The first 2010 genre book I've read that I would be willing to see shortlisted, and another success for Roberts. Not without its problems, and not as good as the best of his work, but pretty strongly written. The main premise--new technology allows for a democratic army system which wrecks social havoc--is a problematic one in several ways, and I don't think Roberts allocated enough attention to the technical innovations and issues of hierarchy on the whole military. However, granted that as a departure point the novel rolls on quite well, a number of effective dramatic scenes, some interesting arguments about the impact of the New Model Armies and a fine tone of ambiguity and avoided polemics on both sides. The protagonist was also rendered with some very effective traces, and this made for one of the better character-centered works. Quite different from Yellow Blue Tibia and I'd expect many people who liked it to not necessarily like this latest, or vice versa. For my part I enjoyed both, and give the edge to NMA. I hope that there are at least five better genre books published in 2010, but this isn't a weak book by any means.
In line with the running sequence of reviews I’ve had for Roberts’ books, it’s intriguing to see the issue of the military emerge from a major setting subtext to explicitly becoming the focus of the work. War and professional fighters in it has been a prominent element of his fictions since Salt, and was particularly pronounced in Gradisil, On and Land of the Headless. Here the structure of organized violence is rendered a lot more creatively, and in from anthetical to the way armies function now. It’s not even on the table for how we speculate and hope armies could become, and even in science fiction it tends to either nonexistent or relatively conventional in model. Roberts’ proposal of a radically decentred, nonauthoritarian, truly conesusual and continually democratic military therefore emerges as a worthwhile concept, part of what I saw in Polystom as his systemic focus on imagining beyond the familiar binaries through speculative fiction. In this case the fact that new technologies allowing for consensual military feels so unituitive and jarring can be a productive site of discussion, interrogating what about our society and politics makes us accept it as inexorably linked to hierarchy. Even in Star Trek the Federation’s more pacifist structure tends to feature a fairly conventional military in some basic ways. Greg Egan’s utopian societies get around the issue by not having an army. The Culture is vague on exactly how it’s anarchic model fits in with hiearchy, swuggesting a whole different paradigm but not looking at military structures in much detail.
That the book goes the other direction and have characters assert that this new democratic model is inexorably superior to conventional militaries is perhaps a bit much. The work here is better than the kind of unambigious technocratic preaching a Cory Doctrow would deliver, however. It is altogther more nuanced and tentative as a narrative conclusion. And part of what makes Roberts effective as a writer is that he doesn’t just rest with the new paradigm but carries it forward and deconstructs it somewhat. The assumption held by the protagonist in the first half of the book is that this new style of fighting is a good thing--more open, less vulnerable, more effective, fighting a relatively clean war for good ends. The second half brings up a host of problems that slowly undermine this certainty, mostly by highlighting the reality of continued violence and relations of power, particularly as against the civilians, that accompany the New Model Armies. It also asks what the long-term economic consequences of this collective technique is. If war becomes democratized and more effective in cheaper amounts, then in time that means there will be more of it.
Better than: Neuromancer by William Gibson
Worse than: Gradisil by Adam Roberts