Don’t you just hate it when you’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to contain a serious fire with your hazardous materials crew, and then you get attacked by ninjas? And then you get covered in a nightmarish context-free substance, realize that your friends don’t recognize you, and then get shot five times and thrown from a moving vehicle, only to be rescued by a troupe of mimes? Typical Monday morning stuff, which everyone can relate to. Oh, I’m sorry, that’s actually totally barking mad. I apologize.
This debut novel by Nick Harkaway reminds me of a bunch of other things, in no particular order: Douglas Adams. Neal Stephenson. Catch-22. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. These are all big hitters in my book and generally good things to be compared to. But I say “generally”. Actually, let me digress. Did you read The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson? Do you remember the scene where the hapless John Hackworth is in a diner with a high government official and a counterintelligence agent, who know that he’s recently committed some activities which could reasonably be interpreted as theft or treason? And Hackworth is waiting for them to drop the hammer already? During this tense scene he decides to look around at the décor of the diner and to spend a couple of paragraphs reading the ingredient list of some sort of hot sauce, which he claims contains stuff like artificial flavors and uranium mine tailings. Did you wonder why the hell that hot sauce paragraph is in there or even made it past editing? If you did wonder that, did you smile at the chutzpah of interrupting the narrative flow that way, or just roll with it, or did you decide that the book was an overwritten pile of crap and set it aside?
If you did the latter, then this book is not for you.
There’s something of a sub-genre of goofy, overwrought SF/F absurdist novels. I tend to like them when they are well executed, and in my younger days I would recommend them to everybody. I used to be puzzled when people who shared my interests would let me know that they thought Snow Crash or Sewer, Gas, Electric were just too silly to read. Now that I’m older and have a little more perspective about this stuff, I understand where they’re coming from a little better. Because those books are silly! It’s true. And honestly it can be a little distracting when there's supposed to be some sort of, you know, horrible death going on and the author is doing some sort of end-zone dance in a jester hat. It can fail horribly.
So here I am about four hundred words into the review and I haven’t gotten around to even talking about the book itself yet. Well, that’s sort of inherent in the definition of “randomness” – it can’t be described in less space than the material itself. And it is both very random, and very long. For that matter, it contains some good – and some questionable - plot twists and turns – so good that to describe them in detail would wreck much of the fun of the book in the first place. So I will tread lightly.
The novel starts with our narrator describing the post-apocalyptic world and the hazardous materials crew, including his friend Gonzo Lubitsch, sniper Sally Culpepper, utility man Jim Hepsobah, and others. After a brief introduction to this situation, we then go back in time, back to when the narrator first met Gonzo as a child, and we go through his whole life. It’s more than halfway through the book before we get back to where we started, and nearly 2/3 of the way through before the nature of the true plot is revealed. And quite a ride it is.
This is the kind of novel where a British public school boy manages to find time to train with an ancient Chinese master, the head of the Voiceless Dragon style. Like in every 1970s Hong Kong film, the Voiceless Dragon has enemies who have sworn to wipe them out, although it’s not clear if this is actually true or of Master Wu is maybe just exaggerating a little bit. When pressed, Master Wu will even concede that he doesn’t know any particular forbidden techniques, but give him a few baked goods and he’ll try to come up with one.
Before too long he’s caught up in an internal security sting and joins the military, just in time to be deployed to a war zone in a fictional Middle Eastern country that everyone else is also fighting over, for no reason that is satisfactorily explained. At first it’s not much of a war, but tell that to the dead people. And then the Go Away bombs are deployed.
Up to this point the war story part of the novel is a pitch-black examination of the horror of war, but the Go Away weaponry pushes it clearly into SF/F territory. These devices, invented by a mad scientist, affect the information content of matter and do exactly what it says on the side of the box. Only it turns out that everyone else has also been developing these weapons – what’s that they say, there’s steamships when it’s steamship time? Unfortunately it turns out that there’s stuff left over after you make something Go Away – specifically Stuff, which is matter that desperately wants to have purpose, and will react with your thoughts to become exactly what you are afraid it will become. Having destroyed the world, the survivors find that monsters are now real, and that some of them look just like people until they try to eat your dog.
Now this in itself would be enough for most novels, but the real heart and core here is the notion of responsibility. Right at the beginning there’s a discussion about how a mill owner works his guys hard – not because he wants to, but because the mill owner down the street does, and so if he doesn’t then he’ll get taken over and where will the workers be then? This shows up again and again throughout. You’re ordered to deploy a weapon of mass destruction by your officer, and by extension, your country. It’s not you who is doing that, and if you don’t then someone else will, maybe someone not as professional as you. You’re ordered to move some people out of their homes after you promised them safety – but it really is for the greater good. Which of these things are ethical? Would you do them? Would you risk everything just to make a point and not even change the eventual outcome?
It’s easy to forget the challenging moral dilemmas at stake here, especially given the exciting kung-fu action climax. Which is totally awesome, by the way.
If it’s not clear by this point I loved this book, actively adored it. I had a big goofy grin on my face throughout many parts of it and I’m sad I can never read it again for the first time. But I cannot give it an unqualified recommendation for two main reasons. First, as I said, there’s a lot of digressions here, and if you don’t like that sort of thing then you will not like this book. At all. And not all of the digressions are brilliant; some of them are in fact a little tedious, and at times like that you’re thinking that the author is sort of showing off and not really noticing that it’s not working in this instance.
Secondly, there’s a couple of twists here that don’t so much fly in the face of narrative tradition as sneak up behind them and snap their neck. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they don’t work, because they actually do, so Harkaway deserves a prize for that. But they are unfair, and clearly violate any number of rules of causality. If you’re willing to forgive that in an SF/F context like I am, then it’s perfectly all right.
It’s not easy to throw together a coming-of-age story with difficult moral quandaries and wrap it all up in a martial arts throwdown bow. I can’t even imagine why anyone would have tried. But I am glad that such a bizarre and delightful thing exists.