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The Gone-Away World
Nick Harkaway
Alfred A. Knopf, 489 pages

The Gone-Away World
Nick Harkaway
Nick Harkaway was born in Cornwall in 1972. He studied philosophy, sociology and politics at Clare College, Cambridge, and then worked in the film industry. He lives in London with his wife.

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A review by Greg L. Johnson

At the beginning of Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World, most of the world has done exactly that, gone away. The reasons for that happening, and how some of the world was saved by the Jorgmund Pipe seem to have something to do with a band of adventurers calling themselves the Haulage & Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmore County, who, as the story opens, are being called upon to save the world. Again.

So, it seems, we're off on a post-apocalyptic adventure story, told, as the name of our group of heroes implies, with quite a bit of wit and a little whimsy. But first we find ourselves journeying through the childhood to coming-of-age story of The Gone-Away World's narrator, who quickly establishes himself as a sharp observer of human behavior, and his story comes at us in a satirical, stream-of-consciousness, style with a dead-pan sense of humor that bears comparison to both Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Edgar Pangborn's Davy.

That style, and the narrator's life up to college, carry us through the first half of The Gone-Away World, when a couple of events work to change the tone of the novel. First, we learn just how the narrator and his friends got involved in the events leading up to and after the Gone-Away War. At this point, the story picks up its pace, and starts encompassing more of the strange world outside the pipeline protected towns, where the world is made of what has come to be known as Stuff.

The second moment showcases the serious underpinnings of what is, in the main, a comic novel. The narrator finds himself compelled to make a public stand on a real moral question; namely how can you save the world by continuing to do the things that destroyed most of it? Answering that question sets the narrator on a path that not only leads to open opposition to the masters of this new world, but also reveals just who he is.

By this point, the prose of The Gone-Away World has changed to meet the more dramatic story-line. There's still plenty of humor left in the narrator's observations, but the language has become more compact and to the point, as the action quotient is turned up through the final third of the novel.

By the end, The Gone-Away World is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through one of the more cliché scenarios in science fiction, the post-apocalyptic survivalist world. If at times a bit out of control, this is Nick Harkaway's first novel, it makes up for that with humor, and the character of the narrator. The story is told completely through his eyes, and the plot twist that reveals his identity also serves to justify the novel's earlier, looser prose style. The humor in the novel also comes mainly through his observations, although there are moments, such as a perfectly set-up all-out battle between ninjas and mimes, that help keep The Gone-Away World right on the edge of a delightful absurdity.

The Gone-Away World is a good example of a rare thing, a novel that melds science fiction elements with a mainstream writing style and a sharp sense of humor to create a story that cuts across genre and expectation lines in the best possible way. It has already been observed here that Nick Harkaway and The Gone-Away World bear comparison to writers like Joseph Heller and Edgar Pangborn and, if he writes a few more of these, we'll have to add in names like Vonnegut and Twain.

Copyright © 2009 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson is grateful to Nick Harkaway for simplifying the apocalypse for us. Now instead of nuclear destruction, climate collapse, alien invasions, impacting comets, killer plagues or rogue nanotech, all we have to worry about is Stuff. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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