Two Tribes, by Chris Beckett
I have to confess upfront that this book was something of a disappointment for me. The book back blurb includes the paragraph: “Two Tribes is a reflection on the way our ideas are shaped by class and social circumstances, and how they change without us even noticing. It explores what divides us and what brings us together. And it asks where we may be headed next.” So far, so good, and the book starts well enough, but I could see the book’s thickness rapidly diminishing as I was reading, and I was wondering why the wider story outside the characters’ immediate actions, which is threaded right through the book, was not moving forward as quickly as I thought it could. The book is categorised as ‘speculative fiction’ (which is a new category to me), and Beckett is clearly an intelligent & thoughtful writer, detailing the thought processes behind the characters’ action.
The story is presented as a reconstructed history of the time in England immediately following the Brexit vote, from the point of view of a historian & archivist, Zoe, who works in the Cultural Institute in “the bleak, climate-ravaged twenty-third century”, after she discovers the two hundred and fifty year old diaries of the two main characters, Harry, an architect, and Michelle, a hairdresser, so a certain amount of ‘embroidery’ is practised by Zoe, to flesh out these two people’s lives, and she actually resorts to explicit fabrication in the creation of some characters with whom Harry & Michelle come into contact, for the novel she has decided to write, although it is outside her professional remit, to the consternation of Zoe’s friend, and putative lover, Cally.
England is under the ostensibly benign supervision, in the form of the Guiding Body, of China, as a result of some sort of catastrophic societal breakdown (and living conditions are still rather primitive for some of the population), and this is the aspect of the story that I felt Beckett could have developed better; of course, it would inevitably be speculation & hypothesis, but I feel it is something of an abrogation of the author’s responsibility, to work back from an imagined future with only lightly sketched details of how that future came about. Harry and Michelle are from different backgrounds, but for Zoe, it is “an extraordinary stroke of luck” that another diary, Michelle’s, overlaps both chronologically & geographically with Harry’s, so it is possible for Zoe to present the very real discord that has been experienced in Britain following the ‘leave’ Brexit vote through the eyes of a character effectively from each side of the divide; and people’s accents & enunciation are examined in some detail to emphasise their social difference. Beckett points out our own hypocrisies & blinkered thinking in the discussions the characters have and, for me, this is the most successful aspect of this book, because in the real world, it is widely recognised (possibly more by the ‘remain’ side than the ‘winners’ of the vote) that this episode in our early twenty-first century history is producing many more negative than positive repercussions.
Where the book falls down is in not projecting forward, apart from in the very broadest brush strokes, to describe how the societal collapse came about. At some stage, ‘normal’ life broke down sufficiently (which might have coincided with a collapse of democratic government) for armed conflict to begin, with two factions, the possibly somewhat clumsily named, but easily understood, Liberals & Patriots fighting for dominance. China must have had sufficient investment in the country, presumably, to want to protect it, and an agreement was reached whereby the country was invaded, enabling a Protectorate to be established, creating a Guiding Body “of qualified, able and scientifically minded people”, using Nine Principles to develop the country in a way appropriate to one of the factions, albeit patrolled by armed militiamen, which is roughly when the story starts. How did social media ‘argy-bargy’, and current-affairs navel-gazing programmes, descend into armed conflict? Would having a theoretical scenario presented here prevent it happening in real life? Probably not, but knowing how bad things could become should spur us on to work ever harder to preserve peace. The paperback version of the book that I read was published in 2021 by Corvus, London, ISBN 978-1-78649-933-2.