Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

It's hard to summarize The Gone-Away World in a few paragraphs. This book has ninjas in it. And mimes. And pirates. I can't do much better than the cover blurb:

"A wildly entertaining debut novel, introducing a bold new voice that combines antic humor (think Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut) with a stunning futuristic vision (A Clockwork Orange and 1984, with a little Mad Max thrown in) to give us an electrifyingly original tale of love, friendship, and the apocalypse."

There couldn't be a fire along the Jorgmund Pipe. It was the last thing the world needed. But there it was, burning bright on national television. The Pipe was what kept the Livable Zone safe from the bandits, monsters, and nightmares the Go-Away War had left in its wake. The fire was a very big problem.

Enter Gonzo Lubitsch and his friends, the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company, a team of master troubleshooters who roll into action when things get particularly hot. They helped build the Pipe. Now they have to preserve it—and save humanity yet again. But this job is not all it seems. It will touch more closely on Gonzo's life—and that of his best friend—than either of them can imagine. And it will decide the fate of the Gone-Away World.

Equal parts raucous adventure, comic odyssey, geek nirvana, and ultra-cool epic, The Gone-Away World is a story of—among other things—love, pirates, mimes, greed, and ninjas. But it is also the story of a world, not unlike our own, in desperate need of heroes—however unlikely they may seem.

To the description above, I'd add that for its clever writing, irreverent and cynical but still heroic tone, and elaborate not-always-relevant-but-still-lots-of-fun tangents, this book shares a lot more in common with The Princess Bride than Clockwork Orange or 1984.

The summary above is a pretty good description, as far as it goes, but really, The Gone-Away World is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel the way War and Peace is a historical novel about the Napoleonic wars. It's ten kinds of awesome and a couple kinds of annoying. I really liked it, despite the frequent tangents (like the first half of the book, in which we're introduced to the problem (post-apocalypse: the Jorgmund Pipe is on fire, this is a problem), and then spend the next several hundred pages going back in time, beginning at the narrator's childhood.

This is a thing Stephen King does that really annoys me. I like Stephen King, but he's one of those authors who has become Too Big To Edit, so he'll be in the middle of some creepy epic about aliens taking over a small town in Maine, and the main character will be driving down the road, and suddenly we flashback to some incident in his childhood and spend the next fifty pages on it. Which turns out not to have a whole lot to do with the plot -- King just put it in there so that for the rest of the book he can make these obscure references like, "Fred felt a cold sweat -- the dwimmerlaiks were back," because dwimmerlaiks is a made-up word he invented when he was eight to describe something creepy he saw and now these aliens are totally reminding him of dwimmerlaiks, whatever the hell they are. And suddenly, aliens are going to fuck your skull!

I totally made up the example above, but if you've read Stephen King, you know what I'm talking about, right? And if that tangent on Stephen King in the middle of a book review about The Gone-Away World annoyed you, then imagine a book full of sudden tangents like that, except written by a better writer than me, and many of them are actually kind of funny and/or interesting. But what the hell does it have to do with the plot? You could chop half the pages out of The Gone-Away World and not lose much of the story, because it has nothing to do with the plot -- Harkaway is just being clever.

Harkaway is clever a lot -- the entire book is an exercise in cleverness, in amusing euphemisms and elaborate metaphors and humorous asides and wordsmithing that's so precious that sometimes you want to pat it on its head and give it a kick at the same time. The writing is something people will either love or hate: you can read an excerpt from chapter one to get a feel for it.

The story is probably the least compelling part of this book (and usually that will kill my enjoyment), but Harkaway makes up for a fairly routine "Oh shit! We unleashed a superweapon and wiped out most of the human race and now we're fighting Awful Things to survive!" plot with tons of memorable characters and quotable quotes.

The strength of this book is in making its tangents interesting. There are tangents on "reification" and hard vs. soft martial arts styles and the various categories of Pencilneck bureaucrats, and how things go bad when the shit hits the fan, not because people are evil or stupid, but because they're scared and confused and everyone is hoping someone else will make the hard decisions and do the bad things. Its strength is also in its characters -- really awesome characters, from the heroic to the insipid and cowardly to the evil, every single person in this book has a distinct personality and believable, human motivations, and the evil characters are probably the most horrifying because nobody is just in it for the bwahahas. (Notwithstanding the fact that the most evil character in the book actually stands there and does a "Bwahahaha!" at the climax. Which, by the way, includes mimes and ninjas.)

It's about friendship and loyalty and doing the right thing, and there are moments when you cheer because the good guys are staring down the road of Good Intentions and Not My Responsibility, and then they turn around and don't go down that road. And there are also moments when you cheer because the good guys kick some ninja ass.

I still like Stephen King, and I liked The Gone-Away World, but it's an exhausting reading experience. Over 500 pages of tangents, tangents-within-tangents, and imaginary characters having hypothetical conversations within a story narrated by one character to another within a flashback the main character is having while he drives down the road. And suddenly, ninjas! Fucking mimes and ninjas!
Tags: books, highly recommended, nick harkaway, reviews, science fiction

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