Gnomon Author Nick Harkaway on When Speculations Attack!


Cover detail from Gnomon by Nick Harkaway, courtesy of Penguin Random House

I felt a lot more comfortable writing about the weird and the dystopian when the universe was kind enough not to follow me down my narrative track. In part, that’s my own fault: with The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker I was careful to put some distance between my stories and the real. Sure, there were real world themes in both — the process of evil and the complicity of the state in torture, for example — but there were elements sufficiently fantastical to preserve the illusion of elsewhere-ness. You can’t entirely panic over the wickedness of a bureaucratic government machine, however ghastly, when it is confronted with existentially catastrophic clockwork bees — even if there’s no practical difference in outcomes between an apocalypse caused by nuclear weapons and one premised on mad ideas I made up.

With Tigerman, I got a little closer to the bone. Through my wife’s work as Executive Director of the human rights charity Reprieve, I’d become acutely aware of the baroque and mendacious structures governments were using to hold and interrogate prisoners in the war on terror, and Britain’s particular shame was — may still be — the use of Diego Garcia for rendition flights and a possible black site prison. I threw madness and perfect friendship at the idea as if I could bludgeon the ugly logic of political expediency and legalized torture into submission with sheer quirkiness. I took the situation to the extreme, threw in a toxic volcano and a masked hero, but I let it be known who the real bastards were, and they were, bluntly, us.

It was fun and it was dotty, but still, I wasn’t kidding. Prison hulks belong in another century. So does waterboarding. But I — like a lot of people — misunderstood the moment. What I thought I was doing was housekeeping: I was stamping on a burning match which might otherwise set fire to the civilized carpet. In retrospect it was too little, too gently said. The carpet was in flames. The Cold War begat Bin Laden and Bin Laden begat the war on terror. George W. Bush’s genial, folksy malapropist presidency paved the way for Donald Trump. In the UK, David Cameron’s wishy-washy version of Conservatism paid lip-service to social liberalism while banking a deep and directionless parochial rage which ultimately blew up as the Brexit vote, a decision so manifestly absurd that most countries in the world are just shrugging their shoulders and writing the UK off as a bad job.

I began writing Gnomon in 2013 under the impression I’d be turning in a timely warning: in the muddle of the huggable left and “light touch economics” of Blair and Brown, and likewise mixed in with the pablums of our subsequent Conservative administration, there lurked a deep, bleak, regressive authoritarianism of which we must beware.

I’d like to apologize at this point for not delivering faster.

As it turns out now, I didn’t write a warning. I wrote a dystopian State of the Union (specifically the United Kingdom, I suppose, though at the moment it is anything but united, and the US has kindly joined us in bewilderment and fury, in a gesture of fellowship I would have been happy to forego). It felt very odd in April 2016, delivering the first finished draft and getting back editorial notes which, among other things, asked politely for clarification of how Britain — as a cipher for any democratic nation — could go from where it observably was to where the book proposed it might be; and then to find, first in June and then in November, that no one really felt any confusion about that any more. It wasn’t hard to see how things could go wrong now — and indeed, the System wasn’t as frighteningly wrong, at least on the surface, as some of the possibilities which seemed plausible in the real world.

Technology outpaced me, too. When I started writing, I knew that a team in Japan could read vague images from dreams using an fMRi machine. I knew there was parallel or related research elsewhere. I envisaged the System performing a local but not trivial surgery to do its deep scans, and miraculously healing the damage after. I reckoned I was safe in thinking that technology was a couple of decades away. I was wrong — or at least partly so. In summer 2017, Doris Tsao’s team at Caltech successfully read photo-quality images of faces from the brains of monkeys. We still don’t have the technology to sluice out the brain and tidy it up which I imagined as a side-issue (a necessary one for the world I wanted, in which the deep neural interrogation is effectively less serious than routine dentistry), but we do have the beginnings of the scan. We have, of course, not begun to consider whether we want it involved in court cases and so on, but the moment will come soon enough. A court in Ohio recently admitted evidence taken from a suspect’s pacemaker. We really ought to decide whether reading an image from the mind is legally acceptable before it becomes easy.

The dystopian aspect of Gnomon isn’t by any means all there is to the book. I didn’t set out to write another novel about the end of the world — in fact, at heart, Gnomon is a novel about resistance rather than disaster. I wanted to follow Eco, Borges and Calvino into the strange and beautiful unreal, and beat a path back out again. Ghostly (godly?) sharks, alchemy, art and immortality, escapology and steganography, other worlds and minds without end — Gnomon is about them all, as much as it is about creeping fascism and the failure of human political institutions to live up to their ostensible ideals. But just as I don’t think literature can ignore technology in a world that rests upon it, I don’t think it can or should ignore the vertiginous wobble of our complex and crucial democratic structures, either. I ended up making the voyage into the strange part of a parallel journey out of hell, and death, and totalitarianism. Let it, please, be so easy in the outer world. This time around, there’s nothing I’d like more than to find I’ve over-estimated the danger.