As I turned the last page of this book late Sunday afternoon, I began to contemplate the glowing review I was going to write about it. I envisioned a vast array of hyperboles and interesting comparisons, and then I’d end it all with saying “Yes, this is definitely the début of the year. Read it or die!”
This would, of course, not do. I had to put the book review away for at least a few days so that I could come to my senses and see the many faults this book certainly had. The only thing is though, I’m sitting here, more than a few days after, and I haven’t been able to shake the giddiness that overtook me as I delved into “The Gone-Away World”. It was a most singular thing to experience; kind of like I imagine the people who first saw a Shakespeare play and thought, “Damn, he’s good!”. Not that Harkaway actually bears any kind of resemblance to old William, aside from the delightful feeling you get when you just have to acknowledge that what you’re holding in your hands isn’t some day-fly or a passing fancy of critics around the world. No sir, “The Gone-Away World” is much more than that.
It’s an instant classic. It’s going to be republished in every language there is. People are going to write theses on it; teachers are going to hand it out as an together with “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “1984”. Does that sound promising?
It damn well should!
Life in the Liveable Zone is harsh, especially for mercenaries. There aren’t that many jobs around to begin with, and the only company that’s hiring is the one that operates The Jorgmund Pipe: A pipe which keeps the Liveable Zone, well… liveable by pumping a mysterious substance named FOX into the air. FOX is a lifesaver. Without it, everything would fall into chaos, and to keep pumping and distributing the FOX, you really need The Jorgmund Pipe.
Which is why it’s kinda sucks that the bloody thing is on fire. If it falls down, all kinds of hell would break lose. And the only one who can stop it is the hero Gonzo Lubitsch and his friends.
Now, as you can imagine, it would be quite easy for Harkaway to take an easy road of this book by pursuing this plot with all the tropes we’re used to. But he doesn’t. Instead, he takes us back to beginning, before the world got Gone Away, when our heroes were young. This makes this book so much more than a tale about some unlucky band of heroes, and suddenly you’re not reading the book you thought you were…
“The Gone-Away World” is something of a wild horse when you try to shove it into a specific genre; if you get too specific it’ll rear up and kick you in the face. I’m choosing to brand it “Science Fiction”, but I guess an argument could be made for just about any genre you can think of, ’cause this book has got it all. A really cool scientific premise? You betcha. Character development and love triangles? Yeah, that too. Dragons, centaurs and chimeras? Lots of ’em! Okay, but I bet doesn’t have ninjas…? Sorry to disappoint, but this book has the highest quantity of the silly pyjamas clad killers I’ve ever read. And best of all: It’s got a slight apocalypse! I applaud you, Nick Harkaway!
Harkaway is also really funny. No, you’re not getting me. He’s really funny, and though-provoking and his prose is so effortless that you can almost read it with your eyes closed (once you first get used to it, that is). Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:
There was a bad moment when four large shapes showed up on the infrared, moving in a rapid arc towards the rear of the Nameless Bar, and two sets of heavy weapons came online and tracked them: shwoopHUNKdzzzunn! and Sir, contact sir! followed by Soldier, if you fire that weapon I will stick it up your and guboozzznn as the turrets moved, probable field of fire going through Flynn’s living room and the saloon. Of course, the probable enemy was the desert pig generator system, currently labouring to produce enough power to run the kitchen and the TV all at once. So the pigs hovered on the brink of spectacular annihilation for a few seconds, and then were classed as zero threat, the guns went zugug-slrrmmmback and back to first positions.
Or from a later chapter, where the narrator discusses the pro’s and con’s of sheep in combat:
A war zone is a bad place to be a sheep. It’s not a good place to be anything, but sheep generally are a bit stupid and devoid of tactical acumen and individual reasoning, and they approach problem-solving in a trial and error kind of a way. Sheep wander, and wandering is not a survival trait where there are landmines. After the first member of the flock is blown up, the rest of the sheep automatically scatter in order to confuse the predator, and this, naturally, takes more than one of them on to yet another mine, and there’s another woolly BOOM-splatterpitterslee-eutch which is the noise of an average-sized sheep being propelled in to the air by an anti-personnel mine and partially dispersed, the largest single piece falling to earth as a semi-liquidised blob. This sound or its concomitant reality upsets the remaining sheep even more, and not until quite a few of them have been scattered over the neighborhood do they get the notion that the only safe course is the reverse course. By this time, alas, they have forgotten where that is, and the whole thing begins again. BOOM.
Now, I won’t shy away from the fact that some of these tangents and musings about life, war, personality and what-have-you, can occasionally go on for a bit too long (just like my reviews!). This book is 544 pages long, and it could easily have shed at least a fifth of that without losing the point. Joseph Heller has much of the same style in his masterpiece, “Catch-22″, but Yossarian’s musing never seem to lose track just for the hell of it. They serve a purpose and they don’t hinder the momentum unnecessarily. Some patches of this book, especially the middle chapters, rambles itself into delusion at more than once or twice, but they’re easily forgiven when Harkaway manages to pull all the little threads together with a very well thought through plot. But still, a little trimming could only have been nice.
Another thing I was going to pin-point as a flaw was the way Harkaway dealt with his supporting cast, but then I thought about it some more and decided I was wrong. No one gets a lot of lines in this book, so it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the characterization is lacking, but I soon realized that dialogue isn’t really necessary to provide depth to a character. A simple line or two might be enough, granted of course that it’s the right line. I’ve read sprawling fantasy epics with poorer characters than “The Gone Away World” (hmpfJordanhmpf). You just need to adjust your gauges to his distinct style.
Because this is a fantastic book in every way, and there’s barely a fault to be found. The plot and how it’s handled is outstanding, the premise is utterly believable and rings more than a few bells back in the real world. “The Gone-Away World” also manages to tackle a whole host of different themes, some of them quite silly and entertaining, and other more serious, like racism, war and the dangers of capitalism. This is “Catch-22″ for a new generation, and if you don’t read it you’re – yes, you know it’s true – going to suffer a horrible death. Horrible, sheep-on-a-landmine-like death, in fact.
“The Gone-Away World” is all a geek ever wanted and more. Some of you won’t like it, and I don’t expect you to. It’s not a very welcoming book, like “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch is. But if you get into it, you’ll discover what happens when guys in balaclavas explode, why mime squads are deadly or what happens when a martial arts master gets hold of Tupperware.
Trust me, it’s not nice.