Wednesday, July 06, 2016
Book 49: Oh, Nick Harkaway's books? Yeah I mean I guess they're all right whatevs I'M JUST KIDDING THEY'RE AWESOME.
Angelmaker is a weird sort of book: part scifi, part steampunk, part near-apocalypse, part gangster, it's weird in the kind of way I like: it has a little bit of everything in it, and somehow it all fits together in a preposterous story that makes you, if you get into it, smile at times with just how outrageously fun and exciting it is.
That fun feeling is a bit weird, too, though, given how dark the book really is in the details. This is a book in which men get crumpled into pieces, crucified with electricity, burnt in boxes, tortured, and torn apart with guns, and yet somehow it's all just... fun, a lighthearted feeling prevailing even amidst the darkness. I think the closest movie I could relate it to is Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It has that sort of feel to it.
The storyline is hard to summarize. Where The Gone Away World followed a fairly narrow track through an expansive world, Angelmaker just reaches out in all sorts of directions before pulling everything back together. But I'll try: Joe Spork is the son of Matthew Spork, a 'king of crime' sort of gangster back when gangsters were fun and grandiose. Joe has rejected Matthew's ways, and instead followed in his grandfather Daniel's footsteps, working as a sort of tinkerer: he fixes clockwork things, a calling that leaves him poor and discontented.
Joe has a new client named Edie Bannister, who has been giving him increasingly harder things to repair, and a friend named Billy Friend, who finds Joe an interesting sort of clockwork book to fix up. These two things lead Joe to accidentally put into motion "The Apprehension Engine," a series of clockwork beehives around the world that are meant to bring the world to peace by making people 9% smarter so they can see the truth of the world and nobody can get away with anything.
Edie, it turns out, was a secret agent for the British government in World War II, and was dispatched as part of her job to retrieve a French mathematician/scientist who was hired to build an engine of destruction for Shem Shem Tsien. Tsien is a ruthless leader of a Third World country who plans to become God by doing all the things he thinks God actually does.
That doesn't really do the plot or the book justice: there are submarines, law firms, a sort of antique-dealer museum, evil government agents, a serial killer, robots, weird scientists, gangsters, and a whole host of other interesting characters, things, subplots, and strangely awesome moments.
Harkaway excels at creating memorable characters; even his minor players are interesting and get at least some backstory and a moment to shine, and none of it feels forced in any way.
There are larger themes here, too; Angelmaker has serious ideas on its mind behind all the fun and excitement and scariness. The book wrestles with what it might mean to know the truth, whether if we knew everything that ever could and ever would happen we would become simply automata, moving through the universe without much volition (that's what people fear the bees will do.) Harkaway grapples too with what's happened to civil liberties in our era, as the "Legacy Board," a shadowy branch of the British government, attempts to force Joe to cooperate with its plans to use the Apprehension Engine to restore Britain to world supremacy. There are questions of religion and God's relationship to humans, and how to deal with uncomfortable aspects of family, while finding one's own identity in the process. Somehow Harkaway does all this in a book which also features a woman fleeing an exploding palace while pushing a baby elephant in a box.
I think Harkaway has established himself as one of the best writers around, and his books deserve to be better known. Maybe 1 in 10, or 1 in 20, books are as compelling as Harkaway's books, and their sheer craftsmanship continues to awe me. Angelmaker, even more so than The Gone Away World, wastes no words, despite using jillions of them. In the end, every little piece of the story matters, right down to the most throwaway movement. Harkaway is the master of Chekhov's gun: there is no detail in his stories that doesn't end up in the end being crucial to some other aspect of it. This is one of those books that I just want to read and reread over and over again.