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New Model Army - The Ex-Communicator

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June 29th, 2010


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03:22 pm - New Model Army
Human development, once the business of sustaining life is dealt with, is driven by the development of the means of war. As soon as a culture develops, either as a sub-culture of ours, or in some other part of the world, which is better at the business of war than ours is, then it will overrun and destroy us. Or convert us to itself, which comes to the same thing. And when a dominant culture becomes expert at a particular form of war - let us say chariot-warfare - then it is in the interests of its rivals to find another form of war (as let us say the Roman Empire did). My poem Lunt Fort is about that process. Just as each person will pass away, and so we should be calm in the face of mortality, so new forms of war will arise and pass away, and so we should accept that process of passing away.

Furthermore, I think it is clear how a new culture, into which we may pass gently or traumatically, could be superior to our own. Our culture wastes its main resource - human ability - with massive profligacy, like flushing oil into the sea. Any talented person (unless very lucky) is constantly battling to be allowed to do what they do best. This is not a characteristic of the universe, but a characteristic of social organisation. A social system which harnesses its resources just a little better (as the horse collar for example, allowed the better exploitation of horse power) will kick our arses.

Adam Roberts' novel New Model Army is a dramatisation of this process: firstly the harnessing, secondly the arse-kicking. A small mercenary army, with a non-hierarchical wifi-enabled collaborative organisation, defeats the British Army, fighting through Reading, Slough and Windsor to London. This is an amoral victory, the new Model Army is not better, it is just better at war. Is this an extended metaphor for the replacement of hierarchical with collaborative social systems? Well, if war is the driver of history then we will either go quietly, or we will go kicking and screaming, but we will go. Not metaphorically but actually.

The second very good aspect of the way this story is told is that it shows that the new system is much more fun, more attractive to humans, than the 'feudal' (as he calls it) society which it replaces. I think this is absolutely true. Agriculture or Industrialism were more effective than the systems they replaced, but I am not sure they were more fun. In this case I think what comes after us could be less oppressive as well as more effective, as the horse collar is better than the yoke because it does not constantly choke the horse.

However, Roberts makes two decisions, perhaps driven by the need to make this into a saleable story, which weakened it for me. One is to add an SF subplot about the new distributed intelligence becoming sentient, which is a bit overwritten and fails to convince (me) - done much better by Vernor Vinge for example.

A second decision was to place the army in the familiar London commuter belt, kicking the arse of the British army on behalf of the Scottish Parliament. I know this is a fun idea but it doesn't make sense the way it is written. The army exploits the passivity-to-complicity of the local population. This in itself is not implausible - the Viet Cong, or the Shining Path for example worked in this way. But it would not work in this context - an army of mercenaries wrecking London, on behalf of the Scottish Parliament. The combatants are able to melt into the local population, use local hospitals, draw money out of cash-points. The English would not co-operate with this. Furthermore, once a tactical nuke was used the Scottish Parliament would either repudiate the army they had hired, or be themselves nuked. This isn't a moral claim - I'm not saying someone deserves to be nuked or whatever, it's just that's how war works.

And more widely, the new Model Army parasitizes on the infrastructure of the old hierarchical society. In reality, any replacement system must be self-sustaining, or like the Zombie Apocalypse it will burn itself out.

In reality forms of aggression and production which are distributed and supported by the local populace are possible, and do occur, and if they develop further could become a serious threat/alternative to our current power structures. This novel does not accurately represent this process, but it is a provocative flag gesturing towards it.

ETA This Crooked Timber post also addresses the 'new forms of warfare' question.
John Robb author, ‘Brave New War; the Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization’: Guerrilla groups could use open source organizational models (drawn from the software industry), networked super-empowerment (freely available high tech tools, network information access, connections to a globalized economy), and systems disruption (the targeting of critical points on infrastructure networks that cause cascading failures) to defeat even the most powerful of opponents, even a global superpower.”

Maria Farrell : Call me parochial, but isn’t this just the sort of thing Michael Collins was doing 90 years ago?

In a sense, yes, the new forms of war are a development of a long standing model used by 'freedom fighters' but rendered more effective by technology.

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