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.

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

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

As you are likely already aware, Bernie Sanders has released his document regarding a Green New Deal. In contrast with the resolution sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey earlier this year, which merely outlined the standards a plan of action ought to meet, but a detailed outline of the plan itself, presenting a comprehensive set of proposals.

As I write the plan has been available to the public for mere hours, and it is long and intricate, some 14,000 words. I do not claim to be anywhere near done close-reading and thinking about it, but it does seem possible to say some things regarding the plan in light of my earlier thoughts about such a Green New Deal.

I previously asserted here that any plan worthy of serious consideration must abide by four principles, namely scale, global thinking, pragmatism, and equity. This plan appears to abide by all four of them. The authors realize that serious action means nothing less than the production of 100 percent electricity from renewable energy by 2030, the fuller decarbonization of the energy and transport sector, and an overhaul of agriculture, which will not come cheaply, but will require that World War II-level effort of which so many speak but which few seem to actually understand. The plan acknowledges that the U.S. must do its part to solve the problem of climate change, but cannot do it alone, acknowledging the need to enlist the cooperation of the other major governments, and the revision of trade agreements, while aiding less developed nations in making the transition. Its authors do not hesitate to speak of the necessary means for carrying out such action, however squeamish orthodox opinion may be about them--going beyond pious talk of "supporting research" or somehow inducing business to do the job to public construction and ownership of the needed power capacity (via the Power Marketing Associations). And it is certainly attentive to equity, not only between rich countries and poor as acknowledged above, but in regard to working people who risk dislocation in the energy transition because of the sectors in which they happen to work; and the responsibility of the fossil fuel sector for the "externalities" it has generated.

All of that has naturally got my attention.

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
What Might a Green New Deal Involve? A Few More Notes
4/12/19
What Might a Green New Deal Involve? Additional Notes
4/12/19
What Might a Green New Deal Involve? Some Notes
4/9/19

The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: The Boom Years

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.

Of course, having said all that still leaves the question--why, when boom turned to bust, did Clancy manage to stay so close to the top of American popular fiction? The '90s saw him 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 overall making the list of the top five sellers of the decade. I will be taking up that subject in my next post.

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, right 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.

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

Monday, July 22, 2019

James Bond and Britain's Small Wars

Studying the Bond series for my books I found myself increasingly researching post-war Britain--to the point that I wound up writing two books concerned with that in various ways.





Done, I find myself thinking once more about how that history is reflected in the thriller fiction of that era, and not least the Bond series. The books were very much a product of their time--in presenting Britain in reduced circumstances, but nonetheless a global power on the basis of hopes that it could form a union between its perceived special competence at "the game" and the vast resources of the U.S. (embodied in the working relationship of Bond and his CIA colleague Felix Leiter). They are very much of their time, too, in speaking directly to many of the fears of British orthodoxy at the time--of Communist infiltration of Europe (Casino Royale) and the Empire (Live and Let Die); of the age of the missile and the nuclear bomb (Moonraker, Dr. No, Thunderball); of the oft-troubled British balance of payments (Diamonds Are Forever); and even that reliance on America from which Britain hoped more than it got (above all, in You Only Live Twice).

Yet, the crises in which Britain became involved, the numerous end-of-the-empire wars which occupied its intelligence services and armed forces. just about never seem to turn up in the Bond novels and stories in significant ways. Bond never goes to Malaya or Kenya or Iran or Cyprus or any other such real-world hot spot.

Even reference to the conflicts is infrequent and even oblique. As he walks into Blades in Moonraker, Fleming remarks of Bond that the "casual observer" might, on knowing he had something to do with the Ministry of Defence, think he "[m]ay have been attached to Templer in Malaya. Or Nairobi. Mau Mau work"--which is as close as he gets to either of those wars. Later, in "The Hildebrand Rarity," Bond is in the Seychelles, checking out the islands as a possible fall-back point for the Royal Navy, after its prior "fall back" from Ceylon to the Maldives. Why that task? Fleming mentions Communist-influenced labor unions in Ceylon, but really Ceylon's kicking British forces out of the country was part of the broader backlash against British handling of the Suez crisis--not mentioned at all here.

Later, when Bond is meeting Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice to discuss an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, Bond, insisting on the legitimacy of British interest in the area, at this moment when British forces confronted Indonesia's Sukarno and drew up plans to protect India against Chinese invasion, merely makes vague reference to Captain Cook and the existence of Australia and New Zealand.

I suppose this avoidance of the subject is partly a matter of Fleming's attachment to those settings he knew and loved so well, and which suited his purposes better--Western Europe, North America, the Caribbean. However, it was also a matter of his entertaining his audience in particular ways. The Bond series, like so much of spy fiction since Duckworth Drew, blended adventure and action and intrigue with glamour to offer a particular sort of escape--and a story about Bond really doing "Mau Mau work" would not have been terribly consistent with that. There is a limit to which one can mix escapist adventure with harsh realities--a lesson that writers seem to have forgotten in this age of relentlessly dark blockbusters.

And the New 007 Is . . .
7/22/19
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

The New 007 Is . . .

The current word on the matter seems to be that the lead in the Bond-film-after-next will be Lashana Lynch, with the way apparently paved for this in Bond 25, in which she will be making some sort of appearance.

Or something like that.

The press reports I have seen emphasize that she will be the next 007--a bearer of the code, who could, at least hypothetically, be anybody. They do not say that she will be James Bond, the specific character who in Casino Royale became 007, and will inevitably retire from that function at some point.

I can just imagine what is being said online now by those who heartily support the change, those who fiercely condemn it, those who feel it is insufficient (some would have liked nothing less than her being James Bond), and those who feel it is an excessive concession to the trend, and the sheer vitriol of their exchanges.

I admit that looking at is not the sort of thing that I think makes my online experience any happier or healthier. But I will probably get around to looking at some write-up . . . in time.

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

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Announcing . . . The Long Drawdown: British Military Retrenchment, 1945-1979

A few years ago I was researching the James Bond series.



Looking back on the relevant history, Ian Fleming's original James Bond novels seem to me to have had enduring achievements in their updating the half century old "clubland" hero tradition, and in the process, laying the groundwork for the further development of the spy tale into the "security state epic"--out of which grew our later techno-thrillers.



The original, EON-produced James Bond films similarly had two enduring achievements. One was their carrying forward Fleming's updating to create what, a half century later, remains the enduring, popular image of the secret agent.



The other was their invention of the modern action-adventure film (the set-piece-based, fast-paced structure, the associated battery of cinematographic and editing techniques, etc.), and more broadly the movie blockbuster as we know it, down to the high-publicity, wide-release model intended to deliver a "boffo B.O." on the opening weekend, and at least equally great revenues through merchandising.

Obvious today, it is worth remembering that Hollywood did not get around to seriously following and mastering this model until the 1980s--substantially, by way of George Lucas.




Still, despite these massive and lasting effects on pop culture, any real study of the series can hardly miss the extent to which the Bond films, and perhaps more so the Bond books, were a creation of their time--that brief and now long lapsed moment when, among other things, Britain transitioned from the status of international superpower and seat of global empire to "ordinary" mid-sized West European nation-state. (Indeed, it is very hard to understand why the books present a globe-trotting British agent in the way that they do without some reference to this fact.)

The fact had me delving deeply into the historical background.

I soon found that the discussion of the economic history has prolific, varied, even rich. There was, in fact, so much there that I found myself, in the midst of processing and applying it all, producing a book of my own.



It was a very different matter where the more narrowly military history was concerned, satisfying overviews of how Britain's global, imperial force was adapted into the more modern but more limited force Britain operated three decades later.

I actually found myself to a surprising extent scraping up information from different sources to produce such a picture, and wound up producing a number of papers I published via SSRN.

More recently I have brought heavily revised editions of those papers together with other, related, but so far unpublished pieces in my new collection, The Long Drawdown: British Military Retrenchment, 1945-1979.



It is now available in print or e-book format at Amazon and other retailers.

Get your copy today.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Paramilitary Fiction and the Military Techno-thriller: The Question of Social Class

In one of the comparatively few scholarly articles written about the military techno-thriller, "Redeeming Vietnam: Techno-Thriller Novels of the 1980s" (which ran in the Autumn 1991 edition of the journal Cultural Critique, sociologist William James Gibson held that the techno-thriller provided a white-collar, middle-class counterpart to working-class populist paramilitary fiction. As Gibson put it, the naval captains, Air Force officers, intelligence analysts and the like who were the heroes of those works "are educated professionals" who "fight with their minds and with the most advanced technology science can develop," but still show, and assure their middle class audience that, they too "have 'what it takes' to fight the enemy"--not least, in bucking the enervated or sell-out Establishment types when the situation demands it.

Jack Ryan is, of course, an obvious example, consistently acting on his own in such a manner. In Patriot Games (1987) it is his own initiative that leads him to the rescue of British royals, and then in the end, his own actions that save his family from retaliation by the terrorists who assassinated them, with the tendency still more pronounced in later book. After the D.C. players abandoned a special-forces in Colombia in Clear and Present Danger (1989), the normally straight-arrow Jack Ryan personally undertook an unauthorized operation to bring them back, not just flying out on the helicopter tasked with the recovery, but personally manning its minigun, with which he mows down dozens of drug cartel soldiers.

Still, the matter strikes me as more complex than Gibson suggests. Before joining the CIA, Jack Ryan was a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, and a Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy, married to an ophthalmic surgeon whose father was a senior Vice-President at the iconic brokerage; but he was also the son of a cop and a nurse who does not get along with his hyper-privileged in-laws.

Indeed, in his confrontation with that Merrill Lynch VP in Patriot Games after the terrorists have put Ryan's wife and daughter in the hospital, Clancy strikes rather a populist note. Joe Muller "was a product of the Ivy League," quite aware of his "importance in the financial community" acted in a high-handed manner toward others, not least Ryan, whom he never forgave for leaving the business--the overbearing, money-and-power obsessed rich man who doesn't understand his son-in-law's "trying to make the world a better place instead of trying to take it over with leveraged buyouts," and doesn't get that there are people he can't bully. Indeed, Clancy pointedly presents Ryan as averse to the man and what he represents, Ryan telling Joe in the same speech that if he stayed on Wall Street like he wanted, "working with [him] every day, moving money from Column A to Column B and pretending it was important, like all the other Wall Street wimps" he would, "hating it," turn "into another miserable bastard in the financial world." It is not the middle class but another class that Clancy seems to be reassuring when Ryan remarks that, as far as making money there went, "I proved that I could do that as well as you, but I made my pile, and so now I do something I like."

The pattern recurred in such works time and again. Dale Brown's Patrick McLanahan--who, if anything, goes well beyond Ryan in loose cannon behavior (in The Flight of the Old Dog (1987), participating in an unauthorized strike against the Soviet Union)--is imagined along quite similar lines. McLanahan, too, is the son of an Irish-American cop who "knew nothing else but work from age twenty to age sixty," after retirement, in his own cop bar, "The Shamrock." The sons continue both traditions, McLanahan's brother Paul becoming a cop in his turn, while after dad's death selling the bar--"family symbol," "heirloom"--is out of the question in spite of the unprofitability of the establishment that had dad working side jobs like security guard, and Patrick sacrificing much of his earnings as an Air Force officer to keeping it in business. Indeed, in Shadows of Steel (1996) Patrick, who himself "looked as if he might be more at home in a squad car or on motorcycle patrol than in a bar" is the more out of place because of what has become of the bar, the hang-out for "loud, adrenaline-pumped" beer-and-bourbon drinking cops now frequented by upmarket, touristy types who order "Napa Valley chardonnays . . . specialty espresso coffee drinks . . . cafe mochas . . . veggie appetizers," and expect to get them from decidedly un-McLanahan-like "cool, suave Tom Cruise-look-alike bartenders."

Also like Ryan, his in-laws don't think much of him, and let him know it (in considerably cruder terms than Muller uses--an anti-Irish racial epithet is spoken) when his wife winds up in the hospital due to enemy action in Day of the Cheetah (1989). Appearing two years after Patriot Games, the scene can appear derivative, but that it appeared worth imitating is in itself significant--and in any event, this was far from the last time he was to be in such a situation. Returning to the family home again in The Tin Man (1998), McLanahan goes after not the usual foreign adversaries, but a meth-cooking biker gang that hurt his brother in fairly Mack Bolan fashion (albeit, with the help of a little superhero technology that looks more Batman than Executioner).

For his part, Stephen Coonts' Jake Grafton, like McLanahan, began his career in print with an unauthorized air strike against the Communists (Hanoi in 1972 in this case) in Flight of the Intruder (1986), and then after being told not to do so, taking off in a Tomcat to hunt down that novel's terrorist villains, Final Flight (1988), is the son of a farmer--not working-class, admittedly, but hardly a member of the elite. And Ralph Peters, if less given to playing up the humble roots of his War in 2020 (1991) protagonist George Taylor (another launcher of unauthorized military strikes in the midst of international crisis), was even more ardent about playing up the privileged backgrounds of many of those with whom he had to contend, juxtaposing him against the man with whom his girlfriend Daisy Fitzgerald is cheating on him, deputy director of the "United Intelligence Agency," "Clifton Reynard Bouquette." At times reading like a caricature of "the other have" in government service, Bouquette is a man who "knew the names of wines and waiters." By contrast Taylor, on account of the scars left by a disease he contracted during a deployment in Africa, "cannot sit in a restaurant without disturbing those around [him]"--and defiantly refuses the cosmetic surgery that would make him more socially acceptable, seeing his face as "the true badge of his service."

The result is that even if middle-class individuals may have "what it takes," the suspicion of moneyed, professional, "Establishment types" is almost as prominent in the techno-thriller as it is in the more overtly blue-collar paramilitary works.

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

Friday, July 12, 2019

A Genre of Flying Stories?

Looking back at the military techno-thriller, it seems worth remarking that not all combat arms or weapons systems were equally popular with writers, especially in tales more narrowly focused on the doings of particular characters.

I suppose if most people had to name a techno-thriller they would mention The Hunt for Red October--in many ways the book that established the American techno-thriller in the '80s, and certainly the career of the genre's most successful practitioner, so that they would think of it as a genre of submarine stories.

Still, it strikes me that rather more popular than stories of submarines, warships of any other type, or ground units, have been stories of aerial combat. It was the story of a fighter plane's theft, not that of a warship, tank or anything else that proved a critical early prototype of the genre--Craig Thomas' Firefox, which was to have two sequels. Later, Stephen Coonts made his name with flying stories (The Flight of the Intruder, Final Flight), while Dale Brown has managed an unmatched three-decade streak of bestsellers on the basis of the adventures of Air Force officer Patrick McLanahan. If less prominent or consistent, Payne Harrison, Richard Herman, Dean Ing, Barrett Tillamn, R.J. Pineiro, likewise became genre luminaries on the basis of the same theme, while it is worth remembering that Clancy himself, for all his association with naval action, offered plenty of battle in the skies in his books, not least Red October (where A-10s buzz the Kirov, and American Tomcats dogfight Soviet Forgers).

It retrospect it seems plausible that the aircraft-centered story had numerous advantages from a dramatic perspective. One is that an aircraft is a discrete unit, in contrast with an armored unit comprised of many vehicles dispersed over an extended territory--acres, square miles. One could say the same of a warship, of course, but a naval vessel is a large, complex grouping, hundreds or even thousands of personnel spread throughout a vast, compartmentalized hull. The entire vessel and crew may be subordinate to the will of a single captain, but this still diffuses the activity--the officer giving the order not performing the act, or even in the same part of the ship as the people who execute it. Someone in another, unseen part of the vessel loads the torpedo tube--and equally when the ship takes a hit, it is apt to be someone in another, unseen part of the vessel seeing the damage and personally coping with it. All that makes a great contrast with the individualism of a pilot flying an aircraft themselves, and even the small-group dynamics of an aircraft crew--in the case of Coonts' A-6, and even the then-popular B-2 bomber, just two people sitting close together.

Additionally the briskness of aerial warfare—of supersonic jets exchanging even faster missiles as they zip through the sky—may be easier to depict lucidly and make exciting than the slower movement and thicker "fog of war" of a ground unit in the middle of a large battle, or a submarine crew trying to work out from subtle sounds what is going on above and around them as they sit in a steel shell hundreds of feet below the sea. All of this reflected a key aspect of the tales, namely the taste for adventure and romance over the impersonal realities of high-tech, mass warfare.

The Historiography of Paramilitary Fiction
6/29/19
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

On Being an "Adult"

Cultural commentators have always inflicted on the world a great deal of inanity about the younger generation not measuring up to their satisfaction. For quite a while (going back, at least, to Generation X) one of their favorite laments has been that the young are not "growing up." That they are not properly "adult."

It is the most obnoxious kind of criticism--nasty and at the same time opaque--because it is unclear just what they mean by "adult."

One may think of an adult as someone who can take care of themselves, and when the situation calls for it, take care of other people and things as well, and therefore be trusted with those responsibilities that have to be borne. That they have given evidence of the qualities this requires--a certain minimum of readiness to put obligations ahead of convenience, pleasure and even interest; a measure of understanding of themselves and of how the world works, and the ability to apply that to those ends.

This seems to me a reasonable thing to expect people to be.

But it does not seem to be what they have in mind at all. Instead they define adulthood in terms of certain external trappings that might be thought to imply all this--with the trappings taking precedence as what they are supposed to imply recedes from attention.

Specifically they have in mind a "middle-class job"--something involving a certain minimum income and stability permitting a suburban existence (putting up with the maintenance and other hassles of detached houses with big lawns is, apparently, part of the "package"), with authority over others and prospects for promotion. They have in mind, too, marriage, children.

Oddly enough, they also tend to make the judgment of "adult" or "not adult" on the basis of what one does in their spare time. Somehow it is adult to watch sports on TV and participate in a "Fantasy Football" league; but not adult to play football on a video game console. And artistic and intellectual pursuits, especially of the "geekier" kinds, are seen as suspect.

All of this gives away the game--the essential shallowness of it. This idea of adult-ness seems nothing so much as nostalgia for a certain image of the '50s--like so much else in the thinking of American conservatives, who consider the '60s and everything after to have been a falling away from all that was good in the world.

It also says much of their class and other prejudices--because the working class, the single, the childless, are consequently less "adult" than others, no matter how much of the adult virtues they actually possess.

And, of course, when they subject the much-maligned millennial to such criticism, they betray their essential bad faith. The thirtysomething college graduate working a minimum wage job as they live at home does not conform to their ideal--but never had a chance. The same social and economic policies that conservatives have relentlessly championed, which have made education synonymous with crushing indebtedness, which have made jobs rare and ill-paid and precarious, and housing out of their reach, all work against their ever having the kinds of households supposedly just given away when people are of age.

Ironically, in their having finished school, taken what work they could find, and accommodated their mode of life to the slighter means that went with the betrayal of the promise of a middle-class life for any and all who graduate college, one could credit these same "young people who refuse to grow up" with exactly those virtues the term "adult" supposedly sums up--and it is perfectly consistent with all this, too, that they should not get the least little credit for it.

Home Improvement: Nostalgic From the Start

Running into the odd Home Improvement rerun on cable, I am time and again struck by how backward-looking that superficially contemporary show was.

In the home and car repair and improvement theme that utterly saturated each episode; in its choice of setting in motor city U.S.A., Detroit; in its "salutes" again and again to everyone wearing a hard hat; it evoked less than the '90s than an earlier generation. I have in mind here the post-war boom--that period when American manufacturing commanded the world market virtually by default, colossal Cold War expenditures cycled money through the economy, and being an auto-owning suburbanite was the picture of the American Dream, exemplified by the industrial centers of the Midwest, where even a good many factory workers were participating in that "middle class" way of life.

The show didn't wear its nostalgia on its sleeve. One didn't see, for example, Tim talking about how much better things were when Ike was in the White House. One got the impression that nothing had changed at all. But it had. American manufacturing, the Midwestern industrial base, the relatively broad prosperity it sustained, and even the way of life with which it was associated, had all been in decline for nearly a generation when Tim the Toolman hit the air waves. Michael Moore, in fact, made his name by putting the very different reality on the big screen in Roger & Me years earlier (while as Home Improvement's run drew to its end, the overtly backward-looking That '70s Show presented a somewhat more realistic vision of that in the travails of Red Forman). And far from the region recovering from these problems, they have all got a lot worse--Moore's native Flint now famous for catastrophic fiscal and administrative failures that have left its residents without potable water in a crisis that has dragged on for year after year.

I don't see anyone using that as a backdrop to a popular prime time broadcast network family sitcom.

On Being an "Adult"
7/12/19
Nostalgia and the '90s
6/17/19

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Delay of Bond 25

The latest word about "Bond 25" is that it will start hitting theaters in April 2020.

Assuming the franchise keeps to the schedule, this will be the first time in over three decades that a Bond movie has entered the summer box office fray.

More significant, however, is the fact that an April 2020 release date will mark the second longest gap between one Bond film and the next in the series' nearly six decade history. coming only after the nearly six-and-a-half year gap between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye--a function of not just the production headaches of this like every other long-running, big money franchise, but among other things (not least, the death of producer Albert R. Broccoli), the culmination of a long trend of decline culminating in particularly weak box office performance of Licence to Kill; and the end of the Cold War with all it implied for the spy genre.

Nothing really comparable is operative this time around. Spectre was considered a letdown, but with nearly $900 million banked it was still one of the more successful installments in history, even after adjustment for inflation, while comparison with the preceding film Skyfall was unrealistic, given the exceptional interest, and marketing opportunities, the fiftieth anniversary of the series provided, and which did so much to make it the series' highest earner of all time. And there seems to be no real consideration of wrenching changes in the series' tone, aesthetic, theme--the course of the rebooted series, if anything, reaffirmed by the choice of Cary Fukunaga to helm and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (groan) to cowrite the script.

Rather the delay has me thinking of how a slower rate of output has been the norm for the series this century. The current plan will mean five Bond films in seventeen-and-a-half years--almost twice as long as was the norm pre-reboot. (Forty movies between 1962 and 2002, with that rate maintained even in later periods, two Bond films following Goldeneye in a mere four years.)

It all strikes me as underlining what is too little admitted, what is almost immediately beaten down by the boosters when anyone breathes any such word about any series--the franchise's increasing difficulty staying relevant.

When it started out this was simply not a problem. In the '60s the Bond films, without apparent strain, contributed to and rode a wave of popular fascination with spies and jet age glamour, but what really made the series was something more distinctive to it--the series' invention of the action-adventure blockbuster, both the technique for making such films (the fast-paced, set piece-centered structure that casts logic to the wind, the battery of cinematographic and editing technique that derives the most impact from those thrills), and the mode of their marketing (a high-publicity-backed wide simultaneous release combined with a massive merchandising offensive).

No one else achieved anything really comparable then, despite wide imitation, which tended to settle for copying its more superficial elements. (A suave superspy? Let's do that, they all thought. But making an action movie to compare with the Bonds was generally beyond them, as a glance at the relatively high-profile Derek Flint movies shows.) This near-monopoly on its style of action movie-making remained the case even after the flood of Bond knock-offs turned into a comparative trickle, so that after the series' period of real originality (that first decade and its first half dozen movies) passed, and the novelty was reduced to an occasional set piece or gimmick that would stick in the popular mind, and it became repetitive of its own successes and derivative of those of others to sustain the glitter of the brand name (unmistakable in the chase-packed, blaxploitation-themed Live and Let Die), there was not a whole lot of real, head-to-head competition. (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, sure, they were hits--but they were doing something fairly different.)

Still, if slow, Hollywood did begin to catch up, Star Wars a signal moment in the process, while by the '80s Hollywood was adroit enough at this that the latest Bond movie could get lost n the summer crowd (up against Rambo and Mad Max and Commando in '85, against Predator and Robocop and Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop in '87, against Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon again and Batman in '89).

It got tougher still in the '90s, while by the twenty-first century it seemed like there was a new installment in a big-budget action franchise at the multiplex just about every week of the year--while the series' dispensing with much of what had made it distinctive made its standing out all the harder. (Already with Licence to Kill the results were looking like a generic '80s action film--while the producers' discomfort with the flamboyant plots and the self-indulgence of the character cost them much of what personality they had.)

As a result, instead of an assembly line more or less reliably chugging out Bond movie after Bond movie under the same team (director John Glen, who had been with the Bond franchise since the '60s, helmed five Bond movies in a row in the '80s), they have strained to "make it new" (ironically, while following the course of everyone else--"make it dark").

In the '90s changes of directors became frequent, while increasingly selecting the sort of "auteurs" who originally had no place in a franchise dominated by a creative producer (Broccoli a recipient of the Academy's Irving Thalberg Award for a reason). First there was the art-house break-out Lee Tamahori, given the charge of the 40th anniversary film Die Another Day, even before the reboot saw a turn to such directors as Marc Foster, Sam Mendes, and now the aforementioned Fukunaga. Again, the grosses have been good, but I am unconvinced this particular practice has really been all that helpful. There has, too, been the attempt at telling the story of how Bond became Bond, with a certain amount of soap operatic family drama and mythmaking tossed in. This worked for Casino Royale, and Skyfall, giving viewers the sense that each of these was more than "another" Bond film--but the reaction to Spectre made fairly clear the limitations of that approach.

Is there much chance that the new team can come up with something, if only enough to give the franchise a bump like The Spy Who Loved Me, rather than continue a downward movement, the way A View to a Kill did?

I put that question to you, readers.

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

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