Friday, May 1, 2020

THE SHADOWS OF OLYMPUS

Manhattan art dealer and sometime art thief Ashley Sutton has been blackmailed by a mysterious client into the most dangerous job of her career-breaking into the ninetieth story office of financier Harold Northrop and stealing a disc from his safe.

The job goes badly, and Ashley and her partner Logan Scott end up on the run, from both Northrop, and her angry client.

Their only way out lies in their unraveling the mystery of the disc's contents-which leads Ashley into a dark corner of her personal past, while plunging her into the middle of a conspiracy by a secretive and powerful group intent on controlling the world's future in . . .




Available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon and other retailers.

You can also check out the book at Inkitt and Wattpad.

The First Review is In! (The Military Techno-Thriller: A History)

My book The Military Techno-Thriller: A History hit the market earlier this month.



Fuldapocalypse Fiction has just reviewed it, and I am pleased to say its assessment of the book has been favorable.

Its review praised the book's history of the field as a "multi-century tour de force" of "not only the books themselves but also the cultural context behind them," even as it manages to be "both long enough to be . . . and short enough to be easily readable, making it the best of both worlds." Altogether Fuldapocalypse rated it
an excellent book that examines an overlooked genre through a variety of interesting perspectives in a highly readable way. I cannot recommend The Military Techno-Thriller: A History enough for fans of the genre.
That's very high praise from any source--and the more meaningful because so much of his characterization of the book ("long enough to be comprehensive . . . and short enough to be easily readable, making it the best of both worlds") is exactly what I aimed for.

It's the more meaningful, too, for having come from this blog specifically. As a longtime reader (and fan) of Fuldapocalypse Fiction, and the affiliated Coiler's Creative Corner--both of which I regard as must-reads for those interested in military techno-thrillers, action-adventure ficion, and related thriller genres across the media spectrum from print to gaming--I have consistently found the author a deeply informed, incisive and tough (but fair) critic of work in the field.

The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/25/19
The Evolution of the Thriller
6/24/19
Announcing . . . A Century of Spy Fiction: Reflections on the Genre
6/17/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY
6/6/19
The Action Film's Transitional Years: Recalling the 1990s
6/6/19
'Nineties Dreams
6/6/19
Looking Past the Hardcovers: Techno-Thrillers in Other Media
6/6/19

Thursday, April 30, 2020

THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY

THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY takes a close look at this widely read but still little studied genre, tracing its origins from the Victorian-era invasion story, to its 1980s heyday as king of the bestseller list in the hands of authors like Tom Clancy, down to today, considering its interaction with other genres and other media throughout. In the process, this book also tells the larger story of how the ways in which we think about, imagine and portray war evolved during the last century to bring us to where we are now.



The Military Techno-thriller: A History is now available in print and e-book formats from Amazon and other retailers.

Get your copy today.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A CENTURY OF SPY FICTION: REFLECTIONS ON THE GENRE

A CENTURY OF SPY FICTION: REFLECTIONS ON THE GENRE brings together Nader Elhefnawy's writings on that subject. From the birth of the spy story in the marriage of detective fiction with the invasion story to the genre's post-Cold War travails, from the forgotten but hugely important adventures of the original "international man of mystery" Duckworth Drew to the reimagining of Jason Bourne, from the notorious weirdness of the Bond villains to the prose style of John le Carre, they trace the broader history while peering at many a keyhole to see just what has been going on all the while in this often mysterious genre about mystery.



Get your copy today.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Spectre Behind Us

As word trickles through the entertainment press about what the world can expect of "Bond 25," a glance back at Bond 24 seems appropriate.

When the movie, coming on the heels of the highest grossing Bond film of the series' history, finally hit theaters the common complaint was that Spectre was rather a generic Bond movie, a charge for which there are ample grounds, not least in the action scenes and their settings. The opening sequence, a chase through a costume-packed Latin American festival (Mexico City's celebration of the Day of the Dead), recalled the Junkanoo in Thunderball, and still more, the Carnival in Moonraker. The car chase in Rome had Bond using the gadgets in his Aston Martin to escape pursuers after he glimpsed a meeting he was not supposed to see, at one point making use of an ejector seat--all of which was very Goldfinger (with yet another touch of Thunderball). During this he was being pursued by a giant of a killer who uses metal-plated portions of his body for murder, just like Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me--who, again as in that film, comes after Bond and Bond girl on a train rolling through a desert in the north of the African continent. The airplane-car chase in Austria evoked, variously, Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill in its use of a vehicle that comes apart, as well as many a ski chase (some of which also happened in Austria, like the one in, again, The Spy Who Loved Me).

The derivativeness extended to this film's immediate predecessor, Skyfall--Bond once again pitted against an enemy with British intelligence in his sights, and Bond himself in his sights, because Bond was the "favored brother," which leads to the climax being back in Britain, complete with a pursuit in London. There was also something of Quantum of Solace in the danger being within the Establishment. Alas, I was not an admirer of the family dynamic aspect of Skyfall, and I did not think it was executed any better this time, Bond's connection with Blofeld (in which role Christopher Waltz's abilities were, quite frankly, wasted) thinly sketched, unsatisfying--and unnecessary, as if "drama in the family" had simply become another box the producers felt that they had to tick, while the big reveal of the villain was just as flat as Silva's appearance in the last movie. And the way it all goes down in the end struck me as generic, in this case in an action-movies-in-general way. Had the last confrontation been in Los Angeles rather than London, I would have expected to see Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer's names on the screen at the start of the credits. Or maybe Joel Silver's. And it was, alas, not the first time this could have been said of a Bond film. (A principal criticism of 1989's Licence to Kill was its looking and feeling so much like a regular '80s American action film, and what happened in it when someone makes the "big mistake" of killing the hero's "favorite second cousin.")

I was somewhat more intrigued by the mass surveillance element. Still, the use of the theme seemed less daring and serious than the resource politics in Quantum where the supervillains were the same people many regard as the supervillains in real life. Moreover, I remember watching Quantum, and then Skyfall, and being struck by the film's backing off from that critical touch, which made the attempt to retcon the four films into a single narrative all the more problematic.

The result is still, on the whole, a watchable action film, at points more than watchable. Sheer scale and visceral staging elevated the Day of the Dead chase above the level of a mere repeat, while there was here and there an entertaining twist, in cases sufficient for the generous to call it homage rather than rip-off. All the same, it takes more than merely "watchable" to justify a $350 million entry in a half-century old series. Which brings me back to the first impression the world had of the film, by way of the "Sony hack of 2014." I suppose nothing since quite compares with that brief opening of a window on the cynicism and mediocrity of those who call the shots in Hollywood, reflected in the executives' panic at their own perceptions of the blandness of the film they had backed. ("There needs to be some kind of a twist rather than a series of watery chases with guns"; "the 'meanwhile' action for bond is simply fighting henchmen in many overblown and familiar sequences--helicopter, elevator shaft, netting." They said it before anyone else could.)

The final product testifies to their limitations in trying to clean up the mess they made. ("No, James Bond, I am your brother"--for the second underwhelming time in a row--may have been the best they could do.) And that, in turn, testifies to the greatest lameness of all--the PR hacks posing as journalists, the bowing-and-scraping business class-worshiping conformists, who would have the public in awe of Suits like these as "the smartest guys in the room," richly deserving of their seven, eight, nine figure compensation packages.

James Bond and Britain's Small Wars
7/22/19
The New 007 Is . . .
7/22/19
Announcing . . . The Long Drawdown: British Military Retrenchment, 1945-1979
7/17/19
The Delay of Bond 25
7/9/19
The Historiography of Paramilitary Fiction
6/29/19
The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/25/19
The Evolution of the Thriller
6/24/19
Announcing . . . A Century of Spy Fiction: Reflections on the Genre
6/17/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY
6/6/19
'Nineties Dreams
6/6/19
Looking Past the Hardcovers: Techno-Thrillers in Other Media
6/6/19
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the '80s Action Film
8/27/13

Monday, September 9, 2019

Just Out: What is Neoliberalism?

What is neoliberalism? How does it stand in relation to the rest of the liberal tradition? Were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (and the Democratic Party more generally) neoliberals, as many of their critics charge? And what has neoliberalism meant for the world?

Nader Elhefnawy's What is Neoliberalism? addresses, and answers, all of these questions—so critical to making sense of the world this past half century, and of currents events now.



Get your copy today.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Just Out: Complexity, Stagnation and Frailty: Understanding the Twenty-First Century

Back in 2004 I published "Societal Complexity and Diminishing Returns in Security" in the journal International Security. (The journal is paywalled, but you can access a copy on my blog, here.)

The argument, which built on Joseph Tainter's thesis in The Collapse of Complex Societies, boiled down to its absolute basics, was that modern civilization was getting more complex, by and large in ways that were offering less and less benefit, leaving it more strained and more vulnerable to disruption, all as the costs of protecting it kept going up.

This sounds abstract, but there were fairly concrete ways in which this was the case. The ever-rising volume of trade, travel, communication, information production and processing show our society's increasing complexity. The profound slowdown in economic growth in recent decades, the routinization of colossal deficits, the explosion of debt, testify to a society whose resources are badly strained. And of course, the "tight coupling" of our contemporary systems, the preference for leanness in the name of "efficiency" (at the expense of resiliency) also suggested rising vulnerability. This was evident, too, in the standard deemed necessary for protection--with the old idea of nuclear deterrence giving way to an obsession with not deterring but neutralizing the abilities of "irrational" actors, which entailed such things as preventive wars and missile defense. Meanwhile, way below that threat level there was the burgeoning expenditure on law enforcement, emergency services, private security.

As is often the case with a piece of published research, it was a starting point for me rather than an end to a line of speculation, in particular the first aspect of it--the way society was getting more complex but stagnant and strained, as declining growth and rising deficits and debt suggested. One result was a more thoroughly worked out and heavily updated version of the argument in 2008 which I was releasing just as the mortgage crisis demonstrated the stagnation and frailty of the globalized, financialized, twenty-first century economy, with the paper. (You can find it here on my blog, a PDF version here at SSRN.)

Still, that was not the end of it. I returned to the same theme later, and more recently produced three papers, also published through SSRN--one offering a yet more thorough and more up-to-date version of that argument in early 2018; an accompanying piece which probed deeply into the multiple available data sets regarding post-World War II growth in Gross World Product; and finally one which endeavored to relate our economic stresses to the sharp deterioration of the "liberal international order" that respectable mainstream talking heads remark so much but do so little to help anyone understand.

My new book, Complexity, Stagnation and Frailty: Understanding the Twenty-First Century, brings this later research together in a single, convenient volume, in both Kindle and paperback editions, available at Amazon and other retailers.



Get your copy today.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Politics of Fight Club

What seems like a thousand years ago, I was gulled by the hype into reading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club.

I ultimately found it incoherent and frustrating and dismissed it, eventually deciding that it was yet another piece of postmodernism in the worst sense of that term--shallow, muddled, pushing lots of buttons but not actually saying anything, which was a common enough experience back then, when I still paid attention to such things as "independent film." And I was annoyed by how unlike so many pop cultural "phenomena" Fight Club didn't seem to go away--how year after year, decade after decade, people kept on talking about it, getting excited about it.

In hindsight, it seems something much more insidious. Tyler Durden and company's smugly willful irrationality and anti-rationality, their exultation in violent action for its own sake, their contempt for egalitarianism (from here we get the current, unfortunate usage of "snowflake"), their leader-worship, their fascination with the idea of an all-male pseudo-community intent on mayhem . . . they seems to pretty much cover any laundry list of traits of fascism one cares to name.

Of course, defining an ideology simply by a list of traits is not entirely satisfying. And so I find myself thinking of characterizations of fascism which attempt to get at its essence, with two such attempts standing out in my memory. One is of fascism as a politics that organizes people around self-expression, around theatrical display rather than self-interest. (Think of the Nazis serving up the spectacle of the Nuremberg rallies instead of making good on their promises of a higher living standard for the German people.) The other is that fascism is a combination of rebellious feeling with reactionary thinking. The book's principals fit on both counts, of course--because self-expression rather than self-interest is what is at issue for them, because their rebellious feeling is combined with that worship of inegalitarianism, anti-humanism, violence, leader-cult and the rest that by any reasonable measure is reactionary.

Of course, having established that Tyler Durden and company are a pack of fascists, one is left with the question of what to make of the book itself. To depict a thing is not necessarily to advocate that thing--and like any other postmodernist Palahniuk surrounds his work with such a freight of irony that one can never be sure what he really thinks about anything, or even if he has any awareness of what he is presenting. (Given the intellectual shallowness on display, one cannot take that much self-awareness for granted.) However, whatever his intent, the attraction of what he presented for a certain demographic makes it clear that it did appeal specifically because of its fascism. Looking back it appears that this should have received more, and more critical attention--our cultural commentators fallen asleep on the job again.

My Posts on Postmodernism
11/21/12

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Military Techno-Thriller

Listed below are my posts on the military techno-thriller. (Also see my posts on spy fiction.)

The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success
9/1/19
The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: Surviving the Bust
8/28/19
The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: The Boom Years
8/22/19
Paramilitary Fiction and the Military Techno-thriller: The Question of Social Class
7/15/19
A Genre of Flying Stories
7/12/19
The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/25/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY
6/6/19
Looking Past the Hardcovers: Techno-Thrillers in Other Media
6/6/19
On Craig Thomas' Sea Leopard
8/31/18
Craig Thomas' Sea Leopard and British Naval Power
8/31/18
Review: Sea Leopard, by Craig Thomas
8/31/18
The Third World War: The Untold Story
8/18/18
Sifting the Bestseller Lists: The Military Techno-Thriller
8/17/18
Win, Lose or Die and the British Techno-Thriller
10/18/15
Review: Win, Lose or Die, by John Gardner
10/11/15
Reading the Jack Ryan Novels
12/12/12
A Sixth Generation Fighter: Reading Firefox
4/6/12

The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success

This essay is a development of two prior posts,"The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: The Boom Years" (August 22, 2019), and "The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: Surviving the Bust" (August 28, 2019)
.

In writing The Military Techno-thriller: A History I was primarily interested in the big picture of how the genre emerged and developed. When I discussed individual works I was more concerned with whether they were original or influential than with, for example, whether I found them more or less entertaining, or what I thought of literary craftsmanship they displayed. Still, I certainly had my opinions about these matters when I first encountered the techno-thriller not long after its '80s-era heyday, and which did not change much when I revisited these works for my research--while recently reading Fuldapocalypse Fiction's characteristically incisive and entertaining anniversary review of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears had me thinking about that writer in particular.

As I have noted before, Clancy was far and away the biggest name in the field in the '80s (indeed, the highest-selling American novelist of the '80s, in any field). However, was he the best? I must admit I did not think so at the time. I thought others excelled him in various ways--and indeed, most of the ways that mattered to me then. Dale Brown struck me as the best at pure summer blockbuster-type action, while along with Brown, Stephen Coonts was stronger at mixing action and technology (in flying sequences, at least). Larry Bond was the one to turn to for grand-scale scenarios, briskly paced. And Ralph Peters was the most accomplished at such objects of conventional literary craftsmanship as prose and characterization. (For that matter, I cannot think of any Clancy adventure I enjoyed quite as much as I did Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid.)

All that being the case, one might wonder why Clancy came to eclipse the others with readers as he did. I see three significant possibilities.

1. Getting There First, and Not Just the First Time, But Again and Again
One point in Clancy's favor, certainly, was that as far as those names are concerned, he was first--which mattered all the more given the brief window of opportunity the genre's writers wound up having to make a really big name for themselves (the boom peaking in '89 according to my reading of the bestseller lists, and turning to bust afterward fast). Clancy's debut, The Hunt for Red October, arrived scarcely before the deep freeze of the Second Cold War began to give way to another thaw--the end of 1984, mere months before Mikhail Gorbachev became Premier of the Soviet Union, and not quite five years before the Berlin Wall was to fall.

The book managed 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, on which it rose as high as the #2 slot, firmly established him as a Name in the field, and making it easy for him to get follow-ups into print while those other writers were still looking at the emergent market, still shopping around manuscripts. (Dale Brown's first book, notably, was Silver Tower, but it didn't sell the first time around and he was told "Why not do a flying story?"--which had his debut coming only in 1987 with The Flight of the Old Dog, and Silver Tower not hitting the market until the year after that.)

As far as having that inside track went, it mattered that Clancy made the most of it, producing new novels almost annually at this stage. The result was that he had five novels complete before that event, whereas Stephen Coonts and Dale Brown were to have three, and Larry Bond only his first as a headliner (Red Phoenix), and Payne Harrison and Ralph Peters just their first efforts (with Brown's book only his first to get the New York Times' list, and Peters not making it at all, which may be of ambiguous meaning with regard to sales, but certainly clear implications when it comes to the publicity a place on the list offers).

This gave Clancy a greater opportunity to build an audience, which, again, he seems to have made the most of, not least by consistently being ahead of the competition with regard to the treatment of other major ideas. The team writing under the name John Hackett had already produced a work about a hypothetical U.S.-Soviet World War III in Europe way back in the '70s--but as of 1986 the work was eight years old, and anyway, it was written as a future history rather than a novel. The result was that Red Storm Rising looked relatively fresh in taking on that theme, with Harold Coyle and Ralph Peters only managing to follow later (in 1987 and 1989, respectively). When writing a novel pitting the hero of his original book against terrorists, Clancy had Patriot Games (1987) out before Coonts could publish Final Flight (1988); and when mixing up techno-thriller tech with old-fashioned espionage, The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) out before Coonts' The Minotaur (1989). Clancy was in the lead with regard to the drug war as well, getting Clear and Present Danger into print in 1989 (literally on the list as American soldiers parachuted into Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega on drug trafficking charges, which may not have been unhelpful), while Dale Brown's Hammerheads and Stephen Coonts' similarly drug war-themed Under Siege only hit the market the next year (1990), when everyone else was doing it.1

Each and every time, he had the book out first, which can only have helped his interest.

2. And Now for Something Completely Different . . .
Along with being the first on the scene, and putting out four more books in five years that, time and again, preceded the genre's other major writers to market with some salable theme, Clancy time and again varied the type of story he told. Someone perhaps disinclined to read a novelized war game like Red Storm Rising might have been ready to give Patriot Games (where he "cut back on the military detail to write a story focused on people . . . a personal tale of love and revenge") a chance--while much of the audience disappointed in the smaller-scale, much less tech- and action-packed Patriot Games would have been ready to give him another chance with Cardinal of the Kremlin, especially when they heard about its Strategic Defense Initiative theme. And so on and so forth. No one else shifted tacks to anything like that degree within that space of time, or had a chance to do so, and I suspect that this rather risky course, which might have been the more bearable because Clancy had such a large audience from the first, paid off as well.

3. Writing For a General Audience
Besides his being first, getting the novels out quickly in those early days, and varying the product, it seems notable that, compared with the scenarios of Brown or Harrison, Clancy's were, if not exactly plausible by real-world standards, then at least believable by the standards of this kind of thriller. Dale Brown's Silver Tower had the U.S. putting a massive battle station armed with a super-laser into space by 1992, and becoming the key American asset in the war that broke out with the Soviets when they invaded Iran. By contrast in Cardinal of the Kremlin the laser-based component of strategic defense remains very much a work in progress. This disparity was even clearer in the drug war novels. Clancy's version of a more thoroughly militarized conflict had American commandos waging a secret war against the cartels on the ground (and a fighter plane occasionally shooting down a drug smuggler's aircraft). By contrast Brown had the country deploying high-tech oil rig-type offshore bases for patrolling tilt-rotor aircraft, which had the cartels striking back with MiGs and Mirages and Kitchen anti-ship missiles leading to dogfights in the air--all while serving up a great deal of comic book-ishness in Megafortresses, mind-controlled super-fighters (in Day of the Cheetah), and the like. And the technical detailing of this vast machinery, the intricacy of the colossal action sequences, could become very considerable indeed, rather more so than in anything Clancy wrote.

I enjoyed the extravagances of Brown's books. But I think they were too much that way for most readers (people who complain about the technical detail in a Clancy novel will probably never enjoy one of Brown's), the body of really interested readers just a fraction of the proportion Clancy was able to get as a following.

It may also be that one of the features of Clancy's writing that a great many readers (myself included) have been less than happy with served him well here--not least, Clancy's tendency to lengthy exposition and rising action before the story really got going, heavy on detail not just about the workings of submarines but Jack Ryan's domestic cares. The slow build-ups, the abundance of the detailing, for all their shortcomings, may have lent the narrative a verisimilitude and a heft that it would not have had if he just rushed to the good part (or at least, the illusion of verisimilitude and heft that sheer slowness and mass can bring). Additionally, if I never took real interest in Ryan as a character, others seem to have been more responsive to him that way, especially that vast body of less-attached readers that Clancy managed to reach but which Brown did not.

All of these advantages stood Clancy in good stead into the '90s, particularly his readiness to vary his work, and his groundedness and accessibility, which may have been especially important as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made "big war" scenarios harder to think up, and generally less credible or interesting to readers--along with the fact that having so many readers in the first place, he could lose a good many and still be near the top. (The '90s saw Clancy not just remain a bestseller, but any new Jack Ryan novel taking the #2 spot on Publisher's Weekly's list of the year's biggest seller, and Clancy's overall output still making him one of the top five sellers of the decade.)

It might be added, moreover, that he benefited greatly from what his '80s-era success earned him, a better crack than anyone else at multimedia success in the early part of the decade, which turned out to be serendipitously timed from the standpoint of his career. It is worth noting that Clancy's Clear and Present Danger had been at or near the top of the bestseller list for half a year when The Hunt for Red October hit theaters, with still a ways to go if the success of the prior Jack Ryan adventure was anything to go by. This by no means guaranteed the movie's success with filmgoers, but it doubtless helped it to become a $100 million blockbuster in a time when those could be counted on two hands with fingers left over, just trailing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and edging out the much-hyped Total Recall and Die Hard 2.2 Clancy's success in one area boosted his success in another, as Red October's becoming a hit led to two more Jack Ryan movies (both also hits) in the next two years, with the film version of Clear and Present Danger still playing when Clancy's third book of the '90s, Debt of Honor, hit the market, just in time to benefit from the Japanaphobia fad before Japanese stagnation and American boom made it seem passe. (By contrast Stephen Coonts, far less fortunate in this regard, was to see Flight of the Intruder flop in January 1991, ending any hope of a Jake Grafton film franchise, eliminating what could have been a significant prop to his sales as interest in techno-thrillers eroded. It seems worth noting, too, that Coonts' next techno-thriller, also Japan-themed--Fortunes of War--coming along as it did in 1998, arrived after the fashion had run its course.)

There was not to be another Jack Ryan movie until 2002, a gap that could not have helped--but the bigger fashion for techno-thriller movies may have lent him some support, with the success of Air Force One (the #5 movie of 1997) perhaps especially notable. After Harrison Ford's playing Jack Ryan twice, and Jack Ryan having become President in the books (at the end of Debt of Honor), seeing Harrison Ford as President of the United States fighting Russian terrorists on Air Force One one could have been forgiven for thinking Air Force One was another Jack Ryan movie--and indeed, I would be surprised if it did not provide some benefit to his sales, which were getting plenty of help from elsewhere. If inactive on film, the "Clancy brand" extended to "co-authored" paperbacks with the Op-Center franchise (just one of many such series' to soon bear his name, well before Coonts or Dale Brown were to have their own out), and from there to television (with a miniseries in 1995), and increasingly to video gaming too, with the signal moment the translation of his 1998 bestseller Rainbow Six into a first-person shooter video game--which had the advantage of coming at a time when video gaming was reaching an increasingly adult market, and at the same time, most of the big names in that genre were still science fiction titles (like Doom) or World War II titles (like Medal of Honor). Rainbow Six proved popular indeed, and while I do not think anyone has bothered to do a proper survey, I suspect that at least a few gamers were tempted by them to the books.

Thus the Clancy name remained a force to be reckoned with in the '90s.

Of course, looking back over this, one might be struck by how much sheer happenstance there was in these events--to the extent that they made all that much difference, about which, again, I can only speculate here. The book deal Clancy made that got his book out first was an unusual one--Red October accepted by the first publisher he hit, without an agent, even though the publisher in question (the Naval Institute Press) did not do fiction at the time. Had he been forced to follow a more typical course, Red October might have only got out years later, and things been very different as a result. Even without that, that the Cold War's end would happen when it did, making his lead over his rivals the more significant, was obviously not something that could have been planned. And getting the film adaptation of that book out just as his latest novel was becoming its decade's biggest seller was also far beyond his control. Even where those things he could control are concerned, it is far from clear just how much of it involved calculation, like the style of plotting he developed, or the changes of course with regard to Jack Ryan's adventures, especially in those critical early days.

Considering that I find myself remembering Patrick Anderson's 1988 New York Times Magazine article on Clancy, in which he remarked Clancy's insistence on "dumb luck" as a factor in his personal success. Given all that I have raised here his success seems far more inexplicable. Yet, that the pieces fell into place for him when they did, as they did, and went on doing so long after '88, turning a bestselling novelist into a major multimedia brand still going strong with new Jack Ryan novels and co-authored paperbacks, with new video games and a TV series on Netflix and perhaps more films on the way, can seem to mean that he had far, far more dumb luck coming his way than he had seen or knew back then.

1. In November and December 1989 Clear and Present Danger had five straight weeks on the #4 rung of the New York Times' bestseller list. On the December 31, 1989 list, covering the week after the invasion, this book with 18 weeks on the list already behind it rose to #3, where it stayed for three weeks before rising another notch to #2 (January 21, 1990). Given the ambiguity of bestseller list rankings one cannot make too much of it, but the timing of the rise when the book had been on its way down is suggestive nonetheless.
2. There were just nine $100 million movies in 1989 and 1990, eight in 1991. By contrast 2018 had 34 movies making that much or more.

My Posts on the Military Techno-Thriller
9/1/19
James Bond and Britain's Small Wars
7/22/19
The New 007 Is . . .
7/22/19
Announcing . . . The Long Drawdown: British Military Retrenchment, 1945-1979
7/17/19
Paramilitary Fiction and the Military Techno-thriller: The Question of Social Class
7/15/19
A Genre of Flying Stories
7/12/19
The Delay of Bond 25
7/9/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY
6/6/19
Looking Past the Hardcovers: Techno-Thrillers in Other Media
6/6/19
What Ever Happened to Gold Eagle Publishing?
5/10/17
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the '80s Action Film
8/27/13
Reading the Jack Ryan Novels
12/12/12

Saturday, August 31, 2019

American Monarchists

A surprising number of Americans seem to romanticize Britain's upper classes, and its associated trappings, the ultimate symbol, idol, fetish of which is the monarchy. The tendency clearly extends far, far beyond the well-known Anglophilia of blue-blooded Eastern Establishment types who feel the more blue-blooded and Established for a trans-Atlantic connection to the even older Establishment in Britain. Even some who should know much better seem awed by the upper strata of British society, feel inferior to them. I remember, for instance, C.M. Kornbluth's rather gratuitous remark regarding George Orwell's literary craftsmanship in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The prose is the prose of a man with an English public school education, and I have noticed that these old Eton and Cambridge boys can write rings around anybody unfortunate enough not to have attended a public school and an ancient university.
The lecture in which Kornbluth made this remark was, on the whole, deeply disappointing in its intellectual shallowness and sheer enervation (the title was "The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism"), but this line was nothing short of disgusting in its bowing and scraping before a pretension and snobbery that the individual object of his praise happily did not share (for the man who gave the world Oceania and The Road to Wigan Pier could not have produced his sterling work had he shared it). And it says a great deal that a writer as intelligent and talented and accomplished as Kornbluth (six decades on The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law remain as relevant as ever, in their ways even cleverer and more relevant than Orwell's book) could have spoken it publicly in such a context.

One reflection of this is that many Americans hear Received Pronunciation, and immediately assume great education and intelligence on the part of the speaker, necessarily superior to their own--just as the only school whose name can beat "Harvard" in the snob stakes among adherents of the Cult of the Good School is "Oxford."

Another more significant reflection is that they think the feudal trappings of a British social system that, as H.G. Wells remarked in Tono-Bungay, was, and a century later remains, frozen circa 1688, are quaint and picturesque and essentially harmless, essentially not at odds with their cherished notion of Britain's as the Mother of Parliaments, which brought the light of democracy back into the world--and that, indeed, it is in poor taste, gauche, to criticize such things. However, the reality, as Adam Ramsay recently put it in his book, is a
House of Lords where a combination of the only hereditary legislators in the world, the only automatic seats for clerics outside Iran, and hundreds of appointed cronies get a say on all the UK's laws. This valve in the British state allows the interests of the powerful to flow freely, while holding back progressive change.
All this is combined with, as his colleague Laurie MacFarlane explains, "a head of state that is appointed not on the basis of merit, but by bloodline," with the whole operating under "an 'uncodified' constitution, which is to say that we don’t really have one." And it all gets crazier from there--the seven-eighths of British territory outside the British isles, "asymmetric devolution," and the rest, complemented and reinforced by the culture of the civil service, and the culture of "empire-kitsch nationalism" sustained by the tabloids, which causes many to speak such stupidities as "We need a monarchy because we don't have a Hollywood!"

Altogether it is a spectacle of backwardness, unearned and unjustifiable privilege, reaction, which if similarly displayed by a nation of Africa or Asia (especially one which had suffered the kind of industrial hollowing out Britain did, living off of accommodating foreign financiers and the kind of balance of payments Britain has), would be treated by the very same people as grounds for racist scorn, proof that "those savages" are unfitted for industry, democracy, modernity and the rest of modern life. And all of it has real-world consequences, with the Queen's Stuart-ish, pre-1688-ish suspension of Parliament to permit Boris Johnson's shoving a No-Deal Brexit down the throats of the British people only the latest and most recent example. (Ask the Australians what happened in 1975 for another.)

Online, at least, one seems to encounter a little more alertness to the fact from British observers.

One wonders if this will give American observers, or at least those who pretend to be at least a little bit progressive, similar pause where fawning over "the Queen" is concerned.

Alas, to go by the fawning over Prince Diana I see today, I do not think it likely.

James Bond and Britain's Small Wars
7/22/19
The New 007 Is . . .
7/22/19
Announcing . . . The Long Drawdown: British Military Retrenchment, 1945-1979
7/17/19
George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier and Obesity
5/28/19
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Note
10/27/18
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Reading H.G. Wells' Tono-Bungay
7/14/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

Flouting the Conventional Wisdom (On Quentin Tarantino's Films)

Over the years I have found that anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion on the matter of Quentin Tarantino's films almost immediately runs up against the intolerance of his fans for such an opinion--in real life, and of course, online. One may object to the violence, profanity, etc. in Tarantino's films (though his fans will take that as a compliment to Tarantino, whose "edginess" is thought part of his accomplishment, and testament to the critic's being a laughable prude). One may, to some extent, take issue with his films on the grounds of identity politics--the scripts drenched in racial epithets, the allotment of roles to women and so forth (because so few dare to challenge criticism coming from that direction, while even here, Tarantino fans stand their ground more than most).

However, one is not at all allowed to criticize, or even analyze, his movies as movies, to speak seriously of their aesthetic content, technical execution, or intellectual or political substance (or lack thereof). David Walsh, perhaps the most consistently interesting film critic working today, especially when it comes to discussion of the sort of "independent," art house filmmakers toward whom the middlebrow reviewers of the upmarket pages tend to be obsequious (though the team he works with is by and large very good here), has been a rare exception from the start. Writing about Pulp Fiction he did not deny credit where credit was due, in particular praising the performances of some of the cast (particularly that of Samuel L. Jackson). However, he saw the film as characterized by a "lack of spontaneity . . . self-consciousness . . . posturing . . . substitut[ing] for a serious look at life"; thought the filmmaking the filmmaking of a "show-off," constantly "overdo[ing] things," and "call[ing] attention to everything in his film which he considers clever or daring" with "a dozen exclamation marks," not least because he is more concerned with developing in the viewer a "certain attitude toward the filmmaker" than anything else. This was certainly the case with the trademark Tarantino dialogue, which he thought "inane" and (this bore that notice specifically) "called attention to itself far too often." Meanwhile, whatever faint "strand of revolt" and "sympathy for the underdog, the outsider" there may have been in it, whatever "feeling for the banality of lower middle class existence . . . its linguistic rhythms . . . kitsch . . . pathos of dead-end lives," is "swamped" by the reality that it is nowhere near so subversive as it may look to the untutored eye, Tarantino's "nonconformism" thoroughly conformist, not in spite of but in its brutality and nihilism.

While somewhat more warmly receiving Jackie Brown, Walsh made clear that the posturing and show-offiness and conformist non-conformism remained, while his opinion of the director worsened after he saw Kill Bill and its follow-ups, an output he deemed "unwatchable." In his review of the last Tarantino movie he covered for his publication, Django Unchained, he observed that Tarantino is "a seriously unskilled artist . . . a cultural huckster, with a minor talent for pastiche, reworking genres and creating blackly comic moments." He also notes that "[u]nder healthier circumstances, no one would have paid much notice" to him, and that he did get so much notice reflected the very "unhealthfulness" of those circumstances, what is retrograde in Tarantino aligning with what is retrograde in the prevailing opinion-makers, whose powerful response to Tarantino's "flippant tone and cynicism" reflects their decreasing "sympathy for democratic niceties."

What Walsh has to say of the artistic traits of Tarantino's films--the self-consciousness and the posturing, the inane dialogue, the self-satisfied show off-iness, the conformist non-conformism and general vacuity to which one can, with rare confidence, apply words like "middlebrow" or "Midcult"--has rung true for me since nearly the start. Indeed, already by the mid-'90s it seemed to me that those qualities virtually defined the much ballyhooed independent film movement, especially its neo-noir component, much of which has been directly imitative of his work. (Already seeing the first commercials for Suicide Kings I couldn't help burst out laughing at what a pack of cliches it had come to seem.)

Walsh's reading of the politics of Tarantino's reception may seem more arguable, shifting away as it does from specific features of a piece of . . . film, to the less certain matter of what it means, but it seems to me that Walsh is at least broadly correct here--the intellectual shallowness with which all this is received, the gleeful nihilism that the gullible take for "cool" and "edgy," but which is really just fascistic garbage (or actually fascist garbage). It is an opinion that I suspect Tarantino would reject, and I think he would be honest and sincere in his denial. (I had the impression that his support for Black Lives Matter, which seems to have cost him a measure of favor in recent years, was genuine.) Still, a deep political thinker he does not seem to be, especially when making his movies (nor a terribly consistent thinker, period, to go by what many have written about his latest, Walsh's very capable colleague Joanne Laurier among them). And, if unintentionally, he seems to reflect and play to and be welcomed by his reviewers and his fans not in spite of but because of exactly what these critics find so tiresome and repugnant about his work.

Paramilitary Fiction and the Military Techno-thriller: The Question of Social Class
7/15/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
Two Terms: "Conventional Wisdom" and "Convenient Social Virtue"
11/7/18
My Posts on Independent Film
8/6/18
What Ever Happened to Gold Eagle Publishing?
5/10/17
Making Sense of Midcult
10/21/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the '80s Action Film
8/27/13
David Walsh on the Oscar Contenders
2/22/13
The Politics of Dark and Gritty Storytelling
2/14/13
David Walsh on The Life of Pi
12/20/12
My Posts on Postmodernism
11/21/12

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: Surviving the Bust

In my prior post I considered some possible reasons for the sheer scale of Tom Clancy's success in the 1980s.

Here I turn to his managing to remain a major bestseller in the 1990s, even as the techno-thriller market virtually collapsed.

This seems to me to partly be a matter of the advantages I mentioned last time--his having been able to establish himself as a big name in the field first, and keep getting to major themes of the genre first (like the drug war); his varying the content of his books sufficiently to reach a wider readership; and his books being relatively grounded and accessible. It was also a matter of them giving him by far the biggest audience--so that if he lost a large portion of his readership to changing fashion, that still left him with way more readers than any of his colleagues had ever had.

However, there was also the matter of Clancy's multimedia success, which it turned out was very fortuitously timed. It is worth noting that Clancy's Clear and Present Danger had been at or near the top of the bestseller list for half a year when The Hunt for Red October hit theaters, with still a ways to go if the success of the prior Jack Ryan adventure was anything to go by. This by no means guaranteed the film's success. However, that The Hunt for Red October became a $100 million blockbuster in a time when those could be counted on two hands with fingers left over, just trailing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and edging out the much-hyped Total Recall and Die Hard 2 in the ranks of the year's top movies, hardly seems trivial, Clancy topping the bestseller list and the box office at the very same moment.1 Clancy's success in one area boosted his success in another, as Red October's becoming a hit led to two more Jack Ryan movies (both also hits) in the next two years, with the film version of Clear and Present Danger still playing when Clancy's third book of the '90s, Debt of Honor, hit the market, just in time to benefit from the Japanaphobia fad before Japanese stagnation and American boom made it seem passe. (By contrast Stephen Coonts, far less fortunate in this regard, was to see Flight of the Intruder flop in January 1991, ending any hope of a Jake Grafton film franchise, eliminating what could have been a significant prop to his sales as interest in techno-thrillers eroded. It seems worth noting, too, that Coonts' next techno-thriller, also Japan-themed--Fortunes of War--coming along as it did in 1998, arrived after the fashion had run its course.)

There was not to be another Jack Ryan movie until 2002, a gap that could not have helped--but the bigger fashion for techno-thriller movies may have lent him some support, with the success of Air Force One (the #5 movie of 1997) perhaps especially notable. After Harrison Ford's playing Jack Ryan twice, and Jack Ryan having become President in the books (at the end of Debt of Honor), seeing Harrison Ford as President of the United States fighting Russian terrorists on Air Force One one could have been forgiven for thinking Air Force One was another Jack Ryan movie--and indeed, I would be surprised if it did not provide some benefit to his sales, which were getting plenty of help from elsewhere. If inactive on film, the "Clancy brand" extended to "co-authored" paperbacks with the Op-Center franchise (just one of many such series' to soon bear his name, well before Coonts or Dale Brown were to have their own out), and from there to television (with a miniseries in 1995), and increasingly to video gaming too, with the signal moment the translation of his 1998 bestseller Rainbow Six into a first-person shooter video game--which had the advantage of coming at a time when video gaming was reaching an increasingly adult market, and at the same time, most of the big names in that genre were still science fiction titles (like Doom) or World War II titles (like Medal of Honor). Rainbow Six proved popular indeed, and while I do not think anyone has bothered to do a proper survey, I suspect that at least a few gamers were tempted by them to the books.

Thus the Clancy name remained a force to be reckoned with in the '90s.

Of course, looking back over this, one might be struck by how much sheer happenstance there was in these events--to the extent that they made all that much difference, about which, again, I can only speculate here. The book deal Clancy made that got his book out first was an unusual one--Red October accepted by the first publisher he hit, without an agent, even though the publisher in question (the Naval Institute Press) did not do fiction at the time. Had he been forced to follow a more typical course, Red October might have only got out years later, and things been very different as a result. Even without that, that the Cold War's end would happen when it did, making his lead over his rivals the more significant, was obviously not something that could have been planned. And getting the film adaptation of that book out just as his latest novel was becoming its decade's biggest seller was also far beyond his control. Even where those things he could control are concerned, it is far from clear just how much of it involved calculation, like the style of plotting he developed, or the changes of course with regard to Jack Ryan's adventures, especially in those critical early days.

Considering that I find myself remembering Patrick Anderson's 1988 New York Times Magazine article on Clancy, in which he remarked Clancy's insistence on "dumb luck" as a factor in his personal success. Given all that I have raised here his success seems far more inexplicable. Yet, that the pieces fell into place for him when they did, as they did, and went on doing so long after '88, turning a bestselling novelist into a major multimedia brand still going strong with new Jack Ryan novels and co-authored paperbacks, with new video games and a TV series on Netflix and perhaps more films on the way, can seem to mean that he had far, far more dumb luck coming his way than he had seen or knew back then.

1. There were just nine $100 million movies in 1989 and 1990, eight in 1991. By contrast 2018 had 34 movies making that much or more.

The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: The Boom Years
8/22/19
James Bond and Britain's Small Wars
7/22/19
The New 007 Is . . .
7/22/19
Announcing . . . The Long Drawdown: British Military Retrenchment, 1945-1979
7/17/19
Paramilitary Fiction and the Military Techno-thriller: The Question of Social Class
7/15/19
A Genre of Flying Stories
7/12/19
The Delay of Bond 25
7/9/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY
6/6/19
Looking Past the Hardcovers: Techno-Thrillers in Other Media
6/6/19
What Ever Happened to Gold Eagle Publishing?
5/10/17
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the '80s Action Film
8/27/13
Reading the Jack Ryan Novels
12/12/12

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Bernie Sanders' Green New Deal: A First Take, Part II

As noted in my previous post, I was impressed by the extent to which Bernie Sanders' Green New Deal acknowledged those important principles of scale, global thinking, pragmatism, and equity. What does it really consist of, however?

The centerpiece of the plan is a shift to renewable power as the basis of the energy and transport systems of the country (and it is on this aspect of the plan that I will focus here). The plan specifically envisions a massive, rapid expansion of electricity production capacity, combined with a "smart grid"; the electrification of homes and businesses currently using oil and gas for such purposes as heating; and transport fleets, the latter with the help of grants for trade-ins for individuals, school districts, transit agencies, and trucking, and the funding of a user-friendly charging infrastructure. (The plan also includes a substantial investment in electrically powered public transit and high-speed rail; the weatherizing of buildings, which will entail the construction and modification of a great deal of housing stock.)

As renewable energy production increasingly meets the country's energy needs, the plan also curbs fossil fuels production and consumption, with the latter sector paying significantly toward the progress of the former. The elimination of Federal fossil fuel subsidies (including the massive military expenditures devoted to protecting oil supplies and transport routes, far vaster than the official subsidies) and divestment from overseas fossil fuel project financing, the penalties for violations of environmental laws that the crippled regulators from the Reagan era forward failed to collect, taxes on polluters, and suits against the oil industry (like those against the tobacco companies) will provide much of the funding for the transition--which will, over time, substantially pay for itself. The most obvious reason is that the Power Marketing Associations will build and operate much of the renewable energy-based power generation capacity, and collect the revenue--making this an investment by the government, rather than mere expenditure. However, there will also be the economic boost from rising income tax revenue (and falling social safety net payouts) due to the colossal stimulus of the plan, which it is intended will create 20 million jobs.

Alongside all this, the environmental destructiveness of the fossil fuel production that will continue as the shift is carried through will be minimized, with the plan explicitly calling for bans on offshore drilling, fracking, mountaintop removal coal-mining, and the import and export of fossil fuels, and on new fossil fuel infrastructure permits on Federal land. It also calls for the repair and clean-up of existing fossil fuel infrastructure, both that in use and that which has been abandoned, to minimize its negative effects. Beyond these objects the plan will also see government enlargement of recycling efforts, not least to minimize the resource consumption required by the construction of renewable energy-production systems.

In considering all this the plan is notable for its comparative technological conservatism--its emphasis on the use of existing, proven technologies. However, it also acknowledges the areas where further research and development will be required, or helpful, specifying programs in the areas of energy storage; the decarbonization of shipping and aviation; and the production of alternatives to petrochemical-based plastics. Notable, too, is the extent to which it addresses other problems related to this transition, and to coping with climate change, including more general redress of an infrastructure which must be made more efficient and resilient, from the supply of potable water to the supply of broadband Internet (here, too, public ownership will be part of the plan), the strengthening of firefighting capabilities, the expansion of Brownfield and Superfund cleanup, and the protection of public lands.

Considering all this I must admit that I was impressed by not just the scale of the program, as previously acknowledged here, but also its comprehensiveness, its audacity, or its rigor, not a single thing so far striking me as obviously infeasible or even implausible given what I know of the issue, whether in regard to its aims or the means for realizing them. No plan previously presented by a national figure even begins to compare with it in any of these respects--and whatever I make of the details as they continue to appear, and we all continue to study them, I think I will still think what I do now, that finally we are starting to see some real acknowledgment of just what this job will take.

A 100 Percent Renewable Energy-Based Electric Grid?
6/28/19
A 100 Percent Renewable Energy World?
5/31/19
The Mendacity of the Renewable Energy-Bashers
5/31/19
Don't Believe the Trolls; 100 Percent Renewable Energy is Our Best Bet: Postscript
5/31/19
Reflections on the "Moral Equivalent of War"
5/31/19
Don't Believe the Trolls; 100 Percent Renewable Energy is Our Best Bet
4/23/19
My Notes on a Green New Deal
4/14/19
Societal Complexity, Diminishing Returns and a Green New Deal
4/14/19
The Moral Equivalent of War
4/13/19

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