An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality




AS WE BARREL into an uncertain future, it feels like everything is spinning out of control. Governments around the world are locked in self-destructive gridlock. Secretive hedge funds warp the economy with their pet algorithms. Technology is transforming our media diets, our love lives, our geopolitics, and even our DNA. The old rules no longer apply. It’s a cliché because it’s true: change is the only constant.

What does it mean to live a good life when the constraints are in flux? What constitutes privacy in a world where everything can be tracked? How can we think for ourselves if every aspect of our environment is automatically curated? Who and what will we become if we can manipulate our very biology? How can we orient ourselves to a state of permanent disorientation?

In his riveting 2018 novel, Gnomon, award-winning author Nick Harkaway confronts these questions with relentless and insightful ferocity. Gnomon is a mind-bending science fiction story that splices the allure and danger of an algorithmically optimized society into a fiendish Borgesian puzzle box. Detectives, artists, financiers, alchemists, emergent intelligences, and conspirators vie for position in a dance that no one fully understands, but that will nonetheless shape the future. Harkaway’s prose is a literary disco ball that glitters with big ideas, resonant characters, and satisfying twists.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Harkaway, and he was kind enough to field a few questions. We discussed the ways in which technology is transforming our political institutions and identities, the cultural impact of speculative fiction, the misleading power of perception, and his sources of creative inspiration.

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ELIOT PEPER: What are the most important but least tractable ways in which technology is changing social and political institutions? In your view, what are the fundamental questions that don’t have easy answers today?

NICK HARKAWAY: “Tractable” is interesting, because I tend to think of scientific advances as being societally plastic. That’s to say that if you invent, for example, high-precision optics, that could lead you to satellite surveillance, weather science, endoscopy, or microbiology. It depends very much what your societal biases push you toward. Those biases will be different for different people, and for different cultures, and the outcomes will vary on that basis. By the same token, a lot of things are tractable in the sense that they could be changed without violating any kind of physical law, but intractable in the sense that society as we have it, as created by previous technological and cultural syntheses (which is itself not a stable state), won’t push against the trend.

There are specific technologies — automation is maybe the most obvious — which will kick a lot of things loose, though they won’t actually define what the next stage looks like; that’ll be determined by how we respond. So we could end up aiming for a Basic Income pseudo-plenty society (we’re not really post-scarcity without some pretty dramatic biotech or physics advances), or we could end up in a kind of hypercapitalist wasteland with no social security net and chrome city-states scraping the cloud layer. Or whatever.

But I’m more interested in — and in some ways more frightened at the moment by — the existential problems arising out of what’s been called the Dialectic of Enlightenment. People like Anthony Giddens and Bruno Latour have been talking for decades about late or liquid modernity: what happens when the traditional axes of self are cut loose. For example, people no longer define themselves so much by their family name; we’re all singleton individuals. We know where we come from, but we don’t for the most part see “The Name” as a living entity to which we add. Likewise we are from a place, but we don’t any more expect to be born, live, and die within a couple of kilometers of that location, and we don’t define our identity by our village in the way that our forebears did. The same phenomenon is occurring with religion, profession, or trade — almost every traditional domain of human identity. Any one of these things — even all of them — might still be important to you, but at the same time they’re less absolute than they once were. The distance from one coast of the United States to another might be vast to walk, but it’s a day in a plane.

But as those things fade, so we lose our traditional ways of locating ourselves in the societal nexus. The ends of the axes flap about and we end up with lunging, desperate identifications with single points like fundamentalism, or Trump, or Brexit. These aren’t political decisions at all; they’re ontologies to protect the self.

So that’s the theory, and it’s not bad. Let me ask, then, as we come to the end of the Enlightenment Project, and science and technology begin to challenge the fundamental appearance of the universe (to erode the idea of time as we understand it), and as medical technology begins to pass through the skull and probe and extend the brain: What happens to our sense of self then? What happens to our ability to understand what we are when the first humans are networked together, directly, brain-to-brain, like Miguel Nicolelis’s Brainets? What if it turns out that it’s possible to grow brain cells in a box and network with them via Bluetooth version “n” for extra memory or power? If you do that, what is that box once the owner dies? And similarly, as information technology and brain science begin to unpick our decision-making and it is revealed that the premise of democracy and capitalism — our ability to make decently sensible decisions — turns out to be radically flawed? What happens as all our certainties are revealed to be myths of one kind or another?

I’ll tell you if I figure it out.

How are issues like privacy and surveillance commonly misunderstood? What hidden implications do we routinely ignore when using or building new technology? How is reality not what it seems?

With regard to surveillance in particular, I think people immediately default to this discussion of whether they have anything to hide. To which the answer is: Yeah, you do, you just don’t know what it is yet. It might be your latent medical condition. It might be your Fortnite habit and what it reveals about your impulses that your employer won’t like. It might be your union instincts — whatever. But that’s not actually the point. The point is that surveillance is itself something that can reshape your behavior, make you more cautious or more rash. It’s a downward pressure on to which the mind responds in ways that are not straightforward. The ultimate end point of being under that control — and surveillance is first and always about control of the environment and of people as an environment — can be startling. That end point can be a fruit-seller setting himself on fire in a marketplace. It can be collaboration in a fugue state — which turns out to have been weirdly common in East Germany. As the Stasi files were released, it turned out that basically one-third of the population was spying on the rest, and a lot of those people were horrified. They didn’t remember doing it. Now, you can be skeptical about that, but it seems possible that a given percentage of them legitimately had no recollection of having been part of a surveillance machine. There was a massive psychological twisting to deal with an intolerable pressure. The other outcome can be revolution in the real sense. Bentham called the Panopticon a mill for grinding rogues honest. He was half-right. It’s a millstone, and it can force compliance, but it also creates explosive resistance.

As for reality, I think I may write a book about that later this year. Reality is literally not what it seems. Your memory is wrong. Almost everything you think you know about yesterday probably didn’t happen quite the way you think it did, and every time you go over it, you’ll change it. And that’s before we talk about the real difference between the Newtonian world we experience of billiard balls zinging around, and the world Carlo Rovelli explores in Reality Is Not What It Seems, which will really bake your noodle.

Where does science fiction begin and end? What’s your take on the relationship between technological and cultural dialogue? What role does speculative literature play in society?

I have no idea what SF is or should be. I will gladly sit down and read something that is conceptually unchallenging but has rocket ships in it. I love a good rocket ship. (Incidentally: Why are we trying to build AI? It’s not because we want to have something that makes coffee properly and walks the dog. It’s because we want a perfect, wise friend to stop us from doing stupid shit. We’re trying to build the angels we were promised who never show up.) Equally I love something that bends my brain. I don’t care how it’s branded. The Garden of Evening Mists isn’t in any way a science fiction novel, and yet it projected me into a completely different state of mind, a world that felt potentially magical at every turn, for good or bad.

I’m in a weird place with SF in my own work. I’ve never perfectly fit in with it, and yet I’m too free with science to be comfortable for the traditional literary crowd. There’s an exchange in that book of faxes between Auster and Coetzee in which one of them says to the other that he’s brave for allowing his characters access to mobile phones because they make drama and misunderstanding harder to generate. I don’t actually agree with that as a practical matter, but that’s not the point. What it says is that technological experience is not authentic human experience, and while there is a truth in that — it’s possible to hide from life behind a screen — it’s also just historically unjustifiable. Our societies are defined by the technologies that enable them. Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.

SF is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, SF has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.

How do perception and narrative shape or define our identities and societies? Are we the stories we tell ourselves? What does it mean when we try to rewrite the script?

Narratives are flavors and moods. When you go to a place — especially if it’s huge and alien and unfamiliar — you come back and you pick two or three things that happened there that convey your experience. And some places are so big and huge and alien that that’s all anyone can do, even the people who live there. Narratives are compressed expressions of identity, cross-sectional slices. They can tell you things you need to know, but like any section or map, they do not tell you everything. We’re seeing a huge rush of narratives right now that purport to be all you need to know to deal with any problem. Trump is the king of that — “Make America Great Again” — but he’s far from the only one. For example, “creative destruction” was all the rage a while ago. There are so many, and they come and go. Some of them are actually useful and valid. Some of them are nonsense. But any theory that says that human life is about only one thing and everything else flows from it … handle with care.

You’ve cited the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges as a source of inspiration. What have you learned from reading Borges? What are some of your favorite stories of his, and why do they resonate with you? In what ways did Borges influence Gnomon?

Borges is simultaneously enlightening and infuriating. He claimed to be too lazy to write a novel, and said it was just easier to write critical appreciations of fictional novels he might have written. I didn’t believe him when I read it, but now I almost do; to write the kind of novel he’d have written, you have to run your brain on so many levels, see things that can’t be envisaged. Each of his short stories is like an explosively compressed sculpture. You let it go off in your head and bang! It’s there and then you turn around and it’s … melted away.

He was a genius, and he left this cryptic, brilliant body of work that’s poetic, incomplete, astonishing. It’s like a tasting menu in a restaurant where they let you smell things that go to other tables and never arrive at yours. “Monk Eastman,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and of course “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” …

So, I tried. Basically, that’s what I tried to do: to write something on that order. And Gnomon is different, of course, because I’m not Borges and I wasn’t trying to be, but I get now why he said he was too lazy. I can’t count the number of times I asked myself whether I should just junk Gnomon and write something easy. But it was also absurdly rewarding, because the book evolved and muscled its way into my head and it gets to people in a way that seems to be equivalent — that sense of something organic happening independently in one’s own mind, slightly creepy, weirdly exciting … I hope. Enough people have said that that I feel okay repeating it. It’s a self-selecting sample, of course.

Gnomon is so intricate and recursive that it feels almost like a literary fractal. How did the creative process for Gnomon differ from your previous novels? Where did you start and how did it grow into a book? What did you learn about writing fiction from writing Gnomon?

It was infuriating. I loved it, but it was horrible, like climbing a cliff face and then someone comes along in the night and just moves you back to the bottom. I had to write, go back, rewrite another character, then rewrite what I’d just done in line with the new text, then rewrite something else in line with both … and so on. The book is iterative in a very literal sense, or accreted, or laminated, or … I don’t know … 3D-printed rather than just formed or extruded. Not a process I would willingly repeat, actually, not least because I learned better pathways as I went along. I’m sorry; I’m not sure I can be specific. I mean, I can tell you that I learned how to write a book in fragments rather than linearly; I learned how to write heedlessly at really absurd speeds, because I knew I was going to have to cut so much anyway. I learned to be achingly precise about symbols and meanings. I learned new structures. I must have reworked the second section of the title character more than anything else. There are entire iterations of that sequence which didn’t make it. Not a word of them. There are characters who didn’t make it: a butterfly dreaming of being one of J. S. Bach’s children; a nationalist bomb-maker called Mr. Jack; a Visigoth chieftain who sacked Rome, advised by a pale and androgynous sorcerer; Longinus of the Spear made an appearance; and Jocobus Amatus, who now gets only the briefest mention, had a starring role as a retired legionnaire and secret agent. There was a cult of shark-worshippers in future London and a cult of Isis in Carthage. Some of them existed for less than an eyeblink, some for months. It’s writing. But in Gnomon, it was magnified in a way that I can’t really grasp, with the consequence that there are aspects of the book — truthful allusions, deliberate mistranslations, misstatements, references and implications, signs and phrases, secrets I slaved over, faithfully wove in and reiterated in different sections — that I no longer remember or understand. I pushed my limits more than I ever have before. I think I must have been very strange company, for a while.

What books have changed the way you see the world, and how did they change you? What other books do you suspect Gnomon fans would really love?

William Gibson has been profoundly influential. I’m still not sure what the “Bigend” sequence did to my brain, but it was seismic. I think Spook Country is a really important modern novel in some way that I can’t properly define. (I’m a terrible critic. I don’t really write proper reviews, because people just stare at them and at me, and it’s obvious that they now think I’m a lunatic.) We’ve talked Borges, so let’s tag Calvino and Eco as well. Recently, Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps set off explosives in my head. I’m a long-time fan of The Shipping News; I grew up on the Cornish coast, and some of the sense of place and identity made my veins buzz when I was reading Proulx’s book. I’m a Le Guin fan from way back, a Bujold devotee — there is little or nothing you can learn about storytelling that you cannot learn from Lois McMaster Bujold. And Saad Z. Hossain’s Escape from Baghdad! is breathtaking, some kind of appalling mad genius of a book — good enough that I want to adapt it for film and I never, ever want to adapt anything for film anymore. And I was reading Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons in Particle Physics at some early stage in Gnomon — I found my copy last night, and it has pencil notes scratched on the back page.

But to be absolutely honest, I don’t know who the typical fan of Gnomon is. The oldest person I know for sure reads my books is over 100. The youngest I’ve heard from so far is 15. There’s no meaningful mean average, and even the median is probably pretty suspect. So what I’m really doing is assuming that Gnomon has burned enough of my perspective into your brain that you’ll find something in what I like that you now like too.

On which note, here’s a thought to finish with, though it’s spoiler-tastic, and you shouldn’t read this unless you’ve finished the book (although in a sense all that happens if you do is that you go one layer higher in the nested simulations than you otherwise would): one of the conceits of Gnomon is that it’s my immortality — not in the literary sense, but in the sense that it’s an image of my head which is now virally imprinted into whoever reads it. However well that worked, there’s a thing I realized on publication day that drives me nuts: it isn’t my immortality anymore. It’s the immortality of the version of me that I was in 2016–’17 when we were putting the final version of the text together. If immortality can really be had in any meaningful sense by memetic self-replication, I’m now in direct competition with a previous iteration of myself.

Life is weird.

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Eliot Peper is a critically acclaimed novelist whose books grapple with what it means to live a good life in an age of acceleration. Get his reading recommendations here.

Thanks to William Gibson, Max Gladstone, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Michael Dirda for their generous suggestions on this interview.


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