Nick Harkaway ‘Gnomon’

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… img_1496it 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

Cixin Liu ‘The Three Body Problem’

And your conclusion?
Everything thats happening is coordinated by someone behind the scenes with one goal to completely ruin scientific research.
I dont know, but I can sense the plan. A very comprehensive, intricate plan. damage scientific research installations, kill scientists, drive scientists like you crazy and make you commit suicide, but the main goal is to misdirect your thoughts until you’re even more foolish than ordinary people.

Something is seriously wrong, the worlds top theoretical physicists are commiting suicide and an unlikely duo are brought together, the applied physicist Wang Miao and the rough detective Shi Qiang as Wang Miao is persuaded to infiltrate a mysterious organisation, The Frontiers of Science. One day Wang Miao has a count down which only he can see appear before his eyes, beginning at 1200 hours and nothing he can do will make it disappear, Wang Miao becomes worried and goes to visit Shen Yufei, a member The Frontiers of Science who tells him if he gives up his research and directs his laboratory to work on another problem the count down will stop, he tries this for a few days and it does. Whilst at Shen Yufei’s apartment he notices that She and her Husband are playing a Computer game whose internet address he notes down. Shi Qiang an untypical policeman is brought in by the military to work on the problem of the suicides without being told of the background which he nevertheless begins to intuit as illustrated in the opening quote as he gets Wang Miao back on track.

What is the computer game that the members of the Frontiers of Science are playing owners Wang Miao, The Three Body Problem? the aim is to solve a problem in an imaginary world of a planet and two suns where a civilisation tries to develop but suffers near annihilation at irregular intervals which they cannot predict and which are linked to the movement of the three bodies. The civilisation only survives because they have evolved the capability to dehydrate when the suns come too close (a chaotic era) and to rehydrate again when all is safe. A computer game at many levels as at the end of each chaotic era the rehydrated civilisation, which evolves from era to era, tries to solve the three body problem in order to predict these chaotic eras using known eras and characters from our historical past.

This book is the beginning of a trilogy involving the Trisolariens whose world is about to come to a cataclysmic end and who have been seeking another world. At a secret Chinese deep space listening centre Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who had been sent out to this centre at the back of beyond decades earlier during the cultural revolution, emits a message about the Earth and then picks up a first ever message from outer space in return. Will she then reply knowing that with the direction of the message and the time between sending and receiving the Trisloariens would discover Earth.

Liu Cixin then introduces us to Superstring Theory as the Trisolariens propel a proton towards the Earth at the speed of light, a proton you will say can do no damage, Wrong! When unwrapped from up to 11 dimensions down to 2 dimensions it can contain information and commands and can wrap itself around the Earth. For more explanations try fiction unbound.

If you read Science fiction and haven’t yet read Liu Cixin, a nine times winner of the Chinese Galaxy Award and want to know How far do She Hang and Wang Miao get? Do they discover Ye Wenjie? Does anyone suspect what is behind the suicides? and can anything be done? Then get out there and buy it!

First Published in Chinese as “San Ti” by Chongqing Publishing House in 2006.
Translated into English by Ken Liu and published in 2015 by Head of Zeus
Translated into French by Gwennaël Gaffric and published by Actes Sud in 2016