Novel of the week

The Deadly Space Between

Patricia Duncker <em>Picador, 246pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0330490095

Patricia Duncker's debut work of fiction, Hallucinating Foucault, was a sophisticated combination of thriller, love story and philosophical exploration. Her second novel, James Miranda Barry, flamboyantly fused history and fiction in the story of a 19th-century woman who lived convincingly as a man while enjoying an illustrious medical career. Never a writer to content herself with a single theme, Duncker's latest book is a characteristically rich blend of unsettling psychology and literary playfulness.

Borrowing its title from Herman Melville, The Deadly Space Between gives a contemporary setting to what is essentially a Gothic fable. The narrator, Toby Hawk, is an 18-year-old who lives in a family of successful, unconventional women: his mother, Isobel, just 15 years his senior, is a painter on the brink of commercial success; his great-aunt Luce is a wealthy textile designer; and her partner, Liberty, is a barrister. Yet despite his unorthodox upbringing in an atmosphere of free-spirited independence, Toby's world is a sheltered round of school and domesticity that remains undisturbed until his mother begins a new relationship with an enigmatic older man, a Swiss scientist known only as Roehm. Embarking on a seduction aimed as much at Toby as at Isobel, Roehm becomes the sinister centre of their world, inspiring both fear and worship, but giving nothing of himself away. As Toby struggles to adapt to what is happening, his search takes him and Isobel to the Alps and to a chilling, if not entirely unpredictable, conclusion.

Duncker lectures in literary theory and is the author of numerous essays on 19th- and 20th-century literature, and her book is rich in intertextuality, with the usual references to Freud, Faust and Frankenstein. We have come to expect her fiction to challenge boundaries and frontiers, of gender, sexuality or sanity. Here, the line crossed is one of desire: as it begins to dominate, the once certain parameters of Toby's life become blurred and the darkest regions of the psyche emerge into the everyday. And with the insidious invasion of Roehm and the subsequent disintegration of relationships, the language becomes more visceral.

However, what starts as an elegant, psychologically astute exploration of the way in which jealousy, love and fear combine to shape identity almost loses its way. Duncker is simply too good to need clumsy emotional signposts, such as Freud's Wolf Man or a Weber opera, and the extended metaphor of overcoming mountains as the ultimate human endeavour is overdone to the point of disappearing down its own crevasse. Fortunately, her novel is redeemed in the end, not through shouting, but through quiet understatement.

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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