Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review of New Model Army by Adam Roberts

The world wars of the 20th century featured a mighty clash of giants on the battle field.  Their massive bodies nearly equal, it took years and countless thousands of lives to decide who was bigger and badder.  The Vietnamese War saw a new kind of battle: the giant was met with flitting guerilla tactics—little Davids, much to the chagrin of the giant.  9-11 saw an even different set of tactics employed against the giant; while it roamed field and forest poking its snout where it did and did not belong, a new breed of animal snuck behind its back and destroyed the sanctity of its home.  The giant’s reaction was as predictable as can be: it charged headlong into where it thought the animal lived and began wrecking as much havoc as it could like a bull in a china shop.  To this day, the Middle East still ripples with the effects of bombs, tanks, and thousands of troops.  But might is apparently not enough: that divisive animal lives on and is still able to score effective hits.  Tackling the David vs. Goliath military paradox in democratic terms, as well as the underlying reasons for aggression, Adam Roberts’ 2010 New Model Army is brilliant commentary on the state of war today, and, more importantly, the personal and social motivations underpinning the continual presence of war and fighting in society.

In the early stages of the novel, the following quote is laid down:

“…one of the shaping ideological forces of the second half of the twentieth century is that democracy is not just ethically better than dictatorship, it is practically superior. Hey, people said: look at the number of wars fought between the two regimes and always won by the former. This era was ushered in, and ideologically validated, by the fact that armies from democratic nations fought armies from authoritarian nations and won. But although that was the case, nobody suggested that the armies themselves should be run on democratic lines.”

The logical step following upon the last sentence is the premise backing New Model Army.  Though interconnected via wireless networks and utilizing wikis and virtual maps to continually remain abreast of the situation, the soldier of a New Model Army remains independent.  Not subject to a hierarchy of rank, they vote (via a network application) both in the heat of battle and when planning conflicts to decide the direction of the group.  Selling their talents to those willing to pay, NMAs are mercenary groups that operate with pure democracy as the principle inherent to every decision and gritty independence to make a living on the battlefield.

New Model Army is set in Europe circa 2030 and is told through the eyes of Anthony Bloch, a soldier fighting for Pantegral, a New Model Army in the UK.  Pantegral contracted into action when the Scottish Parliament decides to fund a secession effort, Bloch is a member of the motley group who surgically picks apart the lumbering “feudal army” of the English.  An autonomous soldier to the core, Bloch had spent time fighting for the English Army, but didn’t want to take orders for the sake of hierarchy, choosing ‘true democracy’, instead.  “An army of free men is always going to have higher morale than an army of slaves”, he states, later criticizing the standard model as an “oligarchy punctuated by occasional contests to determine who has the most effective control of the media.”  Blood and carnage surrounding the English assault on Pantegral and vice versa, it isn’t until tragedy strikes that Bloch reevaluates his situation.   The form his resolution ultimately takes, however, is something unlike the world has ever seen.

Integrating philosophy from the Greeks to Hobbes’ Leviathan, New Model Army utilizes different versions of democracy for story and philosophical purpose, that is, rather than just telling yet another military sci-fi story of heroism and violence in the Western world.  The concept of an NMA an interesting parallel to modern ‘terrorists’ attacks, Roberts goes deeper to examine why human groups are continually in war and in conflict with themselves.  The narrative’s sub-text (often quite ostensible) is used to examine politics and socio-political theory, while the ending is the point to which Roberts drives the agenda.  Abstract given the context, the symbolism towers above the story, conflating what had previously been a dichotomy of perspective into a whole.

Alan Poulter, member of LibraryThing, levels some interesting criticisms at the technical plausibility of New Model Army. Other readers inevitably hung up on similar inconsistencies (including myself to some minor degree), I thought I would address them here.

The first criticism is that “NMAs make 'democratic' decisions via a networked 'wiki', not a chain of command. Leaving aside the implied 'generals are stupid' cliche, has anyone anywhere ever got a good decision out of online debate in the timescale (minutes) that tactical warfare demands?”  Such real-time decision making indeed a potential Achilles’ heel, Roberts attempts to explain this by having the NMA soldiers constantly updating their wikis and maps with the most up to date data, thus giving them the opportunity to choose as wisely as possible when heat of the moment decisions are proposed and needed.  Whether this is believable is, of course, up to the reader.  The second criticism is: “Since a laptop user is labelled 'old fashioned', the assumption is that NMA troops are using handhelds: these are ergonomic nightmares to use in a combat situation. How are these devices networked? A satellite-based network is not something that ordinary people can set up. And how is this 'network' protected against hackers?”  The first point Roberts handles with aplomb.  The ‘handhelds’ are, in fact, described as forearm-strapped devices which leave the hands free.  The second part, i.e. the comment regarding network infrastructure, is more ambiguous; Roberts never describes the details.  The NMAs do have money, and in a free market economy it is possible to think they could pay to have satellites of their own launched.  The year being 2030, it’s also possible to think Pantegral are simply using a more advanced version of our existing ground-based network, i.e. towers and antennae.  Hacker protection, well, that is directly addressed in the story, and is something even ‘feudal armies’ must deal with.  The third and final criticism, and the strongest I think, is: “Where do NMA recruits get weapons, ammunition and training: Guns'R'Us?”  Given at one point Pantegral employs a mini-nuke, the question becomes even more incisive.  NMA soldiers are expected to provide for themselves based on funds received from their organization via a sponsor, but where exactly they purchase arms is a tantalizing question given arms sales is currently illegal in Britain.  No statement is provided regarding that law being repealed, not to mention it’s difficult to imagine nukes, big or small, ever becoming common commodities.  Roberts simply never presents the details of weapons acquisition, leaving the reader to make their own assumptions.

Regardless of the plausibility of the supporting technical details, New Model Army is a conceptual novel, and must be approached as such.  Roberts is not as interested in the details of army logistics as he is in the ideas surrounding an army’s motivations and ideological reasons for fighting.  Bloch, like so many of Roberts’ characters, seems an ordinary, freedom loving guy at first, and it is through his character Roberts’ intentions manifest.  As Bloch’s story unfolds, idiosyncrasies and characteristics emerge that make the reader ask questions, and ultimately open an oft-unopened window on the human condition—as dirty as it may be.  The manner in which Roberts uses Bloch to question some of modern society’s most sacred perceptions of democracy may be worth the price of the novel, alone.

In the end, New Model Army is an intelligent examination of the masses, how they have, do, and may yet make collective decisions, and what may become of it all in a future ripe with technology and war.  Possessing immediate relevancy due its parallels to the Middle East conflict (as opposed to Salt’s more conceptual relevancy), the novel also transcends contemporary conflicts to look at wars and battles throughout time.  Written in clear, concise prose, Roberts also has time for commentary on celebrity-ism and the inherent value of monarchy, makes direct representation of Baudrillard’s ideas regarding the ‘sexualization’ of the Gulf War, and also seems to in some way be in dialogue with the New Model Army idea from British history in the mid 17th century.  Following in the science fiction tradition founded by H.G. Wells and furthered by such writers as George Orwell and John Brunner, the novel is full-on political/philosophical commentary, updated for the contemporary state of global governments.  Regardless of technical infeasibilities, how this book was given only one award nomination is beyond me…


  1. Very interesting. "Salt" was already on my reading horizon, now it has company.

    1. Thank you, says this Mr. Hudson to you, Mr. Andrew Hudson. Try Salt first. Not that it's better or worse, but I think it's a better balance of Roberts' idea of what sci-fi is. If you like it, then there's a chance you will enjoy New Model Army as well...

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Good review - thanks. I read it and was likewise initially impressed with the concept but found my suspension of disbelief kicking in later. Another one of Adam Roberts' works worth a read is "on" which is very strange: a world where gravity works at right-angles, so everyone is scratching for a living on a vertical cliff face!

    1. Thanks. I haven't read On. I'll check it out.