Finding the Plot: On Simon Ings and the British Boom

By Andrew M. ButlerAugust 3, 2014

Finding the Plot: On Simon Ings and the British Boom

Hot Head
City of the Iron Fish
Wolves by Simon Ings

AT THE START  of the twenty-first century, we got excited about British science fiction again. Whilst the British are rather keen to say they  invented the genre — look at Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson. and H.G. Wells — it has been dominated by American writers. Only briefly, runs the  standard history, did Britain again shape the form, in the island of activity at New Worlds magazine, with writers such as Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and M. John Harrison. But this bubble burst and the genre supposedly became stale and cold, only to be rescued by the cool cats of cyberpunk in the mid-1980s. But as the century changed, British sf and fantasy writers such as China Miéville, Iain M. Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Richard Calder, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman were gaining popular and critical attention. The British SF Boom was upon us. Curiously this renaissance coincided with what was the temporary departure of sf writer Simon Ings, whose Painkillers first appeared in 2000.

Ings’s first professional publication was in Other Edens III in 1989, the last of Robert Holdstock and Christopher Evans’s admirable anthologies of original British sf, and he went on to appear in the pages of InterZone, the most significant British sf magazine since New Worlds. His short stories appeared alongside work by New Worlds veterans and a generation of significant British sf writers all but eclipsed by the Boom — for example, Stephen Baxter, Keith Brooke, Eric Brown, Nicola Griffith, Peter Hamilton, Paul J. McAuley, Kim Newman, and Alastair Reynolds.  Paul Kincaid, in his A Very British Genre, suggests that these writers “have made a point of incorporating very traditional science fictional motifs into their work”. Some of these writers were drawing upon British traditions and concerns — the cozy catastrophe, the scientific romance, neo-romantic landscapes, the island, entropy and popular culture — others were putting a British spin on American tropes.

Three of Ings’s first four novels — Hot Head from 1994, Hotwire from 1995 and Headlong  from 1999 — are post-cyberpunk written in a very British (and at times European) key. In Hot Head, the lesbian Muslim protagonist fights first a lunar Artificial Intelligence and then a group of scavenging Jovian A.I.s. It was refreshing to see a male writer have a credible female protagonist — Colin Greenland had also used one in Take Back Plenty from 1990 and its sequels and in Harm's Way from 1993 — although this choice has been largely anomalous in Ings’s work. Ings’s genius here lies in his detail and his world building, but to my taste his plotting is weak. Hotwire is set in the same universe, where Ajay, operating as policeman, fixer and assassin as he earns the money to rebuild his wounded sister, is called upon to capture Rosa, a young woman who is the daughter of an A.I. The plot engine for Headlong is the mysterious death of Christopher Yale’s wife, Joanne. The Yales had been post-human architects, using artificially-enhanced senses to design new environments, but now their add-ons have been removed and, as in Hot Head, they have to learn to live or die without them. Ings focuses more on the post-posthuman than the posthuman.

His second novel, City of the Iron Fish, first published in 1994, looks to his occasional collaborator M. John Harrison and Mervyn Peake rather than to cyberpunks William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, with echoes of the fictional city-states of Viriconium and Gormenghast. Its picaresque exploration of ritual, secret conspiracies and art as transformative seems also to anticipate the work of China Miéville, in particular Perdido Street Station (2000); its rerelease along with Ings’s entire back catalogue may enable him to reach an audience that had not been there in the 1990s.

If his novels prior to Painkillers are British versions of post-cyberpunk, his fifth book follows Gibson and Sterling into the realm of the contemporary or near future technothriller. The timeline here skips back and forth across the years 1989-1999, the plot featuring a compliance accountant, Adam Wyatt, who has worked for the secret services in Hong Kong. Adam deals both with the business man and film studio owner, James Yau Sau-Lan, with possible links to organized crime and money laundering, and a Japanese electronics company, Nabeshima. Back in London, post-handover, Adam is asked to survey James’s business interests by his widow, Money. At first he refuses, but his dog is murdered, and one of the people about to give evidence about James’s operation is killed in a hit and run. This is familiar territory: we have a shadowy Mr. Big, a ruthless wife/widow, sons who use brawn not brain and a sexually provocative daughter, Zoe, with whom it would be a really bad idea for Adam to get involved.

A technothriller needs a McGuffin to motivate a narrative of competing desires — in itself the object may have little significance, but the attempt to locate, possess, hold on to or to exploit it offers a moral index of the characters. How far are you prepared to go? It is the stuff that dreams (and nightmares) are made of. Here the focus of desire is a device that can be used to administer electric shocks, found in the attic of James’s dead father. Another version of this box is used as a sex toy and also as a tool for interrogation. For Adam it is a means to make money from Nabeshima, for Eva it can provide therapy that helps their autistic son, Justin, to become more “normal” in his behavior. But unless there is something very specific about this device, versions of it could surely be found in the sex shops of Soho. It is, after all, just a McGuffin. 

Technology in itself is neither good nor evil. The box amplifies nervous responses, supposedly helping the autistic to gain better control of their sensory systems, its operation risks looking like a variant on the Electro-Convulsive Therapy which has come in and out of medical favor over the last century. Ings’s own attitude to this perhaps needs to be correlated to the actions of Dr Pal in giving shocks to the mathematical genius Anthony Burden in Ings’s follow-up novel, The Weight of Numbers  published in 2006. Burden has a kind of synesthesia about numbers but this is “cured” by the therapy. He loses his posthuman abilities in mathematics — his gifts came and went at a personal cost.

Just as with cyberpunk novels and many contemporary thrillers, Painkillers is littered with brand names and street names to make the milieu appear more concrete; it almost demands to be followed with a London A—Z at your elbow. Real people haunt the edges of the novel — Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, and his wife, Lavender, Guardian journalist Libby Brooks, Peter Mandelson MP who had responsibility for the construction and opening of the Millennium Dome and film reviewer and InterZone writer, Kim Newman. There is clearly a striving for verisimilitude, anchoring the novel in the now. The protagonist is clearly not as smart as he thinks he is, unaware of the full picture, compromised by drinking and cash-flow problems. The female characters actually seem rather more competent, but their agency tends to take place off the page, our reactions to their actions mediated by Adam’s compromised view of the world.

At times Ings nods — Hong Kong seems less richly imagined than London, and consists mainly of bars, offices and brothels. By coincidence reading a scene set in Wye, Kent, as I passed through that village, I wondered whether Dover was really a convenient or logical place for Adam and Zoe to have lunch, and I didn’t recognize Ings’s description of the sea port. A minor character, Professor Kevin Leicester (whose name invokes Kevin Warwick, an expert in cybernetics), seems to switch institutions from University of Reading to University of Southampton between chapters. Ings’s choice of names for his central couple, Adam and Eva, suggests a Garden of Eden parallel that at best is ironic and at worst elicits a groan. The notion that they are expelled from paradise presumes a happier marriage than we are ever witness to in the novel, but clearly their grasping at forbidden knowledge has the kind of negative connotations that have been central to (especially British) sf since Frankenstein.

The fragmented timescale of Painkillers and use of real people and location was developed in The Weight of Numbers and Dead Water published in 2011. Weight begins and ends with an account of Apollo 8 and 13 astronaut Jim Lovell and the intertwined lives of anorexic child star Stacey Chavez, counterculture radical and human trafficker Saul Cogan, the deeply dubious Nick Jinks and the already mentioned Anthony Burden. Whilst each of the vignettes are fascinating — life during World War Two, sixties London, revolutionary Mozambique and so on — I was left with a sense of wondering what his point was. The narratives intersect in a manner closer to hyperlink cinema (films such as Pulp Fiction (1994), Crash (2004) and Gomorrah (2008)) than I look for in a satisfactory novel. Dead Water is tauter, but still ranges in time and space from a Zeppelin crash in the Arctic to a rail accident in India to a flood caused by a tsunami and to transportation conspiracies. The narrative is ornate in structure but often unfathomable.

Aside from Painkillers, Ings has perhaps come closest to finding his sense of plot in Wolves, switching between Conrad’s childhood in a small town in north-eastern England and his involvement with Augmented Reality, a kind of virtuality that does away with goggles and taps straight into the optic nerve. It is worth remembering that Ings has written The Eye: A Natural History, and here at last in Wolves we get a sense of heightened perceptions, suggested but largely denied us in his post-cyberpunk novels. The ability to hijack vision would become more pronounced if Philip K. Dick (or Pat Cadigan) were writing this novel, but there is one key scene where Conrad’s senses are fooled by a simulation. We might begin to question more of his observations — is such a cliff-framed location as the north-east really bordered by sea marshes? This may not be our England. Conrad’s vision is clearly askew as he misperceives the circumstances of his mother’s mysterious death; the man who abused him and who links past and present also repeatedly misconstrues things.

Earlier this year, Ings reviewed Joanna Bourke’s The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers for New Scientist, noting that “Pain binds us together […] It renders us incoherent, yet at the same time, it prompts us to communicate with each other.” Justin comes closest to “normal” communication after using the box, but follows this with self-harming with scissors. There are no real painkillers in the novel — we don’t have the right pills, alcohol is not the answer, sex goes sour. But Ings notes in his review of The Story of Pain that “Pain is a condition of existence. We can — and absolutely should — attempt to elude, manage and subdue it. But we cannot eliminate it.” Searching for that McGuffin seems to be a fool’s errand, or so I feel that Ings is saying in what is his best written and constructed and most thought-provoking novel to date. Ings’s work was largely missing from the discussion of the British SF Boom; with the re-release of Painkillers and the rest of his novels, the time is ripe for another look.


Andrew M. Butler is the author of Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s and books on Philip K. Dick, Cyberpunk, Terry Pratchett, Postmodernism and Film Studies.

LARB Contributor

Andrew M. Butler won the Pioneer Award for ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at the British Boom’, which first appeared in Science Fiction Studies. He is the author of Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s and books on Philip K. Dick, Cyberpunk, Terry Pratchett, Postmodernism and Film Studies. With Mark Bould, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint, he coedited The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction and Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!