The Gone Away World


Nick Harkaway


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

September 18, 2009

hen I read this book, it reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. It is an entirely original, really cool science fiction novel written by a smart, literate author whose first literary creation is a marvel of invention; stuffed with hip writing, overflowing with ideas and imagery and despite all the interesting tangents, it still manages to tell a story with a real plot. What an achievement. Stephenson's main character was the wonderfully named Hiro Protagonist, Harkaway's main character is called Gonzo Lubitsch. This book also reminded me of Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff, where any insane event is plausible, where crazy events are earnestly and believably explained, and your understanding of what is happening in the story can dramatically change.

Harkaway clearly loves his characters. He enjoys giving us the involved (multi-page) background stories of even minor characters such as Mr Wu, the martial arts instructor, or Ronnie Cheung, the special forces instructor, or Zaher Bey, the outlaw chieftain, or Ben Carsville, the pompous military officer. There are a LOT of characters, and Harkaway enjoys his descriptions.

As much as Harkaway loves characters, he seems to delight even more in a bizarre universe where anything can happen. The story takes place after the Gone Away War - in which the physicists of the modern age have developed and unleashed a weapon of such potent fury that it can make a target dissolve into nothingness. However, an unforseen side effect of making something simply "Go Away" is that atoms that used to define the targetted object are now missing any information that gives them form, and thus the atoms are susceptible to reforming into anything - especially if a nearby human thinks of aliens or monsters or mutants. Human thought can give information to the Gone Away residue, and then aliens, monster and mutants may form. Anything is possible, and most of it is nasty or horrifying.

To maintain reality, a giant city is rolling across the countryside, and as it goes forward, it lays a giant pipe - the Jorgmund Pipe - which emits a gas called FOX which keeps reality stable and prevents the Gone Away dust from forming new horrors. Only the parts of the world near the pipe are stable, it is beset on all sides by monsters. Anything can happen - Harkaway throws in encounters with ninjas, mimes, assassination attempts...

My only complaint with this book is that we are introduced to the bizarro world of the Jormund pipe in the first chapter, and then spend the next two-thirds of novel learning all the back story that brought us up to the point of the Gone Away World. In the opening of the novel, the Jorgmund Pipe is threatened by fire, and despite a mysterious phone call telling Gonzo and his team not to get involved, the ex-special forces team leaps to the dangerous task. But it takes a couple hundred pages before Harkaway finishes all his back story and returns us to the fire. It seemed like there wasn't enough pages left to tell the story, I expected a more epic finale.

Also, there is a plot development in the Gone Away World that makes you question what you have read previously. Perhaps if I went back and reread the entire book, knowing what was to come, I would detect how Harkaway pulls off - but since I read the novel just once, it seemed to me that some of the events we learned in the first two thirds of the book couldn't have happened as described.

Overall this a fun novel, it is especially impressive for it being a first novel. I liked it, despite the wretched cover.