“I have come to understand that fighting and democracy are actually the same thing. Move the first term into the realm of the second we call it debate – democracy works best if debate is conducted briskly, candidly, sharply, with effective strategies such that the strongest case wins the day. If you reverse the semantic exercise and move the second term into the realm of the first, then what have you, if not the NMAs?” (New Model Army, pg. 88)
In a fabulous take-down of Philip Blond in the London Review of Books recently, Jonathan Raban explored the tensions between state and individual, between democracy and tyranny. These questions are at the heart of Adam Roberts’s latest novel, New Model Army, in which the eponymous forces champion an absolute democracy in which even armies are raised and run on the basis of the needs, desires and decisions of every member – no hierarchy, no chain of command, no boundaries. It’s the sort of unfettered libertarianism which has often been on show in other and older military SF.
Roberts is too canny a writer, however, to allow the novel to become merely a satire of the indefensible; there are arguments in his novel for the abandon of pure democracy, which is often as brutal as tyranny (“Democracy is not infallible,” one character accepts (pg 102)). Not only that, but New Model Army is more forward-looking than a book bashing Heinlein could hope to be: the science which enables the fiction of democratic people’s armies is, of course, the internet – its wikis and information-sharing, its real-time content tags and real-time maps. The novel is therefore also, fairly plainly, a satire of the ‘rapture of the nerds’ style of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. Especially early on, the narrator’s enthusiasm for his new way of doing things, and scoffing disdain for the oldsters, is familiarly and wildly oblivious: “The new e-democracy utopianism is fuelled by new technologies that make it much simpler to canvas everybody’s opinion quickly and efficiently.” (pg. 8) Blah and, indeed, blah.
Beware snap judgements, but New Model Army is as whole a novel as Roberts has written: if it hangs on its opening note a little long, it ultimately shifts in tone, topic and tenor as much as either Swiftly or Yellow Blue Tibia, his two most recent books, but the reader feels the veers much less. Tony Block, a gay ex-member of the British Army who has adopted a New Model as his home, moves believably and incrementally from evangelising the new way to a more nuanced view of its dubious benefits. The novel plays fair, right to the very end: it doesn’t hide from difficulty, but nor does it wallow in it. The novel’s ultimate thesis about the reasons for man’s need both for fighting and for love may or may not convince the reader (a weakness, perhaps, is that ‘fighting’ is seen to be a synonym for ‘war’); but the journey Tony makes to his final position on the matter is paced just so.
The book is packed full of references – from Lord of the Rings to The Hudsucker Proxy, The Cranberries to War of the Worlds – and this enables Roberts to build quite a dense community within the New Model Army, one which thrives on shared knowledge and common culture. Early on, Tony tells us that direct democracy isn’t possible in states as large as the modern nation; New Model Armies, on the other hand, are the size of ancient Athens. Roberts’s satire of the internet is that it is full of self-satisfied and self-selecting groups of like-minded people: this makes in many ways for a harsher tyranny, and a far less tolerant climate, than exists in the imperfect consensual oligarchies for which the novel’s regular armies still fight. Hobbes’s Leviathan is one of the novel’s final references, suggesting that even these liveliest of democracies will create an absolute sovereign of sorts.
Indeed, despite the way in which the inter-connected communities of the New Models open a way to a new form of human consciousness, the novel suggests that ultimately we may never escape human nature. Roberts aims to understand why Europe in particular has for millennia been an arena in which the continent’s inhabitants squabble, murder and maim; in doing so, he posits the next place for our terrible dedication to creating ever more complicated ways of killing each other. We are so committed, New Model Army suggests, simply because we like it. Whether governed by tyranny, representative or direct democracy, we will continue to fight as we always have done. With much to say, too, about love and faith, New Model Army feels on first read like a thoughtful, layered and – yes – complete novel. Recommended.