Birthday presents rarely come with IOUs attached to them, but maybe this general maxim doesn’t extend to birthday presents given by novelists. And so, the below, is my feeble attempt at repaying the debt I incurred to Sean Gabb, author of ‘The Break’, by ageing a year.
To call the setting of the novel ‘futuristic’ would only be the half of it. The Break is the colloquial name given to a freak accident whereby Nature - or God - saw fit to plonk 21st century England right in the middle of the 11th century AD. On mainland Europe, then, the Byzantine Empire still breathes, the Crusades have not yet been called, and William the Bastard is Duke of Normandy. In Britain, there is a veritable police-state run by a matching – if slightly amplified - set of demagogues to those ruling Britain today. If I were living in the post-Break England, I know where I’d go. But that’s just it: contact with ‘Outsiders’ is expressly forbidden!
Immediately, the libertarian reader will see parallels between this and the Ayn Rand novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’. In ‘Atlas Shrugged’ a series of catastrophes foist themselves upon the heroic industrialists of the novel. The government, too, in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has become a totalitarian state, issuing tirelessly an unceasing string of socialist directives aimed at improving the ‘general welfare’ of the people – all in the name of the ‘common good’. Disaster after disaster transpires, and Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden – the two most profit-loving, dollar-sign-worshipping, big businesspeople in non-Galt’s Gulch America are the protagonists.
In addition to Rand’s writing style veering between the Biblical and the Shakespearean, and never missing an opportunity to write a page about cigarette smoke, or tens of pages in one sitting about Objectivist epistemology, the book has many faults. For one thing, she tries unsuccessfully in over one thousand pages to do what Sean Gabb has done successfully in three hundred. That is, to place calamity and chaos in the background in such a way that the reader feels the events of the novel could just as easily have happened to his world or his society as to the one about which he is reading. Rand tries extraordinarily, unbelievably, exceptionally hard - and fails. What makes it all the more spectacular is that Gabb wrote his masterpiece in about six weeks, the first of the forty seven chapters being written in a coffee shop the day he thought the whole thing up. Rand, I believe, took a few years.
And then there’s also that peculiar dictum in Atlas: none of Rand’s characters are likeable. Perhaps it’s because she had too many of them and didn’t give herself the time to develop any of them properly. But, this theory falls short, because she had and took all the time in the world to write the damned novel and because Dagny is very much in the foreground. And still I can’t bring myself to like her. Why that is, I can’t be sure. There’s certainly no shortage of rational and intelligent thought and action emanating from Ms Taggart and there’s even romance between her and another big businessperson. I, personally, don’t see the need for Rand to give all of her ‘heroes’ narcissistic personality disorder, but whatever the potential of the characters, there’s little with which you can relate. Sure, you can hate with a scorching passion the villains of the novel, but hate is an easier emotion to stir up than are love, excitement, and empathy.
Jennifer – the first of the two main characters to be introduced – is a young, adventurous teenage girl who, upon her arrival back home in Kent from 11th century France, finds that her parents have been ‘taken’. She knows, in the context of post-Break “Where are your papers?” England, what this means, even if the reader doesn’t. How I’d deal with news like this, I do not know, but what I can be sure of is that each would deal with it in his own way. It doesn’t matter when you’re reading ‘The Break’ though, because the character becomes you and you become the character, owing to the skilful way in which the narration is done. Very much used to being ogled and occasionally groped, one gets the impression that post-Break England in which Jennifer is living has become more depraved than nineteen seventies cinema. Jennifer, somewhat further into the novel, is not just intent upon finding – or avenging? - her parents, but on learning more about just what is going on in England – a question Gabb never gives us, the readers, the answer to on a silver platter. With no pride and with friends in high places – or so she thinks – Jennifer is a feisty character who poses as big a threat as anyone else to the security of the British State!
From the other side of Europe, and a thousand years ago, Michael and his Uncle Simeon are sent as Ambassadors from Byzantium to approach this magical land of England where carriages move without horses, the natives communicate through little boxes, and the squeezing of a small lever can send a metal ball forward with enough momentum to kill a man on the spot, to ask for their assistance against their hostile neighbours. Here we experience, after having already seen a similar ability to empathise with a character earlier on, Gabb’s effortless transplanting of Michael’s eyes into our own sockets. Just what would 21st century England look like through the eyes of an ancient? Not telling, you’ll have to read the book for that. And in a twist reminiscent of Kelsey Grammer’s portrayal of a New York Mayor battling with Alzheimer’s, the teenage Michael has his own problems which he fights fiercely hard to overcome.
Yes, the novel is a compilation of many things good about the author: his knowledge of Byzantine history, as also seen in his Aelric series, written under the pen-name, Richard Blake; his libertarianism, being of course the Director of the Libertarian Alliance for something like ten years by now; and his knowledge of the various Kentish A-roads. So we therefore see not only pages upon pages of map references throughout for those readers who can be bothered, but also a vivid and chilling depiction of how our tolerant and multicultural society could end up no more liberal and open-minded than those Turks blowing themselves up in the middle of London within the novel. And this novel is also an illustration of perhaps why Gabb has such a reputation for being ‘anti-American’ – which he says is “unjust”. As usual it turns out to be the Americans who are partly behind the quest for conquest and colonisation of the as yet untransformed and unhomesteaded world, but this time, it is time itself that could be their ‘weapon of mass destruction’. With this much given away, I’ll leave you guessing as to whether the novel has a happy ending or not.
Further to all this, Gabb, himself anything but anti-technology, opens our eyes to the sinister side of technology - the possible uses of technology against humanity itself – resulting from increasing levels of government ‘investment’ and ‘research’. If it turns out the State we know and despise is even half as advanced as the one in ‘The Break’ then I’ll never sleep again.
Any negatives. Well, perhaps Gabb should sack his proof-readers. The odd misplaced comma I can ignore. The occasional missing speech mark, ditto. “Chapter Forty Fice”, however, I can’t. However, we need to bear in mind that this is a better book than Ayn Rand’s drivel, even if hers is ‘silly mistake-free’. Also, yet this could be due to the fact that I never did read fiction as a young child and so haven’t developed the capacity to quickly paint mental pictures and quickly understand alien concepts, some of the machinery and some of the physics might have done with an extra paragraph of explanation, but there would be a very fine line to tread in this respect between subtly elucidating and going into a full-fledged James Bond villain confession. Oh, and Madsen Pirie was mentioned. But, then again, he wasn’t mentioned in a flattering light I suppose. He is painted as he appears: the Establishment Libertarian who’d be the first to rub shoulders with Basil Radleigh if he were real.
All-in-all, then, the best fiction book I’ve read in a long time. The best recently published (in the last few years) I have read. It has everything: really good, mindless, yet necessary, violence; a struggle for power; chases; philosophy; romance; Big Business; the lot. As such, it must appeal to everyone. Even Moslems, who, I must say, aren’t actually demonised in the way any other writer might demonise them, but instead they are shown to be cruelly manipulated and regarded as vermin by the British State. A thoroughly enjoyable read, even if the tragic and sudden death of one character left me cursing the author’s name.
So the moral of this story, it is easy for to tell, if you want to play with God’s Laws, you’ve got to go to Hell!