Thursday, October 29, 2015

James Bond, Mythic Hero

Robbie Collin penned one of the more interesting of the recent pieces about the Daniel Craig era in the Bond films' history, noting, among other things, if nothing else, for the issues he raises.

Collin is right when he points to the series' more political edge. Still, one ought not to push this too far--the series' ideas about the necessity of espionage orthodox, but the depictions of terrorism vague, while things were complicated by an abrupt, if short-lived, left turn in Quantum of Solace.

Collin is right, too, when he points to the series' greater readiness to embrace Bond's obsolescence. Still, there is no going back to a pre-Suez mind-set, regarding either Britain's place in the world, or gender attitudes--so that this does not mean very much here. And Collin claims rather than demonstrates that the changes have made Bond relevant in a way that, for example, he did not seem to be pre-reboot.

Quite the contrary, Collin is most persuasive when he discusses the turn to myth in recent films--in the evocation of the Odyssey, and in other ways. (In fact, I recently discussed the same theme at some length.) Mythology has its fascinations, but from a modern, rationalistic standpoint it has very serious limits. As Darko Suvin observed, myth is essentially a "ritual and religious approach" that, in a story taking place "above time," "claims to explain once and for all the essence of phenomena."1 As a practical matter this means that it "absolutizes and personifies apparently constant motifs from the sluggish periods with low social dynamics"--exactly what modern times have not been, with the result that myth explains much less satisfactorily. Indeed, it is apt to appear "an illusion . . . a fraud, in the best case only a temporary realization of potentially limitless contingencies."

As relevance goes, this is not terribly great, and the results show it. (Just what does Skyfall really tell us about life, the universe and everything?) Naturally the significance of a mythic Bond lies less in making him "relevant" to our times than in relieving the pressure on the creators to make him contemporary, and permitting the small-scale intrigues in which he is more apt to get caught up now to seem somehow larger than they are, as though we were watching not a civil servant chasing a Bad Guy to get a peek at his phone, but (however superficially) the doings of old-time gods and heroes whose every word, deed and gesture somehow seems worthy of an epic.

1. These remarks come from his classic article "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: Dark Force Rising, by Timothy Zahn

New York: Bantam, 1992, pp. 376.

Heir to the Empire concluded with the heroes repulsing Thrawn's attempt to grab a sizable portion of their fleet at the Sluis Van shipyard, but only at the price of damaging the ships Thrawn tried to steal, rendering them inoperable for some time to come. This makes it less than a triumph--and indeed, Bothan politician Borsk Fey'la seizes on the results to contrive treason charges against Admiral Ackbar, accusing him of having set the fleet up for attack by the Empire.

Naturally, our heroes set out to clear his name. Meanwhile, for his part Grand Admiral Thrawn pursues his effort to sharply expand his fleet, a game into which the titular "Dark Force"--a fleet of two hundred highly automated warships thought to have been lost in space a half century earlier--quickly looms large.

The result is that in this second book of the trilogy, the good guys and bad seem to be headed in different directions--and while their paths eventually converge, this takes rather a while. In the meantime a great deal of time is spent on matters that seem comparatively tangential--the mystery of Fey'la's connection with New Cov, Han's meeting with Senator Bel Iblis (an Old Republic politician who early on broke with the Rebellion to fight his own, separate war against the Empire), Leia's dealings with the Noghri. (Where the last in particular is concerned, the significance of the matter for the big picture is still not yet clear by book's end.) Luke's meeting with C'boath initially appears more consequential, but this time around, at least, does not amount to very much.

The book is the more diffuse because Thrawn, whose machinations helped tie the events of the last tale together, is less of a presence in this installment. And the looseness--and uneventfulness--seem the less forgivable for coming just when the tale should have been getting tighter and tenser on the way toward the climax. Unsurprisingly the conclusion in which it all culminates leaves something to be desired. In the main it is a replay of the preceding book's, with Luke and his friends up against Thrawn as he makes his play for a bigger force, while the power struggle between Thrawn and C'boath escalates abruptly (perhaps too abruptly, given that a proper build-up could have been the most engaging thing in the book). Still, the finale, which has Thrawn get the upper hand over the heroes, while C'boath just may be getting the upper hand over Thrawn, promises a more exciting tale in the next and final installment, The Last Command.

A Note on Golgo 13

I first encountered Golgo 13 as the protagonist of the old NES video game, Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. The game does not seem to be discussed very much compared with others from its era, but it was something of a hit, enough so to get the sequel released in North America, and even today seems noteworthy for a number of features.

Among them was its relatively "adult" content. In this game, when people got shot, they bled. Characters were seen smoking. And in James Bondian fashion, Golgo had intimate moments with two different women. However, there was also the context for all this—a relatively well-developed storyline presented through cut scenes. And of course, the game was novel for helping pioneer the first-person shooter in two of its stages.

At the time I took Golgo for a James Bond-type created just for that game. I had no idea that he was the center of a massive franchise in his own right—the star of one of the biggest-selling mangas of all time, which had already resulted in a number of animated and live-action films (one of which, Assignment: Kowloon, starred Sonny Chiba in the title role). Since then the series has remained in print, making it the longest-running manga of all time, while leading to several more adaptations, most notably a 50-episode anime series in 2008-2009.

But as it turns out, Golgo has a Bondian connection. His creator, Takao Saito, actually produced authorized manga adaptations of four James Bond novels (Thunderball, The Man with the Golden Gun, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die) for the Japanese market during the 1960s before Golgo made his debut in 1969 in Big Comic—and as it happens, his version of Bond looks an awful lot like Golgo later would.

Still, it would be a mistake to think of Golgo as simply a derivative of Bond. Unlike Bond he is a freelancee, without any boss to answer to, who chooses and refuses jobs as he sees fit—and while often involved with spies or gangsters, takes a good many s purely private jobs, often making him simply the agent of someone else's personal revenge, the question of good guys and big guys irrelevant. Additionally, while he has a good many skills he is a gunman above all—a sniper, specifically. And where Bond is an open book to the reader, more or less (and the Bond of the films much the same, even if there is less to read in it), Golgo is presented as opaque—and the versions of the story I have encountered (mainly episodes of the recent anime) make this the source of much of his interest.

At times the series abandons the action-adventure structure altogether. Many a time we see not a job but its aftermath, as a hapless cop questioning Golgo, certain of his responsibility for an assassination, and yet completely unable to prove a thing—Golgo having covered his tracks all too well, and anyway, no one able to believe that a human being could actually make a shot like that. In many another case Golgo is not even the center of the story. Instead what we see is someone else's drama, in which Golgo is a supporting player, perhaps just pulling a trigger near the end—someone else the viewpoint character, perhaps narrating the tale, their impressions of Golgo the only ones we get.

Besides helping distinguish Golgo from Bond, this variety of story themes, structures and viewpoints has helped sustain the interest of the adventures for nearly a half century, all as Golgo manages to out-Bond Bond.

More superhumanly competent, combining grandeur of plots and lavishness of resources with independence, he has made fewer concessions to the changing times in even his sex life—realizing the old fantasy even more fully than the original ever dared.

Daniel Craig's Comments: A Second Thought

Daniel Craig's criticisms of his own character and movie are, predictably, still much in the news. Indeed, the Toronto Star's Vinay Menon wrote that such comments are "generating more pre-release publicity than any other actor who played Bond" ever did "in the past." That may or may not be true, given the series' long history (and the weak memory entertainment journalism displays). Still, Mr. Menon is quite right when he remarks that Bond is "making so many headlines for this apparent 007 self-loathing, previous Bonds are protectively jumping into the fray." Which in turn amounts to still more pre-release publicity, and, when Roger Moore comments on the prospect of a gay or female Bond (intentionally or unintentionally pushing that easiest, laziest of buttons, identity), publicity about the publicity about the publicity.

At times like these it seems worth remembering that, long before George Lucas or Steven Spielberg even went to film school, the makers of the Bond films not only invented the action movie, but the cinematic blockbuster. It was Goldfinger, in fact, which initiated the style of their release: a combo of massive publicity and wide release (a then unprecedented 1,100 reels) aimed at scoring big in the first weekends, front-loading the income; while supplementing the revenue from ticket sales with a colossal merchandising push, that escalated in subsequent films. When Thunderball hit theaters in America, so did sixty million dollars worth of James Bond merchandise, including such unlikely items as James Bond cough syrup, and James Bond toast, an excess that elicited some critical remarks from then-James Bond Sean Connery, who called the movie's opening "a Frankenstein monster. The merchandising, the promotion . . . they're thoroughly distasteful."

Indeed, Connery was given to grumpy interviews and criticism of his franchise before Craig was even born. They didn't seem to be part of the routine of publicity then, but one may wonder if, in this age when the sheer torrent of conventional puff pieces has desensitized us to their style of kiss-assery, this may not be a new strategy for grabbing attention--the Bond films once again pioneers in the publicity realm that others will follow, other actors, other directors, calculatedly displaying such unpleasant "spontaneity."

I can't say for sure that this is what will happen in the coming years. How well this works out, how repeatable it proves to be, remain to be seen. Still, I wouldn't be shocked if it did.

John Gardner's Final Three: Never Send Flowers, SeaFire, Cold Fall

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

While there was always an important element of continuity between James Bond's adventures in Ian Fleming's novels (the Soviet revenge for prior battles in From Russia with Love, the aftermath of those events in Dr. No, etc.), Fleming got more ambitious in his later books. His last five novels--Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun--can be read as a single saga of a run-down 007 struggling against accumulated damage and repeated personal disaster through and after his battle with Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Likewise, John Gardner's last books--specifically his final three novels, Never Send Flowers, SeaFire and Cold Fall--form a more thoroughly interconnected story. Bond's decay is not an issue, and the novels do not have him fighting a single great villain. Instead it is M's aging that is more prominent, the Old Man on his way out, amid a larger reorganization of the Service for the post-Cold War--changes which see Bond become an administrator entangled with government committees in SeaFire, and Cold Fall closing with Bond on his way to meet Sir Miles Messervy's replacement for the first time.

However, he again copes with love and loss, albeit in a different fashion. In the first of the three books, Never, Bond ends up cooperating with a Swiss government agent, Flicka von Grusse, and while it is predictable enough that the two become romantically involved. What is less predictable is that she gets booted from her old job, and taking a new one with SIS, while cohabiting with Bond in a relationship that continues with them partners on and off the job into the next book, SeaFire. The result is that Bond is seen not just getting involved with a woman, but having a "normal" relationship (or at any rate, as normal as relationships between wisecracking, crime-fighting duos get)--before, again, she is taken from him.

Just as is the case with those last Fleming novels, the Gardner books represent the most radical break with the familiar "Bond formula." Bond and Flicka trading one-liners; Bond chasing a theater-obsessed serial killer through Disneyland; Bond coping with bureaucratic headaches galore; Bond playing bit roles in an FBI battle with militia-type loons spanning years; did not feel much like the stuff of Bond novels at all. Had the results been satisfying I might have taken the break with precedent in stride--as indeed, I was able to enjoy Role of Honor. However, the tales were on the whole derivative, Never Send Flowers a clear response to the popularity of serial killer stories after the success of Silence of the Lambs; SeaFire rehashes earlier Gardner novels (the half-baked pseudo-environmentalism of Licence Renewed, the neo-Nazism of Icebreaker, etc.); and Cold Fall brought back the Tempestas of Nobody Lives Forever and Beatrice Maria da Ricci from Win, Lose or Die. They also tended toward the very small-scale (Never Send Flowers and Cold Fall in particular). And the narrative knack that carried such an awkwardly structured and action-deprived tale as Brokenclaw was not in evidence.

The result is that while those last Fleming novels put me off with their particularly strong divergence from my expectations, on revisiting them I appreciated their quirks, and their ambition. Even where they were not altogether successful, I had a sense of an artist at work. Considering Gardner's last novels, however, I find myself thinking of the pure and simple fact that (by his own admission) he'd spent sixteen years working on a series he'd never much liked, and had probably stuck with for longer than he should have.

It is not the note on which I would have liked to conclude. For all his reservations about the character, at his best Gardner could be very good (as in the deft blend of Bond book and Bond film that was Licence Renewed)--and even when not so good, at least interesting (as in Win, Lose or Die). Still, it is a reminder that novel-writing is not a thing done well for very long when taken up unenthusiastically; and a reminder, too, that by the '80s, let alone the '90s, updating the adventures of the '50s-era hero was an increasingly difficult task, one reason why Gardner's successors so often took different paths.

James Bond, Aristocratic Action Hero

Kingsley Amis wrote of James Bond as a "semi-aristocrat," with even that aspect of the character smuggled in by the backdoor rather than ostentatiously declared--at any rate, in comparison with his "clubland" predecessors like Bulldog Drummond. However, if he is just a backdoor semi-aristocrat, the fundamentals are very much there--not least that essentially aristocratic trait, individuality. We do not always remember the names of characters in films, but we remember this one, who manages to loom larger than the actor playing him. No one thinks of Goldfinger as a Sean Connery movie as such the way they would, for example, The Hill or The Molly Maguires or Entrapment; rather it is a James Bond movie with Connery in the lead role. (Still less does anyone refer to On Her Majesty's Secret Service as a "George Lazenby movie," unless they mean by that the one Bond movie that had Lazenby in it.)

One may protest that Bond is not the deepest of characters. There is a sufficiently strong sense of who he is, apart from any one character, that fans can get into fairly involved debates over who would be suited to the role, rather than this just being a simple popularity contest regarding which actor they like better; while the promise of a glimpse of his past was plausibly part of the sales pitch made for Skyfall. His traits and tastes are instantly recognizable--not least his affinities for particular leisure activities and consumption goods like beverages, food, clothing and cars.

And all this is very much evident in the way that Bond operates. Despite his Royal Navy background, it is difficult to picture him as ever really a member of a team, or an organization. When Bond receives his briefing, he usually gets it not as a member of a bigger group, from the top man in the Firm himself, after which he is packed off by himself to his destination where he may work with others (local stringers for British intelligence, friendly foreign organizations) but not as part of their units or structures. Even the quips in tense situations, and the gadgets (much more part of the cinematic Bond than the print version), fit in with this, their very idiosyncrasy adding to the character's distinctiveness, while the quips in particular do not just testify to his cool head under pressure, but his having a particular personality--his being an urbane man with a sense of irony and dark humor.

Moreover, Bond's individuality is time and again acknowledged not just by friends, but by foes. In Moonraker Hugo Drax on meeting Bond says "Your reputation precedes you," without any doubt at all about which reputation Drax has in mind. Of course, this is exactly what a secret agent, let alone one whose competence we are supposed to admire, should never hear from the villain in question. However, the line seems perfectly natural within the context of Bond's universe, which has virtually nothing to do with the doings of real-life spies, and everything to do with highly personalized contests between aristocratic men of prowess, Bond's enemies being equally individual. Even where they happen to be vulnerable to the charge of being crude ethnic stereotypes, they are still men in possession of vast resources, and accustomed to command, larger-than-life in their own person, and with sufficient aristocratic flair of their own to act as foils to the hero. Something of this even extends to their principal henchmen. Bond may knock off huge numbers of anonymous enemies--but his memorable confrontations are with characters whose names and appearances and methods we remember, an Oddjob, a Tee Hee, a Jaws. His ability to get the better of such figures at the gaming table, at the dinner table, or in a death grapple, rather than his shooting down the masses of "boiler suit" guys the villain uses as cannon fodder, is the real measure of Bond as a man of war.

In short, James Bond is most recognizable when he is an individual fighting as an individual against other individuals.

This appears all the more clearly when one contrasts Bond with characters developed in the extreme opposite fashion--the American action films of the '80s. The isolated, spartan existences led by figures like John Rambo, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's John Matrix in Commando (1985) or Dutch in Predator (1987) afforded little room for self-expression or personal distinctness of any kind. In fact, take away Rambo's trauma (more plot point than theme), and his bitterness about the treatment of America's Vietnam veterans (in Part II, at any rate), and one is left with very little indeed--Rambo virtually impossible to separate from the actor playing him. Likewise Matrix is virtually indistinguishable from Dutch in Predator. Matrix or Dutch, it's really just Schwarzenegger that we remember in either role.

Their manner of fighting the enemy reflects this aspect of them. The plot may have them fighting alone, but that lack of distinctness makes it much easier to see them as part of a team (albeit special ones, like the one Dutch leads in Central America in the early portion of Predator). These heroes may make the occasional crack, but speech of any kind is an uncharacteristic rarity, Dutch's "Stick around!" feeling to me a bit forced. Equally, while some of their enemies are more conspicuous because they are in charge, or because of some visual feature, there is just as little to them as there is to the protagonist, the slightness of one as a character doing nothing to sharpen the image of the other. (Steven Berkoff's career is especially handy in this regard; comparing his turn as General Orlov in 1983's Octopussy with his characterization of Colonel Podovsky in First Blood, Part II is enough to illustrate the point.)

Naturally, they may show an exceptional measure of cunning as they take on larger numbers of opponents, and at times even appear flamboyant in action, as when Rambo and Colonel Trautman momentarily stand alone on the Afghan-Pakistani border against a massive Soviet detachment, and then Rambo crashes his tank into an oncoming helicopter. Still, they seem most themselves when pointing a machine gun at a wave of oncoming enemies (who do not even have boiler suits) who dutifully fall down--the parody of such sequences in Hot Shots: Part Deux (1993) only a slight exaggeration of the finale of Commando.

In short, one winds up with very little individuality on the part of the characters in these films, which seem to me to reflect a different sensibility. Perhaps it is a matter of the form the whole leisure class-warrior idea takes in a more populist age (or perhaps, simply a pre-aristocratic one?): the combat prowess is there, but the aristocratic qualities that went with it in the old conception of things is discarded, such expressions of individuality included.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Have Superheroes Taken Over the Box Office?

In a piece for Forbes earlier this year, Scott Mendelson took on the question of whether there are "too many comic book movies."

His answer was a firm "No," on the grounds that comic book-based superhero films are actually not that numerous, and that the misconception reflects (besides superhero films being a convenient target for those who dislike the prevalence of blockbusters) the disproportionate attention those relatively few films get, noting the things he chooses to write about (which include, of course, comic book superhero movies).

However, it cannot be denied that in recent years they have accounted for a very large share of the highest-profile and most widely seen films. In the thirteen years from 2002 to 2014, nine saw at least one superhero movie in their top five earners at the American box office. Every single year saw at least one superhero film in their top ten.

By contrast, we can go for years without a disaster movie or a space opera becoming a hit of that caliber--and often longer than that without any non-Star Wars, non-Star Trek, non-superhero related space operas becoming hits.1

Moreover, the superhero films that are either based on comics, or so similar to such heroes that one probably ought to count them (I have in mind movies like 2004's The Incredibles, and 2008's Hancock), have become markedly more prominent these past few years. The average was something like 1.5 such movies in the top ten, and 2.2 in the top twenty, from 2002 to 2011. The average has been about twice that in the years 2012-2014, with the last year having four superhero movies in its top ten grossers (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Big Hero 6), and six in the top twenty (there were also The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)--some thirty to forty percent of the whole year's biggest hits coming out of this one genre.

Twenty fifteen does not seem to be nearly so superhero-dominated, but we have already had Avengers 2 become the year's number two hit; and the years to come promise more of the same, with 2016 looking a lot more like 2014. Currently on the schedule are Deadpool in February; Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice in March; Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse in May; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Half Shell in June; Suicide Squad in August; Doctor Strange in November; and I'm not even sure I got all of them. In 2017 we can expect, doubtless among others, more Wolverine, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spiderman and Thor from Marvel, and the Justice League and Wonder Woman films.

In 2017 we can also expect a Lego Batman movie--which may not altogether "count" by the standard given above, but does testify to the phenomenon's broader cultural presence, as well as the fact that films which may not be strictly "superhero" in the sense of DC-Marvel product have also been a commensurately larger presence in film.

Consider just 2014. I did not include The LEGO Movie, despite its having its share of superheroes with Batman and company (while its hero Emmett Brickowski proved a superhero in his own right)--but had I done so, it would have weighed the assessment even more heavily in favor of superheroes, given that it was the #5 hit of the year. Additionally, appalling as this may seem to purists, to those who are non-fans other major hits like the Transformers and Divergent (#7 and #18, respectively) can look so much like superhero films (protagonists transcending the limitations of mere humans, fight scenes between beings of colossal, more-than-human power) as to be for all practical purposes simply more of the same.

At the same time, innumerable, smaller successes bolster the broader impression. To name but one, Scarlett Johansson, who plays Black Widow in the Marvel films, also played the super-powered Lucy in last year's film by that name (which, at #24 at the American box office, narrowly missed the top twenty, but did make the #18 spot on the global list), as a result of which she will be going on to play another superhero in the remake of Ghost in the Shell headed our way in 2017.

And so on and so forth.

In short, the superhero film has been a strong presence for rather a long time--stronger and longer, in fact, than any other type of action film in decades. And in these last few years, it has enjoyed a really extraordinary share of the biggest hits at the multiplex, when defined narrowly (let alone loosely). Moreover, the slate of films being prepped for release are locking this state of affairs in for at least the next two years. Given these hard commercial facts, someone who thinks that superheroes have all but conquered the box office is not deluded, but at most a bit hyperbolic.

1. Why make that distinction? Because it shows the genre's presence is often less a matter of the field's vitality than the determined milking of old franchises, or tangential success.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Bondian Way of War?

In Britain and Her Army, 1509-1870, Corelli Barnett lamented what he saw as the failure of the English people to accept an efficiently run standing army as a necessary fact of life for a nation wishing to have a say in the affairs of Europe and the world. Writing of the later Victorian era, he observed that in contrast with, for example, the science and system the Germans applied to their military affairs, in British thinking about the country's army, colored as it was by its routine of small colonial expeditions,
There was an emphasis on the man rather than the system, on smallness instead of greatness of scale, on great variety of task and terrain instead of a single eventuality.
Indeed, the impression seemed to widely prevail "that wars were distant and exotic adventure stories" and the belief "that to win a modern war, you called for a hero"--a Roberts, a Wolseley, a Kitchener.

Such ideas left Britain ill-equipped to face the challenge of the world wars, wars which proved to be the opposite of those old colonial campaigns in every respect. Vast, attritional contests decided by the size, organization and application of the human, industrial, technological resources of whole nations and alliance systems, it was beyond question that the quality of the system mattered. Amid all that, heroics were simply not enough, and a fixation on them problematic at best.

Yet, it seems that the older view endured in British culture through the conflict--what Simon Winder termed a "chivalrous, romantic, freebooting, aristocratic" attitude toward war which imagined that "guts and personal ingenuity . . . individual pluck and initiative . . . special forces, the individual boffin who cracks some military problem . . . the single, isolated hero" could yet "save the day." And as he observes, it persisted into the post-war era, Winder relating it to the fascination with the Special Air Service.

It seems possible that some clung to this view the more tightly, because of the changes in Britain's position. While in 1878 the music hall refrain that gave the English language the word "jingo" held that "We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too," by 1945 it was beyond all doubt that it was the Americans (and the Soviets, and an increasingly long list of others) who had more ships, more money, more men, which seemed all the more reason to focus on intangibles.

Those optimistic about Britain's continuing to be a world power fancied that the country could still call on a greater-than-average quality of men, a higher-than-average percentage of heroes to win its wars for it. Indeed, they even hoped that a superiority in such resources would enable Britain to be the equal partner of the U.S., the superior personal experience, judgment, personal prowess of English gentlemen making it a match for the vast material supremacy of, for example, the rich and technically sophisticated but otherwise untutored Yanks--the vision of the "special relationship" which has been romanticized on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ian Fleming was no exception, certainly not as an officer of Naval Intelligence during World War II. Given to this exaltation of man over system, war as a chivalrous, romantic, freebooting affair where single, isolated heroes carried the day, he developed a reputation for coming up with audacious, colorful schemes, like an elaborate plan for hijacking a German minesweeper in aid of Bletchley Park's code-breaking effort that was never put into action, and his more successful development of 30 Assault Unit--a force of Royal Marine "intelligence commandos" operating ahead of the rest of Allied forces for the purpose of capturing intelligence material.

Freer to indulge in such ideas as a writer of thrillers, such thinking was even more evident in the unusual career he wrote for James Bond. It was particularly evident in the ways in which, after acknowledging the tiny rivet reality of intelligence work, worked around it to showcase a more individualistic sort of activity. The fact that Bond takes his orders personally from the head of the Service makes it easier for him to get it, as does the fact that by the time Bond comes along, those doing more routine work have already put much of the picture together in a handy dossier, so that his purpose is typically to go after a known target (like Le Chiffre, or Auric Goldfinger), and typically alone.

Once out in the field Bond may have allies, but from Casino Royale to The Man with the Golden Gun, he works with a team rather than being part of a team. This is all the more the case in the fact that as a double-o he is as unspecialized as he is elite. The underwater demolition job of Live and Let Die, the murder investigation of Moonraker, the undercover infiltration of a criminal organization in Diamonds Are Forever, the counter-sniper job of "The Living Daylights," the negotiations with Tanaka in Twice, to say nothing of the numerous, more arcane tasks assigned him (like bankrupting Le Chiffre) might each be thought to call for a special expert, but he does them all; and where intelligence and special forces personnel are apt to be specialists in a particular region of the world, he does this work anywhere and everywhere, because a hero was needed, pure and simple.

As with so much else having to do with the vision of the world underlying Bond's adventures, this is all especially pointed in You Only Live Twice. Instructed to go to Japan to perform the difficult task of securing an intelligence-sharing agreement with their Japanese counterparts, Bond thinks of the fact that he "had never been east of Hong Kong," and did not know the language, so that he flatly asks M "why have you chosen me, sir?"

M's answer is "the simple reason that the job's impossible," or at least, "totally improbable of success," while Bond has in the past shown "an aptitude for difficult assignments." It also occurred to Bond that he had advantages over those who did have the cultural knowledge one would think suited for the job: "Orientalists had their own particular drawbacks--too much tied up with tea ceremonies and flower arrangements and Zen and so forth." Moreover, what the job ultimately calls for is not cultural knowledge, but a display of personal prowess that would demonstrate to Tanaka that Britain is still a nation to be reckoned with, and Bond proves just the man to provide that. Of course, reality proved more intractable than that, the world-power stakes allowing no substitute for an abundance of the stuff of hard power--but Bond's continuing adventures are nonetheless a legacy of that earlier thinking.

Are Ian Fleming's Novels Midcult?

Umberto Eco, while favorably disposed toward Fleming, specifically used that label in reference to him in his classic essay, "Narrative Structures in Fleming."

Eco gets an awful lot right in his essay. I was particularly impressed with his analysis of Fleming's narrative mode--the "aimless glance" aspect of it--which helped me understand why I found his books so surprisingly difficult when I first encountered them.

However, on this point I have to disagree--and the disagreement seems to me the more worth examining because the (I think erroneous) labeling of Fleming Midcult is an example of a major weakness of Dwight Macdonald's analysis.

Certainly Fleming's stated intentions were not of a Midcult kind. He identified himself as a writer of thrillers designed to be read as literature. Granted, the phrasing can sound Midcult-ish, but Fleming specifically named as examples of the kind of thing he had in mind Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler--each writer, a genuine artist by any standard.

Of course, few would credit Fleming with being as good as they were. Certainly he is not so gripping as Hammett at his best. (Certainly nothing he wrote ever had the intensity of Red Harvest--especially when he wrote American gangsters.) He is never so funny or so poignant as Ambler or Greene (From Russia with Love no Mask of Dimitrios, or for that matter, Our Man in Havana). He is a long way from being as stylish as Chandler (while, for that matter, Bond's cynicism has nothing on Philip Marlowe's).

Still, if it appears that he "makes use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal" it is not because he is not endeavoring to make art. Indeed, self-expression, engagement, technical aspiration are all there--too much of them, as far as I was concerned when I first picked up Thunderball all those years ago. Instead the issue is that the vision of life out of which he sought to make art was inadequate. While not completely without a sense of irony or an eye for nuance (rather more than many a thriller writer, in fact), Fleming took the orthodoxies of his time and place almost completely for granted, giving him a less than critical stance toward the complex matters he so often touched on--so that Bond's getting philosophical tends to lead to drivel like his musings about good and evil in Casino Royale, easily enough dismissed by the last page. The writers he admired did not have that particular problem, and Greene especially makes the point not just in the example of his career, but his explicit declaration of "The Virtue of Disloyalty."1 But that is the difference not between art and the pseudo-art of Midcult, but great art and mediocre art, which is art all the same.

1. Indeed, one is struck by the fact that this rather old-fashioned Tory's literary heroes and models were just about all men of the left.

Just How Old is James Bond Supposed to Be?

Where most of the series' writers (including Ian Fleming) tended to fudge the issue of James Bond's age, having him miss the passage of time just as much as if he were put into suspended animation or flying about the galaxy at near-light speed between missions, William Boyd made a point of dealing with it in his 2013 novel Solo. He began the novel, set in 1969, with Bond marking his forty-fifth birthday.

In a note attached to the book he claimed that this was the most logical conclusion from what Fleming wrote, but did not spell out his reasoning (at which I have not been able to guess). However, I think it best to go with Fleming's most explicit reference to Bond's age, which unsurprisingly turns up in the early chapters of Moonraker. In the course of explaining the more mundane aspects of Bond's life (what the hell does he do when not on missions?) in more detail than he ever did before or since, Fleming remarked that Bond was doubtful he would make it to "the statutory age of forty-five" at which double-os retired. Which made it "eight years to go before he was automatically taken off the 00 list and given a staff job at Headquarters."

Some simple math makes Bond thirty-seven in 1955, and thus born in 1918--a decade younger than his creator (born in 1908). That would make Bond thirty-five in Casino Royale, and about a year older in every subsequent adventure, after as well as before Moonraker.1

The six years between this estimate, and Boyd's, make a good deal of difference. After all, Boyd's younger 007 hardly seems likely to have been able to perform those assassinations that got him his double-o rating (and indeed, Boyd drops this aspect of his past, presenting his World War II service as being of a different kind).

It also makes much of what followed unlikely. The world-weary Bond we meet at the start of Casino Royale does not seem the twenty-nine that Boyd's math makes him. Or thirty-six as he is packed off to Shrublands. In fact, Bond often seems older than the age Fleming implies in Moonraker, as when he grumbled to himself about his cabbie and everything else he didn't much like about the world on his ride to the spa. But that seems a matter of the writer simply not being able to resist putting his thoughts into his protagonist's mouth more than anything else. And if one is generously inclined, it's simple enough to say that the life of a double-o is no drink from the fountain of youth.

1. This had Bond bumping up against that mandatory retirement age circa On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The detail seems the more relevant because Bond was thinking of handing in his resignation at the start of that tale, and because at the start of You Only Live Twice Bond seemed washed up anyway--but Fleming chose to simply ignore that aspect of the character.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Making Sense of Midcult

In his essay "Masscult and Midcult," Dwight Macdonald offered a picture of a cultural hierarchy and its evolution over time. There is the enduring tradition of High Culture and its artistic products. Beneath is there was a bottom-up Folk Culture which in modern times gave way to a top-down, commercialized, even industrialized, Mass Culture he terms "anti-art" characterized by its "includ[ing] the spectator's reactions in the work itself instead of forcing him to make his own responses," and which is good only for distraction. In between he describes the emergence of "Midcult" in the twentieth century not as some simple mix of the two--he is in fact emphatic that it is not a matter of efforts to raise the level of mass culture--but rather that it is "outwardly High Culture but really as much a manufactured article as the cheaper cultural goods produced for the masses," and just as shallow as Mass Culture in its treatment of life--a stereotyped, industrialized use of the avant-garde that makes "use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal."

"Masscult and Midcult" is, on the whole, an underwhelming read, cluttered and meandering, and mostly fumbles and muddles the issue.

I certainly do not dispute that there is such a thing as High Culture (produced by and for a cultural elite which must often be educated to appreciation of the work in question), or Mass Culture (produced for a general audience), but I do find his characterization of them problematic. Contrary to what he claims, anyone who delves into the details of literary history finds that this is not a case of soulful artistes who produce solely as their Muse calls them to do under one heading (such that, as he puts it, "a serious writer will produce art when he is trying to function as a hack"), and the grinding, pandering hacks under the other as he suggests. The truth is that even a Shakespeare or a Dostoyevsky falls somewhere along a spectrum between those poles.

And of course, his characterization of Mass Culture is obfuscated by a raging snobbery. Media executives may want to render publishing, television, film and the like nearly automated industrial enterprises cranking out a regular product churned out impersonally by writers as dispensable as the most thoroughly de-skilled factory hands. And at times they get the public to swallow something distressingly close to their ideal (as with reality shows).

However, at the time in which Macdonald was writing, and even today, they remain a long way from monopolizing the field. Accordingly there remained and remains scope to produce art here, and indeed, much that is derided as Mass Culture is in fact Art by Macdonald's own standards (engagement with the actualities of life, self-expression on the part of the creator) which was never stamped with the label because of the snobbery to which critics conform if they wish to remain reputable.1 And even where ostensible Mass Culture falls short of this mark, his broader claims about Mass Culture (the impossibility of spontaneous response to it, its incapacity to entertain) is less careful assessment than another case of his confusing an extreme pole with a whole category. (After all, even the formulaic can have its pleasures.)

I also do not dispute that label-bearing High Culture can be cranked out in shallow, stereotyped fashion, and that this really is culturally damaging.2 Still, Macdonald's preoccupation with establishing a hierarchy, and closing the ranks of the High against the Low, obscured the issue, and led to his choosing a label more confusing than clarifying (the more so because of its seeming relation to Virginia Woolf's even fuzzier and more ostentatiously snobbish "middlebrow"). The fuzziness of the context, the snobbery in which this is all wrapped up, Macdonald's preference of self-indulgent rhetoric over analysis, result in the fact that while the essay does give some clear pointers (the quotations above seem clear enough), they fall short of the clear standard they should have offered. How does one, for example, tell the difference between the "pseudo-art" of Midcult, and art which is sincere but simply failed? Work which makes "use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal"--which ended up shallow, hollow, trite, pretentious--not because it is a "manufactured article," but simply because a perfectly sincere artist may simply have lacked the vision to bring the work off? Macdonald's discussion is more ambiguous than it should be in this respect, and the result is that what might have been a useful descriptor can seem merely a term of abuse critics can fling at art they happen not to like--while giving the real offenders a free pass. Indeed, to go by the sheer amount of work which uses the modern idiom in the service of the banal, one would have to conclude today that Midcult has altogether displaced genuine High Culture, while the would-be genuine artist is an endangered species apt to be hit with the label instead for all their pains.3

1. Certainly science fiction is one area where this has been the case--and indeed it seems telling that in a 1968 interview for Book World, "Portrait of a Man Reading," Macdonald remarked not once but twice within the same answer that he "never reads science fiction." (You can find it in Michael Wreszin, Interviews With Dwight Macdonald (Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2003), 83-44.)
2. Virginia Woolf, in her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," called on her audience to "tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure" as writers searched for new ways of exploring the human condition. Alas, far from tolerating them we have wound up making a cult of them in a world where Modernism and postmodernism define High Culture--to art's cost.
3. The labeling of Mad Men Midcult by a few maverick critics is a rare, correct use of the term.

Of Ian Fleming and Thorstein Veblen

The James Bond series is often criticized for representing outmoded, backward attitudes. Contemporary politics being what they are, most critics seem to concentrate on gender, for example, rather than class. However, the books are quite striking in that respect, in ways that go well beyond Bond's much-noted snobbery. Indeed, rereading Ian Fleming's novels I found myself time and again thinking of Thorstein Veblen's classic The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Veblen's analysis posits that in an earlier era cultures the world over passed through a phase where two different factors converged. One was an unsettled and highly violent existence--where hunting big game was a significant economic activity, warfare between groups was constant, or both--placing a high premium on "exploit"--aggression, cunning, force. The other was the attainment of a certain minimum level of individualism, status differentiation and sense of property for meaningful social inequality to exist among the adult male members of the group.

The result of this convergence was that those who successfully displayed the qualities of exploit--who could display prizes from successful hunts or military campaigns testifying to their personal "prowess" (e.g. their knack for violence and trickery)--were honored as individuals. This led to a broader habit of equating wealth in goods with prowess, while the display of such wealth, with that prowess it implied, was regarded as honorable (in fact, the essence of honor), while becoming the core around which a great deal of cultural practice developed. Among them were conspicuous consumption and the conspicuous leisure associated with it, which had such expressions as forms of sport, religious observance and social etiquette which, being financially costly and very time-consuming, demand plenty of both; a penchant for useless archaisms (cults of antiquity, the centrality of a study of dead languages to an education); the notion that it is natural for those living by prowess (a warrior class) to rule over and live well at the expense of the humbler types living by diligent drudgery by working on inanimate nature with their hands (like the slaves who grow the food, prey to the predators on top); and respect for long association with these forms of privilege and their associated markers (like aristocratic titles).

All this, of course, remained in more settled, "quasi-peaceable," times, and in fact developed in "higher barbarian" cultures like that of Medieval Europe, where the tone was set by a titled, landowning warrior class, simultaneously greedy and impecunious, acquisitive and un-industrious, which jousted, built grand cathedrals, practiced "courtly" manners and liked to style itself after ancient Greece and Rome (as their serfs toiled). Moreover, even after feudalism passed from the scene, the idea persisted, if in changed form, to find expression in such things as sprawling golf courses where caddies carry the clubs, in "church clothes," in shrimp forks and the use of titles like "Sir" and "Madam" and Classical learning in the schools long after it had become less education than ornament.1

And indeed, the novels of Ian Fleming--most assuredly, a scion of a conservative, leisure class family with "Sirs" for great-grandfathers and a public school education--are shot through and through with such assumptions. Moreover, rather than being incidental to the tales, they are quite fundamental to them, accounting for many features that long familiarity with the character has caused us to take for granted--not least, why Bond should be regarded as quite so special an agent. Certainly he has an undeniable physical daring and toughness, and an assortment of skills (he is an exceptional gunman, card-player, swimmer, etc.) that prove handy on his missions. He also has a way with women that enables him, quite frankly, to use them. Yet, it is all rather a far cry from the ridiculous batteries of skills with which writers commonly equip their Gary Stus. He lacks anything that might be considered significant in the way of technical knowledge. His linguistic talents are also limited enough that often he does not speak the language of the country to which he is sent, or the enemy he must combat. (The Bond of the novels, at any rate, has no Russian.) And when it comes to investigations, he is no Sherlock Holmes. (Indeed, on the "heroic secret-agent scale" he struck Kingsley Amis as pretty average.)

What really distinguishes Bond is the idea that underlying all his real talents is an intrinsic, generalized prowess transcending any one skill (or its lack); an ability to come out on top when those special, prowess-revealing traits--aggression, cunning, force--are what count most. Of course, a close reading of the tales can make that prowess seem ambiguous. Time and again Bond screws up, and pays the price for it. Often others rescue him, sometimes those who might least be expected to do so--his first adventure ending with a SMERSH agent shooting Le Chiffre before he can kill Bond off, and cutting a distinguishing mark into Bond's palm for the purposes of later identification. This might be thought more good luck than anything else. Yet, as Veblen notes, this package of ideas contains a "belief in luck," such that being "lucky" is a personal virtue.

And at any rate, adherents to the leisure class ethos have not been much given to critical, rational discernment of material practicalities and chains of causality, happy to treat eventual success as the only proof that counts.

This accent on such prowess in the Bond adventures, which is conceived as specially belonging to a gentleman-sportsman--and especially, a British gentleman-sportsman like Bond--is why even the more lavishly supplied American CIA need 007's help on a regular basis.2 The Felix Leiters, after all, just can't cut it by themselves--as Leiter's fate in Live and Let Die makes clear, and the Soviets make clear again in From Russia with Love, where they are nearly effusive in paying tribute to that special, indefinable something that enables the British do so much more in this field with so much less than the richer Americans.

Fleming is as explicit, and rather more profuse, in his revisitation of the theme in You Only Live Twice. M sends Bond to Japan, a country with which he is completely unfamiliar, not because he has any special qualification to secure the desired intelligence-sharing agreement, but because he has previously displayed a "knack" (ill-defined but taken very seriously) of completing difficult assignments that makes him suited to the "impossible" job. And when he does arrive in Japan, Tanaka offers him very particular terms for getting the agreement--his assassinating Shatterhand, which is not a mere quid pro quo, but a test of the prowess of the British elite that Bond represents, on the theory that his accomplishing the goal set for him would prove his people worthy allies. It is a spectacularly irrational basis for making such an arrangement--but perfectly in line with the "theory of the leisure class."

In the leisure class scheme of things, Bond's penchant for luxury is not a contradiction of this quality, but a complement to it, his prowess (and the resources it wins him) equally manifest in his cultivation and indulgence of expensive tastes--and also his begrudging such indulgences to lesser folk. Reading Thunderball it seemed to me appalling that Bond resented his cab driver's making twenty pounds a week. Yet, from this standpoint it is only natural that a gentleman-of-war such as himself should drive a Bentley and eat caviar, while the cabbie doing his little task should "know his place."

The "leisure class theory" also accounts for many of the odder features of the nearly ritualistic formula of the Bond plots, which can be regarded as not just an occasion for displays of prowess, but as an elaborate contest matching Bond's prowess against that of his enemy in ways broader, deeper, more varied and more complex than a straightforward, head-on violent collision. Bond engages the enemy in games, and tends to win--specifically those games with which he is familiar as a gentleman (baccarat in Casino Royale, golf in Goldfinger).3 The games, moreover, tend to accentuate his prowess by giving him a chance to triumph even when the enemy--a man of considerable prowess himself as testified by his wealth, rule over many subordinates, ruthlessness, etc.--cheats. And of course, what happens in the game of cards or golf is a prelude to deadlier sorts of gameplay between them, as Bond goes about unraveling their secrets and disrupting their plans with the same skill he used to win at the gaming table or on the golf course--an endeavor partaking of both hunting and war.

Of course, Bond is apt to end up the enemy's prisoner at some point, but in captivity the villain will have a chat with him going past a mere interrogation, perhaps even going so far as to have him over for dinner (as Dr. No does). In the course of it the villain is likely to reveal something of his plans--a reflection of the monstrous vanity without which they would never have concocted their scheme, but also out of a desire to impress this particular prisoner, who may be in their power now but is also the formidable opponent who offered such challenge to them, and whose prowess they must accordingly admit. It is also an occasion for hero and villain to display the subtler forms of their prowess yet again in the consumption of luxurious food and drink, in a display of wide interests, and mastery of the art of conversation--with the display becoming especially competitive as they match wits.

Afterward, they continue the contest on different terms. Instead of simply disposing of Bond in a straightforward and relatively foolproof manner, they subject him to yet another game--a gauntlet of tortures, an elaborate death-trap. The device is yet another conspicuous display of their leisure and wealth (they had the time to think this up, the money to pay for it), as well as a test of their ingenuity against Bond's. They may intend to kill Bond, rather than test him, but the point is that the devices give him a chance to prove himself the superior man by escaping the trap. And when he gets away, it typically leads to Bond's smashing their plans, the final, triumphant move in the game.3

This view of Bond's significance and Bond's adventures, this idea of the gentleman-sportsman engaged in these games for the fate of the world, and winning the contest because he is such a natural at games (and because, however formidable the enemy, they are no match for a British gentleman-sportsman), seems eccentric as anything but symbolism or fantasy--a reminder that Ian Fleming built his series on ideas already dated in his time, and which seem the more so six decades on. Of course, that is not to say that leisure class attitudes have vanished from the world. Far from it. Indeed, with the world's broad turn toward anti-egalitarianism, irrationality, tradition, much of the package unsurprisingly seems more rather than less of a cultural presence (in the worship of wealth and celebrity, for example). Still, that presence often seems superficial, fragile, confused, even forced. And this particular, ostentatiously aristocratic expression of it is a tougher sell than it used to be.

1. Veblen contends, among other things, that in line with the mobility and anonymity of modern, urban life, the stress on conspicuous leisure has weakened in favor of conspicuous consumption more effective at advertising one's status to strangers. He also notes that the ethos has weakened and overt expression of it become less acceptable in a more practical, "technocratic" modern world, such that the exaltation of leisure is more apt to be subtly concealed behind superficially useful activities; but also that the blurring of class lines has led to these values filtering further down the social ladder.
2. Fleming's antecedent H.C. McNeile made the value of the gentleman-sportsman background explicit in the first of his Bulldog Drummond novels, declaring "the combination of the two . . . an unbeatable production."
3. While they were not a significant part of the Fleming novels, this also goes for the gadgetry that has come to be associated with the character. These are, of course, created by a technical acumen far outside Bond's ken. Yet, from this standpoint the possession of such a gadget is in an important way the possession of that technical prowess--and that he has acquired it is yet another, if less direct, testament to his own prowess. (This is, of course, in stark contrast to the idea that the gadgets reduce Bond to a button-pushing mediocrity.)

A Dirk Pitt TV Series?

I continue to be struck by how many people come across my blog looking for word about a new Dirk Pitt movie--and the strong feelings that some fans have on the subject.

I've already got in my two cents about the problems Sahara faced, and the challenges facing anyone trying to take a third crack at a Dirk Pitt movie franchise. However, recently I found myself thinking--what about a Dirk Pitt TV show instead?

The blend of maritime-flavored action-adventure and historical mystery has an obvious attraction, and Dirk, Al, the Admiral and the rest have the capacity to win an audience. And if successful, a Dirk Pitt series could easily be turned into a multi-show franchise with relative ease, given the abundance of material, and built-in audiences, for them--the NUMA Files books (of which there are thirteen as of this year) and the Oregon Files (ten books) for a start.

Still, just as with the films, much of the material is problematic. The producers could not easily shoot a story today where old Nazis menace the world, for example. And the handling of issues like immigration in Treasure or Flood Tide could come across like provocations. Additionally, one of the most attractive features of Cussler's novels is their extensive international travel and spectacular action sequences, which would be costly. In fact, they might not be able to do justice to the action with even the most lavish of TV budgets.

However, a single problematic episode is a much smaller risk than writing such tales into films, while many of the stories afford some scope for updating or polishing. Indeed, the filmmakers could limit themselves to taking the basics of the set-up (NUMA, the lead characters), and building up their own episode plots from scratch with carefully selected items from the books. And if the producers displayed sufficient ingenuity with the action the series could satisfy on that level, especially if its presentation of its stories and characters was intriguing (perhaps developing season-long arcs out of the more readily modified books).

In short, the odds on such a show seem better. Still, a show would face at least one major obstacle in the way of a new Dirk Pitt film, the biggest of all--the specter of Cussler's fight with the makers of Sahara. And the prospect of anything like that legal battle is enough to make the project a non-starter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"The Name is Skywalker, Luke Skywalker."

George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) is one of that handful of mid-'70s films celebrated, and attacked, as giving us the contemporary blockbuster. However, when asked about the matter in one long-ago interview, he remarked that "It was more James Bond than 'Star Wars' that brought in the 'adrenaline' movies."1

The Bond films have, of course, been a prominent part of the pop cultural landscape of the last half century. And Lucas is far from the only one to remark them as having been important in the development of the action movie, something of a consensus existing about their importance.

Still, it is rare that anyone explains the reason for that. To put it simply, it was the makers of the half dozen '60s-era Bond films that, looking to extend and amplify the style of prior thriller-makers like Alfred Hitchcock, sought to give the audience a shock, a thrill, a "bump" every couple of minutes, and accomplish this in part with a new cinematic structure (pre-credits scenes, a swifter pace leading from one shock to the next), while also working in large, complex set pieces of a kind previously unseen in contemporary-set thrillers. They also revolutionized the photography and editing of such set pieces with the use of close shots, "jump cuts," undercranking and exaggerated sound effects to intensify the action.2

Of course, in considering the Bond films' influence it has to be kept in mind that they were not really a Hollywood product. They were financed by United Artists, and involved the participation of some Hollywood talent, like veteran screenwriter Richard Maibaum, but were generally made by British-based (if expatriate) producers at Britain's Pinewood studios, with British directors and (mostly) British stars.

That limited their impact, even when, with Goldfinger, the movies started to get a little respect from tinseltown, which shamelessly imitated them, while usually missing what was most important about them. The multitude of '60s-era Bond imitations were mostly cheap-looking parodies (I was shocked when I learned the Derek Flint movies cost almost as much as Goldfinger--proof, I suppose, that basic math skills were scarce at the big studios then as now). The big action movies that followed--Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971), Dirty Harry (1971)--tended to be crime dramas which tossed a bit of action into a more conventionally structured, slower-paced narrative.

It was only Star Wars that really brought all the elements of James Bondian action (structure, pace, set pieces, editing technique) to big-budget Hollywood filmmaking.

Indeed, one can see much of the famous "formula" of the Bond films in the movie's structure.

Just like the Bond films, Star Wars hits the viewer hard with a flamboyantly stylized opening image (the title, the crawl) set to a now-classic musical score (John Williams' theme), which quickly gives way to an action scene that reveals something of the plans of a bizarre-looking and apparently psychotic villain—Darth Vader pursuing Princess Leia's smaller consular ship in his colossal Star Destroyer.

As it turns out, the enemy is operating out of a vast, high-tech, apparently impregnable fortress from which they are controlling a super-weapon that can destroy a world. In the course of their mission our hero is issued a gadget by an older, wiser figure (Obi-Wan, light saber), heads out to the destination to which he has been summoned (Alderaan), gets captured (tractor beam, Death Star), faces the villain (Darth), escapes from the fortress with knowledge of what must be done--with a new female ally, incidentally (Leia)--returns with allies in a military assault (X-Wings) that narrowly destroys the facility and the super-weapon as the clock ticks down to the destruction of a world (Yavin).

And of course, by this point the Bond films had already made repeated use of space themes that look like even closer precedents for Lucas' film. The most pointed were of course You Only Live Twice--which also opened with a larger spaceship capturing a smaller one--and Diamonds Are Forever--which put a super-laser in the heavens that the hero took out mere seconds before it delivered a catastrophic blow at the planet below at the film's climax.

Just about all that was missing was the sexuality. But then Princess Leia did wear that gold bikini in Return of the Jedi--for many a Star Wars fan, the equivalent of Ursula Andress' arrival on-screen way back when. So much so that watching that episode of Friends all those years ago, many must have totally expected just what fantasy Ross was going to confess to Rachel even before he said a word.3

1. Lucas' comment can be found in David A. Kaplan, "The Force Is Still With Us" Newsweek, 20 Jan. 1997, 56.
2. You can read a lengthier discussion of this history in The Forgotten James Bond, which discusses the movies' place in the development of the action film.
3. The title of the episode is actually "The One With the Princess Leia Fantasy," but I didn't know that at the time.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Win, Lose or Die and the British Techno-Thriller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: Role of Honor, by John Gardner

New York: Putnam, 1984, pp. 304.

In John Gardner's Role of Honor, the British Secret Service stages a spy scandal which has Bond rather publicly leaving the Service. Afterward Bond, under the pretext of being a free agent, trains in computer programming, the better to enable him to infiltrate the operations of a Pentagon computer expert who apparently faked his own death, Jay Autem Holy, who is thought to be involved with the Soviets in something nefarious . . .

As the premise of the novel suggests, Role is Gardner's biggest break with the familiar pattern of the Bond adventures up to this time. The months-long mission, the highly public spy scandal in which Bond is involved, his having to learn how to code, are all inconceivable in a Fleming novel—or a Bond film. Indeed, the early chapters do not feel much like a James Bond adventure at all, and it is quite some time before the book is on more familiar ground.

Interestingly, even as the novels break with the usual pattern of the adventures, they do repeat the pattern of Gardner's. SPECTRE, first reintroduced in For Special Services, is back yet again, this time under the management of Tamil Rahani. Just as in Licence Renewed there is a bit of nuclear age do-gooderism-gone-wrong in Holy's plans to neutralize the superpower arsenals—the concept presented as dangerously destabilizing on its surface, and then even that idea demonstrated as really just Rahani's cover for his real objective, neutralizing just the U.S.'s arsenal, and so handing nuclear supremacy to the Soviet Union on a platter (not unlike SPECTRE's plan in Services). There is, too, the way in which Bond comes upon the plot, sent to join a group of people, among which he has to decide whom he can and cannot trust.

Also in line with the pattern Gardner increasingly followed after Licence Renewed, the story as a whole is light on action, which is confined to a few brief bursts of violence dispersed throughout the book. Following the opening heist scenes (in which Bond does not appear), there is a brief and quickly foiled carjacking a fifth of the way in, until Bond's kidnapping another fifth of the way in. Thus does it continue, with the most elaborate set piece taking place in the middle of the book. Still, after a somewhat confusing opening the book is brisk, smooth and lucid, and has its share of appropriately Bondian touches, like the villain's use of an airship in his scheme, and a final run at 007 that demonstrates that Ernst Stavro Blofeld is not the only SPECTRE chief to live to fight another day—with Bond taking the battle up again in the follow-up, Nobody Lives Forever (1986).

Monday, October 12, 2015

Reviewing the Posthuman Prospect

It was about the turn of the century that I first took notice of the whole transhuman-posthuman-Singularity dialogue, reading the books of authors like Moravec and Kurzweil.

Their arguments did not make me a confirmed believer--but they did interest me. It seemed to me that if thought was indeed a physical process, then at least in theory that physical process could be replicated technologically--so that Searle's "Chinese Room" argument, or Penrose's suggestions about cognition did not seem to me persuasive counter-arguments on that level.

Penrose's argument, however, pointed to the possibility that even if there is no theoretical barrier to creating a strong artificial intelligence, the practical obstacles may be very high indeed, in ways that the optimists do not appreciate. (Indeed, those whose specialty was the human brain generally seemed much less bullish about the Singularity than the tech types.)

Still, I did find the arguments of Moravec and Kurzweil sufficiently intriguing to warrant serious consideration. And as it happened, each of them went beyond mere prediction to making forecasts--what the philosopher Nicholas Rescher in his book Predicting the Future called nontrivial, nonplatitudinous predictions, the kind where you get specific enough that you have to stick your neck out in the process. So I spent the years that followed watching the signs and the dates, and . . .

Well, not much seemed to be happening. Indeed, when 2009 rolled around I (like many, many others) looked at the list of predictions that Kurzweil made for that specific date. I (apparently, unlike many, many others) focused on the nontrivial, nonplatitudinous ones, and reviewed them comprehensively. And by and large, the disparity between what he predicted for fields like neural nets and pattern recognition, and their commercial, consumerist applications in areas like personal computing, translation software, virtual reality and personal transport (the real proof that something has been accomplished)--and what the state of the art really was in those things--convinced me that I was right to feel that he was way, way too bullish. In fact, I wrote a piece about that for the New York Review of Science Fiction back in 2011.

And for once, I didn't feel totally out of step with the times, many others seeming to be thinking along the same lines, the exuberance of the tech boom given way to much greater reserve, and I must admit, less interest in the issue on my part.

Today, however, I find myself looking at Amazon's Echo, and Google's Glass, and the Oculus Rift. Personal assistants, ubiquitous computing, virtual reality. Of course, what we are seeing 2015 is considerably less developed than what Kurzweil expected us to have six years ago. And there is no guarantee that these particular devices are not flashes in the pan; that they will really prove useful enough to proliferate, let alone that we will see significant improvement on them in the near term. Yet, for the moment it seems safe to regard them as real steps in the direction he envisaged. I also find myself looking at a news story from just this the past week--the digital reconstruction of a rat brain by the Blue Brain project, which may be an even more important step toward a world of "spiritual machines."

And so while I remember the exaggerated expectations of 1999 all too well, I think that I will be following these developments a bit more closely than I have in many years.

At least, for a while.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn

New York: Bantam, 1991, pp. 361.

I first read the books of the Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command) what now feels like a very long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and must admit that I have not thought about them very much since. It had been many years since I read very many tie-in novels, or for that matter, took much interest in the Expanded Star Wars universe.

Still, the approaching release of Episode VII, and the associated clearing of the decks with the branding of literally hundreds of tie-in works "Legends" rather than "Canon," drew me back and I decided to take a second look at Zahn's novels. I must admit that I had not expected very much. My memories of the books were favorable, but I was a far less demanding reader when I took them, quite able to enjoy fiction that, when I revisited it, later seemed appalling.

On the whole, though, Zahn's novels proved a pleasant surprise, starting with the first of his trilogy, Heir to the Empire. Of course, as a look at the back cover reveals that the premise is reasonably robust. (Five years after the Battle of Endor the Empire is down but not out, still in control of a quarter of the galaxy, and the New Republic in the ascendant not without its frailties as the former Rebels cope with the business of governance--giving the villainous imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn a chance to reverse the tide of history.) The relation of the events that unfold from it is brisk, helped by not just the promised abundance of action and intrigue, but rapid intercutting between one storyline and another. And the prose is sufficiently lucid and polished to keep the reader from tripping over awkward word choices and phrasing (as they do in so much commercial fiction).

However, these are more or less straightforward matters of craftsmanship, and not very much to ask from a veteran writer of this type of fiction like Zahn. What really impressed me was that the story genuinely feels like it belongs to the core of the Star Wars universe. Heir is not only rooted in the material of the original, canonical trilogy (replete with its characters, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando all central characters), but succeeds in making the newer content grow organically out of that, rather than a repetition of old content, or a painful grafting of new to old.

In this there is much use of the settings and situations of the original trilogy. A central mystery has Luke flying to Dagobah with R2 in his X-wing, and reentering the "Cave of Evil," where he has a vision of his rescue of Han on Tatooine at the start of the Return of the Jedi. Afterward he flies off to an exotically situated business enterprise of Lando's, where Leia and Han were also headed just before the Empire came calling.

Fortunately, such scenes prove not to be repetitions of earlier situations, but rather evocative bridges from the old to the new, that at their best also put the old in a new light. Luke's return to Dagobah provides addiitonal insight into just what the Cave is (and the broader history of the Jedi), while the vision he has inside, while reinforcing the connection of this tale with what came before, foreshadows an important connection with a new character who is smoothly retconned into the narrative. Other episodes, which only to a lesser extent build on the familiar, likewise have the virtue of deepening our knowledge of what we already saw, as with Chewie and Leia's journey to the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk.

This all occurs not only on the level of the overall plot, accomplished as it is in this respect. Zahn has clearly gone some way to imagining Lucas's galaxy "to saturation," reinforcing the connection in the smaller details--a spoken reference here, a recollection there, like the revelation of a compartment on R2 that makes Mara Jade think that this must have been how Luke smuggled his light saber into Jabba's hideout.

It helps, too, that most of what is more thoroughly invented is fairly compelling. Particularly striking are the two principal villains, namely the megalomaniacal Dark Jedi Master C'baoth, and Grand Admiral Thrawn, the latter an especially tricky character to write as a result of his being a "military genius."1 Most writers of such characters, unable to think of what a genius would say or do, either keep repeating that the characters are, in fact, geniuses (groan), or resort to intellectual displays that are caricatured, irrelevant or both (groan again). Zahn takes a subtler path by, among other things, providing successive opportunities for Thrawn to base his decisions on Sherlock Holmes-style deductions, with his subordinate Admiral Pellaeon playing Watson to the Great Detective (as when Thrawn fails to be fooled by Han's attempt to sneak Leia off the Millennium Falcon). He also proves artful enough to bring the act off, and displaying a flair for charismatic, polished schemers in general, imbues the smuggler Talon Karrde with his own considerable interest.

None of this is to deny that the book has its weaker points. In contrast with the original films, the story, without anything like Luke's earlier journey to Jedi knighthood to center it, seems relatively diffuse, with such unity as it enjoys derived from the villain's plan. Mara Jade is a one-note character through the book (careerism and revenge seem to be all there is to her), and her scenes with Luke are more tedious than tense, while C'baoth seems underutilized. And the conclusion is a bit abrupt and ambiguous, just when the reader might have expected fireworks. However, after finishing Heir to the Empire I was much more enthusiastic about turning to Dark Force Rising than I thought I would be when I first thought of revisiting the series.

1. The back stories of C'baoth (or rather, the original C'baoth) and Thrawn, as well as the initial meeting of the two men, is detailed in Outbound Flight, a review of which you can read here.

Review: Win, Lose or Die, by John Gardner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Just Out . . .





My new book, James Bond's Evolution: From Casino Royale to Spectre.

Where my recent The Forgotten James Bond focuses on overlooked aspects of the James Bond series, Evolution traces, in linear fashion, the development of the franchise from its origin with Fleming to the books and films of the present.

You can preview it on Google, here, and also check it out on Amazon.

Death is Forever, by John Gardner

New York: Putnam, 1992, pp. 303.

Cabal, a hugely successful Anglo-American spy ring run in East Germany during the Cold War completely ceased to operate within the week of German reunification--without orders from its British and American controllers. In 1992, SIS and the CIA send the case officers who had run Cabal—Briton Fred Puxley (code name, "Vanya") and American Elizabeth Caerns (code name, "Eagle")—back to Germany to investigate. Both die within a week of each other, and under unusual circumstances, suggesting murder by Cold War-era methods long out of date, Vanya "flyswatted" by a driver in Frankfurt, while Eagle was killed by a cyanide gun. The two agencies assign James Bond, and his American colleague, Elizabeth Zara ("Easy") St. John to become the new Vanya and Eagle, go to Germany and find out what became of their predecessors . . .

In the placement of a German spy ring at the center of the plot, Death is Forever recalls the earlier No Deals, Mr. Bond (1987). This book, however, places an even greater emphasis placed on the bread and butter of human intelligence, and its associated apparatus (dead drops, safe houses, secret signaling methods, etc.) and skills (the mechanics of tailing and evading tails). Along with the classically Cold War setting, the relatively grounded nature of the characterizations and action (a few Fleming-like extravagances like the use of Fiddlestick spiders as a murder weapon apart), and the more than usually oblique narration, this makes the book much more evocative of le Carré than Fleming.

The result is that while this is in a sense the first truly post-Cold War Bond novel, it is also the most backward looking entry in the series to date. The book constantly refers to past periods, starting with the outmoded killing methods used against Cabal's case officers. The shadows of Markus Wolf, Bogdan Stashinsky, Lavrenti Beria and Joseph Stalin loom large over the events, every one of these names repeatedly cropping up in the story. Bond himself makes an explicit comparison between the post-Cold War and the post-World War II era in which the Cold War was born, thinking of the way "the various secret agencies had their work cut out sniffing around for Nazis hiding in the woodpile of freedom."

This is evident, too, in the more than usually pronounced metafictional aspect of the novels. At one point Easy is described as "dressed right out of a '60s spy movie." Preparing to ride the Ost-West Express, Bond remarks "Night train to Paris. Sounds like a 1930s movie title," a line which does not seem a mere throwaway under the circumstances. Later, Gardner writes, Bond
had not travelled on a continental railway train for years, and the noises, sights and smells came back like a once-loved song, reminding him of earlier, probably more dangerous, days when he had criss-crossed Europe on the great network of express trains while on operations at the height of the Cold War.
Indeed, there are numerous, specific references to earlier Bond books—an epigram from Diamonds Are Forever the first words after the title page (which clearly inspired the title), while Bond casually mentions that his looks had once been compared to Hoagy Carmichael's (as Fleming had done in his books).

Interestingly, the book's grasp of the past is much firmer than its grasp of the present, not least in Gardner's choice of villains: a collection of Stalinist die-hards intent on the revival and victory of international Communism. Their plans are, if anything, less convincing: assassinating the leaders of the European Union's member countries as they ride aboard a train through the newly opened Chunnel. The idea that, circa 1992, this will produce a power vacuum the Communists can fill is so unconvincing that one may wonder if this, too, is not a bit of parody.

Still, there are elements of more contemporary interest, as with Bond's relationship with Easy. Where earlier novels tended to present the skillful but cash-strapped British working with the inexperienced but flush Americans, the latter were no longer so flush as they once were, and apparently inexperienced as ever. Easy, whose career back at Langley had her working as analyst and desk jockey, is utterly unprepared for the field—but after this becomes worrisomely apparent to all concerned, what drives her to tears is her fear of firing amid a time of service cuts and economic recession. Not merely British decline seems an issue, but so does American decline, the horse to which Britain had hitched its cart after the passing of empire rather less certain than before. Additionally, even if the conception is uneven, the novel boasts Gardner's most complex and most tightly constructed plot.

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