Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review: Win, Lose or Die, by John Gardner

New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1989, pp. 319.

In Win, Lose or Die, the British carrier Invincible is set as the site of a secret conference between the British, American and Soviet leaders during the Landsea 89 military exercise. However, British intelligence discovers a threat to the conference from a formerly obscure group named the Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terrorism (BAST). M responds by assigning 007 to protect the conference personally, a job that requires Bond to return to shipboard service in the Royal Navy.

As might be expected from such a premise, Win is another unusual Bond novel, after the pattern of John Gardner's earlier Role of Honor (1984), in Bond's taking a long undercover assignment (year-length in this case) for which he has to master a highly technical task (piloting Harriers).

Additionally, the job requires the normally solitary Bond to formally head up a very large personal security detail--and a combined Anglo-American-Soviet operation at that. There is, too, the fact that where even in Role Bond got to live it up in Monaco, for much of this story Bond trades his tailored suits and tuxedos for a Royal Navy uniform; his metropolitan restaurants, nightclubs and casinos for a base canteen and shipboard accommodations; and our usually lone, high-living operative is subject to military discipline and the structure of an armed forces environment. Indeed, Gardner depicts Bond's training to fly the Harrier at length, and then sets the full second half of the book aboard the Invincible.

Making things odder still is the prominent appearance of real-life political figures—instead of generic British, American and Soviet leaders, or characters clearly alluding to those occupying the relevant offices, Margaret Thatcher, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev are not only described, but named, and rather than remaining part of the background, actually interact with Bond during two scenes. Besides the novelty of using such figures, this also dates the book's events in a fairly precise fashion.

Just as the Bond films were emulating American action films in these years, so was this book an obvious response to the box office success of Top Gun in 1986, and the booming of the military techno-thriller genre during the mid- and late-1980s in the hands of writers like Tom Clancy. Essentially what Gardner did was to take Bond and stick him in a techno-thriller centering on the British navy.

The blend ends up being problematic on both counts, as military techno-thriller, and Bond novel. To be sure, Gardner's handling of the relevant story mechanics is on the whole competent. The flying sequences in particular balance technical detail and action, and retain their coherence through the inevitable thicket of jargon and frenzied aircraft handling. However, the loose, episodic structure normal for techno-thrillers of this kind is awkward. Their diffuse plots tend to give more or less equal time to the multiple viewpoint characters they track through the unfolding of a crisis--the real subject of the book--the narrative checking in with them only as they become privy to something interesting.1 Win keeps the usual focus on Bond, though, so that instead of the usual of tightness given by rapid cutting back and forth among various story threads, the reader is much more conscious of reading a year-long chronicle of the events leading up to the climactic attack; of the hurrying over the dull stretches to get to more interesting bits not easily tied together into a whole. Additionally, where techno-thrillers typically strive for the illusion of realism, Win is packed with even more than the usual number of over-the-top plot twists associated with this kind of story--as in its Italian episode, which can seem like a bit of the self-parody toward which Gardner so often inclined in and out of this series.

At the same time, the book leaves much to be desired as a Bond novel. If the sense of the book's looseness undermines its effectiveness as a techno-thriller, it is even worse for the book's effectiveness as a Bond thriller. The villain Bassam Baradj and his BAST organization appear just grandiosely scaled-up repetition of the previous Gardner novel's titular Scorpius, like him a man of obscure background who made a fortune selling arms to terrorists, cultivated a fanatical following, and behind the pretense of realizing a chiliastic plan, is just after the money--specifically looking to pull off a big score after which he intends to retire in comfort. The scaling up of the idea from suicide bombings to taking over an aircraft carrier merely makes the idea look sillier.

This is the more so because of the villains' plans for getting their money for the release of Bush, Thatcher and Gorbachev. Where SPECTRE was very specific about the manner in which it wanted its ransom money delivered in Thunderball, here the way in which the sum is supposed to be paid is never made quite clear, and Bond in fact points this out to the villain, who has no answer to offer to the charge--with the result that the extravagant numbers Baradj's people throw around seem like more self-parody (and that of a kind no more subtle than Dr. Evil's).

It does not help that the final confrontation between Bond and Baradj is so anti-climactic. (Baradj doesn't even get to make the customary Big Speech.)

And personally speaking, the high-living Bond never seems quite right to me when he is leading a more spartan existence; the individualistic Bond never quite right when he has to properly be part of a team (rather than just the special operative working with a team). It seems that he did not entirely feel right about these things himself, to go by the blimpishness he displays. After his return to more conventional naval duties, Bond walks about Woodstock looking with contempt at working class young people and thinking that
he would, if pushed, like to see the countless young people crowding those very bars banished to some kind of National Service--preferably in the armed forces. That, he considered, would take violence off the streets of country towns, and make men out of the louts who littered pavements and got drunk at the sniff of a barmaid’s apron.
Of course, such sentiments are not totally unprecedented on Bond's part. Still, never did the charge of "Octogenarian!" that Bond once had occasion to fling at Tanaka seem more applicable to Bond himself. One can take that as yet another joke Gardner has at Bond's expense, and so again, as with many of Gardner's books it seems to me that the question of whether one is prepared to laugh at Bond is a major determinant of whether one can get into this particular edition of his adventures.

1. It is worth remembering that in Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, only a third of the text actually depicted Jack Ryan and his activities. Excepting Patriot Games (more conventional spy story than techno-thriller), the narratives of the later novels tended to be even more diffuse.

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