Sex tourism

The "most exciting writer in Europe" is back. Gerry Feehily, in Paris, reads Michel Houellebecq's <e

Michel Houellebecq is back, and his new novel, Plateforme, has already come under vehement attack. Since the publication of Atomised in 1998, Houellebecq has been not only the most prominent of French authors, but also the most controversial, not least for his unconventional opinions on the sexual revolution. Often overlooked, however, is how he grants his fictional characters the freedom to contradict his own pet theories, finding fulfilment as they do in the type of sexual liberalism he seems to denounce. Full of such novelistic contradictions, Plateforme (not available in English until September next year) is a baffling study of sex tourism and a moral examination of the consequences of globalisation.

A 40-year-old administrator at the Ministry of Culture, Michel, our narrator, is a loser in the sex wars, "more or less resigned to a boring life". He spends sozzled evenings at peep-shows, or alone at home mesmerised by cable TV, but his luck begins to turn after the death of his philandering father, whom he buries with the words "you old bastard". With a sizeable inheritance, he leaves for Thailand on a package holiday, where, in between encounters with Thai prostitutes - "the best lovers in the world" - he meets Valerie, an executive working in the tourist industry.

On returning to Paris, Michel discovers that the bisexual Valerie has a capacity for self-abandonment he believed possible only in the Orient. Generous and maternal, she provides him with a kind of happiness, the nature of which, as is often the case in Houellebecq's fiction, lies in sex free of moral constraint.

The main impediment to the happiness of Michel and Valerie, as it unfolds for well over a third of the novel, is the latter's exhausting work schedule. Hired to transform the El Doreador, a loss-making subsidiary of the tour company Aurore, Valerie struggles to come up with the holiday package that will give her an edge over the global competition. Meanwhile, in the suburbs surrounding the company's air-conditioned tower, social anarchy, analogous to the individualistic anarchy of the market, prevails. As fearful of the streets as they are for their jobs, Aurore's stifled employees are left to wonder "as to the utility of this world being built".

After a trip to a ruined Cuba, Michel believes he has found the solution to Valerie's problems: a package holiday where lonely westerners pay for favours spent in the arms of third-world inhabitants with "nothing to sell but their bodies, and their intact sexuality. It's an ideal exchange." Although the creation of "Aphrodite Clubs" in Thailand is an instant success, no one had reckoned with the puritan fervour of Islamic fundamentalists from neighbouring Malaysia. As often in Houellebecq, the end, like the beginning, is despair.

Such a premise may be uncomfortable, but it possesses its own curious logic. Something of an industrial adventure, a skewed airport novel full of boardroom scenes and exotic locations, Plateforme seeks to demythologise the glamour of globalisation, suggesting that if a non-productive west exploits a third-world industrial base, a global division of sexual labour cannot be far behind. To label it "misogynist filth", as has the French editor of a popular travel guide on Thailand, is to misunderstand the novel. Although Plateforme is narrated in a deadpan, almost sociological style, which confuses the distinction between fiction and prescription, Houellebecq's intention here is patently satirical, moral even; the novel pushes its themes to the limits of the absurd.

This said, the book has its shortcomings, not least because, as Houellebecq's fame grows, an entire cult of personality, indeed an industry, forms around him, at the expense of a coherent artistic vision. Full of perfunctory, deliberately flat descriptions of Thailand, and often slapdash disquisitions on Islam, prostitution and sexuality, Plateforme, with a reproving editor, a rewrite, plus a little more time, might have been a brisker, leaner work. Despite this, it remains an unsettling novel, at odds and yet tuned into the modern world. Few authors can convey the way it feels to be alive today with quite the same demented energy.

Gerry Feehily is a critic living in Paris

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot

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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