Monday, May 15, 2017

Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz: a YA Moonraker?

Picking up the first volume in Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series, I was unsurprised to see that he took many of his cues from classic Bond films, with regard to structure, pacing, action. Still, I was surprised by how much of the specifically print Fleming there was here. Indeed, Horowitz appears to have used his novel Moonraker as the framework for his plot.

As in Moonraker a self-made industrialist is being hailed in the British press as a national hero for making an expensive gift to the British public. However, at the facility where he is producing that gift (located on an isolated bit of the English coast) there have been suspicious goings-on, among them the death of a national security state functionary. Accordingly, the British Secret Service sends an agent to the scene to investigate, where he is initially a guest of said industrialist. In the course of these events our hero happens to best the man in a game and win from him a rather large sum of money as a result--revealing in the process that his host is not just a rather unpleasant person to be around, but "no gentleman." The industrialist also happens to be a man of foreign birth. And physically not quite the norm. And as though this were not enough to set off the alarm bells, there is also the behavior of an odd foreigner with a Teutonic accent he keeps round the place, which also gets visits from a submarine delivering secret materiel.

As it happens, our ungentlemanly, foreign, "odd-looking" industrialist with the suspicious German associates and secret submarine deliveries suffered in the English public school system as a boy, and as a result, bears a burning hatred of the country, which has led him to align himself with a foreign power plotting against it. His gift to the nation is in fact poisoned--really a cover for revenge he intends to wreak on it with a weapon of mass destruction to be delivered in spectacular fashion at the ceremonial, highly publicized unveiling of that gift. That weapon will shatter Britain as a nation, while he escapes safely overseas--as the villain explains to the agent after he has captured him, because he means to kill him in colorfully hideous fashion, so there is apparently no prospect of his stopping the plot. However, the hero gets free, and unable to deliver a proper warning to the authorities, races to head off the attack himself in the very nick of time . . .

As models go, Horowitz could have done worse. Moonraker's domestic setting, and its plot's unfolding within a relatively limited space, while eschewing one of the famous attractions of the Bond series (international travel) makes the activity of this fourteen year old secret agent somewhat more plausible. That the Bond girl is engaged to someone else when she meets 007 and is never tempted to stray also makes a convenient fit with Horowitz's decision to dispense with romance entirely. Still, all this underlines the difficulties of squeezing the stuff of the James Bond adventures into a YA book.

Review: The Messiah Stone, by Martin Caidin

New York: Baen, 1986, pp. 407.

It seems that once again I am reviewing a novelist who was once a Big Name but has since slipped into obscurity--Martin Caidin. His novel Marooned, about a stranded astronaut who must be rescued (sound familiar?), became a feature film in 1969, while his 1972 book Cyborg was the basis for the television series The Six Million Dollar Man, and its spin-off The Bionic Woman. Today, however, his novels seem to be out of print, his name just about never mentioned--especially when one is not making specific reference to the media spin-offs from his books.

As it happens, the tale's protagonist is a familiar enough type. Doug Stavers not only displays a more-than-human physical strength, courage and ruthlessness, but possesses every conceivable combat, investigative and mechanical skill that a commando-mercenary-spy might possibly need in the field, honed to perfection--Stavers a survival expert who can live off the land indefinitely in any and every environment, a fluent speaker of just about every language, a pilot who has mastered every flying trick, and all the rest. As if all that were not enough, his alertness is equivalent to clairvoyance, his foresight to precognition. And all this vast prowess has been demonstrated in secret wars beyond counting waged in every corner of the globe, in which he killed lots and lots and lots of people and (while admittedly picking up a good many scars) lived to tell the tale.

Naturally he has picked up a good many not-quite-as-good-but-still-preposterously-capable friends along the way, on whose help Stavers can call on those occasions when even he cannot do it all himself. All of these friends also have the virtue of comprising a considerable cheering section, endlessly testifying to just how extraordinary he is--as do his equally admiring clients and enemies, and the women in all these categories (and also those women in none of them) who find all this completely irresistible.

Such Gary Stu figures (there, I said it) are the stock-in-trade of the action thriller writer--and as my roster of books, articles and blog posts ought to make clear, I have enjoyed my fair share of works in that genre. Still, Caidin took it so far in Stavers' case (think that other Caidin creation Steve Austin, times twenty), and was so verbose in doing so, that he made me repeatedly laugh out loud while I read the book.

Indeed, taking it all as parody would be defensible--the more sin as the same sensibility informs the wider narrative. The book's title, after all, refers to the tale's more than usually hokey MacGuffin, a piece of meteorite which endows its possessor with a more-than-human charisma and power over any other person who happens to be in their presence. Naturally it is much sought after by innumerable parties (the CIA, the KGB, the Catholic Church and all the other usual suspects), including one private group that enlists Stavers to track it down and deliver it to them. All this offers plenty of occasion for the superman Stavers to display not only his ridiculous ultracompetence, but a contempt for human life to which no string of epithets can do justice, and which makes for an adventure so astonishingly dark and demented by even today's standards (I dare not spoil it by saying more) that one would have thought this by itself sufficient to give the book the cult following it does not seem to enjoy.

If this intrigues you, you might be interested in knowing that Caidin published a sequel, 1990's Dark Messiah. I haven't read it, but the two reviews of the book at Goodreads, in their very different ways, seem rather plausible to me after my experience of the first Doug Stavers novel.

Why Young Adult Fiction?

For at least a decade now the bestseller lists have seemed to be ever more dominated by works of young adult fiction. Accordingly to the data presented by Publisher's Weekly, between John Green, Veronica Roth and Jeff Kinney eight of the nine top-selling books of fiction of 2014 were of the young adult variety--with the one exception, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, boosted by the release of a hugely successful film adaptation that year.

There seems no shortage of possible explanations for this.

One is the greater readability of YA fiction. Publishers of YA routinely serve up more simply written books, and shorter books, that may be more attractive to grown-ups with declining literacy, greater hurry, shorter attention spans--with the problem exacerbated by how much of our reading we are doing off of screens.1

Another is that the books are, in some measure, sanitized--and so at least a partial refuge from a culture that so many find toxic, for so many reasons, be it the cultural "traditionalist" distaste for four-letter words and graphic sexuality, or a deeply feeling progressive's revulsion at the raging conformism and smugly fascistic tendencies of the purveyors of the "edgy" and "dark and gritty."

Still another might be the nature of contemporary, bourgeois adulthood and its portrayal--how narrow and dull the "grown-up" life encumbered by work in the age of Weber's "iron cage," and the conventional responsibilities; how little of the spectrum of such life gets attention from today's writers (whose eyes are ever directed toward the upper-upper middle class); and how false is its treatment (how oversimplified and glamourized and sensationalized). How much can one say about well-heeled doctors and lawyers and their adulteries? And how long can anyone go on being interested in the nonsense written about that?

For all its difficulties, youth is different and more varied, at least--and an object of curiosity to more of us in a rapidly aging world.

Jonathan McCalmont, responding to a recent piece by Adam Roberts, noted another aspect of this that seems worth mentioning, namely the fuzziness of the whole concept of adulthood. We are constantly subject to sanctimonious talk about "growing up"--but what does this really mean? One might reasonably think of it as referring to a person's amassing a certain body of knowledge, skills, personal qualities that permit them to function in the world, but as is usually the case with conventional social judgments, the criteria are rather more stringent than that, and much more brutally materialistic. For adult males, at least, he refers to the conventional "model of adulthood" as entailing an income sufficient to singlehandedly support a family (which, of course, an adult was supposed to have).

This has always been a fairly classist definition, implicitly denying full adulthood to the poor, for example, and therefore most people in society. However, in contrast with the mid-twentieth century period of broad middle class affluence (how brief it was in historical terms, and at the same time how deeply it has shaped our thinking) it has increasingly been out of reach "for all but the most supremely wealthy people." Indeed, even in comparison with "the 1990s, today’s adults not only struggle to find full-time employment but even those that do still wind up struggling to make enough money to live independently of their families" to an extent respectable opinion (and even pop culture) generally refuse to acknowledge.

Adulthood in that sense (whether one thinks it a good definition or a bad one, reasonable or unreasonable) has simply not been attainable--and no alternative version has appeared yet. And so chronological adults find themselves in just about all other ways (the level of their earnings and what these permit) endlessly "becoming adults" rather than "being adults"--"the coming-of-age process but not the experience of adulthood itself," which is exactly what YA fiction is so often about.

1. I draw together the research on what reading off a Kindle or other such device might mean in my essay "The Writing Life Today and What it Means for Science Fiction" in my book The End of Science Fiction?.

Of Working-Class Spies

H.B. Lyle recently penned an interesting article on the scarcity of working-class protagonists in spy fiction--about which he is, of course, entirely right, even more right than he may fully clarify in the article.

From Carruthers in The Riddle of the Sands (1903) on, the heroes of the genre--the Richard Hannays, the Bulldog Drummonds--tended to be residents of "clubland" (collectively referred to as "clubland heroes"). This wore thin by mid-century, but Ian Fleming gave the type an update that, while in its turn wearing thin, through continuation, imitation and reaction has kept them predominant up to the present (when 2012's Skyfall made the initially rougher-around-the-edges-seeming Daniel Craig take on the character appear even more thoroughly aristocratic than ever as heir to a vast Scottish estate).

Lyle is also quite right about the diversity and dramatic potential overlooked in the process.

Still, considering this two things occurred to me. One is that this simply reflects the reality of espionage. The sort of upbringing, education, social networks that bring one to the attention of intelligence services are decidedly not of the working-class type. The biographies of our most famous spy/novelists tell the story. John le Carre's story preceding his rise to literary fame was public school (Sherborne), Oxford (where domestic counterintel had him spying on leftist students), teaching at Eton, the Foreign Service (where he wound up in intelligence again). The Etonian Ian Fleming didn't make it to Oxbridge, unlike his big bro Peter, but after Pete went into intelligence pre-World War II Fleming followed after him quickly enough--his mom arranging the matter over dinner with Montagu Norman (Governor of the Bank of England, the Alan Greenspan of his times).

Yes, just like that--and one can find parallel tales in the trajectories of other spy/novelists, from W. Somerset Maugham to William F. Buckley--while the life of those spies who never write novels is essentially more of the same. (It is worth recalling that for le Carre writing spy fiction was a way of approaching not so much espionage as the social class of which he is such a student, and his books are striking for how cloistered and out of touch with the rest of the world they seem--but still seem mild in their portrayal of them next to nonfiction like David Leigh's The Wilson Plot.)

The other thing that occurs to me is that this simply reflects fiction in general, which has never had much time for working-class types--in part because it has so rarely been written by working-class types. As is typical for our postmodernist, class-averse era, much is said of sexism and racism in publishing--but no one dares speak of classism. However, the truth is that the matter of the education and leisure required to produce a publishable manuscript, and the question of who is likely to have the connections to get something into print (rather than make the cold-queries to the slush pile that turn their authors into collectors of form rejection letters), definitely have implications for who writes, and gets their writing published.

And of course, what we are accustomed to reinforces the matter in itself, in fiction generally and spy fiction especially. Since at least E. Philips Oppenheim the idea of the spy not only as an elite figure, but as leading a glamorous life, has been part of the appeal of such fiction, an idea that has endured even as our notions of just what makes for glamour have changed.

Stephen Akey on Literary Agents

Ordinarily discussion of the publishing industry does not even acknowledge the existence of the frustrated writer thwarted in their first publishing attempt as a relevant part of the scene. On the rare occasions when they do so it tends to be with great hostility. It is assumed that they were simply not any good, their frustration thoroughly deserved, and any objection they make to "things as they are" treated with all the contempt that authority and officialdom are capable of showing for the dissenter. Indeed, much of such writing as does refer to them is glorified trolling--as with the "confessions" of former slush pile readers I have encountered in such publications as Salon and The Guardian (the great progressive newspaper in this instance firmly on the side of the elite and firmly against the "Great Unwashed"), while a glance at the comment threads indicates that they consist mostly of just plain trolling.

The writers who would tell their own, very different, side of the story are apt to do so on their own, obscure blogs--so obscure that they are not easily found in an Internet search. Indeed, we are likely to encounter the dissenting view only secondhand--in cursory and dismissive mentions in apologia for how the publishing industry is run (as with those cited above).

Naturally it was something of a surprise to find Stephen Akey's November 2014 piece on the "problem with literary agents" in such a forum as The New Republic. To be sure, Mr. Akey is keen to distinguish himself from "furiously anti-establishment bloggers" as one respecting the role agents have to play in the industry--but all the same he discusses at some length issues far too little noted by anyone but such bloggers. In particular he remarks the extent to which agents virtually demand a prospective writer be a "brand" and "have a platform" before they have begun their career, and the more general hostility to innovation.

The situation is entirely to the advantage of illiterate celebrities extracting extra dollars and minutes of fame by way of ghostwritten works published under their names, and utterly ruinous for genuine would-be authors with nothing but their actual writing to commend them to anyone--the talented and diligent included, while they suffer from the same sanctimonious scorn as the most deluded hack ever to pick up a pen.

The Hikikomori Phenomenon: A Sociological View

I don't think I've watched the Fusion TV Channel before this past week--but while scanning the TV schedule I did recently notice their running a documentary on hikikomori, which was something of a surprise. Anime and manga fans who look beyond the hardcore science fiction/fantasy-action stuff that dominates the American market to the more slice-of-life, comedic series' hear quite a bit about the phenomenon, but this kind of coverage seemed new.

Watching the documentary, I can't say that it offered anything I hadn't seen or read about before, but it did set me thinking about the issue again, and especially those aspects not addressed in it in an overt way--like the matter of social background (rarely commented upon, especially beyond the banality that the child of an impoverished household, lacking their own room, without a family able to bear the economic burden, cannot become hikikomori).

One exception to this tendency was this paper by Tatsuya Kameda and Keigo Inukai, which raised the possibility of a correlation between a lower middle class background and the hikikomori pattern of behavior.1 Kameda and Inukai remark evidence of greater "emotional blunting" (their reactions and expressions of their reactions muted) and lower social involvement (more time at home, less time out with friends) among lower middle class young persons as compared with those in more affluent groups--and that this correlates strongly with observations of hikikomori, suggesting a great many "undiagnosed" cases at this level.

Going further than Kameda and Inukai in approaching the hikikomori phenomenon as a sociological issue rather than a psychological one was another paper by Felipe Gonzales Noguchi, "Hikikomori: An Individual, Psychological Problem or a Social Concern?" Noguchi's paper refers to the "strain theory" of Robert K. Merton, which Merton elaborates brilliantly in his classic paper, "Social Structure and Anomie."2

Merton's theory holds that society sets certain goals for its members, and certain means for realizing those goals. In the America of his own time (and our time as well, and also in contemporary Japan) the goal is upward economic striving on an individual basis. The means, by and large, is doing well in school and then getting "the good job" (or, alternatively, personal entrepreneurship, though this is for myriad reasons the road less traveled today).

Someone accepting goal and means--grinding hard at school in the hopes of entering the most prestigious college they can, on entry into said college single-mindedly chasing the most "practical" degree (i.e. best odds for most money) consistent with their talents (e.g. business or engineering rather than music or anthropology), seeking out the highest-paying job they can get as graduation approaches and then grinding hard at that job in the expectation of raises and promotion (and keeping their ear to the ground just in case something still better come along)--"conforms" perfectly.

However, there are alternatives to this acceptance of goal and means together. Some accept the goal but not the means. They want to get ahead, but try another way--like being a criminal in the most narrow, conventional sense of the term--which Merton called "innovation."

Some do not have much hope for the goal, but nonetheless abide by the approved means, going through the motions, at least, in what Merton called "ritualism." (The unenthusiastic bureaucrat doing their job adequately but no more, and counting the days until they get their pension, is a ritualist.)

Of course, some reject both goal and means, and this takes two forms. One is to try and escape the whole thing--"retreat," just drop out of the system. The other is to try and change the system--"rebellion."

Merton observed that "it is in the lower middle class that parents typically exert continuous pressure upon children to abide by the moral mandates of the society," a "severe training [that] leads many to carry a heavy burden of anxiety." This is made worse by the reality that the "social climb upward" stressed more severely here than anywhere else "is less likely to meet with success than among the upper middle class." (All other things being equal, the lower middle class kid has less access to the "good school," the "good job," than their more affluent, better connected peers do, precisely because those peers are more affluent and better connected.)

In short, lower middle class youth are under heavier pressure to conform, and at the same time, have less hope of a payoff at the end of the privations that conformity demands (while those privations may be more severe--college a different thing for the rich kid with the legacy than the scholarship kid, even if both take their studies seriously). The pressure and privation would seem more severe, and the hope dimmer, in a period where the economy is stagnant, the prospect of upward social mobility is declining, and the middle class is stressed, all features of Japanese life in the past generation.

Meanwhile, if Kameda and Inukai's observations are valid, those kids are also less able to express and thus cope with the feelings with which all this leaves them.

Of course, Merton suggests that the most likely response for the stressed but not very hopeful lower middle class sufferer from this situation is "ritualism." And it may well be that ritualism is the most typical response to such a situation. However, that by no means rules out "retreat," which (as Noguchi observed) seems to be exactly the hikikomori response. Indeed, the relative disconnect from life outside the home that Kameda and Inukai note as features of lower middle class life may further encourage this--especially if the mounting pressure, and the discrediting of conformity as a life path, make the bleakness of ritualism intolerable (while rebellion appears unworkable as an option meaningful in the individual short-term).

Even in taking the sociological view of the matter (e.g. approaching the hikikomori phenomenon as a retreat in the Mertonian sense to which lower middle class young people may be disproportionately driven), however, it is worth remembering that Western observers tend to make much of what are presumably unique features of Japanese life--its notoriously demanding education system, for example, or its low tolerance of nonconformity (while we Westerners congratulate ourselves on our freer and more tolerant ways). Still, as Lars Nesser asked,
can it be proved that the pressure Japanese youth experiences is any different from what American youth, or youths from other industrialized societies feel? Is the pressure to follow social norms so exceptionally strong in Japan compared to other countries? I do not think so.
The view of life as a demanding economic contest first and anything else a distant second at best; the combination of rising pressure and declining prospect for the lower middle class; the economic stagnation of recent decades; are things that have been more pronounced in Japan than in other places (the sharp shift from boom to bust circa 1990, notably), but none of them are unique to Japan by any means. And the truth is that there is nowhere in the world where nonconformity in any sense of the term, let alone this one (a life not dedicated to individual economic advancement), is easy. Or for that matter, social isolation or withdrawal unknown as a response to the pains that go along with this. (Merton could hardly have rounded out his paper the way he did otherwise.)

Indeed, I suspect a significant difference may be that where people are ready to accept that the hikikomori reflect a social problem in Japan, we look at their counterparts closer to home and simply mock them--making them the butt of smug jokes and sanctimonious social criticism about a generation "refusing to grow up" and just "needing a push" to do so, rather than seriously considering whether there is something bigger going on here.

1. This is, again, a situation where the word "lifestyle" is hugely inappropriate, and so I will pointedly not be using it.
2. For the purposes of this post I am using the longer version of the paper in his collection Social Theory and Social Structure. Both that version of the paper, and the whole collection, are highly recommended. Those looking for a quick overview can also get a longer version of the essentials from the Wikipedia article discussing strain theory, which seems to me to give a good round-up of his variant on it.

Review: The Power House, by William Haggard

London: Cassell, 1966, pp. 186.

As I have remarked here before, William Haggard's novels rarely get mentioned today--but when reference is made to Haggard, and certainly to a specific Haggard book, The Power House (1966) is likely to be it. Its story of a plot to overthrow a Labor PM named Harry, as it happens, is seen by many as echoing actual intrigues of the period--the reported plots against Harold Wilson by the political right during the late 1960s and 1970s described by, among others, journalist David Leigh in The Wilson Plot (1988).

Still, the story's interest goes well beyond any resemblance it may or may not bear to these events (which strikes me as slight at best). At the start of Haggard's novel far left Labor MP Victor Demuth plans to defect to the Soviet Union. Labor Prime Minister Harry Fletcher is understandably anxious to squelch the attempt with as little fuss as possible, and seeks help from his friend casino owner Jimmy Mott. As it happens, one of Mott's croupiers, Bob Snake, happens to be a relation of Colonel Russell of the Special Executive, and engaged to Demuth's daughter's Gina.

Defections are, of course, standard Cold War fare. Still, as might be expected by those who have previously read Haggard the East-West antagonism is a slight, remote thing next to the domestic ambitions and hostilities and treacheries--in which there is more than a little ordinary crime involved, and some wildly irrational personal enmity too. The PM's anxiety about Demuth has less to do with his slipping away with defense secrets and such than the embarrassment to Fletcher and the party, which has an election coming up very soon. As it happens, the Soviets, uninterested in the man, toss him back (on the advice of Colonel Russell's Soviet counterpart and later, friend, the Colonel-General), after which Russell finds it a simple enough matter to have Demuth locked up in a nursing home, away from nosy reporters.1 Nonetheless, that particular can of worms is almost immediately opened up again--by "the Squire," a rich, crippled Tory who has a seething hatred the PM while his own casino interest makes Mott a rival. He sees in the defection a tool with which he can bring Fletcher down (while also eliminating the competition for gamblers' business presented by his buddy Mott).2 Naturally Russell, and young Snake, wind up in the middle, with his near-legendary status as head of the Executive, and his mastery of bureaucratic politics, much more than a knack for gunplay or anything else of the sort, his principal instrument for dealing with the crisis.

As might be expected by those familiar with other entries in the series, what follows is a good deal of intrigue, entailing a certain amount of violence, in which Russell's involvement is rather slight. What is less expected is the extent to which all this gets personal for the usually urbane, aloof, ironic Russell, his likes and dislikes, his loyalty to some and lack of loyalty to others figuring in the story. Indeed, by way of Snake The Power House offers a good deal more than other books about Russell's personal past--as one might guess about a novel in which he comes to the rescue of a family member, especially one so unlikely-seeming as Bob Snake (an aunt of his ran away with "a bog-Irishman . . . worse than marrying a black man," with Snake the issue of the relationship).

The plot mechanics this time around seemed rather more engaging than they were in Slow Burner, while the relative novelty of the ways in which Russell gets caught up in the events made it all rather a brisk read, irrespective of its vague relation to historical events.

1. It seems worth remarking that this genial relationship came along years before M and James Bond became friendly with General Gogol in the Bond films.
2. To the Squire Fletcher is a "traitor, destroying a natural order in the name of some half-baked progress . . . subtopia, the television and the bingo hall." Interestingly the sentiment is not all that different from what we see in Fleming's novels--or for that matter, Kingsley Amis' pastiche Colonel Sun, which opens with Bond driving through television aerialled subtopia, and expressing similar distaste for it and its residents.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

On the Cusp of a Post-Scarcity Age?

It is very clear that we have not entered a post-scarcity age with regard to the more material essentials of life--energy, food, housing. We are already consuming the resources of 1.6 Earths, and the pace is accelerating--even as a vast majority of the planet remains mired in poverty, much of it poverty beyond the painfully limited imaginations of those who form respectable opinion. The potentials of known technology and organizational methods are a source of hope--but the point is that the job has not yet been done (and the politics of the last four decades are, to most of those both deeply concerned and deeply informed, cause for despair about the status quo).

Yet, it may be that we are seeing something of a post-scarcity economic reality in other areas, particularly those relating to information of certain kinds. Of course, quality is one thing, quantity another--and vast asymmetries still exist and seem likely to endure. Still, simply searching for the written word, for sound, for images still and moving, we can now access a super-abundance of them at virtually no cost.

To take one example--the one I am really concerned with here--consider fiction. Let us, for the time being, not concern ourselves with the corporate bogeyman of piracy, or even the massive availability of commercial work released under watered-down versions of copyright ("copyleft") or work with copyright intact but given away for free for promotional purposes (as by working authors hoping to build up a readership), and just focus on the work that is normally available for free, like public domain work (basically, everything ever written in human history until the early twentieth century, and a surprising chunk of the work even after that), and work that was non-commercial to begin with (like fan fiction). Single subsets of the latter (like Harry Potter fan fiction) are so prolific that an avid reader could take more than a lifetime going through just a small portion of what is already there.

The abundance may not necessarily be convenient to sift, or suit every conceivable taste. Nonetheless, someone just looking for something to read need never pay for content. This fact alone, along with the relentless competition from other media continually offering other and more alternatives to reading as a use of spare time, continually widen the gap between supply and demand in favor of supply--enough that much, much more than piracy I suspect this to be the greatest challenge facing the would-be professional writer today. And how we deal with it may be a test of how we will deal with other, larger, more material questions of scarcity and abundance in the years to come.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: Village of Stars, by Paul Stanton

New York: M.S. Mill & Company and William Morrow & Co., 1960, pp. 241.

Paul Stanton's Village of Stars is interesting as an example of the military techno-thrillers (or if you prefer, "proto-techno-thrillers") that appeared between World War I, and the genre's revival in the 1970s in the hands of writers like Martin Caidin, Craig Thomas, John Hackett and (in a different way) Frederick Forsyth.

Stanton's Village is set in the dozen years between Suez (1956) and the announcement of the end of British military commitments east of Suez (1968), when Britain had clearly been relegated to a tier below the U.S. and Soviet Union in the global power rankings, but still considered "a world power and a world influence" in its own right, without any other peer on that level.

As it was Britain had the world's only nuclear arsenal apart from the superpowers; and after France and then China got the bomb, still the "number three" arsenal for quite some time, its considerable stockpile carried in its fleet of over a hundred strategic bombers (the V-bombers). It was still imagined that exceptional statesmanship, or perhaps technological "innovation" might further narrow the gap between itself and the U.S. and Soviets, perhaps a breakthrough in the nuclear field (a theme seen in such prior novels as William Haggard's Slow Burner). In the meantime, the "policing" of the Indian Ocean region, because of the many colonies and closely associated ex-colonies about the region, from Australia and Malaya to Kuwait and Aden to Kenya and Tanzania, was regarded by both Britain and the U.S. as the country's special role within the Western military alliance.1

All of this, of course, is at the heart of the plot, in which Britain has developed a 100-megaton hydrogen bomb, a weapon neither of the other superpowers has, and which therefore makes it stand a bit taller than it otherwise might.2 It also happens that Britain is the key ally of Kanjistan--a (fake but real-sounding) country in the southwestern Caucasus, with the Soviet Union to its north, the Black Sea to its west, Iran to its south, in which a Soviet-backed revolt against the monarchy is underway, in support of which Soviet tanks are rolling south of their mutual border. The United States is unsupportive of British military action there (shades of Suez), but nonetheless Britain redirects ships to the area, and sends paratroops to the country, while the Air Force loads one of the 100-megaton bombs into a V-bomber dispatched to patrol off the Crimean peninsula to make clear to the Soviets that Britain is quite serious about protecting its client.

As the crisis threatens to escalate the bomber crew gets orders to fuze the device, and does so--but then when the matter is resolved diplomatically and they are told to unfuze it, they cannot do so, which is problematic because the device is set to go off if the plane descends below 5,500 feet. Naturally the question becomes how to prevent the giant bomb from going off disastrously despite the fact that the vehicle must eventually stop moving. (I remember how before the movie came out 1996's Broken Arrow was once described to me as "Speed on an airplane." It wasn't quite that, of course, but the premise of Village suggests how it could have been.)

In all this the focus is overwhelmingly on the men in the bomber at the story's center, rather than the larger picture. Tellingly the first chapter offers five pages of oblique glimpses at the emerging situation--and then seventeen about Air Vice Marshall Chatterton's personal assistant Helen Durrant attending a base dance the night of their arrival at the facility, where she happens to meet the bomber's pilot, John Falkner. Subsequent chapters continue in much the same fashion, showing the personal lives of Falkner and especially his crewmates, through lengthy scenes of their home lives showing them with their wives and their children (copilot Dick Beauchamp's failing marriage, Canadian-born Electronic Officer McQuade's happier one, Pinkney's struggle to bring up his children on his own), with only an occasional glance at the crisis in Kanjistan and the events in 10 Downing Street (let alone Washington, New York, Moscow), much more often sketched than painted--even as the narrative increasingly emphasized the thriller plot.

I must admit that this is the opposite of what I expect of techno-thrillers. Certainly in my days as a fan snapping up the genre's latest releases, I personally favored the much more big picture-oriented style of the older Larry Bond (seen in his works up through Cauldron)--and Stanton's taking his very different approach did make for rather a slow start to the story. Nonetheless, some of the characterization was interesting--even if it was the relatively minor figure of the expert on the British super-bomb that held my attention (the physicist Dr. Marcus Zweig, his careerism and compromises, his interactions with the military personnel he must work with and the gulf of misunderstanding between them, all rather intelligently written), rather than the interactions of the principals. Additionally, if its treatment often felt overlong the relationship between Helen and John proves to be a bit more than just a love story tossed into the mix to pad out the book and broaden the market.

Meanwhile, even if the time devoted to the characters was not matched by its contribution to the interest of the story, the unfolding of the premise did provide the requisite suspense, which, if less well-detailed in many respects than I would have liked, struck me as competently thought out. In fact, the aspects of the story to which Stanton was more attentive seemed drawn with greater verisimilitude than any comparable thriller dealing with the '60s-era British armed forces of which I know.3 The interest of all this as novelty was enhanced by the novel's time capsule-like quality--a portrayal of a tanker navigator guiding his plane by the sun in particular coming to mind. Similarly conventional to the genre, but unique in being presented in a Britain-centered work, is the stress on the world power standing of the protagonist nation--as a country which has forces active all around the globe, which takes the lead in dealing with crises so far from home, which develops super-bombs other nations cannot match.4 All that seems to me plenty to give it a larger place in the history of its genre than the book seems to enjoy.

1. This string of possessions originally grew out of the old imperial interest in India, now lapsed, but had since acquired an interest in their own right. (Malayan rubber became surprisingly important to Britain's balance of payments; while the value of the Persian Gulf oilfields exploded.) Plus the U.S. was too absorbed in East Asia (dealing with Korea, China, Vietnam) to pay this region so much mind.
2. At the time 100-megaton bombs were a genuine preoccupation of the participants in the nuclear arms race, though the largest device ever actually detonated was the 50-megaton Soviet Tsar Bomba.
3. By contrast, in Ian Fleming's story of the hijacking of a V-bomber, Thunderball, some aspects of the technology's handling appear very credible, as with hijacker Giuseppe Petacchi's navigation of his plane, while others--like the seating arrangement in the aircraft--come off as awfully hazy.
4. As the bomber bearing the deadly burden makes its way from Britain to the Crimean peninsula, Stanton rather strikingly describes the lands it flies over, the people who look up in awe at this display of British power and reach.

Remember Paul Stanton?

Arthur David Beaty flew with the Royal Air Force in World War II and then after the war became a pilot with the British Overseas Airway Corporation. He also became a psychologist, and penned a pioneering study of the human factor in aircraft accidents--titled, with poetic obliquity, The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents (1969).

However, he was perhaps most widely known under the name Paul Stanton, the pseudonym under which he wrote twenty novels, mostly aviation-themed tales, many of which, if not quite classifiable as techno-thrillers, are at the very least recognizable prototypes of the form.

One of these, Cone of Silence, had been inspired by the tragic fate of the British Comet airliner, and became a major motion picture by the same name, Trouble in the Sky, starring Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and M (Bernard Lee).

The same year Trouble in the Sky hit theaters, Stanton put out another aviation-themed novel, Village of Stars, which also got some attention from the film industry--Alfred Hitchcock buying the rights, but, alas, never making the movie.

Village of Stars is not just a techno-thriller, but specifically a military techno-thriller from well before the field became fashionable--the tale of a British V-bomber crew who find themselves at the heart of a nuclear crisis circa 1960.

You can read my review of the book here.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

What Ever Happened to Gold Eagle Publishing?

The Mack "the Executioner" Bolan novels that began with 1969's War Against the Mafia are regularly credited with founding the contemporary action-adventure genre. Today the series has over 400 novels in print. Most of these novels, and most of the better-known paperback series' of the action-adventure type (like Richard Murphy and Warren Sapir's The Destroyer, or James Axler's post-apocalyptic Deathlands), have been published by Gold Eagle press, a division of romance novel giant Harlequin dedicated to action-adventure fiction.

This sort of fiction, naturally, did not get much attention from the more prestigious reviews, still less highbrow critics. All the same, it accounted for a major chunk of the market in its heyday, the Los Angeles Times reporting that in 1987 Gold Eagle "shipped nearly 500 million copies of titles in its five leading men's adventure series alone."

Five hundred million copies in five series' in one year!

Even if there is one too many zeroes in the number quoted above, one would imagine these to be record book-caliber sales.

However, when NewsCorp bought out Harlequin a few years back, and decided to shut down this particular division, the whole genre and its publishers had already become so obscure that, despite the high profile of the associated firms, the fate of Gold Eagle was not noted by a single major news outlet (at least, so far as I have been able to find).

What happened?

Precisely because the genre never seems to have got much attention from analysts, and still less than that in more recent years, I haven't had much to work with in trying to figure this out. But I suspect a number of things.

One reason may be that paperback fiction, not just in paramilitary action but any genre, has been subject to something like the pressure filmmaking faced with the advent of TV in this age of ever-widening entertainment options. Over the '50s and '60s, movie attendance fell by almost an order of magnitude (from something like 30 times a year to 4). Some of what had previously been B-movie territory migrated to television, or up into A-picture territory (like thrillers, which were increasingly big-budget and polished), putting the squeeze on the B-grade stuff at the lower end of the market.

Similarly the pulpy paperback novel would seem to have been squeezed by our own ever-widening, ever-more portable entertainment options. On the bus, the train, the plane, you can listen to music, play a video game, watch a TV show or movie, talk on your phone, text, peruse social media. And in fact it seems that the people doing all that far outnumber those who read--while the readers have ever more options themselves, many of them totally free. (The person reading off their screen next to you may be looking at fan fiction.) And now self-published writers are making bigger strides at the pulpy end of the book market than they are anywhere else--rarely selling very many copies individually, but the sheer number of people each selling just a few copies adds up to take a bite out of this little-studied end of the market. Meanwhile, the "A-picture" equivalent of the book market--the major press hardcover release--offers ever more of the same kind of content, "big-budget" and polished. (There's no shortage of thrillers or romance or anything else in that form; and certainly I can't think of any Mack Bolan or equivalent book that gives us quite the over-the-top ride that Matthew Reilly's Michael Bay-like successions of fifty-page action sequences serve up.)

Having so many other things to do than read, having so many other things offering comparable pleasures to read, massively shrinks the audience for the old-style paperback heroes.

There is, too, the attachment of many of the highest profile paperback lines to a particular style of writing that has since dated. Today it seems a commonplace that Harlequin is looking old-fashioned next to E.L. James, and suffering for the fact. Where paperback action-adventure is concerned, it might be remembered the genre was strongly bound up with a style of paramilitary fiction that exploded in the '70s and '80s, but has since declined--right along with cinematic derivatives like Dirty Harry and Rambo and the Punisher, whose two 21st century films are comparative black marks on Marvel's record of commercial success. (Instead people expect superpowered superheroes and supervillains.)

However, some of the problems would seem to attach to the action-adventure genre specifically. Romantic movies would still seem to leave a niche for romantic novels, because of how much more scope novels have for getting into characters' heads and exploring their feelings, and the importance of this to their appeal. Video gaming certainly does not seem to have eaten very much into the romance market. (Japan has visual novels and dating simulators, but I'm not sure how big a factor they are relative to publishing, and they've certainly not caught on in the States to anything like the same degree.) But the action-adventure genre is something else, because of its stress on outwardly-directed, highly visual, highly complex action, portrayed with adrenaline-pumping immediacy and forcefulness; and on pacing brisk enough to keep us from noticing how silly the content usually is. Astonishingly close as a Matthew Reilly gets to that, in the end the fact remains that movies generally do this better than books, video games better than movies, so why read a shoot 'em up when you can just watch one--or play one? (And again, do it anywhere, anytime now? Reilly's novels have sold millions of copies--but it has to be admitted that this sales record falls far short of that first rank of commercially successful novelists.)

In any event, this is all speculative, and my purpose in writing this post has not just been to share my guesses, but to invite yours. Does it sound like there's anything I've overlooked here? Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments thread below.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Understanding the Word "Cool"

Certainly one of the more frustrating words for those trying to work out what the words we hear every minute of every day actually mean is "cool"--at least, when it is taken apart from its not very illuminating use as a generalized term of approval. The lengthy Wikipedia article on the subject, for example, offers no clear answer, but many possible answers of differing quality.

The closest it comes to a general explanation is in the article's first, introductory paragraph:
Coolness is an aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style which is generally admired. Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well as its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning. It has associations of composure and self-control (cf. the OED definition) and often is used as an expression of admiration or approval.1
Still, difficult as many have found it to pin down the word's meaning, it seems safe to say that "coolness" is an aura of indifference rooted in a sense of untouchability, infallibility, invulnerability--all of which is due to social position, personal prowess, personal resources at least partially material. (By contrast someone equally projecting an aura of indifference, but not "untouchable," not privileged, is seen as just a crank--lest anyone think coolness is just about "attitude.")

In short, coolness is the more or less universal "leisure class" aesthetic--and indeed, this reading would seem to be substantiated by the discussions of variations on the cool aesthetic in Africa, Europe, East Asia and elsewhere in the article cited above.

It also seems safe to say that those who manage to project the cool (e.g. leisure class) aura are imbued by it with certain privileges. They do not necessarily have to do what everyone else does; they get to be individuals; they are the ones who set the standard. And the element of distinctiveness or genuineness or innovation, if not displeasing, makes them seem cooler still.

Nonetheless, because it is a matter of aura and, frankly, delusion (that untouchability, infallibility, invulnerability are not real, cannot be), inextricable from the vagaries of social status and the pretensions of the leisure class way of looking at the world, coolness is very fragile. True, one does not have to do what everyone else does, one gets to be an individual and set the standard--but only within certain bounds. A cool person might make an occasional unconventional choice in the things they wear or consume or use--but too much of this sort of thing and one might wonder. If the expression of one's individuality clashes with those foundations of one's standing as "cool," for example--if one ceases to seem indifferent because they are obviously passionate about something--then their status as a cool person is jeopardized. And of course, being truly nonconformist or unconventional (in their political opinions, for example) similarly jeopardizes their social position, and therefore their status. Their coolness might survive that--but more often they will be demoted from cool to crank in the view of others.

In the end, it would seem, the aura of the indifferent cool individual is generally not about the genuinely innovative or radical or rebellious, but simply a conformist, conventional person who happens to be richer, freer, more permissive and permitted more than the rest, and hasn't yet made any really significant misstep. And so it goes with the "cool kids"--kids from more affluent and more permissive homes who get to flaunt the fashionable labels and brands, and equally flaunt "pseudomature" behavior.

In the end it all seems much ado about very little--and frankly a bit depressing to anyone who thinks social hierarchy and superficiality and general backwardness of these kinds are less than glorious features of the human story.

1. For what it is worth, I got this quote March 12, 2017.

Toward a History of Video Gaming

While researching the history of genre science fiction I found that its historians manage to produce a relatively coherent picture of it through the '70s. There is, for the half century up to that point, a series of centers on which to focus--key editors, publications, themes, styles, subgenres, movements, authors, works. Not everything is tidily reducible to these centers. Still, the center is a helpful starting point for an analysis--and even the outliers can often be related to it, if reacting against or paralleling it. (Arthur C. Clarke, for example, is a Golden Age giant--but he was not cultivated by John Campbell as part of the Astounding crowd the way Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were, instead influenced by Olaf Stapledon, coming out of a related but different tradition.)

After the '70s--"after the New Wave"--the picture becomes much more confusing, the field lacking such centers, and it proves more difficult for anyone to get a handle on it all, even with the decades of perspective we now have. People talk about, for example, cyberpunk as having been important, but even that term's use is contentious and confused in a way that "Golden Age" or "New Wave" are not. In fact, after many, many years of thinking about the issue the best I was able to do for Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry was find a series of key themes running through the last four decades or so:

1. The rise of science fiction as a mass market genre. (This was a commercial, business change rather than a strictly artistic development, but hugely important for all that.)
2. Postmodernist science fiction. (Postmodernism in science fiction goes back at least to Philip K. Dick--but amid talk of "radical hard science fiction" it became an explicit, self-conscious object for an influential coterie of writers, and cyberpunk and steampunk are best understood through this lens, even as some of their elements, and the labels themselves, entered into much wider usage.)
3. Alternate history. (Again not new, but it became more commonplace, and actually started to become a genre in its own right.)
4. The blending of science fiction and fantasy. (Also not new, but again more common and more self-conscious--as evident in the "New Weird" and so forth.)

Right now the history of video gaming seems comparable. It appears relatively easy to get a coherent history up to a point--the '90s in this case--but after that coverage of the subject gets much more chaotic. Before then, the arcade and home console/computer were centers--and closely connected ones at that, with arcade hits regularly going on to become successes on the home console. However, now we have a good deal more fragmentation. There is the traditional, solitary experience--but there is also massively multiplayer online gaming. We had mobile gaming before, but now there is the division between users of dedicated devices accommodating complex play, and gaming on the cell phones and tablets "everyone" has. There are the divisions between hardcore and casual gamers, between those who grab the latest game right away and retro gaming. Meanwhile, the near-dominance of gaming by Japan (and indeed, Nintendo) has given way to not just a renaissance of Western gaming, but by way of the relative ease and low cost of producing games for the more casual player, a more globalized market (with the Angry Birds coming out of Finland, Flappy Bird coming out of Vietnam).

There are simply too many different technologies, markets, subcultures for any one analyst to feel themselves in command of it all. Or so it seems to me.

Does anyone have a different take on the situation?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Thoughts on the Box Office: XXX: The Return of Xander Cage

The performance of XXX: The Return of Xander Cage at the box office is a familiar story now--a film not very warmly received in the U.S. did much better in China, enough to turn a potential flop into what looks like a solid earner.

In China the movie made more in its first weekend than it made in its whole American run (over $60 million, versus its $45 million total stateside take), and went on to rake in a staggering $164 million. That nearly matched its earnings just about everywhere else, bringing the total gross up to $346 million, which means the film has now made roughly four times its stated production budget, at which point it seems safe to assume a profit is being turned.

So I guess I was right about the series' U.S. gross, more or less (that it would not come close to the heights of the original), wrong about how well it would play overseas and especially in China, where Diesel seems especially popular, benefiting perhaps more from the fortunes of the Fast and Furious franchise there than in other places, which has performed exceptionally well there. (Furious 7's China gross exceeded its U.S. earnings--$390 million to the $353 million it took in the U.S.--while so far Fate of the Furious is doing better, having pulled in $320 million to date.)

I guess, too, that while the talk of Paramount's interest in a fourth XXX film before the movie's release seemed overly bullish to me, the sequel now seems very likely to happen, and sooner rather than later.

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