Gone Away World [Buy Now]

By Nick Harkaway

Alfred Knopf, 498 pages, $26

There are plenty of scary places in the world. But the human imagination will always conjure up something worse.

Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, Gone Away World, is that kind of scary place — where the id’s gone mad and nightmares eat you.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future against a backdrop of horror — in the ashes, or maybe it’s really slime, of the Go Away War, where the fallout of a new super-weapon allows people to realize their deepest, darkest fears.

In this new world of manifest insanity, life is possible only on a small ribbon of land called the “Habitable Zone,” a creation of the mysterious Jorgmund Company.

The story centers on an unnamed character, Gonzo Lubitsch, and their pals, an eclectic band of misfit veterans now employed as the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company.

When a fire breaks out, threatening the Habitable Zone, they’re recruited by shady government types to avert disaster; of course, as we later learn, there’s more, much more, to the story.

Harkaway’s tale leads from catastrophe back to Gonzo’s childhood escapades, from war to secret assassination plots to ninja secrets.

His treatment of the world is quite skillful, allowing the reader to absorb this waking nightmare without being turned off by the excessively spectacular. Unfortunately, parts of the novel seem to display an overabundance of style at the expense of narrative. It makes parts of the extensive exposition laborious to read.

The novel is sometimes heavy handed in its setups and plot devices, making them impossible to ignore, which left me not in breathless anticipation of how they would play out, but wishing Harkaway would just get on with it already.

Nevertheless, Harkaway’s exploration of human neurosis is interesting to contemplate. Using hard form and soft form martial arts as a metaphor, with ninjas and hidden secrets and secret societies as his devices, he delves into the moral landscape of corporate assimilation, where honest, hardworking people become devious machines.

Thematically, much of Gone Away World is a “buddy novel,” and the central themes could have just as easily been explored in the present or the past as in the future, though the catalyst for the major plot twist at the climax make it clearly sci-fi.

The plot twist itself will be familiar to many, even predictable to some, though the context is appropriately dissimilar to precursors. It also sets the stage for the final part of the novel, following the climax, and contending with its fallout.

Here, Harkaway seems to abandon, in part, the carefully measured surrealism of a whimsical post-apocalyptic world and treads into shaky territory, with situations that border on the absurd, as if he had gotten to the climax, and now just wanted to get it over with.

Gone Away World certainly doesn’t lack for enthusiasm, and the alternate world he paints is vivid and exciting. Harkaway manages to meld a vision of war more germane to today’s world, and take it to its most horrifying, apocalyptic conclusion.