Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Rebecca Stott, Antony Beevor and Kathleen Riley.

Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists by Rebecca Stott

“There may be no such thing as originality,” Richard Fortey writes in the Guardian in his review of Rebecca Stott’s latest book. It’s a work that examines just such an idea. What Stott calls "ghosts" are Darwin’s intellectual forebears – his predecessors and his contemporaries whose parallel researches gave rise, indirectly otherwise, to his own discoveries. The Origin of Species acknowledged a list of such  great minds; Stott’s book unearths and ever more intriguing list, revealing the way in which the strand of evolutionary thought has - like a living organism - refined, absorbed, and mutated over time.

Fortey finds Stott’s list “more interesting” than Darwin’s own. He’s fascinated by her exploration of an “extraordinary batch of free thinkers” such as French consul in Cairo Benoît de Maillet, Swiss naturalist Abraham Tremblay, and Renaissance ecologist al-Jahiz. “Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous.”

But Fortey des not see these character are any discredit to the great theorist, rather an enriching backdrop against which Darwin worked – a great thinker who looked at the phenomenon of natural selection with fresh eyes. “As so often before and after, he [Darwin] was starting afresh, open to past influences, but fuelled by his Beagle voyage….the 19th century was truly the right time for evolution to emerge from the shadows…Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts”.

Ziauddin Sardar, writing in the Independent , also lauds Stott’s efforts to show that “Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants.” He reads the book as less forgiving of Darwin, stating at the outset that “Charles Darwin was not the first person to observe mutation of species or work on natural selection. Indeed, the notion of evolution was not particularly original in Darwin's time.” Equally impressed by Scott’s detective work, he calls her thorough and unusual catalogue of “unsung heroes” a “fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.”

Gillian Beer, writing in the Telgraph, points out that Darwin was known for his ceaseless interrogations of the natural world. Stott shows “some of the same zeal in asking unexpected questions.” She calls the book “extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging”, and places particular emphasis on Stott’s novelistic accomplishment: “each of her subjects emerges as living in ordinary weather and among objects, family, and political difficulties. So, without sentimentality, we come to feel the value of these often obsessional men”.

She picks up on Stott’s own awareness of evolutionary theory not as a linear, upward trajectory, but rather a sinuous, stop-start footpath. “Although the book is arranged chronologically, the ideas pursued did not steadily accumulate nor did the people Stott describes often feed off each other’s knowledge. Insights flourished and were lost…. She draws on an array of scholarship and assembles it into an intricate sequence of stories and investigations that are her own. The outcome is gripping as well as fair-minded.”

An essay by Rebecca Stott on Darwin's "ghosts" was published in the New Statesman on 16 May.


The Second World War by Antony Beevor

Former British army officer and acclaimed author of several histories, Beevor’s latest is a sweeping study of the Second World War, beginning from the unusual starting point of a Japanese victory at the Mongolian boarder in 1939. From there he turns his gaze across Europe and the Pacific, composing what Ian Thomson in the Spectator calls “a lucid and wide-ranging account of the most destructive war of all time”.

“Antony Beevor has done a great deal to popularise history,” writes Roger Moorhouse in the Independent. He calls The Second World War “a handsome, yet rather daunting doorstop of a book. But happily, its 800-odd pages fly by with considerable speed, as Beevor warms to his task, being especially strong on grand strategy and on the experience of ordinary soldiers. The narrative never flags and the myriad pieces of this intricate kaleidoscope are pieced together with exemplary skill.”

Moorhouse praises Beevor’s “searing accounts of man's inhumanity to his fellow man” and his “eye-opening revelations” including sanctioned cannibalism in the Japanese army. He finds fault only with comparison to Beevor’s previous work: “In tackling such a vast subject, Beevor has been obliged to sacrifice too much of the very aspect that had become his stylistic trademark: the telling anecdote, the poignant aside, the illuminating vignette. The result is that the book – for all its excellence – appears to lack some of the pizzazz of his earlier offerings.”

Overall though, he finds the work well worth his time, calling it a “splendid book, erudite, with an admirable clarity of thought and expression. For a summary of the Second World War – who did what to whom, when and why – the general reader would need look no further.”

Tony Barber, writing in the Financial Times, admired Beevor’s accomplished narrative. “Every nation experienced and remembers the war in different ways…” he writes. “A general history of the war needs to embrace this variety of experience and capture the interplay between the momentous events unfolding on different continents and the high seas. Antony Beevor effectively meets this challenge.”

He notes especially Beevor's knowledge of “how to keep a good story rolling”, delighting in the details: “Beevor shows an original touch by drawing attention to little-known but revealing episodes”.

“The Second World War is not without flaws,” he notes. “It is a narrative history from start to finish, mainly military in its focus. As such, it is too rigidly structured to permit proper treatment of important themes such as the war economies of the participants … Where Beevor mentions the economics of the war, his touch is less sure than normal.”

But overall though it’s high praise for a mammoth undertaking of such dense and varied subject matter.  “Beevor’s book is a pleasure to read and an example of intelligent, lively historical writing at its best.”

John Gray’s review of "The Second World" War by Antony Beevor will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow.


The Astairs: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley

“It is hard to believe that Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires is the first full-length study of the celebrated partnership that so defined 20th-century musical comedy,” wrote Sarah Churchwell in the New Statesman last week, and it seems critics across the board are similarly eager for this account of the famous dancers. Ethan Morden, writing in the Wall Street Journal, delights at the arrival of an overdue biography.  “It's quite a saga,” he says of Fred Astaire’s life, “but we really only know its second half…thanks to his imperishable movies Fred is linked with Ginger Rogers; or with the most beautiful of his partners, Rita Hayworth; or with the most effervescent of his partners, Judy Garland; or with the most technically accomplished of his partners, Eleanor Powell…The most Astaire of his partners is forgotten… Kathleen Riley's book on Fred and Adele…is a welcome rehabilitation.”

He enjoys Riley rendering of the “crazy joy” and “guiltless worldview” that was theatre of the 1920s, calling The Astaires “a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.”

Churchwell points towards Riley’s successes, especially the way she “usefully contextualises the way in which his partnership with Adele col­oured Fred’s initial reluctance to partner with Rogers.”

However, she finds fault with Riley’s apparently uncritical adoration of her subjects. “The Astaires undoubtedly deserve our admiration but The Astaires flirts with hagiography.” She cites one example in particular: “Noting that Fred referred in the 1920s to the blues as 'nigger music', Riley hastens to assure us that this does not mean he was a racist: 'It should be stressed that Astaire’s use of the term ‘nigger’ in this context was not intended to cause offence. It is indicative of a less sensitive and less enlightened era regarding race issues.' That’s one way of putting it. Another is that it was indicative of racism, of a time when white people didn’t give a damn if they caused offence to black people, rendering the question of intention entirely moot.”

Despite finding the book “reluctant to be too plain-speaking” and “partial to “occasional fits of overwriting”, she calls the work “an important, overdue recognition of the contribution that this remarkable partnership made to the popular theatre”.

Former New York City ballet dancer Toni Bentley writes an engaging review for the New York Times. “Astaire is our American Casanova camouflaged in tux and tails…In her fascinating new book, 'The Astaires,' the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley describes the exploits of this brother-sister team in glorious detail.”

She applauds Riley's illumination of a relationship that shaped the world's most celebrated partner-dancer: “It becomes clear that it was behind and beside, but never in front of, Adele that Fred learned not only how to dance, but how to present a woman, honour her and make her glow.”

“Riley’s book suffers, though not egregiously,” Bentley argues, “from the rather humour­less, linear reportage — the laundry-list narrative — and the slightly defensive tone of so much academic writing, in which being correct is clearly more valued than being interesting”.

But overall, “Riley performs the great service of giving us the history before the history, of Fred and Adele, the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time. It’s a love story rarely told, of that between a sister and her brother, one bonded in blood but cemented by hoofing.”

In "Darwin's Ghosts", author Rebecca Stott invetigates the heritage of evolutionary thought (Photo: Getty Images)
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Why do games do revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture