Wednesday, September 29, 2010

New Model Army, by Adam Roberts

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Originally published in STRANGE HORIZONS, September 30, 2010

Like that classic novel of military science fiction about a titular organization, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Adam Roberts's novel New Model Army quickly plunges its protagonist and first-person narrator into a chaotic action sequence in which the heroes do their thing in a way that amply demonstrates their prowess, before pausing to explain what exactly is going on.

The structural similarities largely end there, although the contrast is still instructive. Unlike Heinlein's clean-cut, '50s-era young adult-book hero, Johnny Rico—coddled and even sheltered in a privileged home, unambiguously a good, earnest, simple kid who follows the rules (and keeps things G-rated) in spite of his dad's short-lived disapproval—Antony Block is a gay public school runaway and Royal Army deserter with much deeper father issues, and a steady accumulation of baggage as his life goes on. Indeed, Block, whose narrative is addressed to a skeptical audience with conservative attitudes toward soldiering, politics and much else--one who actually emerges as a character later in the story--constantly baits that audience about these aspects of his character.

Each author’s story structure reflects their thinking as much as does their choice of central figure. While Heinlein's novel is a bildungsroman about the making of a Federation citizen-soldier which has often been labeled militaristic, Roberts' narrative is a chronicle of the adventures of a combat veteran which can be read as the tale of the unmaking of a soldier.

The organizations for which the two men fight differ accordingly. The New Model Army of the title is not the standing military of a global (or national) state as in Heinlein's story, or even a particular organization, but a type of organization that has become ubiquitous in Robert's near future-a mercenary company, though one less resembling a private military corporation in the manner of Executive Outcomes, Sandline International or Blackwater USA than an armed analog to today's anarchic online communities. Block's NMA, which styles itself Pantegral (and is not the only NMA caught up in this civil war) has been commissioned by the Scottish Parliament to fight its cause against the King's men. Indeed, more than Heinlein, what Roberts' picture of a wildly fragmented British Isles where mercenary companies control the streets and rebels battle American-backed Royalists evoked for me was Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction (1995).

Of course, it might be argued that Heinlein's Federation military was itself unconventional, particularly in the ways in which it was radically volitional. As Johnny Rico notes in that book, a member of the Terran Mobile Infantry could resign from the service just thirty seconds before a combat jump. However, the organization itself was anything but democratic, the control exerted by its officers nothing short of Draconian. Instead, Heinlein emphasized the meritocratic nature of his organization, and its structuring around the purpose of actual combat (in contrast to the politicized, bureaucratically focused organizations militaries often are in real life). That is, Heinlein's novel acquired its present reputation by making a case for the limitation of democracy, where Roberts' novel treats the ideologically opposite direction, centering on a character arguing for its extension as far as is conceivable.

In telling his story, Roberts avoids drenching the reader in repetitive battle sequences. He also eschews the sort of dense operational history that demands maps and diagrams as illustration for comprehensibility, and for that matter, the kind of jargon that those unaccustomed to that sort of reading might find off-putting. The NMAs (and their opponents) field no equivalent of the capsules and powered armor of Heinlein's Terran Mobile Infantry-or the space-based weaponry and artificial intelligences of MacLeod's Fall Revolution. Those who get their images of what war might look like in a decade or two from sources like Wired's "Danger Room" might wish for a bit more technological flash in the action sequences-and for that matter, those who like intricately worked-out futures might wish Roberts' world had been more fully sketched than it is. (Certainly compared with MacLeod's handling of this material, Roberts devotes virtually no time to exploring his Balkanized Britain.) The focus is instead overwhelmingly on the dynamics of Pantegral-how such an army can come together and function the way it does, and the headaches that this causes for governments around the world (Britain being far from alone in its headaches with Block and his comrades).

From the standpoint of military theory, the NMAs certainly represent an interesting inversion of today's fashionable thinking on "net-centric warfare." popularized by Vice-Admiral Arthur K. Cebrwoski and John Garta in a seminal 1998 article. The goal of such theories has been to make military hierarchies more effective, where the NMAs dispense with hierarchy altogether so that captured members literally have no answer to give their interrogators when they are asked who their "ringleaders" are.

Roberts' depiction of the results is quite well thought-out in some respects. These armies typically number seven thousand or so (on the plausible grounds that this is the largest group which can arrange their affairs in this way), and operate without big-ticket, support-hungry weapons systems like fighter jets, attack helicopters and battle tanks. Accordingly they rely on personal weapons (like man-portable air defense systems) to neutralize these, but more importantly, operate in urbanized battlespaces where there is abundant cover from superior numbers and firepower, transportation is easy, communications infrastructure is readily available, and most of the supplies and services they need can easily be acquired locally over the counter (even if weapons and ammo have to be flown in from elsewhere).

Roberts also avoids turning the story into a simplistic wish-fulfillment. Again unlike Heinlein's Mobile Infantry, Pantegral's fighters are not supermen invariably crushing vastly greater numbers of inhuman and incompetent enemies (even if Tony argues that the rival system is dehumanizing and prone to comparative incompetence). The battles are generally written with an eye to realism, occasionally touched by the bizarre and the surreal, and the NMAs suffer casualties, often heavy ones, sometimes as a result of their own tactical and strategic mistakes. Nor are the NMAs' members always heroic. They engage in questionable practices, like financing themselves through the ransoms they demand for their prisoners, whom it is not unknown for them to mistreat. Indeed, as the name of Block's own NMA suggests, it is easy to visualize these companies as giants "striding over the landscapes of the world, and smashing the joint up" (p. 196), and doing that mainly because their members' enjoyment of violence and destruction, combined with modern light weaponry and communications technology means that wars (not guerrilla action, but actual, conventional warfare in the kinds of scenes where they operate) are easily started and economically affordable in a way they have not been for centuries.

Still, the book has its share of implausibilities, like the idea that Google can make every soldier an effective battlefield medic in a pinch, or substitute for other kinds of specialized personnel in that same way, for instance--even with "access to all the world's databases, wikis and resources" (p. 4). The story is fuzzier on the legalities than I would have liked. (While the Scottish Parliament has contracted Pantegral to fight its war, I found myself wondering what the relationship between the individual mercenaries and Pantegral looked like.) And of course, attractive as the idea of a democratic military force may be, there is no arguing the poor reputation mercenaries have with regard to reliability, an issue writers from Niccolo Machiavelli to Peter Singer have treated innumerable times over the centuries. Sheer pleasure in blowing things up, frankly, is insufficient to explain how and why such a group can stand its ground in prolonged campaigns where it is outnumbered, outgunned and suffering for it. Certainly the loose, improvised character of the organizations would seem to undercut the formation of the kinds of group bonds that would hold them together in such circumstances. (There is, for instance, no training period to create such bonds, or even establish a pattern of cooperation, before the troops first face fire together, while far from sharing foxholes, separation is routine inside the fragmented urban terrain where they operate.)

The depictions of Antony and his comrades fall far short of resolving the issue. Their explanations of their actions quickly get repetitive without getting more explanatory, though not without reason. Not only is it the case that his personal motivations-his sense that he is at bottom a soldier (even if one who does not fit into traditional structures like the British Army), his attachment to particular comrades, his commitment to democratic ideology and the rest-are a muddle. Even his point of principle comes to seem to him to be more problematic than it had when he first decided to stand on it, and as one might guess, there is a lot of shaky historical argumentation here. This is not only appropriate to Block given what the reader sees of him, but central to the change on which the course of the story ultimately hinges.

Most of what has been said so far is in line with Roberts' previous writing, which is distinguished less by sweeping world-building or flashy prose than the relation of character-centered stories against his speculative backdrops. The unreliable, problematic and sometimes rather unlikable (but believable) narrator, the thematic concern with freedom (especially freedom inside radically different kinds of political community), a touch of the epic in the treatment (despite this particular book's comparative brevity, at 288 widely spaced pages) are all familiar as well. (Indeed, the NMA repeatedly made me think of Gradisil's Uplands in their formative period.)

The same also goes for the awkwardness of the structure, and the periodic self-indulgences. Two-thirds of the way in, the story turns in a sharply different direction, and while what follows caps off and completes the story told thus far, it is still so different in setting, situation, tone and narration that, despite the set-up, there are times when it seems like a different book entirely-indeed, a more ostentatiously "literary" one as the pop cultural references increasingly give way to highbrow allusions, the meditations lengthen, and the sense of the surreal comes to predominate.

Additionally, in this instance, Roberts' effectiveness in painting a portrait of Antony gets in the way of the book's ostensible focus, which is not Antony, but Pantegral. This is not only a question of Antony's limits as an observer, important as these are, but also the implausibilities intrinsic to Pantegral-for all the things that Roberts gets right-and the exploration of the book's central ideas suffers accordingly. Nonetheless, Roberts is skillful enough to make the book proceed as smoothly as can reasonably be hoped for under the circumstances. In fact, his sheer ability to keep the reader turning the pages is fully evident here, and despite the story's flaws, the whole still manages to be well worth the while.

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