Writing an adroit novel is a challenge any time, but especially if you're going to throw in ninjas and mime troupes. Setting the story in a post-Apocalyptic world also requires more than a bit of imagination. Throwing in a twist readers don't see coming but find entirely acceptable is a Chinese puzzle in and of itself. But to do these things while maintaining a witty tone that doesn't begin to grate over the course of several hundred pages rises to the level of absolutely daunting. Although first time novelist Nick Harkaway stumbles at times, he manages to adeptly handle all these obstacles with his The Gone-Away World.
Distilled to its essence, the novel is the story of life on a near-future Earth suffering the effects of the Go Away War. The events leading to the war — a small nation refusing to pay interest on a loan from an international banking group it neither asked for nor ever used — are a excellent example of Harkaway's incisive turns at satire. The war gains its name because it debuted the Go Away Bomb which, in turn, takes its name from what it does — make people, places and things "go away." You know, disappear — completely. But if too much of the world goes away, you end up with a reduced "Livable Zone."
The Gone-Away World, now available in paperback, opens in a a remote portion of that Livable Zone with a group of war veterans being retained by the powers that be. They are needed to put out a large fire in a production center and pipeline for a substance that keeps the zone livable and the "unreal world" from encroaching upon it. Yet after that first chapter, Harkaway doesn't return to that point in the story for more than 300 pages. Instead, he traces the life story of our narrator, the lifelong best friend of Gonzo Lubitsch, the almost Rambo-like special ops soldier everyone tends to look to when things get tough. As the detour lengthens, you wonder about its purpose or the reason Harkaway started where he did. It all becomes clear, though, with a twist that should catch almost all readers off guard but, in retrospect, makes sense.