Not since reading Lewis Shiner’s first two novels have I come across an author who has changed style, content, and direction with such dexterity as Simon Ings has done between his first novel, Hot Head, and this novel. Hot Head was a proto-cyberpunk novel as if written by a young J.G. Ballard with a hip adventure plot, but proved ultimately disappointing because the sum of it didn’t add up to the excellent nature of the individual parts. City of the Iron Fish, however, is a M. John Harrison pastiche that deftly walks that same tightrope between fantasy and science fiction that only Harrison and Gene Wolfe have been able to manage before. While the whole is still not as satisfying as the parts, City of the Iron Fish is an impressive achievement, made even more so by the knowledge that Ings is only starting his career. If people are wondering where the stars of the 90s in SF are, they need look no further than Simon Ings.
Thomas Kemp is the curious scion of a minor academic in one of the strangest cities to come along since Todos Santos or Gormenghast. The City reinvents itself every twenty years through an arcane ceremony involving the year-long creation of a sculpture of an iron fish, culminated by a processional feeding of the sculpture with bits and pieces of art, poems, and pamphlets created by the City’s inhabitants. What kind of city is this, with a huge bridge that spans a granite “river” upon which boats on wheels ply their trade, where gulls are metallic and must be fed by the populace, where nothing exists except for the city itself. What does it all mean? That’s Thomas’ question, and his attempts and failures at answering it make up the “plot” of the book.
The scenes and descriptions that are involved here rival some of Gene Wolfe’s mysterious creations in The Book of the New Sun. Unfortunately, Ings isn’t able to draw everything together and provide an underpinning to the world that he’s created. While parts are most enjoyable, the plot doesn’t satisfy.
Ings’ first stories in Interzone carried a true promise of someone to watch, and he has yet to disappoint that prediction. I look forward to his next novel and the obvious leap in skill and content that it will have. Until then, City of the Iron Fish exists as a promise of even better things to come.
[Finished 6 February 1995]