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In Association with
New Model Army
Adam Roberts
Gollancz paperback �12.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

In her book Inventing Human Rights: A History (2007), Lynn Hunt argues that the philosophical foundations of modern human rights legislation were laid not by the great liberal philosophers of the Enlightenment, but by the early writers of the modern novel. Hunt argues that books such as Richardson's Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded (1740), and Rousseau's Julie, Or The New Heloise (1761), were central to the evolution of the concept of human rights, because these novels encouraged readers to identify with ordinary people and to immerse themselves in the inner workings of their minds.

Hunt argues that the writers of the United States' Declaration of Independence found it to be "self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights," not because human rights are obviously present and respected in the world, but because the culture they consumed stressed the fact that even poor mistreated working-class women had the same rich inner lives as statesmen, politicians, merchants and military leaders. The history of the modern novel, Hunt suggests, is bound up with the history of human rights.

David Shields places a different spin on this historical consilience in his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). In the book, Shields quotes an essay by William Gass, in which Gass claims that the history of the novel is a history of authors pandering to a largely female and largely middle-class customer base. Indeed, the fact that the literary novel came to focus upon psychological realism and mundane slice-of-life realism is solely the result of authors trying to flatter their customers by making them think that the minutiae of their lives are important. As Gass puts it:

"Instead of biographies of ministers and lords, we got bundles of fake letters recounting seductions and betrayals: the extraordinary drama of lied-about ordinary life." [Reality Hunger, pages 12-3]

Taking these two proposed histories of the novel we can sketch a portrait of the modern literary novel as an attempt to capture a particular mode of being. A mode of being that stresses the importance of the individual, and that individual's inner life and psychological reactions to the world around them. In this portrait we can also see an explanation of science fiction's continued estrangement from the literary mainstream.

Though there are many competing and largely unconvincing definitions of SF, one of the most enduring attempts to capture what it is that people do when they write science fiction was penned by Darko Suvin in Other Worlds, Other Seas (1972). Suvin defines SF as:

"A literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."

So, while the mainstream literary novel attempts to capture and communicate that which is familiar, universal and mundane, the science fiction novel seeks to foster a sense of intellectual alienation by describing a world and characters only tangentially related to the experience of the author and their readers.

One way in which science fiction creates cognitive dissonance is by purposefully rejecting the individualistic perspective of the traditional novel. Indeed, in Stephen Baxter's Flux (1993), and Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man (1957), the protagonists are human-like creatures of minuscule size who look at the world around them with entirely different perspectives from those of normal humans. Similarly, Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937) expands normal human perceptions of the universe until they encompass billions of years, and millions of light-years, while Stephen Baxter's Evolution (2002) attempts to weave a story using the process of evolution itself as a protagonist.

This desire for conceptual estrangement entails a substantial technical challenge: The modern novel is a product of the 16th and 17th centuries and while the form has evolved over the years, it remains firmly wedded to the principles of individualism, psychological depth and mundane realism that fuelled the growth of the novel, and the parallel growth of individualism as a means of describing human nature. In order for science fiction to explore other forms of being it must first find a way of communicating psychological and philosophical principles that are fundamentally incommensurable with the basic underpinnings of the novel.

Usually, SF dodges this problem. It dodges the problem by using normal human protagonists in order to look in upon these other forms of being from the outside. Indeed, in Stephen Baxter's Coalescent (2003), the protagonist discovers a human society built along the lines of a formic hive complete with castes, drones, and breeding queens. Similarly, in the first series of Kenji Kamiyama's anime series Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002) - based upon the manga Ghost In The Shell (1989) by Masamune Shirow - the protagonists combat the Laughing Man, a personality with skills and beliefs, but no body or mind, that emerges spontaneously amidst the cybernetically-enhanced and densely interconnected population of a futuristic Tokyo.

Adam Roberts' New Model Army is an attempt to describe the emergence of an entirely new form of being without dodging the technical challenges associated with this kind of portrayal. It is a novel that attempts to fictionalise a set of emerging social trends by forcing us to look at them not from the point of view of the book's human protagonist, but from the point of view of these new human institutions themselves. The tone is set in the opening paragraph:

"I am not the hero of this story. Because I am narrating it, and because it relates events mostly from my point of view, you may conclude that it is somehow about me. I ask that you remember, throughout, that it is not. The hero of the story - in the old style of these things, according to the way novels have traditionally been made - is that New Model Army of which I was formerly a component." [page 3]

New Model Army is set in a near-future Britain where, after a tragic helicopter crash, the United Kingdom is thrown into turmoil by Wales' refusal to recognise Harry as their new prince. Seizing their opportunity, the Scots declare independence, prompting Westminster to send the British army to reassert dominion over its ancient colony. Refusing to be cowed, the Scottish parliament contracts out its war-fighting capacity to a New Model Army known as Pantegral. New Model Armies are military forces that are free from hierarchies and divisions of labour. Every member of the army not only has an equal vote in all strategic, operational, and tactical decisions, they also co-ordinate their actions using a wiki that they update in real time during the battles. The novel follows NMA member Tony Block as Pantegral dances rings around the more lead-footed and traditionally ('feudally') structured British army, reducing much of Southern Britain to smoking ruins in the process.

Roberts' initial attempts to engage with the technical challenge at the heart of New Model Army are a resounding success. The book's opening chapters are dominated by a series of beautifully rendered, kinetic, and intensely exciting battle sequences in which the book's protagonist fights, votes, and argues his way to victory over the British army. Indeed, it is not until the tenth chapter that the book's protagonist transitions from being a roving component 'I' in the hive-mind that is Pantegral to being a real person with a name and a shape, even if it is a shape that emerges not in isolation but as a clear product of two different people and the relationship that once united them:

"I could ask myself: why was he so angry? But I don't know the answer. I once had a boyfriend who, having met my father, diagnosed self-loathing. Maybe that's right. It's hard for me to imagine why he considered his self so loathsome. My mother was English and whilst my soul is like my father, I resemble her, physically, more than I do him; so perhaps there is a straightforward psychological dynamic at work here - that he was angry at her for leaving him for another man, and he was punishing her vicariously by punishing me." [page 80]

Once Block is fleshed out as a character, New Model Army wobbles quite alarmingly. Roberts sets aside the British civil war component of his narrative and comes to focus instead upon the travails of Block as he is interrogated by American 'military advisers' and members of rival NMAs on the grounds that he has understood the true nature of the NMA and so may well have discovered a way of defeating or destroying them. Block's journey begins during a lull in the fighting.

Injured in a firefight, Block seeks refuge at the home of a former boyfriend. This little interlude results in a beautifully written and incredibly realistic portrait of a household turned upside down by a combination of fear, jealousy, lust and enduring loyalty. Indeed, having decided to hide Block in the spare room, Block's ex- finds himself on the receiving end of a torrent of passive-aggressive sniping from his current partner, who is both jealous of what Block and his ex- once had, but also terrified of what might happen as a result of harbouring a sexily injured ex- who is also a wanted terrorist.

After the intense action and conspicuously absent protagonist of the book's opening chapters, this transition to psychological depth and mundane realism is intensely jarring. For nearly 100 pages New Model Army had been bowling along dealing with a civil war featuring cool Boing Boing-friendly mercenary companies and then, suddenly, the book plunges us neck deep into relationship problems. It is as though Roberts, having run out of ideas, decided to pass the readers through a series of literary chicanes.

The second chicane is just as beautifully realised and just as jarring as the first. After leaving his ex's place, Block flies to Alsace where he is to be debriefed by American intelligencers. However, after some adorable flirting with his American handler, Block is kidnapped by the members of a German NMA. As Block is transported across Europe, his vision of the continent begins to wax poetical:

"Here is the dragonhead of Scandinavia reaching down to seize Denmark in its jaws, interrupted in its meal by some geological freeze frame." [page 238]

"The people of Europe have trudged over mountains, Otzi-man's trail, with a meal of grain in their belly and animal skins stitched about them. They sleep here, and eat; they work and play and fuck. They have cleared the woodland away and made towns, and navigated the rivers. But the woodland was still the most of it, the membrane insulating ground against sky. I could see all of it from my vantage. Forests called Black and Great inundating the hillsides and splashing high up the flanks of mountains. So many trees it made the ground night-time at midday. In this clearing a trench is dug and filled with blood. Why blood?" [page 239]

Because of the jarring changes in register and scope that take place at the end of the book's first act, the utility of these passages is not immediately evident. We are still hooked on the idea of the civil war. We are still eager to find out what the hidden truth is behind the emergence of the NMAs. These literary chicanes baffle and bemuse, they feel like wasted paper. Wasted words� Wasted time� But then the book reaches its conclusion and the register changes again:

"This is the end of my portion of the narrative. The next voice you hear will be the hero of the story. I'm sorry to have delayed his moment as long as I have, Colonel. It is only fair to give him his chance to speak. So, yes. Why don't we say it together? Wake up!" [page 272]

As the true hero of the story takes centre stage, Roberts' literary chicanes suddenly snap into focus. The hero of the story is Pantegral itself. The NMAs are not merely radically democratic military institutions; they are a new form of intelligent life. They are giants. Giants whose minds function as vast neural networks made up of individual human consciousnesses. Block's domestic troubles and sudden ejaculations of poetic travel-writing were the birth-pangs of a new mode of being and a new way of seeing the world:

"When I am fighting, I swing my arms, and all of me is arms. But I, I, I, I, I, I, I am most myself when I am fighting, because my consciousness is a product of the neural networks of all my component elements in unison, working together and pooling computational resources and coalescing subroutines and layering levels of Thought, thought, Thought. The thoughts rattle faster through my brain when every synapse fires, and the guns, the blasting." [page 279]

With the publication of The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins also introduced us to a new way of seeing the world. Life, he argued, was not about animals but about genes. Genes striving for survival, battling for dominance, and striving to replicate themselves... The genes are selfish, they act for themselves but they act through animals and through people. The end of The Selfish Gene sees Dawkins speculating that a similar shift in focus could take place in the field of cultural study and psychology.

"Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantage at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we may have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself" [The Selfish Gene, pages 199-200]

Why should human actions be examined purely from the perspective of minds and souls when these minds and souls are nothing more than the agents of selfish ideas? Adam Roberts' New Model Army makes a similar suggestion but rather than asking us to scale down our field of vision by reducing zoology to genetics and psychology to memetics, Roberts suggest that we scale up our perceptions and analyse human events from the perspective not of individuals but of the social institutions they make up: vast social networks that act through human hands and see through human eyes but which have opinions, tastes and agendas of their own.

Books like James Surowiecki's The Wisdom Of Crowds: Why The Many Are Smarter Than The Few And How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies And Nations (2004), Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organising Without Organisations (2008), and Philip Ball's Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads To Another (2005), are all eager to create the impression that we are living on the cusp of a revolution in human affairs. Apparently, the Internet has allowed humans to share information and coordinate their actions in a way that simply would not have been possible a generation ago. Once the preserve of woolly-minded online mystics and pseudo-scientific self-help gurus, these kinds of pronouncements are slowly gaining credibility.

However, while perceptions seem to be changing political institutions and public discourse are not. One possible explanation for the disconnect between the growing popular perception that the nature of human interaction is changing, and the complete lack of corresponding change in the political system, is that people remain wedded to the old way of seeing themselves. They understand that things are different but they do not know in what ways. They do not know how to empathise with this newly inter-connected human species and every time they try they wind up falling into the same trap of individualism. This is why Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (2008) reads like the antiquated entitlement fantasies of Ayn Rand, despite purporting to chart the emergence of a new and idealistic younger generation. Clearly, there is a conceptual shortfall that needs to be filled. A shortfall reminiscent of one that has been seen before...

In the 16th and 17th centuries, philosophers across Europe were making similar noises to those being made by some thinkers today. Since the collapse of Athens, the world had functioned as a top-down paternalistic oligarchy. The powerful not only held all the money and all the power, they also got to decide who else would have access to that money and power through a system of patronage. They pulled the levers, they held the strings. However, by the time the Renaissance rolled around, things had started to change. The boundaries between the middle class and the aristocracy began to blur after the aristocracy became dependent upon the capacity of the urbanised middle classes to generate wealth.

Initially the loyalty of the middle-class was ensured by ennobling their biggest successes but the more confident and wealthy these middle-class people became, the less likely they were to be happy with a few token knighthoods and baronetcies. Declarations and proclamations ensued and traditional authority structures began to teeter. Political authority could no longer be passed through genetic monopoly from one generation to the next; it had to be shared equally between brothers. Brothers who were created equal... Brothers who were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights... It was self-evident that humans had rights because the novel had introduced entire generations to the idea that even poor working-class women had the same desires and inner conflicts as princes and intellectuals.

The novel was born of individualism. Individualism was born of human rights. Human rights were born of the novel. The 20th century saw humanity burn in the flames of this individualism. Our current conception of human nature is built upon the notion that we are alike but alone, separated by the impassable gulf between subjectivities. Of course, if we are separate from one another then we do not need to worry about the repercussions of our actions. Yes, I can empathise with you, but you are ultimately a distinct being so why should I care if I shoot you, or con you out of all of your money? The history of the 20th century shows that empathy is all too fleeting and all too fragile a bond between humans.

New Model Army is one of those rare works of science fiction that seems to provide a cultural blueprint for the entire genre. Much like those works of SF that are inspired by developments in the cognitive and neurological sciences - such as Peter Watts' Blindsight (2006) - New Model Army constitutes a serious intellectual challenge not only to the nature of the modern novel but to the modes of human understanding that rest upon it. New Model Army attempts to provide us with a new way of seeing ourselves not as isolated individuals plotting against each other and isolated from each other, but as component parts of a much larger system. Adam Roberts has produced not only a great work of science fiction, but a great and important novel full stop. It has the potential to be to the 21st century what Julie and Pamela were to the 18th. It has the potential to change things. It has the potential to change us. Why don't we say it together? Wake up!

New Model Army by Adam Roberts

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press