Frankly nightmarish


Hugh Paxton <em>Macmillan New Writing, 294pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 02300

If you're the suspicious sort who thinks that authors and reviewers are in cahoots, don't let me dissuade you. I never met Hugh Paxton, the author of a gleefully deranged new novel set in civil-war Sierra Leone, but for several years I worked on a Tokyo newspaper of which he was the travel columnist.

Paxton's stories would arrive like clockwork, fortnightly, from unfeasibly far-flung corners of the globe. So well travelled was he that sceptical sub-editors wondered if he had, in fact, simply read a few guidebooks and made up his articles. Homunculus is proof - if it were ever needed - that their suspicions were wrong. Evidently, Paxton's imagination runs to rather darker subjects than the "what ho!" japes and scrapes of his travel writing.

By "darker", I mean frankly nightmarish: child soldiers, the mutilation of toddlers, casual slaughter, male gang rape and, not least, the eponymous Ebola-ridden semi-sentient monsters stitched together from the body parts that so liberally strew the pages of Homunculus. This is one despatch from a place you'd never, ever put on your holiday list.

Namibia is currently home to the author and his family, so Paxton is familiar with the dark heart of Africa that he remorselessly illuminates. I suspect, also, that a professional lifetime of hanging out in foreign correspondents' clubs the world over has given him a ready fund of first-hand stories of horror. (The Freetown FCC, incidentally, is only one of many parts of the Sierra Leonean capital blown sky high in the course of the narrative, though Paxton reserves the nastiest fate for a CNN crew - videotaped death-by-flaming-tyre.) Homunculus reads like a sick compilation of every report ever of anarchy in Africa, in one back-to-back orgy of senseless violence.

Not a book to pack for the beach, then? Well, here lies Paxton's achievement: he makes all this full-on nastiness not just compulsive reading, but actually bloody funny. The plot is simple: a mad scientist passing himself off as a Catholic priest creates a race of "bio-robots", no great lookers, but handy with bombs, AKs and rusting, notch-bladed pangas. With the help of a South African mercenary, the monsters are to be auctioned off to the world's undesirables - Japanese cultists, Colombian drug-smugglers, and Zionist fanatics. By way of a backdrop, Sierra Leone goes merrily to hell, as the revolutionary army and its Liberian cronies attempt a coup, while the teenage RUF General Butt Naked fulfils power-crazed ambitions of his own.

Homunculus certainly isn't without its faults. The horror starts on the first page and ends on the last, with no let-up in between. Judicious pacing would have given the narrative some needed variation and tension. Also, while Paxton is excellent on the battle juju practised by the African fighters (painting it as absurd yet oddly understandable), the mystical and alchemical elements surrounding the creator of the homunculi and his 600-year-old rival seem to have dropped out of the sky from another book entirely. The sub-plot involving the Aum cultists also seems extraneous - there to showcase the author's knowledge of Japan.

But this book is gripping - in so many ways. Homunculus deserves a proper paperback outing, with better cover art and attention to typos (this edition having apparently been copy-edited by someone favouring a random distribution of "its" and "it's"). In an afterword, Paxton expresses the desire to write a follow-up - pos sibly, he teases, set in England. Flyblown Frankenstein's monsters running amok over the South Downs aren't a pretty prospect, yet Homunculus leaves you with a strange, sick yen to see him do it.

Victoria James is a television producer

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Sell-out: Why hedge funds will destroy the world

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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