A magnificent three quarters is let down by an overly expository and needlessly complicated last third but still, this is one “dazzling” novel.
Gnomon is my first exposure to Nick Harkaway’s fiction. He’s one of those authors I’ve been planning to read for years since his 2008 debut, The Gone-Away World. I’m late to the party but I’m here now, ready to spend a week with this hefty novel.
I have a bad feeling about this, I’m rubbish at puzzles:
The second chapter begins with a man – a banker no less – surviving a close call with a great white shark in the Mediterranean. The setting, the tone, it’s like Harkaway got bored with Inspector Neith and started a new book. Take this bit for example:
Now I could be wrong but the section of Gnomon that I’m currently reading would appear to be from the perspective of Saint Augustine’s mistress (who, according to the interwebs, was never named but did give birth to Augustine’s only child Adeodatus). Like the previous segment of the book dealing with Constantine the brilliant banker – who infected by a shark brings down the world economy – this first-person account would appear to be a stored memory, one that’s been relived… recalled by the Inspector. Whatever the case, I’m enjoying these changes in perspective and tone. Gnomon continues to surprise.
It’s not just the ideas, the shifts in perspective and the overarching mystery that makes Gnomon so entertaining. It’s also the gags:
I do love the sheer breadth of this novel. A book that can jump from a discussion about the international monetary system to a meditation on Ethiopia and Haile Selassie to a condemnation of mass surveillance to whatever the fuck this is:
The Gist Of It
There’s this prevailing view in certain corners of Science Fiction fandom that the genre should be apolitical, that Science Fiction is meant to provide a sense of wonder, a sense of escape rather than shove the author’s political views down the reader’s throat. Clearly, we’re dealing here with a very narrow definition of politics because even something as escapist as… I don’t know… Flash Gordon is political just by the sheer fact that Flash is opposing the tyrannical rule of Ming the Merciless.
Be that as it may, the apolitical position, as incoherent as it is, is really a critique of authors who wear their politics on their sleeves. While I haven’t read Nick Harkaway’s previous novels, Gnomon is a bright and extraordinary example of this sort of work. What’s explicit in those who detest the political SF novel, which they term ‘message fiction’ is that it’s boring. The other claim is that it’s agenda driven. Well, Gnomon is certainly agenda driven – it deals passionately with human rights, privacy, political corruption and out of control capitalism – but boring? Fuck no. Yes, it’s possibly 100 pages too long, and there are moments when Harkaway’s philosophical musings start to ramble and it could be argued that the story, once you scrape away all the convolutions and digressions, is very simple, but like Michael Dirda says in his review for the Washington Post the novel dazzles. The four interweaving stories, spearheaded by Inspector Neith’s investigation, provides Harkaway with the opportunity to change up the tone of the novel while also tackling ideas around identity, mass surveillance, human rights violations and the double edge sword of technology from a number of perspectives. It makes for a thrilling, immersive and highly entertaining three quarters of a novel. It does stumble a little in that last quarter as Harkaway tries to be profound while also inundating the reader with exposition and oh, gosh, wow epiphanies and revelations, but this mostly doesn’t matter because the ambition of the novel and the anger on display, the passionate defence of our privacy and humanity, overrides any of the book’s structural deficiencies.
This is political science fiction, loud and proud and agenda driven as fuck.