When George Orwell wrote ‘Animal Farm’, he was very obviously not simply writing a children’s tale about a group of revolutionary animals who manage to wrest control of the farm away from the farmer and form an animal’s paradise, only for the revolution’s leaders to succumb inevitably to the same corruption which they had so despised in the farmer. Animal Farm, as probably most of the country are aware, is a none-too-subtle allegory of the Russian revolution, through which Orwell sought to discredit the USSR as no better than the capitalist states it opposed. With the USSR now dismantled and socialism itself no longer on the mainstream political agenda (at least for the moment), it was perhaps inevitable that someone would seek to re-use the basis of Animal Farm — that of the human-animal relationship on a farm as a representation of the class relationship of society — in a different context, one arguably more relevant to the current political climate. ‘Mason’s Rats’, by Neal L. Asher, is just such an example of this re-use. Mason’s Rats is published as a small-press chapbook containing three related short stories: Mason’s Rats I, which was originally published as ‘Mason’s Rats’ in Orion Magazine issue 2, Mason’s Rats II, which was originally published in Orion issue 4, and Mason’s Rats III, which is original to this volume. In Mason’s Rats I, we are introduced to Mason, a rather enigmatic character who is proprietor and sole live employee of a huge automated farm. When his farm is invaded by mutated rats possessed of high intelligence, Mason calls in the Traptech company which sells automatic devices intended to deal with infestation problems. Unfortunately, the rats on Mason’s farm are a little TOO intelligent for the successively more vicious machines provided by Traptech, and Mason must seek a rather unconventional solution
to his problem … a truce with the rats, and an accommodation which allows them to live on a certain section of his farm. In Mason’s Rats II the farm is invaded by a group of black rat’s from neighbouring Smith’s farm, and Mason must not only manage to find a way to accommodate both his existing colony of [brown] rats and the new arrivals, but also find a way of ridding himself of the pesky salesmen who just will not stop arriving at the farm to give him advice on how to ‘solve’ his little problem… Finally, in Mason’s Rats III, Mason is faced with the problem of a government inspector who has received reports of the large rat colonies which Mason is allowing to exist on his property and who is convinced that such a thing cannot possibly be hygienic or proper. Mason’s choice is a stark one: get rid of the rats or lose his farming licence. So, given the history of the farm allegory as a tool for political comment, and given a chapbook containing no less than 3 such tales clearly intended to fit this pattern, one question remains — precisely what is Asher trying to say? It is my belief that to find the answer to his question we must look back at the original intention of Animal Farm as a pastiche of socialism, and then consider logically that so-called ‘ideology’ which many of those in the ‘new Labour’ party would have us believe is the successor to socialism: Tony Blair’s “Third Way”. The Third Way is essentially an ideology which states that the differences between the needs of the majority (as addressed by socialism) and the needs of the economically and politically powerful minority (as addressed by capitalism) can only be reconciled by an ‘alliance’ between the various social classes of modern society or, at times, by actually denying that such class divisions exist. Hence Tony Blair supports (or at least pa
ys lip-service to) trade unions, whilst insisting that they form constructive relationships (“social partnerships”) with the capitalists (employers and their representatives). It is my belief that this is what Mason’s Rats attempts to represent; it is also my belief that the book unfortunately does not actually examine this ideology in any depth, let alone provide a critique of it, however this disappointment is partly mitigated by the book’s very short length — such a critique would require a much lengthier set of stories in order to be even slightly meaningful. In the system as introduced in Mason’ Rats I, therefore, we have an industrial relationship at the heart of society which is three-fold: the working-class and their organisations (the unions), which are represented here by the rats; the employers and their organisations (CBI?), as represented by the farmer; and, finally, the government, as represented by the Traptech corporation. Following this allegory through, what we obtain is actually quite a worrying (and certainly rather distasteful) view of modern society and the views held by many of those in it. The rats [working class] are essentially to be viewed as a rather distasteful infestation who are only really tolerated because the farmer [employers] take pity on them. The employers, therefore, are attempting to form a constructive relationship based on good faith with the workers — hence the Third Way reference — whilst the government (as represented by Traptech) constantly intervene [a reference to ACAS?], usually on the side of the employers. The first two allegorical connections made above will be rather controversial and obviously do not represent the views held by the vast majority of the population, however it is certainly true that this view IS held by a select and very powerful few — especially those who make speeches at the CBI — and, perhaps more threateningl
y, is increasingly the way in which relations between corporations and employees occur, at a time when multinationals can announce mass redundancies at the drop of a hat and move between one country and another at will in search of cheaper and more flexible labour costs. The third allegorical connection, that of government intervening on the behalf of the employer rather than the employee, is unfortunately much more recognisable, with this having been the policy of successive conservative governments for living memory and the de facto bias of Labour government policies since 1997. Perhaps the stage at which this reading of the story fails to cohere is when we consider the ending, in which Mason the farmer intervenes on behalf of the rats against the Traptech corporation. Can anyone, no matter whether they be an adherent to Blairism and the social partnership ideology or not, honestly imagine a corporation acting in a hostile manner to a government which had entered an industrial dispute on its side? No, I thought not, and it is here where I believe Asher to be making the point, albeit in a manner which is far more obscure than subtle, that the Third Way is an inherently ludicrous ideology, and that so-called ‘partnership’ agreements do not hold water under close [or even any] scrutiny. To be honest, whilst it was possible to read meaning into Mason’s Rats I, as indeed I attempted to do above, it was extremely difficult to find anything major hidden in the depths of the second story, which seems to be a close repetition of the events in the previous sequence with only a slightly different ending. Mason’s Rats II concludes with a similar arrangement to the first story, with the exception of the employment by Mason of the black rats as guards of his farm, with orders to shoot — using a cleverly constructed gun which fires metal bolt pellets — anyone approaching the farm who happens to be wearing a suit. To
me, it is difficult to interpret this tale as anything other than a brief and flippant (and admittedly rather enjoyable in a light-hearted kind of way) story about animals and a farmer, with the allegorical potential here far reduced. The only possible interpretation would have to be that in order to advance the working class must somehow ally itself with the bourgeois corporations against the government, and hence thereby defend it interests. This would seem very suspect indeed; just as with the first tale, the conclusions may be patently ludicrous, but here they do not expose any set of beliefs that actually exist, and hence I must conclude their actual target to be somewhere far away from the British political scene in a realm at which possibly only the author himself can guess. Nice story, though! The third story, imaginatively entitled Mason’s Rats III, is by far the longest piece in the volume and continues this trend, with the intrepid farmer having to actually team up with the rats in order to outwit the government. In this case, however, I am inclined to take the view that Asher has written an allegory of the immigrant worker industry, with companies vying to take advantage of low wage workers who do not expect to be treated in accordance with official employment legislation, and hence making larger profits than they would were their set-up more above board. The European Union has recently cited Britain as one of the countries in the EU whose economy uses illicit workforces to the largest extent, and hence the scale and importance of this problem cannot be underestimated, especially since for every immigrant worker working for paltry wages and in terrible conditions in this country, it is possible that another was killed or otherwise failed to arrive here at all. Not only is the use of such people in sweatshop conditions unsavoury, therefore, but the entire industry of human smuggling is an utterly abhorrent one which the government
is correct to clamp down upon (although inflammatory statement regarding ‘bogus’ asylum seekers by British politicians and press certainly do not meet with my approval). Unfortunately, however, although Mason’s Rats III can certainly be read as an example of a company fighting to hide its illicit workers from an inquisitive authority, there is very little in the way of actual criticism of this practice, and hence the story falls short of its potential. Of course, the central reason for my interpreting this story according to political allegory is based upon the notion that this volume is a deliberate encroachment on the territory of Orwell, which I think is pretty valid assumption given not only the book’s blatant style but also its back cover blurb. It is, however, also very possible to enjoy this trio of short stories purely ‘as is’, and in this context I would have to note that they are, without exception, simply written and unpretentious little tales which zip along at a fair old pace and provide the reader with more than a few wry smiles. It is quite nice, for once, to read a book which does not contain the padding so commonplace in modern publishing — the ideas here are enough to properly fill 34 pages, and so that’s exactly what Asher chooses to do. Were this topic to be expanded to a 400-page novel, I feel it would lose it point and its impact amongst the daed forest of extraneous pages rather quickly. The back cover asks whether Mason’s Rats is “[a]n allegory on war and violence? A statement on the arms race?” Personally, I find it quite difficult to focus upon these tales as either of these, but as I have already shown, that does not mean I think the contents herein to be completely devoid of meaning. Although this volume is a small press item (to get hold of a copy, the best place to look would be BBR Distribution at http://www.bbr-online.com/catalogue/, since both Kimota, the publisher, and Amazon seem to have run out of copies), Neal Asher is certainly not a writer who deserves to be condemned to such limited exposure. Indeed, his first full-length professional novel, ‘Gridlinked’, has just been published by Macmillan. On the basis of this slim volume alone, I intend to read it. Recommended.