Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Carey, George Dyson, and Judith R Walkowitz.

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Writing in the Telegraph, Lucy Daniels is impressed by Paul Carey's deft treatment of the Victorian era. His 12th novel takes its inspiration from Jacques de Vaucanson's fraudulent invention of the mechanical duck and follows a modern-day conservator of London's Swinburne museum who becomes obsessed with recreating the duck from the original drawings, an allegory, says Daniels, for the author's craft as a historical novelist: "Carey is drawn to the age of invention; his stories are filled with them and exquisite forgeries. Storytellers and inventors have a natural bond: one character here is a collector of vicious fairy tales who has invented a washing machine. The novel itself, after all, is something mechanically produced." She praises the expert way in which Carey blends historical truths with myths, but notes that the book is more "subdued" in tone than the novelist's previous high-energy works.

Richard Davenport-Hines is less enthusiastic about the novel in the Spectator, questioning Carey's consistency: "There are first-rate scenes and characters from both narrations, but not invariably". Whilst some scenes delight, others are "drearier", he says. He too notices the "subdued" nature of the book in comparison to Carey's back-catalogue, but for him (unlike Daniels), this detracts from the overall narrative: "There are neat descriptions of lush German landscape, but none of the elating richness of Carey's spectacular Australia-based novels. Readers who revelled in his mid-life exuberance will find him at the age of 69 sombre and apprehensive".

"The Chemistry of Tears" will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson

George Dyson's attempt to throw light on the invention of the first computer is well received by Evgeny Morozov in the Observer. In 1945, polymath named John von Neumann helped set up the Electronic Computer Project at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, already a hotbed of scientific talent. Indeed, Morozov recommends that "Dyson's book is worth reading for its treatment of the institute's early history alone". A comprehensive account of the conditions under which von Neumann was working is provided, says Morozov, as Dyson gives "ample social and cultural context". Yet despite this, Morozov criticises the book for being weighed down with painstaking theoretical detail: according to Morozov, "Dyson ... bombards the reader with a mind-boggling stream of distracting information that adds little to his tale" and sometimes "makes mystical claims that no serious historian would endorse".

Writing in the Telegraph, Manjit Kumar also suggests that Dyson's work is swamped by technicality: "Faced with the tricky task of balancing technical details with keeping the narrative accessible for the non-computer buff, Dyson ends up probably not giving enough detail to satisfy the aficionado but too much for the lay reader." Nevertheless, Kumar is generally satisfied with the book: "Turing, Von Neumann and their colleagues may have let the genie out of the bottle, but Dyson has done the difficult job of reminding us of how much we owe them and how far we have come in such a short time".

Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London by Judith R Walkowitz

In the Independent, DJ Taylor tempers his praise of Walkowitz's attempt to present a diverse array of Soho stories that typify the area's history, highlighting the significant case studies that have been missed out: "There is very little about the sex trade ... not a great deal about organised crime, and nothing at all about the area's long-term function as a kind of sub-branch of the literary world's ground-down Bohemian end". Although he concedes that "Walkowitz's forte ... is the case study and the Soho recreation that reflects some wider trend", Taylor is put off by Walkowitz's tendency to stray into "academic cipher": "Where she stops being informative and becomes unintentionally hilarious, on the other hand, is in her use of jargon".

In this week's New Statesman, Sarah Churchwell also picks holes in the book, noting that Walkowitz spends little time examining the area's queer history: "she by no means ignores the gay experience, but surely such a definitive aspect of the district's history should not be elbowing for space". She is, however, less critical of Walkowitz's language, claiming that her "scholarly lily-gilding is, happily, infrequent".

Peter Carey. Photo: Getty Images
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

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