The Gone-Away World

the-gone-away-world1I’m having a difficult time pigeon-holing The Gone Away World, a novel by Nick Harkaway (an interesting tidbit: he is the son of John le Carré): the novel is a mishmash of several genres.

The novel’s narrator is unnamed, which is an important plot-point. I won’t give away his identity, but I will say that his memory may not be completely reliable.

Only a thin strip of our civilized world remains after an unanticipated by-product (stuff) from a purportedly ‘clean’ weapon (the Go Away Bomb, which removes information from matter) creates new life from people’s thoughts, and some of the ‘new’ are horrifying. The thin strip of civilization is protected by a mysterious mist (FOX: Informationally Extra-Saturated Matter) that is dispersed from the Jorgmund pipe, which snakes around the world.

As the novel begins, a section of the pipe is on fire: the  narrator is a member of a squad of disaster/hazmat specialists who set out to extinguish the fire.

Just as the hazmat team’s adventure begins, the narrator pauses the action to provide historic backdrop by relating the story of his life, from the age of five, until the apocalyptic event itself. The reader eventually discovers the narrator’s identity, and the story takes on an added dimension. After the pipeline fire is extinguished, the build-up to the climax of the real adventure/thriller/gong-fu/romance/science fiction-fantasy/comedy truly begins.

There are hints scattered throughout the book regarding the narrator’s identity; in retrospect, it is obvious, but I must admit that I didn’t quite get it right (although I did successfully foresee a couple of other ‘revelations’). It would be interesting to re-read the novel knowing the narrator’s identity, but — for me — it isn’t be worth the time investment: there are too many other novels unread, waiting on my bookshelf, and this one doesn’t quite warrant a re-read.

The ending was satisfactory, but too ‘Hollywood’ for my tastes, and the plot meandered unnecessarily; nevertheless, I enjoyed the book.

Recommended.

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Nekropolis, by Maureen F. McHugh

Nekropolis is a quick read, but there is depth to the tale, which examines several different types of relationship by shifting the point of view in each new section: the first chapter is told by the focal character, Hariba; the second chapter is revealed by her love-interest, Akhmim (who provides an interesting glimpse into a different psyche); the third chapter is related by Hariba’s mother; the penultimate chapter is from the point of view of Hariba’s best friend, Ayesha; and the final chapter returns to the story from Hariba’s point of view. The reader gains insight into the relationships, loyalties, and sacrifices made, from several viewpoints.Nekropolis_McHugh_cover

Hariba’s family lives in the Nekropolis, a poor-area of Morocco in which mausoleums have been converted into tenement-apartments. At the age of twenty-one, Hariba becomes ‘jessed’; an injection biologically imprints loyalty for her owner, Mbarek, a wealthy man (jessing appears to be a kind of nano-biotechnology). Hariba is Mbarek’s housekeeper; she is fortunate, Mbarek is a decent man. He also owns a harni, an artificially manufactured man called Akhmim. Harni are considered sub-human and, at first, Hariba treats Akhmim with derision, but she eventually becomes infatuated with him, and Akhmim becomes ‘impressed’ on Hariba: Akhmim was designed as a male concubine and he wants to please Hariba. An intriguing non-sexual relationship evolves.

Mbarek’s wife becomes disenchanted with Hariba, who is sold to a different household; she misses Akhmim, and they run away together. Hariba becomes sick with jessing-withdrawal and she uses family and friends to help her and Akhmim hide and escape from the authorities.

The story triggers several questions: How can the boundary between obligation and imposition be defined? What are the many faces of love and how strong are its attachments? What are the possible consequences of sudden freedom? Is the idea of freedom a universal concept? What is it in the make-up of humanity that allows hierarchical inequities to develop? Can the search for happiness blind one to the enjoyment possible in the present moment?

I enjoyed Nekropolis, but I would have appreciated a longer work with more depth: the novel felt like a work of short fiction; a handful of short pieces stitched together into a novella.

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Venus Plus X, by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon (1918 – 1985) was an excellent short story writer, but I’m not convinced he was a great novelist (More Than Human is his best novel, and it is really a three-part fix-up, expanded from the novella Baby is Three); he seems to have had issues with sustaining an interesting plot past the novella length (Sturgeon has a large body of short works, but his novel output was quite limited).

Venus Plus X (1960) is half story, half lecture, and there is a dated feel to the novel, which, in part, attempts to illuminate the shifting roles of VenusPlusXcovermen and women, but the book’s message is presented from a society fifty years in our past (the message still has importance, but society has moved forward slightly; err, well, most of us have, I hope). The book may have gathered greater resonance today if it had been written from a woman’s point of view; unfortunately, the book has the distinct feel of having been written by a man writing to other men.  A main message is that, in the grand scheme of things, men and women are much more alike than they are different; sex shouldn’t get in the way of commonality of understanding. Additionally, the novel expounds on the human need to feel superior, which drives the marginalization of women, as well as contributing to other forms of overcompensation and prejudice.  

The protagonist of Venus Plus X is Charlie Johns, a young man from the 20th century (circa 1960) who is apparently, without his knowledge or consent, transferred via a time machine to Ledom (model spelled backwards), a futuristic, utopian society. Ledom is a community of hermaphroditic beings, perhaps the next stage in human evolution. For an unknown reason, Charlie’s opinion of the society is important to the leaders of Ledom. Charlie’s experiences in Ledom are intermingled — as a comparison — with short scenes of two neighboring families living in the 1960s.  

Venus Plus X is a quick read, but I didn’t find it particularly edifying or satisfying; if you haven’t read any of Sturgeon’s works, I would recommend seeking out his short fiction, for example: The Man Who Lost the Sea, Slow Sculpture, Bright Segment, The Other Celia, Baby is Three (which was expanded into the novel, More Than Human), Bianca’s Hands, and Microcosmic God.

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Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks

against_a_dark_backgroundAgainst a Dark Background (1993) was Iain M. Banks’ fourth science fiction novel published, and the first that was not set in his ‘Culture’ universe (The Algebraist, Feersum Endjinn, and Transition are also non-Culture science fiction novels). Against a Dark Background is essentially a quest novel: the plot follows the protagonist, Sharrow, and her comrades as they search for the Universal Principles (an ancient book), which will then help locate the last Lazy Gun (a weapon that distorts reality), which will result in Sharrow avoiding an assassination/execution by soldiers of the Huhsz, a crazed religious organization.

The book often feels like a RPG with its meandering plot and haphazard cohesion. There are several short flashback sections — momentous events from Sharrow’s past — that add texture and back-fill, but the transitions between sections is sometimes jarring: perhaps this was intentional, but I found it confusing at times. The novel’s title has an interesting meaning, and Banks does a nice job of world-building, although much of it seems superfluous. I didn’t form an attachment with any of the characters, which is a good thing, because most of them don’t make it to the end of the book; in fact, I think I enjoyed an android’s personality the most, and it didn’t appear until well into the story. There are some wonderful sections in the novel; but, as a whole, I found it a bit disjointed and unnecessarily long, and the ending is somewhat predictable.

Some readers found the ending abrupt: it didn’t particularly bother me, but for anybody interested, Iain M. Banks wrote a short epilogue that is available on-line, which is not included within the confines of the novel (and there is no hint in the edition I read that an epilogue exists).

Against a Dark Background was re-worked from an early novel (written in 1975), and I think the immaturity can be glimpsed through the cracks in the re-write. To be fair, however, I should note that this sub-genre is not my favorite (i.e.: a quest novel). Others might enjoy Against a Dark Background, especially if you enjoyed Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which is similar in construction (I enjoyed some sections in Consider Phlebas, but it is one of my least-favorite of the ‘Culture’ novels). I checked on-line and found several glowing fan-reviews for Against a Dark Background, some even declaring it as their favorite Bank’s novel. There is some inspired writing but, in my opinion, much of the material was sub-par for the author.

If you’ve never read Iain M. Banks, I’d suggest trying Player of Games (a short ‘Culture’ novel, one of his lighter books, possibly my favorite); and, if you enjoy that novel, then try Use of Weapons (also possibly my favorite Culture novel, though longer, and much darker in tone than Player of Games); and if you like that, I’d be glad to recommend more….

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