Friday, March 30, 2012

Game of Thrones: Season One

In some respects George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire seems an obvious fit with HBO. Their programmers have long gravitated toward material that can be labeled "dark and gritty," and the success of Showtime's The Tudors has suggested an audience willing to watch this kind of thing when the characters wear period costume and live in castles. Martin's fiercely anti-romantic take on the high fantasy genre certainly fit that bill, full of the moral ambivalence and brutality and unsympathetic characters critics love to praise writers for writing - the jokes about "The Sopranos of Middle Earth" not too far off the mark as a description of its intrigues, which are driven not by the machinations of some external Evil impinging on a happy world, but the base ambitions and hungers of high nobility (though north of the wall, at least, there are also the stirrings of a common danger).

Additionally, Martin's novels marginalize the fantasy elements (magic, imaginary creatures and the like), particularly in the series' earlier volumes, making this kind of thing easier for critics and mainstream audiences to take (while relieving some of the pressure on the FX budget, which for the ten-hour series is likely less than a movie studio would bring to bear on a first-rank two-hour film). The fact that it has become routine for television networks to buy the rights to genre novels as a basis for their series (like Flash Forward, and The Vampire Diaries), and that Martin's books have as big a built-in audience as any recent work of speculative fiction not written for young adults (indeed, Martin was virtually the only non-YA fantasy author on last year's list of the top hundred selling books), doesn't hurt.

Yet, there were plenty of reasons for doubt about how the production would fare. The source novels are not just long but dense, packed with characters and intrigues which are both complicated and complex. My hardback edition of the first runs to 674 pages, not including the 20 page appendix listing the characters by house – and the story only gets bigger and more tangled with each succeeding volume. (Indeed, the fourth book of the series ended up being split into two volumes, each focusing on a different set of characters.) Translating that into a TV series which is both faithful and accessible is not a simple thing. Additionally, much of the tale is told through the eyes of very young characters, some of them children (Arya, Bran), hardly the kind of thing the channel seemed likely to accommodate. I wondered, too, if the show's production values would do Martin's world justice. (Martin himself has recently wondered what the Battle of the Blackwater would look like when it reaches the screen.) And at any rate, HBO's track record with speculative fiction has not been impressive.

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised. The first episode was admittedly a bit shaky. Exposition-heavy, it felt a bit crowded and disjointed, the milieu thin. However, the storytelling quickly got smoother, and the world of Westeros more satisfactorily developed. I was ambivalent about a few of the tweaks (the softening of Cersei Lannister, the use of Renly Baratheon as a foil for his older brother rather than a younger version), but most of the adjustments - the scenes created from scratch, the alterations of events and the like - aided in clarifying the storyline, better establishing the characters (especially the non-viewpoint characters, who so often come off as opaque in Martin's writing), and holding together a sprawling epic. Certain scenes and bits of action are admittedly scaled down from the novels (like the depiction of Vaes Dothrak and the Twins, and the major battles), but never in such a way that it compromised the story (though one might wonder about their presentation of the Battle of the Green Fork). And of course, the cast has been deservedly praised (with Peter Dinklage notably picking up an Emmy for his performance as Tyrion Lannister - a rare win for genre television in the acting categories). As a reader of the original novels I came away satisfied, but I think the series would have been accessible and entertaining even if I came to it without that background, and it has left me looking forward to season two, which starts airing Sunday, April 1.

C. Wright Mills and the Day Job

The sociologist C. Wright Mills concisely described a major problem facing those who must hold day jobs in his classic sociological study White Collar:
Alienation in work means that the most alert hours of one's life are sacrificed to the making of money with which to "live." Alienation means boredom and the frustration of potentially creative effort, of the productive sides of personality. It means that while men must seek all values that matter to them outside of work . . . they must be serious and steady about something that does not mean anything to them, and moreover during the best hours of their day, the best hours of their life (236).
For more about the book, check out my review of the book at my other blog.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Matarese Circle – Coming to a Theater Near You?

With the success of the Jason Bourne film series, Hollywood has unsurprisingly taken an interest in bringing other Ludlum novels to the screen – including 1979's The Matarese Circle - the book Ludlum published right before Jason Bourne's first adventure.

For the moment, it seems that the project is dead, but it could yet come back from development hell. If it does, the age of the novel (over three decades old now) presents challenges to filmmakers trying to update it for a twenty-first century audience, just like The Bourne Identity did. Indeed, they may be even bigger challenges.

Perhaps the first has to do with the novel's principal characters - American spy Brandon Scofield and Soviet operative Vasili Taleniekov - putting aside an old enmity to fight the titular villains. In this Circle is very much a Cold War story, rooted in a now-vanished context, the loss of which will mean that putting an American and Russian agent together simply doesn't involve the same drama. Indeed, retaining the Russian nationality of Scofield's ally seems more like inertia than anything else given today's geopolitics.1

Much the same is the case with the novel's two central real-world themes – international terrorism, and corporate power. Terrorism is still topical, and this book doesn't have the disadvantage The Bourne Identity did of being centered on a specific, real-life terrorist, and the highly idiosyncratic strategy (to put it generously) for taking him down Ludlum dreamed up. Yet, the character of terrorism (or at least, what we label as terrorism) has changed, the cosmopolitan, leftish groups that captured headlines in that era, like the Italian Red Brigades, giving way to groups with ethno-religious identifications (in the American imagination, synonymous with Muslim fundamentalism). Aside from affecting nuances of the plot, it makes me wonder what the writers would do with the character of ex-Red Brigade member Antonia.

Corporate power may also be topical – but again, the image of this has also changed after nearly four decades of neoliberal globalization. I suppose Dr. Evil's Number Two said it best in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997):
"I spent the last thirty years of my life turning this two-bit evil empire into a world-class multi-national. I was going to have a cover story with Forbes. But you, like an idiot, want to take over the world. And you don't even realize that there is no world anymore! There's just corporations!"
When that's how the world appears, when we live in the age of the Davos World Forum, elaborate plots by corporations to seize political power seem quaint - and even superfluous.

Moreover, the Matarese's rationale for seizing control belongs to another era, the very same one that gave us the original Rollerball (1975). Dubious as they have always been (critiques of corporate influence over politics go back at least to Adam Smith's oft-cited but generally unread Wealth of Nations), the claims of corporations to a technocratic, meritocratic rationality that would represent an advance over the administration national governments supply possessed a shred more credibility then – credibility long since obliterated by the endlessly demonstrated greed of executives unable to think beyond their next bonus, and the pandemic of short-termism that follows from it, with all its fiscal and other consequences; by corporate indifference to environmental degradation, resource exhaustion and not just social justice, but social stability, as a part of their standard operating procedure; by business's continued reliance on politicians who cover corporate economic agendas with retrograde versions of nationalism and religious fundamentalism. (And of course, as even neoliberal cheerleader Thomas Friedman owned in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, "McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas.")

The recent remake of Rollerball (2003) (which deservedly made io9's recent list of "worst science fiction movie remakes of all time") was a toothless mess, unsatisfying even as a simple action movie, despite its being helmed by the director of Die Hard. It is not a foregone conclusion that The Matarese Circle will be that, but I wouldn't bet against that either.

1. I'm actually reminded of 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which for its plot had a lame rip-off of the 1977 Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me. Like that earlier film, the G.I. Joe movie had for its villain a madman (Destro this time) in an undersea fortress (incidentally, visually reminiscent of Karl Stromberg's aquatic facility in the Bond film) whose plan was to launch stolen weapons of mass destruction (nanite-based warheads, instead of submarine-launched nuclear warheads) at both Moscow and a major American city on the eastern seaboard of the United States (the newer film shifted the target from New York to Washington), then build a new order in the aftermath. The writers even decided to throw in a love story between Duke and the Baroness - a move with no basis in the history of these characters.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Stargate as Star Trek

It has become something of a tradition for new space operas to proudly label themselves an un-Star Trek or an anti-Star Trek. Yet, the only show that actually approached Star Trek-like success was the show that perhaps came closer than any of the others to Star Trek in concept and feel – the Stargate television franchise.1

Like that previous show, it had a team of humans from a military organization (one can think of as Star Fleet as at least quasi-military), with a usually stone-faced alien companion (Teal'C, to the original Star Trek's Mr. Spock) venturing out on journeys of exploration, in which they routinely encountered English-speaking humanoids on other planets.1 As the story was set in the present day Earth was not a utopia – but it certainly appeared more attractive than the rest of the galaxy, where most of the human species lived in theocratic slavery under the iron heel of the principal villains, the Goa'uld, or where these were absent, some other form of backwardness or repression. (More technologically advanced or socially progressive human societies were few in number, and generally lost their luster when closely examined.) One might add, too, that when the show explored Serious Themes, or offered social or political commentary, it was typically by way of the depiction of those other worlds – our current problems, on the screen at least, looking more like Other People's Problems. The result was that, for all its flaws, Earth seemed a beacon of freedom and enlightenment, its condition something to be aspired to rather than transcended. Stargate even used the tropes of some of the original Star Trek's most memorable episodes, like "Mirror Mirror" (paralleled in the SG-1 episode "The Road Not Taken").

To be sure, Stargate drew on other inspirations. The titular stargate itself can be regarded as a bit of steampunk – a big, solid, steam-snorting machine clearly modeled on that piece of Victorian high-tech, the rotary dial telephone (dialing seven numbers to get an interstellar connection), and evocative of the era of Howard Carter (and Indiana Jones) in its rediscovery in Egypt in the 1920s. The extravagant Goa'uld were Oriental despots right out of Flash Gordon. There was more than a bit of the Roswell mythology in the Stargate program's secrecy, the reverse-engineering of alien technology, and the appearance of "gray" aliens (the Asgard). There was even a bit of "media savvy" Galaxy Quest-like self-parody, with the milestone 100th and 200th episodes of the first Stargate series given over to humor of this kind (centering on the show-within-a-show Wormhole X-treme!), and fan service-y casting in the inclusion of Farscape's Ben Browder and Claudia Black as core members of the cast in the ninth season.

Yet, the Star Trek-like elements (admittedly, used in a rather conservative way) were what held the show together, and it seems notable that the Stargate series which met with the least success – Stargate: Universe – was the one that broke with that pattern, playing rather more like Battlestar Galactica lite in its head games and soap opera and overall tone. It ended after a mere two seasons, but in fairness, this had much to do with the show's second-season move to Monday nights, and the changing priorities of the channel's executives (wrestling, reality TV). For the time being it seems that the reimagined BSG seems likely to enjoy the status of fashionable template for anti-Treks for some time to come.1 Indeed, TV's next space opera will likely be a new entry in the Galactica saga: Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. (Alas, even with the dearth of such programming on television now, I can't say I'm really looking forward to it.)

1. Together the three series, Stargate: SG-1 (1997-2007), Stargate: Atlantis (2004-2009), and Stargate: Universe (2009-2011) ran for fourteen years, from 1997 to 2011, during which they produced 354 one-hour episodes – figures that are actually comparable only to Star Trek.

On Star Trek Bashing

Star Trek bashing is, of course, an old pastime among science fiction connoisseurs. Some of this is a genuine response to the artistic limitations of the show. (A significant part of the writing of the original series has not aged well, and its successors also have their clunky bits – while no one can dispute that the genre's cutting edge had already moved beyond it in 1966.) Some of this is likely a reaction to the highly publicized excesses of some of its fans (like the study of the Klingon language). And some of this is the inevitable snobbery toward a franchise which has enjoyed such enormous commercial success as to be almost synonymous with the science fiction genre in the minds of "mundanes" (except for Star Wars, nothing else is comparable), making the limitations, and the fan excesses, all the more galling for those anxious about science fiction's image.

However, much of this has simply been a denigration (often overt, though rarely plain-spoken) of the show's humanism and "utopianism" – the last, a highly loaded and often misused term. Indeed, it might be more useful to discuss the show's setting less in terms of utopianism than what literary critic Patrick Parrinder described as the "scientific world-view," which held the world to be on a self-destructive course, and called for a new order not for the sake of some "fuzzy-minded" ideal, but as humanity's best (and perhaps only) shot at survival. H.G. Wells, a crucial formulator of this view, saw the combination of the nation-state system, the capitalist system and the irrationalities of nationalism and religion in an age of industrialized production and industrialized warfare as exactly that kind of dangerous situation, and called for the establishment of a world government, a socialist economy, and a rationalistic culture in their place.

Wells dramatized his argument in novels like The War in the Air, The World Set Free, and The Shape of Things to Come. In those works he depicted the decadence of the old order, its horrific collapse (predictions of which were, to some extent, validated by the Depression and the world wars), and the building of the new and different order that followed (which in our history did not proceed along the lines hoped for by the proponents of this view). Star Trek is set fairly far along in the history of such a new age, the series depicting a future in which some sort of global (indeed, interstellar) governance, a more humane economics (never labeled socialist, but at the very least post-capitalist), and a more rationalistic and tolerant conception of life has long since trumped the superstition, small-mindedness and bigotry of the past.

Of course the last four decades – this age of unreason, identity politics, ideologically convenient pseudo-science and neoliberal economics – have been a grave disappointment for those espousing such visions, who might well feel that instead of the Federation of Planets, we are turning into a frightening hybrid of the Ferengi and the Cardassians. Yet, the problems that gave rise to the scientific world-view continue to hang over our heads. Indeed, some of them have proven worse than Wells imagined (real-world nuclear arsenals have far more potential to destroy civilization than what he portrayed in The World Set Free), while the list of problems has actually lengthened since his day (as Wells certainly did not anticipate anything like anthropogenic climate change). And there has certainly been a scarcity of alternative ideas for dealing with them, "optimism" (another loaded, misused word) now seeming to consist mainly of dismissing or shrugging off very real problems, or a "faith" that a technical fix will conveniently appear, and conveniently be implemented in some market-friendly way – the techno-libertarianism that has been discredited time and time again. (Think, for instance, of what the first decade of the twenty-first century was expected to look like at the height of the tech bubble.) This leaves just despair on the part of those who regard something better than the present muddle as not merely an ideal but a necessity, gloating on the part of those who never had anything but contempt for their ideas, and the outlook of the "bright-sided" – hardly a healthy state of affairs.

The state of this particular subgenre of science fiction is just a symptom of the problem, not the disease itself, but the more I consider the situation the more it seems to me that not only is there still room for a vision like the one Star Trek presented, but that its presence would be a worthwhile thing, and perhaps even vital. Certainly the genre is richer for the emergence of shows with very different outlooks, like Lexx and Firefly – but we are far past the point at which the original Star Trek's approach can really seem stifling to would-be producers of science fiction television and film. If anything, with Battlestar Galactica now the template for TV space opera, it is humanism, and the hope of a better tomorrow – or even human survival – that is in danger of being stifled (all as the "dark and gritty" approach seems increasingly trite).

Where such drama is concerned, the trick is to make that humanism seem credible. The Star Trek franchise's last two television incarnations (Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise) didn't quite pull off that feat, and J.J. Abrams' cinematic reboot didn't even try. Indeed, it seems to me that in their own ways, other, more recent writers have made better use of the basic principle, like Iain M. Banks in his Culture novels, or Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution novels (particularly The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division). Of course, well-known as they are to readers of recent science fiction, they have reached a much more limited audience than the multimedia Star Trek franchise, and neither is a likely bet for a Hollywood production – but they do demonstrate what remains possible, all as the need for alternatives to continued wallowing in our age's low and still falling expectations grows only more pressing.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Blockbuster Strategy

Lisa Richwine and Ronald Glover published an interesting article yesterday on Hollywood's gamble of making fewer films, with a greater emphasis on "high-risk, high-reward" tentpoles – like this weekend's John Carter.

There is no mystery as to why Hollywood follows this path. The blockbuster, "high concept" strategy has become the standard operating procedure for Big Media as a whole (stodgy old publishing included), and there are especially pressing reasons for the major U.S. studios to adhere to it in film. After all, it is exactly this kind of film that is Hollywood's strength, because other countries' film production has simply lacked the deep pockets to compete in this area with any regularity. Additionally, the spectacle these movies offer is exactly the kind of product that other branches of the media, like television production, cannot match, and capitalizes most fully on the big screens that are the principal draw of the theatrical experience so crucial to a movie's earnings (as well as offering the best justification for the 3-D surcharges which have done so much to pad them these last few years). These films also travel quite well, routinely pulling in enormous grosses in foreign markets, often more than enough to compensate for a disappointing performance in North America (as was the case with the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie) – in contrast with a great many other Hollywood movies (like Will Ferrell comedies).

Yet, as those in business seem to constantly forget (or to have never learned in the first place), effective demand has its limits, and the market has always been crowded enough with this kind of product as to make costly flops routine. Thus far, the hits have proved more than sufficient to keep the studios at the strategy despite the losses. Indeed, Richwine and Glover note that Disney recently halved its film output to focus on "franchise films." However, as the budgets continue to go up (no one is shocked by a $250-300 million production budget anymore), and these movies' traditional target audience (young males) seems less and less interested in buying tickets, while DVD sales decline, I doubt this will stay a commercially tenable approach for long. Given that Hollywood seems unlikely to successfully revert to a more diverse output, I wonder if Hollywood won't soon come to appear a stumbling dinosaur - the way publishing has been for as long as I can remember.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Cancellation of Terra Nova

Terra Nova has now traced most of the trajectory of big-budget science fiction shows on the major American television networks (especially FOX), from a launch with great fanfare and unrealistic expectations – to the ignominious end when the Suits lose their nerve and cancel it. Now we are in the post-cancellation phase where there is still talk of the show being continued on another channel, something that very rarely happens.

I don't get the sense that many will miss Terra Nova the way they did Dark Angel, Firefly or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, though. Yes, the show had a promising concept and appealing visuals, for which it won a great deal of praise, but many also complained of lackluster characters and the overall quality of the writing. The complaints seemed a bit exaggerated at times (as other shows, not really much better, attracted far less complaint of the kind), but they were certainly not baseless, and are easier to understand when one considers those who complained mostly loudly – generally those who follow science fiction television most closely.

Despite its futuristic setting, reliance on classic, "hard" science fiction tropes (like travel to parallel universes) and flashy visual effects, the makers of Terra Nova gave short shrift to the tastes of "hardcore" science fiction fans. The show was actually rather light on world-building, extrapolation and general conceptual development compared with the television space operas with which its premise invites comparison. It made no effort to appeal to the considerable portion of this fan base which is intertextually inclined, the way that, for instance, Heroes and Sanctuary, two of the more significant hits of recent years, did. Even worse from their perspective was the fact that it was a family show, quite far removed from the dark, edgy treatment of its themes many of those who'd looked forward to the show expected, given its dystopic image of the twenty-second century, and the ways in which that milieu had presumably marked its characters.

Unsurprisingly, "bland" was a word I frequently encountered in discussions of the show in the blogosphere, and I suspect that the complaints were all the more pointed because, Terra Nova having been intended as lighter, family-friendly fare, the weaknesses of the writing were not obfuscated in the ways to which we have become accustomed – the cheap button-pushing that looks like intellectual, political or dramatic daring to superficial viewers; the obnoxiousness for obnoxiousness's sake on the part of the dramatis personae so often mistaken for a "courageous" willingness to present unlikable characters (while their verbal abuse of each other is praised as sharp and witty dialogue); the head games that can make a show's lapses in logic or coherence instead appear to trusting viewers like part of some intriguing mystery that will be satisfactorily solved later; the soap opera-like subplots which distract the audience from a story going nowhere by fixing their attention on such questions as who is sleeping with whom (or trying to); and the fan service that makes watchers more forgiving of the flaws that do come to their attention. (The remake of Battlestar Galactica offered plenty of all these – from its exploitation of current issues like the War on Terror and the culture war, to its muddled religiosity, to its sexuality – with the result that many a fan was shocked, shocked, when the finale proved that the show's story had never been anything but a pile of nonsense. Lost, too, had plenty of head games and soap opera, and likewise let many a viewer down when it was all over.)

In all this, Terra Nova was comparable in its feel and its fate to genre shows the Big Four made in the mid-'90s before virtually abandoning this territory to syndication and cable - like Earth 2 and Seaquest (which also had an especially large budget, and the Steven Spielberg name attached), and a reminder of the dilemma facing producers of genre shows on the major networks. On the one hand, the hardcore fans looking for innovative science fiction are not numerous enough to warrant their special attention, forcing them to look beyond these to a more general audience (like the families with dinosaur-loving kids the network was clearly shooting for with Nova).1 All too typically they end up pleasing neither group, alienating the genre fans without really winning over the more casual viewers (small-screen spectacle can do only so much from week to week, as Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich points out), and so – launch with fanfare, disappointment, cancellation, a cycle that was a bit quicker and more intense in the case of Nova, I suppose, because the execs keep their creatives on shorter leashes, and because after the booms of the 1990s and 2000s, genre fans have become more demanding, further distancing them from those larger audiences the programmers hope to capture.2

Still, for all its faults I did think Terra Nova was improving as it went along, the way many science fiction series do on their way to being good or even great - including Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made so much else possible. I never expected anyhing quite so consequential for genre TV from this show, even if it did get the chance that I was fairly sure FOX wouldn't give it – but I would certainly give a second season of the show a look if it were to materialize.

1. I calculated this at 10-15 million for the United States in my article "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at the 1990s."

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Irrelevance of Oscar Night?

I remember neoconservative Robert Kaplan lamenting in his essay "The Dangers of Peace" that the "Academy Awards ceremony has achieved a status akin to a national holiday." Now the story many an entertainment journalist tells is that is that the affair seems decreasingly relevant to our pop cultural life – and some seem to fear, already irrelevant. There is, of course, some of the Hollywood press's usual exaggeration of such matters, as David Poland demonstrates over at Movie City News, reinforced by what John Anderson characterizes as the "starched," "conservative," "quaint" quality of this year's particular ceremony, but there is at least some basis for these concerns. The show's viewership has been declining for years , with the young appearing especially uninterested – the attitude paralleling what seems to be their increasing (for Hollywood, worrying) disinclination to go to the movies. (Indeed, the producers were so concerned with their loss of interest that last year they took some pains to win them back, in part by having Anne Hathaway and James Franco host the ceremony – a move which proved to be a complete failure at elevating this demographic's viewership.)

However, it seems to me less surprising that viewers are losing interest in the ceremony than that they ever took much interest in the first place. I myself have only watched the ceremony beginning to end once – way back in 1995. I haven't even tried to do that since, even through the years in which I vaguely hoped to (someday) pen a screenplay that would be deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination, and read Variety every week as part of my study of the craft – and now that I think about it, didn't see anything at all odd about this.

I suppose I didn't find it all that interesting a show. After all, the thing drags at four hours, and for all the energy and humor even a Billy Crystal brings to the stage, tends to be a rather staid affair. It's also awfully predictable. The press buzzes for weeks in advance about the front-runner, though anyone who's followed the business for any length of time hardly needs its speculations to hazard a good guess about how it will play out; there's a tedious predictability about the whole process of distributing the awards. Certain themes, certain characters, are simply much more likely to receive the Academy's accolades. (I think of the scene from Bowfinger in which Kit rants about how he needs to play a mentally handicapped slave, or the "Tearjerker" episode of American Dad.) Best supporting Oscars, while normally given to worthy actors, also function as bones thrown to performances and movies of sorts not typically recognized, because they are too funny, or too popular, or worst of all, too "fan boy" – the last type of movie particularly likely to win big in the technical categories, but slighted when the rewards for writing, acting and directing are distributed. And so on and so forth.

So why not just read about the winners in the paper (or on the web) the next morning? I'd think. But people watched anyway. I suppose it was the romance of the cinema, the "cult" of the movie star, and the sense that Hollywood was the very center of the entertainment world, with the Academy Awards ceremony the biggest night of the year for all three. Alas, the mystique of all these has suffered badly in recent years.

The Romance of the Cinema
Some of the cinema's loss of its magic would seem to be due to the change in the nature of the movie going experience. Of course, a considerable element of nostalgia is an undeniable part of such arguments. Yet, there seems something ritual, dream-like, even quasi-religious, about people gathering in a dark chamber to be entranced by a flickering image the size of a wall. That was diminished as movie palaces gave way to multiplexes, and seeing a movie became an item in the course of a day at the mall rather than a destination in itself, with the viewing marred by a pre-movie battering with ads, and then during the movie itself, the cell phone conversations of gadget-addicted oafs. It is diminished further still when instead of a theater screen you see a movie on a TV in your well-lit living room with all the distractions of a household about you and a finger on the pause button, or worse still, the even smaller screen of a laptop or handheld device you watch on a crowded bus or train during your daily commute to work.

These newer ways to watch a film are today far more characteristic of how we go about that activity. In the 1930s and 1940s a clear majority of the population of the U.S. (65 percent) was at the movies each week, which worked out to the average American going to the movies more than thirty times a year.1 By contrast, the average American has gone four to five times a year in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, to go by per-capita ticket sales. Additionally, the time they spend in the theater on those rarer occasions has been reduced by the changed practices of exhibitors (like the abandonment of such parts of the experience as pre-movie cartoons, shorts and newsreels, and double-features). The result is that they spend only a small fraction of the time they used to looking at movie screens, perhaps ten hours a year, which is also much less time than they now spend in front of a television or computer screen in a typical week, or even day (doing, among other things, watching the vast majority of the movies they take in).

It might be added that the places where we watch our movies, and the technologies we watch them with, are not the only ways in which the experience has changed. We are far less likely to experience a film as a shared cultural moment, the movie that "everyone" sees increasingly a rare thing now – the distance between highbrow and lowbrow, between old and young and innumerable other cultural and demographic categories ever greater. And of course, those diminished moments seem ever more fleeting, as movies come and go ever more quickly. Even an "event" film is likely to be "#1" at the box office for one week, or two, before attention has shifted to the next not-so-big thing.

And film as a whole has given ground to other media, the differences with which have been blurred by more than the smallness of the screens on which we watch them. Those who said in the 1950s that television spelled the end of cinema spoke prematurely, but they were right in identifying it as a competitor, one that has long been closing the gap with movie production in technical accomplishment and thematic ambition. In the process it has stolen an increasing portion of film's thunder artistically and commercially, a point evident even in video sales (DVD making television shows a force here such as they never were in the day of VHS). At the same time, one might wonder if moments which saw the medium of film revolutionized, with new ground broken, or something presented to us that we really didn't see before, have not grown scarcer – and owed increasingly to the genius of the FX artists who have topped themselves year after year in films like Jurassic Park, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Avatar. Where other aspects of cinematic storytelling are concerned, the medium seems increasingly backward-looking and self-referential, with its remakes and reboots and homages and other kinds of recycling, its movies about movies and the people who make them, when film doesn't seem to be turning into something entirely different (as Jonathan McCalmont suggested in his review of Transformers 3, subtitled "The Ambivalence of the Metallic Sublime").

Indeed, in an age in which Ipods are treated like life support devices, Ipads and laptops are always in hand and the cell phones are never off, I would suggest that film is for many (whom one suspects increasingly find the devotion of their full attention to a two-hour narrative a strain) just one more source of sound and image – like YouTube videos of low IQ amateur stuntmen – on which to draw for the highly personalized multimedia blitz in which they swaddle themselves during their waking hours.

The Cult of the Movie Star
One might add to the above the familiar lament that the stars of today fall short of their predecessors in the day of the Dream Factory. Once again, there tends to be a heavy element of nostalgia in such talk, but there still seems to be something to it nonetheless.

Certainly stars in the old moulds, stars like the big box office draws of the studio era, seem at the least an improbability today. In their day stars were held up as exemplars of some contemporary, yet archetypal, ideal, in a way that seems to have been possible only in the hothouse of a more genteel screen-world with very particular attitudes toward such matters as social class and gender. The machismo of Clark Gable and Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, the sophistication of Cary Grant and David Niven, the innocent sweetness of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, all existed in that context – and became impossible when it disappeared. The social signifiers out of which a distinctive, appealing screen image might be built up seem ever-shakier things, while the ideals that they would convey have become a far less certain thing. (Take, for instance, the idea of gentlemanly sophistication. As Jeremy Black observed in The Politics of James Bond, there has long since ceased to be "a secure basis" for its representation, while it has been increasingly unclear that this is a desirable thing for an action hero to display.) At the same time, the gritty, the crude, the scatological have become pervasive, and entail indignities incompatible with that larger-than-life, better-than-life quality stars are supposed to have (like being on the butt end of toilet humor).

Whatever the prospects for reconciliation between old-fashioned stardom and these changed cultural expectations, the classical idea of the star seems irreconcilable with the reality that today's biggest names tend to become those by appearing in the very productions (indeed, series' of productions) most prone to subordinate, even overwhelm, plot, character – and star – with concept and spectacle. Consider, for instance, Shia LaBeouf as he shares the screen with Autobots and Decepticons, or the number of actors whose biggest movies have them playing an already established, iconic pop cultural figure likely bigger than they can ever hope to be – like Christian Bale in his Batman films. The result is that while it is often lamented that the age of "high concept" has meant fewer good roles for women, it may have meant fewer good roles for anyone in the sense of a role giving an actor a chance to really make their mark in, let alone dominate, a major film – as a star is supposed to do. Stardom seems irreconcilable, too, with the fact that, just as our taste in subject and style is more fragmented, it is tougher than ever to find actors with anything approaching a universal appeal, the Big Names we have instead reminding us of just how divided we are. (Think, for instance, of how men and women tend to respond to Sarah Jessica Parker and Megan Fox, respectively.)

The changing character of publicity doesn't help. The hypertrophied portion of the media living off of public interest in the doings of the rich and famous – E!, TMZ and the rest of the multimedia paparazzi machine – has overloaded us with celebrity gossip-themed infotainment. And much of this constant coverage presents stars and would-be stars as slobs and oafs and worse as we see them going into or coming out of rehab or cop cars or courthouses, or watch "experts" minutely scrutinize the signs of their plastic surgery and their weight fluctuations and their emotional outbursts. There is, too, the Great Leap Into the Sewer of the reality TV revolution, which has turned a whole category of skuzzy, scummy snots into "stars." Meanwhile "real" (e.g. movie) stars routinely get reality shows of their own – on their way down, the indignities of their fall no longer taking place out of sight, but instead served up to their fans in a desperate grasp at another fifteen minutes. That abundance of unflattering material not only makes it much harder to support some carefully cultivated persona, but is a constant reminder that stardom is itself a show – and while this was just as much the case circa 1930, it seems we have grown too conscious of the fact for any amount of postmodern reveling in superficiality for superficiality's sake to fully repair the damage to this delicate illusion.

What remains of old Hollywood-style glamour is, far more than before, shared with the worlds of music and fashion, the allure of which has often eclipsed tinsel town's luster. The '90s was the heyday of the supermodel, but something of the fascination with their industry endures in ways large and small. Much like the Oscars, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is an annual television event, broadcast on a major network in prime time. (At a mere one-hour in length, offering lingerie models and that aura of luxurious hedonism the brand's promotion excels at conveying, it is rather a different approach to entertainment – which despite drawing just a fraction of the Oscars' viewership, was judged to have had very good ratings last year.) Meanwhile, Christy and Linda and Cindy and the rest of the faces of haute couture from the supermodel's glory days are still on magazine covers and television screens (in commercials selling anti-aging products they credit with keeping them forever young), while Carla offers another reminder of that era every time news cameras are pointed at the First Lady of the French Republic.

This, too, adds to the difficulties in the way of attaining the larger-than-life, better-than-life quality expected of the star, even with the biggest and most sophisticated of publicity machines squarely behind them. Unsurprisingly, they make it less and less often, with the result that the "A-list" is in decline, and bankability fading as a meaningful concept (as Matthew Belinkie suggests in his post "The End of Movie Stars?"). Indeed, it often seems to me that the function the casting of stars serves in the moviemaking process is less about capitalizing on their draw than convincing the audience that a particular film is indeed a major production deserving of their time and money through the inclusion of well-known (and therefore costly) performers.

Thinking of all this I remember hearing the common refrain among British monarchists that Britain "needs" the royal family because it "doesn't have a Hollywood of its own." I've always found this an unbelievably stupid thing to say, for a multitude of reasons, above all the claim that celebrity worship is some deep-seated human need which can all by itself justify feudal political anachronisms. But it's also the case that even Hollywood isn't what it used to be.

The Centrality of Hollywood
These developments reinforce each other, the diminished status of film making movie stars seem smaller, and the weakening of stars' celebrity changing the way in which audiences respond to film. At the same time, even where film is concerned, Hollywood seems less and less the center of the entertainment universe.

Certainly where the U.S. box office is concerned, only one foreign-language film (excepting Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto) grossed more than $100 million at the U.S. box office, only five more than $20 million, only seventeen more than $10 million during the whole decade of the 2000s according to Peter Knegt of Indiewire. This makes for an average of less than two a year hitting the $10 million mark, and the total from all these films typically accounting for well under 1 percent of the revenue from ticket sales. Moreover, even these movies tend to have been made by directors with some Hollywood experience (like Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth) with actors known to American audiences from their appearance in Hollywood movies (like Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger) – the foreign films that make it even this far generally those that seem least foreign to Americans. And of course, where global moneymakers are concerned, the U.S. still remains far and away Number One, year in, year out, at home and abroad.

And yet, there are ways in which Hollywood is weaker than it appears. There are sizable markets where domestic productions have cut into Hollywood's share of the annual lists of top-earning movies in the past decade, like Japan and South Korea – a fact that has drawn surprisingly little commentary. It also tends to be forgotten that while Hollywood continues to have a near-monopoly on the megabudget blockbusters, a great deal of American production does not travel very well – like Will Ferrell's comedies. (The movie widely regarded as his biggest hit, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, earned over 90 percent of its ticket sales domestically, and much the same has been the case with his other hits Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Blades of Glory and Step Brothers.)

Additionally, it seems that the traditionally insular American market, so much more accustomed to exporting rather than importing pop culture, has become more permeable. It is not only the case that British imports have long been a routine part of what Americans see on their screens, or that today American and Canadian production are increasingly difficult to distinguish from one another. Spanish-language networks like Univision and Telemundo beam product from across Latin America into a great many American homes, and MHz Networks brings far more diversity than that to cable viewers. The profile of the Hong Kong film industry that produced Bruce Lee, John Woo, Jackie Chan and Jet Li has fallen, but Japanese anime and the Korean Wave and Bollywood are strong presences – more cult than mainstream admittedly, but still a part of the landscape. Equally, the originals of the foreign movies Hollywood remakes so frequently are easier to access – typically on cable and video, so that a focus on ticket sales understates their impact, which is not wholly confined to snobbish intellectuals, hardcore fan boys or immigrant communities. This all makes Hollywood seem a smaller place, one that often comes off as self-important and even provincial in its attitudes – not least, the fact that the whole of production from outside the English-speaking world is typically segregated into a Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars (a far cry from the cosmopolitanism of the Cannes Film Festival). The more sophisticated viewers, those most likely to be appreciative of film as art form and tradition, are also those most likely to see Hollywood's limitations.

A Generation Gap
Every section of the filmgoing audience has been affected by these changes, but these attitudes are more evident among younger viewers than the rest. It is they whose experience of film is least connected with the theater, they who make the fullest use of the new media technologies.2 (Senior citizens love their cell phones as much as everyone else, but I generally don't see them watching videos on such devices.) It is they whose take on stardom and celebrity most fully reflects the age of high-concept, tasteless gag and reality TV. (Indeed, a crucial reason why newer actors are failing to make it as stars may be that this demographic simply can't be sold on the concept.) And it is they who are most prone to look beyond America's movieland not just for their images of glamour, but their entertainment.

It is worth noting, too, that younger filmgoers have virtually no cinematic memory, despite their unprecedentedly easy access to old movies via video, cable and the web. Walk into a college classroom and mention just about any film from before the last decade, for instance – let alone the stuff that used to run on AMC back when those letters stood for "American Classic Movies" – and with very few exceptions you will get blank stares. (I have even had this experience in university classrooms that I knew had more than their fair share of film majors.) Not only do they not share the nostalgia of (mostly) older film fans; they have little consciousness of exactly what it is for which older filmgoers feel such nostalgia.

Consequently, the Oscars seem just one more awards show in a whole season of them, all minutely covered in the press, and one that seems comparatively remote at that in its standards and mechanisms of selection, next to less prestigious, but more audience-oriented – and youth-oriented – presentations like the People's Choice Awards, or the MTV Movie Awards. In many a case, they haven't even heard of the movies up for little statues simply because they don't even see those sorts of films, and those among them who have artier sensibilities are likely to feel that the Academy overlooks their particular favorites (as Julie Gray confesses has been her experience). And all of these awards shows put together appear just one part of the ever-more visible life of the worldwide media-industrial complex (every other quarter of which has its own awards shows, from TV commercials to video games).

None of this is to say that the end of film, or the end of Hollywood, or even the end of the Oscars as an annual event, is at hand. Rather it means they are part of a scene in which cultural influence is more widely distributed; in which film, Hollywood and the Oscars remain, but share their prestige, their power to excite, their claim on audience affections with other media. Additionally, given that the trends that have already wrought the change – like the fragmentation and globalization of media, and the increasing ubiquity of media itself – seem likely only to continue progressing (or even accelerate) in the years to come, it seems that this diffusion and complexification will only continue as time goes by.

1. The data on movie attendance has been taken from Michelle Pautz, "The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance," Issues in Political Economy 11 (2002). Accessed at The figures on per-capita ticket sales were calculated from data from Box Office Mojo.
2. John Anderson observed that on many occasions during this year's ceremony, "participants reflected on movie going as something they remembered fondly from their childhoods. They might have been talking about the Civil War."

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A History of the Spy Story


Offering a history of the spy genre is famously difficult, in part because of the genre's porous boundaries. As Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher note in Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide, the term "'spy story' is in itself a misnomer" because it is used as a blanket label not only for the activities of spies in all their forms, but also counter-spies, government functionaries employing spies,
agents . . . hired killers, planters of misinformation, or sometimes even . . . that unassuming little man at the corner shop who operates a kind of letter-box for agents.
Additionally, it is possible to consider any adventure story or war story involving a bit of intelligence gathering or intriguing a spy story of sorts, so that those looking for a beginning often point to Odysseus' scouting of the Trojan lines in Homer's Iliad (making the spy story as old as literature).

Nonetheless, the spy story as we know it has two characteristics which set it apart. One is that it centers on the spy and his activities in that capacity. The other is that it engages with contemporary, real-life politics, rather than those of a historically distant setting (like James Fenimore Cooper's 1821 Revolutionary War novel The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, often described as the first English-language spy novel), or a wholly fictional one (like Ruritania, in Anthony Hope's 1894 The Prisoner of Zenda). Such fiction is largely a product of the twentieth century, during which it emerged from the intersection of two genres which emerged in the decades prior to it.

The first is the is the tale of crime and detection, a product of Romanticism's fascination with the marginalized and the extreme, and the advent of modern police forces and urban life as we know it. This genre, of course, was flourishing by the late nineteenth century, when Arthur Conan Doyle presented Sherlock Holmes to the world in A Study in Scarlet (1887).

The second is the story of contemporary politics, the new popularity of which is likely traceable to the fact that, as Jan Bloch put it in his 1899 classic The Future of War in its Technical, Economic and Political Relations,
both military and political affairs have ceased to be high mysteries accessible only to the few. General military service, the spread of education, and wide publicity have made the elements of the polities of states accessible to all.
In the century after the French Revolution, Europe's once politically passive subjects had increasingly become conscripts and reservists in their nations' armed forces. They were increasingly readers as well as a result of national education systems and the wider availability and lower cost of books and newspapers, while telegraphs made news more immediate, and photography provided unprecedented illustration of that coverage. Already by the time of the Crimean War (1854-1855), public opinion was playing something like its contemporary role in foreign policy, and the trend continued through the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), "the first great war in which really large numbers of literate men fought as common soldiers," as Theodore Ropp observed in War and the Modern World. And of course, they were increasingly voters as democratization spread and deepened.

Accordingly, there was not just an audience for writing on these subjects, but a premium on appealing to public opinion, at home and abroad (public opinion in foreign countries also an increasing factor in policy calculations). Fiction was one component of such writing, with the invasion story genre launched by tales like George Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" a particularly important aspect of it. There was an obvious place for spies in these scenarios, and from fairly early on they depicted foreign agents entering a targeted country to steal secrets, commit acts of sabotage or lie low until the shooting started before joining in the fight. Nonetheless, the espionage tended to be only a small part of the story, and the spies rarely even constituted proper characters. In 1882's How John Bull Lost London, for instance, it is French soldiers infiltrated into the country as tourists who capture the British end of the tunnel linking Dover to the continent, facilitating the arrival of their comrades. The French waiter working in England, who is really part of an invading force, became a cliché.

The convergence between the two genres was already evident in the Sherlock Holmes stories, notably in 1894's "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty," in which Holmes is enlisted to track down a missing copy of a secret Anglo-Italian naval treaty, which the protagonists were anxious might find its way into the hands of the Russian and French ambassadors. This proved only the first of Holmes' forays into such affairs, and Arthur Conan Doyle far from the only writer to take such an interest. William Le Queux's The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) prominently featured a foreign spy in the plot, the villainous "Count Von Beilstein," a cosmopolitan adventurer who was arrested in Russia for his criminal behavior (forging Russian notes and using these to acquire twenty thousand pounds' worth of gems), and became a Russian agent to regain his freedom. Not long after, Edward Phillips Oppenheim attained a notable success in The Mysterious Mr. Sabin (1898), the titular figure in which was a French operative – a would-be "Richelieu of his days" - working against England.

Nonetheless, reflecting the then-prevailing tendency to view the spy's trade as "ungentlemanly," spies were predominantly foreign villains (or if they were countrymen, traitors), with the role of the usually amateur protagonist most often the frustration of their plans (as in the stories discussed above). Cooper-like stories in which a spy was the hero only began to appear after the turn of the century with books like Max Pemberton's Pro Patria (1901), Rudyard Kipling's India-set adventure Kim (1901) and Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands (1903).

The novels of Pemberton and Childers depict Britons who stumble upon mysterious foreign doings - in Pemberton's case, a secret French plan to build a Channel tunnel, in Childers', the adventures of a pair of Britons sailing the Frisian coast who have stumbled upon mysterious doings in the area. Probing into these they learn of German preparations to use the area as a staging ground for an invasion of Britain. In Kipling's novel the titular protagonist, an Anglo-Irish orphan, gets caught up in the Great Game between Britain and Russia. Today historians of the genre commonly identify either Kim or Riddle as the first modern spy novel.

Of course, it might be argued that Kim is essentially a picaresque which traces the early part of a spy's career, and Riddle a sailing story which involves espionage. However, it was not long before writers started to produce works more fully focused on this theme, and in the process established the rough boundaries of the field – its core themes, concerns and plot formulas - as well as the range of viewpoints within which subsequent authors generally worked.

William Le Queux went beyond his early forays into this area as a writer of invasion stories in Spies of the Kaiser: Plotting the Downfall of England (1909) offered a collection of loosely connected stories centering on German schemes against England (notable for their use of the theft of technical secrets as a basis for a spy story). Edward Phillips Oppenheim did the same, the book for which he is best remembered today, The Great Impersonation (1920) notable as an early treatment of the idea of the triple agent and deep-cover mole. John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) gave us an innocent man forced to go on the run by villains whom he must take on nearly single-handed to clear his name and save the day (and gave the spy genre its first major series' character in Richard Hannay), while H.C. "Sapper" McNeile's Bulldog Drummond (1920) was a hugely influential proto-James Bond adventure.

Meanwhile, Joseph Conrad was already treating espionage as a subject of serious drama, and offering a more critical take on the game itself in The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911). Stories of seedy little men playing seedy little games which destroy human lives, they dealt with terrorism and counterrorism, agent provocateurs and false flag attacks - as well as how the game looks from the standpoint of a double agent, and a foretaste of later stories of depravity on the part of the forces of order. W. Somerset Maugham brought irony and humor to the genre in Ashenden (1928), as well as a strong sense of espionage as a matter of tedious routine, a consciousness of the scale and organization of modern intelligence operations, and a memorable spymaster in "R" (a generation before Ian Fleming gave us "M").

In the next decade Eric Ambler stood the conventions of Oppenheim, Buchan and company on their head - and offered a leftish view of them - in novels like The Dark Frontier (1936), as well as Background to Danger (1937), Cause for Alarm (1938) and A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939). The Dark Frontier was an outright parody of the genre's conventions (which offered a protagonist who doesn't remember his true identity and instead thinks he's a legendary super-operative long before The Bourne Identity, and the theme of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of "rogue" states), while the outsiders pulled into the game in novels like Background to Danger do not give a heroic account of themselves in the manner of Buchan's Richard Hannay, but are simply ordinary people fighting for their lives. Graham Greene, getting his start in the genre at roughly the same time, took a similar course in books like This Gun for Hire (1936), which depicted an operative who turns on villainous employers after they betray him. The stories of Ambler and Greene are also noteworthy for their depiction of the threat as coming not from foreigners or domestic radicals (e.g. Communists and anarchists), but from within "our" Establishment (like British business interests happy to do business with Fascists in Background to Danger and Cause for Alarm, or industrialists who welcome, or even provoke, war for the profits it will bring them in This Gun for Hire), and heroism located not in "our" people, but those normally regarded as villains (like Ambler's Soviet superspy Andreas P. Zaleshoff).

Looking on this list of works it may seem there was little for later writers to add after 1940, beyond the genre's obvious adaptation to changes in international politics (the outbreak of World War II, or the Cold War), technology (like jet travel, communications satellites, and computers) and attitudes toward race, gender and sex (one way in which Drummond was not like Bond), the adoption of "difficult," Modernist storytelling techniques (which touched every genre over the course of the twentieth century) and the tendency of books to lengthen (a matter of trends in the publishing industry as a whole). Nonetheless, the genre evolved over subsequent decades in three notable ways.

The first is the changing nature of the protagonists. In the early novels mentioned above (the idiosyncratic works of Conrad aside) the heroes were typically men with public-school educations, independent incomes and servants; gentlemen-sportsmen at home in London clubs and on rural estates. They often led lives of leisure, having inherited wealth (like Everard Dominey in The Great Impersonation, Sapper's Drummond, and the unnamed protagonist of Geoffrey Household's 1939 Rogue Male), or already accumulated it (like Buchan's Hannay, who at the start of The Thirty-Nine Steps has already made his fortune in southern Africa before coming to Britain). Such jobs as they did hold were typically of the kind to which the upper-class commonly gravitated, and which were likely to allow a lengthy leave (like Childers' Carruthers in The Riddle of the Sands, a Foreign Office official able to take a month off just to go sail and shoot in the Baltic – or for that matter, Ambler heroes like Coffin for Dimitrios's Charles Latimer). They tended to have conservative outlooks, and adhered to the political and social orthodoxies of their day, including a simplistic nationalism. And they typically entered the adventure on their own initiative, often after a chance meeting, with a restless nature and a taste for adventure crucial factors in their decision (these last treated most blatantly in Drummond's case).

Later protagonists were less likely to be such examples of upper-class gentility, as with the unnamed hero of Len Deighton's The IPCRESS File (1961) and its sequels, and Adam Hall's Quiller, who pointedly tells the reader that "We are not gentlemen" as he watches a member of the opposition burn to death in a car after deciding not to save him in The Berlin Memorandum (1966).1 Not only were they more likely to be ambivalent about the game, but they were often cynical about nationalism and political ideology. This was not only the case when they were outsiders unfortunate enough to get mixed up in the business, like journalist Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955), but also when they were professional intelligence operatives, like John le Carré characters like Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963). At times, this went as far as outright hostility or disdain toward the Establishment, with not only leftist but rightist writers as well expressing such sentiments (as in William Haggard's idiosyncratic Colonel Russell novels). Additionally, the professionals increasingly squeezed out plucky amateurs like Bulldog Drummond, certainly where series characters are concerned.

The second is a growing recognition of, and response to, what might usefully be termed the "tiny rivet" problem. As Maugham put it in Ashenden,
Being no more than a tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine . . . [his protagonist] never had the advantage of seeing a completed action. He was concerned with the beginning or the end of it, perhaps, or with some incident in the middle, but what his own doings led to he had seldom a chance of discovering. It was as unsatisfactory as those modern novels that give you a number of unrelated episodes and expect you by piecing them together to construct in your mind a connected narrative.
In that novel Maugham worked within the framework he described to give us a protagonist who does not see completed actions (the drama in his heroes' adventures typically supplied by other events and factors), but this was a rarity, and other writers dealt with it in two different ways.

One group simply ignored or worked around the fact, with heroes fortuitously having fuller participation – for instance, because some unlikely circumstances have forced them to operate on their own (as in the stories by Buchan and Ambler mentioned above). The other group devoted increasing attention to the "vast and complicated machine," describing its operations at length – both bureaucratic, and technological. Ian Fleming's novels, for instance, presented James Bond as part of a vast organization, and made the reader quite conscious of the fact in novels like Moonraker (1955) and Thunderball (1961) (even as his membership in the special double-o section placed him in the kinds of exceptional positions noted above). Other, later authors went further, not concentrating their narrative on one character, or a few characters, but rather using a large number of viewpoint characters to show as well as tell about more aspects of the machine's functioning – so that the plot is really the heart of the story, and the national security state the real protagonist, with the ostensible characters really just "rivets" inside of it. (At most, one of those characters might be recognizable as a protagonist because he occupies a place within the machine that lets him have a fuller view of the picture than the others.)

Frederick Forsyth was a crucial developer of the latter approach, with novels like his classic The Day of the Jackal (1971), in which the titular assassin begins and ends the story as a cipher, and the opposition is not so much Claude Lebel (who is not introduced until halfway into the story), but the French security state over which Lebel exercises exceptional powers for a brief spell. Seven years later Forsyth scaled up the approach substantially in The Devil's Alternative (1978), as did Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre's The Fifth Horseman (1980). However, Tom Clancy may be said to epitomize this "epic" approach to the tale of international security crisis, his hero Jack Ryan (first introduced in 1984's The Hunt for Red October) tellingly not a field operative but an intelligence analyst, who in the sequels occupied positions of successively greater responsibility - all the way up to the presidency itself by the end of Debt of Honor (1994).

The third is a late but significant Americanization of the genre from the 1970s. Certainly there were some Americans who met with a measure of success writing in the genre before then, like Edward Aarons, author of the Sam Durrell novels, Donald Hamilton, who penned the Matt Helm series, and Richard Condon with the classic The Manchurian Candidate (1959), but nearly all of the important innovators in this area pre-1970, all of the writers remembered and being read today, are British. In his 1972 history of the crime story, Mortal Consequences, Julian Symons speculated that this was due to
the prevailing air of sophisticated coolness about ends and means. Certainly the Americans . . . have never been able to treat the existence of spies threatening or betraying their security with anything but the most narrowly nationalistic seriousness.2
There seems something to this analysis, especially as the American writers who made a splash at this time, like Robert Ludlum in The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971) and The Matarese Circle (1979), Trevanian in The Eiger Sanction (1972), James Grady in Six Days of the Condor (1973) and Charles McCarry in The Miernik Dossier (1973) and The Tears of Autumn (1975), offered more varied and nuanced views of such matters. There is no question that many American writers came to enjoy vast commercial success (as Ludlum and Clancy did), and while it would be difficult to point to an American with the status of a Greene or a le Carré, for instance, there was something more like parity in the status of later American and British writers in the field.

All three of these changes were well established by the end of the 1970s, by which time the spy genre was starting to look a bit worn-out again. Considering the fact I am once more reminded of John Barnes' argument in the essay "Reading for the Undead" that genres tend to follow a three-generation life cycle, with the first generation discovering something new, a second generation finding an established field and going on to develop its still unexploited potentials (a process likely to be guided by a critical reassessment of previous work) – and the third less concerned with innovation than "doing it well" as it turns into
something like an inside joke (as with much of live theatre), a treasured family story (as with opera or jazz), or a set of exercises in which to display virtuosity (as with ballet and with much of orchestral music).
It is easy to fall into the trap of fitting facts to theories. Still, the spy story (much like the mystery and science fiction) does seem to me to have traveled something like this course, with writers like Childers, Le Queux and Oppenheim being first-generation early innovators, and Ambler and Greene early second-generation authors bringing new ideas (political as well as aesthetic) and greater skill to a genre that was already threatening to grow stale prior to their appearance.

In the third generation, clearly underway by the 1970s, there seemed a greater tendency to look back, evident in such things as the genre having become so over-the-top that parody went unrecognized – as happened with Trevanian's Jonathan Hemlock novels and Shibumi (1979), which were almost universally read as straight thrillers by critics and general audiences alike (much to that author's frustration). There is also the increased prominence of stories set in World War II (and other earlier periods) in the output of new authors like Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett, and the resurrection of James Bond by John Gardner and Glidrose Publications in 1981 with License Renewed.3

It seems that generic boundaries get fuzzy at this stage of the life cycle, and this tendency was evident in the life of the spy story as well, increasingly hybridized with elements from other genres providing the principal interest – as with Craig Thomas "espionage adventures" like Firefox (1977), military techno-thrillers like Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books, Dale Brown's Day of the Cheetah (1989) or Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid (1989), and the Dirk Pitt novels of Clive Cussler, like Raise the Titanic! (1976) and Deep Six (1984), which combine espionage and military action with historical mystery and maritime adventure (in a way, coming back full circle to Childers).

Developments within the genre aside, it seems that world events encouraged such a turn. The tendency to look back can be seen as at least partly a reflection of the cultural mood of the 1970s – a sense of national decline (as the post-war boom ended, the energy crisis hit, and the decline of colonial powers like Britain and France ran its course), and of ambivalence about present-day politics (in reaction to Vietnam, Watergate and the like) making earlier periods where claims to national greatness were more credible and clear-cut "good guys" and "bad guys" easier to identify more attractive (like World War II).4

It is worth remembering, too, that the spy story arose in an era of profound international tension, over which the danger of systemic, great power war constantly hovered – and great ideological tension, as nineteenth century liberal society faced challenges from left and right. The advent of détente, and the partial waning of Cold War tensions that went with it, may have made it appear somewhat less compelling as subject matter for some, and earlier conflicts commensurately more attractive. A decade later, the end of the Cold War took a great deal of the remaining steam out of the genre. (To put it bluntly, industrial espionage, terrorism, international crime, rogue states and the faint possibility of Western conflict with Russia or China were no substitute for the Soviets.) Spy novels continued to be written afterward, by new authors – like Charles Cumming, Henry Porter, Barry Eisler and Daniel Silva - as well as the older writers so established as to be nearly immune to such fluctuations in the market - like Forsyth, Clancy and le Carré (all still publishing). However, their book sales and overall cultural impact tended to be less impressive than formerly (though Clancy still managed to be one of the top-selling authors of the '90s), and noteworthy innovation scarcer, and the tendency to look backward growing only more pronounced.5 In the 2000s the most successful stories of international intrigue were more likely to be concerned with historical-religious-Masonic mysteries in the manner of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon novels (or Matthew Reilly's Jack West novels) than conventional political intrigue. I see little sign that the genre is going to stage some comeback, but, to use John Barnes' term, its "afterlife" is at the least a presence in the cultural landscape.

1. Fleming's Bond can be thought of as halfway between these and a later generation of action heroes. Like the older style of protagonist, he went to Eton, enjoys an independent income and has a housekeeper looking after his apartment. However, he is also a long-serving professional intelligence operative in the British Secret Service (and one with a "license to kill" at that), flouts Victorian mores in his attitudes toward gambling and sex, and is not unknown to express ambivalence about his profession and the ends it serves.
2. Symons attributes this difference to the United States' "direct involvement in various wars." This is unconvincing, however, as Britain was more lengthily and completely involved in both of the World Wars than the United States (and suffered far more in them by any measure); far closer to the "front-line" in the Cold War; and in the decades after 1945, involved in dozens of conflicts as it disengaged from its empire, not all of them small in scale (as with the Malaysian Emergency). Rather, the context in which they fought those wars would seem relevant. The spy genre appeared in Britain during a period of concern about the country's decline relative to other, rising powers (like Germany), fears which became realities as the century progressed. The 1970s, when the change arrived for American spy fiction, saw the arrival of a comparable mood in the United States (amid the Vietnam War, the end of the Bretton Woods economic order, the oil crisis and other such challenges). One might conclude from this that the genre flourishes in a period when the pious simplicities of jingoism and national exceptionalism are shown up, and public opinion reckons with life's more complex realities.
3. Ludlum's first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), used an incident in World War II as a frame for a story of the rise of the Nazis in the '20s, and the The Rhinemann Exchange (1974) was wholly set during World War II, as was a significant part of The Gemini Contenders (1976), and the opening of The Holcroft Covenant (1978), which had for its theme the post-war legacy of the Third Reich. Ken Follett made his name as a thriller writer with a World War II story, The Eye of the Needle (1978), as did Jack Higgins with the spies-and-commandos story The Eagle Has Landed (1975). Frederick Forsyth's first two thrillers, The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File (1973), were both set in the early 1960s, during past periods of political crisis. By and large, the major works of the 1950s and 1960s did not make such use of earlier periods.
4. Certainly some British writers compensated for Britain's diminution by emphasizing the country's "special relationship" with the United States, as Fleming did in novels like 1953's Casino Royale (where the combination of American cash and British skill defeated Le Chiffre), and as others have continued to do down to the present. However, by the 1960s and 1970s many writers were taking a more ironic view, like le Carré in The Looking Glass War (1965), A Small Town in Germany (1968), and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), and Joseph Hone in The Private Sector (1971) – in all of which books, the inability or unwillingness of British officials to adapt to their country's decline was a prominent theme.
5. One of le Carré's best-received post-Cold War novels, 1995's The Tailor of Panama, was a homage to Greene's Our Man in Havana (1958). Another example of this is the decision of the publishers of the post-Fleming James Bond novels to return 007 to the 1960s, as happened in Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (2008). A number of authors have also combined such homages with elements of science fiction and fantasy, like Charles Stross in his "Bob Howard" novels and stories, and Tim Powers in Declare (2001).

(This essay was previously published as two separate posts, "A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre" on February 1, 2012, and "A History of the Spy Story, Part II: The Life of a Genre" on February 6, 2012.)

"Fourth Reich Rising" . . . Again

In the early 1990s, a slew of technothrillers depicted Germany on the march again, like Larry Bond's Cauldron (1993), in which a Franco-German assault on Eastern Europe starts a third world war, and Harold Coyle's The Ten Thousand (1994), in which renewed German military ambitions set American troops in the country on a repeat of Xenophon's Anabasis. This was in part an attempt to find a substitute for the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Cold War, but also a response (however exaggerated) to the geopolitical circumstances of the time: the combination of Soviet collapse, American declinism and German reunification; the judgment widely passed on Germany (along with Japan) as a model economy for the 1990s; and the expectations that free trade would be replaced by neo-mercantilist competition among economic blocs, with Germany at the heart of what seemed potentially the most formidable of those blocs, the emergent European Union.

Of course, the idea became less popular with time as the pendulum swung back from American pessimism to American exceptionalism, while the pundits shifted from viewing Germany as one country doing just about everything right to seeing it as a poster child for "Eurosclerosis" – and globalization seemed to have put paid to neomercantilism as a source of war among the industrialized powers. However, the dialogue has taken yet another hundred and eighty degree turn in recent years, with some observers not only more appreciative of Germany's manufacturing strength, but even uttering dark warnings about a new German empire – as Frederick Forsyth recently did.

Over at my other blog, I discuss the rhetoric, and the actual – quite different - facts of the situation. (Naturally, they are not what the overheated speculations claim.)

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