Tim Martin

A dense, angry fable

Predictably, the ‘System’ of the future turns out to be far from benevolent in Nick Harkaway’s complex sci-fi fable, Gnomon

Set partly in a future surveillance society, partly in ancient Carthage and 1970s Ethiopia, partly in contemporary Greece and London and partly in the synaptic passageways of the human brain, this huge sci-fi detective novel of ideas is so eccentric, so audaciously plotted and so completely labyrinthine and bizarre that I had to put it aside more than once to emit Keanu-like ‘Whoahs’ of appreciation.

Science fiction in general is having an interesting moment right now, as writers and filmmakers respond to the loopily futuristic contemporaneities of robotics and AI research, but Nick Harkaway goes further than most in this vast and baroque novel. It’s a technological shaggy-dog tale that threatens to out-Gibson William Gibson, a dense and angry fable about political coercion and control, and a loopy, self-swallowing story about storytelling. It is huge fun. And it will melt your brain.

Where to start? Gnomon opens with Mielikki Neith, ‘Inspector of the Witness’, presiding over an inquiry into the death of one of London’s citizens. In this distantly recognisable futuretopia — whether it’s u- or dys- is a matter of opinion, at least to start with — all life is lived under the System, an ‘ongoing plebiscite-society’ in which citizens contribute by frequent voting to the maintenance of an equitable and just polis. Overseeing the System is the Witness, a benevolent AI that has unrestricted access to a limitless network of public and private surveillance. Sure, it sometimes has to perform a bit of open-brain surgery to make sure people aren’t conspiring against their peers, but don’t worry: those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. ‘Justice has been perfected, and the Witness is everywhere.’ What could possibly go wrong?

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