Over the span of only ten years, with just three prior novels to his name, Nick Harkaway has emerged as one of the most daring and distinctive voices in modern speculative fiction. His books clothe the potent familiar tropes of SF in fresh and startling new attire — earnest without being sappy, engaged without being didactic, and intimate without being self-centered. At once humorous and tragic, his passionate worldview is the essence of an old soul, a blend of seasoned wisdom that has not throttled youthful enthusiasm. His first book, The Gone-Away World (2008), was a surreal, Phildicikian postapocalyptic jaunt. Angelmaker (2012) served up a Pynchonesque postmodern conspiracy tale. And Tigerman (2014) riffed on superheroes, imperialism, and ecology in the manner of a team-up between Joseph Heller and Kurt Busiek.
His newest, Gnomon, represents something of a departure. While Harkaway’s earlier books all blended tragedy with comedy in nearly equal measure, this one exhibits decidedly more gravitas and mournfulness, less game playing and ludic gonzo-ness. And while his first three novels were laid out in a more or less linear fashion, this one features a convoluted, looping, many-layered plot. (Our heroine likens her quest to peeling off layers of onionskin.) And the language in this book is accordingly more magisterial and formal — even at times, due to the subject matter of existential and ontological weirdness, arcane and recondite. But certainly once the Harkaway fan wraps his or her head around these novelties, the bones of the book, and its author’s consistent worldview, will emerge in familiar and highly enjoyable fashion.
The main arc of this multivalent, multiplex saga — in a way, functioning as a framing tale — is set in the last quarter of the twenty-first century. (“The engineering genius of 1870 did not anticipate the consequences of two-hundred-odd years of global warming.”) Our scene is the UK, a nation now totally run by the System, a network of omnipresent surveillance devices that extends down nearly to the metabolic level of the citizenry. Not only does the System make for a stable, almost crime-free environment, it encourages an egalitarian leveling among the power brokers and the powerless, and helps also to support a distributed wiki-democracy where constant polling ostensibly determines the true will of the people.
But even such a seamless cradle of a polity requires a police force, and our protagonist is an inspector therein who relies on a semi-sentient interface to the System called the Witness. In nigh-constant communication with the Witness, Inspector Mielikki Neith can summon up all the data, archived and real-time, that she needs to solve her cases, and she can commandeer the time and efforts of practically any other citizen. Utterly judicious, upright, loyal, and perspicacious, Neith is the living embodiment of the justice and rightness of the System.
Neith is assigned to parse the death of one Diana Hunter, an elderly author of cult novels who also happens to be an eccentric Luddite. But the authorities had reason to believe that Hunter was actually a dangerous dissident, so they took her in for interrogation. And in this future, interrogation is a cybertech matter. The subject’s very thoughts are unraveled and recorded, supposedly without any harm. These thoughts may later be played back, as a kind of virtual reality trip for the authorized perceptor. But in Hunter’s case, the interrogation has killed her. Neith must learn why and decide if the System is culpable. So the first thing she does is relive the interrogation session. And during that process she learns that Hunter was not the oddball writer she seemed to be but a highly trained agent for some larger, conspiratorial force. Hunter employed the technique of “narrative blockade” — an elaborate fiction mounted within one’s own consciousness — to thwart the interrogation process.
Neith discovers three narratives sustained by Hunter’s prodigious mental storytelling power. In the first, we inhabit the life of Constantine Kyriakos, who lives more or less in our era. Kyriakos is the essence of a Wall Street Master of the Universe, utterly self-centered and materialistic, a monster of ego and hedonism. The second narrative concerns a female philosopher and scholar named Athenais, who lives during the Classical period and is obsessed with recovering the soul of her dead son through magical means. The third track fashioned by Hunter as a distraction concerns the Bekele clan, transplants from Ethiopia living in a day-after-tomorrow London. Their lives are taken up with art and with the construction of a video game that bears a surprising resemblance to Neith’s own System.
Experiencing these three realities very intensely, in bits and pieces that interrupt her own reality, Neith nonetheless continues her physical investigations. She visits Hunter’s apartment and there encounters her seeming nemesis, an eerie figure calling himself Regno Lönnrot, who seems to know too many things about the case, including allusions to secretive figures called the Fire Judges. Unable to hold Lönnrot for further questioning, Neith embarks on other angles: talking to several of her expert consultants; interviewing Oliver Smith, the man who interrogated Hunter; and so on. Meanwhile, in her head the three narratives unspool in strange parallel to her case.
Then, midway through the book, Hunter’s sequential brain scan recording erupts with a fourth narrative, that of Gnomon, a mind from the far future who calls himself the Desperation Protocol and who seems intent on tampering with the very time stream itself. Is this merely another fiction, or the ultimate reality?
Gnomon increments all these scenarios in meticulous parallel, allowing all five tracks — and the number five is a dominant motif in the book — to interpenetrate and comment on each other until they all reach a simultaneous climax. The result forces Neith into a last-ditch position she only reluctantly accepts, ultimately sending her down one last rabbit hole where Lönnrot awaits.
Harkaway has set himself the task of writing five novels in one, since each venue and character demand appropriately different tone, voice, and delivery. He succeeds wonderfully. The Neith portions of the book attain the kind of dystopian or ideologically pure ambiance of estrangement found in Zamyatin or Orwell. Additionally, I was reminded of Rupert Thompson’s neglected Divided Kingdom, which, while utterly apart in theme, has some of the same feeling of high-minded precepts carried to extremes. There’s also a tinge of Neal Stephenson’s hard-nosed, clear-sighted exegesis of culture as in The Diamond Age or Anathem. The Kyriakos segments are probably the most humorous in parts, since our antihero is unrepentantly in love with himself. In the Athenais arc Harkaway delivers the kind of Rosicrucian mysticism found in Crowley’s Aegypt cycle, while the Bekele narrative probes issues such as the fate of refugees and the role of art in a consumerist society. Finally, the Gnomon riffs are full of over-the-top pulp SF vigor. All these constituents blend together as aesthetically as those in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with similar punch.
Abetting the ultimate unity of the individual pieces is a massive set of symbols and recurring character types interwoven throughout. As Harkaway says in his Afterword, Gnomon is “a book which contains layers of puzzles and references the author himself has largely forgotten as he moves on to the next and the next . . . ” The sensitive, alert reader will revel in assembling these carefully scattered fragments into a charged mosaic.
But naturally enough, given his past track record of propulsive suspense, Harkaway also delivers taut action scenes and gripping face-to-face interactions. The chase scene where Neith goes after Lönnrot after glimpsing him in public is worthy of being transferred to the big screen by a master director and cinematographer.
Intricate storylines aside, Gnomon offers the reader a great deal simply to ponder: the pluses and minuses of a surveillance society; the Heisenbergian limits of certainty; the possibility that tools may one day operate humanity instead of vice versa; the role of the individual versus the state; oligarchy versus democracy; the usefulness and objectivity of paranoia; and the propriety of “nudging” the populace into desired channels of behavior. All of these themes enjoy a long-running tradition in science fiction, and so the novel conjures up pleasant associations with a host of noble predecessors, from Philip K. Dick to J. G. Ballard, from Isaac Asimov to David Brin, from Robert Heinlein to Jeff Noon, from Umberto Eco to Poul Anderson.
Gnomon proves to be a highly accomplished philosophical adventure, an ethical novel of detection, one woman’s confrontation with the abyss, and a mind-blowing speculative marathon across a patchwork landscape that resolves itself finally into the corrugated cortical contours of the Harkaway brain — an awe-inspiring maze in which it is a great pleasure to get thoroughly lost.