Friday, August 31, 2018

Craig Thomas' Sea Leopard and British Naval Power

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS

I have remarked previously that by the '80s techno-thrillers centered on Britain had become a rarity. Still, there were some, like John Gardner's Bond novel Win, Lose or Die (clearly written to capitalize on the height of the genre's boom, and the success of Top Gun), and Craig Thomas' Sea Leopard, which centers on the intrigue surrounding a British submarine equipped with a revolutionary stealth technology. Of course, in imagining British industry achieving such a technical triumph the book may appear to be a bit of pious hope or wish fulfillment that Britain could, at the least, still "punch above its weight class in the military-industrial realm," enough so as to be a major actor in world affairs, thanks to the prowess of its boffins (on which such hopes had so often been based). The same might also go for Britain's saving its own bacon in this rare, Britain-centric techno-thriller, at least where the high-tech is concerned. (An American intelligence officer completes the critical action on the ground, but it is a British Harrier jet that infiltrates him into the country, while a British Nimrod controls the operation.)

Still, any such feeling is mixed with an acute consciousness of Britain's decline as a major power since 1945, and especially as a naval power. One sees it in the fact, that just as in Firefox, a British spymaster ends up relying on an American agent to pull off the mission he dreamed up, but it is given explicit treatment when Commander Richard Lloyd, the captain of the sub at the story's center, after his vessel is captured and brought to the Soviet harbor of Pechenga. He sees
[t]wo "Kara"-class cruisers at anchor . . . Three or four destroyers . . . Frigates, a big helicopter cruiser, two intelligence ships festooned with electronic detection and surveillance equipment. A submarine support ship, minesweepers, ocean tugs, tankers. The sight, the numbers, overawed him, ridiculing Portsmouth, Plymouth, Faslane, every naval port and dockyard in the UK. It was like going back into the past, except for the threatening, evident modernity of these vessels, to some great review of the fleet at Spithead between the world wars, or before the Great War.
That Pechenga is a mere "satellite port" of Murmansk, that the Soviet coast is dotted with dozens of facilities equally or more impressive, makes it all the more daunting.

Review: Sea Leopard, by Craig Thomas

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS

A nuclear submarine equipped with a revolutionary stealth technology becomes the prize in a contest between the Soviet and Western navies in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. At the center of the resulting international crisis we have not a sea captain or professional field agent, but an intelligence service desk man who has to figure out the intentions of the other actors, and come up with the right course of action, which soon enough sends him flying to the scene of the action, with the ultimate outcome hinging on the ability of an American to (with help from his British friends) get aboard a submarine in Soviet hands, make contact with the captain, and then fight for his life against a Soviet officer fighting him in a rear-guard action against the plan . . .

It sounds an awful lot like Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, but it is actually a description of Craig Thomas' earlier submarine-themed techno-thriller, Sea Leopard, to which it is at least a precedent and perhaps even an inspiration. (I know Clancy was an admirer of that crucial proto-techno-thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, a fact which shows from Red October on, and which led to a full-blown homage in Red Rabbit, but I recall nothing regarding comparable interest by Clancy in Thomas.*)

Thomas is, of course, better known for another, earlier book than Sea Leopard, Firefox, and this book resembles that one too, sufficiently so that it can seem like an underwater version of his earlier hit. Again, the balance of power depends on a technological breakthrough contained in a stealthy military vehicle that a set of Cold Warriors tries to steal; and again a principal character of that novel (actually Thomas' principal series' protagonist), British spy chief Kenneth Aubrey, is the man with the plan, which ultimately hinges on his infiltrating a borrowed American military officer into the Soviet Union to see that the good guys commandeer said vehicle and get it to the West. (It even seems worth remarking that a submarine operating in the far northern waters off the Kola peninsula did play a crucial role in Firefox, refueling and rearming the stolen plane as Mitchell Gant flew it out of the country. We even get flying scenes over some of the same territory as in Firefox and Firefox Down, both books having their characters note Finland's Lake Inari from the windows of their military aircraft while flying on a secret mission.)

Still, if Thomas clearly reused much here, there is also much that he is doing differently, not least the manner in which he distributes his attention. While his earlier plane-stealing story was attentive to the bigger picture (more so than Martin Caidin's Cyborg, one reason why Firefox seems to me to have the stronger claim to being a founding techno-thriller), it had a clearer center on Mitchell Gant's performance of his mission. In the style Forsyth had already helped pioneer, and of which he and Clancy were to make careers, this time around his attention is more widely diffused about the broad situation as it fills in "the big picture."

Alas, the results are not all that might be hoped for, this larger-scale narrative seeming to me to contain a good deal that was unnecessary--in, for example, Soviet attempts to board the British submarine they were trying to capture, complete with lengthy description of the hazards of trying to getthe team into place. (As the ostensible villains of the piece--as one might expect of Thomas, this is very much an orthodox Cold War thrillers in its politics--how did their suffering setbacks contribute to the suspense?) In particular the thoroughly fleshed out subplot about Secret Intelligence Service agent Patrick Hyde's hunt for a scientist who has gone AWOL at a crucial moment could easily have been excised from the narrative (while remaining in it its main effect seemed to be to fatten and slow down a story I would have preferred to see lean and mean). This went even more for the events involving Hyde in its aftermath. Other, more essential scenes went on longer than they should have, not least the sneaking around in the climactic operation. All of this made the story fatter and slower where it ought to have been lean and mean, while the bits involving the scientist dragged in a few cliches that really rankled (and which actually get their own piece, here).

I might add that despite the breadth of the narrative, and its flights from reality, Sea Leopard's high-tech military action also offers nothing so visceral as the flying scenes from Firefox at their best (though this may also be because of the familiar problem of the slow pace of underwater action in large and lumbering subs compared with high-speed aerial combat); or in its cast of characters, anything to compare with the tensions inhering in Firefox's strung-out super-pilot Mitchell Gant. Still, the thriller mechanics are competent throughout, enough so that it never bores, while the book now has a fair measure of novelty--as a pre-boom techno-thriller, and as an example of that rarity by the '80s, a British-centered techno-thriller.

* It is interesting, too, that the last name of the American officer who must pull of the book's central covert action is Clark--just like the ex-Navy man Clark who was Jack Ryan's field counterpart in the Ryanverse novels.

Sea Leopard's Quin

For me one of the weaker elements of Craig Thomas' Sea Leopard was the character of the scientist Quin. A very large part of the novel is devoted to his going missing, to the Secret Service's subsequent hunt for him, and what happens to the agent who had to pursue him.

I must admit I didn't care for it, in part because it made for a fatter, slower narrative, but also because of its trading in a number of unfortunate cliches. There is, of course, the way the character figures into the plot in the first place--his insight into the submarine stealthing system that is presented as his own invention, apparently with scarcely anyone else understanding much about it, even as the British navy has taken the program so far as to put it in a sub and have it prowl around Soviet waters as a test. (It's a matter of outworn Edisonade cliche and silly romanticism of the tech start-up where we should have had some acknowledgement of military-industrial Big Science reality, for which Britain is the birthplace, after all.)

Making matters worse, the scientist is a fragile neurotic for whom the Practical Men we are expected to sympathize and identify with have only disgust and contempt, even as they rely on his intelligence and skills to save the day, with much made of their need to "kick him in the ass" to do it.

On top of that the particular Practical Man who is most involved with Quin, Hyde, and that scientist's daughter, Trish, are a tiresome case of backlash politics-flavored generation gap between middle-aged security state functionaries and "these rotten college kids today!"--imagined as an incomprehensible and perverse pack of promiscuous, irresponsible leftists that at times crosses the line into (unintentional?) caricature.

It doesn't ruin the novel, but the book would have been a lot better off without it.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Review: The Third World War: The Untold Story

John Hackett's The Third World War: August 1985 (1978) was followed up four years later by The Third World War: The Untold Story, updating and elaborating aspects of the original. Where the updates are concerned the most conspicuous is a chapter that, in light of Egypt's turn to the West, the Iranian Revolution, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, thoroughly rewrites events in the Middle East, the region not falling under Soviet-aligned control before the war, but instead a pro-Western Saudi-Egyptian alliance squeezing the Soviets out, while Turkish-based Iranian exiles topple that country's revolutionary government, stabilizing the region. The book also devotes chapters to elaborating previously slighted portions of the fighting in the European theater, particularly events in Ireland and Scandinavia, while detailing events in the Caribbean and Latin America; and the Far East, where there is a new round of Sino-Vietnamese fighting, North Korea's skirmishing with its neighbors, and after the American victory, the problem of receiving the surrender of the massive Soviet forces in the area. The Untold Story also describes much of what was already known to have happened from the Soviet side, following a motor rifle regiment officer through the early part of the war; matching the nuclear destruction of the prior book's depiction of the nuclear destruction of Birmingham with an equally detailed depiction of Anglo-American retaliation against Minsk; and devoting considerable space to portraying the subsequent rioting-turned-to-revolution against the Soviet leadership in the aftermath.

All in all, it is a mild rewrite in light of a number events that Hackett's team signally failed to guess at, and an exercise in "filling in the corners" of its already dated scenario. Compared with the novelty of the first book, this does not seem very much, and perhaps it is unsurprising that it made less of a splash. Where the first book lasted 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, I searched in vain for anything like comparable notice of the sequel, which seems to be just a footnote by comparison with its predecessor's place in the history of this kind of fiction.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Savage Doctor--Doc Savage

Decades before the action film subordinated filmic structure and pacing to thrills (the "thirty-nine bumps" that became standard for the Bond films, and which in turn set the standard), pulp writers did the same thing for print fiction, as Lester Dent demonstrates in his Doc Savage novels.

And I must say that the approach has its charms here. In contrast with the more measured pace of so much other earlier fiction, the briskness of old pulp writing holds up surprisingly well, even by the standards of today's action films--and still more, by the standard of today's novels. I won't deny the roughness of the approach, reflecting not just the pace of the story, but the pace at which it was written in those paid-by-the-word days. In line with the priority on pace and thrills logic is casually tossed out the window, while the writing is more tell than show, slight on details and even where minimalist, far from crisp and lean given its tendency to repeat the same few details over and over again. There can hardly be much suspense when the author harps on the hero's invincibility every chance he gets, and we learn very early on that there will always be a hokey out.

Yet the tale, helped by that spareness with description, is so brisk and there is such a spirit of fun that I didn't really care how little sense it made, and if none of the cliffhangers left me wondering if the heroes would make it through this one, I still read to find out how they made it, and even though I was sure the answer would be ridiculous (and was usually right), I felt fairly forgiving. In the process Dent crams into fifty thousand words as much in the way of plot twists, action and adventure as Clive Cussler (whose Dirk Pitt owes a very great deal to Savage) does into books three times' that size, and few use such space nearly so well as Cussler--one reason why, even after having a lot less interest in most contemporary popular fiction of the kind than I used to, I still find myself enjoying these sorts of brief, punchy, vigorous tales.

About That Doc Savage Movie . . .

Shane Black, who has spoken of his love for yesteryear's pulp and paperback hero many a time (rather more seriously than most Hollywood types talking about their inspirations and influences, I think, citing editions of The Executioner by name and number), is every so often reported to be bringing one to the screen. Back in 2014, for example, almost fresh off his success with Iron Man 3, he was reportedly working on a new big-screen edition of the Destroyer.

Little was heard of that project, however, but in spring 2016 he was supposed to be getting ready to helm a new production based on Doc Savage, with Dwayne Johnson cast in the lead. Two years on one might have expected the film to be out by now. As it is the would-be filmmakers continue to deal with legal hassles nad scheduling issues that must be settled before they can even begin production.

Have the Suits damned the project to development hell? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Still, there is room for doubt about how the film will do. The material has dated, but Hollywood's rarely cares about the purists anyway, except when they are an excuse to lazily and shamelessly recycle old material. (Remember The Force Awakens?) Accordingly I have little doubt that Savage will be bumped from the commercially risky interwar era (Indiana Jones pretty much has a monopoly on that anyway) to the present, and the Fabulous Five wholly reinvented with the expectations of today's critics in every regard from their demographics to the updating of yesteryear's preferred version of hokey humor to today's preferred version of hokey humor.

If they go with an updated, and likely generic, product, the sales pitch will be tougher, especially given the issue of brand name. That John Carter was the first great outer space hero did not do much to sell tickets back in 2012. Doc Savage's undeniable status as the forerunner to innumerable action-adventure heroes who have since made their debut should not be expected to do much more for him. For better or worse the name simply does not have much drawing power with today's moviegoers, while the scene has become very crowded indeed, many, many, many other figures doing this sort of thing on screen in recent decades and years, many of them played by Dwayne Johnson himself. Indeed, assuming Shane Black sticks with something like the premise of Savage's first adventure, audiences watching the star run around a jungle might think they're watching a sequel to Jumanji. Or Journey 2. Or G.I. Joe. Or even The Rundown. (Or another edition of Predator, one of which is heading to a theater near you this September, directed by Mssr. Black himself.)

Doc Savage and Dirk Pitt

If I really got started discussing or even listing the characters who have been influenced by Lester Dent's classic protagonist Doc Savage, I would probably never finish. After all, Superman, another New Yorker named Clark of far more than ordinary human ability whose deceased father raised him from infancy for a life of world-saving heroism and periodically retreats to a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic (yes, Dent uses the term, and near the beginning of the very first Savage adventure too), owes a very great deal to him--and we all know how much the rest of comics owes just to Superman.

Still, given how much I have written about Clive Cussler here it seems worth discussing Savage's influence on Cussler's creation, Dirk Pitt. Pitt lacks Savage's combination of omnicompetence and ultracompetence. I am not sure he can be regarded as a genius at any one thing, certainly not the more esoteric skills Savage possesses, let alone everything. (In fact, the only contemporary character I can think of as really comparable in that respect would be Martin Caidin's Doug Stavers.*)

All the same, Pitt shares the rootless, larger-than-life merry swashbuckler aspect of the character, and something of the dynamics among Savage's group is evident in Pitt's own inner circle as well, down to the ways they annoy each other. (Al Giordino's stealing Admiral Sandecker's cigars recalls for me Monk's relationship with Ham.) It is undoubtedly an important part of his appeal, contributing to the series' continuation for nearly a half century now.

* You may have noticed the initials--Doc Savage, Doug Stavers--are identical, while the first name is similar in ring, "Doug" the closest real name to "Doc" I can think of. And Caidin's lavish tributes to Doug's superhuman prowess are just as (unintentionally) funny as Dent's to his character. Still, Stavers is the very opposite of Savage's goodness, making him an awfully "Dark Messiah."

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