THE GONE-AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway

This is a stunner of a sci-fi /fantasy/thriller,  a huge chunk of a book.   It is a science fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic world crippled by the ‘Go-Away War’, and ….

But let me preface all of this with some quantum physics, because unless you have a frail grasp of the theory on which is it based, you will still enjoy the book, but not nearly so much, and it might leave you scratching your head a bit going  Heh?     OK, ready?  One of today’s more radical theories suggests that information is the most basic element of the cosmos.  If we knew the exact composition of the universe and all of its properties and had enough energy and know-how to draw upon, theoretically, we could break the universe down into ones and zeros and using that information, reconstruct it from the bottom up.   It is the information locked inside any singular component that allows us to manipulate matter any way we choose. Of course, it would take deity-level sophistication, a feat only achievable by a type V civilization on the Kardashev scale*. (Never heard of the Kadashev scale? Sigh.  See end of this post to learn more.)

From a quantum viewpoint, the positions of particles, their movement, how they behave, and all of their properties, give us information about them and the physical forces behind them. Every aspect of a particle can be expressed as information, and put into binary code. And so subatomic particles may be the bits that the universe is processing, as a giant supercomputer.

John Archibald Wheeler said the universe had three parts: First, “Everything is Particles,” second, “Everything is Fields,” and third, “Everything is information.” The idea is that the universe emanates from the information inherent within it.

OK, so now that you know everything there is to know about information theory, we can get on with the plot.  The Gone-away World is set in a post-apocalyptic world crippled by the ‘Go-Away War’.  It tells in first person narration the story of the unnamed main character and his best friend Gonzo Lubitsch and their experiences during and after “The Go-Away War”, a conflict that reduces the world population to 2 billion. The “go-away bombs” and similar weapons used by the belligerents were designed to simply make anything and anyone subjected to them cease to exist, leaving no carnage or wreckage behind. The weapons, however, produced an unanticipated after effect. The matter that had “gone-away” was still there but merely stripped of the information which formerly differentiated and defined it.   (AHA!  Now you see where your information theory knowledge starts to come in handy?)

The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world, and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch, professional hero and troubleshooter, is hired to put it out, but there’s more to the fire, and the Pipe itself, than meets the eye. The job will take Gonzo and his best friend, our narrator, back to their own beginnings.This “Stuff”, as it’s called, floats around the world in great storms and pools in various locations. When it comes into contact with people, a process referred to as “reification”** occurs. The Stuff takes the form of whatever those present are thinking about. The results are often horrific. Apparitions, as well as whole individual persons, appear out of nothing. These people become known as “the new.” To combat the Stuff, the war’s survivors rely upon a substance called “FOX” which is produced by Jorgmond, a corporation, which, for all intents and purposes, functions as the only governmental authority by virtue of the constant and universal need for their product.   It is delivered through “the Jorgmund pipe”, which snakes around the globe and permits the population to live in a thin ribbon of habitable land banded on either side by wasteland.

The story begins with the characters in the “Nameless Bar,” a title that is a reference to the main character’s namelessness. The company they work for, the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company is hired by Jorgmund to deal with power failures and a fire that has broken out on the Jorgmund pipe itself, endangering the “backbone” of their world and their very existence. As the company sets off, the unnamed protagonist starts thinking about his past, from the day he first met Gonzo. It recounts his relationship with Elizabeth Soames, whom he meets as a youth studying martial arts under the tutelage of Master Wu. Wu’s school, the Voiceless Dragon is the mortal enemy of the Society of the Clockwork Hand. The struggle between the two eventually converges with the protagonist’s efforts to oppose the misdeeds of Jorgmund in the Go-Away War’s aftermath.

As if all that isn’t interesting enough to take up about a kabillion pages, (I told you it was a doorstop of a book),  somewhere about three-quarters through the story, we are hit with a real smacker, and I cannot tell you what it is because it would be a real spoiler.  But I will hint at information theory and reification again.

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book.  LOVED it.  There are some critics who felt there were too many diversions and some felt it was too wordy and some believed there were too many characters, but I say, Fie! on them and their houses.   Any mash-up of   a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure is super-duper in my book.

BTW,  Harkaway is the son of John LeCarré.   You would never know it, comparing the two writer’s work.

  • The Kardashev scale was originally designed in 1964 by the Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev (who was looking for signs of extraterrestrial life within cosmic signals). It has 3 base classes, each with an energy disposal level: Type I (10¹⁶W), Type II (10²⁶W), and Type III (10³⁶W). Other astronomers have extended the scale to Type IV (10⁴⁶W) and Type V (the energy available to this kind of civilization would equal that of all energy available in not just our universe, but in all universes and in all time-lines). These additions consider both energy access as well as the amount of knowledge the civilizations have access to.

First, it is important to note that the human race is not even on this scale yet. Since we still sustain our energy needs from dead plants and              animals, here on Earth, we are a lowly Type 0 civilization (and we have a LONG way to go before being promoted to a type I civilization).                Kaku tends to believe that, all things taken into consideration, we will reach Type I in 100 – 200 years time.

Type V. Here beings would be like gods, having the knowledge to manipulate the universe as they please.

** Because I have to tell you everything, Reification is making something real, bringing something into being, or making something concrete.



3 comments on “THE GONE-AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway

  1. larryzb says:

    As to the universe being fundamentally information, some say the fundamental component is consciousness.

    Sounds like a challenging but intriguing read. That is what is great about the Sci-Fi genre – anything can happen, there are endless possibilities.

    • Marti says:

      There is a lot going on in this book, but I didn’t find it so much of a challenge, so I hope you read it.

      Since nobody knows what exactly consciousness is, but some theories consider it to be an emergent function of physical brain activity, and that theory that the universe is an emergent function of the information inherent in it, a case could very well be made that information and consciousness are one and the same.

      For me, information has the same impossibility of definition as consciousness, gravity, electricity, and magnetic force. We know it is there, but we can’t define it without stating its effects.

  2. Phoghat says:

    can’t have consciousness without information

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