Gnomon feels, to me at least, like a book that I wish someone else had written. Which is a Bad Thing™.
Ostensibly this is a book about near future not quite utopia that turns out to be a panopticon dystopia from our nightmares. It is set in a Britain that the Security Services and a certain Home Secretary turned Prime Minister would not complain if we moved towards rapidly, but not quite the Britain of today. This panopticon is mostly not staffed by humans, with their frailties and personal agendas. Rather it is staffed by an AI, The System, which watches impartially and acts impartially and only intervenes when it’s important.
Humans are involved, in some cases. Inspectors of The System (much more like Lestrade of the Yard than a QA inspector) operate like a police force when The System or a sort of ad hoc oversight committee thinks a more human touch is needed. Democracy, parliamentary democracy that is, is gone and there is something like a true democracy, with the plebiscite or sub-groups thereof, consulted on each and every issue.
If you trust the system, this could be a utopia: crime rates fall, solve rates are close to 100% and, in theory, political dissent and the like are tolerated. The only thing that isn’t tolerated is rebellion against The System.
Then something goes wrong and just such a rebel is captured, taken for intensive questioning (which is not actually torture despite the name) and then she dies (intensive questioning really is not torture, this is the first time anyone has ever died and only the second time there has been an adverse reaction to it, but it is a medical procedure). An inspector is dispatched, this is obviously serious and it could be great. But it’s just not.
The rebel uses a sophisticated layer of false identities, with some interconnection, to divert and false-front the interrogation, overwhelm it, until her mind fragments and her body collapses. She could have got out alive but she decided not to. This, and the examination of what was going on could have been interesting but instead we get to experience each of the five additional personalities in great depth rather than following the outward signs of what is happening. I found this deeply frustrating because at no point was I in any doubt I was in a fragmentary personality, a false persona, and while I was sometimes fun trying to work out the relationship to the whole and why this was there, as far as I was concerned it dragged us away from the central story about the dystopia and where it had all gone wrong.
All too briefly the story comes back to that at the end but, by then, I’d almost lost the will to live, and it was sheer cussed determination to finish the damn thing that had got me there.
If you want to read several books mashed into one about various different people’s lives, jumbled together, this is probably a great read for you. If you’re intrigued by the plot line, do yourself a favour and buy some cyberpunk or a straight-up dystopian story from the YA range of today or the older schools of dystopia. They do the job much, much better. It is probably a mark of just how disengaged with the story I am that, a day after finishing the book I can remember the plot outline but I’m struggling to remember the character outlines of these cover identities that are explored in such such yawn-inducing, or if they’re your thing painstaking, detail. In the hands of someone who writes the genre, this could have have been brilliant, I still love the concept, I just really struggled with Gnomon.
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