Britain has been engulfed by war. The Scottish Parliament has declared independence only to find the British Army being deployed to keep control of the country. In retaliation Scotland has contracted a New Model Army, Pantegral, to fight on its behalf.
New Model Armies are paramilitary forces the likes of which the world has not seen before. They are democratic mercenary forces where every soldier is consulted - via real-time communications - over the formulation of tactics and strategy. NMAs are noted for their high morale, as unlike traditional armies their soldiers are never placed in danger through the following of orders handed down imperiously by politicians or generals safely removed from the front lines. Every NMA soldier is a general, medic, engineer and combat trooper rolled into one. They are totally self-supportive, capable of fighting en masse, engaging in guerrilla warfare or simply melting away into the countryside or urban areas and returning to civilian life at a moment's notice. They are an army that cannot be hit with bombs or WMDs, and who use advanced telecommunications technologies to stay ahead of the enemy, who are limited and slowed by their hierarchical command structures.
When Pantegral inflicts humiliating defeats upon the British Army at Basingstoke and Reading, the Brits and their American allies become obsessed with finding a way of defeating and destroying the NMAs once and for all.
Roberts' latest novel is ambitious, a treatise on the ideals of democracy and how warfare is practised. It is interesting (and a point raised in the press release) that in WWII it was the democracies that triumphed over the dictatorships (albeit the democracies aided by an extremely powerful dictatorship in the form of Stalinist Russia) when the feeling was that a democracy dependent on the will of the people, fickle and given to desiring a quiet life, could not stand up to the single will of a determined dictator. Instead the democracies triumphed decisively, adapting rapidly to changes in tactics and technology to meet the threat posed by the enemy and overcome it.
Roberts takes the same idea and applies it on a smaller scale, with an army which moves and operates as a true democracy, not having to wait for orders from high but capable of instantly reacting to changing circumstances. I suppose it's a sort of 'punk army' that does its own thing in its own way. From the outside it appears chaotic and anarchic, but the novel also depicts it as being extremely, even terrifyingly, effective. Would such an army actually work in real life? It's a debatable point (given the current fragility of computer networks, probably not, but with more resilient networks, maybe), but it also not necessarily there as a literal concept to be tackled, but as a gateway to bigger themes about democracy, republicanism, free will and personal responsibility.
Along the way there is plenty of action and impressive characterisation (the central narrator, who argues often that he is not the hero, is particularly well-drawn and his tendency to quote Omar from The Wire's catchphrase during moments of high stress is amusing), not to mention scores of blink-and-you-miss-them references to pop songs, philosophers and other writers, all of which makes for an entertaining and intriguing book.
New Model Army (****) is a thought-provoking, intelligent and occasionally funny SF novel that is well worth a look. That book is out next week in the UK and on import in the US.