Review: The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

April 21, 2015

The Gone-Away WorldBack when the world was still our world, humanity came up with a weapon, as humanity always does. This weapon made the enemy simply go away. Unfortunately, as history should’ve taught us but never quite seems to, it wasn’t as simple as all that. Now humanity lives in a zone clustered around the Jorgmund Pipe, which delivers the FOX that keeps away the unreal horrors of the Gone-Away world. When part of the Pipe catches fire, threatening the supply, our unnamed narrator, his best friend, and their crew of freebooters are hired to manage the situation.

Based on that description, you’ll probably go in expecting a fairly straight post-apocalyptic dystopia. I did. You will probably then, by the end of chapter three, be wondering what the fuck is going on. I did that too. So I would advise that you not go in expecting post-apocalyptic dystopia, that you not go in expecting science fiction, that you definitely not go in expecting sobriety — in fact, inasmuch as you are able, to go in expecting as little in regards to setting or genre as possible.

What you can expect is one of the funniest, most intelligent pieces of blistering anti-establishment satire that I have ever read. You can expect a bitingly cynical take on everything from corporate culture to our species’ need to engage in pissing contests on a devastatingly global scale over things we don’t really need. You can expect an examination of humanity, identity, and friendship, and how those things intertwine, that oscillates between the heartwarming and the bone-chilling. You can expect digressions and tangents that wind off down so many twisting corridors I started to lose track, and didn’t care in the slightest because I was giggling so inanely. You can expect a book that, perhaps chief among its many accomplishments, may very well cause you to like mimes.

Because yes, there are mimes. And ninjas. The mimes are a lot nicer than the ninjas. Although it’s intensely intelligent and humanistic and, dare I say, political, it’s not afraid to be a zany girls- and guns-filled adventure story at the same time. I learned from Sir Terry Pratchett that serious and humorous are not opposite ends of the same spectrum, and just about every part of this novel is an excellent illustration of that principle. For instance, our narrator’s gong fu master is full of sage advice, genial humour, and whacky quotes as befitting any cheesy martial arts film, but he’s also a sobering reminder of the loneliness of aging and the way our society treats the aged.

Approaching the end of the book, there is a twist, one which I saw coming — at least in part — a while before it arrived, and yet it still managed to rock me with the gravity of the revelation. It shines a whole different light on everything that’s come before, and yet does so in a way that clicks into place without feeling like shock value or, worse, a retcon. This would be a fascinating book to reread with that knowledge in mind, in addition to my desire to reread so I can take note of all the passages I found hilarious, because there were far too many to slow myself down doing that on a first read-through.

Harkaway’s writing is ineluctable; not flowery, not highly literary, but very deliberate even when conversationally rambling off down one of the many tangents, precisely pushing the reader’s patience just so far in setting up the most glorious punchlines.

I’ve refrained from sharing any of those so far, partly because I didn’t take the time to mark them all down and partly because I would hate to spoil the best of the giggles and the insights this book has to offer, but I must offer the passage about the shrew, which I also spent a day foisting off on anyone who would listen to me:

The building in which he works is a grey slab with stern windows and poorly chosen organic paint colours which are intended to produce a stable and relaxing working environment (as per directive Ev/9) but in fact cause the entire complex to resemble the messy interior plumbing of a sickly bison. The strip lighting (low energy as per directive Ev/6) is responsible for much of this, because it emits in the green and purple areas of the spectrum, which are not tints favourable to a feeling of general good health. Further, this illumination is produced by ultra-high-frequency discharges of an electric current through a tube of fluorescing gas, meaning that they flicker at a given (enormously rapid) rate, this frequency being one which sadly produces tension, annoyance and migraines in 81 per cent of adult humans, and has the interesting side effect of causing tachycardia in shrews. Shrews being very susceptible to stress, and having in any case ill-designed cardiovascular systems, it is safe to assume that any shrew entering Mr. Hoare’s workplace with the intention of asking him for a job would be dead before it had gone five metres down the long corridor I am currently attempting, and would thereby instantly convert itself into organic waste and be disposed of by the sanitation crew. Should the shrew turn out to contain elevated or even toxic levels of chemical waste, or should there be cause to suspect, by reason of signs of aberrant and un-shrew-like behaviour or outward symptoms of transmissible disease such as, but not limited to, rashes, bleeding, elevated temperature and coughing, evidence of pre-mortem deliquescence, or petechial haemorrhaging, that the aforementioned shrew was in fact the carrier of a biological agent, the business of disposal would be handed over to a hazmat team trained in these matters, and the tiny body would be removed in a suitable container by men and women wearing spacesuits and taken to a place of investigation to ascertain the level of the threat and also to tease from the tiny, terrified corpse any forensic evidence suggesting that it might be involved in anti-statist activities, that it might, in fact, be a suicide shrew.

If that passage doesn’t make you want to read this book, there’s something wrong with you, my friend.

5 stars

Review: The Darkest Road (Fionavar Tapestry #3), by Guy Gavriel Kay

October 2, 2014

The Darkest RoadOur heroes, once students from Canada, now transformed into part of the warp and weft of legend, commence the final struggle against the Unraveller. Paul, Arthur, and their comrades from Brennin have vanquished Metran at Cader Sedat and brought Lancelot back to complete the Warrior’s path of suffering. As her love sails to the seat of the Cauldron of Khath Meigol and her son seeks out her love and understanding, Jennifer awaits in Anor Lisen, where Amairgen’s lover once stood her own vigil against his return. Kim goes to free the Paraiko from the svart alfar, but the Baelrath she bears will bend all to a single purpose, one that conflicts with the giants’ very nature. The Dalrei, accompanied by Dave, narrowly escaped the destruction of Owein’s Hunt unleashed, and fresh from their costly victory against Maugrim’s ambush they join with the lios alfar and the men of Brennin and Cathal to mass against Rakoth’s forces.

I’ve been rereading the Fionavar books alongside some friends from a book club, and one of our first time readers felt that Kay has been pulling his punches when it comes to the price paid by the heroes so far and to people staying dead. I’ve had to bite my lip to refrain from telling her just how much I think this book will change her mind. There’s not a single punch pulled here. The final act of the Tapestry is the weightiest, the bloodiest, the most devastating — but it’s not grim. There’s been a trend in modern fantasy to embrace the hopeless, and to equate the gravity of a work with its cynicism, but much as I appreciate many examples of that kind of fiction, I think one reason why the Fionavar books sit on my favourites shelf and so many of them don’t is because I have an even greater appreciation for the skill required in using that level of darkness to juxtapose the light.

And this is exactly what, in my opinion, elevates The Darkest Road above its predecessors to become the finest work in the trilogy. Some very beloved names die in cruel and unforgiving ways, but what they accomplish with their deaths frames the sacrifice in a way that is as beautiful as it is bitter. Others survive the loss of loves, of family, of cherished companions, and find the strength to keep on fighting to bring the light back into the world and eventually into their own lives. Without that ever popular cynicism to ground it, it should have been either too preachy or too trite. It isn’t. It’s pitch perfect.

For a book that is a pretty slender tome compared to most fat epic fantasies, it covers an immense amount of ground, bringing payoff to all of the loose strands of story without resulting in the feeling that it’s all too neatly tied up in a bow. The only exception are the romantic relationships, where it felt a little too much like Kay needed enough of the surviving characters to be neatly paired off that he forced one or two unions — or at least the promise of them — that weren’t entirely natural after the groundwork laid, but it was a relatively minor false note that didn’t take much page count. The world is so rich at this point, it’s impressive that Kay does so much with so little, breathing life into every corner without requiring much in the way of exposition. It’s aided by the sense of depth and timelessness brought about by the inclusion of real world mythology, but I continue to admire the deft hand with which he blends the mythological with the imagined, as in so many other authors’ hands it’s a technique that makes the world feel flat to me, not inhabited. The writing is pure poetry. Those rough edges I pointed to in The Summer Tree have been thoroughly filed away.

And all of these are fantastic qualities for an epic fantasy to have, and if they were all it had it would still be a fantastic novel. But the thing I love most about The Darkest Road is its celebration of free will. Destiny was such a strong theme in The Wandering Fire, and for me Jennifer was the heart and soul of that book because she refused to bow to it, because she made a huge personal sacrifice so that something could exist outside of fate, something random that no one could control — not even her, for all it might cost her. The release of Owein’s Hunt was an interesting exploration of the relationship between destiny and free will as well, because their return came about from Finn accepting his fate as the child who would lead them, but that fate was to be part of something that is inherently chaotic, a wild and capricious force that throws the careful weave of destiny into disarray. And in this final book, so very much hinges on individual choices to defy what seems preordained, even though the price is so high and the hopes so frail. To end an ageless cycle of suffering by taking another man’s death, even though you finally have everything to live for; to fly, at the last moment; to jump; to fall; to forgive.

Kay has, I feel, a grasp of something that a lot of fantasy authors miss and that is a keystone in why his work feels so powerful. It’s his understanding that even in the middle of world-shaking events, you don’t make something truly epic just by going big, you do it by showing the little moments that have big consequences. Because that’s what we can relate to, that’s what our lives turn on, and that, ultimately, is what worlds turn on, even if the worlds are not our own. And although the Fionavar trilogy is in a rather different vein from the other stories that Kay went on to write, nowhere, perhaps, is that understanding more fully expressed than here in The Darkest Road.

5 stars

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