Literary genius, it seems, can run in families. I had no inkling of Joe Hill’s parentage when I lavished praise on 20th Century Ghosts, though I don’t suppose the conspiracy theorists out there will ever believe that. Nick Harkaway’s family background, however, is clearly stated in the covering letter sent out with review copies of The Gone-Away World. As I got my copy of the book from Andrew Wheeler, who had been sent two copies (thank you, Andrew!), I am well aware of who Harkaway is. Like Hill, he has a father who is famous for writing genre fiction, but spy novels are not quite as despised as horror, so I was a little surprised to see young Nick (well, younger than me, he’s 36) had taken to writing science fiction. Or has he? If you read some of the other reviews of the book you will see people worrying as to whether the average SF reader will make it through some of the more un-SF-like sections of the text. So let’s take a tour through and outline and see what we have. Yes, this will be a little spoilerish, so you may want to stop reading now.
The book begins thoroughly in media res and appears to be unquestionably science fiction, if only because there are references to something called “the Livable Zone”. The narrative also mentions something called the Jorgmund Pipe, which alert SF readers will immediately assume circles whatever world the story is set upon. Our heroes are a group of hard-bitten freelance engineers-cum-soldiers – a sort of cross between Red Adair and a mercenary battalion – and it seems like the book will be all about their efforts to fix whatever disaster has befallen the aforementioned Pipe and see off whoever caused the problem in the first place.
Except it isn’t. From chapter two onwards the book dives into a lengthy piece of backstory which tells the history of our narrator and his best pal, Gonzo, from their first meeting in childhood through to their attendance at and graduation from an exclusive university called Jarndice which we assume is somewhere in England because our heroes were born in Cricklewood. There are times when the story reminds me of Roz Kaveney’s tales of life at Oxford, only without Bill Clinton. Eventually, as is generally the case with hyper-capable upper-class English boys, the lads find their way into the Special services, and thence to a far-away and insignificant place called Addeh Katir where a number of international forces are competing to “keep the peace” and back whichever local puppet ruler they happen to have hooked up with.
Sadly the war escalates, and our heroes are involved in the deployment of a doomsday weapon. And suddenly we are back to science fiction, because this gadget is something beloved of pulp writers of old. It makes things disappear. No, it doesn’t make them invisible, it makes them Go Away. It creates a disruption in the space-time continuum. And all Star Trek fans know where that leads, don’t we.
And so we are back to the original storyline, in which much of the world has Gone Away, and reality is maintained by the Jorgmund Pipe which sprays the edges of the Livable Zone with a special product called FOX, thereby keeping the nasties at bay. Beyond the Pipe live un-things, weird stuff, mutants, ex-men. Yes, this is science fiction alright.
But do we now get the book we were promised? No, we don’t. The problem with the Pipe is fixed fairly quickly, and then we go back to the backstory, because there are holes in it that need to be explained. And at this point Harkaway throws a curve ball that would have tied Babe Ruth in knots. It is a plot device straight out of Roddenberry-era Star Trek.
And so at last we reach a resolution which, in the way of proper science fiction (Michael Crichton please note) does not return the world to the way it was, but provides a resolution to the mysteries in the novel and to the life stories of the protagonists, at least as far as the authors wishes these things to be resolved. So were we in a science fiction book or not? Well, here’s what I think happened.
Slowly but surely the world is changing. Harakway was born in 1972, just a few years before Star Wars hit the big screen. He has grown up in a world in which the media is dominated by science fiction images. It is entirely appropriate for him to write something like this:
The last-ditch plan is to pretend that we’re escorting a prisoner, then cause mayhem. Elisabeth Soames pointed out that this didn’t work well in Star Wars and can reasonably be expected to fail in the real world, which is somewhat more demanding in the field of cunning plans, and Samuel P. tried very hard to pretend that he hadn’t been thinking of Star Wars when he proposed it.
Science fiction is part of our world now, and it is to be expected that young writers will reference it in their novels, in much the same way as someone born in 1932 is likely to write books full of WWII references. The Gone-Away World is, I think, part of the shape of novels to come.
But wait, I hear you ask, what about the book? Was it good? Was it bad? Did you like it?
Well, Jay Lake said he’d probably be nominating it for a Hugo, and I suspect I will too. There are, as I mentioned earlier, long stretches of character development and even digression for the sake of digression. As a fan of Tad Williams, I can hardly complain about that. But it is also very funny in places, it has a fascinating plot, and it gave me a lot to think about. The back cover blurb describes the book as, “Equal parts raucous adventure, comic odyssey, geek nirvana and ultracool epic.” Unusually for a blurb, this is actually a reasonably accurate description.
The comedy thing in particular had me scratching my head for a long time. I just couldn’t work out what the book reminded me of. About 250 pages in it finally clicked: Hergé! Harkaway’s writing (and in particular his somewhat grotesque and absurd characters) reminded me of Tintin. Or rather, it reminded me of how Tintin would have been if Captain Haddock was more like Nick Fury and kept dragging his young friend into seedy strip joints where Bianca Castafiore was famous for doing something obscene with a snake and a parrot.
“Don’t look, Snowy! Close your eyes!”
“Oh dear, that’s torn it…”
I also mentioned that the book gave me lots to think about. It is rather unfashionable in some parts of the blogosphere to talk about subtext in novels. That’s what Bad Reviewers do. However, as I am retired, I can be as bad as I want. (It is a privilege that we old ladies demand of the world.) Obviously I cannot know what Harkaway intended when he wrote the book, but there are certain things that came through loud and clear to me.
To begin with the book is, in part, a satire on the general stupidity of military adventurism is foreign parts. Harkaway makes much fun of the shadow wars that get fought by armies that supposedly only exist to keep the peace.
Modern war is distinguished by the fact that all the participants are ostensibly unwilling. We are swept towards one another like colonies of heavily armed penguins on an ice floe. Every speech on the subject given by any involved party begins by deploring even the idea of war. A war here would not be legal or useful. It is not necessary or appropriate. It must be avoided. Immediately following this proud declamation comes a series of circumlocutions, circumventions and rhetorico-circumambulations which make it clear that we will go to war, but not really, because we don’t want to and aren’t allowed to, so what we’re doing is in fact some kind of hyper-violent peace in which people will die. We are going to un-war.
Of course once the shit hits the fan all of this puppetry goes away and the real actors take the stage.
We are an army in the wrong place. No one cares to talk to us. They are busy fighting a real war with unreal weapons and wiping one another from the face of the Earth. It’s a dream of power. Point, speak, and the thing which vexes you is unmade. It must be intoxicating; certainly the men and women in houses of government around the world are hooked on it and reeling like drunkards.
Did Harkaway put the words “power” and “point” next to each other deliberately there? I like to think that he did.
I also note that the general that our heroes serve under is called George Copsen, and a copse is a collection of vegetation, and a bush is also a form of vegetation. Also the mad scientist who creates the Go-Away Bomb might not be Professor Derek, but Professor Derrick. But maybe I’m just getting too clever here.
Or maybe not, because I think that there are word games going on here. Harkaway spends a lot of time talking about how working for large corporations tends to make one soul-less and inhuman. He talks about the blind corporate machine. And he leaves clues. If you don’t believe me, answer me this: why is the substance called Informationally Extra-Saturated Matter given the unlikely acronym of FOX? Once you have worked that out, you can go on to tell me why the school of evil ninjas is called the Clockwork Hand, and why Humbert Pestle goes around calling himself Mr. Smith.
Or you can choose not to “read things into the book that are not there”.