This Week’s Word Is “Brexit.”
Chris Beckett is an author I’ve been meaning to read for several years now, ever since Dark Eden won the Clarke Award. Finally, I caught up with is work, with his latest novel, Two Tribes. I was drawn to Two Tribes because of its themes of Brexit and climate change.
Before COVID-19, if there were two things in the UK that polarised discourse more than anything else, they were Brexit and climate change. Now, we can add wearing masks and lockdown to that list, but the protagonists on both sides are largely the same. Two Tribes examines the…err…two tribes of contemporary Britain – the Leavers and the Remainers.
What is Two Tribes?
The novel is nominally set two hundred years in the future on a planet Earth ravaged by climate disaster. The UK has been annexed by China, and an enigmatic ruling party sits over the general population. Climate change and civil war have destroyed much of Britain.
In this far-future, works an archivist, putting together small pieces of personal testimony, namely diary entries from 2017. From her work, Zoe discovers two diarists whose stories intersect. Intrigued, she creates her own narrative that reveals how the seeds of the UK’s destruction were sown.
The two diarists, Harry and Michelle, are an unlikely couple; a Leaver and a Remainer. An educated middle-class London architect and a provincial working-class hairdresser. Despite being the proverbial chalk and cheese, the two strike up a friendship. The story then follows Zoe’s narrative of Michelle and Harry’s lives, interspersed with excerpts of Zoe’s own life in a not particularly benevolent but not entirely malevolent, police state.
Why Read Two Tribes?
One might expect Two Tribes to be an anti-Brexit novel, and to a degree, it is, though it is far more scathing of our current climate-politics than it is about Brexit. There is a strong case to say this is an “anti-anti-Brexit” novel. It isn’t pro-Brexit (far from it), but it examines the aloof elite attitudes of the chattering classes; those that dismissed the pro-Brexit voters as racist thickos.
By using the viewpoint of an impartial historian, Beckett examines the Brexit vote and the attitudes of modern Britain; our tendency to listen to our own echo chamber. I think many of us know we do this, but it remains easier to bask in our own superiority and decry our opponent’s stupidity than it is to actually do change how we think or listen to alternative points of view. Through his relationship with Michelle, Harry is afforded an opportunity to look at his own life and assess the attitudes of his peers from a different perspective.
“Harry had become very conscious lately of how much of conversation, any conversation, was not about exchanging ideas or information, but about collectively rehearsing a position and obtaining little strokes of mutual validation.”
The result, for a middle-class liberal like myself, makes for uncomfortable reading. This is great, because, like Harry, I can now reevaluate my own attitudes, in the light of the self-awareness that Two Tribes has afforded me.
Chris Beckett has done an excellent job in summing up the disconnect between the two tribes that exist in Britain today (the Brexit vote, was more or less a 50/50 split). Don’t, however, feel that if you’re not interested in Brexit or don’t live in the UK, this novel won’t be for you.
First up, Harry’s relationship with social media, in particular, his obsession over his Twitter feed offers a caution for us all. Next, across the globe, division politics is running rife. Brexit was defined by “us” and “them,” winners and losers – “get over it, you lost,” which isn’t what politics should be about. Perhaps it’s a naive attitude, but I think our politicians should care more about cultivating consensus and finding common ground, so that fewer people are left behind to feel disenfranchised.
You only have to look at the current furor around masks, lockdown, and civil liberties, to see that some people are more interested in being right and creating division than they are about ensuring the safety of others and the ability for us to overcome the pandemic, both economically and medically. Much as for Brexit, there are no easy answers. Errors will be made, but a divide is opening up between people with different views, which may have catastrophic consequences. A divide, some people, particularly on social media are keen to exacerbate and exploit. It’s easy to imagine that Beckett might be able to write a follow-up novel that examines how the UK’s tribes fared during the pandemic.
If I have one complaint about the novel it’s the ending. I don’t mind an open-ended story, but Two Tribes cuts off abruptly and doesn’t really feel like it’s drawn to any sort of conclusion. But perhaps that’s the point. There are no neat solutions to the Brexit problem. Warring tribes don’t work things out; class and political division will forever cut through Britain. The ending doesn’t spoil the excellence of what has gone before, by any means, but if you like a complete story, be warned, you won’t find that here.
All in all, Two Tribes does what all good science fiction should do, which is to examine modern society through a lens held from a different perspective. Yet, much of the novel, isn’t really science fiction at all, as it deals with two people living in 2017. By then using the events of his contemporary narrative to inform his science-fictional one, Beckett very cleverly shifts the reader’s viewpoint and makes them reconsider the world around them. This is all done with a gentle sleight of hand, making Two Tribes a subtle, yet powerful work of fiction that informs the reader about the world we live in.
You can pick up a copy of Two Tribes, here in the US, and here, in the UK.
If you enjoyed this review, do check out my other Word Wednesday reviews.
Disclosure: I received a copy of Two Tribes in order to write this review.
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