‘I have a firework going off in my head and I have to describe it’ Nick Harkaway
If everybody was incredibly committed to acts of kindness and charity in a ubiquitous circle of love and whatever,” Nick Harkaway waves his hands as the words come tumbling out, “we’d be living in a utopia now. People would walk out into the street and make sure their neighbours are OK, the way they do after earthquakes.” He stops, looks around the light study at the top of his house in Belsize Park, north London, and tries to work out how he’s got from the all-seeing surveillance at the heart of his latest novel to historical materialism. “I’ve strayed again … what was the question?”
The breakneck whirl of Harkaway’s conversation is a bit like his fiction, ideas fizzing off in every direction as it hurtles along. His fourth novel, Gnomon, is no exception, with his near-future detective embarking on an investigation that races through privacy, encryption, alchemy, a sociopathic post-human intelligence and Bach’s Musical Offering. A woman living in defiance of a regime built on constant connection is called in for questioning. When the interrogation goes wrong, an inspector dives into the memory files extracted from her brain and finds herself submerged in a series of other minds, leading her to question the foundations of the surveillance state.
Harkaway has chosen an unashamedly literary route through this tangled web, splitting the narrative between interlocking points of view, the prose sometimes shattering under the pressure of the interrogation. But the intricate construction of this 700-page novel emerged as something of an accident. Harkaway was talking to William Gibson – a writer he has admired since Neuromancer blew his teenage mind – and he learned that Gibson doesn’t plan his fiction, but just gets a concept and follows the story. If it was good enough for Gibson, Harkaway told himself, he should give it a try. Armed with an image glimpsed in a tube station of a locksmith with a spray can marked “universal solvent”, a figure from the far end of human development and a crime, in 2013 he hit upon the germ of an idea and “just started writing”. A rueful shrug. “It turns out that if you’re doing that with arguably eight protagonists, instead of two, it takes a really long time.”
Harkaway says he wrote the novel “like a 3D printer”, swivelling round in his chair to demonstrate how he would add a chunk of narrative to each strand in turn before swinging back over to add the next piece. By spring 2016 he had a first draft and enlisted the help of seven or eight people to make sure it all made sense. But when the queries started coming in, he found his own novel had escaped him.
“It’s the first book where I’ve been totally unable to carry all of it in my head,” he says. “I had to use a whiteboard, I had thousands and thousands of notes in my Evernote folder, I had photographs of the whiteboard. This office, when I was editing it for the final time, looked like one of those terrifying nests that psychopaths make in American cop shows.” In the end, he “had to trust that I knew what I was doing when I put it together”.
Sometimes editors would pick up on something they thought was particularly clever and Harkaway would have to hold up his hand and say it was a consequence of the way he’d written the novel. “Writing is always some kind of encounter with another person that lives in your head, but this …” He shakes his head. “I hadn’t realised the extent to which, if you really crank up the complexity level you start to get responses that feel alive.”
Harkaway’s journey through this hall of mirrors was fuelled by a sense that the tools required for total transparency were just around the corner. “When I started writing this book I posited a bunch of technologies which seemed to me to be on the horizon,” he says. “I’m praying that at least one of them doesn’t exist by the end of the year.”
Surveillance is “just pernicious”, Harkaway argues, because it is “always and forever” about control. Targeted surveillance may sometimes be necessary to prevent crime, but mass data gathering is completely different. “It is possible, unequivocally, for somebody with access to a body of information about you, your behaviour online and your behaviour as you walk around with your phone in your pocket to know more about you than you know yourself. And that is the beginning of a very sinister situation.”
The mere fact of being watched has been shown to limit people’s willingness to speak out, or to join a trade union, he continues, but the ability to process huge datasets offers the possibility of manipulating democracies and markets. “If that is true it’s catastrophic, because the absolute basis of democracies and free markets is the idea we can make rational decisions in our own self-interest.”
Gnomon’s dystopian vision of a London built on total transparency is one Harkaway also examined in his 2013 nonfiction study of the digital age,
The Blind Giant . But he says he wanted to examine it in fiction to counter our natural tendency to ignore the scientific revolution that is reshaping our world. “We have a series of defences in the mind which are dedicated to preventing us from being distracted by things we are told are not important or that we find too disturbing to our model of the world,” he says. “When you start reading a novel, you let down at least some of those and at that point the author can mess with your head.”
Harkaway has been messing with readers’ heads ever since publishing his debut, The Gone-Away World , in 2008. He followed up this energetic, post-apocalyptic, kung-fu fantasy adventure in 2012 with Angelmaker – a dashing steampunk thriller about a plot to unleash mass destruction using clockwork bees. Fatherhood, environmental disaster and the grey areas beyond the reach of international law lent 2014’s Tigerman a more sombre tone, but he still found space for the retired soldier at its heart to remake himself into some kind of masked avenger.
The exuberance of Harkaway’s fiction is partly a reaction to his time in the film industry. Born in 1972, he studied philosophy, sociology and politics at Cambridge before working as a runner and assistant director. When asked why he turned his hand to screenwriting, he replies simply: “Because I love movies.” But looking back on the nine years he spent trying to navigate the rapids of the studio system, the author becomes a little unsure: “I think it must also have been the case that I wanted to tell stories and I didn’t want to be writing novels because my father was a novelist.”
Harkaway – real name Nicholas Cornwell – is the son of David Cornwell, better known as the novelist John le Carré. Three novels on from the debut that earned him a £300,000 advance when he submitted it under another name, the family connection doesn’t seem so much of a burden. “People ask
I wanted to tell stories and I didn’t want to be writing novels because my father was a novelist
about it, but they don’t ask about it in the way they used to,” he says. “The question isn’t about some kind of inevitability.” But while Harkaway acknowledges he was never going to write a spy thriller, the fantastical invention of his first two novels did situate them firmly “in a different place … I wonder now how much I was hiding from it, because I didn’t want to be playing in the same sandpit.”
An early version of The Gone-Away World contained a substance known as “liquid fiction”, but he decided it was “too highfalutin and fancy” and crossed it out. But the increasing seriousness and ambition of his work doesn’t mean he’s left the humour of his first two novels behind.
According to Harkaway, literary fiction “has a problem with humour”, but as the future cascades into the present it’s becoming increasingly acceptable for literature to explore science and technology. The world is catching up with writers who try to avoid the pace of change. “If you decide to write in a world which doesn’t feature technology and yet pretend that it’s the modern world, you’re writing historical fiction in disguise. It’s not that I lose interest in what you’re doing – the writing might still be beautiful, the point might still be very well made – but I think you’ve ducked.”
Harkaway may have expanded his literary horizons, but admits he will only push his prose so far. “I have limited patience with novels which are deliberately without plot or character. When you’re telling someone a story and you’re walloping them secretly with all the things you believe about the universe and trying to change their mind, you owe them the bloody book.”
He may dream of writing a Star Wars movie and winning the Man Booker prize, adding with a laugh that it would be even more fun to “win the Booker with a Star Wars movie”. But to shift the debate you need a mass audience, ruling out work that is truly experimental. “Do you want the smallest number of people to achieve the greatest change in their mind or do you want a large number of people to achieve a small change in their mind?” Harkaway asks. “Change on that level needs to be at least somewhat incremental.”
One of the lessons he takes from his struggles with Gnomon was “an absolute determination to write more books, faster”. This resolution begins with an attempt to re-frame current concerns over artificial intelligence, an issue he suggests would be “staggeringly irresponsible” for writers of fiction to ignore. He may be aiming to engage with ideas that “are already freaking you out”, but this time he won’t be setting off without a plan – or at least that’s what he seems to have in mind for now.
“When you’re writing you have to codify and formalise ideas and my experience is always that I have a firework going off in my head and I’ve got to describe the sound, the impact of the explosion that you feel in your chest and the colours and the smell.” It’s impossible to capture the sense and emotion that the firework brings on the page, but a writer just has to live with that and relish the endless possibilities of language, and beauty and style. “That smashing explosion into words is the truth of writing for me.”