Imagine waking up one day and discovering that, although your country has not changed, the rest of the world has. You find that while your immediate surroundings have not altered, everything outside your country has inexplicably reverted to a time of about a millennium ago.
This is the setting of Richard Blake's new novel The Break: In the year 2017, after days of violent storms, which ground all planes and force all ships into harbour, modern Britain, with all its cars, TVs, smartphones, CCTV cameras, unaccountable police and militant political correctness, finds itself surrounded by a world which considers the year to be AD 1064. The cities of mainland Europe have disappeared or contracted to clusters of a few thousand thatched houses. Roads, railway lines and canals have all vanished. The rest of the continent consists mainly of forest and other uncultivated land. Further south, the Byzantine Empire is still going strong – just. The great schism that split the early church into an eastern Orthodox and western Catholic branch happened only 10 years previously. And the Normans have yet to invade England.
The Break is a gripping tale. Full of mystery, suspense, terror, action, heroism, evil connivance and romance. But it is much more than that.
There are legions of science fiction novels in which an individual or small group is somehow channelled into another world and/or another time. But for a whole nation to suddenly find itself thus transported, that is rare. Maybe even unique. How this ‘break’ has happened is only hinted at, never fully explained. This is immaterial however, because Blake’s setting allows him to turn his dystopian novel into a brilliant political allegory, satire, polemic and warning. The author of twelve – for the most part – historical novels is thereby following the glorious tradition of his fellow countrymen Jonathan Swift, George Orwell and C.S. Lewis.
The Break is a warning because transporting modern Britain into medieval times is basically equivalent to any modern, highly developed country suddenly finding itself in a world where the international division of labour has broken down. Equivalent therefore to what might happen any time now in developed countries if, say, the monetary system broke down more completely than in 2008. That is to say: If, which is likely, at the same time the government prevented a transition to a natural monetary order based on real value. The results would be nothing short of catastrophic. In the Britain of The Break, thousands, if not millions die of hunger and disease, and in the general violence that ensues once the shops have run out of supplies. The corpses need to be piled into huge mounds around the country. Many survivors have to work the soil simply in order to live. Freeways become oversized walkways. Big cities like London almost suffocate in smog. Some people revert to cannibalism. Inevitable riots are broken up by helicopter gunships. Muslim suicide bombers in Oxford Street add to the generally apocalyptic vision that Gabb paints for us.
In this dislocated and traumatised Britain we meet 16-year-old Jennifer. After the ‘break’, her parents had started a successful business smuggling modern amenities such as tampons and paracetamol across the English Channel to the Normans and Flemish in exchange for silver and gold. The girl has probably been homeschooled, because she already knows enough Latin to talk fluently with medieval acquaintances. But now her parents have mysteriously disappeared, possibly abducted by the British government. In her desperate search for them, Jennifer follows clues that lead her ever closer to a dark and dangerous conspiracy that somehow seems connected to the weird condition her world is now in.
Another character who appears on the scene is Michael, a young emissary from Constantinople. His homeland is under pressure from both Saracens and Turks: Muslim forces pushing north and west into the Byzantine realm. He hopes to gain support from this new, strange and powerful Britain that has suddenly replaced the backwater ex-outpost of the sunken Western Roman Empire. It is an intriguing juxtaposition that Blake makes here: Modern Britain, a country that has recently lost its empire, is now in a position to help another empire which is in danger of dying – an empire which for centuries had prevented forces from the Orient from entering Europe, allowing, as Gabb tells us, Western civilisation to prosper. Whether one agrees with him nor not, this is entertainment on a high intellectual level.
No less entertaining is Blake’s description of the measures the government takes to manage the task of re-establishing its preferred version of internal order. Shockingly (or perhaps not), all he needs to do is slightly exaggerate what his government is doing anyway in real life. Basically, any pretence of democracy and freedom is abandoned in favour of outright tyranny. There is obfuscation in the regime media: no one can deny that modern Britain has been placed into medieval times, but no one in power admits it either. The return to normality is just around the corner, they say. Bureaucracy is inept and out of control. Amusingly, while the government is trying to find its country’s place in the new (i.e. old) world, it insists on what is now completely anachronistic political correctness.
Why does the government choose this mode of action? One of the characters allows us an insight into the author’s thinking: “They’ll never give up control. They’ve finally got the police state they always wanted, and they’ll restrain any urges to world conquest until they’ve broken us to unthinking obedience.” Blake is never more scathing and penetrating in his critique of corrupt state villainy than when he exposes the narcissism at the heart of the evil power-grab on which his story hinges. And this is not just about Britain. Rather surprisingly, the United States federal government has a role to play in the climax of Gabb’s dystopia. You’ll have to read it though to find out in what way.
The Break enables us to observe our modern civilization from a medieval perspective. Again, these observations are often surprising and thought-provoking. As when Michael, the Byzantine protagonist, thinks that “this house, so far as he could see, was a single block, with glazed windows on every side. England must long have been a very safe country if the rich could trust themselves in the like.” The reader then finds himself thinking: How much longer will we still be safe in unfortified houses such as these? Especially (in particular in the case of Britain) if normal, law-abiding people are unarmed?
In some other respects, to the man from Constantinople the modern world seems to have reverted to much older and barbaric ways. From Michael’s point of view our current ‘liberated’ approach to sex is nothing but a re-establishment of the “Old Faith” (of ancient Greece and Rome before Christianity) and a bikini-clad woman in a holiday resort advert appears to him to be “a dancing prostitute”.
Speaking of which, it is noteworthy that in this novel Blake refrains from graphic descriptions of sex and debauchery. They are of course hinted at – the depiction of a nation in terminal decline would not be complete without them. But the author does not insult his readers’ intelligence by joining the ranks of today’s many authors who, following what they deem to be the Zeitgeist, liberally spread written triggers of libidinous Pavlovian reflexes. Blake does not need them to keep his readers engaged.
The Break is a thrilling masterpiece by an experienced and established novelist. At the same time it is an unsparing and consummate exposition and critique of our modern so-called civilization. I have read all of Blake’s novels. They are all good, but this one is his best so far. Apparently, it’s been nominated for the Prometheus Award. I’m not surprised.
© 2016 – 2017, richardblake.
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