The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Matt Coward's Acts of Destruction: neither Airstrip One nor Nowhere, but the Commonwealth!

Mat Coward sent me a review copy of this book, so I owe him a review. I don't owe him a good review, of course, but a good review is what he's going to get because I genuinely enjoyed the book.

It's very hard to think of a novel set in a future socialist Britain that isn't a dystopia or a utopia - Airstrip One or Nowhere. The Commonwealth of Britain in Acts of Destruction isn't described anywhere as socialist - in fact the word and its cognates don't occur anywhere in the text - but socialist it is. Socialism, if it's called anything, is called democracy. The revolution is called the Process and the constitution is called the Agreement of the People. After you've read a bit, you may find yourself thinking, 'Oh come on, it can't be as cosy and consensual as all that'. Reading on, you find it isn't: the state is definitely in the 'firm but fair' category, even if its laws are enforced by bobbies on bicycles.

Even Tories and libertarians might enjoy Coward's frequent baiting of current life-style politics: smoking is encouraged, particularly in local pubs, and healthy eating means good greasy spoon fare. There are even rifles in the hands of the people, though I would have strong objections to the limits placed on this - as does, to be fair, at least one of the sympathetic voices in the book.

Like in all the best crime novels, we start with the discovery of a body, go on to apparently unrelated matters - stolen tomatoes, a missing child, some problem about bees - and find they're all tied together by the end. Along the way we've had our viewpoint characters' relationships get interestingly more complicated. I hope Mat is working on a sequel, because I'd like to meet them again.

You can buy the book here (and sample it here).

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It's very hard to think of a novel set in a future socialist Britain that isn't a dystopia or a utopia

That great fantasy writer (and early Fabian), E. Nesbit, as well as writing things like "The Railway Children", produced "The Story of the Amulet" in 1906. It includes a chapter set in a future Fabian-socialist Britain that is really rather nice. I read it a long time ago, and the only details I remember are the child called "Wells, after the great reformer", and the horrified reaction of the Future Brits to the idea that children might be beaten.

Wells is probably a good place to look for optimistic socialist SF.

But it's normally pessimistic, you're right. I read one really depressing one recently in which the election of a moderate-socialist government in Britain was closely followed by civil war, European war, nuclear exchange, Balkanisation, massive software failure, chaos, plague and the collapse of civilisation. I think it was called "The Star Function" or something.

A hairshirt green utopia where coal-mining is a major part of the economy? coherence much?

Actually, I couldn't tell from the sample whether it was meant to be a utopia or a dystopia. I don't know if anyone's said this yet, but I would propose as a principle that any society recognisable as a utopia to one reader must also be recognisable as a dystopia to another reader with sufficiently different opinions.

Thanks for letting me know this existed, may be showing my ignorance, but would not have been aware of it otherwise. Have now ordered it and the SF short stories, so your promoting it has worked for this visitor.

Ooh, sounds interesting, although I am tiring of socialist-bent utopian or dystopian fiction. I'd be much more interested to read some anarchist utopian sci-fi - Ken, your old libertarian/socialist stuff was a bit unique in that sense.

I'm wondering if you've come across David Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology yet? A pretty good free read.

Actually, on second thought I suppose anarchist utopian science fiction would be somewhat boringly undramatic, along the lines of K S Robinson's "Pacific Edge"

Adam - I didn't know there was enough socialist-bent utopian and dystopian fiction to get tired of.

I think I've read at least one online version of Graeber's text. I made some use of the work of Harold Barclay (another anarchist anthropologist) in 'Dark Light'.

Ken, good point! Blinded by my mood, I'll say.

I hadn't heard of Barclay (being an armchair anthropologist at this point), I will look into him, thanks!

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