Author Nick Harkaway on Improvised Grenades and ‘Existential Pulp’

Nick Harkaway

Chris Close Photography

Nick Harkaway is the author of several popular books that straddle the border of realism and science fiction, particularly his debut novel The Gone-Away World , in which a scientific experiment gone wrong obliterates any firm sense of reality. Harkaway is fascinated by the ways in which reality is stranger than most people want to admit, and he’s frustrated that so much contemporary fiction fails to grapple with that strangeness. In particular he’s troubled that so many authors shy away from writing about new technology, even something as simple and familiar as cell phones.

“Quite a lot of the time you’re talking about an artificially constructed 1993, except with everything else being now,” Harkaway says in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “A lot of novels that people think of as being ‘real’ are actually basically alternative reality fiction, designed to be in an atechnological world.”

He admits that it can be a challenge to dramatize stories about people talking online, but feels that since our lives are bound inextricably with the technology that surrounds us, novelists can’t hope to probe the human condition unless they’re keeping pace with the latest science, such as experiments that network together the brains of rats.

“You could walk from one end of my country to the other without finding, as far as I know, anything being written as a consequence of that,” says Harkaway. “Certainly outside of science fiction you’re not going to hear a mention of it.”

Listen to our complete interview with Harkaway in Episode 115 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). Then stick around after the interview as guest geeks John Joseph Adams, Matt London, and Rob Bland join host David Barr Kirtley to discuss the new Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy .

Nick Harkaway on writing existential pulp:

“There’s a taxonomical debate to be had about whether [my fiction] is classically science fiction, and io9 called it ‘existential pulp,’ which I love … Tigerman is definitely full of a sense of worry about what it means to be a dad, and how to be a good person, and all the rest of it, and so it belongs in that [existential] category. And then of course at the same time my pulp roots are showing. Here’s all this serious stuff about global geopolitics and the bad ways we behave overseas, and about being a father and trying to do the right thing, and how do you become a new person when your old life has come to an end. But the answer is you put on a superhero suit and you go fight crime. The thing is, though, I would do dumber things than that for my kids if that’s what they needed me to do. I think we all would.”

Nick Harkaway on improvised grenades:

“It’s true about a lot of powders with a very fine grain size—custard powder is one, pepper is another—that if you put a small amount of them in a box and shake it up, and then throw in a match, you get a big ‘whoomph’ … Certainly you would get a respectable flash and a bang out of that. Whether you’d get any serious percussive force I don’t know … I have a tendency with things like that to work something which is approximately possible under the right circumstances and just let it go, because the thing that I definitely am not is a hard science guru. My scientific qualifications are relatively scant. I like science, I try really hard to educate myself about it, but in the end if something has to go ‘boom’ and it would probably only go ‘fwoosh,’ I am relatively unconcerned about that, which is a sin, but not I think a grave one.”

Guardians of the Galaxy Panel

John Joseph Adams on the comic book backstory of Thanos:

“Basically the Infinity Gems—or as they’re called in the Marvel Cinematic Universe the ‘Infinity Stones’—they’re these six stones that have almost magical abilities, so there’s the Soul Gem and the Power Gem, and they all give a person godlike powers. And so Thanos goes around and collects them all … Thanos is doing this because he’s courting Death. And when I say ‘Death,’ I mean the actual personification of death, the character of Death in the Marvel universe, sort of like the goddess of death. And to try to impress her, he decides he’s going to exterminate half the sentient life in the universe … One of the things that really makes him a compelling villain is that he almost has this sense that he doesn’t deserve it, and so he sets up his own demise. Because the thing is he’s grabbing ultimate power in most of these cases, so they almost have to do that in order to give the heroes any chance to defeat him.”

Matt London on the generic nature of Guardians of the Galaxy:

“I am completely done with prison breaks in sci-fi movies … Just a couple months ago there was a prison break scene in a Marvel movie, in the new X-Men movie. Is this the only thing that we can do as our second act? It’s so boring and tedious. I’ve just seen it so many times now … And then the other thing—sorry to get all narrative structure on people—but as soon as they find the stone and realize that the stone is what it is, I’m like, ‘OK, so now the bad guys are going to show up, and they’re going to have a huge action sequence, and fifteen minutes from now the good guys are going to get beaten down, the bad guys are going to get the stone, and all hope is going to be lost. Watch.’ And then over the next twenty minutes that’s exactly what happened. Everything is so completely predictable and by-the-numbers. We’ve seen this movie before.”