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Near-future Britain is not just a nation under surveillance but one built on it: a radical experiment in personal transparency and ambient direct democracy. Every action is seen, every word is recorded.
Diana Hunter is a refusenik, a has-been cult novelist who lives in a house with its own Faraday cage: no electronic signals can enter or leave. She runs a lending library and conducts business by barter. She is off the grid in a society where the grid is everything. Denounced, arrested, and interrogated by a machine that reads your life history from your brain, she dies in custody.
Mielikki Neith is the investigator charged with discovering how this tragedy occurred. Neith is Hunter’s opposite. She is a woman in her prime, a stalwart advocate of the System. It is the most democratic of governments, and Neith will protect it with her life.
When Neith opens the record of the interrogation, she finds not Hunter’s mind but four others, none of which can possibly be there: the banker Constantine Kyriakos, pursued by a ghostly shark that eats corporations; the alchemist Athenais Karthagonensis, jilted lover of St Augustine of Hippo and mother to his dead son, kidnapped and required to perform a miracle; Berihun Bekele, artist and grandfather, who must escape an arson fire by walking through walls – if only he can remember how; and Gnomon, a sociopathic human intelligence from a distant future, falling backwards in time to conduct four assassinations.
Aided – or perhaps opposed – by the pale and paradoxical Regno Lönnrot, Neith must work her way through the puzzles of her case and find the meaning of these impossible lives. Hunter has left her a message, but is it one she should heed, or a lie to lead her into catastrophe? And as the stories combine and the secrets and encryptions of Gnomon are revealed, the question becomes the most fundamental of all: who will live, and who will die?
Nick Harkaway has always straddled the line between literary fiction and science fiction, whether it be in his post-apocalyptic The Gone-Away World or the superhero-meets-colonialism of Tigerman. The question this begs for each new work is, which side of the line does it favour…?
Gnomon is a complex book, to the point of being difficult to review; the question of where to begin so as not to get bogged down in one aspect and neglect others is a difficult one, because it is so dense. Harkaway’s worldbuilding is incredible; he’s not only written a near-future London whose transport infrastructure feels intensely real, but whose political infrastructure also feels all too plausible. Gnomon is set in a Britain that has embraced a system that combines direct democracy with a panopticon surveillance society, overseen by the computer algorithm known as the System; in everyday life, that manifests as the System being a personal assistant like a Siri that can predict your wants and almost read your mind… and that perhaps functions at times like a nudge unit. The impact of this is part of the conflict at the heart of the novel; what it means for individual privacy and freedom isn’t given a simple answer. If a crime is committed, it is investigated by the humans who make up the Witness, combining human insight with the non-intelligent technology of the System; and people’s minds can be mapped and read to establish innocence or guilt – or conspiracy.
Nominally, Gnomon follows the investigation of Mielikki Neith, inspector of the Witness, into a mind-mapping operation on Diana Hunter which went wrong and led to her death… and to the information the mapping was meant to discover. Inevitably, for something which combines thriller with science fiction, this leads Mielikki to a greater conspiracy; but it is also how Harkaway brings in a number of secondary narratives, shells Diana used to hide herself from the brain mapping by giving it false personas and histories to read. Each of these narratives within the central narrative of Mielikki’s investigation is as brilliantly written and complex, and fully peopled, as the main narrative itself; Gnomon essentially has five different narratives, four of them shell games around the fifth central one, each of which has clues to what is going on in the others and what they mean. The way Harkaway weaves these different narratives together, and draws different points and keys out of them, and links them in to each other symbolically and literally, is beautifully done, albeit weaving the kind of web across nearly 700 pages that it can be hard for the reader to keep track of.
One of the things Harkaway uses to help with this is excellent characterisation. Gnomon is one of the most interestingly peopled novels I’ve read in a long time, and with one of the most unusual approach to personhood; not only does the text demand the reader interrogate the idea of the individual, but the text itself does. The cast includes ancient alchemists from the time of Augustine (Athenais, fictionalised mistress of the real Augustine before his conversion and mother of his son) to present-day Greek bankers playing the markets and playing gods (Constantine Kyriarkos, whose name alone is suggestive), an immigrant Ethiopian exile and extraordinary artist (Berihun Bekele, who Harkaway uses to talk about the history of colonialism and interrogate online racism, right up to a direct albeit not-by-name engagement with the hate campaign that is GamerGate), and a multiply-embodied far-future post-human engaged in a war with entropy (Gnomon’s sections are by far the strangest). Most of these characters are as powerfully fleshed out as those in the real world of the novel, with their own lives and relationships; Gnomon goes in deep on the granularity of individuality. The one character Harkaway falls down on is Gnomon themself; the multi-bodied post-human being seems rather two-dimensional, and their thoughts rather too human, while also being at the same time a little too simplistic and, compared to the other narratives of the novel, essentially uninteresting.
The strongest point of Gnomon is perhaps its unexpected ending; Harkaway goes to his most literary at the close of the novel, with an ending that is simultaneously cliche and utterly new, and wholly unexpected. Each character’s narrative is beautifully and powerfully resolved, although not necessarily closed off; people don’t necessarily get what they deserve. Hints and clues which have been dropped throughout the narrative suddenly become obvious in hindsight, and the whole shape of Gnomon is shifted into a new format.
If there’s one drawback, it’s that it takes nearly 700 pages to get there; at times, Gnomon feels like it is dragging, drawn out for the sake of it. Harkaway has certain moments and character motifs that repeat endlessly, as if to drive the point home; over the course of the full novel, these can become wearing, and the lack of obvious links between the narratives and Mielikki’s actual investigation, and the things going on in the background, can all become a little frustratingly obscure as Harkaway layers up the puzzle pieces that will eventually all fall into place together to create the final picture.
In the end, though, Gnomon is definitely worth it; another monumental, brilliant, brain-bending piece of literary science fiction from Nick Harkaway.
Disclaimer: This review was based on a final copy requested from and provided by the publisher, William Heinemann, for review.
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Our narrator works as an editor and writer for a magazine specialising in bringing oddities to light. Her mysterious publisher sends her exploring through a city that becomes by degrees ever stranger. From a sunrise of automated cars working in silent precision to a possible vampire, she discovers that people are both odder and more ordinary than they might seem. Especially if you’re earing datura seeds. Especially when the legendary Voynich Manuscript is involved.
Leena Krohn is a writer the VanderMeers, through their small Cheeky Frawg publishing imprint, seem to be working hard to bring into more prominence among Anglophone readers of the Weird; they brought out Datura in 2013, and have since released a Complete Fiction volume. I decided to start with the slimmer option…
Datura is a very strange book, although for readers familiar with publications like Fortean Times, it is perhaps a little less strange that for those less familiar; after all, the fictional New Anomalist magazine of the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to the fabled Fortean Times and its quest to catalogue and publicise the weirder reaches of humanity. What makes Krohn’s novel slightly weirder, though, is that it is largely a collection of meta-articles; pieces about the writing of pieces for the New Anomalist, so we don’t learn much about the subjects themselves so much as how our narrator felt about them, an interesting twist.
That leads to a slightly disjointed feel about the book, though. Datura very obviously has something of a through-line, of the disintegration of reality around the narrator and the way her reality has separated out from that of the rest of us, and a lack of clarity as to where those divides are. However, the way that throughline is constructed is in a series of snapshots; there’s little linking each of the short episodes, although some things do carry through and a couple of characters appear multiple times, but on the whole there’s no sense of chronology to the episodes and the book as a whole.
Oddly, that doesn’t detract from the strangeness of the whole experience. Krohn presents each of these weird encounters, real or delusional, without judgement, and without enough framework around them to really separate out which is which; Datura is, in that sense, a fascinating exercise in breaking down the barriers of the real. That Krohn also mixes real fringe groups, such as Otherkin and kinksters, with wilder fringe science ideas that also have a hold, and with actual delusions such as slipping into other realities, and never makes it clear which are which necessarily, really adds to the slightly unreal and disjointed feel of the book.
Most of the episodes are hung onto a single character with whom our nameless narrator is interacting, and one of the greatest strengths of Datura is the brief thumbnail sketches which come out of these encounters. Every character pops off the page in a believable and real manner, with a whole interior life implied by their brief appearances; interactions with the narrator imply a lot about their life beyond their interactions with representatives of the New Anomalist, and the way the world receives them and their ideas. Indeed, having someone so determinedly not fringe as the narrator of Datura really throws the ideas of the other characters into highlight, and works to make the strange things that happen to her even stranger by her mundane, albeit confused, reactions.
In the end, Datura is a brilliant book, although I remain a bit on the fence about the level of disjointedness of it; Leena Krohn really has created a marvellous work of the Weird here.
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Before we go any further, a public service announcement for UK readers! Today is election day here! If you can vote, do! Today is your chance to cast a vote which is going to irrevocably effect the course of our country going forward!
Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s the 1990s, pre-DVD, and the work is predictable and familiar; he likes his boss, and it gets him out of the house.
But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets, she has an odd complaint: ‘There’s something on it,’ she says. Two days later, another customer brings back She’s All That and complains that something is wrong: ‘There’s another movie on this tape.’
Curious, Jeremy takes a look. And what he sees on the videos is so strange and disturbing that it propels him out of his comfortable routine and into a search for the tapes’ creator. As the once-peaceful fields and barns of the Iowa landscape begin to seem sinister and threatening, Jeremy must come to terms with a truth that is as devastatingly sad as it is shocking.
John Darnielle is best known as the primary (on occasion, only) member of the Mountain Goats, an indie-rock/folk band that focuses on concept albums. He has lately started making forays into prose fiction too, with Wolf In White Van in 2014 and now, Universal Harvester in 2017…
Universal Harvester is an incredibly strange novel, and a hard one to pin down. Darnielle mixes elements of horror, the Weird, and literary fiction together, with some fascinating psychogeographical observations; to pin just one genre on this novel would be very reductive, because while it draws on the tropes of each, it is not entirely of any of those genres. Darnielle uses a mounting horror of something he keeps out of view throughout the novel, an unknown that is strange and bizarre, to take what seems otherwise entirely mundane into a stranger realm; but at the same time, a lot of the novel is concerned with the ordinary everyday lives of its characters, and especially Jeremy, its protagonist, in a very literary way.
This contrast is heightened by the slow series of revelations that Darnielle allows the reader into what the horror and strangeness at the heart of the novel is; Universal Harvester doesn’t do a simple reveal, but shows corners of the sculpture, and the vague shape of it under a tarpaulin, until the reveal at the very end, which gives the reader a completely different sculpture to the one we had previously expected.
One of those revelations is as to who the narrator is; what seems at the start to be a simple omniscient third person narrator breaks in to the narrative to interject comments and questions directly to the reader, and to throw in some foreshadowing. The most fascinating way Universal Harvester does its foreshadowing is by giving alternate paths the novel could have gone; Darnielle, at certain key points, tells us about the alternative routes characters could have taken that would have totally derailed the novel, highlighting the key moments in the book, and the key decisions, especially those which look less central. It’s not a subtle approach but, because of the way Darnielle controls his narrative, it’s an effective one, and a well-accomplished one.
Universal Harvester essentially concerns a very small cast in a Midwestern town in Iowa; the whole book is written as a kind of nostalgic haze for a very specific late-90s in a very specific kind of place. The book would not work without the technology of the home VCR, and the institution of independent video rental stores; both of which have now become, fundamentally, obsolete. There’s a real concern with ensuring the reader understands exactly what small-town Iowa is like, and repeatedly, the narrator breaks off to give a kind of psychogeographical overview of the town Universal Harvester is set in. It’s an approach which occasionally meanders and goes on too long; and some of these sections feel like Darnielle is deploying special pleading, without looking at the problems of those places (the world of Universal Harvester is very straight and very white).
There’s also a nostalgia for a certain kind of person that Universal Harvester seems to think has maybe vanished; Darnielle centres the novel on Jeremy, the son of a blue-collar worker who lost his mother in his teen years, and who seems at the start of the novel to be drifting through life and somewhat emotionally repressed. It’s an interesting portrait and a very generous one; indeed, Darnielle is generous to all his characters, who he seems to have a huge amount of empathy for. The idea of that kind of youth seems to be one Darnielle has huge admiration for, and sees as a mixed blessing: the emotional repression of characters is one of the things at the heart of Universal Harvester, and the different directions it can take – positive or negative.
Universal Harvester is brilliantly written, incredibly empathetic, and doing fascinatingly strange and Weird things; but Darnielle’s nostalgia occasionally takes over the book too much, leading to some frustrating bumps in the road.
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When you run into Trafalgar Medrano at the Burgundy or the Jockey Club and he tells you about his latest intergalactic sales trip, don’t try to rush. Trafalgar likes to stretch things out over six or seven coffees. No one knows whether he actually travels to the stars, but he’s the best storyteller around, so why not sit back, let Marcos bring you something refreshing and enjoy the story?
Gorodischer’s set of linked stories is one of the best known translated works of science fiction from Latin America; although Trafalgar may not even be speculative fiction…
Trafalgar, as the blurb says, is a series of anecdotes recounted by Trafalgar Medrano; but for the most part, they’re not transmitted to the reader directly by him – the exception, ‘The Gonzalez Family’s Fight For A Better World’, has asides to his imagined audience, largely about coffee. These anecdotes are retold, along with the framing narrative of our first-person narrator bumping into Trafalgar, in a stylish, amusing style; hence we can go from Trafalgar talking, in long first-person paragraphs, to the mundanity of Marcos delivering coffee to the table, or Trafalgar asking his interlocutor for a refill. It’s an interesting narrative approach, especially given the outrageousness of his stories; with the exception of ‘Trafalgar and Josefina’, told by an aunt to our narrator, the truth and accuracy of Trafalgar’s recountings are essentially unquestioned. Hence, after much of the book has passed, we’re suddenly strongly introduced to the possibility that the irrepressible raconteur is an unreliable narrator of his own adventures. Gorodischer shines an interesting light backwards onto the preceding stories, to interesting authorial effect.
The anecdotes themselves are extraordinary and absurd, absolutely the stories of a raconteur; they have a sort of swashbuckling sense to them, with Trafalgar playing the role of explorer, saviour of damsels in distress, political activist and never without resources. Trafalgar, across its ten stories, covers all sorts of different topics and areas, such as complex caste systems containing within them the seeds of their own destruction, temporally unmoored societies, orgasm machines and societies held back by their own dead… Each is complete in itself, although some link up with each other; and this adds a certain element of uncertainty, as the few cross-references between stories implies veracity (or well constructed lies), while the general lack of such implies the opposite. Gorodischer, again, holds and manipulates this balance excellently and beautifully to avoid stating absolutely the reliability of Trafalgar.
The characters are a more mixed bag. While Trafalgar himself, and our interlocutor, are both very well fleshed out, interesting and rounded characters with their own foibles and flaws, all too many of the characters in Trafalgar’s narratives blur together; Trafalgar, because it doesn’t dwell on its secondary characters, really just tells us about the eponymous Trafalgar, a sort of character study of the man through whose life flit various shades, passing across and affecting him but themselves not rounded or whole enough to be truly effected by him. It’s actually a strength of the work that this is the case, as the way the stories are told becomes itself part of the story; Trafalgar’s interest is in himself and his activities, and impressing his audience, primarily.
This, then, is a fascinating and wonderful collection whose self-fictionality is an open question; Gorodischer has written both a wonderful series of anecdotes and an interesting puzzle in Trafalgar.
In the last years of his life, Lewis Carroll wrote a third Alice book. This mysterious work was never published and has only recently been discovered. Now, at last, the world can read of Automated Alice and her fabulous adventures in the future.
That’s not quite true. Automated Alice was in reality written by Zenith O’Clock, the writer of wrongs, who sends Alice through time, tumbling from the Victorian age to land in Manchester at the end of the Twentieth century.
Oh dear, that’s not right at all. Zenith O’Clock is only a character invented by Jeff Noon, who really wrote this trequel to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. What Alice encounters in the automated future is mostly accidental too… a series of skewed misadventures, even weirder than your dreams.
Rarely has the blurb of a book so perfectly captured the spirit of it. Automated Alice, in some ways, barely needs a review after that braintwister of a blurb. But we’re here now, so let’s have one anyway.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are famous for concealing all number of brilliant mathematical logic puzzles in their whimsy. Jeff Noon’s Alice book similarly plays with puzzles, using them as a thematic motif in its jigsaw pieces and in logic or word puzzles threaded through the book. These make the novel feel very true to the originals, especially when combined with a writing style that really does sit very similarly to the Caroll novels; this playful book is explicitly in conversation with the reader, and with itself, acknowledging its own narratorial nature, and using it. As a construct it’s brilliantly done and the metafictional commentary on the fiction is well carried off in fascinating, skillful ways.
Automated Alice has a massive cast, aside from Alice, most notably Celia, Alice’s twin twister. Celia allows Noon to play around with the idea of reality; Celia is automatic, but Alice is both real and fictional – and these categories are ones Noon plays with extensively, as well as categories of idea and others. That playfulness extends into the character; Noon lives in a world ripe for whimsy, it seems, with the Civil Serpents, Inspector Jack Russell, and poets worse than McGonagall. All of these fit into the strange, sideways look at the world that Automated Alice wholeheartedly embraces as its own, a mingling of puns, fancies, and reinterpretations that really pack all kinds of ideas into a short book.
The plot is even more absurd, and indeed more absurd than Carroll’s Alice books. That most modern genre, the crime fiction novel, is perhaps the closest plot equivalent to Automated Alice, although the caper novel and conspiracy thrillers also have their place in the DNA of this trequel; each contributes something to Noon’s extraordinary, chaotic plot that blurs the lines between linearity and nonlinearity, between absurdism and simple fantasy. It’s a messy, busy, at times nonsensical plot that fits perfectly with the novel’s content and ideas, a heady blend of the strange and the familiar into something utterly new.
Automated Alice is a chaotic hot mess; Noon’s trequel ought to not work, ought to completely fall apart… but it doesn’t, instead working beautifully. Truly stunning.
Kiernan’s work normally straddles genres; among her favourites are horror, fantasy, psychological thriller, and character studies tinged with, well, horror. The Yellow Book, a chapbook released by Subterranean Press as an accompaniment to Kiernan’s collection Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, proves no exception to this…
It’s hard to describe the first story in this diptych. Kiernan combines elements of a number of genres, including horror, literary fiction, and lesbian romance, into what turns into a beautifully, brilliantly, disturbingly powerful story; each element is dark and perfectly done, so that each moment builds up to the awful conclusion. This isn’t graphic torture porn or overwrought, overwritten Lovecraftian horror, although the influence of the latter is clear; rather, it is strange, other, an alien force assaying into our world, an incursion of the abnormal. Kiernan’s story also contains with it an awful lot more; Ex Libris brings in ideas about thought, about words, about story, and about books, all twisted slightly, viewed sideways, and thrown into a kind of dark light that reveals an awful lot about language and about humanity.
The other core of the story is that romance; part of the horror of this story is the creeping otherness of Maggie, the narrator’s lover, the way she changes from someone we can see why the narrator loves, someone human and rich in that humanity, into something utterly different. The withdrawal will be familiar to anyone who has had a failing relationship; and yet Kiernan turns it from international emotional problems into external existential threats, from normal human interaction into abnormal alien horror. It’s a beautifully turned piece of work, and gives Ex Libris a powerful pathos to combine with the pure horror it also draws on.
The Yellow Alphabet
This is where Kiernan’s fundamentally slipstream approach really comes to the fore. The Yellow Alphabet is twenty-six pieces of flash fiction, less than 30 pages in all, unconnected to each other on the surface but with a certain thematic resonance running through many of them, a fascination with certain things; the unexplained, the inexplicable, and the monstrous other. Each is headed, in children’s picture book style, “[Letter] is for [word]”, but this is an alphabet from a dark, twisted mind; full of horror, strangeness, and alienation, it also has a fascinating rhythm to it when read in one go from beginning to end, a certain flow from story to story, and some completely depart from the letters around them, Q most notably with both a fantastic playing with language but also an almost poetic quality. This is hard to review as a single document, but impossible to review otherwise; all I can say is that if you’re lucky enough to have a copy of The Yellow Book, then The Yellow Alphabet really is worth reading… and I’d love to hear your opinions on it!
A. C. Wise’s story was recommended to me as being both queer and about architecture; as a bit of a fan of architecture, I immediately had to seek it out, and found a story far stranger and, in fact, more interesting than I was expecting initially. The architect and her lover are both expressions of different immigrant experiences, different histories; and both express their pasts in different ways. The magic of the story is absolutely brilliant, and the tying together of psychological and physical realities is amazing.
Her Last Breath Before Waking is a beautiful little love story, small and personal in scale and yet with huge consequences; the dreams of the architect change the city around her, tearing down the old, familiar city and building a modern City in its place, while the architect’s lover increasingly feels alienated and displaced, trying to hold back the change in favour of love of the old, rather than the need to replace it. The tensions between the two characters are portrayed lovingly and beautifully, cutting back and forth between them and showing the ways each has affected the other; the architect increasingly unworldly and withdrawn, her lover increasingly withdrawn from the architect but outspoken in trying to stop the change. Wise very clearly has sympathy for both characters, and the end of Her Last Breath… demonstrates where the end point of both journeys is.
The tale of immigrant experiences is also well pulled off; Wise tells us off two very different reasons for emigrating, one for better opportunities, the other to flee horrors at home, and Her Last Breath… proves sympathetic and open to both, showing the different things they bring to a place, and the reasons they’re both necessary; Wise also shows the reader that the balance of different experiences is vital to a culture, allowing it to change and evolve whilst also remembering what is good about itself, rather than stagnating into insularity or innovating away from the people it serves.
Her Last Breath Before Waking is, then, a beautiful love story with a point; Wise’s imagery and writing combine to brilliant effect in this short story that’s well worth your attention.