Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

There’s a blurb on my copy of Gnomon where Warren Ellis explains how much he hates Nick Harkaway for having written it. I can relate: the ambition of this book would be enviable even if the execution weren’t very impressive. And the execution is very impressive indeed.

I need to capture Gnomon’s essence in not many more words than it has pages: a daunting challenge in its own right, made harder by my heaping praise on it in my opening paragraph. Readers familiar with my reviews will know I hold no truck with the Spoiler Police, but I’m nonetheless hesitant to reveal too much – not because outlining the plot would spoil your enjoyment of it, but because it’s effectively immune to summary. There’s just too much going on.


But still, let’s give it a go. For the setting, we have a dystopian future UK of the algorithmic-panopticon type: cameras and sensors everywhere, AI running all the things, democracy driven by mandatory online plebiscites covering everything from local disputes to major reforms of the legal apparatus. (It’s like the blockchain-enabled Society Of Tomorrow™ that features in TED talks, which is of course the point.) There are no police any more, only the Witness, one of whom – Meilikki Neith – is our viewpoint character. 

Neith has to investigate a high-profile case: the death in custody of a suspected dissident. Dissidents like Diana Hunter are routinely identified by the System and brought in for questioning; more often than not, their dissidence is diagnosed as some incipient or as-yet-unnoticed mental illness or social dysfunction, and is treated before they’re released to go on with their lives in a happier, more well-adjusted manner. The treatment and diagnosis are performed by the same means: a combination of innovations that make it possible to read human mindstates with an astonishing level of fidelity, and also to edit them. It is during such a questioning that Diana Hunter, minor novelist and luddite recluse, died. The rarity of such deaths merits Neith’s investigation – she’s one of the best – because it’s important that the System be seen to be fair, that due process is followed. 

The procedure is for Neith to review the memories retrieved from Hunter’s mind, so as to check whether she was the dissident that the System considered she might be, and whether her death was thus akin to the suicide of a captured enemy agent – to see if she had something to hide, in other words. Hunter’s memories are duly dumped into Neith’s mind. But while she’s waiting for them to settle, she decides to go gumshoe around in Hunter’s anachronistic house. The place is a Faraday cage, lined with books, devoid of cameras and sensors, and thus effectively off-grid in panopticonic terms. There, Neith meets an oddly-named androgyne who asks her a series of confusing questions, before roughing her up and doing a runner. In the aftermath of this assault, Hunter’s memories begin to surface in Neith’s consciousness… only it seems that they’re not Hunter’s memories at all, but those of a succession of other characters.

These could almost be treated as novellas in their own right: first-person accounts which bring the experiences of their narrators into sharp and immediate (if deliberately foreshortened) focus. Kyriakos the stock-market whizz-kid gains a god-like ability to see where the markets will turn, only to see them – and the rest of the world – turn sharply downwards. The alchemist Athenais is assigned to solve a Byzantine murder mystery that occurred in an occult contraption of her own fraudulent invention and ends up on an inter-planar vision-quest. Berihun, a feted artist in the last years of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, finds his creativity revitalised when invited by his games-designer daughter to contribute to her latest project, a dystopian surveillance-society RPG that presses all the wrong political buttons in a very Brexity contemporary Britain. And in a post-human far future, the book’s eponymous character takes up a tainted offer that might let them bring an end to all things, now, then, and forever more. As we move through these accounts, interspersed with Neith’s attempts to make sense of the mind they tumbled from, we realise that they are not mere nonsense that Hunter had hidden in her head, but something larger and stranger and more interconnected than that.

The central notion isn’t exactly original – it’s rather Strossean, in fact. I doubt I was the only reader who, a third of the way through, had a solid notion of Harkaway’s intended trajectory, not to mention an inkling of why he was going there. Perhaps this is a thing that only a writer would say, but there’s a sense in which the real protagonist of Gnomon was Harkaway himself: much tension came from wondering how, if ever, Harkaway was going to land this thing without tearing off the undercarriage and ploughing into a passenger terminal. I was prepared for (and would have forgiven) a moderately bumpy or abrupt landing, an ending that tried to play the game straight while using a doubled deck of cards. Heck, I’d have probably forgiven a hammer-it-home boot-on-a-face-forever conclusion – though that’s almost the exact opposite of what you get, even if things are far from happily-ever-after. 

But I never imagined Harkaway would have the audacity to have the book itself address me so directly and plainly in its final pages, to state its metafictional purpose while simultaneously claiming its own success… and yet he did, and it does, and it works (at least for me, shameless postmodernist that I am).

There’s so much more I could say, so much more I want to say, so much more I don’t know how to say. So I’ll just say: you should read it, it’s a masterpiece.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven.

Looking Back: 2010-2020

By Maureen Kincaid Speller.

To be honest, the last ten years have been such a blur I’d barely registered the fact that we have arrived at the threshold of a new decade. But here we are (or not, depending how pedantic you’re feeling – I’m happy to be guided by common usage), and it’s a useful moment for thinking about what I’ve read in that time. Or not, because, along with time passing at a speed that seems indecent, it turns out that this last decade was one in which I either didn’t read much (being a recovering postgraduate will do that to a person) or else a lot of what I did read somehow didn’t find its way into my long-term memory. 

Except that, once I looked at a few lists, I realised that, actually, I had read quite a lot during that period but the effort of moving forward had somehow subsumed it into an amorphous space called ‘the recent past’. Also, I am hopeless at remembering dates of publication: last week, last month, last year, some time ago, whenever. 

But I can tell you that in 2010 I was very excited about Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. I was and am a huge admirer of McDonald’s work, and at that point also deeply preoccupied with Orhan Pamuk’s writing (still am), so the Turkish setting intrigued me, as did the presence (or indeed, mostly, absence) of a mellified man, reflecting my interest in the strange, the offbeat, the peculiar. But I also appreciated the novel’s densely layered portrayal of a near-future society with a very complex cultural identity. Looking back I can see now that The Dervish House has set the tone for a lot of my reading since then. 

Continue reading “Looking Back: 2010-2020”

British Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Panel

As noted in the original post about the survey, one of the panel’s at last week’s BSFA/SFF AGM event was a discussion of some of the questions it raises. For those who weren’t able to attend (and indeed those who were), here’s a recording — you can download the mp3 direct from here, or listen to it on the BSFA site. The panelists were Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Paul McAuley, Juliet McKenna, and Kit Whitfield, with me moderating.

Still Going Away

Following on from my review of The Gone-Away World, Tom Abba suggests another way of looking at the novel’s structure:

The opening section, establishing the scenario of the Gone-Away War and the aftermath the world finds itself in, reads as the opening episodes of a TV series, and what follows – the digressions, the meandering and joyous romp through the pre-history of the post-apocalypse, is Lost or Galactica as conceived by Tarantino for commercial broadcast.

That’s not to say it completely works in those terms, but I think it does offer a solution as to Harkaway’s intention with his structure. As a result, the reader’s desire to get back to the beginning is part of a strategy more familiar in monthly publication, or as weekly serialised installments. A strategy that serves Harkaway well, much moreso than Lost managed in its third season (before the end was announced, and thankfully we now have a conclusion in sight, which has sharpened the writing up no end), largely because of the formal qualities of the novel itself.

After that first 28 pages of scene setting (episode 1), we’re dropped back into the narrator’s childhood, but always with the knowledge that there’s no more than an inch and a half of paper until Harkaway has to get back to where he started from. That he takes just short of 300 pages (or most of a season of shows) to do so doesn’t actually matter, because we, the reader, always knew he had to, and that the meandering journey would be over in due course. TV doesn’t offer that security, which unstuck Lost for a good while, until Lindelof and Cuse decided on an endgame, and the televisual equivalent of an inch and a half of paper was restored. Neil Gaiman (although he extended his own deadline as he went along) did the same with The Sandman, announcing that the story begun in issue 1 would conclude sometime soon, and ensuring his readers knew that an end was in sight, that threads had to come together and resolutions would be reached, the act of which went a long way toward turning a monthly comic book into a serialised novel. Dave Sim did something similar with Cerebus, but proper analysis of a 300 issue strategy is going to have to be left for another post.

And then, proving the eternal truth of summon author, Harkaway comments:

I think you’re the first person to nail me on televisual narrative structure. It rings true with me – at least to a point – and something along those lines is inevitable, given my life as a scriptwriter for nine years before I wrote TGAW.

To which I guess I can only say: fair enough.

Actually, I find Tom’s analysis interesting for a couple reasons. One is that, while I think we’re quite used to hearing TV shows described as “novelistic” these days, and have some idea what is meant when that description is used, I’m not sure you’d get the same general understanding if you just said to someone that a novel was “televisionistic” (if that were a word). Certainly my first thought, if you asked me to think of novelists who follow the narrative conventions of TV, would be someone like Scott Lynch. Reviewing The Lies of Locke Lamora in NYRSF, Farah Mendlesohn said something like “he captures the rhythms of the Saturday morning serial perfectly”, and I’d agree. The chapters of Lynch’s books are usually complete subunits of story, like TV episodes, broken down further into short, digestible chunks that function like the different acts of an episode. Lynch often cuts between two scenes for effect, and the way he introduces characters and locations often feels like a camera lingering on a dramatic entrance or vista.

None of that really applies to Harkaway, whose chapters are notable for their continuousness, the way they carry you from point A to B via points Q and 12. On the other hand, when it comes to the macro-scale structure of the book, which is what Tom is actually talking about, there are definite resonances with today’s serial television, and the season or multi-season structure of much contemporary American genre tv. So the second issue raised by Tom’s post that interests me is the way it links the success or failure of a story to reader/viewer expectation, which is in turn dependent on reader/viewer knowledge.

Crudely, Tom found The Gone-Away World satisfying because he could be confident the payoff would come, because a book has a last page; and I found it somewhat unsatisfying at the time because the structure made me impatient, and because I couldn’t be sure the payoff would be worth the journey. (One of the reasons I wanted to talk about the structure in the review was, essentially, to say that yes, I think the journey is worth it.) And yet, I have happily watched TV series where I was even less confident about the quality of the payoff, and enjoyed them for the journey. And just yesterday I had a short exchange with Abigail Nussbaum about whether knowing the ending to The Sarah Connor Chronicles — based on some comments made by the show’s creator — would undermine the viewing experience or not. Her position is that it would:

I’m actually a little more dubious about Friedman’s almost flat out saying that the characters won’t prevent the apocalypse. Certainly the show could go either way, but it detracts from my willingness to watch if I know ahead of time that everything the characters are striving and suffering for is for nothing.

Whereas I’m more favourably disposed. In part that’s probably because I never really expected them to prevent the apocalypse — one argument of the Terminator franchise thus far has seemed to be that this apocalypse will happen no matter what — but in part it’s because seeing how the show’s characters struggle will be (depending on execution) interesting to me even if I know they’re going to fail.

Which leaves a question: why didn’t I shift into that more patient frame of mind when reading The Gone-Away World? And I think the answer has to be expectation: I expected the novel to be one type of story, it turned out to be another, and I didn’t change gears fast enough to keep up. There’s also a part of me that thinks there would have been a more effective way to switch between the two types of story: as I said to James in the original thread, it would have been interesting to read the book without that first chapter, and to thus be blindsided by the arrival of the Go-Away War.

The Gone-Away World

The Gone-Away World coverIt takes a little while, because there is something entertaining in almost every paragraph of The Gone-Away World, but sooner or later you start to wonder when (or even if) you’re going to get back to where you started. The first chapter of Nick Harkaway’s first novel introduces an unusually fluid post-apocalyptic landscape and a bunch of trucker-repairmen who get charged with saving the world; the fact that in no sense is this introduction economical is insufficient preparation for the hundreds of pages of laconic flashback that follow, in which we skip back to the narrator’s school days and read about the development of his friendship with one Gonzo Lubitsch (more of him later), his early romantic fumblings and martial arts lessons, his eventual transition to an Oxbridge-esque university, his falling-in with a group of political activists, his arrest and incarceration for suspected terrorism, his difficult subsequent job-hunt, the details of the job he eventually finds with a top secret weapons R&D outfit, his tour of duty in an Afghanistan-esque clusterfuck of a conflict in a made-up Middle East country including a stint as stretcherman, injury and subsequent convalescence, and …. well, you get the idea. There’s an awful lot of Stuff in this novel. Some of it is told with deadly intensity, but most of it is told with a great and convincing enthusiasm — Harkaway’s narrator can gab like Iain M Banks on a roll — that is easy to wallow in. It’s not so much the clomping foot of nerdism as the dance-dance revolution; but, still, you do wonder when you might get back to where you started.

None of which is to say The Gone-Away World is a bad book. I think it’s probably a very good one, as it happens; but I also think that opening chapter is a mis-step, because it creates an expectation that the next two hundred pages go almost out of their way to refute. Harkaway’s love of meandering, tangential narrative is apparently almost Stephensonian in its excess, and in the midst of it you can end up drumming your fingers: the digressions and set-pieces can stop being enjoyable for their own sake. Which is a shame, because while some of the time it all adds up to a numbing excess of detail — when the narrator receives a note, for example, we’re told the handwriting style, the meaning of the style, the colour of the ink, the type of pen, and the type of paper; and at one point we get a loving description of every pothole in the driveway of his house — most of the time Harkaway directs his plot with a swagger, not to mention dollops of wry humour. The two-page exploration of the fate of sheep caught in a warzone, for instance, or the scene in which the narrator ends up stranded in a strip joint with a troupe of mimes, which turns out to be a lot less superfluous than it initially seems. From a distance, it seems obvious that the conviction, if not coherence, with which the narrative sweeps from a world more or less like our own (with a few notable but usually irrelevant-to-the-plot differences: Cuba has joined the UK, for instance) to one that is richly unfamiliar is one of The Gone-Away World‘s greatest strengths. It’s a novel that believes absolutely in whatever it’s telling you at any given moment. But the memory of that first chapter, and the promised future, means you can’t always enjoy that sweep as you’re reading.

Because the desire to get back to that opening world — to get some answers — is pretty intense. What you can piece together from the opening twenty-eight pages goes a little something like this: at some point, the Go-Away War changed the planet, erasing much of what went before — people, institutions, geography — and leaving only a Liveable Zone surrounded by an Unreal World. The Zone is maintained by something called the Jorgmund Pipe, Jorgmund being a gigacorporation that’s risen up to carve something like sanity out of something like a nightmare; and the Pipe sprays something called FOX into the air, which keeps away the bad things. The narrator, and the menagerie with whom he hangs out in the Nameless Bar — Jim Hepsobah, Egon Schlender, Annie the Ox, Sally Culpepper, Tobemory Trent, Gonzo Lubitsch (him again), Samuel P, and Roy Roam (I still can’t quite decide whether Harkaway’s way with names is evidence of genius or insanity) — are the Haulage and Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (“ten trucks of bad hair, denim, and spurs”, 10), and when the Pipe catches on fire, they’re the ones that Jorgmund recruits to get it fixed. After disquisitions on types of bureaucrat (the ultimate of which would be “a person so entirely consumed by the mechanism in which he or she is employed that they had ceased to exist as a separte entity”, 15-6) and the workings of corporations (in the form of a parable about Alfred Montrose Fingermuffin, factory-owner), and negotiation strategies (“an ellipsis is a haymaker punch you throw with your mouth”, 16), the Company suit up and roll out, heading for the fire on a route which takes them through some distinctly creepy places. Harkaway has a habit of describing everything as seen through a sort of Spinal Tap everything-up-to-eleven lens — part of the enthusiasm I mentioned before — so a chair is monstrously comfortable, a plan includes magnificent redundancy, an individual is full of majestic self-importance. He gets away with it because he’s got a world to show us that we really haven’t seen before; the closest contemporary comparison I can think of is with the Stuff-filled “high-interaction” sidebar universes in Justina Robson’s clear-sighted negotiation of romance, Living Next-Door to the God of Love (2005). Like that, but writ large.

While we wait for that world to reappear, what gradually becomes apparent is that the sundering of this world we (almost) know is a specifically twenty-first century kind of apocalypse. The Go-Away war — a ferocious hundred pages of which takes up the heart of the book — isn’t the sort of thing that can be reduced to an easy allegory, but it’s clearly figured as a sort of millennial transition between then and now, old and new. It’s the preparations for war that bring the sf back into the story after over a hundred pages of youth and young manhood, when the narrator is recruited into a research division working on a new superweapon, one that will make enemies simply Go Away. His boss Professor Derek (a not-un-Q-like role) describes the principle this way: “Information, then, does matter — in the sense that it is the organizing principle without which matter simply cannot exist. Without matter, there is no universe and there’s no place to do anything. WIthout information, matter withers away. Vanishes. And gradually, even the memory fades. It won’t dissipate entirely, of course. But it becomes … slippery” (147). It’s a speech that gets at the heart of the novel: the tension between order and chaos — or organization and autonomy.

Harkaway’s evident interest in the world he’s creating is a joy, but it’s working through this theme that really brings out the best in him as writer. Not that the depiction of teen emotions and student philosophising and so forth is ever less than satisfactory, but the chapter in which the bombs are deployed en masse, as part of a stupid, wasteful escalation from a small-scale but politically useful conflict, is little short of terrifying: how lethal the absence of information, of certainty. Shadows become traps, places where the unreality is most concentrated and most horrible: “The attack is here, and there are people dying, but there’s no enemy, just darkness, confusion, and people getting dead. It’s as if this was weather” (216), with bullets “drifting on the wind like pollen” (218). It is, the narrator later realises, “the grimy rag and bone subconscious of our race” (272), come home to roost.

Standing tall amidst the chaos is Gonzo Lubitsch, big damn hero. (I said I’d get back to him eventually.) Back in the first chapter, the relationship between Gonzo and our narrator was sketched out in asides: “When the phone did ring (any time now), we could go and be heroes and save the world, which was Gonzo’s favourite thing, and perforce something I did from time to time as well” (7). He is not the leader of the Freebooters — that’s Sally Culpepper — but he is charismatic, confident, extremely dangerous, and probably wouldn’t recognise irony if it hit him with a plank. He is capital-H-Heroic, and the narrator is his shadow, his confidant, his wingman. Surprisingly little time is dedicated to establishing this relationship, but the fact of it is always there and frequently asserted; even Gonzo’s absence defines the narrator’s presence, with all actions measured against an impossible standard of What Would Gonzo Do? The biggest implications of this relationship for the narrator don’t become clear until quite a long way into the book, but from early on it serves as evidence that as much as the Go-Away War strips order from the world, the characters in The Gone-Away World need order to understand their souls: in just about every case, who they are is defined by what they do, from the “pencilnecks” who sacrifice their individuality to the corporate beast, to the soldiers for whom sublimation into a military hierarchy can be a form of salvation, to the “new” entities created after the war who simply want to live. The struggle at the heart of The Gone-Away World is the struggle against disorder, but it’s against personal apocalypse as much as global; the link between the two is emphatically undermined by a late-ish plot development that also confirms Harkaway’s commitment to the sfnal elments of his book. Unfortunately for those characters who get well and truly fucked along the way, it’s well-known, as one character puts it, that “the second law of thermodynamics … does not look kindly on unfucking” (383).

Of course, the narrator manages to find a way to live, and indeed at the end of the novel he’s alive in ways he didn’t realise he wasn’t at the start — not to mention perhaps the real hero. You could say that he survives the system, though I doubt The Gone-Away World would want me to paraphrase its conclusion in such po-faced terms: this is a book in which quite a lot is resolved by fighting, culminating in a triumphantly over-the-top, if somewhat boy’s-own, action sequence (during which Harkaway nevertheless finds time for his narrator to speculate on whether squid can watch TV). More than once in the book’s final chapters, you might recall the narrator’s loving description of kung fu movies from his youth — “The martial arts film is a curiously sentimental thing, fraught with high promises and melodrama … The plots are moral, Shakespearean, and have a tendency to charge off in some unexpected direction for twenty minutes before returning to the main drama as if nothing has happened” (44) — and, given its accuracy as a description of The Gone-Away World, wonder exactly how successfully the novel itself has resisted the call of comfortable, orderly formula. Resist it does — with those digressions and their (in Harkawayan terms) often monumental hilarity it’s a book constantly straining against its own coherence — but its ultimate completeness somehow suggests that The Gone-Away World might die in the memory as completely as it lives in the moment. The saving grace may be the ending, which stubbornly refuses to settle for getting the book back to where it started, and instead insists on escape into who-knows-what. “From here,” the narrator says, at the end, “it’s all about forwards” (531). So speaks a native of his country.