‘I have a fire­work go­ing off in my head and I have to de­scribe it’ Nick Hark­away

The Guardian - Review - - The Books Interview - The for­mer screen­writer on tech­nol­ogy, the dan­ger of surveil­lance and the im­por­tance of hu­mour Interview by Richard Lea

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.”

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