Friday, 9 April 2010

Book Review: New Model Army by Adam Roberts

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"A giant has brought war to England's heartland. He stalks across the fields and towns to the west of London. The British army has tried to destroy him but each time he has beaten them. When they bring in air support and deploy heavy weapons he simply melts away, only to form again somewhere else and deliver another devastating blow. He is called Pantegral. And he is you and me.

Pantegral is a New Model Army. A giant whose thoughts flow through countless wireless communications, whose intelligence comes from the internet and real-time camera updates, whose mind is made up of thousands of minds, each deciding what Pantegral will choose to do.

And Pantegral has chosen the joy of the fight. His fury is truly democratic.


One of my particular quirks is that when reading a novel with the intent of reviewing it, I keep a few packets of Post-It Note page markers at the ready. When I arrive at a passage or a phrase that I feel encapsulates some vital aspect of whatever narrative I'm in the grips of, I highlight it with one of these multi-coloured sticky plastic slices so that I might return to it come the time I sit down to organise my thoughts and impressions into a coherent argument. Usually, there'll be no more than four or five of these markers in any given novel, and they're often clumped together towards the mid-point and beyond, when I begin to see the path and purpose of a narrative.

With New Model Army, a modest novel by physical proportions - less than 300 pages from beginning to end, and set, at that, in large typescript - I hadn't been reading for more than an hour and my packet of sky-blue page markers ran out. Dutifully, I cracked open another colour - neon green - finding them no less in demand as I progressed. And so it was that, by the time I'd turned the last page of multiple Arthur C. Clarke award-nominated Brit author Adam Robert's latest, and very likely greatest, the edge of New Model Army was a rainbow frill of sticky plastic like the hindquarters of some sub-tropical creature in heat.

This is a novel of ideas, great and small - a line of shots of concentrated speculation - and though many of its myriad concepts are carefully constructed studies in the complexity of human enterprise, that at the core of New Model Army can be iterated simply enough. War has long been an institution unto itself, an endless, self-propagating spiral of destruction for destruction's own sake, but in a future not too far from our own, a new sort of soldier has arisen from the ashes of the pyres that conflicts through the ages have lit. These men and women are soldiers who "exist to fight, because we are soldiers and that's what we do"; soldiers, such as our protagonist and narrator Tony Block, who fight not for ideals or oil or the bottom-dollar, but "for our army because it's home."

They are New Model Armies, spontaneous, mercenary giants of the battlefield; groups of independent citizens who believe the Regular army, "an army of slaves," are going about warfare the wrong way, stubbornly stuck in a rut of hierarchy and tradition. The NMAs are founded on a radical species of democracy, governed by all and none in the same pivotal instant. And when Scotland, which "had once sold oil on the world market but was now reduced to that international dole, tourist income, supplemented by sales of a type of sulfur-coloured alcohol," contracts Pantegral to reclaim from the English the country's independence, the so-called Midlothian mafia go to war against their own.

The Regular army are of course no match for the here-today, gone-tomorrow force of the NMA, and soon the UK, and then all of Europe, are in the grip of pure democracy. But democracies are nothing without individuals, and so it is from the perspective of one such sort that we learn of the Battle of Basingstoke and the other guerilla campaigns Pantegral wage across the heartland of England. Tony's experiences form the larger part of the narrative of New Model Army, and though he is quick to dismiss his part - the novel itself begins with his declaration that "I am not the hero of this story" - it is through his eyes that we come to frame the revolution. In point of fact, it is Tony, and not the NMA he is a part of, that is haunted by the spectre of a dead child he glimpses in the conflict's first real skirmish: a boy with a key embedded in his forehead. The key, "an old-style piece of ironmongery: a metal ring and shaft at the end of which was fused an abbreviated row of metal tetris blocks," is but one instance of the penetrating imagery that serves to make a more relatable affair of the otherwise grand concerns of New Model Army.

The cutting humour throughout functions similarly, as well as anthropomorphising the "body militic" that is Pantegral. Of the British police force, Roberts asserts that they "are supposed to enforce the law using, as I understand it, the moral force of their example and personality, as well as a piece of wooden broomhandle," while he fashions an unforgettable allegory taking to task the part love plays in human existence: "I enjoy eating beefsteaks, and because beefsteaks serve the useful purpose of keeping me alive, I therefore declared the universe to be beefsteak, God a beefsteak, and beefsteak the universal core value of everything." Furthermore, New Model Army is self-aware speculative fiction, grounded in a cultural consciousness we can share and shot full of disparate references ranging from The Terminator to Tolkein and The Cranberries. Such touches leave the distance between our world and the world whose axis Pantegral helps to invert that much closer.

At times, New Model Army is a challenging novel, but rise to the task and you'll find it a revelatory one. A short, sharp shock of a narrative: masterfully composed, rich in ideas and dangerously daring. Adam Roberts is truly a giant of British speculative fiction. From Yellow Blue Tibia to this, one can only wonder, breathlessly, what glorious horrors the man might enact upon us next.


New Model Army
by Adam Roberts
April 2010, Gollancz

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1 comment:

  1. Sounds pretty tasty. It's going on the wish list.