Some motivational speech for us all this morning.
We’re not even through January and I already have two frontrunners for favourite books of my personal reading year. One’s Pratchett’s Nation, the other is The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway.
It’s a little bit Joss Whedon in its capture, indefinably, of current pop-culture language/dialogue and attitudes; a little bit Pratchett and a little bit Joseph Catch-22 Heller and even a little bit Vonnegut in its humour and digressions; a little bit Neal Stephenson in its cheerful love of cool-geek artforms; and a little bit Don Quixote in its exaggerated language and characters.
But mostly it’s just its own self: an amazingly good debut comic SF novel with a unique voice and a happy disregard for ‘rules’ of writing (Avoid adjectives? Bah. Don’t put too much backstory in? Bah. Stick to the point and don’t ramble off into a political science lecture? Bah. You can do anything you want as long as you do it well and in an entertaining fashion and other authors I’ve reviewed could take a lesson; anyway, the backstory and rambles are relevant: pay attention to everything).
It opens somewhere in a post-apocalyptic future; the Go Away War has so devastated the world that people can only live safely near the Pipe, which pumps out a reality-stabilising substance, which has been triple-engineered to be indestructible…and which is now on fire. Cue our heroes, an Aliens-tough band of mercenary ex-soldiering freebooting truckers, hired by the corporation to go in and put the fire out (by blowing it up with a great big bomb).
The set-up’s fast and funny; it avoids info-dump while hammering home the grim realities of this world: the ultra-cool truckers (think Matrix-level cool here; I keep referencing movies because this opening is cinematic in its scene-setting and character introduction, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, nor do I intend to imply it’s derivative. It’s not [turns out Harkaway worked in film]), the truckers know they’ll lose crew on this job, and so do those who hire them, but there’s never any thought to turning the job down as too dangerous. The money, the challenge, their own reputations as big damn heroes: they’re doing this thing. This thing will turn out to be a little more complicated than they had imagined.
After the pig-powered opening chapter, we go into back-story mode; luckily, it’s interesting stuff, watching main hero Gonzo and his loyal shadow and best friend, the unnamed narrator, grow up, go through university and end up in an absurd war, not incidentally seeing the development of the Go Away weapon along the way and meeting their future workmates while the world ends around them, before the story finally wends back to where it started – and accelerates in entirely unexpected directions, as mysteries are piled atop the initial puzzle of who set the Pipe on fire.
The narrator is almost our only ‘normal’ major character; the rest, particularly Gonzo, are larger-than-life heroes or villains or fools or other such archetypes. This doesn’t actually matter when they’re careening through the pages, and their variety and inventive chatter is endless.
I had a hard time getting a grip on Gonzo for the first third or so, because the backstory is more focused on the narrator than on him – for the hero of the book, he both receives surprisingly little page-time and yet infuses everything the narrator does; as the book goes on he becomes clearly defined through his relationship with the narrator, which is consistently portrayed with nuance and subtlety. We’re also looking at the nature of heroism: Gonzo’s physical heroics with the narrator’s more measured responses.
For a book that’s laugh-aloud funny, it has surprising depth and moments of pathos; we are, after all, dealing with the end of the world here, and the loss of those we love. It’s clever and confident and chockfull of great characters, and hey, it’s got ninjas and pirates, how could anyone not like it?
Harkaway’s only a few years old than me; he’s my generation, writing for geeks like me, and I think we’re a fan of many of the same movies, TV shows, and books. The Gone-Away World – its themes, language, humour, politics, characters – spoke to me on a level that I think must be how Gen-Xers respond to Coupland’s work (which I never got into, even though I’m technically Gen-X, and so is Harkaway; OK, that wasn’t a good analogy). Any time I felt my attention flagging, the sheer humour and/or what’s-next nature of it dragged me on and I would’ve gulped it in a day if I hadn’t had that pesky paying job to worry about.
Summary: great read, give it a go. Aren’t you dying to witness the legitimate deployment of sentences like “A warsheep would be a cross between a dolphin and a small, limber elephant”? Brilliant stuff. Oh, and Gonzo’s imagined conversation with the big villain near the end is a joy to behold. The whole book’s a joy. The Gone-Away World should win every award possible.
Harkaway’s website is here and the book’s website is here and he’s on the hip cool social networking sites too, where he needs to display, front and centre, a reassurance that he is, in fact, writing a new book.
Interested? Buy it from Fishpond.com.au. No, I mean it: give his publisher some money so they force him to write another one.