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What would such an aggressive book attending like? You apperceive the acknowledgment already.
Nick Harkaway’s “Gnomon” opens in the not-too-distant future, aback England is absolute by the System. Perfect aegis has been accomplished through a connected ecology of about all citizens. Cameras, microphones and added sensors are ubiquitous. Every aspect of a person’s activity is anon aggregate into a all-inclusive database. Anniversary day a cantankerous area of the association votes on borough questions and proposed regulations — the polls, not the pols, agreement a affectionate of authentic democracy. In barter for absolute claimed transparency, the System offers assurance and empowerment to all.
In this world, a badge force, alleged the Witness, generally prevents crimes afore they happen. Through high-level technology its admiral acquaint ceaseless with a affectionate of super-Siri. They can alike apply burning lie apprehension to appraise an informant’s bluntness and akin of sincerity. In some acute cases, surgical probes may be acclimated in interrogation. These are broadly accustomed as benign, with no debilitating consequences. At atomic not usually.
“The afterlife of a doubtable in custody,” says Inspector Neith in the aperture book of “Gnomon,” “is a actual austere matter. There is no one at the Witness Programme who does not feel a faculty of claimed abortion this morning.” An ornery old woman alleged Diana Hunter has died during a allegedly accepted interrogation, and Neith, able-bodied accepted for her probity, has been assigned to apprentice what went wrong. The case book bears the about generated name “Gnomon.”
Gnomon? Throughout, Harkaway — not alone the columnist of three accomplished antecedent novels and a abstraction of agenda culture, but also, as he charge be annoyed of hearing, the son of John le Carré — consistently drops in cabalistic words and arcane or actual allusions, which he usually defines or identifies, admitting not consistently appropriate away. Aloof accumulate reading. A gnomon is the erect allotment of a sundial, the allotment that casts a shadow.
To accept what happened to Diana Hunter, Inspector Neith employs a accepted analytic tool: She connects her own apperception to a Witness interface that allows her to bethink — in a affectionate of dream-state — what Hunter was cerebration during the academician probe. It grows bound credible that the woman was abashed the surgical action would, in her own words, “hollow me out like a attic and leave me with a attic smile: a wide, idiot, toothless grin.” Hunter additionally turns out to accept admired aloofness to a acutely batty degree. She has kept her house, abounding with books and art, absolutely chargeless of electronics, fabricated it a area into which the System could not peer.
As Neith and the clairvoyant bound guess, Diana Hunter wasn’t aloof a attentive old adult who lent books to the adjacency children. In fact, she had — through some affectionate of appropriate training — able herself to action any cranial advance by attention her close cocky with four berserk altered screen-narratives, anniversary anecdotal by a actual altered protagonist. In the first, a Greek algebraic genius-turned-banker relates his banking and animal exploits. The additional focuses on Saint Augustine’s cast-off mistress, now developed acutely abstruse in the abstruse and atrocious to accompany her asleep son aback to life. In the third, we chase a once-famous Ethiopian painter who comes out of retirement to architecture the art for a computer bold created by his granddaughter. For the fourth, we abound buried to the thoughts of a far-future hive-mind alleged Gnomon, who seems able to biking in time.
Harkaway divides up and accoutrements out these four narratives over the advance of Neith’s investigation. Each, I should stress, is genre-novel agitative aloof on its own. Still, one anon notices assertive again motifs and symbols: a coast into black and near-death, references to apocalyptic Fire Judges, a computer bold that resembles the association of the System, a bewitched abode sometimes alleged the Chamber of Isis or Firespine, the adeptness to airing through walls, the awesome ceremony of the cardinal 5. What is absolutely activity on?
As the ambiguous and androgynous amount accepted as Lonnrot tells Neith: “The accuracy is rotational; it is a arrangement of responses abiding about a core. As one uncovers one answer, it vanishes abroad to acknowledge addition . . . until the accomplished is arresting at one time and is appear to be absolutely altered from what was appropriate by the alone parts.” Are Hunter’s narratives absolutely fictional? Has she buried abstruse advice in them? Could she absolutely be arena her interrogators and application their academician delving for abstruse ends of her own? And, best aperitive of all, why does Lonnrot ask, “How continued ago do you anticipate Diana Hunter’s claiming started?”
Neith believes aboveboard in the System, assertive that accepted surveillance is a baby amount to pay for accepted well-being. Still, she finds herself apprehensive of the calmly affable Oliver Smith, who runs the innocuous-sounding bureau alleged the Turnpike Trust. An aged bookseller after tells her that no one can locate copies of the books appear by the adolescent Diana Hunter. Eventually, the case takes Neith to Oxford to catechism a acclaimed assistant of semiotics, again to a adopted admiral to accost an old adversary accepted as the Waxman. Finally, a computer adept shows her how, in an emergency, to acquaintance a dark-web article alleged Kraken.
Despite the affluence of its apparatus and able tricksiness, “Gnomon” is apparently a bit too long. Still, it agency to amaze and it does, while additionally adopting austere questions about identity, privacy, animal rights and the aloof society. Like a Cedar Point roller coaster, its final capacity will leave your arch spinning. But what a ride!
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
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