I grew up with the Nuclear Threat. It lived on the corner of my street and it walked with me to school. Gonzo and I used to play with it when none of the other kids wanted to talk to us. We got so tired of playing Armageddon with that damn unimaginative Nuclear Threat that we implored it to learn another game, but it never did. Mostly it just sat there at the back of the classrooom and glowered. And then one day we heard it was dead. Some people seemed pretty upset about this, but I was just glad I didn't have to carry it around any more. Kids are selfish.(p. 299)
The world's moved on: been moved, by the Go Away War, in which ontological bombs have destroyed whole cities and killed four billion people via a controlled editing of the world within a discrete area, stripping out the information and leaving nothing behind -- not even regret. (p.159) Normality, or the best approximation of it, is maintained by the Pipe, which supplies FOX ('for inFormationally eXtra-saturated matter' (p.302)) to the livable zones. And the Pipe is maintained by Jorgmund, a shadowy entity with an opaque agenda.
The nameless narrator of The Gone-Away World is a member of The Haulage and Haz-Mat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County. The Company is recruited to deal with a fire on the Pipe, and our narrator prays silently I want to come home.
The next few chapters are backstory: where are we? What's the Go Away War? Who are these people and why should we care about them? Those chapters also set up the major themes of the novel: identity, loyalty, the nature of reality. There's repeated discussion of sense and reference (the description and what's described), and of the connection between matter and information/ Yes, it's deeply philosophical and profound, but it's also hilarious. War-sheep, pirate monks, ninjas, mimes, the deleterious effects of flourescent strip-lighting, and the ultimate perversion (EXPLICIT EROTIC MOVIES -- WITH A STORY!!! ...Shame! Narrative! Outcast, unclean! p.318).
As per the quotation at the top of this review, this seems very much a post-Cold War novel, a response to growing up in the late 20th century with the spectres of nuclear war, mutually assured destruction, radiation sickness, fallout. War is only one aspect of the novel's matter, but it is vivid, inescapable, archetypal.
This is not an attack. It's atmosphere. It's war as a condition, war as furniture. We are under seige by a notion of war. (p.286)
Despite the familiar names -- Exmoor, Cricklewood -- and a context that includes the United Island Kingdoms of Britain, Northern Ireland and Cuba Libre, already being referred to by the wits as Cubritannia (p.37), this is not recognisably our world. I'm not sure why the author used so many familiar elements to build a setting that is alien, foreign, other.
I very much like Harkaway's prose style (though his proofreader could have done a better job). I like his metaphors, his joyous headlong riffs, his characterisation. It would've been easy to overdo the surrealism, the sheer weirdness of this scenario, but the flights of fancy are balanced by bitter sobriety.
I am betrayed, murdered, rescued, healed and bereft. I have saved the world and been rewarded with five shots in the chest ... I am toxic waste. I have known heaven, and now I am in hell, and there are mimes. (p.413)
It's hard to talk about this novel without discussing the twist, which I think is foreshadowed effectively, has stunning dramatic impact and makes sense both in terms of the events that precede it and the themes of the novel. (Your mileage may vary.) I'm less convinced by the conclusion, which seems a little facile: that big problem? Not so big.
Yes, it's about war. Yes, it's about reality. Yes, it's about brotherhood and loyalty. And yes, it's about pirates and ninjas and mimes, oh my.
we will see what can be achieved, and how we are changed, by living with a world which can reveal us to ourselves or assail us with our fears. (p.353)