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Against the Machine: Luddites by Brian Van Norman

Reviewed by Amanda Hale

Brian Van Norman’s novel, Against the Machine: Luddites, is not only a great read, it is an important book that accomplishes what historical fiction does best: it shines the torch of a specific historical event on a parallel contemporary trend. The Luddites protested the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution; today we have all our eggs in the basket of the Technological Revolution. The parallels are obvious, as is the inevitability of the outcome.

In muscular language, earthy and poetic, Van Norman evokes the beauty and harshness of the Yorkshire Moors in a manner vivid for any reader, but especially so for this reader who spent five years of her youth on those blustery damp Moors.

In the midst of a war with France, challenged by Napoleon Bonaparte, the British government found itself threatened by a civil war at home, sparked by the dilemma of man versus the machine, compounded by poverty, injustice, and class oppression.

Using the hooks of violence, murder, sex and romance, Van Norman captures and holds the reader in suspense by ending each chapter with a predictive flourish. The battles are personalized by a broad cast of characters, focussing on the young Luddite leader, George Mellor. A dramatic prologue posits the original Ned Lud as a boy who rebelled not so much against the machines he smashed with a sledgehammer, but against the inhumanity of his employers. Machines are neutral, as is technology. It is all about how we use them.

The dramatic irony of this rollicking, terrifying tale comes when Mellor, through damage of his spirit, is himself rendered heartless and mechanical. His lover, Mary Buckworth, “found it curious he could not recognize he’d become the same as the tyrants he cursed.” As the fugitive Mellor is pursued to his inevitable end, he experiences a series of revelations, realizing himself “caught inside history.”

Van Norman’s book is visionary in its scope, illuminating humanity’s eternal struggle with wars and ideologies, only to be tricked across the generations by ever more subtle and elusive forms of enslavement. One is left with a deeper understanding of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence.

The research is impeccable, the details fascinating. The true meaning of “terrorism” is demonstrated together with its techniques. This is educational movie material.

Against the Machine: Luddites is published by Guernica Editions.

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