Knowing too much

Into the Looking-Glass Wood

Alberto Manguel <em>Bloomsbury, 273pp, £20</em>

"There are passages of Ulysses," wrote Henry Miller, "which can be read only in the toilet if one wants to extract the full flavour of their content." This quote was included in Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, an exhaustive study to burden the biggest of coffee-tables or to bury beneath the magazines in the bathroom. Manguel's latest offering, Into the Looking-Glass Wood, a collection of 22 essays, is more portable and continues the Argentinian writer's fascination with the printed word. Its title comes from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, in which Alice discovers a forest of unnamed objects and inhabitants. Manguel takes Alice's moment of wonder and wordlessness as analogous to the act of reading. "The task of naming belongs to every reader," he explains. Yet he rarely resists the temptation to do the naming himself. He doesn't wear his erudition lightly, and he's keen to impress us with his cosmopolitanism: "after a conversation with the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy in Paris . . . and later, when I made my home in Canada . . ." If Manguel was a gallery guide you'd have to kick him in the shins every now and then to tell him to stop showing off and get on with it.

Although the book feels like a publisher's hotchpotch of academic essays (with footnotes), political articles and literary anecdotes, there is enough here to justify the venture. "Borges in Love" is an enchanting look at the tortuous love-life of the famously short-sighted writer of Labyrinths. Manguel, his friend, used to accompany the old man to the cinema and narrate the film because Borges, by then, could barely see at all. Even so, he was forever enthralled by "the mystery of women". Manguel relates how Borges's search for his dream-lover was ultimately unsuccessful, both in life and on the page, one reflecting the other.

Elsewhere, in "The Blind Photographer", Manguel attacks the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa for the disparate views he expresses in his fiction and journalism. "There are two Vargas Llosas. The first is the great novelist, the storyteller . . . The second is an anti-revolutionary, an advocate of Thatcherism, a defender of President Menem's shameful amnesty for those responsible for the disappearance of thousands of civilians during Argentina's military dictatorship." Manguel teases out the reasons why this particular writer's mirror has cracked.

The most moving article, "In Memoriam", is a tribute to those who disappeared in Argentina. Manguel confesses to cowardice: he fled to Europe. Of his friends who stayed behind, two were shot dead at a petrol-station, one was killed and sent in a mailbag to his parents, another committed suicide. It's a powerful essay, a poignant reminder of a writer's social responsibility and a further indictment of Vargas Llosa's misguided journalism.

Manguel's thesis, if he has one, is that imagination is a liberating power in itself. "In the end," he writes, "words are all we have to defend ourselves with" - and this is no less true if, like Borges, you are defending yourself from an unhappy marriage than it is if you're defending your rights against a military junta. The prose is sometimes flattened by the author's learning, but Into the Looking-Glass Wood makes up in wisdom what it lacks in warmth.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie

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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