Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Yes, Gnomon is a behemoth of a book, one I am glad I saved for the beginning of March Break. Even then it took me several days to get through it. Nick Harkaway’s story is intricately layered and nested, and while I wasn’t sure about it at first, the more time I spent with it, the more I came to appreciate and enjoy its construction. Gnomon is a lot of things, and a simple summary won’t really cut it. Let me take you on my personal journey of understanding this book. If you read it, your journey might be quite different, and your mileage, of course, may vary.
We start with what seems like a mystery set in a near-future where the UK is even more of a surveillance society than it currently is. The System is an omnipresent AI built from a collection of self-correcting algorithms. The Witness is the System’s data collection/feedback component, i.e., it monitors what people do, investigates when crimes happen, and provides reports. Mielikki Neith is one of the human cogs in this machine. As an Inspector for the Witness, she goes anywhere that is necessary to collect information, process it with her meatbrain, and then integrate it with whatever else the Witness has gleaned from other sources. Neither the Witness nor the System are conscious, in any meaningful sense, though indeed one of the larger questions Harkaway would like us to ruminate upon is why we are so certain we’re conscious and the System is not.
So at first, the book seems like a story about mysteries in a surveillance state, and therefore, a polemic against such a dystopia. Neith is a believer in the System, yet signs point to someone tampering with what is supposedly tamper-proof. Had Harkaway stopped here, I think he could have a perfectly good sci-fi thriller on his hands. But, of course, he didn’t. Neith has to unpack the memories recorded during the interrogation of Diana Hunter. Hunter’s death during this interrogation is the central mystery. But the memories are really stories, stories of the lives of people who might never have existed. Are they merely Hunter’s attempts to resist interrogation by neural probe? Or is there more going on here?
Harkaway seems to be asking questions not just about how willing we are to tolerate invasive surveillance and a dearth of privacy but also how we feel about technology in general. This is my favourite quotation:
… it had almost nothing to do with computers, the modernity I was trying to understand. Computers were the bones, but imagination, ambition and possibility were the blood. These kids, they simply did not accept that the world as it is has any special gravity, any hold upon us. If something was wrong, if it was bad, then that something was to be fixed, not endured. Where my generation reached for philosophy and the virtue of suffering, they reached instead for science and technology and they actually did something about the beggar in the street, the woman in the wheelchair. They got on with it. It wasn’t that they had no sense of spirit or depth. Rather they reserved it for the truly wondrous, and for everything else they made tools.
The stories that Harkaway tells through Hunter’s counter-interrogation narratives are all about the ways in which we confront and use (or abuse) technology. The quotation above is from Berihun Bekele’s narrative. He is an old man learning new technology so he can apply his art to his granddaughter’s immersive video game project. That first sentence in particular gets at me, because I think it hits a truth easily overlooked by a lot of superficial analysis of technological progress these days. We talk about older generations having a hard time adapting to “computers”, but that isn’t the point. If anything, computers are old news. Computers are everywhere, and they are nowhere, in the sense that we almost don’t see them if we don’t look hard enough.
We might not have a comprehensive AI System yet, but in many ways we are close. I think a lot of us—of many generations—have this mental picture of the world as somehow being like it was in 1900, just with high speed Internet and digital cameras. Except it is nothing like that, because computers have literally infiltrated and changed every aspect of our lives. Modernity isn’t about computers. Modernity is about the thinking in a society where computers run things in the background.
This theme resounds throughout all of the narratives. Gnomon reminds me, in structure and style, of many things—Cloud Atlas, William Gibson, but above all else, Umberto Eco. This has the playfully meta-fictional awareness of Foucault’s Pendulum and the deeply unsettling mystery vibe of The Name of the Rose. Like Eco, Harkaway likes to play with language and semiotics, as evidenced by the way the title word weaves throughout the narratives, and certain phrases or motifs, like Fire Judges, Firespine, etc., repeat in different constructs. Like Eco, Harkaway seems to have consumed this vast gestalt of human history and philosophy and synthesized it into a fascinating, thought-provoking work of art.
Honestly, the ending was slightly disappointing. As the narratives collapse inwards on one another and we return to “reality”, Harkaway seems to shift the focus of the main story to the question of whether or not the System is a Good Thing and who, if anyone, should have the right to adjust it. In some ways, this seems to simplify the book more than I would like. Still, I respect the questions he is asking here. While he largely sidesteps the “all-powerful AI monitors and corrects the behaviour of society but, shock, turns out to be evil” trope, he does succeed in pointing out that any AI-powered attempt at demarchy is probably futile in the sense that, at some level, humans are going to screw it up. The only way to prevent that is to wrest power completely from humans (and then it isn’t really demarchy at all any more).
If you are a looking for a straightforward narrative here, whether it’s science fiction or mystery or crime or whatever, you will be disappointed. Gnomon demands that you sink your teeth into it, think on it, scrutinize it carefully. Do so, and you will hopefully be rewarded with a very thoughtful story. But if that isn’t your thing, or you’re not in the mood, I suspect you will be left quite frustrated, confused, or just bored. Gnomon lacks the humorous absurdism of Harkaway’s first two novels, The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, which were probably my favourites for that reason. It shares a little more in common with Tigerman in the way Harkaway pulls from pop culture ideas and spins them out into serious social considerations. If anything, this novel confirms that every book Harkaway produces is going to be new and very different, an evolution, each one building on the last. While I wouldn’t call this my favourite, it was definitely an excellent vacation read, so fulfilling in its scope and themes.