we could unpick them?

Dead Water is a story of two worlds: the famished, desert world we are making for ourselves, and the cold, fluid world inhabited by the containers. Its circle of logic and chance embraces over a hundred years, most continents and one magnetic pole. At the centre of the circle sits the Indian Ocean, the most heavily travelled body of water on Earth. Holding this delicate structure together requires a master storyteller–so I made one up: a djinn assembled from victims of a railway accident. The djinn weaves through time and space, explaining itself through the stories it feeds upon. A magical narrator won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the world is bigger than one writer’s important opinions about it, and I like books that find a way to recognise the fact.

Most of the book’s crazier human twists are a matter of record. Dead Water contains (among other things), a coup, a polar expedition, a world war and a tsunami. These are the tips of the research iceberg–the things I absolutely could not omit.

The world of the containers needed different tools. There are several games and Easter eggs sewn through the book. Pay attention to the contents page, and if you have a smart-phone, try reading those QR Codes, too. Most are decorative, but a couple do matter. You’ll have to find out for yourself which they are. The idea was not to be clever for the sake of it, but to suggest that the non-living world of boxes, cranes and ships has its stories, too,  its myths, and maybe–just maybe–its dreams.

What the reviewers said

This is modern science fiction in full pomp: it has a multitude of ideas, a wide-ranging narrative, an almost unbelievably ambitious casting of its net, taking one narrative chance after another. It is also a beautifully written novel, full of colour and inventive image.
Christopher Priest

Dead Water sails into that stormiest of seas, the Indian Ocean, to explore the murky depths of the shipping business along with those of its latter-day evil twin, piracy. In this highly ambitious, hugely entertaining novel – part sci-fi fable, part cold-war mystery, part ghost story, part hymn to the complexity of wave theory – Ings weaves multiple plots together, plunging the reader into a vortex of countercurrents from the opening page. The choppiness is dizzying, perhaps even irritating. Stick with it, though. You’ll be rewarded with such engaging characters as Roopa Vish, the Indian police probationer who ends up in bed with the gangster she’s investigating, and Eric Moyse, the shipping magnate who comes up with a wheeze for hiding the planet’s most toxic substances. The locations, from rambunctious Mumbai to odd Oman, are portrayed with visceral vividness, and so is the action, which includes a train crash and a tsunami. After reading this, you’ll never drink water with quite the same insouciance again.
Arminta Wallace, Irish Times

The Weight of Numbers (2006)

On July 21, 1969 two astronauts set foot on the moon; far below, in ravaged Mozambique, a young revolutionary is murdered by a package bomb.

Strung like webs between these two unconnected events are three lives: Anthony Burden, a mathematical genius destroyed by the beauty of numbers; Saul Cogan, transformed from prankster idealist to trafficker in the poor and dispossessed; and Stacey Chavez, ex-teenage celebrity and mediocre performance artist, hungry for fame and starved of love. All are haunted by Nick Jinks, a man who sows disaster wherever he goes. As a grid of connections emerges between a dusty philosophical society in London and an African revolution, between international container shipping and celebrity-hosted exposés on the problems of the Third World, The Weight of Numbers sends the spectres of the baby boom’s liberal revolutions floating into the unreal estate of globalization and media overload

What the reviewers said

Having cut his teeth on a series of intelligent thrillers, Ings makes a bid for the literary big time with this stunning, gutsy novel that takes a single incident—the suffocation of 58 immigrants in a lorry bound for Scotland—and traces back its causes through the life stories of those involved. Dozens of deftly drawn characters, an acute understanding of geopolitics, an epic historical sweep and a serious talent for storytelling make this one of the most exciting—and relevant—books of the last year. Booker material, for sure.
Arena

In the corner of the literary landscape in which a few of us sit, hunting for ways to work ever exciting and dynamic thinking from the sciences into the contemporary novel, The Weight of Numbers is extremely good news. It’s a dynamic, innovative, and compelling book that brings into focus some of the most interesting trends in contemporary fiction, and Simon Ings deserves more than a sniff of at least one prize for his efforts.
James Flint, The Daily Telegraph

It is unlikely there will be a finer written fiction this year. . . . Ings stalks his targets with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter, until he arrives at a new heart of darkness with the important discoveries that in the vacuum of contemporary life there is nothing to distinguish the apparently morally dubious world of human trafficking from the ‘migrainous white noise of the subsidised arts,’ and that self-expression is no more guarantee of satisfaction than silence.
Chris Pettit, The Guardian

[An] ambitious, exciting novel . . . Ings’s prose can ascend into theoretical, visionary territory, but is rooted in the mess of human experience. A sudden sexual encounter in a bombed-out London library, an anorexic slicing a muffin in a Florida restaurant, a horror show of violence in Mozambique — these are unforgettable scenes, evoked with a lean, immediate physicality.
Tom Gatti, The Times

Its stupendous breadth leaves you giddy.
Nottingham Evening Post

The scale of Ings’s ambition is proportionally matched by the precision of his prose. Every sentence, image and line of dialogue is balanced and true. It isn’t its clever design or technical achievement that makes it compelling so much as its beating human heart.
The Independent on Sunday (UK) (5/5 Stars)

This novel could have collapsed under the scale of its own ambition. But instead it triumphs.
Sunday Business Post

Ings weaves an ingenious, shimmering web of contiguity and chance. . . . A feat of meticulous plotting . . . Ings’s project is not dissimilar from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with which it has been compared.
Alistair Sooke, The New Statesman

Characters emerge from different places, periods and experiences, and yet their fraying threads are teasingly revealed to be of the same fabric….Ings has wrought an unorthodox anti-history of the past six decades. The Weight of Numbers is a dizzying feat, redolent of Don DeLillo and David Mitchell in its density. Only when its framework is revealed are its mysteries unraveled.
Gavin Bertram, New Zealand Listener

Simon Ings’ ambitiously genre-defying The Weight of Numbers is a virtuoso display of imaginative plotting.
Financial Times, ‘Novels of 2006’

A Scheherazade of a novel, executed with scope, daring, and humour. The Weight of Numbers is unerringly well written, and engrossing to the last page.
Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin

Like Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Simon Ings’s remarkable new work delivers nothing less than a secret key, a counterhistory, of the last sixty years. Ings’s fiction is vivid and swift, a thing of scenes and people, smugglers and astronauts, spies and revolutionaries. But beyond the topical excitements lies something even grander—a vision of our culture as a death ship. The Weight of Numbers is amazing.
Mark Costello, author of Big If

Painkillers (2001)

painkillers

I remember them. Their mouths, and their needles. That is all. That, and their painted eyes. Their mouths. They never spoke… So begins Adam’s odyssey into a nightmare of corruption and violence, where it is only his forlorn hope that he is helping his autistic son Justin that offers any solace. As everything implodes around him, Adam risks everything – his marriage, his family, his life – to lay hands on the one thing that might save him. His way out. His grail. A small bakelite box with a dial.

A grim, gripping and unrelenting tale in which a neat and happy ending is simply not an option.
IRISH INDEPENDENT

Cinematically graphic yet deeply literate, Painkillers offers a chilling ride into a hell both individual and universal.
ASIMOV’S

Headlong (1999)

headlong

What do you do when your head’s full of useless sockets, when you’ve been superseded by AIs, when you’ve been dumped back into a world where you can’t function properly and even schoolchildren take the piss? Headlong follows its post-human protagonist along the rough and uneasy road to normality.

Headlong, Simon Ings’ fourth novel, is an intelligent, compassionate portrayal of one man’s struggle to rediscover his humanity after the plugs wiring him up to enhanced sensory input are disconnected. The focus is on Christopher and his grapplings with everyday life, told in well-chosen, prosaic detail… Unlike many who write about neural implants and cyberspace, Ings remains firmly grounded in the everyday, with its small triumphs and disasters and roots in human frailty. Yale’s relationship with his posthuman powers is not simply one of longing for paradise lost. Rather, the message of this mature and thoughtful book seems to be that, ultimately, the human condition is worth fighting for, and transcendent itself in comparison to the mire and immorality of a dystopia that may be just around the corner.
New Scientist, 27 February 1999

Simon Ings’s irrepressible imagination has fallen headlong into a world that is truly strange — and strangely true.
George Dyson (author of Darwin Among the Machines)

A weird, wired and wonderful book from one of the brightest stars of future fantasy.
Attitude

After the frenetic ultra-stylism of cyberpunk, science fiction has slowed down a little. This wistful novel is a terrific example of the new genre: its main character Christopher Yale has been augmented, uploaded and implanted, but all he wants is to be human again. When his wife Joanne is killed, he must overcome his alienation from the ‘real world’ to avoid suffering the same fate. Various conspiracies unfold around a strange new drug, but the real story is Yale’s painful devolution to a regular human being. Simon Ings, my telepathic abilities tell me, has a serious career ahead of him.
Carrie O’Grady in The Guardian, Saturday 20 January 1999

For over 300 pages we share the life of a post-human who has to learn, again, to be human. It’s a compassionate and engaging piece of work. And it is a seriously good book.
Keith Brooke, Infinity Plus

Hotwire (1995)

hotwire

Not a sequel to his first novel Hot Head, but set in the same world and sharing some of the same preoccupations, Simon Ings’ Hotwire asks some interesting questions about how we become human, and how to become human again. Ajay made some bad choices once upon a time–he got his grandfather killed and his sister horribly mutilated; to pay to have her rebuilt, an organ at a time, he has become an all-purpose heavy, first a secret policeman and then an assassin. Rosa has never had any choices–she roams, inconsequentially, the corridors of the space station that is, in a very real sense, her mother, scared of everything she meets and sees. When these two find themselves in improbable alliance, the consequences could be scary, and are highly charged and erotic and at times touching. This is a book about coming to terms with reality, and the very improbability of much of the reality with which the central characters have to come to terms does not lessen the hardness of their choices and our sympathy with them. Full of strongly visualised exotic settings–the slums of Brazil and the interiors of mind human and artificial–this lives up to Ings’ early promise.
Roz Kaveney

How crude and primitive we first-generation cyberpunks and our works look now! Such anyhow were my thoughts upon finishing Simon Ings’s new novel Hotwire. Perhaps only a cusp writer like Ings (born 1965) could have produced this laser-gazed logicbomb of a book, simultaneously appalling and heartening, monitory and embracing. There is nothing extraneous in Ings’s writing, and much that is marvellous. Blink between sentences, and you might miss something. From the Carrollian environment of Rosa’s birthplace to the favelas of Rio, Ings offers cinematic thrills galore.
Paul Di Filippo in Asimov’s October/November 1996

Moving from a Trinidad wasted by the new drug ZB15 to an underworld Havana of organ bootlegging, Brit SF writer Simon Ings sketches out a corporate future that is both intriguing and unsettling. You should read Simon Ings.
iD, September 1995

Bursting with ideas bigger than many writers can cope with even as reading matter, Ings is second-guessing not only sf readers, but the planet.
Nick Royle, Dazed and Confused 13

Simon Ings has taken virtual reality way beyond the cyberpunk fathered by William Gibson. Ings is a young British writer with an assured future.
David Barrett in New Scientist, 14 October 1995

This is a book about the assertion of human values against those of the power broker and the machine. As such, it can lay claim to the credentials of a romance, and one played out against a more than usually bleak and hostile background. Ings lays it on the line.
Interzone 101, Autumn 1995

City of the Iron Fish (1994)

195_city-of-iron-fishweb

My second novel, written in a brothel in Oporto, on the run from my reputation as a cyberpunk writer.

“In its curious juxtaposition of the ceremonial and the mundane, railways and wheeled sailing vessels, cafes and whore-houses, City of the Iron Fish is disconcerting, funny and occasionally horrifying, a dark fantastic comedy of the baroque and burlesque.”
Vector, August/September 1994

“Ings’s explorations of how the various arts of painting, drawing, poetry, sculpture, opera, drama and even sex theatre try to invest meaning in a world that sustains none of its own are provocative and intelligent. City of the Iron Fish is a rare treat.”
Locus, December 1994

This is a place where all forms of artistic expression feed on each other and the past, constantly repeating and vainly striving. I found this to be a deeply strange book, and I was impressed that the author did not try to explain. Somehow it all worked better to read of Kemp’s life as he lived it, without knowing these things, and stumbling along in this strange world without a map. His passions, confusion, pain and everyday life are laid out to see, and even an evening’s drunken debauch has a ring of truth to it that is very appealing.
Novel Reflections

 

Hot Head (1992)

hot-head

And the heroine does come through, and the world does get saved…

At only 25, Simon Ings goes into orbit as a science fiction master.
Daily Mail, 21 May 1992

Even the urban decay and high-tech futurity of Blade Runner doesn’t have the sense of all-pervasiveness that Ings’s book has. His first novel, Hot Head, confirms him as a bright light on an otherwise dim horizon.
The New York Review of Science Fiction, No 56, April 1993

Entertaining and intelligent
Time Out, July 1 1992

There is something perverse about a story of hi-tech high adventure which not only insists on describing the damaged childhood of the heroine in quietly sinister detail, but holds the attention while it does so. Simon Ings’ first novel has a charismatically neurotic protagonist — a lapsed Islamic cyborg with a defective exoskeleton nostalgic for the extra senses that the authorities have taken away. She was part of a military force that saved the world once, from the angry Artificial Intelligence Moonwolf, but she is reduced to making blue movies to get access to exotic sensory equipment. And no matter how badly the authorities have behaved, they will always need you when the Earth is in danger again… This is less a cyberpunk novel than one which shares some of the same noirish preoccupations as cyberpunk — AI, the extension of human senses, strange virtual realities — in this case a decrepit seaside resort that is also a lesbian paradise of wistfulness and good coffeeshops. And the heroine does come through, and the world does get saved, but this was never going to be a book that ended otherwise. Hot Head is a remarkable debut, full of startling imagery and set pieces of bizarrely inventive action.
Roz Kaveney