Monday, 20 September 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Two Tribes

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

Two Tribes

8/21: Two Tribes by Chris Beckett

The blurb: As a historian in the bleak, climate-ravaged twenty-third century, it's Zoe's job to record and archive the past, not to recreate it. But when she comes across the diaries of Harry and Michelle, who lived two hundred years ago, she becomes fascinated by the minutiae of their lives and decides to write a novel about them, filling in the gaps with her own imaginings.

Harry and Michelle meet just after the Brexit referendum when Harry's car breaks down outside a small town in Norfolk. Despite their different backgrounds, and Michelle having voted Leave while Harry voted Remain, they are drawn to each other and begin a relationship.

From her long perspective, the way Zoe sees their world is somewhat different from the way we see it now. Two Tribes becomes a reflection on the way our ideas are shaped by class and social circumstances, and how they change without us even noticing. It explores what divides us and what brings us together. And it asks where we may be headed next.

The review: I've read a bit of Chris Beckett before. He does a nice line in cleverly constructed and very plausible speculative fiction... the slight difference here is that the imagined future serves primarily as a vehicle for examining the mess we are in now. Okay, I suppose you could argue that a lot of speculative fiction does that, inviting you to join the dots between the now and some imagined dystopian hell. But Two Tribes imagines a future historian, looking back at these early years of the 21st Century with an academic detachment, albeit a detachment that falters as she becomes more engrossed in the entwined lives of protagonists Harry and Michelle.

I should also add, to save the time of any readers that aren't interested, that Brexit plays a massive part in this story. Harry and Michelle's romance plays out like a Romeo and Juliet for our times, with Leave and Remain replacing the Montagues and Capulets. So, cards on the table: I voted to remain in the EU. I have also been pretty scathing about the arguments of the average Leave voter, have despaired at the impact of Brexit, and have indulged in a fair amount of "See, I told you so, look at the mess we're in now" hand-rubbing at Leave-voters' expense. So it's a credit to this book, this work of fiction, that it has made me think about how and why so many people came to vote Leave than almost anything else. Don't get me wrong, I still don't forgive Cameron for calling the referendum, and I certainly don't forgive people like Farage, Johnson, Cummings et al for campaigning to leave... but I can understand some of the Leave vote better now. That's something no amount of Guardian articles has managed for me...

There's a timely environmental sub-plot going on here too. An unspecified climate event has occurred sometime between now and historian Zoe's time; it is referred to as The Catastrophe. The fall-out from this is neatly illustrated with a succession of small details: parrots are more common in Zoe's London than pigeons; the preying mantis is a common pest; rising water levels have literally reshaped the country; and constant work on flood defences is essential but poorly-paid work for the slum dwellers of London's shanty towns. The historical perspective also allows incredulity to be expressed about our current way of life: on a number of occasions, Zoe expresses amazement that people in the 21st Century would drive around in personal vehicles that burned 4 or 5 litres of refined oil every hour. The implication is obvious, every time: we're making out own Catastrophe, right now.

There's more going on too - the central theme of Two Tribes seems to be how polarisation leads to separation and division, that when everything is black and white with no shades of grey (and no compromise) then the result will inevitably be conflict. Beckett drops this backstory in neatly, and historian Zoe lays the foundations for a civil war so consuming that not even The Catastrophe can stop it.

On the face of it, this is an easy read: Beckett's prose flows nicely, he creates a compelling and plausible future, and the two storylines (Zoe's, and that of Harry and Michelle) both keep moving forward - the pages keep turning. But it is also an uneasy read, making it all too easy to extrapolate our current situation, politically, socially and environmentally; for this reader, who already thinks that everything is going to hell in a handcart, Two Tribes will linger long in the mind, and prompt many an uncomfortable question whilst it does so.

The bottom line: well-written and all too plausible dystopia, and carefully-constructed, thought-provoking examination of the now, through the imagined lens of history.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

No comments:

Post a Comment