Review: IF THEN by Matthew De Abaitua
There’s a longstanding tendency for events of great historical import to be collapsed into a noun and the definite article. And so it is here: The Seizure. The Process. The War. Behind nouns such as these lurks unspeakable trauma on a scale beyond human conception. As such, it is at the level of the individual or local community that we are able to relate to these events.
An unspoken number of years into a possible future, following the widespread socio-economic collapse of the Seizure, the residents of Lewes have surrendered themselves to the Process, an omnipresent cloud of algorithmic idiot intelligence which directs their community. Its calculations are purported to determine fairness, and if its decisions may seem incomprehensible, or even cruel, well: an ordinary human cannot comprehend the Process. Those it chooses to evict must be evicted for a reason; resources are finite, after all, and the good of the group trumps that of the individual. This is surely fair.
Besides which, living under the Process is better than things were before. Memories of the Seizure linger in the mind of all but the youngest: of the collapse of the world that was, the mass evictions of ‘excess population’, the realisation that one no longer provided ‘value’ in a world where ‘value’ was all, the sundering of all social contracts. Elsewhere in England the aftershocks of the Seizure remain a lived, livid experience. Better the devil you know, then, even if this particular devil you don’t really understand.
James and Ruth, a married couple whose relationship barely survived the Seizure, live on in Lewes. In many ways their position feels secure. Ruth teaches children at the school, whilst James is the town’s bailiff. In support of this role he has been given a full implant that allows the Process greater access to his mind. In contrast, most of his fellow Lewesians have only ‘the stripe’, a simpler implant which allows data pertaining their emotional state to be fed into the ceaseless calculations of the Process. His implant renders James somewhat emotionally inert; he is often unaware of the strain this places upon his wife, although he is aware of the fear with which his community regards him. As bailiff he enacts the will of the Process, enforcing its regular evictions.
This has been life for some years. But when James finds a mute soldier who is not quite a man caught on barbed wire outside of town, and recognises him as a creation of the Process, it becomes clear that great change is coming. It is to be war: a war never forgotten, but long since passed.
This is Matthew De Abaitua’s second novel, following The Red Men (2007). His first novel examined questions of conscience in times of great political conflict, where authoritarianism and technology collided with revolutionary resistance. For a time it appears IF THEN will do something similar, devoting as it does a third of its length to articulating a largely pastoral society governed – perhaps autocratically managed is a better term – by algorithms fed by data derived from the governed themselves. However, it soon becomes apparent that De Abaitua’s concerns are less with a possible future than with a possible past.
The novel is divided into two parts. First there is IF, which explores the Lewes township through the eyes of James and, to a lesser extent, Ruth. This part of the novel builds slowly, devoting much time to James himself, and his ponderous thoughts on the Process and his own role within it. It explores also Ruth’s feelings of helplessness, of living subject to forces far greater than what one human being can engage, returning several times to the stark image of her own eviction during the Seizure, trembling and sobbing with a kitchen knife in her hands. And it explores the slow awakening of Hector, the soldier whom James rescued from the wire outside town. IF ends when James leaves town, shortly followed by Ruth, in pursuit of runaway events that have begun to feel like destiny.
THEN concerns itself largely with a small part of the Great War: Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles campaign. It follows James, now a stretcher-bearer in the 32nd Field Ambulance, who alongside Hector is charged with rescuing the wounded. His fellow stretcher-bearers are largely composed of those who choose to serve, but not to fight: Quakers, pacifists, intellectuals, or those who “could not abide the shame of the white feather”. As the campaign unfolds, events from James’ memory begin to push through to the surface, leading him to question his own experiences – whilst on the home front Ruth experiences quite different horrors as she attempts to find her husband.
Despite beginning with an unusual exploration of a post-collapse society, one driven by a model that will be familiar to anyone passingly familiar with contemporary futurist expositions of zeitgeisty concepts like social algorithms and Big Data, IF THEN is far more interested in the past. Its fusion of the pastoral and the high-technocratic (why, its all-pervading Process is even driven by biotech) largely falls by the wayside as it gets stuck into what it truly wants to explore: the revolutionary ideas of a largely forgotten collection of “trench mystics” who emerged from the Great War. And so it is that a novel which initially presents itself as looking forwards, beyond the trauma of our collective futures, turns instead to the past, at how human history turns in great cycles, endeavouring to break the back of the human spirit upon its wheel, ensuring that suffering is the only real constant.
The themes of IF THEN concern the acts of great endurance and kindness that characterise the individual human response to industrialised suffering; of the spaces that constitute the cracks in social control and of the humanity that flourishes there. These ideas are beautifully explored in the responses of the novel’s characters to the frankly ghastly situations they experience, and stand in stark contrast to the grossly self-destructive initiatives of those who seek to end suffering by changing the path of history.
IF THEN is not an easy novel, in that the experience of reading it was, for me, a constant process of triangulation and re-alignment; as a reader I never quite settled into a sense of moral surety. This in itself is an impressive achievement, though I’m unsure to what extent this was deliberate. It is also sometimes beautifully written, and the Suvla Bay chapters are enormously evocative of tremendous disorientation and dislocation.
Other elements impressed me less. Significant among these: history is repeated in order that, er, history not be repeated; systems designed to prevent suffering must reproduce suffering in order to fully understand what they are to prevent – all in the name of the greater good (the greater good). At face value this concept feels too reductively daft to have gone unnoticed and so I assume it is intentional irony. Whilst irony is a helpful survival mechanism it rarely has anything of useful specificity to offer concerning the future.
IF THEN feels almost like a novel that has lost track of what it was trying to articulate. It lingers throughout; the opening third drags, repeating character beats and concepts that have already been presented, whilst there are parts of the latter segments which seem to add little to either the narrative, its characters or the ideas it is attempting to unpack. As a novel that purports to be science fiction it is dissatisfying, looking deeply at the past in order to present nothing revelatory about the present or future beyond mankind’s propensity to do evil in the name of good. The Process as algorithmic governance turns out to be nothing of the sort. The novel’s title, deliberately recalling the syntax of programming, is a red herring, serving solely as a framing device. The story concludes with its deus ex machina wandering off into the sunset, with the world largely unaltered by recent traumatic events and no suggestion of what ordinary people should do in the face of historical forces beyond ‘endure’.
Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps this is the lesson: that there are no answers to questions such as these, and solutions should always be distrusted for they will bring suffering in their wake. It is not as if such arguments lack for historical precedent. Yet I can’t help but regard that argument, when it comes hand-in-hand with a psychic-mystic fantasy of change, as a surrendering to nihilistic ahistoricity.
I don’t know whether I like IF THEN. But as a novel it has provoked from me opprobrium, introspection, disgust, re-examination, criticism and some grudging respect. If only for the experience of grappling with ideas that defy easy solutions, and encouraging me to suggest better ones, I can’t help but grudglingly recommend it – at least to anyone who can endure true ugliness in search of kindness and beauty.