Sunday, October 18, 2015

Win, Lose or Die and the British Techno-Thriller

The military techno-thriller is more British in its origins than anything else. Even overlooking the tradition of the "invasion story" from the nineteenth century that got underway with George Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" (1871); the equally British genre of the spy novel to which the invasion story gave birth through its merger with the detective story; and the increasingly frequent high-tech intrigue in examples of that genre like Ian Fleming's Moonraker (1955) and Thunderball (1961), or Martin Woodhouse's Tree Frog (1965); the fact remains that it was Britons Frederick Forsyth, Craig Thomas and John Hackett who laid down the genre's essentials in the 1970s.

Forsyth was a pioneer in applying the "epic" mode to the story of political intrigue, making the story in The Day of the Jackal (1970) not really a duel of wits between the titular assassin and Detective Claude Lebel, but rather a larger struggle between the OAS and the French security state related through a vast cast of (mostly minor) viewpoint characters, then scaled the approach up to the superpower level in The Devil's Alternative (1978). Meanwhile, Craig Thomas's Firefox (1977) centered a thriller on a next-generation fighter jet, and the battles that ensued after the theft. And John Hackett depicted large-scale, high-tech fighting between the superpowers in The Third World War (1978).

However, the genre flourished in the hands of Americans like Tom Clancy, because, as the details of the plots of the books listed above suggest, Britain--the obvious and natural focus for a British thriller writer--could, given its no longer being a first-rank, global military power, less and less be at the center of a high-tech military scenario.1 One result was that rather than techno-thrillers, the "SAS Novel" became a prominent British genre, the guys who save the day not airmen or sailors operating massive, expensive weapons systems of the kind where Britain did not compete with the U.S. and Soviet Union (or even France, still making its own fighters and ballistic missiles), but its special warfare troops, less constrained by the limits of national resources from being more than a match for their counterparts in the services of more affluent powers. Indeed, when Forsyth wrote a novel of Desert Storm in techno-thriller fashion, The Fist of God (1994), the protagonist is British Special Air Service soldier Mike Martin.

John Gardner's James Bond novels reflected the broader trend. His books tended toward smaller-scale, and often more domestically situated plots, as seen in books like No Deals, Mr. Bond (1987) and Scorpius (1988), in which Bond spends much more of his time inside Britain itself, and the villains are plotting mayhem on a scale which pales next to SPECTRE in its heyday. However, at the height of the fashion back in the late 1980s, John Gardner wrote a British techno-thriller in his next Bond novel, Win, Lose or Die (1989). This time the bad guys (for all their similarities to Scorpius' people) target an Anglo-American-Soviet conference hosted aboard a British aircraft carrier amid a massive, international military exercise--while the man assigned to stop them is none other than Bond himself, as a Royal Navy officer ostensibly back in uniform, and stationed aboard the carrier.

Of course, there are ways in which the diffuse, relatively grounded storytelling of the typical techno-thriller, and the tightly focused but over-the-top character of the Bond novels, do not gel well. However, added to this is the strain involved in placing Britain's armed forces at the center of such a story in so conspicuous a fashion, evoking Britain circa 1942, rather than 1989.

As in the Second World War, Britain is again a member of a "Big Three" grouping with the Americans and Soviets (when, among others, China, Japan, West Germany, France, would have been equally or even more plausible as the third member of such a group).2 This status is underlined by the presence of the leaders of all three countries in person--George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev--which implicitly equates them with Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. (The equation of Bush with Roosevelt, Thatcher with Churchill, Gorbachev with Stalin can seem so unlikely as to appear another bit of trademark Gardner self-parody, but if that is the intent Gardner is more than usually subtle about it.)

That Britain hosts the meeting aboard its largest and most powerful warship underlines the emphasis on Britain's past standing by evoking its history as the world's dominant naval power. Of course, the book's centering on the Invincible and its Harriers also evokes more recent memories--of the last high-tech sea war Britain in as a principle, the Falklands conflict (1982). (Indeed, the Invincible was the most prominent fighting ship from that conflict still in British service.3) However, one can see in the evocation of the Falklands an indirect evocation of World War Two, given the ways in which the British government attempted to cast the conflict—to sell the fight against the "Argies" as somehow analogous to the earlier struggle with "the Hun."

All of this makes the high-tech novel at the same time relatively and awkwardly backward-looking--even by the standard of the later Bond books. However, the idiosyncracies lend the book an interest as novelty, even where it does not quite work.

1. In Firefox, British spymaster Kenneth Aubrey cooks up the scheme to steal the MiG-31 "Firefox" fighter, and uses British intelligence's assets in Moscow to pull it off—but needs an American pilot to fly the plane, because only an American pilot would have had the requisite experience (as a Vietnam veteran, and flyer of "aggressor" aircraft in American training exercises). In The Devil's Alternative, it is up to British agent Adam Munro (and a team of Special Boat Service soldiers) to save the day—but saving the day is all about pulling the Americans and Soviets away from open hostilities. And Munro's spy work even depends on American technology at a crucial instance, namely his reliance on an American SR-71 spy plane to spirit him to Moscow during a crucial stage of his activities.
2. If geopolitical and military weight were at issue, the third party ought to have been China. If economic and financial weight were what counted, it would have undoubtedly been Japan (itself a considerable naval power). If this was to be an essentially Atlantic-European affair, the Big Three might have included West Germany, in light of its status as Europe's leading economic and industrial power, as well as the implications of its geographical position and the size of its army for the East-West military balance; or possibly France, given its combination of economic and military weight, and its readiness to pursue a policy relatively independent of Washington in the past.
3. The other purpose-built carrier which served with the British navy in the war was the HMS Hermes. As the flagship of the operation, and as a vessel actually laid down during World War II, it would have been richer in symbolism. However, the ship was decommissioned in 1984 and sold to India, which it has since served as the INS Viraat.

My Posts on John Gardner and the James Bond Series
10/18/15
Review: Win, Lose or Die, by John Gardner
10/11/15
John Gardner's James Bond Novels
10/10/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12

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