I have to admit that I came to this one slightly biased. I haven’t really liked anything I’ve read by Roberts in the past and even though I was hoping this would change, it didn’t…
New Model Army has an interesting premise: that free-thinking individuals can assemble and form an army with no hierarchical structure or chain of command. Rather, they can communicate in real time, via wikis, where each member can contribute opinions, and fight by navigating the terrain through Google Maps. In true anarchist fashion they don’t have specialisms, so there is no sense of inequality. They download information on different topics and they train as medics, negotiators, soldiers etc., all at once. Being non-hierarchical and highly mobile, they can evade capture by simply disbanding and going back to civilian life. They can adjust their tactics rapidly, thus maintaining an advantage over traditional armies which are slow to react because of their rigid hierarchical systems.
Most of the story is narrated by a member of such an army, which is incidentally caled Pantegral, in language full of similes, as well as numerous references to both popular culture (games, tv shows, music etc) and critical theory, philosophy etc. A bottle of wine lays “Humpty-Dumptied”, while a heavy wooden door looks “like the monolith in 2001”. And that’s where the trouble starts. Roberts has to resort to making his narrator a university graduate in order to justify the constant flow of academic references. He doesn’t wear his erudition lightly. The novel ends up feeling so self-indulgent and exhibitionist that the few moments of insight and interest collapse under the burden of artificial and heavy-handed similes and allusions. What’s more, the whole thing feels contrived and forced, especially when compared to other near-future SF like en MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods or William Gibson’s Spook Country. Roberts’ language has never sounded as effortless as Gibson’s or McDonald’s.
The reader leaves New Model Army feeling overwhelmed rather than exhilarated by the concept, which is a major problem in all of the novels that I have read by Roberts and a damn shame because his ideas are usually terribly interesting. However, the concept on its own,no matter how interesting it may appear at first, cannot maintain the reader’s interest unless the writing is good enough as well. Roberts’ writing isn’t tailored to serve his themes. His pointless desire to dazzle with erudition shines through every time, leaving the reader feel patronised and confused.