Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: FlashForward, by Robert J. Sawyer

I was one of those who saw the TV adaptation of Robert J. Sawyer's Flashforward before I read the book.

But I did get to it not long afterward. Sawyer's tale of an international team of scientists at CERN coping with the implications of the totally unexpected event--that two minutes' of unconsciousness in which everyone got a glimpse of their future--was, for me, an appealingly old-fashioned science fiction novel. Reasonably compact, comparatively lacking in the bulkiness and clunkiness that has made me read less and less recent fiction of any kind, it was genuinely interested in its "What if" and straightfoward in its storytelling, as idea-driven fiction generally ought to be. Enough so that Sawyer didn't hesitate to follow his characters' trains of thought about the issue at hand, or permit them to have "explicit dialogues" in the Wellsian (or Shavian) manner. (I, for one, must admit admit I am fond of such dialogue, much fonder of it than the tenth rate Flaubert to which the advocates of "good form" expect us to aspire.) The kind of thing that, with so many people less inclined to it, encouraged me in the view that science fiction was waning as a distinct genre.

Reading the book so short a time after seeing the show I found myself inevitably drawing comparisons between one and the other. On the ABC version we got not an international team working at a particle collider outside Geneva, but a thoroughly Americanized cast of characters and setting, and these turned law enforcement types tackling an international conspiracy, the intellectual interest of the tale cast aside in favor of conventional thriller mechanics and soap opera, and mawkishness about Big Collective Moments like hack journalists write endless amounts of drivel about.

It was predictable that his idea would be forced to fit into the conventions of American prime time network television, and cease to be recognizable in the process. And there have certainly been worse shows. But I preferred the book all the same.

Remember Meg?

No, probably not.

But I do. I remember it because back in the '90s the terms of the publication of Steve Alten's Meg was the kind of media sensation the rags-to-riches story loving press likes to blow way out of proportion at every opportunity--a first novel by an unknown getting them a seven figure advance (impressive numbers today, even more impressive back in those comparatively uninflated, pre-J.K. Rowling, pre-E.L. James days). The big money was tied up with plans for a big movie, and why not, when Meg, short for the Megalodon that was at the center of the story, looked like it could combine the underwater terror of Jaws with the scale and sci-fi exoticism of Jurassic Park.

But the book's sales did not live up to the blockbuster expectations, while the movie plans went down quick into development hell.

For twenty years.

During which, as Jan de Bont and Guillermo del Toro and lots of other people whose names you know better than Alten's were attached and detached from the project, the summer blockbuster of the monster/disaster type went from being a seasonal treat to a week-to-week, year-round thing, not just on the big screen but the small, where Syfy supplied us with an endless string of deliberately bad movies about the theme (mostly because it's an easier thing to do than deliberately make good movies).

Hearing "This time they're serious" I'd think "I'll believe it when I see it," but last year I heard a report that the film actually was shooting, with a $150 million budget and Jason Statham in the lead (I don't think he's been that before in a megabudget movie like this one) as a Sino-American coproduction.

It seemed real enough this time.

I also heard that it would be coming out in March, which it didn't, instead bumped to August 10, as the commercial I caught on TV last week indicated.

Of course, getting one's release date bumped by five months is not a good sign. Still less is it a good sign when the new date is in August--traditionally a "dump month" where the competition is less intense and not too much expected from the receipts.

But then one might imagine that this Chinese coproduction (due to come out in China the same weekend as in the U.S.) is being timed to take advantage of China's notorious late summer blacking out of its film market, giving its domestic productions a chance to clean up, and that it will help the numbers in that country--by itself, quite enough to make or break many a big production. (And as even the quickest review of the numbers over at Boxofficemojo.com shows, monster movies certainly play well in the Chinese market. The Monster Hunt franchise, The Great Wall--while Hollywood's own Rampage did much better business in China than at home.1) And here in the States August sometimes produces a winner. (Guardians of the Galaxy proved a surprise hit in that period a few years back.)

What's your guess on how the movie will do?

1. Rampage pulled in $99 million in America (yes, just shy of the $100 million mark), but took in $156 million in China.

Review: Trojan Odyssey, by Clive Cussler

New York: Putnam, 2003, pp. 496.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Clive Cussler's Trojan Odyssey marks the end of an era in many ways. Not only is it the case that this is the last Dirk Pitt novel on which Clive Cussler's name appears without a coauthor. It is also the first novel to include Dirk Jr. and Summer in the adventure, just as the single, adventurous Dirk Sr. puts that part of his life behind him, marrying his longtime girlfriend Loren Smith and taking over the directorship of NUMA from Admiral Sandecker. These changes of life will pretty much keep him out of the field (in both those ways), and pave the way for the principal "Dirk Pitt" of the novels to be the son from this point on.

Naturally, I would like to be able to say that the sequence of "Dirk Pitt Sr." novels goes out strong. Alas, the first time I tried to read it I didn't make it past page one hundred and fifty. I suppose that part of the problem was that I had become less forgiving of Cussler's literary weaknesses in the decade since I started the series. However, it is also the case that this part of the book--which consists mostly of an ocean resort and the Pitt twins being inconveniently in the way of a hurricane--comes across as both overfamiliar to readers of his previous books, and agonizingly slow.

Hoping that the rest of the book would be better, I later returned to it and pressed on. Having done so I can say that the pace and interest do pick up in the second half of the story. Still, while the story gets better, it does not get very much better. Despite being shorter than many of the preceding Pitt epics, ending on just page 485 in the hardback edition, it felt overlong, with many later bits excessively drawn out.

Moreover, that sense of overfamiliarity remained. Cussler's previous novels are not merely referenced (as would be appropriate in a transitional work like this), but recycled. There is a lot of Sahara here in particular--for instance, in the spread of conspicuous, rapidly spreading, ocean-killing pollution from a mysterious source ("brown crud" in the Caribbean), and the dispatch of Pitt, Al and Rudi aboard a disguised high-tech vessel to check it out early in the story. Same as in that other novel, the subsequent adventure involves a river journey, an old colonial fortress, an ecologically destructive high-tech facility incorporating cutting-edge energy technology, action underground, and a party of foreigners enslaved by the baddie.

Where the book does not reuse familiar elements, it is often simply hokey--as with the holographic pirates Pitt encounters off the coast of Nicaragua, which as a deception intended to keep people from the area would embarrass the clumsiest Scooby-Doo villain, or the unmasking of a central figure in the middle of a Congressional hearing, which likewise comes across as something out of a Scooby-Doo episode. One does not expect, or usually get, much logic in the schemes of supervillains in novels like these, but the connection of their revolutionary technological breakthrough with a plan to change the climate of much of the Earth seemed especially dubious. At the same time, while the novel's exercise in fringe history is one of Cussler's more intriguing--an alternative theory of the Trojan War based on the work of Iman Wilkens--we never quite get a full explanation of the revelations (like why a Druidess is buried in an elaborate tomb in the West Indies).

And the vigor of the handling leaves much to be desired, Dirk and Al's Central American adventure paling next to what we saw in earlier installments (not least, the West African adventure Cussler recycled so much of here). When the narration remarks Pitt and Giordino feeling more tired than they can remember ever being, this comes across as a reflection of their aging bodies, rather than the author's topping his earlier efforts. Perhaps advancing age is also the reason for the painful slowness of the protagonists to grasp what has become obvious to the reader--the secret the villain conceals behind the unusual attire, the source of the brown crud.

Meanwhile, NUMA's next generation--Dirk Jr. and Summer--have little interest in themselves, and what Cussler does with them this time around, at least, is not terribly interesting either. Nor does it contribute meaningfully to the sense of transition the rest of the book seems to strive for. Rather than their being given a chance to come into their own, which would give us a sense of the torch being passed, they come off as marginal and hapless in the tale's bigger events.

Cussler partially redeems himself in the final chapter, which manages to be suitably charming, and takes some of the sting out of what came before--but just as Loren Smith may feel that she has waited longer than she should have to make her longtime relationship with Dirk legal, the reader may come away feeling that this should all have happened a few novels earlier.

Review: The Rise of the Novel, by Ian Watt

Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 1957, pp. 319.

It is a commonplace that the literary genre of the novel is distinguished by its telling about the lives of everyday individuals in everyday circumstances, in a manner distinct in two ways--its plainness of style, and its attentiveness to the "inner lives" of its characters.

In his classic discussion of the matter in The Rise of the Novel Ian Watt does far, far more than present that view, instead getting to the root of the matter. As he makes clear the ancient-Medieval tendency had been to think of the "universal" and "timeless" as real, and particularities as ephemeral and meaningless. That earlier logic had authors striving to portray the universal above all, serving up characters who are "characteristic" types down to their names, and time and place often conceived imprecisely, with the authors' ornamentation of the portrayal the principal object and measure of their skill.

By contrast, this era saw writers aspiring to tell the stories of particular individuals, in particular places and times--and indeed, the unfolding of the events of their lives through cause and effect sequences, over time. That shift, in turn, was the reason for the plainness of style--the prioritization of a denotative, descriptive usage of language, with the lavishness in detailing taking the place of the old lavishness of ornament. He stresses, too, how this came together in a genre of private accounts, read privately, permitting an "intimacy" unattainable in other, publicly performed and publicly enjoyed styles of work (plays, poems) that both extended the bounds of what seemed permissible in art, and allowed a new intensity of audience identification with protagonists.

All of these features--the strong sense of particularity, time and cause and effect; the use of language as description rather than ornament; the private, "intimate" novel-reading experience--seem implausible outside the rise of a rationalistic, individualistic, science-touched Modernity that afforded individuals a meaningful range of economic choices (a capitalism, increasingly thoroughgoing and increasingly industrialized), and sanctioned them ideologically (Puritan ideas about salvation, secular Enlightenment thought). And indeed, Watt's classic is best remembered for its stress on the historical context in which the novel emerged, which reflects a good deal of what Mills was to call "the sociological imagination."

Appropriately the book begins with a good deal of historical background, specifically two chapters regarding the philosophical developments underlying the rise of what we think of as "realism," and a reconstruction of the eighteenth century reading public from the concrete facts of the era. In these the territory ranges from the epistemology of John Locke to the nitty-gritty of how many and who would have had the time and money to buy this kind of reading material and a place in which to read it in that private way he described (delving into prices and incomes and the rest). Afterward, when turning to the founding authors and works themselves--Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones--he continued to draw on historian's understanding of aspects of the period ranging from the rise of Grub Street to the rise of suburbia, and how these factored into the authors' creative work by way of their personal backgrounds, and quite profitably. (Wary as I tend to be of the biographical approach, I found it impossible to come away from this study thinking it accidental that Richardson, a retiring, low-born, Low Church suburbanite earnest about "middle class morality" wrote epistolary novels about domestic themes, and Fielding, a robust Tory squire who attended Eton with William Pitt, served up Jones' picaresque adventure.)

Watt is all the more effective and interesting for his attentiveness to the finer points of form so much more difficult to discuss than content, and the ways in which form, too, was remade by practical imperatives of the writers' business. (That exhaustive descriptiveness, and the need of the writer to make themselves understood to readers of a less certain educational level--both connected with their selling to a wide public rather than catering to an elite patron--combined with per-word pay rates to put a premium on prolixity.)

All this is considerably enriched by a good many observations of wider literary significance. Not the least of these concerned the tendency of writers to essentially write themselves when presenting a protagonist, especially in a first-person narrative. ("Defoe's identification with Moll Flanders was so complete that, despite a few feminine traits, he created a personality that was in essence his own" (115).) Interesting, too, is his quip about an aspect of the style of fiction Pamela helped pioneer far less likely to be acknowledged by any critic in our day wishing to retain their mainstream respectability. ("[T]he direction of the plot . . . outrageously flatters the imagination of the readers of one sex and severely disciplines that of the other" (153-154)--the female and male sexes respectively here.)

Indeed, the breadth of his vision and scope of his interest is such that some of his more interesting remarks have nothing to do with eighteenth century fiction at all. (As Watt observes Shakespeare, the "inventor of the human," is less a modern than a Medieval--similarly different in his thought about time and causality so that these come across as loosely handled, and different in his thought about language, too, so that the propensity for the purple prevails over the comprehensible in his poetry, some of the reasons why he is less accessible and compelling to most of us than we think he is "supposed to be.") Watt is attentive, too, to the trade-offs that writers have to make when they actually create something--like that between plot and character (the one in "inverse proportion" to the other (279)), and many of the pitfalls of literary criticism in his time, and our own. ("Coleridge's enthusiasm may . . . serve to remind us of the danger . . . of seeing too much" (120).)

As the cited passages indicate, Watt, for all his richness in insight, is also extraordinarily accessible, partly because in comparison with our pretentiously and trivially theoretical, jargon-laden contemporary work Watt is clearly focused on his subject and straightforward in his communication, while also exceptionally gifted as a wordsmith himself. Altogether this makes the book not just a key work for anyone trying to understand eighteenth century literature, or the novel that remains the central fictional form of today, but literature in general.

The Best Words Ever Written About "Human Nature"

Back in tenth grade I was first introduced to F. Scott Fitzgerald, by way of The Great Gatsby. I wasn't all that impressed with the book at the time, but I later came to be more appreciative--in part, I think, because I happened to run across Fitzgerald's earlier book This Side of Paradise.

The book has its quirks and limitations--its at times' ostentatiously Modernist experimentation, for one. Still, I was impressed with some of its more substantial exchanges, which happen to include, as the title of the blog post implies, the last of them, where the protagonist Amory Blaine debates the Social Question with an acquaintance of his dead college friend's father. Said acquaintance, dismissing socialism, speaks of "'certain things which are human nature' . . . with an owl-like look, 'which always have been and always will be, which can't be changed.'"

Amory's response, after astonished looking from one man to the other:
"Listen to that! I can name offhand over one hundred natural phenomena that have been changed by the will of man--a hundred instincts in man that have been wiped out or are now held in check by civilization. What this man here just said has been for thousands of years the last refuge of the associated mutton-heads of the world. It negates the efforts of every scientist, statesman, moralist, reformer, doctor, and philosopher that ever gave his life to humanity's service. It's a flat impeachment of all that's worth while in human nature. Every person over twenty-five years old who makes that statement in cold blood ought to be deprived of the franchise."
Alas, a hundred years later we are still apt to hear that inane use of those two words, "human nature," most dismayingly of all, from ostensible progressives. But at the same time, Fitzgerald's reply to it still stands.

"Geography, Technology and the Flux of Opportunity"

Back when I wrote the first edition of The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond I included in the appendix a brief essay discussing Britain's extraordinary industrial, imperial and military predominance at its nineteenth century peak, and its subsequent passing over the following hundred years. Basically what it came down to was the spread of industrialization as other nations increasingly consolidated. One result was larger-scale industrialized states, another was states which evolved a more sophisticated form of industrialization, and still another were states which combined both features, epitomized by the United States. The balance of economic power shifted in a hurry, the balance of military power with it. Meanwhile the declining acceptability of colonial rule, and the cost of two world wars, accelerated the unraveling of Britain's empire, but that economic change was first and foremost.

Given my historical and other interests I did much more reading and thinking about the issue, unavoidably rethinking what I wrote earlier (just why did others make a bigger success of the "Second" Industrial Revolution, for example?), and writing more. Initially I intended to produce a longer, better-grounded version of the piece in my appendix, later a few short pieces, but it eventually blew up into the paper I have just published through SSRN, "Geography, Technology and Opportunity: The Rise and Decline of British Economic Power" (the second revision of which is now up). About 74,000 words long it is less an appendix than a book in itself--which I suppose offers the same explanation in the end. With (I hope) more rigor, in detail and depth (unexpectedly I found myself coping with matters raging from the comparative phosphorous content of different iron ores to waterway-territory ratios in countries around the world to the finer points of the 1965 National Plan), but nonetheless, the same essential explanation.

If nothing else, I've done a fair job of convincing myself.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Twentieth Century Britain

Originally published as part of THE MANY LIVES AND DEATHS OF JAMES BOND

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain was the only industrialized country in the world, and the only naval and colonial power of any weight. London was also the undisputed financial capital of the world. All of this meant not just British dominance in the world, but easy dominance by a wide margin, enabling Britain to run its empire "on a shoestring" as many a historian has put it.

However, the situation was clearly beginning to change by the 1860s, due to three interconnected developments. The first was a profound change the terms of economic competition. Industrialization was spreading and deepening elsewhere. Indeed, a "Second" Industrial Revolution based on the new technologies of oil, electricity and chemicals was getting underway, while the characteristic sectors of the "First" Industrial Revolution, like coal, steam-powered machinery and textiles, were going into decline. The tendency not only diminished the value of Britain's early lead, but threatened to make that early lead a liability as other countries began from scratch with the newest plant and newest practices.

The second was a series of geopolitical changes driven by nationalism and a revived imperialism that made some comparatively minor states consolidate themselves into larger and more formidable powers, and made other, established powers appear more threatening. The unification of Germany disrupted the old balance of power on the European continent. At the same time the consolidation of the United States in the Civil War, and its expansion to the Pacific and then overseas in the following decades; and Japan's emergence from its isolation to become a naval and colonial power; changed the balance of power in the Western hemisphere and the Far East. Meanwhile, France and Russia enlarged their empires, acquiring territories abutting British possessions in eastern Africa and southern Asia.

The third trend was likewise driven by nationalism, but within Britain's empire. At its height that empire ruled territories on which "the sun never set," encompassing a quarter of the world's land area – but the very diversity and dispersal of its subjects also made it subject to the centrifugal forces that wrested much of North America away from it in the American Revolution. Now nationalism was spreading in other, settler-dominated states like Canada and Australia, as well as nations like India where small numbers of British officials and soldiers ruled over vast populations of native subjects treated as a racial and religious "Other." Together these three trends raised the prospect of Britain being just one industrialized country among many instead of the unique "workshop of the world" it had earlier been; the metropole increasingly being outweighed by other powers which were both bigger and more dynamic; and the colonies ceasing to be a support to Britain's position. Essentially, it meant the reduction of Britain to being merely one of Europe's larger countries, and the first steps in this transition were already apparent at this time. First the United States, and then Germany, overtook Britain as manufacturers, while the country's commodity trade surpluses turned into deficits, covered by Britain's income from financial services and overseas investments. As this was happening, the growth of several foreign navies, especially those of Germany, Japan and the U.S., eroded Britain's confidence in its ability to project power globally. In the case of Germany, it even raised concerns about Britain's ability to protect itself against invasion (worries reflected in the flourishing invasion story genre). Britain consequently looked to alliances to protect interests it had once been able to provide for by itself, coming to terms with France and Russia (and concluding an alliance with Japan to secure its Asian interests) to better concentrate its military resources against the perceived German threat.

When war did come in 1914, the "Triple Entente" did of course prove victorious. Britain's primary challenger, Germany, was defeated and disarmed. Additionally, Britain gained new imperial acquisitions in the Middle East and central and eastern Africa, while South Africa, Australia and New Zealand also received former German colonies as mandates. Yet, the war was costly in ways beyond the bill for the fighting. The mobilization of the economy for total war meant that all production went to the war effort – exports collapsing, while imports skyrocketed (the more so because of what Britain's declining industrial economy was failing to produce at home, from steel to electrical goods). At the same time, world finance suffered amid the fighting, while much of the revenue-earning merchant fleet was sunk by German U-boats, forcing Britain to import even in this area too.

Covering the difference meant selling off foreign assets and raising loans abroad, while the overall national debt was twelve times bigger than it had been at the war's start. Meanwhile, many of the country's old markets had been snapped up during the conflict by its own, less-taxed Allies, like the United States and Japan. And matters were the worse because of the worldwide slump that followed the war, with wartime demand vanishing. Indeed, the gold standard that had been a pillar of the pre-war world economy was suspended in 1919, a major step toward Britain's ceding the financial predominance of the City of London to Wall Street, while stagnation prevailed through the 1920s.

Economic weakness, naturally, manifested itself in military weakness. America's size and wealth meant that Britain's days as the leading naval power were fast running out, while the country could not fight a major power without at least the "benevolent neutrality" of the U.S. – a fact which quickly had practical consequences, starting with Britain's not renewing its alliance with Japan.

This reinforced, and was reinforced by, Britain's weakening grip on its colonies. Independence movements grew more formidable from India to Ireland, where a successful revolt forced Britain to accept the country's independence in 1923. Even the Dominions increasingly asserted their independence, Canada refusing to back Britain in the Chanak Crisis that same year, when Allied troops at the Dardanelles confronted Mustapha Kemal's troops. The Allies ended up backing down in that crisis, with the result that Germany's wartime ally Turkey overturned the terms imposed on it at the end of the conflict – a humiliation that ended the career of Prime Minister Lloyd George.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 worsened matters. The older sectors on which British industry (steel, textiles, shipbuilding) remained dependent were particularly hard-hit, and put an end to the gold standard for good in 1931. That same year Britain recognized the independence of the Dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand under the Statute of Westminster (confirming Britain's decreasing ability to rely on their significant resources). Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union appeared in the ascendant in these years as Britain remained mired in outdated economic policies at home (responding to depression with austerity). Abroad, Britain backed down in confrontations with Italy over its invasion of Ethiopia, and German over its remilitarization and expansionism (the enlargement of the German navy in 1935, the militarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the country's unification with Austria in 1938 and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939). World War II came despite this policy of "appeasement," and after the Battle of France, left the British Empire alone for nearly a year against Germany and its allies, until German actions – its invasion of the Soviet Union, and declaration of war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor – brought both these powers into the war against it as full-scale belligerents.

The End of Empire
At the end of the war in 1945 Britain looked stronger than ever. Germany was defeated again, far more decisively than it had been in World War I, so that British troops were in Berlin, while Italy and Japan were similarly defeated and under Allied occupation – three of the great threats of the interwar period to Britain and its empire neutralized. Britain also possessed military forces larger than ever before in its history, nearly five million of its people in uniform, distributed around the world to an extent that had never been seen as they occupied an assortment of French, Italian and Dutch colonies from Libya to Vietnam. Reflecting this position, Britain appeared at the wartime conferences of the Allies in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam as one of the "Big Three."

Nonetheless, unlike the U.S., which realized its enormous latent power in the conflict, Britain exhausted its own power, the demands of the conflict exacerbating an already weak international position. Again British trade was dislocated. Again the shipping fleet was savaged by U-boats. Again foreign investments had to be sold off to cover expenses, this time half of them (compared with just a thirteenth in World War I). And as if this were not all enough, German bombing inflicted heavy physical damage on the country.

In all, one-quarter of the country's remaining wealth was gone by war's end, while the debt load had increased, markets had again been lost, and the country left insolvent, even before it could demobilize its forces and its economy, rebuild an industrial plant run-down by the sacrifice of all investment and maintenance to all-out production, and try to start paying its own way in the world again. Indeed, coming on top of the massive net wartime borrowing from the United States (and Canada), in 1946 the government had to take out yet a new multi-billion dollar American loan to keep its head above water.

Besides damaging British resources, the war also damaged British prestige, particularly in Asia, where many of its colonies were conquered and occupied by Japanese troops, including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Burma. These losses destroyed Britain's credibility as a military power in the area, while strengthening local independence movements (in Burma, in control of the country when British troops returned), further undermining what remained of Britain's ability to control them. India (which at the time included present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh) was independent by 1947, Burma by 1948, Ceylon by 1949.

Nonetheless, withdrawal from these territories was initially conceived as part of a restructuring and rationalization of the empire, rather than its winding up. There were, for instance, hopes that Africa might constitute a "third" British Empire (replacing the "second" empire that was India, which in its turn had replaced the "first" American empire Britain lost in the Revolutionary War). Local opposition, and British weakness, made this impracticable, and by 1960 Harold Macmillan was speaking of the "Wind of Change." Nigeria, the Southern Cameroons, British Somaliland and Somalia gained their independence that year, Sierra Leone and Tanganyika the next. Kenya, which some had hoped would become a second South Africa, but which instead saw the Mau Mau revolt, was independent by 1963, as was Zanzibar, and all of Britain's remaining African possessions in the next few years.

With these colonies went both a crucial claim to Britain's great power status, and a crucial foundation of it, as they had continued to provide important props to the metropole's economy (like captive markets) and significant additions to it (like supplementary military manpower). The Commonwealth of Nations, despite all the hopes held out for it, proved no substitute for empire of any kind, and did little if anything to slow the drift of even Canada and Australia away from Britain toward the U.S. in their security and trading arrangements.

Naturally, Britain could not compete with the far vaster, and more fully mobilized, economic and military resources of the United States and the Soviet Union, the new "superpowers." Additionally, the reach of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union penetrated into Europe far more deeply and extensively by 1945 than had been the case in 1939, epitomized by the boots they had on the ground down through the middle of the continent. Even at sea, where Britain had still commanded the world's largest fleet at the war's start, it was eclipsed by the United States Navy during the conflict, without ever coming close to catching up. Not long after the war, it was to become increasingly clear that Britain could not even compete qualitatively with the superpowers in techno-military areas like nuclear weaponry, aerospace and blue-water naval capabilities. (The country's nuclear deterrent was to be founded on Polaris ballistic missiles imported from the U.S., its newer fighters like the Tornado built through international agreements rather than an independent British industry, its last fleet carrier retired in 1979.)

The result was that while Britain had historically been the "offshore balancer" in European politics, preventing any one country from growing powerful enough to dominate the continent by throwing its weight to this side or that one in a conflict (as when it joined the coalitions against France in the Napoleonic era), it had largely been supplanted in that role by the United States. The situation was much the same elsewhere in the world. Britain continued to play something like its old role in the Middle East and Southeast Asia through the 1950s and 1960s through client regimes, basing arrangements and the like. However, it quit Palestine in 1948, and lost its Egyptian client King Farouk just four years later – and when he was succeeded by Gamal Nasser, Britain's biggest overseas military base, its facility at Suez. Britain's attempt to reestablish its earlier position in the country by joining with France and Israel to overthrow Nasser, quashed by Soviet and American pressure, only underlined Britain's inability to act independently. Just two years later another client regime, the Hashemite monarchy, fell in Iraq, ending Britain's anemic attempt to organize collective security in the region under the "Baghdad Pact." In 1963 British troops faced an insurgency in the strategic colony of Aden, which led to British withdrawal from the country four years later.

Britain did not suffer such dramatic setbacks in Southeast Asia, the Malayan Emergency and the "Konfrontasi" with Indonesia that followed generally chalked up as successes. However, by the late 1960s the maintenance of a military presence there proved more financially costly than the country could afford, leading to the 1968 announcement that except for the retention of Hong Kong, Britain would withdraw "east of Suez" by 1971, an intention on which it soon made good.

There is no question about what these adjustments meant in practical terms, but there is considerable debate over what they meant in cultural and political terms at home. Some historians view them as having been relatively painless, and compare the process favorably with France's convulsions over Algeria at the same time. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe British culture has never quite come to terms with the fact, even now three generations after World War II's end; that the country never quite moved on, the old pretensions turning up in the most inappropriate places. As Jeremy Paxman put it last year,

When a British prime minister puffs out his chest and declares he "will not tolerate" some African or Middle Eastern despot, he speaks not as a creature of a 21st-century political party in a dilapidated democracy but as the latest reincarnation of Castlereagh or Palmerston – somehow, British foreign policy has never shaken off a certain 19th-century swagger, and the implied suggestion that, if anything happens to a British citizen, a Royal Navy gunboat will be dispatched to menace the impertinent perpetrators.

Nonetheless, wherever the truth lies, there is no doubt that at the time there was a significant current, especially in elite opinion, which was unhappy with the change.

Change at Home
While Britain experienced these changes in its international standing, British society was in flux domestically. In the years prior to World War I, the classical liberal consensus which had prevailed in Britain was challenged by increasing pressure from increasingly strong labor and feminist movements, and the dispute over the status of Ireland. The outbreak of the war only deferred these issues, however, the conflicts over them continuing in such events as the successful breakaway of Ireland; the decline of the Liberal Party to third-party status, while the Labour Party formed its first government in 1924; and the General Strike of 1926.

During and after World War II the discrediting of the Conservative establishment by its mismanagement of the early part of the war (epitomized by Dunkirk, viewed at the time not as some glorious "miracle," but as a catastrophic defeat); the failures of conservative, free-market economic orthodoxy in the 1930s, and the successes of government planning during the war, on the home front as well as on the battlefield; the war's effect in creating a sense of national togetherness, idealism, and promise of "broad sunlit uplands" ahead; contributed to a vision of a more egalitarian post-war Britain as a goal of the conflict, epitomized by the wide support for the wartime Beveridge Report, which called for "a comprehensive policy of social progress."

In the August 1945 general election, the Conservative government of Winston Churchill was swept out of power, and replaced with a Labor government under Clement Attlee with a broad reform mandate. This extended beyond the treatment of full employment as a national economic priority, to labor-friendly legislation (like the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1946, which widened the powers of organized labor), the establishment of a "cradle-to-grave" welfare state (with such measures as the National Insurance Act of 1946, and the launch of the National Health Service in 1948), and even the nationalization of key sectors of the economy (including the Bank of England, the coal, gas and steel industries, and the railways). These policies ultimately became the foundation of the "social market" or "welfare" capitalism that characterized the "postwar consensus."

As economic policy the consensus proved a significant success. Despite all the difficulties previously described, the post-World War II was a period of rapid economic growth and rising living standards for Britons as a whole – of prosperity unexampled in the country's history – such that many historians have dubbed it a "golden age" for the nation. Nonetheless, like all compromises, it left many dissatisfied at both ends of the political spectrum. On the left were those who had hoped that the policies of the Labor government of 1945-1951 would prove just the beginning of a movement toward deeper change. On the right were those who felt these changes had already gone too far, and even that any such movement was much too far, opposed as they were to such "leveling" tendencies on principle. (Author Evelyn Waugh famously remarked that during the years of the Attlee government the country felt to him like it was "under enemy occupation.")

These economic and political changes were accompanied by socio-cultural changes, evident in everything from personal relations (from a new working-class assertiveness to the Sexual Revolution) to the arts (shaken up by everything from the arrival of the "Angry Young Men" in British letters to rock music). And all these together interacted with those currents in opinion that lamented Britain's lost imperial status, with many resentful about the former seeing the latter as a cause, pointing to such things as generation gaps and rising labor militancy as culprits. All this lent a new edge to the age-old lament of the privileged that the young and the lower social orders did not "know their place," and that other age-old lament of anxious conservatives that "things are going wrong," but it seemed to many that all they could do was wax nostalgic for a romanticized version of the past.

After 1973
Britain's shift from world-spanning empire and international hegemon to "normal" country had largely run its course by the 1970s. Nonetheless, the decade saw other problems intensify as the post-war boom came to an end in Britain, just as it was doing in the rest of the world. The downturn saw increases in inflation, unemployment and fiscal strain, such that the country got a loan from the International Monetary Fund in 1976. The times took their toll on labor relations as unions clamored for pay increases in line with rising prices. The response among some observers to these events was hysteria, exemplified by the rise of organizations like GB 75 intended to combat trade unionists if they got too far out of line, and the rumored coup plot against Prime Minister Harold Wilson from within his own government, and culminated in the "winter of discontent" of 1978-1979.

The period's troubles also created a significant opportunity for right-wing opponents of the post-war consensus, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher making history with the implementation of a neoliberal economic program. This aimed at reviving the economy by making the country more business-friendly by privatizing state enterprises (like those nationalized under Attlee), deregulating business activity (as in the famous "Big Bang" deregulation of British financial markets), chipping away at the welfare state (as with the 1986 Social Security Act) and the suppression of organized labor (as in the Employment Act of 1980, which targeted closed shops and picketing), as well as monetarist policies aimed at controlling inflation.

The actual accomplishments of these policies were meager, their effectiveness at taming inflation and unemployment spotty at best. United Nations statistics on British GDP, when adjusted for population growth and inflation, show that even with the help of North Sea oil, growth in the eighteen years of Conservative rule that began with Thatcher (1979-1997) was only slightly better than what the country enjoyed in the much-maligned 1973-1979 period (1.9 percent, compared with the earlier 1.4 percent a year), and a far cry from its pace in the '50s and '60s. These years also saw the continued decay of British manufacturing, and along with it, a worsening balance of payments situation as sizable trade deficits in manufactured goods became a way of life.

The result is that such growth in Gross Domestic Product as did occur was hollow. Moreover, the harm such policies did the less affluent made Thatcherism proved deeply divisive in Britain, in a way that contemporary "Reaganomics" has not been for the United States. However, this "post-postwar consensus" continued to prevail through the "New" Labor premierships of Tony Blair (1997-2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010). The 2008 economic downturn, which internationally has contributed to some of the deepest questioning of neoliberal economics seen in a long time, has instead pushed the country farther along this path as the British government responded to recession in the same way that it did in the 1930s, with austerity measures.

The Thatcher era is also associated with a more assertive Britain on the world stage. Nonetheless, while British Prime Ministers sometimes spoke as if their country were still a superpower, the country's economic weight only continued to decline. Quickly as Britain grew in the post-war years, Japan, West Germany and France grew even faster, and all eventually overtook it in the area of economic output. Unsurprisingly, Britain was most prominent when acting in concert with the U.S., as when it allowed the U.S. to station intermediate-range nuclear forces in the country in the 1980s, cooperated in the American bombing of Libya in 1986, and committed more troops than any other of the U.S.'s NATO allies to Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Even when Britain did pursue its own objectives, as in the 1982 Falklands War, it proved heavily reliant on the assistance of the United States (like its provision of the latest Sidewinder missiles for its Harriers, reportedly crucial to winning the air war over the islands).

The end of the Cold War, and the years that followed, saw the continuation of these trends, as the reunification of Germany and the closer integration of the European Union – a process from which Britain kept aloof – changed the distribution of economic power in its region. Globally, there was also a shift in world output and the balance of trade to East Asia, with the rise of Japan followed by China's emergence as an economic colossus, while India, Brazil and Russia have also, according to certain measures, overtaken Britain in the area of GDP. In the military sphere, defense cutbacks following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the 2008 economic crisis, have only further diminished Britain's capacity for long-range military action, as demonstrated in the Anglo-French intervention in Libya in 2011 – ultimately dependent on the backing of the U.S. for its success.

Today Britain still enjoys a number of great power trappings, like its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The City of London remains an international financial center, in the view of some of comparable importance to Wall Street. Yet, Britain's strongest claim to global influence in the post-war era may actually be British culture and media, reflected in the status of the BBC and Reuters, the Beatles and Mr. Bean, and of course, James Bond himself.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Admiral Kirk and Captain Spock Ride The Bus

Recently I ran across Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home again--the bit where Kirk and Spock walk around twentieth century San Francisco and then ride the bus and have their run-in with the punk with the boom box. I was impressed by how much satire (remarking how we treat each other, what passes for literature in our era) was packed into this one little scene, and how gracefully, how entertainingly, how charmingly it plays (for a scene with an obnoxious punk annoying a whole bus and giving our heroes' the finger, anyway).

Star Trek IV was, of course, a summer blockbuster in its day. And recently it occurred to me--when was the last time that our bombastic summer blockbusters gave us a scene that worked in such a way? Simple, straightforward filmmaking (two people walking around, getting on a bus, talking), which said so much and amused so much at the same time, and proved so memorable? Certainly I can't remember any such thing in the recent Trek films. Anyone else able to think of one?

Empire, Spies and the Twentieth Century

Studying international relations certain subjects come up again and again and again. Even when one approaches such things as the rise and fall of great powers, hegemony and hegemonic cycles, systemic wars, industrialization and deindustrialization on a principally theoretical level, Britain, its rise and subsequent decline as an economic, military and imperial powers comes up again and again and again--and does so that much more when one takes an interest in concrete history, when one considers the situation of the recent or present or future United States in which so many have seen so many parallels.

Dealing with the spy fiction genre and its history, the same theme is almost inescapable. Much as we may think of spy fiction as a Cold War genre, the truth is that it was already well into middle age when the Cold War took center stage in international life, the thread that has really run through it from its beginning to the present the passing of the British Empire that already by 1900 saw its peak behind it. Anxiety that that empire would pass, bitterness that it seemed to be passing or actually was passing, denial about what was happening, and criticism of all these attitudes, are already there at the very beginning, in such founding works as Erskine Childers' celebrated The Riddle of the Sands and William Le Queux's contemporaneous but much less celebrated Secrets of the Foreign Office. ("The name is Drew, Duckworth Drew.")

As both of these have been major interests for me for decades, thinking about one matter naturally leads back to my thinking about the other, one reason why when writing about the James Bond films and books I spent a certain amount discussing the actual history of the period--more than most such writers, I think. When I published The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond I actually included a thirteen page essay devoted to just such historical background in the appendix (and included it again when the second edition of the book came out back in 2015). You can check it out here, reposted on this blog.

Of Starhunter

Starhunter appeared at the tail end of the '90s-era science fiction television boom, and came into that long-crowded field quietly, at least in the United States. Rather than a prime time slot on even a cable network, it went to syndication--and in my area, late night syndication. It ran for only one year before getting a major overhaul (it became Starhunter 2300, with the principal cast mostly changed), then lasted for only one year after that during which, even in that period when I followed the scene very closely and caught something of just about every show (in fact, watched just about all of just about every other small screen space opera), I not only didn't see it but was scarcely aware of its existence until it was already off the air, past which it didn't have much of a life in reruns (not in my area, anyway), and only happened to see it years later on DVD. (Remember those?)

The slightness of the show's wiki (which, despite dating back to June 2009, has a mere 31 articles, most of them quite short) does not suggest much has changed since then.

All the same, a continuation of the show, Starhunter: Transformation is reportedly in the works, and perhaps that is why the show has recently been remastered and reissued as Starhunter Redux, while since May airing in prime time reruns on Robert Rodriguez's TV network, El Rey.

Catching one of those reruns recently the show reminded me of another space opera that flew under most people's radars, Lexx. Like Starhunter, Lexx was an internationally financed Canadian project, and relatively low-budget, but there they parted ways. Despite the slenderness of the resources put up for it, Lexx, packed with colorful sets and bright CGI and surprisingly globe-trotting location shooting (from Namibia to Thailand to Iceland the crew went, and it's all up there on the screen) inclined toward the exotic, the weird, the extravagant--the end of the universe in a gray goo-induced Big Crunch (and no, it wasn't just a dream, an alternate timeline or any other such lame cop-out, it really was the end of the universe) a mere season finale.

By contrast Starhunter, while having some hints of something bigger going on in the background (and not always just the background, as the season two cliffhanger shows), tended toward the low-key and small-scale in its plots and its look from episode to episode, the space ships and stations and colonies utilitarian to the point of being bare bones, and most of the episodes taking place in their dark, dusty interiors, which matched the tendency toward the noirisih and gritty in tone. Looking back on it I suspect this probably did not help it win over a broad audience, but it did set it apart from the generally flashier, splashier, zanier fare that characterized the genre then and now.

Reconsidering Philo-Fiction

Some years ago the philosopher Terence Blake raised the question of "philo-fiction," fiction which uses philosophy the way science fiction uses science, and whether we might see it come into its own as a genre. Of course, that raises the question of what we mean by "philosophy." My initial thought was that philo-fiction as he used the term (fiction where the fundamental rules of the universe differed so deeply from our own) could be thought of a subset of science fiction, and so, perhaps.

My answer's changed since then. Fiction dependent on such a radical difference, it seems to me, is so demanding for the writer, and the reader, that it could probably never be very prolific--so that while we probably will keep seeing people try their hand at it every now and then, I don't think I could see it becoming a full-blown genre, certainly not on the scale that science fiction has at its peak.

However, I have also found myself thinking about the matter of philo-fiction another way, because I find myself ever less satisfied with the way we delineate "philosophy." After all, all intellectual investigation was known by that name, once. However, what happened was that proponents of a particular philosophical approach--old-fashioned induction and deduction, applied in a materialist, empirical way--was formalized by figures like Francis Bacon into the scientific method, after which it was known not as "philosophy" anymore, but a separate enterprise. This has in fact gone so far that many, maybe even most, of today's scientists actually have little intellectual grasp of the premises of their life's work.

So has it also gone with investigation of the social world. Studying International Relations in college we were exposed to a considerable amount of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Hegel, St.-Simon, Marx. In time the IR student (especially if they go past the B.A. level) is expected to read at least some of the actual texts deemed more important, which amount to a healthy chunk of the philosophical canon. Yet one is unlikely to read anyone labeled a "philosopher" from after the mid-nineteenth century, not because people stopped doing philosophy relevant to the subject, but because the labeling of those philosophers of obvious and direct relevance to the field changed to "economist" or "sociologist," "political scientist" or "social scientist," because of their use of a particular epistemological approach now labeled not "philosophy," but the science held to be a very different thing.

Now we use "philosophy" to denote inquiry into epistemology and ethics and little else, just those things that "we haven't learned to treat scientifically yet," with the invidious comparison between the rigorous applier of the scientific method and the fuzzy, verbal, non-quantitative folks with the ever-smaller turf not at all subtle.1 I remember, for instance, a scene in Robert Sawyer's book Flashforward where his protagonist Lloyd Simcoe reacts contemptuously to a philosophy professor's remark on the titular event, which seems worth citing here.
Lloyd . . . found himself crumpling up the newspaper page and throwing it across his office. A philosophy professor! . . . Lloyd sighed. Couldn't they have gotten a scientist to address this issue? Someone who understands what really constitutes evidence? A philosophy professor. Give me a fucking break.
While I won't claim infallibility on this point, to my knowledge no one has remarked the scene in a significant and public way--and it does not strain credulity that they have not, because this attitude seems so commonplace. But perhaps that is one reason why it seems to me all the more important to argue that despite the relabeling, science did not stop being philosophy--perhaps the more so because of how invidious the comparisons between philosophy and science can get. Accordingly we may regard speculative fiction depicting or extrapolating from or simply playing with the theories, practice, knowledge gained by the sciences as "philo-fiction." Even if in deference to the irrationality of prevailing usages we only regard fiction which is more narrowly interested in epistemology or ethics as philo-fiction, then science fiction has been doing that too, concerned with what we can know and how, and what we ought to do about it, can go by that name as well, at times more recognizable than others, but by any plausible measure never rare or marginal, and by this point quite prolific. (I certainly would not deny that Isaac Asimov, in those early Robot stories, was dealing with philosophy, in "philo-fiction," even as he was producing some of what we think of as the hardest of hard Campbellian science fiction.) In fact, I will go further and say that, in this sense at least, science fiction has simply been philo-fiction all along.

1. I find myself thinking of other eighteenth century terms similarly narrowed--and impoverished. Take, for example, "manners," which has been reduced from culture to etiquette, or "education," which rather than a whole upbringing seems to mean formal academic training and that alone.

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