Blame William Gibson.
When Gibson came to visit his protégé Nick Harkaway at his home in London, the originator of cyberpunk’s well-meant advice almost derailed the genre-bender’s most recent book. The two were enjoying a perfectly lovely afternoon — drinking tea, eating cakes, and strolling around in the back garden — and then they started swapping ideas. Harkaway explained some of the oddities of local London government, which partly inspired Gibson’s “The Peripheral.” And in turn, Gibson shared his philosophy about writing: Don’t plan too much, just dive right in. So Harkaway, who had shied away from being “too literary” in his earlier work, took that as a directive and leaped right into “Gnomon,” his most ambitious novel yet, without a plan in place. And like an eager student, he was hungry for the approval of his idols.
“I wanted to go to the university where Umberto Eco was working, and sit on a lawn chair outside his office,” Harkaway says. “I wanted to say, ‘Look, I have this book, and I will sit here until you take it. You don’t have to read it, but I won’t leave until you take it out of my hands.’ He died before I could do that.”
Harkaway doesn’t quite have household name recognition (yet), but his previous three books — “The Gone-Away World,” “Angelmaker” and “Tigerman,” all of which elide the boundaries of high and low culture — have earned him a cult-like following. Some of his devotees demonstrate their faith by sporting bee tattoos behind their ears or on their upper arms, a nod to one of his frequently used symbols.
The problem with being a Harkaway fan, as a few recently commiserated during his New York stop on his first U.S. tour, is that his books are filled with secrets, which often need to remain secret in this spoiler-averse age. (“I’m addicted to twists,” he shrugs.) So praise must be kept vague — about how his novels play with forms, perspective and identity, let’s say. Or sidestep the issue, dwelling on the madcap genre elements (“Ninjas make everything better,” Harkaway jokes) that actually cloak high-concept premises.
In an effort to be taken more seriously, Harkaway underwent a bit of a makeover. He cut his long, unruly hair. He ditched his loud jackets. He began wearing octagonal wire-rimmed glasses — and he wore lots of black. “I looked like one of those jerks who sits in a bar talking about French existentialism!” he laughs when we meet up at the bar at his hotel in New York. “I was working on the authorial look.”
Maybe the makeover worked. Critics are now comparing him to Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges and David Mitchell, among others. It’s only appropriate, since those are the influences he’s been wearing all along. Reading Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” on a plane coming home from Thailand inspired Harkaway to put down the book and start writing “Tigerman” on a boarding pass. And there is a “genuine similarity” to “Cloud Atlas” in “Gnomon’s” interlocking narrative structure, he admits — which is why it might have helped had he not followed Gibson’s advice and actually developed more of a master plan. Instead, he spent three years trying to make metaphysical puzzle pieces click together, and at one point even attempted to model the plot three-dimensionally, using tacks and string, until he realized he had created a “crazy wall,” much like the ones often seen in television and movies. “My office looked like a serial-killer nest,” he says. “I stood there in the middle of it, and I was like, ‘Nope. I’m now even more lost and confused.’”
The 688-page “Gnomon” is a digital dystopia, taking place in a near-future, post-Brexit London which is governed by an online “System” — a plebiscite democracy that depends on direct voter participation, in which the people have opted for total transparency, even of their thoughts and memories. When a writer named Diana Hunter decides to opt out and go off the grid, an arm of the System interrogates her by mapping her brain but is thwarted by her ability to carry multiple narratives — and multiple identities — in her mind at once.
The most ominous part of “Gnomon” is that nearly all of its technology exists today. Mapping our minds? Caltech’s Doris Tsao announced the ability to extract photographic images from MRI scans of monkeys just last year. Using a machine to network the brain? Duke University’s Miguel Nicolelis created a brain-machine interface which allowed a paraplegic to deliver the kickoff at the World Cup in Brazil. “I started writing the book in 2014, but it’s all real now,” Harkaway says. “These technologies have come a long way in a short time, and we’re surprised by them because we don’t tell stories about them. I was completely freaked out when I heard about an Ohio case where they submitted evidence from the suspect’s pacemaker. I can’t imagine a more fundamental intrusion into personal data.”
And yet, Harkaway points out, we continue to give away our personal data on social media, and this allows us to be targeted, profiled and manipulated. We don’t get equal transparency in return, though. “It’s now possible to use Facebook and Twitter to swing a small percentage of an election,” he says. “I ask people, ‘Would you pay $10 a month to use Facebook without ads?’ And they say no, but that means Facebook is selling the data you give them. And to what end? We don’t have the cultural narrative or discourse about this disparity of our trading of data. If that makes you uncomfortable, we should talk about it. And if you write a literary novel with technological shapes in it, it can’t get pushed aside.”
Taken as a whole, “Gnomon” becomes an investigation into the use and abuse of technology, theories of time and existence, semiotics, steganography and the surveillance state. And because this wouldn’t be Harkaway otherwise, there is also a runaway shark.