Nick Harkaway's first novel, The Gone Away World, proves that you can only talk about the really important things in the world by resorting to science fiction. At the heart of this silly, horrifying romp is a brilliant science fictional conceit for talking about the senselessness of war: a super-weapon that isn't just senseless, but which actually eradicates sense. Spoilers are crawling up your arm, just below.
In The Gone Away World, there's a huge senseless war in a fictional central Asian country, and the British decide to unleah their secret weapon: the Go Away Bombs, which are only supposed to be inhumanly massive weapons of mass destruction but turn out to be far, far worse. The Go Away Bomb, in theory, strips the information away from matter, turning it into raw chaos and essentially erasing it. But in practice, the Go Away Bomb turns people and objects into Stuff, a sort of raw ontological matter which people shape into monstrous, or crazy forms using their thoughts and basest emotions.
The other half of the book is a sort of coming-of-age narrative of an un-named narrator and his friend, Gonzo Lubitsch. Without giving too much away, there's a massive twist about two thirds of the way through the book which puts everything you've read up until then in a new light and makes the whole exercise much more worthwhile, if you're willing to buy into it.
Beyond that, the Gone Away World is an alarming mash-up of genres. It's sort of one-half post-apocalyptic horror story, and one-half prim comedy of manners: call it P.G. Margaret Atwoodhouse. It doesn't always work, and there are sections where Harkaway goes off on a three-page comic digression that aren't nearly as funny as he seems to think. But over time, you start to recognize a kind of over-arching logic to the overly chatty narrative voice. It's like the voice of someone who's stared into the face of non-existence, and mangled existence, and is trying to maintain a whole image of the world with jokes and weird patter.
The most compelling parts of the book, frequently, have to do with war or military training. The main character gets dragged into the military life unwillingly, but somehow becomes a very assured guide to the realities of combat and preparedness. (The fact that Harkaway is the son of famous spy novelist John le Carré may have something to do with his ease at describing derring-do.) And then the entertaining story of crazy warfare turns into the story of how the world dissolves into goo. Here's an early description of the formless Stuff eating a bunch of soldiers, in which the Stuff literally becomes a sort of formless personification of warfare:
The Stuff is ragged and wispy. It is encountering some pressure or energy at our circumference, and responding to it. Things are happening at the meniscus: familiar shapes are appearing — armed men, vehicles, guns. They shimmer and collapse into one another, getting more solid. Some of them are ludicrous or awful. A small group charges across the border, Iwo Jima style, brothers in arms. They are too close together, weirdly awkward, and as they turn, I see that they are conjoined, all seven of them. The sergeant's hand on his corporal's back, urging him on, melds smoothly into the uniform and the spine. The soldier behind, supporting the sergeant, is merged with him at the hip. They struggle, scream and tumble, bringing down the others. They are an image to be seen from one side, not real men at all. They die, probably because they have not enough hearts between them, and slump to the ground, where a corpse-carpet is forming, the familiar exterior decor of modern skirmishing. I can hear the bullets whizzing, though there is as yet no-one to fight. This is not an attack. It's atmosphere. It's war as a condition, war as furniture. We are under siege by a notion of war.
As the Stuff gets more pervasive and eats into everything, the world goes fully post-apocalyptic, and the livable world is reduced to a single zone, maintained by some mysterious substance that neutralizes the Stuff. As reality and personhood become more and more subjective, people have to decide how to deal with the Newly Made, people who didn't exist until the Stuff created them. And meanwhile, an evil corporation called Jorgmund is trying to take over what's left of the world.
Did I mention there were ninjas? They play an increasingly large role as the book goes on, after having seemed like an afterthought in the beginning. They turn out to be bad guys, and have to fight a whole troupe of mimes, who turn out to be good guys. And there are ninjas versus bees, as well. It's actually hard to convey quite how silly this book gets at times. A lot of the characters feel a bit throw-away, consisting mostly of a funny name and one larger-than-life characteristic. But the last third of the book is almost pure genius, bringing together a lot of threads that seemed random in order to pull out a series of satisfying, if crazy, surprises.
All in all, The Gone Away World is a frantically entertaining journey into the polluted heart of the 21st century war machine. But it's also a zany adventure comedy about martial arts fighters battling on the ramparts of an evil fortress and finding true love. Harkaway somehow takes that pungent mixture and turn it into a deep fable about discovering your real self when everyone's melting around you. It's a story that could only work as science fiction, and yet it's also bigger than its science fictional conceit.