Gnomonby Nick Harkaway Published 19 Oct 2017
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In the world of Gnomon, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of 'transparency.' Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens' thoughts and memories--all in the name of providing the safest society in history.
When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. The System doesn't make mistakes, but something isn't right about the circumstances surrounding Hunter's death. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn't Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter's psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future.
Embedded in the memories of these impossible lives lies a code which Neith must decipher to find out what Hunter is hiding. In the static between these stories, Neith begins to catch glimpses of the real Diana Hunter--and, alarmingly, of herself. The staggering consequences of what she finds will reverberate throughout the world.
I normally read quite quickly – I’ve read 157 books so far this year. But this one took me nearly two weeks to complete. Partly it’s the fact that it is something of a doorstopper at over 700 pages, but the main reason was that early on I took the decision that I wouldn’t speed-read through this one. The prose is too rich, too dense – there are too many allusions and clues scattered throughout and as you may have gathered from the blurb, the structure isn’t all that straightforward, either.
It might have been tempting to have accelerated through it if I hadn’t been enjoying the experience so much. Harkaway is a remarkable writer and this is him at the peak of his capabilities. For all the depth and complexity, I found the book highly readable and engrossing. It would have been a real shame to have thrown away the experience by trying to skim through it. The writing is immersive and each character has their own flavour so that after a while, it only took a couple of lines to realise whose head I was in. Essentially, it is a thriller. But the puzzle is far more of the slow-burn variety, which doesn’t stop there being some jaw-dropping twists near the end.
For all their quirkiness, I was fond of all the characters, though my favourites remained dogged, persistent Inspector Mielikki Neith whose investigation of the untimely death of Diana Hunter in custody triggers the whole chain of events – and fierce, beautiful Athenais, once-mistress to Saint Augustine, before he decided to become so saintly. The characterisation is masterly and as I’m a sucker for character-led stories, it was their vividness and sheer oddness that sucked me in and kept me reading.
I also feel a similar anger that sparks through the book – the apathy of too many of us, the blind belief that if we put in place a whole raft of cameras and electronic surveillance, it will somehow be alright, no matter who ends up at the helm and in charge. This is a remarkable, brave book, deliberately constructed and written on an epic scale. Does it work? Oh yes. I loved it, but my firm advice would be – don’t rush it. If you try reading this one in a hurry, you’ll end up throwing it out of the window – and given its size, it may cause serious injury if it hits someone…
While I obtained the arc of Gnomon from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
To put my review of this book in perspective, I wrote my MA thesis on the concept of "memoria ajena," or characters remembering other people's memories, in works by Jorge Luis Borges, Ricardo Piglia, y Rodrigo Fresán, three Argentine authors whose works blend metafictional concerns, high culture, and science fiction and fantasy elements. If Gnomon were written in Spanish, it would have been an ideal fit for my thesis, a perfect overlap with all my favorite fictional obsessions, and it's my favorite read of the last few years.
That said, I'm not sure most readers would love it as much as I did- it's a 700-page Borgesian Russian nesting doll of novel, made out of the elemental particles ejected when Cloud Atlas and Inception are crashed into each other at the Large Hadron Collider, a meditation on identity, surveillance, artificial intelligence, the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, and really big sharks. There are radical shifts in narrator and style, and the reader will be as confused as the detective trying to figure out why a reclusive, rebellious writer died during an "interrogation," what near-future England, under the watchful care of the all-seeing AI known as The Witness, calls having a small hole bored into your head and your memories read directly. Memories and lies unfold, bleed into each other, warp the plot.
For the reader to whom this sounds like a good time, dive right in, the water's fine. Well, except for the really big shark.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I really struggled with this, unfortunately and couldn't finish it. The premise seemed really interesting - I love dystopian fiction, but I found the story overly long and convoluted. It was very slow paced, with large sections devoted to descriptions, and unloading a lot of information in one go, making it difficult to hold my attention. I also struggled to get emotionally invested in anything that happened.
Unfortunately not for me, but I'm sure those looking for a deep novel that requires a lot of concentration with a hint of science fiction will love it.
This is a strange multi-layered beast of a book set in a future Britain under total surveillance, governed by the System, where the majority of people remarkably believe this is a good thing. It is a dense and demanding sci-fi and fantasy read requiring attention and patience from the reader. It would be remiss of me not to mention that at 700+ pages, you need to prepared for the long haul. This is a sprawling tale which goes in a myriad of directions and left me bewildered as to where it was heading and what to make of what I was reading. Inspector Mielikki Neith of Witness is investigating the death of Diana Hunter, which to all intents to purposes should not have occurred whilst she was being interrogated. Diana was 61 years old, divorced with no children. She was an administrator and the writer of Quairendo, rumoured to contain secret truths hidden within it although this is disputed.
Inspector Neath is one of those who believes in the good of the system, but as she investigates she is forced to question her beliefs. Nothing is fixed, not even time or notions of reality. The story revolves around the complex issues of identity, shifting and changing realities and questions of what it all might mean, although the conclusion does help a little. I expect every reader to have different concepts and thoughts as to what this novel is about because it is difficult to discern what intentions the author has. This level of nebulousness is likely to leave many readers deeply frustrated. This is a difficult review to write, I find myself in the quandry of knowing I cannot do justice to this book or even delineate precisely what it is about. If you are happy to be left stranded to make of it what you will, then this is a book for you. There are detailed descriptions, it is beautifully written and slow paced. The vocabulary the author uses is extensive and likely to having you reach for the dictionary often. A novel that succeeds in leaving me shaking my head and, at the same time, enthralled. I am at a loss as to what else to say! Many thanks to Random House Cornerstone for an ARC.
Gnomon is actually a novel that defies description for all the right reasons, it is an epic, an ultimately rewarding read with so many layers inside the layers under the levels that hide the realities that your head will spin and you’ll come out of it feeling dazed and probably weirdly wired. Or maybe that is just me. We’ll see I guess…
The use of language is purely beautiful, a smorgasbord of differing voices all linked to the main bulk of the narrative through the eyes of the Inspector. Probably. But anyway – the point is, this is literary if you take it in the popularly defined way, as such it might not be for everybody and indeed may challenge you in ways I also can’t describe – but in the end you know not one word was wasted.
I feel I should try and explain a little about the plot but the blurb does that in some ways (but not at all in others) and I’m not sure that if I focus on any one element that I wouldn’t pick the wrong one to focus on. Peripherally it is about the investigation of an interrogation that has gone awry, in a UK run by “the System” that sees all and therefore by the people rather than a government, this is seen by most within that system as a genuine Utopia. I guess the main theme explored is whether such a thing is even possible, human nature being what it is. That is the simplest way of saying what I saw there but the next reader may well turn around and say “what the heck are you on, its not about that at all”
Now I’ve read back the above it probably isn’t about that….
ANYWAY there you go. Nick Harkaway has created a story that can be wildly interpretive or I suppose if you must, dissected bit by bit until you come to some thoughts about what the author intended – but I don’t think it matters what the author intended (sorry Mr Harkaway) but more matters whether or not you love it and get something from it under the guise of your own personality. I loved it but you can’t ask me why because I don’t really know and probably never will know. I do know that I will read it again in the future, first page to last, with the knowledge of the ending and it will be a completely different novel to the one that I have just read.
Basically I feel like I have just been swallowed by a shark.
Gnomon spoke to me in it’s final denouement but what it said I will never tell -because it’s going to tell you something different and I wouldn’t want to be called a liar – also because that is its reward for sticking with it, through the craziness and the sense of it as you absorb all those beautiful words and turn them into a whole.
Intelligent, driven, for me summed up in that blurb sentence that reads “a solution that steps sideways as you approach it” Gnomon is challenging, wonderful, descriptively fascinating, unrelentingly clever and in the end worth every moment of your time. A grand sprawling epic of indescribable proportions.
What can I say? Highly Recommended.
When I reviewed Harkaway's novel Angelmaker five years ago, I expressed a worry that Harkaway was boxing himself in. That he had settled on exactly one application for his formidable talents -- a boisterous but ultimately fluffy type of sci-fi adventure story -- and that he was never going to do something rawer, more messily human, something with goals beyond the efficient optimization of entertainment density per page.
My fears were misplaced. Gnomon is, in many ways, the exact book I was hoping for from Harkaway when I wrote that review. It drops the "everyman hero meets a succession of endearing but disposable extras" structure of the earlier novels, and instead alternates between a cast of core characters who are each given ample space to breathe, to live, to speak in their own voices, to mess up, to be confused. It is about unsettling things, and it aims to unsettle the reader when appropriate; it does not think that we need to be strung along with the promise of candy on every new page, and its scenes and chapters do not break down nicely into different sugary flavors (the big fight, the comedy routine, the teary parting or reunion, the surgically deployed plot twist). It is clearly a heartfelt work by a man who wants to say something about the real world, even if he is entertaining us as he does it.
The only problem is that it . . . uh . . . isn't very good.
Part of the charm of Harkaway's earlier work was the way it under-promised and over-delivered. It was cheesy entertainment, executed uncommonly well. You could tell this Harkaway guy had talent to burn, but he wasn't rubbing his smarts and skills in your face: they were experienced as a long series of pleasant surprises, layered without fanfare over the competent, serviceable sci-fi adventure you knew you were getting when you bought your ticket.
In Gnomon, Harkaway over-promises and under-delivers. Fragments of esoterica or wordplay that would, in earlier novels, have been thrown as a light garnish onto one page and forgotten on the next are now treated with the utmost gravity, and expected to bear ten or twenty pages of load each. We are reading a detective story, and so every shiny tidbit Harkaway pulls out of his magpie's collection is a potential clue. The Greek word catabasis is mentioned early on, and then mentioned again, and mulled over by the detective. There are many catabases in this narrative, it turns out, and we are reminded of this regularly.
Words, phrases, and themes recur, and we are rarely allowed to forget that this is the sort of book where such things recur, and everything is or might be connected. We are supposed say, "oh, what a tangled web he weaves!", and in case we need helping along in this, we are nudged endlessly by the narrative, which -- no matter which character it follows, no matter which layer of the multiply nested metafiction (oh what a tangled web) -- never fails to notice, to admire or bemoan, its own tangled esoteric fancy meta nature.
All of this is clearly meant, sometimes, to touch upon topics of importance in ground-level, non-fictional reality. But with so many layers of misdirection, so many false leads whose false notes could well be features rather than bugs, it is hard to tell which notes are meant to be the true ones. When I balk at a near-future surveillance state whose creepy AI-overseen direct democracy is literally called "The System," am I just demanding too much realism from something whose fakeness has a tangled-web purpose? What am I to make of the fact that the overseeing AI is gifted with almost godlike abilities -- far beyond any reasonable extrapolation of present-day technology, and probably sufficient to pass the Turing Test and usher in a whole host of issues never raised in the narrative -- and yet can apparently be completely fooled by a widely known (but illegal) computer program which the detective downloads and uses later on in the story? If she can use this program, why isn't everyone using it, and why doesn't that completely destroy the orderly society she appears to live in?
At one point, a lawyer who knows she is being watched by an agent of a shadowy and powerful para-governmental organization says, to her clients, that this organization represents "a merger of state and corporate power." One of her clients, known to his friends as a weirdo conspiracy nut, later explains to the others that the lawyer passed them a clever covert message, by saying this -- a message only people like him, and apparently no one in the shadowy and powerful para-governmental organization, would understand. Have you got it yet? Have you been in the right classroom, or, hell, read the right Wikipedia page? Yes:
“So the thing I said that she said she couldn’t advise on: that’s the thing she would advise if it wasn’t outside her professional competence. See? That’s what she thinks we ought to do. Blow it all wide open. But she can’t say that with squit in the room or they’ll say she advised us to break the law or whatever and take away her funny hat.”
“She’s a solicitor,” Annie said primly.
“Whatever. That’s what she’s telling us to do.”
“I thought she was telling us not to do that.”
“Yeah. Squit probably thinks so, too. Fuck him.”
“You’re getting all this from what she said about Turnpike?”
“Basically. It was a bit of a red flag. What, it really doesn’t mean anything at all to you? Still?”
“Colson,” Annie said. “You’re an info-rat. Not everyone’s brain works that way. The merger of state and corporate power: why is it important?”
Colson scowled as if both the question and the answer were part of some conspiracy of which he particularly disapproved. “It’s one of the basic victory conditions of Italian Fascism,” he said.
There are some good stories and characters, or at least parts of them, in here. They live and breathe for a time, each of them, but ultimately, this book is not about them. It is about its oh-so-tangled web, made up of little bits of book learning, strewn like bread crumbs for the detective and reader to pick up and marvel over. What we are left with is a very fancy, and intermittently very well done, version of a Dan Brown novel. But we are not promised Dan Brown and given something better; we are promised the world, and given Dan Brown.