Reviews round-up | 14 January

The best of the critics this week on Helen Dunmore's war novel The Lie, philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes and Jack El-Hai's foray into criminal minds in The Nazi and the Psychiatrist.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

"While The Lie may be the first literary reimagining of the First World War in this centenary year, it will undoubtedly prove one of the most subtle and enduring," writes an enchanted Stephanie Merritt in the Observer. Written with a "poet's feeling for language", Helen Dunmore's latest novel is a "quiet tragedy". It depicts the troubled return home of a shell-shocked young soldier, Daniel, to "a village full of absences and the news his mother is dead."  Merritt praises the author for offering "glimpses of hope and redemption, even as the inevitable consequences of Daniel's life begin to close in on him."

"Dunmore's is a very good novel. 2014 is a very good year to read it", writes John Sutherland in the Times as the political row over the memory of the war escalates. The author's "imagination and research" shines through, particularly in its "vivid", first-person flashbacks to the "horrors of the trenches".  She teases out the tensions of class and sexuality, with Daniel and a soon-to-die officer realising "in the mud, blood and filth of the trenches, that they're not just pals." Sutherland's only criticism is that Dunmore was not there - "The best novels about the conflict are by those who spilt blood."

Boyd Tonkin at the Independent disagrees, congratulating Dunmore as one of an "admirable group of modern women writers who have kept faith with the scarred victims". This "hallucinatory novel of survivor-guilt, delayed trauma and the loving cross-class friendships war made and broke" is a must-read for the young, Tonkin writes. The war's horrors may be "familiar", but there is nothing formulaic in Dunmore's powerful renditions of the "hellish texture of the trench mud, 'thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chlorite of lime'". Essential reading for new generations to "learn these truths again".


Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene

We are programmed to be moral only towards our own tribes, philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene argues in his new book. For the Guardian's Salley Vickers, "Greene's radical contention is that the world will only be saved if we transcend our intuitive responses in favour of ... utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number." Vickers is persuaded our group biases are at the root of "racism, sexism, class war ... and countless conflicts and atrocities", but finds Greene's solutions "inoperable". Utilitarianism fails as a basis for agreement between groups  because "it leaves unanswered the problem of who decides the general 'good'". 

Sceptics about utilitarianism "will not be persuaded", Natalie Gold agrees in the Times Higher Education Supplement, but Harvard professor Greene still has "something new to bring to the debate". Drawing on thought experiments carried out by the author, the work is "particularly strong on the psychology of moral judgment". Gold takes issue with Greene's treatment of "manual" versus "automatic" responses, however, unconvinced that our "manual" reasoning is always utilitarian and always better than following your gut.

Utilitarian decision-making demands an "absolutely impartial perspective" that even the author lacks in dedicating the book to his wife, Julian Baggini observes in the Financial Times.  But moral philosophy must "put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as "species-typical moral limitations to be overcome", Baggini argues. He nonetheless hails Green's achievements in a valuable "synthesising work that nails what is centrally important, such as the observation that 'We've been looking for universal moral principles that feel right, and there may be no such thing'".


The Nazi and the Psychiatrist by Jack El-Hai

"Were the Nazis mad, or bad? That question still hangs over the history of the Second World War, and perhaps explains our enduring cultural fascination with the meaning of Nazism," Ben Macintyre writes in the Times. American army psychiatrist Douglas Kelley had the chance to find out for himself after the war when he was selected to analyse the captive criminals at Nuremberg. El-Hai recounts Kelley's forensic probing into their brains, revealing "narcissism, self-delusion, and indifference" - but not madness. Sadly the "markedly less enthralling" personal life of the psychiatrist dominates the book's second half, but its central thrust is an important one. Finding Nazis "perfectly sane" may be medically frustrating, but it is "morally satisfying to leave the perpetrators of the worst crime in history entirely responsible for their own actions".

Leyla Sanai in the Independent is more disturbed by the book's conclusions. "The finding that relatively normal men could enact such crimes led Kelley to fear that similar barbaric atrocities could arise elsewhere," Sanai writes. She highlights Kelley's prediction that "workaholics with strong convictions might elsewhere show similar disregard for the lives of others". The insights into Hitler's leading henchmen are fascinating, revealing the "ruthless" Goering as a "sociable, loving family man who had adored animals" and Streicher as owner of "the largest pornography collection ever seen." A "detailed, meticulously-researched book" , exploring the minds of these "relatively" normal men.

Peter Lewis in the Daily Mail is more reluctant to accept "current majority opinion that the Nazi mind was a myth", in a review entitled "A joke-cracking, hymn-singing, wife-loving psycho". The reviewer finds Kelley's bizarre behaviour almost as enthralling as Goering's, arguing the psychiatrist  "had in some ways a similar personality" to his subject. Both were  "ambitious, go-getting, workaholics", and both used cyanide to take their own lives. According to Lewis, "psychiatrists have continued to debate the 'Nazi mind'". Kelley's fellow interrogator "published his own book saying all the Nazis had been psychopaths." On the evidence of Goering's extraordinary comments on Auschwitz - "Well, it was good propaganda" - Lewis concludes Kelley's work was "hardly an exact science". 


Helen Dunmore paints the horrors of the trenches in The Lie. Photograph: Getty Images
Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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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