Gnomon: asking all the questions

Book cover: Gnomon - Nick Harkaway (pieces of paper drifting against a black background; the outline of a shark fin in the centre)In a near-future surveillance state, Mielikki Neith must investigate why an author died resisting a routine interrogation; and what secrets she was trying to hide. But when Mielikki is immersed in Diana Hunter’s memories, she finds other personalities instead – a Carthaginian witch; a Greek investment banker; an Ethiopian artist; an angry spirit determined to consume everyone. Are any of them real? Who was Diana Hunter?

…the more I have sat on my review of Nick Harkaway’s impressive fourth novel, the more intimidated I get at the thought of writing it at all. Gnomon is immense, ambitious, political, paranoid, wise, demanding, entertaining and ruthlessly on point. It cares deeply about its subject matter and cares rather less for its readership (it’s not here to convince you; it simply is, and you will be won over or you won’t). This isn’t a book to read casually: come ready for big questions and with a clear head to keep up.

This all-absorbing read also has arguably the least-reliable narrator I’ve come across in forever: we know that Diana Hunter was a paranoid recluse and an author, so as readers we know to question the people hidden inside her head. But are they carefully-researched historical figures? Figments of her prodigious imagination? A Scheherezade smoke-screen to hide herself as long as possible from the inescapable, invasive technology of the Witness?

It doesn’t take long to notice the echoes between the narratives (when a word you rarely come across crops up a twice in close succession, you’re cued to watch out for other less obvious repetitions). These narratives are slippery constructs of symbol and suggestion. They seem to argue that the symbol is the truth, the people interchangeable – and then play hard and fast with structure and perspective until anything seems reasonable. Forget unreliable narrators, this is unreliable narrative with no narrator in sight. And by the end, you’re uncertain whether anything is real – whether all of this is simply a series of scenarios in Annie’s game, Witnessed (what is the Matrix, indeed).

None of this uncertainty detracts from the tension or the urgency to discover what is going on; it simply shifts the focus from what the Witness wishes to know to the Witness itself.

The Witness is the impersonal computer system at the heart of this near-future Britain. The state is shaped by the technology that runs it – everyone is directly engaged in government and justice. There are no elected representatives: each citizen provides their feedback on policy issues and sits on committees, all from the comfort of their own sofa. It is the ultimate techbro dream, a direct democracy in which the will of the people can be identified quickly and without intermediaries, where each citizen can be assured of the best, most representative outcome in any circumstance – all for the price of a small amount of time, given willingly.

‘Have we made the most democratic network in the world, or have we just reduced law and government to the level of a talent show?’

In exchange for which, everybody is under constant surveillance – their every movement tracked, their hair and toenail clippings collected, their decisions monitored, their data sifted to identify trends and make recommendations. The Witness murmurs straight into each ear, reminding them to take a dose of medication or advising them that they’re going to need that umbrella today after all; intervening when they deviate from a well-established routine.

Worried yet?


After all, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

If you’ve never really thought about your value to the social media behemoths you share your life with, or the ways in which technology that enables your life reveals it to others (she writes, looking at her Apple Watch. Um), then Gnomon will give you plenty to chew on. If you have, this paranoid thriller will gently amplify the full implications of a ubiquitous surveillance state. After all, if Facebook ads can influence an election, the Witness – entirely trusted, entirely objective, with perfect reach – is the perfect vehicle for social manipulation. After all, who really wants mob rule?

Harkaway has long understood the implications of modern technology, here he gives himself full rein to explore them. And then – because that’s not enough – he weaves in faith and magic, social prejudices and market economics, immersive gaming, fascism and an enormous shark that wants to eat the world. It’s outrageously referential, audaciously cross-pollinated. It turns its searchlight on our times and allows Harkaway to give his impassioned response: a clear-sighted, angry rejection of global elites, right-wing mob-stirrers, and simplistic answers.

It’s only flaw is being perhaps a little too long, too slow – but as part of its power comes from the accretion of storylines and the way they mirror one another, that’s a tricky criticism to make. Until you can see it all, it can’t snap into shape. So perhaps the flaw is entirely mine, my attention span is too limited (especially when working long hours on a mentally and emotionally demanding project).

In the end, arguably, it comes to an obvious conclusion (after all, Plato asked quis custodiet ipsos custodes – or not, because he would have said it in Greek, but anyway), but there’s no arguing with that final message. Think harder.


Gnomon is available now in the UK, and will be released in the US on January 9th.


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, for which I’m deeply grateful as the hardback is enormous and I might have accidentally brained someone on public transport when I (inevitably) dropped it. Or broken my toe.