A magnificent three quarters is let down by an overly expository and needlessly complicated last third but still, this is one “dazzling” novel.

opening remarks

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.

knee-jerk observations

I have a bad feeling about this, I’m rubbish at puzzles:

I do like the tone here, so sensible and rational in describing an algorithmic version of Big Brother:
The twisted logic here is delightful.  The emphasis that human involvement and intervention is ‘appropriate’ in an automated system of mass surveillance:
This is a brilliant bit of gibberish pretending to be profound.  Liminally liminal indeed.  To be fair, Inspector Neith is aware that she got a tad carried away:
A mass surveillance system that eliminates paranoia can’t be all bad can it?
The novel’s first section is a murder/mystery of sorts set in a near future England where mass surveillance is the norm.  The victim is Diana Hunter who died in custody while having her thoughts scanned.  Diana is a throwback to a time before mass surveillance, disconnecting herself from society, turning her home into a Faraday cage.  The investigator on the case, who considers herself to be a bit of a Chandleresque gumshoe, is Inspector Neith.  She is our entry point into this world of direct democracy and bugger all privacy. The prose is formal, mechanical with the odd philosophical flourish.  Inspector Neith’s investigation, though, is only one thread of the narrative.

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:

Constantine’s story – the name of our wealthy banker – is a cross between The Big Short and the Wolf of Wall Street.  As I note above Constantine survived a shark attack.  Now a shark seems to have infected his mind, a meme or a metaphor or a sub-conscious trigger that’s allowing Constantine to rake in the moolah by providing him with hints on when to sell and when to buy on the stock-market.  If that sounds a bit fucking insane well welcome to Gnomon.

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:

Harkaway provides Augustine’s mistress with a name – Athenais – a profession – she’s a brilliant alchemist – and a bit of an attitude.  Here she is playing mind-games with the officious man who just kidnapped her:
The section of the novel from the perspective of Berihun Bekele, an Ethiopian artist whose work was earlier referenced by wealthy banker Constantine – he made a mint on Bekele’s art, they go mad for it in Silicon Valley – is simply astonishing.  Bekele has been commissioned by his grand-daughter, a tech wunderkind developing, patenting and selling all manner of cutting edge technology, to create a new virtual England, one where the people are constantly surveilled and where decisions are made through direct democracy.  Sound familiar? But that’s not what’s brilliant about the chapter, what’s brilliant is Bekele’s meditation on Ethiopia and its once Emperor Haile Selassie.

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:

Selling a narrative, making others buy into a lie or, at the very least, a truth deployed as a red herring is a central theme of Gnomon. This story of Catherine the Great and Potemkin her Chancellor – which I hope is true because it’s genius – really does sum up the novel.
Thematically the novel also provides a lengthy discourse on identity.  There are two aspects considered: maintaining a sense of identity in a world where there’s no privacy and the age-old question of what constitutes a person’s identity, what makes you, you.  The second inquiry has been a feature of the science fiction landscape for decades, ever since it was theorised that computers could duplicate a person’s memories.  Harkaway takes the Philosophy 101 approach, the epistemic and ontological considerations of what makes us us.  It’s good, reminding me fondly of my days studying Metaphysics and the Greeks at Uni:
I’m not going to provide any context here because I’m deep in the novel and it would be a spoiler, (in as much as this very strange novel can be spoilt) but even without explanation this short passage is still funny:
With a couple of minor modifications this would be perfect back cover copy:

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.