Which brings her back to Hunter who’s mind conceals not one untruthful life but three, three mirages layed on top of one other so that the dismissal of the first becomes the gateway of the second and so on and on deeper and down this recording is a sinking sand of the mind… it is a breathtaking defense the architect of this barrier did not attempt to harden the mind against enquiry did not build some brittle wall to keep the Witness out but accepted the stricture of intrusion and created a defense in depth…it was done either to the woman or by her with this end in view that when, not if, when the Witness touched her mind Diana Hunter would confound it..
Diana Hunter dies during interrogation by the Witness and Inspector Neith, of the Witness is brought in to investigate. This is the simple opening premise to Nick Harkaway’s, far from simple doorstep of a book set in a near future London where everyone is under surveillance all of the time and in order to follow and act in time on anything that is observed, or predicted based on the observations humans have abdicated responsibility to an AI, known as the Witness, with a number of checks and balances:.
In this environment there’s simply no such thing as privacy anymore every action is visible to the system and it can call you and demand an accounting in the midst of a perfect world where power is in a way truly held by the people and government has almost entirely gone away, there’s a thin strand of horror of interrogation machines mandated by the majority and algorithms that see everything you do and want to know why you did it that understand your actions according to an actuarial chart and analyse you as an aspect of behavioral economics.
As the story begins, we follow Neith, as she takes part in her everyday life activities on line, assisting in debates she has been chosen for by the Winess, where her views or knowledge would be pertinent, asking questions where necessary and voting on line in what appears to be direct democracy where the people decide almost everything and we understand that Neith is exemplary in her involvement and her honesty. So back to Diana Hunter, for exceptionally dangerous behaviour, citizens can be interogated and if necessary their minds can be corrected by direct intervention, but deaths at the hand of the Witness are exceptionally rare, the Witness has direct access to their minds and their thoughts, so in steps the inspector of the Witness who has access to the recordings of the interrogations and can “live them”.
Diana Hunter’s interrogation is exceptional, And accounts in part for the length of the book as Neith discovers one after the other three completely different characters within Hunter’s head as illustrated in the opening quote. Who’s purpose becomes sort of obvious as the story progresses. In order to render these lives real, the story Harkaway writes around these characters is enough to cover a short story for each one.
There is Constantine, a Greek banker from our time who after a near death incident with a shark sees on his screen certain fiancial events before the happen and so becomes incredibly rich.
There is Athenais, an alchemist and one time mistress of Saint Augustin, the mother of his son, who’s death she cannot prevent but who’s resurrection she tries to attempt.
And finally there is Berihun Bekele, an Ethiopian artist who had been arrested in the military coup after the death of Haile Selassie and imprisoned in a cell in Alem Bekagn, the infamous prison of Addis Ababa who’s name means Farewell to the World. Berihun later in his life works with his daughter Annabelle on a computer game which resmbles the life Neith is living with the Witness.
Did I say the last of the three, Neith then discovers a bug, a fourth character Lernrote or Gnomon, does he exist only in Hunter’s head or does he exist in real life? Harkaway throws in a spanner, a person from the far off future. Was it he who fabricated Gnomon:
In this new world many people, most in fact exist across bodies, that is to say that their thoughts are distributed between a large number of individual brains rather than concentrated in just one. Each individual body has a little doodad in it that sends and receives messages to all the others.
Slowly Neith becomes suspicious of the system she relies on and the characters within Hunter’s mind, indirectly make her understand something is rotten in the kingdom of Denmark.
What if the weak link in this system of surveillance and perfect government of the people by the people was in fact the people? how would they be stopped from making the wrong decisions?
As Neith’s freind Tubman says:
Obfuscation like you’re asking about, hiding in plain sight, breaking up the message well I suppose you could call it artisanal, you could do it but you’d need to be brilliant and dedicated, a bit mad maybe, three words which summarise what you don’t want in an adversary.
First Published in English as “Gnomon” in 2018 by Windmill Books