What We See in the Smoke (Book Review)
by Ben Berman Ghan
The book is an ambitious and beautifully wrought collection of interlinked short stories. I enjoyed all of them, and even the few I found rather humdrum were by no means terrible.
The writing is clear, concise, but often lyrical. The tone was bleak throughout, which can be tiring in a short story collection, but I didn’t find it so in this volume as the stories were interconnected.
The characters were well-defined in each story – I understood their motivations and struggles. I enjoyed the non-binary focus as well as the equal page-time for men and women. The intersectionality of the collection was wonderful – there is a character with deafness, many people of colour, and a range of sexualities.
My one major issue was with the preface. I read the first paragraph and then skipped it. I can understand a preface or a forward in a classic novel or a translation, but in a new work it is a major turn off for me. It’s essentially a spoiler – I don’t want the work explained to me! I want to experience and figure it out on my own. Frankly, if you feel you must explain to your readers your formatting intentions, maybe you need to revisit it.
This ties to another reason I can’t give this book five stars – at times it felt like it was trying too hard to be somewhere between a short story collection and a novel. The links between stories were sometimes too heavy-handed or felt forced (Shakespeare, “it was enough”, colt .45s). Sometimes they were subtle and I enjoyed picking up on them (missing thumbs, aching leg wounds), but other times it was distracting.
I did enjoy the attempt at having all the stories exist within the same universe/timeline, but it got a little convoluted. There are too many existential themes (AIs, clones, death, suicide), social themes (human rights for robots, cloning for food purposes, gender, implants, government control), and then sci-fi science elements (teleportation, colony ships, AIs, clones, dream capturing). There’s just too much. I felt overwhelmed by the new concepts in each story, especially in a collection that’s supposed to be the same story. It made me wish each section only had 3 long stories with one single theme from each aspect.
Overall, it’s a beautiful collection. You could read each story as its own self-contained tale, but they also work as a linked set. Those from Toronto will enjoy the references to the city.
Also, and this has nothing to do with my review of the novel, but as someone who commuted to Toronto for years, the city does not “spring up” on you. You see it for kilometers as you plod, inch at a time, down the 401, 427, and the Gardiner. Driving to Toronto is a brutal test of your resolve and sanity. I’m glad when he clarified that the Highway 400 was abandoned at one point, because there’s no way you can get from Wonderland to anywhere in the GTA in half an hour during the day.