Wolves: A remarkable novel in spite of, and because of, its flaws

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWolves by Simon Ings fantasy book reviewsWolves by Simon Ings

“When we fall in love with someone, we fall in love first with their world. Sometimes love for the person follows. Sometimes not.”

Four pages into Simon Ings‘s newest novel, Wolves, and I am already underlining things with a pencil for their insight into the human psyche, something which, if I am to be honest, I find lacking in many genre novels and am most likely to find in the so called literary novels. Wolves has been hailed as a triumphal return to science fiction by UK-based author Ings, even though the speculative elements which are characteristic of science fiction are sparse and only come into importance toward the final two thirds of the novel. Wolves is at the same time a coming of age tale and a whodunnit story, but even more than those archetypes, it is the story of Conrad and Michel, two childhood friends very different from one another, but whose bond proves durable even when the passage of the years and the inevitable concerns of adulthood weaken their childhood connection.

Conrad is a passive boy that grew up in a nondescript town in what has to be the UK for the gloomy climate that pervades the story. His parents bought a hotel when they got married, and despite all obstacles it has managed to barely maintain its doors open. Conrad’s mother suffers from bouts of mental mania, locking herself in the top floor of the hotel to work on various projects which she is certain will bring financial fortitude to the family but which inevitably prove to be a failure, and, toward the later stages of her life, abandoning her family to join a female-only protest camp near a military base from which she is constantly having to be rescued from due to her inability to take care of herself. It’s a heavy strain weighing the family down, but Conrad and his father have adapted their lives to her manic episodes as best they can, until one day, as she abandons the family once more to join the protest camp, Conrad discovers his mother’s body in the trunk of his father’s car, an apparent suicide.

That first sentence I quoted earlier proves to be the key to decipher the contents of this novel, and why Conrad acts they way he acts. As a boy Conrad is in love with Michel’s world, the world that grew out of Michel having lost his father in combat against an undescribed enemy and compensating that lack of a fatherly influence with a romantic idea of masculinity that manifests itself as a constant preparation, both mentally and phisically, for what he sees as the inevitable end of the world, what he calls The Fall. While Conrad can see through the futility of preparing for the end of times, his love for Michel makes him join Michel’s training and speculation on how the world might come to an end.

Conrad has enough introspective skill, and the honesty needed to go with that, to admit just how in love with a person’s world he is, and not to shy away from problems that arise from having that world suddenly lack the luster that it once had. When we first meet Conrad he has just come out of an accident in which his girlfriend Mandy has lost both her arms, and while he isn’t initially fazed by that change of circumstances, the strain that that loss puts on Mandy brings up certain mental characteristics of her that Conrad does not enjoy, making him realize he isn’t in love with her world anymore, with the seven toothpastes she uses so she can have a different flavor every day of the week, her little blue bottles of essential oils gathering dust on her bathroom shelf.

Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy. Confusing the two loves is easier still.

The first hundred pages of Wolves are used solely to explore Conrad’s love for other people’s worlds. Ings does an amazing job at bringing to life his characters, making you, if not fall in love, at least be incredibly sympathetic to Conrad’s predicament, his not entirely cynical worldview but honest and unapologetic. The science fictional elements come into play after those hundred pages, where Ings shows us a near future where Virtual Reality has been replaced by a more pervasive technology, Augmented Reality, which as the novel progresses becomes more and more a commodity, and also a problem. Conrad rides that commoditization when he founds a company with a brilliant engineer from the company he was working at to build and market publicity experiences tailored for AR, which allows him to see first hand the impact the evolution of that technology has in the world. It also brings him closer once more to Michel, as the post-apocalyptic novel he was working on becomes a bestseller, and later on, a media franchise.

Despite the genial characterization and insight of the first third of Wolves, and the interweaving layers of technological change and personal relationships of the second third, the last hundred pages of the novel fail to deliver an ending that satisfies the promises that were laid out before. A plot reveal concerning one character from Conrad’s past feels unrealistic (all things considered), and towards the end Conrad behaves in a way that goes against his character’s previously established beliefs, perhaps taking a bit to the extreme that falling with a person’s world motif. The way the mystery of Conrad’s mother death is also solved unsatisfactorily, even if that plotline never feels as central to the story’s plot as the back copy of the book would led us to believe, or even the technological thriller it is trying to sell. More interestingly, the imagery of the wolves never comes into play, which makes me wonder whether the book should not have been titled “The Flood” or something along those lines.

For all the flaws of the last third of the book, I have to say I felt strangely drawn into Wolves. Even if the plot moving the story forward is fairly nonexistent and badly handled toward the end, the characters and their relationships are strong enough to carry the whole book forward. Ings strikes a interesting balance between being preachy and insightful, and his vision of commoditized AR technology feels plausible enough to believe that that is a possibility in our own world. It might be a book that will not appeal to everyone, but it is an ambitious and insightful novel that shines a light on the relationships we carve in this world, be they love or friendship, without being apologetic for showing things as they truly are. Even taking into account its flaws, Wolves is a remarkable novel.

Publication date: May 1, 2015. The new novel from Simon Ings is a story that balances on the knife blade of a new technology. Augmented Reality uses computing power to overlay a digital imagined reality over the real world. Whether it be adverts or imagined buildings and imagined people, with Augmented Reality the world is no longer as it appears to you, it is as it is imagined by someone else. Two friends are working at the cutting edge of this technology and when they are offered backing to take the idea and make it into the next global entertainment they realise that wolves hunt in this imagined world. And the wolves might be them. A story about technology becomes a personal quest into a changed world and the pursuit of a secret from the past. A secret about a missing mother, a secret that could hide a murder. This is no dry analysis of how a technology might change us, it is a terrifying thriller, a picture of a dark tomorrow that is just around the corner. Ings takes the satire and mordant satirical view of J.G. Ballard and propels it into the 21st century.

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JOÃO EIRA, one of our guests, is a student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world, where he studies Physics and Economics. Having spent his formative years living in the lush vistas of Middle Earth and the barren nothingness in a galaxy far far away, he has grown to love filling his decreasing empty bookshelf space with fantasy and science fiction books. For him a book’s utmost priority should be the story it is trying to tell, though he can forgive some mistakes if its characters are purposeful and the worldbuilding imaginative. A book with no story can have no redeeming quality though. João probably spends more time fantasizing about books than doing productive things.

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  1. I had never heard of this, but it sounds fascinating.

  2. Even if the ending is flawed, it sounds like there are a lot of great insights from the author into human behavior.

    • Joao Eira /

      Yap, it has that in spades.There’s a part toward the beginning of the book where Conrad goes to party with Michel and his girlfriend that is thrown by a group of people who broke into somebody’s house and are burning away their furniture in an act of protest against market forces and whatnot that is bloody fantastic.

      “They rate this evening a misdemeanour, like flooding a public bathroom. Everything can be replaced. They believe this. Soon they will wake to discover that, blinded by ficticious capital, they have been torching what few riches were left. The world ends, not with flood or plague or famine, but with a man torching his own house.”

  3. it does sound intriguing for its depth, even if it doesn’t fully pull it off. And I’m with you on wishing for more of that sort of depth/insight

  4. Phonorka /

    ‘Coming of age’ and ‘whodunnits’ are not archetypes, they are modes or plot types. Get such a basic aspect of writing wrong and it casts a shadow on the ‘expertise’ of the remainder of the review.

    • Joao Eira /

      Archetype – noun
      the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.

    • I don’t think the use of the word “archetypes” here is unreasonable, especially considering that the reviewer is:
      1. not a professional
      2. a young college student studying physics and not literature analysis
      3. not a native English speaker

      • As… abrupt as the commenter is, I would still agree with them. To explain, the definition of ‘archetype’ quoted above is the generic one. Literary scholars use a more specific definition (natch) that goes further into the idea, particularly that the originating model or pattern has a common meaning to a culture or humanity, and is most often represented in imagery, e.g character, setting, or situation. Good examples are the archetypal mother figure, the love triangle, and the bucolic English meadow. Coming of age and whodunnits, while they are commonly enough known, refer to familiar story types rather than ideas rooted deep in society that we relate to through imagery. Thus I would even disagree comings of age and whodunnits are modes of writing. Mode is something more general, more in line with the mood or method of story rather than plot driver or story type. Anyway, I highly recommend buying something like Penguin or Oxford’s Dictionary of Literary Terms. They provide a lot of very useful tools for the reviewer, and at the very least make good reference when somebody challenges you. ;)

        • Thanks for your clear, reasonable, and kind response, Jesse. I, too, have several different Dictionaries of Literary Terms, and you are right to suggest them as a worthwhile investment. And I do agree with what you’ve said about the literary terms you mention above.

        • Thank you, Jesse! And I now have a few more books to buy, which is always fun. :)

        • Great, and now I have more books I want to buy.

          I don’t disagree with your thoughtful point, but I do think the coming of age quest is an archetype.

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