Gnomon by Nick Harkaway, Pt. 2

Harkaway takes the epigraph for Gnomon from The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski. “When the first question was asked in a direction opposite to the customary one, it was a signal that the revolution had begun.” Ethiopia, as portrayed in The Emperor is a land of whispers and intrigues, barely contending with modern technology, shaped by the personal rule of one man applied to a country of some thirty million. It nearly directly opposite to England with the System and the Witness.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Inspector Neith experiences imperial Ethiopia through the narrative of Berihun Bekele, a painter who was a young man in the waning days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign and a grandfather by the time of the story that Neith encounters. His granddaughter Annie is a brilliant technologist and is leading the development of an immersive computer game called Witnessed. The features of both the in-game world and the gameplay bear a close resemblance to Neith’s world of System and Witness. Is she seeing the early days of the world she knows? If she is, how did it get into Diana Hunter’s mind?

Inspector Neith also pursues the truth about Diana Hunter outside of the interrogation recordings, but the people she finds connected to the case are no less unsettling than the personas yielded up in the interrogation. One person, for example, turns up inside of Hunter’s house, which has been built as a Faraday cage, a place where the Witness cannot look. Neith encounters this person on subsequent occasions, and each time they seem to be invisible to Witness surveillance which is, at least in theory, ubiquitous. She talks to a person from an obscure corner of infrastructure governance who knows an improbable amount about interrogations such as Hunter’s; later Neith learns that the obscure agency also plays an important role in the Ethiopian narrative. Similar interactions with a bookseller, a technician who speaks of glitches in the System, a professor of semiotics and others point toward elements of Hunter’s various narratives and are pointed to by those same stories. Which way does the causation run? Is there any way to tell? Is there, in fact, a difference?

Neith finds herself drawn in deeper when one of her “real-world” interlocutors is murdered by something from within one of Hunter’s narratives. The event is impossible, and yet the evidence is incontrovertible. Moreover, it echoes an equally impossible killing inside another of Hunter’s narratives.

By this point, enough gnomons have burst in perpendicularly to make telling time by their shadows quite a challenge. Harkaway manages the act, showing events first in one light, then in another, with each flip of the switch casting a new illumination. It all comes together in the end of this hugely ambitious novel. It is not tied up in a bow, wrapped for the audience; instead, the lights converge leaving some things clear, others in shadow, with interpretation of the intersection of gnomon and plane ultimately up to the reader.

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Gutter Mage by J.S. Kelley

I want to sit J S Kelley down, look into their eyes and assure them that the world desperately needs a Gutter Mage series.

Okay, so maybe by “the world” I mean “I” but this book was just so much fantastic fun! Crossing an original fantasy concept with a hardboiled mystery with distinct Western elements, spiced up with excellent repartee and a bisexual heroine with equal amounts self-awareness and depth, this book just absolutely dazzled me. Our heroine Rosalind (named like all the other characters after the Shakespearean) is better known by the disparaging moniker Gutter Mage, tho no one’s ever called her that to her face twice. Earning a living as a fixer with the help of her childhood friend and business partner Lysander, she accepts a lucrative job that requires more than the usual amount of discretion.

Lord Edmund of House Ariel has recently become a proud parent, but his son has been kidnapped in what looks like an elaborate plan hatched by some very skilled mages, presumably of the upstart new Alath Guild. As there’s nothing more Rosalind enjoys than sticking it to some Guild Mages — and since Lysander really wants to build up his nest egg so that he and his lovely wife Portia can finally start expanding their family — this looks like the perfect case for them, with Lysander’s brawn and social skills backing up Roz’s considerable magical capabilities. But something smells fishy almost from the very start, and the further Roz and Lysander investigate, the greater the likelihood that they’re being lied to, and that the mastermind behind all this is the person Roz least wants to see in all the world.

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Gnomon by Nick Harkaway, Pt. 1

Some time past the middle of the twenty-first century, Britain offers its citizens the safest, most democratic, best-adjusted society in human history.

Every person under the System is encouraged — though not compelled — to spend a certain amount of time each week voting, and is semi-randomly assigned to decision-making bodies for the duration of their session. Each body will most likely be around two hundred individuals strong, and will deal either collectively or in subcommittee jury group with anything from asylum requests or the allocation of medical resources to commercial disputes. It is the most nuanced and democratic system of direct governance ever devised, and it requires genuine participation from the polity. For the body of the state to perform its function properly, each person must make his or her own decision in the light of their personal experience and opinion without being influenced by others at the formative stage, so sessions are initially private and remain anonymous throughout. Each problem is proposed to each person in a way that is fractionally different, tailored precisely to pique their interest and understanding, their self-interest and their altruism, so that every choice is made with the greatest awareness of consequence and meaning. (p. 25)

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

But the workings of a utopian participatory democracy are not what Gnomon is about. They are the necessary foundation of a story — or more properly a nested set of stories — that is both wider and deeper. It begins with Inspector Mielikki Neith making a televised statement about the death of a suspect in the custody of the Witness, while people use the System to examine her microexpressions to gauge whether her pained honesty about how everyone at the Witness feels this failure is faked, and Neith herself follows the polling numbers that trail across her screen. Or maybe it begins with the death of Diana Hunter, the death that distresses Inspector Neith because of the failure it implies, though Hunter’s case will do much more than distress her as Gnomon proceeds. Or maybe it begins with Hunter being called in for interrogation. The first words that she gives to the System are the title of the first section of Gnomon, “my mind on the screen.” In fuller form:

“I can see my mind on the screen.”
Hunter’s first thought during the examination is like the barb on a fishhook, and Neith instinctively loathes it. These eight unremarkable words cause her to tighten her jaw as if expecting a blow. The phrase is, to be sure, unusually clear and strong, quite ready to be vocalised. One must assume that Hunter was deliberately recording a message, in which case: to whom? To Neith, as the investigating officer? Or to an imagined historian? Why does the tone, the clean, discursive flavour of Hunter’s mind, trouble that part of the Inspector that is devoted to a professional mistrust of appearances? (p. 10)

A gnomon is the bar sticking out from a slab that turns a flat surface into a sundial. Its intrusion changes a physical phenomenon into a source of meaning and measurement. “In geometry, a gnomon is a plane figure formed by removing a similar parallelogram from a corner of a larger parallelogram; or, more generally, a figure that, added to a given figure, makes a larger figure of the same shape.” Gnomon is filled with such irruptions, things that intrude among planes, cast shadows, and change meanings.

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Iyanu: Child Of Wonder Volume 1 by Roye Okupe & Godwin Akpan

The second title in the YouNeek YouNiverse is just as gorgeous as its predecessor, the first volume of Malika: Warrior Queen, if not more so. The digital art is rendered with a colorful airiness reminiscent of manga but with decidedly African influences. And the use of color throughout is simply mind-blowing: Godwin Akpan is so majorly talented!

If only the storyline kept up quite as well with the illustrations. I have the general idea of where the plot is going, but the layers of story are too frustratingly opaque. Essentially, young Iyanu has been raised just outside the city walls of Elu by the wise woman Olori, who is skilled in eliminating a mysterious force known only as Corruption. But the death of Elu’s king sets in motion a power play by the new king’s chancellor Noru, that would eliminate Olori and Iyanu while doing nothing to alleviate the suffering of Elu’s citizens, whose welfare is championed only by much maligned foreign minister Uwa.

By the end of the book, I’d gotten an inkling of why Noru was pushing as hard as he was, but I’m genuinely surprised that Uwa is the only person not taken in by what’s an obvious con. Noru is so entirely shifty, making portentous declarations with only the vaguest of claims to back them up, that it makes everyone who goes along with him look hopelessly gullible. It’s one thing if he were speechifying to a desperate populace, but he’s mainly talking to the entrenched ruling class, who have the luxury — but clearly not the brains — to ponder his pronouncements and push back, especially when said pronouncements are clearly against their own interests. It is absolutely mind-boggling how cow-like the new king is in just going along with what Noru tells him to do. Maybe this is a plot-point later, but there are no indications that the ruling class’ submission is due to anything but sheer plot devicery.

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From Page to Screen: Dune

Confession time: Though I have read Dune several times after encountering it at an early and impressionable age, I don’t think that I have read it this century. My recollection is more impressionistic than detailed, and my impression is that the movie got all of the most important parts of the story up on the screen and made the famously sprawling story comprehensible. One important caveat is that the 2021 Dune only tells part of the novel’s tale. (Discussion of the plot for a book that’s been out for more than 50 years may reveal some of its details.)

Dune by Frank Herbert

It goes as far as Paul and Jessica’s escape into the desert after the Harkonnen attack on the Atreides. I was discussing it with a friend this morning and said that’s at most a third or a fourth of the way through the book — the friend said more like an eighth — but on reflection it also makes considerable sense. Everything leading up to Paul going into the desert is Before; everything that follows is After. The Harkonnen attack and devastation of House Atreides, though it comes relatively early in the novel, is the hinge of the external action, and that’s what the movie is made to show.

Paul’s journey to becoming Muad’Dib is an internal journey; his eventual leadership of the Fremen is the external one that the second half of Dune — assuming it gets made in the nearish future — will presumably show. It will be a great, epic visual story when the second half is done, if it is done on the scale of the first.

Dune movie poster

As a story to watch, Dune is brilliant. It’s a fully developed interstellar civilization, complete in itself, and alien. (While there are, inevitably, recognizable bits of earthly cultures, it’s not like Game of Thrones where I called the first season “War of the Roses plus Mongols,” and was able to add, “Yep, there’s the Vikings, there’s Henry VIII” and so forth.) This is a far future with a deep past, and both aspects are visible on the screen. I could happily watch for many hours. Listen, too. The movie’s score, by Hans Zimmer, melds the times and cultures up on the big screen, conveying emotions and also providing sounds that are simultaneously familiar and strange.

Though the film clocks in at just over two and a half hours, Dune is epic enough that some key characters and concepts are given relatively short shrift. Mentats were something that appealed to precocious me when I first read the book; they’re shown but not really explained for anyone not already familiar with how Herbert’s words work. Viewers don’t know why the Atreides trust Dr Yue; they’ll be less surprised at what happens than the characters are. Gurney Halleck gets off one of the movie’s few funny lines; who he is and why he stands next to the Duke are hardly explored at all. Cuts had to be made, even for a long movie. In general, Dune has made them judiciously.

Some of the flaws in the story come straight from the novel. House Atreides has supposedly been around for thousands of years without fully internalizing the concept of “an heir and a spare.” Yes, yes, Jessica and the Bene Gesserit breeding project and all that. Still. It’s the key failure mode of noble lines. It’s best not to think too hard about how sandworms could work. It’s also best not to think too hard about the Fremen industrial base, where all that technology comes from, or how it got developed. (Or if you do want to think entirely too hard about the Fremen, here is a good place to start.)

The flaw, such as they are, were easy for me to ignore in exchange for an enormous, gorgeous compelling story. I hope to catch it again, on the biggest screen that I can find.

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Descending Figure by Louise Glück

Glück divides Descending Figure into three sections, “The Garden,” “The Mirror,” and “Lamentations,” though I cannot say that I found the division particularly helpful or enlightening. Certainly there is a lot of lamenting in the final section, but there is a lot of it in the rest of the collection as well. This is a book whose first poem is titled “The Drowned Children,” and it begins horrifyingly matter-of-factly: “You see, they have no judgment. So it is natural that they should drown…” Part of me wants to read this poem as a supernatural tale, with a non-human narrator puzzled that its listeners should feel anything strongly about the children’s deaths, explaining to its audience that something of the children remains, “And yet they hear the names they used/like lures slipping over the pond…” Part of me wants to read it in the voice of a grieving parent, going to pieces over the course of its three stanzas. Part of me wants to just reject it entirely, especially the second stanza’s start: “But death must come to them differently/so close to the beginning.”

Descending Figure byLouise Glück

I suspect my first reaction is a large part of the reason I find myself sliding off of Glück’s poems so often. I’m reminded of what Jo Walton wrote about the ending of Middlemarch: “…Dorothea’s story at least ends happily, if unconventionally. That is, unconventionally for a Victorian novel. She doesn’t get to be the ambassador to Jupiter, more’s the pity.” My sensibility would find it perfectly natural for a character to be ambassador to Jupiter. I suspect that Glück has firm ideas (or at least had them when she was writing these poems more than 40 years ago) about who her narrators are and who their audiences are, and I’m willing to bet there’s not a member of the Jovian diplomatic corps among them. More’s the pity.

There could be. In various poems in this collection gods are invoked; statues’ immobility is remarked upon unfavorably, perhaps they could be persuaded to move about a bit and bring some liveliness. In the poem that gives its title to the first section of Descending Figure — and indeed in a sub-part of that poem with the same name, the garden is personified, but how much more would I have related to the poem if it turned out the garden could speak? Instead it just admires the poem’s undefined “you,” and “smears itself with green pigment/ … so that you will come to it with your lovers.” Glück remains resolutely mundane, while I try to read her poems into a much wilder work, and so we connect rather poorly.

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Fletcher and Zenobia by Victoria Chess and Edward Gorey

I don’t have all that much to say about Fletcher and Zenobia except that reading it makes me very happy, every time. It hits just the right note of whimsy without being twee. It’s mildly melancholy at the beginning, then enlivened, then worrisome again, and then everything is pleasantly resolved at the end. What more could I ask for?

Fletcher and Zenobia

Fletcher is a cat who lives in the biggest tree “for miles around. He had run up it in a moment of thoughtless abandon and ever since had been unable to get down again.” As cats do. He is well provided for by the contents of a “vast, brass-bound leather trunk.” Provisions include “a collection of hats for all occasions. Alas, not one single one had arisen as long as Fletcher had been in the tree.”

Zenobia is an old-fashioned doll. “She was dressed in mauve velvet, and though her face was plain, the ribbons on her gown and the flowers on her hat were stylish indeed—not to mention her buttons.” Fletcher discovers her inside a papier-mâché egg in the trunk.

She looked around her with puzzled interest
“We are in a tree,” said Fletcher.
“A perfect place for a sunny summer afternoon,” said Zenobia. “Where do you live otherwise?”
Fletcher explained that there wasn’t any otherwise.

Thus summarizing the dilemma perfectly.

They come up with something to do, which turns out to provide and occasion for the wearing of hats. One thing leads to another, and by the end of the book things are very different, and I am happy for having read it.

Some sample illustrations are below the fold.
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From The Neck Up by Aliya Whiteley

Bluntly, I don’t know anyone working in speculative fiction today who consistently writes such disturbingly weird shit. But not like in a gratuitous way. Aliya Whiteley doesn’t want to shock you, necessarily, but she is unafraid to plumb into the deeper, uglier parts of the human psyche to examine the monstrous and strange, to ponder how humanity might react to the far futures that seem like science fiction now but might very well turn out to be reality, if humanity keeps on going in the direction we’re headed.

This volume of 16 stories written between 2014 and 2020 covers a wide range of Ms Whiteley’s interests, tho tend to circle back round to a world ravaged and, perhaps, recovering from a disaster all too often of humanity’s own making. Other strongly recurring themes are the complexity of two people’s interpersonal relationship, often via marriage or parenthood, and the convergence of minds. Fans of her terrific Skyward Inn will find exquisite variations on the main themes of that novella reflected in the stories here.

But this isn’t just a book for fans such as myself, tho it’s definitely a book that will bring her more admirers! I enjoyed these stories so much that I’m actually hard pressed to pick a favorite! So many of these stories land so well that it’s hard to rate any of them better or worse than their fellows in this overall extremely strong, consistently entertaining collection. If I had to choose, I’d say that the opening novelette, Brushwork, stood out in large part because it gave Ms Whiteley more room to explore the macro of the world she’d created and the micro of the protagonist’s feelings, especially towards Lucas. The bit where she admires the subtlety of his brushwork was like a shot through the heart for me.

Granted, there were moments where I felt less hit in the feels than missed by a reference flying far overhead. I didn’t really understand the identity of the aliens in Compel, for example, which is pretty hilarious given my often grumpy insistence that words have meanings and people should say what they mean. I also felt that the title story was carrying a possibly British subtext that I just wasn’t seeing somehow.

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Rooms Of The Mind by Makenzie Campbell

There’s a huge caveat to my review of this book today: I got an e-galley for Kindle, which was so strangely formatted as to make me constantly second guess whether I was reading a new poem or a continuation of the last one every few stanzas. This pervading doubt is not terribly conducive to enjoyment of a poem’s flow, much less its message, so my apologies for any obtuseness on my end caused by this.

That said, I did find my brain mulling over the writing more than once, as Makenzie Campbell describes several different compartments in her mind. Mulling is a good thing, to be clear. She writes about very universal, relatable feelings, whether they be love or hope or fear or nostalgia, in ways that reminded me of chapters of my own life. The emotions felt very raw and true — even if I did sigh a little at the portentous declarations of turning a heartbroken 21, like, chiiiiild, just you wait! — and more than once, I felt snagged on a particular snapshot of feeling, and had to sit with it to ponder for a while before I could move on. Once I finished the book, I also went back and started to read again from the beginning, to see if things looked differently the second go-round. I was rewarded with greater insight on the second pass-through, as matters that had seemed opaque as I was reading the first time slid into greater clarity: this speaks to the richness of the collection.

For all that the book hangs together seamlessly enough to warrant circling back round to an immediate re-read, however, I don’t necessarily think that the thematic divisions worked as well as intended. There was a lot of overlap, particularly in the last half, and just a wee bit too much repetition. Overall, it’s a laudable attempt at structure that I think could have used greater stringency in (self-)editing.

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Poe For Your Problems: Uncommon Advice From History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru by Catherine Baab-Muguira

I honestly wasn’t sure when I started reading this book where Catherine Baab-Muguira was going with it, and to be completely honest, I’m still not sure how to categorize this work now that I’m done reading it either. I do know that I finished reading this with stars in my eyes and hope in my heart, and if that isn’t the point of any good self-help manual then I don’t know what is.

Here’s the thing: while the book allegedly seeks to have readers learn from the absolute dumpster fire that was Edgar Allan Poe’s life, his life serves as about 50% model and 50% cautionary tale, as wittily depicted in this volume. Poe For Your Problems doesn’t claim to be a biography of the famed author and poet but frankly is one of the best popular biographies I’ve ever read, humorous and honest and not above leaning in to 21st century mores and manners in examining the good, bad and absolutely cringe aspects of Poe’s life. Ms Baab-Muguira shows how weirdly relatable his life is to the modern American reader’s, whether it be in matters of education, career or romance. There are plenty of flaws and transgressions that she’s quick to admonish — like Poe marrying his 13 year-old cousin, ewwwwww — but even more that she highlights as being full of lessons for today’s reader. For a far more relatable anecdote in the field of romance, for example, Poe may not have been the first celebrity to do the equivalent of sliding into his fans’ DMs to disastrous effect, but he certainly was not the last. So if you’re gonna be messy on social media about your love life, don’t feel too bad about it: people who should probably know better have been doing it since time immemorial, and everything still worked out okay eventually!

The thing is, PFYP feels a lot like a humorous biography with plenty of (gosh, it feels weird to say but here goes) morals for readers to learn from. The cautionary tales are easiest to nod along to, ofc: don’t marry a thirteen year-old, don’t drink to excess, don’t gleefully burn every professional bridge while struggling to live off of bread and molasses. But it’s the sideways lessons that are the most poignant, and which provide the chewiest food for thought. We don’t need necessarily to be less neurotic, more together people in order to find happiness and success, Ms Baab-Muguira tells us. Sometimes, it’s okay to lean into our less sociable, less decorous, less polite instincts in order to remain true to ourselves and leave behind something worthwhile.

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