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January 31, 2012

New Model Army - Adam Roberts

New Model Army by Adam Roberts starts with a great idea at its core: what would happen if a fully democratic fighting force, enabled by modern technology, took on the regular British Army? The new fighting forces are called New Model Armies, they use wikis and continuous comms, they have no hierarchy, they vote democratically on everything, including tactics, and always follow the majority. They're not guerrillas as such, but at a moments notice they evaporate to nowhere. And they're contracted by the Scottish government to force what turns into the War Of Succession.

The story follows a single character, who tells the story from their perspective in the past tense, through battles and loses and victories.

The ideas are intriguing. The reaction of the British Army is disbelief and they try and discredit the enemy as terrorists. The point made by the NMAs is that they are truly democratic, they don't put a cross on a piece of paper every four years and pass their decisions to a representative, everyone takes part, there are proposals and counter proposals for everything, things are decided and the majority is followed. Often when the idea of everyone voting on an issue is discussed in the real world current politicians dismiss it as unworkable. You can see their reluctance to even have a referendum on big issues. The attitude is "we're in, we won, see you in 4/5 years". It's about power not democracy. This novel felt like a rallying call against the status quo. With of course a look at the drawbacks. Later in the novel the main character confronts an American soldier and tries to goad him, the only point that succeeds is about what real democracy is. Which is the point. The American is fighting for democracy, yet the enemy is more democratic than him.

The middle section of the novel becomes more personal, following the lead character as he returns to an old lover. This section does personalise the story, adding some background to the main character's life, however I was itching to return to the big ideas.

Well, I got what I was wishing for, because finally the novel, as is said in SF parlance, "goes off on one". Which I feel slightly contradicted about. On one hand I love it when a story has the guts to go crazy, take the big idea and go bigger than anyone expected, to go a bit abstract and bonkers. On the other hand I wanted a more concrete resolution to the novel, with more of the blanks filled in and maybe a bit of the aftermath, it felt like the start of something, not the finish. On balance though I think I come down on the "glad it went bonkers" side.

The story also wins point from me for setting the main part of the tale in Southern England, where I now live. Purely personal, but sometimes it's nice when a location you know gets turned into a war zone. I'm pretty sure that anyone who has had the joy of interacting with the twosn of Basingstoke or Reading will probably enjoy those scenes too.

All in all a truly thought provoking Science Fiction novel with big, big ideas and moments that made me want to jump up and scream for the revolution.