Friday, December 1, 2006

The Last Conflict

Book Review from the December 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Last Conflict by Pieter Lawrence, (Booksurge)

One of the more pleasing aspects of the last couple of decades of socialist activity has been the proliferation of books written by socialists, previously quite a rare phenomenon. Almost all of these books have been non-fiction, either putting the case for socialism directly or else discussing the socialist movement itself. This book, by long-standing Socialist Party member Pieter Lawrence, is somewhat different. It is a work of fiction - and an interesting one too, in that while it is a gripping political novel set in Britain it doesn't mention any political parties, and introduces the idea of socialism without ever explicitly identifying it as such.

Without giving too much away to future readers, it is about how a British government beset by economic difficulties and strikes handles a political crisis of a different sort - emerging news of a large comet that is heading towards Earth. Over time, it appears that if the Earth will not be directly hit by the comet, it will pass by closely enough to cause a missile bombardment from space. Fragments of rock would be detached by the comet hurtling through the Earth's atmosphere in the type of future scenario envisaged by some current astronomers, and often argued to be the real cause of the disappearance of the dinosaurs from Earth tens of millions of years ago.

The novel focuses on the attempts by the government to cover-up news of the impending disaster and then, when mass public panic and disorder arises, to initiate a massive programme of civil defence involving the creation of deep shelters for the population, including the conversion of the London underground system.

Much of the action revolves around some of the main characters in the government and their thinking about how to handle the emerging crisis. As well as maintaining social control, not the least of their problems is a financial one. At a time when the government is already under severe financial pressure, the paid construction of a huge network of deep shelters across the country would be ruinous and logistically impossible. The government's solution is to turn to voluntary labour, of the sort that had emerged during the economic crisis and strike wave when people had been encouraged by the government to volunteer to keep the hospitals and other essential services going. It soon emerges, however, that this sort of piecemeal voluntary labour is not enough, as materials need to be purchased and production facilities harnessed quickly and on a mammoth scale if the civil defences are to be constructed in time. So voluntary labour is generalised and supplemented by a credit note system and the requisitioning of factories, building materials, land and so on.

Such is the scale of the task however, that the majority of the population becomes involved and the credit note system - initially designed as a temporary measure - becomes meaningless as the government would never be able to pay back the massive credits owed to the working population and owners of capital when life returned to capitalist 'normality'. The only solution is for the government - after much internal discussion and dissension - to decree a temporary cashless economy while the civil defences are built. There is a suspension of all paid economic activity and bank accounts, etc are frozen, with the population being able to directly access the goods and services produced by voluntary labour, assisted by a Second World War-type rationing system for some products. All of this occurs alongside massive campaigns and mobilisations from the general population desperate that nothing (whether shortage of resources or government reticence) should halt the vital work of civil defence, a programme which literally appears to be the only chance of human survival.

In this way, the novel cleverly introduces the idea of a society based on voluntary labour without wages, money and prices as the only way in which society as a whole can pull together sufficiently to direct the largest construction programme in the history of the planet, drawing on the type of 'wartime spirit' previously evident during the Blitz. To what extent this programme is successful, and for what happens when the comet finally passes by, you will need to read the book.

As a novel, the narrative is well-written and fast-paced. Indeed, even if you are not a socialist it is an exceptionally good read and this is one of its strengths. It has been written with a view to introducing the idea of a socialist society to people without the usual terminology (or, in fact, much political jargon as a whole) so that the idea slowly creeps up on the reader as they progress through the book. The characterisations are strong and believable, and help to anchor the story as one about humanity and people's very fight for survival. In this respect it is compelling and, at times, gripping too.

The artistic licence of the fiction writer is called on only minimally, mainly perhaps with the somewhat UK-centred plotline to what is, by definition, a world phenomenon and crisis. Also, the work gives small and almost subliminal hints that it was written some time ago as in some respects the general political 'feel' is of Britain in the 1970s, before the internet and satellite TV, and in an era when Prime Ministers still made broadcasts to the nation pipe in hand. Indeed, whether some of the communication blackouts imposed by the government at various times in the story are achievable in today's e-society is a moot point, though again this doesn't seem to be a huge issue for the purposes of the plot and its underlying message.

The storyline of The Last Conflict is so cleverly woven, with the plot developing in clear stages, and the characterisation is so strong, that this is a work that would lend itself to other genres quite easily. At present, the physical binding of the book by the current publishers could be better and nothing would be more fitting for the book's wider popularisation than if a TV dramatisation of the novel was what made it known to a mass audience. To this end, it is to be hoped that the book will find itself in the hands of someone with the opportunity and vision to put this into effect, because it could without doubt, and without a hint of exaggeration, make for one of the best political dramas ever shown on British television.
Dave Perrin