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Literature / The Gone-Away World

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The last-ditch plan is to pretend that we're escorting a prisoner, then cause mayhem. Elisabeth Soames pointed out that this didn't work well in Star Wars and can reasonably be expected to fail in the real world, which is somewhat more demanding in the field of cunning plans, and Samuel P. tried very hard to pretend he hadn't been thinking of Star Wars when he proposed it. The trouble is that although it's a lousy last-ditch plan, it is also our only last-ditch plan.

The rest of the plan is quite good, and if it works the way it is supposed to, we will do very well, and we won't need the lousy part. On the other hand, it almost certainly won't work like that, because plans don't. It will twist, creep, change, swivel, and mutate, until finally we're flying on sheer bravado and chutzpah, and hoping the other guy thinks it's all accounted for. You don't make strategy so that there's one path to victory; you make it so that as many paths as possible lead to something which isn't loss.

The Gone-Away World is a 2008 novel by Nick Harkaway (the son of John le Carré).

World War III has come and gone, with a bomb that "makes the enemy go away". As it turns out, however, it leaves behind something in its place, a mysterious substance known as Stuff that becomes whatever you're thinking of — which most of the time is whatever you're most afraid it's going to become. Only the Jorgmund Corporation knows how to make FOX, the substance that can convert the Stuff into mere dust, and as the story begins the protagonist is putting out a fire on the pipeline that channels FOX into the atmosphere. Things get weird.

Tropes featured include:

  • The All-Concealing "I": The first-person narration is used to conceal the fact that the narrator spends half the book as a figment of Gonzo's imagination and has no name.
  • Always Introduces Themselves: Ike Thermite, the only member of the Matahuxee Mime Combine allowed to speak, always introduces them dramatically, usually with the narrator doubling his name, as in this example: «"Hi," says Ike Thermite. "I'm Ike Thermite." (In case anyone has forgotten.) "And *we* are the Matahuxee Mime Combine."»
  • Artistic License – Martial Arts: The martial arts described in the book are heavily influenced by kung fu films.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Professor Derek claims to use this to behave as a normal human being.
  • Baa-Bomb: Sheep and minefields interact in interesting ways.
  • Barefoot Sage: Downplayed; one of Master Wu's eccentricities is to wear sandals in winter.
  • Badass Crew: The Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company is made up of highly trained commandos with trucks. The "highly trained commandos" part came before the trucks — they're all ex-military.
  • Being Evil Sucks: The narrator asserts that the worst kind of "pencilneck" has completely sacrificed his humanity to become a part of his organization. In the end, he discovers that, indeed, Pestle spends his free time staring into space, having no other purpose than to serve the Clockwork Hand.
  • Body Horror: The Stuff warps often people's bodies in unnatural ways.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Elisabeth doesn't contribute much to the plot and is conspicuously absent for most of the middle section, until she pops back up as the real identity of Dr. Andromas.
  • Circus of Fear: Subverted. They're among the good guys.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Sort of. If you're thinking of something, that's what the Stuff is. If you're thinking of two things, the Stuff's a hybrid of them. If you're frantically hoping the Stuff doesn't become something, well...
  • Coca-Pepsi, Inc.: The United Island Kingdoms of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and Cuba Libre.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Ike Thermite and his mime company are actually martial artists of the Voiceless Dragon.
  • Disguised in Drag: Dr. Andromas is actually Elisabeth. The fact that he's a her is foreshadowed a few times. Andromas is frequently said to have his face obscured by something, including a mustache, hat, and his collar. The narrator is surprised by the thickness of his hair beneath his hat. When pressed against him, the narrator says he has a lumpy body, with slender arms and narrow shoulders. While at a mall, he also pauses to inspect some feminine jewelry in a window. His name is also faux-Greek for something like "Male-Man".
  • Eccentric Mentor: Master Wu is an oddball and teachers the main character.
  • Enemy Without: A rare case in which the main character is the Enemy Without.
  • First Girl Wins: Elisabeth turns out to be the narrator's true love. She wasn't the first girl he had a romance with, but she was the first girl he knew to any degree.
  • Genre-Busting: Starts as After the End, flashes back to a Coming of Age story, goes into a martial arts story, and then starts adding political satire, science fiction and horror to the mix, all with a thick veneer of comedy over the top.
  • Gratuitous Ninja: The story is set in the present day, but the primary physical conflict is between the heroes and ninjas. However, the narrator explains early on that they're not actual ninjas, but the word fits best, as a legion of black-clad martial artists with a habit of popping up out of nowhere.
  • Hollywood Healing:
    • After the narrator breaks his hand, he mentions that it hurts for a few pages, then never brings it back up again over the course of the following days.
    • The narrator makes a surprisingly easy and speedy recovery from being shot at point-blank range six times and shoved out of a moving car. It's justified by the fact that he still wasn't completely real yet.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: Referred to In-Universe as bullshido.
  • In Medias Res: The first chapter takes place at about the midway point. The next half of the book leads up to that critical moment.
  • Invulnerable Knuckles: Humbert Pestle has these on one arm due to his training regimen of repeatedly breaking the hand and letting it heal until it's just a big lump of knotted bone which he can hit stuff all day with. This also means the hand is useless for anything else, like picking up items, feeding and dressing himself, and other normal hand sorts of things. This is noted as being particularly menacing, as it means he cared more about being a living weapon than being a functioning human being.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Various masters of "hard style" martial arts, including Gonzo and Ronnie. Humbert Pestle especially is repeatedly described as being impossibly big and impossibly fast.
  • Magic Realism: It looks like science fiction for the first few chapters. Then the Ass Pulls start.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: More precisely, kung fu mimes fighting corporate ninjas, After the End.
  • Never Given a Name: One of the early hints to the narrator's identity is that his name is never mentioned. In fact, he doesn't have one. He first acknowledges it about three-quarters of the way into the novel in a completely off-handed manner, mentioning that a certain dish, like him, had no name.
  • One-Hit Kill: How the protagonist ultimately kills Pestle, who is much stronger; he knows he can't win on force alone, so he just avoids, parries and deflects all of Pestle's attacks, until he becomes so fatigued that a single, focused strike to the heart kills him right there on the spot.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: People with a rare form of brain damage see everything around them as neutral, and thus whenever Stuff comes into contact with them it itself becomes neutral — and acquires the ability to neutralize more Stuff. Thus FOX is made. However, this form of brain damage kills fairly quickly, and it's much too rare for replacements to simply be found around — so entire villages' worth of normal people are abducted and intentionally brain-damaged.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Played with. It's stated that the Pipeline — being responsible for humanity's very survival — is the most secure, triple-redundant, built-to-last thing ever constructed, tested, built up and tested again, and that there's no way it could possibly be on fire. It is, of course, enthusiastically burning away. The protagonist realizes too late that the only way it could be on fire after all the tests and redundancies and everything is if someone deliberately set it.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The defining features of Gonzo and the narrator, literally.
  • Rule of Cool: All of the martial arts and ninja subplots run on this.
  • Sacrificed Basic Skill for Awesome Training: This is part of what distinguishes the ninjas from the good guys. Humbert Pestle is impossibly strong, fast, and tough. He also has about half a hand left.
  • Silent Bob: Most of the mime troupe (with the exception of Ike Thermite, who speaks for all of them).
  • Taken from a Dream: The Stuff acquires definition by absorbing data from the minds of humans exposed to it, resulting in unconscious desires, fears, and even dreams being made manifest. In one case, a little girl dreams of being a horse while immersed in a cloud of the Stuff, only to wake up to find herself becoming a horse - which unfortunately kills her.
  • Terminal Transformation: On top of being a source of Reality Is Out to Lunch, the Stuff can also warp the biology of human beings immersed in it, transforming them to match their dreams and nightmares. However, most human beings don't know the finer points of anatomy, so many of the resulting mutants end up either horribly dysfunctional or dead. In one early case, a little girl dreaming of being a horse wakes up to find herself "hopelessly muddled with horsey parts" and unable to breathe with her new lungs, quickly asphyxiating to death.
  • Thanatos Gambit: The narrator speculates that Master Wu deliberately allowed himself to be killed so that the ninjas would not discover his pupils' identities. The narrator also believes that his death was part of his plan to defeat the Clockwork Hand via his pupils.
  • There Are No Good Executives: A recurring theme, explained by Darwinian means: to properly do the job of a corporate executive means giving up some degree of humanity, and you have to give up your humanity, to an increasingly severe degree, if you want to stay ahead of your competitors. The protagonist has a whole taxonomy of pencilnecks, graded according to how much humanity they retain vs. how much of themselves they’ve given over to the machine. Befitting the theme, the head ninja and the CEO of the Jorgmund Corporation are the same person, and when he isn’t busy with either job, he’s catatonic.
  • This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman: Dick Washburn, the Jorgmund pencilneck, is totally out of his depth when he briefs the Haulage & HazMat freebooters about the fire and comes across mostly as comical and awkward. However, the protagonist notes that he’s probably a formidable figure back in the Adminisphere of the Jorgmund Corporation, enough of a threat to its higher executives that they sent him out to be destroyed by the litigation that would ensue if the job goes badly. Sure enough, when the protagonist infiltrates the Jorgmund offices, Richard turns out to be the equivalent of high nobility and earmarked for the senior board, and is only spared a confrontation with him because Pestle shows up at the same moment.
  • Transformation Trauma: Coating yourself in Stuff can cause Involuntary Shapeshifting, and most people don't know enough about anatomy to visualize a survivable form.