The genius of The Gone-Away World sneaks up on you in a loud and bombastic way. Nick Harkaway's writing reminds me two Douglases who are masters of the absurd and apocalyptic: Douglas Coupland and Douglas Adams. Sardonic and observant, Harkaway tosses off scene after scene of unrelenting zany fun. Yet when the smoke clears and the score is tallied, The Gone-Away World is ultimately, like jPod or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, about what it means to be human.
The title of the book comes from the most terrible superweapon ever invented, the "Go-Away Bomb." When deployed, the bomb makes information instantly cease to exist. Unfortunately, a side-effect of going away is the creation of nebulous "Stuff", which responds to random thoughts and memories in a person's mind and makes those thoughts real. The result: mutants, monsters, and even entirely "new" people made real by Stuff. When multiple countries deploy Go-Away bombs in a fantastic feat of mutually-assured destruction, the Gone-Away World begins.
After a brief opening chapter set in the book's present, the story jumps into the past and covers events from the narrator's childhood up until the beginning of the book. While this narrative tactic results in almost exclusively entertaining events, it really only makes sense after the massive mind-screw plot twist toward the end of the book. About halfway through this section of the book, I started getting bored, because I was wondering when the first chapter would become relevant again. Then the plot twist made it all worth it.
It's the sort of plot twist that would ordinarily be a horrible device; Harkaway manages to pull it off because it actually makes the book make more sense. What was, up until that point, seemingly an exercise in random autobiographical anarchy becomes relevant to both the plot and The Gone-Away World's chilling themes about dehumanization in the face of bureaucracy. And here Harkaway shows why he's on the level of Douglas Adams. Adams was an extremely funny writer who managed to produce scathing satires of British bureaucracy (think Vogons). Harkaway does the same with his massive Jorgamund Corporation, and he also manages to throw in ninjas and mimes for good measure! Like Adams, his humour subtly reinforces the book's themes.
What themes? As mentioned above, much of The Gone-Away World attacks bureaucracy. The major antagonist is what the protagonist terms a "type A pencil-neck": "a person so entirely consumed by the mechanism in which he or she is employed that they had ceased to exist as a separate entity". The book goes on to explore how some people use cognitive dissonance to keep their humanity intact in dehumanizing lines of work, whether they are appallingly destructive or just mindlessly tedious. The Gone-Away World isn't merely about retaining one's humanity in the face of external threats like Stuff; it's a cautionary tale about unintentionally sacrificing one's humanity in the name of doing good.
I like it when I read a book that's obviously well planned, where each piece of the narrative supports the others. I love it when I don't realize how well-planned a book is until a sudden reveal near the end. As long as the journey along the way is enjoyable, it's a much more rewarding experience. The Gone-Away World is unquestionably a long, rambling story. But it all comes together in the end. There are Crowning Moments of Awesome and genuine moments of peril for the protagonist, moments when you wonder how he could possibly win against the odds.