It’s been nearly 20 years since I reviewed Simon Ings’s second novel, the baroque and wildly inventive City of the Iron Fish, and while Ings has never strayed too far from SF in his stories, Wolves is being hailed as his long-awaited return to the full-fledged SF novel, perhaps because of the mainstream and non-fiction works he’s written in the last decade or so (why does the SF field treat writers who make such choices as prodigals or rogues in need of repatriation?) It should indeed be hailed – it’s frankly a brilliant novel – but readers expecting a return to the celebration of pure artifice in City of the Iron Fish or the posthumanpunk of Headlong might well feel as though they’d bought tickets to a Bosch exhibit only to find themselves confronted by David Hockney. Like Gregory, Ings is judiciously sparing in his use of SFnal invention; the principal new technology, Augmented Reality or AR, is only a few steps beyond Google Glass or the POV shots in the old Terminator movies with those scrolling instructions telling Schwarzenegger that he doesn’t have to kill little girls. So while perception and the manipulation of reality are central themes in the novel – AR could feature anything from fantasy landscapes to advertising, and can even be installed in your eyes – Ings is equally concerned with the various ways we misperceive the world and each other entirely on our own.
As the novel opens, Ings’s narrator Conrad works for an AR company that is offering little more than web-enabled glasses. He does little to earn our sympathy at the outset: although he’s been living with his disabled girlfriend Mandy, who lost her hands in a car accident that also injured Conrad, it takes no more than a couple of phone calls from his childhood friend Michel to persuade him to abandon her – while she’s off at the hospital – and join Michel and his girlfriend Hanna in a remote coastal village where they are haphazardly restoring a 30-foot boat, on which they propose to sail around the world (and which just might serve as an ark, in Michel’s mind). Hanna and Conrad have a brief fling, but soon he returns to work (if not to Mandy). These chapters alternate with the narrative of Conrad and Michel’s childhood friendship, when Conrad’s parents had run a hotel that largely depended on wounded veterans from a nearby hospital, while Michel’s father had been killed in a particularly brutal way during one of the Middle Eastern wars.
Over the next few years, Conrad’s company limps along until he joins a new start-up called Loophole with a brilliant coder named Ralf, whose work promises to lift AR to a radically new level. Meanwhile, Michel has become a bestselling author with a movie deal, and it’s not long before the film producer Vaux decides that Loophole is exactly the company he needs to realize his vision of enhanced reality, of ‘‘dreams woven through the real, and all the dreamers dreaming.’’ But as this world begins to shift into arbitrariness, Conrad’s memories of his earlier life emerge as the emotional core of the novel, centered around a powerful and disturbing narrative of Conrad’s problematical relationship with his father and a couple of devastating secrets surrounding his mother’s death. While it’s easy to read the headlong future of the novel as apocalyptic, Wolves is a good deal more complex than that, and its balance of an almost ruthless insight into character with speculations on the technology of perception calls to mind few other writers, perhaps M. John Harrison most closely. As Conrad speculates, sounding a bit like William Gibson, ‘‘Whatever this is – ruin or renaissance – the future hurls itself at us piecemeal, raising some of us, hurling others down. In cities to the east of the country, people are still living out the kind of lives I remember from my childhood.’’ It’s that dialogue between memory and anticipation, more than the all-too-believable future of AR that makes Wolves one of the wisest and most unsettling SF novels I’ve seen in quite some time.