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Headlong by Simon Ings (HarperCollins Voyager, 335 pages, paperback, published 15 February 1999)

Simon Ings' new novel Headlong takes us to a mid-21st century where the "metalheads", those brave adventurers who dared to become more than human, have become redundant, a dead end on the techno-evolutionary trail. What do you do when your head's full of useless sockets, when you've been superseded by cover scanAIs, when you've been dumped back into a world where you can't function properly and even schoolchildren take the piss?

Headlong leads us along the rough and unpleasant road to normality. 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.

Ings hangs his exploration of post-humanity on the skeleton of a whodunnit. It's an easy thing to do, and one that lots of sf writers try at some stage. Murder mysteries have a natural shape: a death, a process of revelation and explication, a conclusion where all becomes clear -- a shape that lends itself readily to sf. It's plotting by numbers.

But it's a very hard thing to do, too. Good crime writers do far, far more than merely create puzzles: they write novels of character, of mood and atmosphere, they explore history and politics and psychology. Equally, the science fiction whodunnit is, most importantly, still sf: the form is being used to feed the process of exploring the future world, the Big Idea.

So with this book, Ings has set himself three challenges: constructing the puzzle, the whodunnit aspect; making the leap from puzzle to fully rounded novel; and doing justice to the Big Sciencefictional Idea.

On the first count, Headlong does a good job.

Christopher Yale, is a post-human architect. He's spent years on the moon, but economic conditions have forced his employers Apolloco to pull out and so he finds himself back on Earth, unplugged, struggling to come to terms with his new, diminished, existence. Plugged in on the moon, Yale had post-human senses: he could feel electric flow, see magnetism, he could share the minds of other post-humans. But now Apolloco have taken back those senses. And pretty soon, he discovers that someone has taken his wife, too.

Hauled down to the independent royalist state of London (a brilliant creation: a Hong Kong-ised, anti-European, half-ruined city state of extremes) for questioning, Yale starts to investigate his wife's death in a haphazard manner. This isn't one of those stories about plucky resourceful private citizens out-smarting the police and solving the crime: Yale makes mistakes, he is frequently out-manoeuvred, he struggles to understand. Gradually, the explanations fall into place, the whodunnit skeleton acquires flesh and in this aspect Ings feeds the reader both enough revelations and enough surprises for a damned good read.

On the second count, Ings is always going to succeed.

Since he appeared on the British sf scene ten years ago, Ings' irregular output has been characterised by slick, stylish writing, convincing characterisation and a literary sensibility to match any of the Brit pack that emerged around that time.

In Headlong his exploration of the loss of post-human senses, the so-called Epistemic Appetite Imbalance, is superb. His portrayal of a fragmented, balkanised Britain and the contrasts between the low life and the high life is deft. And his cast of characters are credible and real: they could walk off the page quite easily; some of them might easily be sitting next to you on the train one day. Now there's a disturbing thought...

Which leaves the Big Idea, and it's here that Ings inadvertently teases us, perhaps doesn't quite deliver: he doesn't go all the way.

What it is to be post-human is a theme that Ings returns to frequently in his fiction. The roots of Headlong can be clearly seen in his story "Open Veins", which appeared in Omni a couple of years ago and was reprinted in last year's Dozois Year's Best; "Open Veins" in turn, has clear roots in a short film Ings wrote for Channel 4 a few years earlier. I suspect this progress of exploration will continue.

I certainly hope so.

As I've already said, Headlong is a fully rounded crime puzzle. Equally, it's a fully rounded novel: Christopher Yale's story is resolved in a manner that's entirely appropriate to the character as we have come to know him.

And yes, it works terrifically as a piece of cyberpunk sf (or maybe I should call it post-cyberpunk, if simply to indicate that this novel is by no means a mere re-working of tropes done to a death in the 1980s). But when we leave Headlong it is with a sense that the Big Idea is only just beginning, an evolutionary shift far more dramatic than the Industrial Revolution just around the corner... just out of sight.

In years to come, I fully expect Ings to show us the way ahead.

Read an extract from Headlong elsewhere in infinity plus.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 13 February 1999