Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Book
The good Doctor has been telling us all to read this book for some time now and last month I finally gave in and checked it out of the library. Last night I finally finished it. (What? I read slow and I do other stuff, too.) Great Googly-Moogly, this is, simply put, the best book I have read in a long time. I shall now strive to tell you (without spoilers) why it is incumbent upon you to hunt down a copy of this five year old book and start reading it immediately.
Yeah, it's a lot like that. Except there is shooting instead of fencing and ninjas instead of giants. Otherwise, that's the nutshell version. Oh, there are also mimes. And, in fact, it is nothing like The Princess Bride.
The whole time I was reading, part of my brain was trying to figure out why I liked this book so much. What was it, in comparison to the other books on my personal "Best Ever" list, that was earning it a spot on that illustrious roster? (Hint: one thing that gets a book on that amorphous list is that it gets me thinking - about it, about other books, about life...)
There are books I love, such as Spin, because they take a huge world-changing event and explore the repercussions of it. A very large portion of The Gone Away World explores how we get to the place that allows a huge world-changing event to come about. So, it's like Spin but not really.
The book is riotously funny at times. Many books are, but that alone doesn't make them great. I will gladly read Christopher Moore's novels and laugh until I cry but that doesn't put them on the list. The humor is more like Pratchett at his best. Monstrous Regiment is funny because it's true (as true as a book set in a fantasy world can be) but, because it's true, it's not really funny.
Harkaway does a brilliant job of building the story. Little bits and pieces, throwaway gags (or so they seem at the time) come back as major plot points and it all makes complete sense in the internal logic of the story. If you've read Gibson's Blue Ant Trilogy you have some idea of what I'm talking about. And what about the way the novel is plotted? The first chapter solidly inhabits a very different (yet oddly similar) world to the one we live in, highly science fictional and ripe for untold strangeness. As the narrator and his companions are heading off into this strange, terrible place the chapter ends and in the second chapter we get the narrator as a small boy on a very ordinary playground meeting his new best friend. The whole first half of the book is about these two growing up together and is some of the least science fictional story telling I've ever read.
The command of language often put me in mind of The Poisonwood Bible. It is ridiculous that a first novel should so often find just the right word or phrase but somehow it never falters. I don't know how many times I had to stop reading just to let a sentence or a scene sink in and wash over me.
Another thing that will put a book on my "Best Ever" list is that I can re-read it again and again and get something different from it every time. When I first read Dune as a teenager I saw it as a ripping, escapist yarn. I was Paul Atreides: sixteen, small for my age, brilliant (or so I thought) and ready to head off and conquer the galaxy. When I read it again in college I saw the machinations and lies of politics and religion. Third reading, after getting married: duty, family. The last time I read it (years after the birth of WinnieTheWoot) I came to see it as a love story. Not in the Harlequin Romance sense (although I'd let you make that argument in relation to Paul and Chani if you want to) but in a much broader sense. *This is a much longer and separate discussion. If you're interested and ask nicely I can follow up this review of a five year old book with a review of a forty-five year old book at another time.* Will The Gone Away World have the same effect on me? I don't know. I suspect so. I'll check back with you in thirty years and let you know.
So, it's like every great book I've ever read except that it's like no other book I've ever read. If you've read it I will be more than happy to get into all the spoiler-tastic discussion you want in the replies. If you haven't read it, don't want spoilers, but still want to talk about it reply without reading the discussions and I'll avoid them in my replies back - just stick to the notifications and you should be fine.