It’s very hard to know where to begin with this book and I really hope I can do it justice. For starters it’s hard to categorise and we all know how everyone feels the need to pigeon-hole. Is it sci-fi, is it fantasy, is it a war story, a romance? Well yes, is the answer to that. It’s all of those things and quite a lot more. The story begins with a call-out to a fire. The people called out are a group helping to protect ‘the Pipe’ and this fire is a very serious threat. The Pipe, which circumnavigates the globe, is protecting the world from some kind of Armageddon. And that’s about all we learn of the present day as we’re then swept back to the narrator’s childhood. His early life is retold in minute detail, his childhood friendship with a boy called Gonzo and his adoption into this boy’s family, his learning of ‘gong-fu’ under the tutelage of Master Wu, his university days where he becomes an activist, and then his rather mysterious career in the army where he helps to develop a secret weapon. It’s while he’s fighting a very senseless war in Addeh Katir (somewhere in the vicinity of Nepal if memory serves) that the event around which the novel revolves occurs. The Secret Weapon is deployed. The people who deploy it think they’re the only ones who have it. Think again. A catastrophe of global proportions ensues that will be known as The Gone-Away War, and the world as we know it is no more. The narrator and his comrades survive and hide out in the mountains until rescue arrives in the form of Piper 90, a kind of converted oil-rig, which is laying a pipe. A pipe that will encircle the globe and carry a substance that will save humankind and the world - or at least a corridor twenty miles either side of the pipe. What lies beyond that twenty miles is now ‘un’real in a very frightening sense and the pipe is designed to keep that at bay - but there are, of course, ‘grey’ areas…
The second half of the novel deals with what happens when our narrator goes to work on Piper 90. I’m not going into details as the plot is convoluted and there are twists and turns and many shocks in store and if I say anything it will involve serious spoilers. Suffice it to say there were twists that I did not see coming and I consider myself fairly good at spotting these things. I didn’t. Not even close.
This is Nick Harkaway’s first book I gather. Judging by its position in Waterstones the other day (right in front of the tills) my guess is that it will be a success. Did I like it? Well, yes, with certain reservations. It took me a while to get used to the author’s style. He meanders all over the place with diatribes on this, that, and whatever takes his fancy and it is quite hard work staying with him. Once you get used to that and convince yourself that you’re in it for the long haul, it becomes easier somehow. This is no quick fix of a read, you need to devote time and energy to it, but it *is* worth the effort. Why? Well, there’s so much about this book that’s original and incredibly imaginative. It’s creepy in that post-apocalyptic way that always scares the living daylights out of me. I actually would have liked more of that I think. There are ideas here, about the nature of war or big business, for instance, that will take you right out of your comfort zone and really make you think about what our governments are not telling us or who is being allowed to work on what kind of weapon in the name of ‘protecting’ us, the citizens.
I like the fact that this is not a book that fits easily into any genre. Inevitably though, I think it might be read by more men than women, which is a bit of a shame because there is plenty here for women to enjoy. Good characterisation for instance, a truly fascinating narrator - and strong women. There’s none of this ‘weaker sex, keep her in the kitchen, looking after the kids, or at least make her subservient to the blokes’ kind of nonsense that can be apparent in books written by men. It’s just not there at all. I would hope the fact that it doesn’t fit easily into any particular category might make women (and men) pick it up, even it’s only from the local library. A book like this should be read by as many people as possible as it has a lot of things to say that are important and relevant and that we should all be giving consideration to. An excellent debut.