Tag Archives: Dystopian

The Gone-Away World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gone-Away World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway The Gone-Away World

Although I came to this novel on the basis of my appreciation of a later work by the same author, it made an eerily good match for the most recent feature film I enjoyed. If you liked the martial arts action, twisted humor, melodramatic pathos, and reality-warping mindfuckery of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, you might find that Nick Harkaway’s doorstop 2008 first novel actually delivers a kindred experience.

The Gone-Away World contains about half a dozen major anagnorises or revelatory plot pivots, each with perfectly adequate narrative preparation and often outright foreshadowing. After getting caught with my pants down by a couple of these, I got really vigilant, paying special attention to what the story hadn’t told me at that point, and my effort was rewarded with being able to anticipate the next big surprise by maybe two or three pages. Then as I kept on reading, feeling pleased with myself, I got surprised again! (Well, I sort of saw that coming.) And again! (OMG, how could I fail to have seen that coming!) It was like losing a sparring bout.

The semi-fantastic post-apocalyptic setting is definitely sui generis (although comparisons others have made to Vonnegut have some merit), and it took me a few of the book’s longish chapters to get comfortable with the narrative framing. But even before that point I found the prose fast-moving and congenial.

There’s possibly an allegory here, certainly a parable. I had to wonder if Harkaway named “FOX”–“the gunk … inFOrmationally eXtra-saturated” (259) that stabilizes reality after the Go Away War has totally disrupted it– as a conscious poke at US propaganda media. The book takes aim at even bigger troubles, though, if you want to read it that way. The repeated tacit references to Andromeda in the final arc were poignant.

On the whole, I liked this novel a lot and found it to be a lively ride. It fell a little short of the tremendously high esteem I have for Harkaway’s Gnomon, but that’s hardly grounds to dismiss it. It is perhaps, as I’ve seen some suggest, more accessible than the later book, while still delivering a considerable taste of what the writer has to offer.

Gnomon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Gnomon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway Gnomon

Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon is a 666-page magical operation thinly disguised as a science-fiction police procedural. Its settings range from late antiquity to the far transhuman future, with a cluster in London, Greece, and Ethiopia in the 20th and 21st centuries. I found it compulsive reading, and worked through the whole thing in about four days. This was the first Harkaway title I’ve read, initially sighted in a public library display and long considered as something worth my attention. In an appended author’s note, the book is characterized as containing “layers of puzzles and references the author has largely forgotten as he moves on to the next and the next,” but the web of the story is so tight that it’s easy to imagine it being written in any direction: trajectories of plot and character intersect and reinforce each other everywhere, especially since “nothing means just one thing.”

The peak of textual recursion in Gnomon is perhaps Inspector Neith’s interview with Chase Pakhet, an interdisciplinary scholar who discusses the Frankfurt School and French postmodern theory after confessing a love of pulp fiction “for its cheap trashiness, its wicked women and its unrepentantly vivid sex … the violence, the moral turpitude, and the absoluteness of right and wrong in a universe that pretends to be shaded with grey” (286). But fractal self-similarity is a key ingredient throughout this book that exhibits the fabric of all being woven on Its invisible design.

Full-on metaphysics and plot spoiler: . . . . (hover over for spoiler) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As I read this book, I was reminded of many other works I have enjoyed, including Philip Dick’s Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, China Mieville’s The City & the City, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Grant Morrison’s The Filth, and the Wachowskis’ Sens8. None of these comparisons should be taken to impugn the originality or independence of Harkaway’s work here.

“I raised the sleeper, and sealed the sleeper in luminous water with five seals, that death might not prevail from that moment on.” (Apocryphon of John, logion 16)

These are the things that life is all about. These moments. It’s not about the rituals. It’s not about getting by. It’s about the stack of tiny little moments of joy and love that add up to a lifetime that’s been worthwhile. You can’t measure them; you can only capture them, like snapshots in your mind. All that joy, all that greatness, that’s God.

C Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust: A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Cargill Sea of Rust life moments not rituals not getting by about little moments joy love add up lifetime worthwhile all joy greatness god

“It’s all math to you, isn’t it?” “Everything is math, Brittle. All of existence is binary. Ones and zeros. On and off. Existing or not. Believing anything beyond that is simply pretending.” “That’s all anything means to you?” “Meaning is a function set to zero in this universe. Maybe in the other places beyond us there is something more than simply maintaining existence, but here, in this universe, it is the only thing that matters.”

C Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust: A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Cargill Sea of Rust all math everything existence binary ones zeros on off existing not meaning maintaining existence matters

Lord of the World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lord of the World [Amazon, Bookshop, Gutenberg, Publisher, Local Library] by Robert Hugh Benson.

 Benson Lord of the World

The 1907 novel Lord of the World was reissued by an American Catholic press in 2016 in response to a repeated approbation of the book by Pope Francis, who claimed that it illustrated what he called the threat of “ideological colonization” (ix-x). It has also been held up as a seminal example of dystopian science fiction, and was certainly in part written as a rejoinder to the political imaginings of H.G. Wells.

As “science” fiction, this book does not impress. Propeller-driven aircraft (“volors”) allow for travel from London to Rome in twelve hours’ time and for aerial bombardment. The story anticipates for the early 21st century the “perfection” of telegraphy (252)–but the existence of neither radio nor telephony, let alone television. A cutting-edge means of mass communication is the widespread posting of placards in urban nodes for mass transit. A simple respiratory device for euthanasia has been developed and legitimized both for eugenics and suicide. Along with a peculiar emphasis on rubber carpets, those pretty much exhaust the technological innovation forecast in this book.

Author Robert Hugh Benson’s speculative political history of the 20th century is mostly set forth in a prologue which he himself calls “tiresome” and advises the reader to skip if one is more interested in narrative than exposition. It charts the appearance of Communist governments by democratic means throughout the industrialized Western countries. Nation-states have become consolidated into three great alliances (America, Europe, and the Eastern Empire), which in the course of the novel become departments of the one-world government under the charismatic diplomat-cum-global-sovereign Julian Felsenburgh. The dispossessed royalty of Europe have rallied around Catholic Rome, both ideologically and physically.

Casting the remarks by Pope Francis in a somewhat ironic light, the actual economic and military colonization wrought by 19th-century imperialism goes absolutely unquestioned by Benson; Africa has been subject to a “peaceful partition” (131) among its dominators, and every individual character that appears in the book is white as can be. Even the theoretically significant Eastern powers are abstracted and offstage.

The secular religion promoted by Felsenburgh is called “Humanitarianism,” and it predictably becomes an oppressive and persecuting force. “It is Pantheism; it is developing a ritual under Freemasonry; it has a creed, ‘God is Man,’ and the rest” (10). Judaism has evidently vanished without a trace, and Islam has been prepared for its assimilation to the global cult by becoming “esoteric” (272) through the leaven of Sufism. Protestantism has ultimately dissolved as “nothing more than a little sentiment” (5). Everyone knows that Christianity is stupid.

Although Benson imagined that Catholic organization and administration would be centralized and simplified during a secularizing 20th century, he did not foresee major liturgical reforms, such as those undertaken by the Second Vatican Council. In a telling inversion of the actual turn of Catholicism to a diversity of popular languages, he has even the Catholic laity take up the use of Latin in ordinary speech. This they do in resistance to the invidious Esperanto fostered by international Communism, which has become an official language even in the English government.

Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, who ordained him to the Anglican priesthood. He converted to Catholicism a few years after his father’s death, and became a Catholic priest in 1904. He plays with a quasi-autobiographical trope of celebrity conversion in the first section of the novel, where the mother of a prominent English Communist politician converts to Catholicism.

It is easy to conjecture that Benson’s novel might have influenced Charles Williams’ All Hallow’s Eve, which I read last month. But where Williams’ aspiring antichrist never quite attains to the office of “Lord of the World,” Felsenburgh sees his career through to a final battle at Armageddon. This finale–much like the one in Williams’ War in Heaven–leverages a liturgical rhapsody to adumbrate a spiritual victory. The amillenial outcome is a refreshing counterpoint to the premillennialist Left Behind Apocalypse fantasies that littered bookshelves in the actual year 2007!

I am puzzled by the insistence of 21st-century Catholics that Benson’s “prophetic” novel is obviously relevant to our current world situation, which is characterized by nationalist fragmentation and rightward political drift far more than the democracy and liberal humanitarianism that Benson found so frightful. And of course he completely misses anything like the surveillance capitalism and ecocide that are the real engines of our existing dystopia. Nevertheless, the novel is interesting as a peculiar development of the species of fin de siècle Catholic paranoia cultivated and exploited by Gabriel Jogand (the notorious “Leo Taxil”), and the fact that it still has the attention of readers after the date to which it assigned the eschaton testifies in its favor. The individual characterizations are effective; Felsenburgh is not a viewpoint character, and the interior treatment of both Christians and Communists is managed with a fair amount of sympathy. I found it a surprisingly fast read.

I want everyone watching—whether you’re on the Capitol or the rebel side—to stop for just a moment and think about what this war could mean. For human beings. We almost went extinct fighting one another before. Now our numbers are even fewer. Our conditions more tenuous. Is this really what we want to do? Kill ourselves off completely? In the hopes that—what? Some decent species will inherit the smoking remains of the earth?

Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Collins Mockingjay everyone watching capitol or rebel side stop just a moment and think war could mean