Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Spectre Behind Us

As word trickles through the entertainment press about what the world can expect of "Bond 25," a glance back at Bond 24 seems appropriate.

When the movie, coming on the heels of the highest grossing Bond film of the series' history, finally hit theaters the common complaint was that Spectre was rather a generic Bond movie, a charge for which there are ample grounds, not least in the action scenes and their settings. The opening sequence, a chase through a costume-packed Latin American festival (Mexico City's celebration of the Day of the Dead), recalled the Junkanoo in Thunderball, and still more, the Carnival in Moonraker. The car chase in Rome had Bond using the gadgets in his Aston Martin to escape pursuers after he glimpsed a meeting he was not supposed to see, at one point making use of an ejector seat--all of which was very Goldfinger (with yet another touch of Thunderball). During this he was being pursued by a giant of a killer who uses metal-plated portions of his body for murder, just like Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me--who, again as in that film, comes after Bond and Bond girl on a train rolling through a desert in the north of the African continent. The airplane-car chase in Austria evoked, variously, Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill in its use of a vehicle that comes apart, as well as many a ski chase (some of which also happened in Austria, like the one in, again, The Spy Who Loved Me).

The derivativeness extended to this film's immediate predecessor, Skyfall--Bond once again pitted against an enemy with British intelligence in his sights, and Bond himself in his sights, because Bond was the "favored brother," which leads to the climax being back in Britain, complete with a pursuit in London. There was also something of Quantum of Solace in the danger being within the Establishment. Alas, I was not an admirer of the family dynamic aspect of Skyfall, and I did not think it was executed any better this time, Bond's connection with Blofeld thinly sketched, unsatisfying--and unnecessary, as if "drama in the family" had simply become another box the producers felt that they had to tick, while the big reveal of the villain was just as flat as Silva's appearance in the last movie. And the way it all goes down in the end struck me as generic, in this case in an action-movies-in-general way. Had the last confrontation been in Los Angeles rather than London, I would have expected to see Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer's names on the screen at the start of the credits. Or maybe Joel Silver's. And it was, alas, not the first time this could have been said of a Bond film. (A principal criticism of 1989's Licence to Kill was its looking and feeling so much like a regular '80s American action film, and what happened in it when someone makes the "big mistake" of killing the hero's "favorite second cousin.")

I was somewhat more intrigued by the mass surveillance element. Still, the use of the theme seemed less daring and serious than the resource politics in Quantum where the supervillains were the same people many regard as the supervillains in real life. Moreover, I remember watching Quantum, and then Skyfall, and being struck by the film's backing off from that critical touch, which made the attempt to retcon the four films into a single narrative all the more problematic.

The result is still, on the whole, a watchable action film, at points more than watchable. Sheer scale and visceral staging elevated the Day of the Dead chase above the level of a mere repeat, while there was here and there an entertaining twist, in cases sufficient for the generous to call it homage rather than rip-off. All the same, it takes more than merely "watchable" to justify a $350 million entry in a half-century old series. Which brings me back to the first impression the world had of the film, by way of the "Sony hack of 2014." I suppose nothing since quite compares with that brief opening of a window on the cynicism and mediocrity of those who call the shots in Hollywood, reflected in the executives' panic at their own perceptions of the blandness of the film they had backed. ("There needs to be some kind of a twist rather than a series of watery chases with guns"; "the 'meanwhile' action for bond is simply fighting henchmen in many overblown and familiar sequences--helicopter, elevator shaft, netting." They said it before anyone else could.)

The final product testifies to their limitations in trying to clean up the mess they made. ("No, James Bond, I am your brother"--for the second underwhelming time in a row--may have been the best they could do.) And that, in turn, testifies to the greatest lameness of all--the PR hacks posing as journalists, the bowing-and-scraping business class-worshiping conformists, who would have the public in awe of Suits like these as "the smartest guys in the room," richly deserving of their seven, eight, nine figure compensation packages.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Just Out: What is Neoliberalism?

What is neoliberalism? How does it stand in relation to the rest of the liberal tradition? Were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (and the Democratic Party more generally) neoliberals, as many of their critics charge? And what has neoliberalism meant for the world?

Nader Elhefnawy's What is Neoliberalism? addresses, and answers, all of these questions—so critical to making sense of the world this past half century, and of currents events now.



Get your copy today.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Just Out: Complexity, Stagnation and Frailty: Understanding the Twenty-First Century

Back in 2004 I published "Societal Complexity and Diminishing Returns in Security" in the journal International Security. (The journal is paywalled, but you can access a copy on my blog, here.)

The argument, which built on Joseph Tainter's thesis in The Collapse of Complex Societies, boiled down to its absolute basics, was that modern civilization was getting more complex, by and large in ways that were offering less and less benefit, leaving it more strained and more vulnerable to disruption, all as the costs of protecting it kept going up.

This sounds abstract, but there were fairly concrete ways in which this was the case. The ever-rising volume of trade, travel, communication, information production and processing show our society's increasing complexity. The profound slowdown in economic growth in recent decades, the routinization of colossal deficits, the explosion of debt, testify to a society whose resources are badly strained. And of course, the "tight coupling" of our contemporary systems, the preference for leanness in the name of "efficiency" (at the expense of resiliency) also suggested rising vulnerability. This was evident, too, in the standard deemed necessary for protection--with the old idea of nuclear deterrence giving way to an obsession with not deterring but neutralizing the abilities of "irrational" actors, which entailed such things as preventive wars and missile defense. Meanwhile, way below that threat level there was the burgeoning expenditure on law enforcement, emergency services, private security.

As is often the case with a piece of published research, it was a starting point for me rather than an end to a line of speculation, in particular the first aspect of it--the way society was getting more complex but stagnant and strained, as declining growth and rising deficits and debt suggested. One result was a more thoroughly worked out and heavily updated version of the argument in 2008 which I was releasing just as the mortgage crisis demonstrated the stagnation and frailty of the globalized, financialized, twenty-first century economy, with the paper. (You can find it here on my blog, a PDF version here at SSRN.)

Still, that was not the end of it. I returned to the same theme later, and more recently produced three papers, also published through SSRN--one offering a yet more thorough and more up-to-date version of that argument in early 2018; an accompanying piece which probed deeply into the multiple available data sets regarding post-World War II growth in Gross World Product; and finally one which endeavored to relate our economic stresses to the sharp deterioration of the "liberal international order" that respectable mainstream talking heads remark so much but do so little to help anyone understand.

My new book, Complexity, Stagnation and Frailty: Understanding the Twenty-First Century, brings this later research together in a single, convenient volume, in both Kindle and paperback editions, available at Amazon and other retailers.



Get your copy today.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Politics of Fight Club

What seems like a thousand years ago, I was gulled by the hype into reading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club.

I ultimately found it incoherent and frustrating and dismissed it, eventually deciding that it was yet another piece of postmodernism in the worst sense of that term--shallow, muddled, pushing lots of buttons but not actually saying anything, which was a common enough experience back then, when I still paid attention to such things as "independent film." And I was annoyed by how unlike so many pop cultural "phenomena" Fight Club didn't seem to go away--how year after year, decade after decade, people kept on talking about it, getting excited about it.

In hindsight, it seems something much more insidious. Tyler Durden and company's smugly willful irrationality and anti-rationality, their exultation in violent action for its own sake, their contempt for egalitarianism (from here we get the current, unfortunate usage of "snowflake"), their leader-worship, their fascination with the idea of an all-male pseudo-community intent on mayhem . . . they seems to pretty much cover any laundry list of traits of fascism one cares to name.

Of course, defining an ideology simply by a list of traits is not entirely satisfying. And so I find myself thinking of characterizations of fascism which attempt to get at its essence, with two such attempts standing out in my memory. One is of fascism as a politics that organizes people around self-expression, around theatrical display rather than self-interest. (Think of the Nazis serving up the spectacle of the Nuremberg rallies instead of making good on their promises of a higher living standard for the German people.) The other is that fascism is a combination of rebellious feeling with reactionary thinking. The book's principals fit on both counts, of course--because self-expression rather than self-interest is what is at issue for them, because their rebellious feeling is combined with that worship of inegalitarianism, anti-humanism, violence, leader-cult and the rest that by any reasonable measure is reactionary.

Of course, having established that Tyler Durden and company are a pack of fascists, one is left with the question of what to make of the book itself. To depict a thing is not necessarily to advocate that thing--and like any other postmodernist Palahniuk surrounds his work with such a freight of irony that one can never be sure what he really thinks about anything, or even if he has any awareness of what he is presenting. (Given the intellectual shallowness on display, one cannot take that much self-awareness for granted.) However, whatever his intent, the attraction of what he presented for a certain demographic makes it clear that it did appeal specifically because of its fascism. Looking back it appears that this should have received more, and more critical attention--our cultural commentators fallen asleep on the job again.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success

This essay is a development of two prior posts, "The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: The Boom Years" (August 22, 2019), and "The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: Surviving the Bust" (August 28, 2019)
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In writing The Military Techno-thriller: A History I was primarily interested in the big picture of how the genre emerged and developed. When I discussed individual works I was more concerned with whether they were original or influential than with, for example, whether I found them more or less entertaining, or what I thought of the literary craftsmanship they displayed. Still, I certainly had my opinions about these matters when I first encountered the techno-thriller not long after its '80s-era heyday, and which did not change much when I revisited these works for my research--while recently reading Fuldapocalypse Fiction's characteristically incisive and entertaining anniversary review of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears had me thinking about that writer in particular.

As I have noted before, Clancy was far and away the biggest name in the field in the '80s (indeed, the highest-selling American novelist of the '80s, in any field). However, was he the best? I must admit I did not think so at the time. I thought others excelled him in various ways--and indeed, most of the ways that mattered to me then. Dale Brown struck me as the best at pure summer blockbuster-type action, while along with Brown, Stephen Coonts was stronger at mixing action and technology (in flying sequences, at least). Larry Bond was the one to turn to for grand-scale scenarios, intricately conceived and depicted, and briskly paced. And Ralph Peters was the most accomplished at such objects of conventional literary craftsmanship as prose and characterization. (For that matter, I cannot think of any Clancy adventure I enjoyed quite as much as I did Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid.)

All that being the case, one might wonder why Clancy came to eclipse the others with readers as he did. I see three significant factors working in his favor in the '80s, with one more coming along in the '90s.

1. Getting There First, and Not Just the First Time, But Again and Again
One point in Clancy's favor, certainly, was that as far as those names are concerned, he was first--which mattered all the more given the brief window of opportunity the genre's writers wound up having to make a really big name for themselves (the boom peaking in '89 according to my reading of the bestseller lists, and turning to bust afterward fast). Clancy's debut, The Hunt for Red October, arrived scarcely before the deep freeze of the Second Cold War began to give way to another thaw--the end of 1984, mere months before Mikhail Gorbachev became Premier of the Soviet Union, and not quite five years before the Berlin Wall was to fall.

The book managed 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, on which it rose as high as the #2 slot, firmly established him as a Name in the field, and making it easy for him to get follow-ups into print while those other writers were still looking at the emergent market, still shopping around manuscripts. (Dale Brown's first book, notably, was Silver Tower, but it didn't sell the first time around and he was told "Why not do a flying story?"--which had his debut coming only in 1987 with The Flight of the Old Dog, and Silver Tower not hitting the market until the year after that.)

As far as having that inside track went, it mattered that Clancy made the most of it, producing new novels almost annually at this stage. The result was that he had five novels complete before that event, whereas Stephen Coonts and Dale Brown were to have three, and Larry Bond only his first as a headliner (Red Phoenix), and Payne Harrison and Ralph Peters just their first efforts (with Brown's book only his first to get the New York Times' list, and Peters not making it at all, which may be of ambiguous meaning with regard to sales, but certainly clear implications when it comes to the publicity a place on the list offers).

This gave Clancy a greater opportunity to build an audience, which, again, he seems to have made the most of, not least by consistently being ahead of the competition with regard to the treatment of other major ideas. The team writing under the name John Hackett had already produced a work about a hypothetical U.S.-Soviet World War III in Europe way back in the '70s--but as of 1986 the work was eight years old, and anyway, it was written as a future history rather than a novel. The result was that Red Storm Rising looked relatively fresh in taking on that theme, with Harold Coyle and Ralph Peters only managing to follow later (in 1987 and 1989, respectively). When writing a novel pitting the hero of his original book against terrorists, Clancy had Patriot Games (1987) out before Coonts could publish Final Flight (1988); and when mixing up techno-thriller tech with old-fashioned espionage, The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) out before Coonts' The Minotaur (1989). Clancy was in the lead with regard to the drug war as well, getting Clear and Present Danger into print in 1989 (literally on the list as American soldiers parachuted into Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega on drug trafficking charges, which may not have been unhelpful), while Dale Brown's Hammerheads and Stephen Coonts' similarly drug war-themed Under Siege only hit the market the next year (1990), when everyone else was doing it.1

Each and every time, he had the book out first, which can only have helped his interest.

2. And Now for Something Completely Different . . .
Along with being the first on the scene, and putting out four more books in five years that, time and again, preceded the genre's other major writers to market with some salable theme, Clancy time and again varied the type of story he told. Someone perhaps disinclined to read a novelized war game like Red Storm Rising might have been ready to give Patriot Games (where he "cut back on the military detail to write a story focused on people . . . a personal tale of love and revenge") a chance--while much of the audience disappointed in the smaller-scale, much less tech- and action-packed Patriot Games would have been ready to give him another chance with Cardinal of the Kremlin, especially when they heard about its Strategic Defense Initiative theme. And so on and so forth. No one else shifted tacks to anything like that degree within that space of time, or had a chance to do so, and I suspect that this rather risky course, which might have been the more bearable because Clancy had such a large audience from the first, paid off as well.

3. Writing For a General Audience
Besides his being first, getting the novels out quickly in those early days, and varying the product, it seems notable that, compared with the scenarios of Brown or Harrison, Clancy's were, if not exactly plausible by real-world standards, then at least believable by the standards of this kind of thriller. Dale Brown's Silver Tower had the U.S. putting a massive battle station armed with a super-laser into space by 1992, and its becoming the key American asset in the war that broke out with the Soviets when they invaded Iran. By contrast in Cardinal of the Kremlin the laser-based component of strategic defense remains very much a work in progress. This disparity was even clearer in the drug war novels. Clancy's version of a more thoroughly militarized conflict had American commandos waging a secret war against the cartels on the ground (and a fighter plane occasionally shooting down a drug smuggler's aircraft). Brown had the country deploying high-tech oil rig-type offshore bases for patrolling tilt-rotor aircraft, which had the cartels striking back with MiGs and Mirages and Kitchen anti-ship missiles leading to dogfights in the air--all while serving up a great deal of comic book-ishness in Megafortresses, mind-controlled super-fighters (in Day of the Cheetah), and the like. And the technical detailing of this vast machinery, the intricacy of the colossal action sequences, could become very considerable indeed, rather more so than in anything Clancy wrote.

I enjoyed the extravagances of Brown's books. But I think they were too much that way for most readers (people who complain about the technical detail in a Clancy novel will probably never enjoy one of Brown's), the body of readers really up for these sorts of literary pleasures just a fraction of the proportion Clancy was able to get as a following.

It may also be that one of the features of Clancy's writing that a great many readers (myself included) have been less than happy with served him well here--not least, Clancy's tendency to lengthy exposition and rising action before the story really got going, heavy on detail not just about the workings of submarines but Jack Ryan's domestic cares. The slow build-ups, the abundance of the detailing, for all their shortcomings, may have lent the narrative a verisimilitude and a heft that it would not have had if he just rushed to the good part (or at least, the illusion of verisimilitude and heft that sheer slowness and mass can bring). Additionally, if I never took real interest in Ryan as a character, others seem to have been more responsive to him that way, especially that vast body of less-attached readers that Clancy managed to reach but which Brown did not.

All of these advantages stood Clancy in good stead into the '90s, particularly his readiness to vary his work, and his groundedness and accessibility, which may have been especially important as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made "big war" scenarios harder to think up, and generally less credible or interesting to readers--along with the fact that having so many readers in the first place, he could lose a good many and still be near the top. (The '90s saw Clancy not just remain a bestseller, but any new Jack Ryan novel taking the #2 spot on Publisher's Weekly's list of the year's biggest seller, and Clancy's overall output still making him one of the top five sellers of the decade.)

4. A Multimedia Boost
Significant as all this was, it might be added that Clancy's '80s-era success earned him a better opportunity than any of his rivals at multimedia success in the early part of the decade, which turned out to be serendipitously timed from the standpoint of his career. It is worth noting that Clancy's Clear and Present Danger had been at or near the top of the bestseller list for half a year when The Hunt for Red October hit theaters, with still a ways to go if the success of the prior Jack Ryan adventure was anything to go by. This by no means guaranteed the movie's success with filmgoers, but it doubtless helped it to become a $100 million blockbuster in a time when those could be counted on two hands with fingers left over, just trailing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and edging out the much-hyped Total Recall and Die Hard 2.2 Clancy's success in one area also boosted his success in another, as Red October's becoming a hit led to two more Jack Ryan movies (both also hits) in the next four years, with the film version of Clear and Present Danger still playing when Clancy's third book of the '90s, Debt of Honor, hit the market, just in time to benefit from both the movie's being in theaters, and from the Japanaphobia fad scarcely before Japanese stagnation and American boom made it seem passe. (By contrast Stephen Coonts, far less fortunate in this regard, was to see Flight of the Intruder flop in January 1991, ending any hope of a Jake Grafton film franchise, eliminating what could have been a significant prop to his sales as interest in techno-thrillers eroded. It seems worth noting, too, that Coonts' next techno-thriller, also Japan-themed--Fortunes of War--coming along as it did in 1998, arrived after the fashion had run its course.)

There was not to be another Jack Ryan movie until 2002, a gap that could not have helped--but the bigger fashion for techno-thriller movies may have lent him some support, with the success of Air Force One (the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1997) perhaps especially notable. After Harrison Ford's playing Jack Ryan twice, and Jack Ryan having become President in the books (at the end of Debt of Honor), seeing Harrison Ford as President of the United States fighting Russian terrorists on Air Force One one could have been forgiven for thinking Air Force One was another Jack Ryan movie--and indeed, I would be surprised if it did not provide some benefit to his sales, which were getting plenty of help from elsewhere. If inactive on film, the "Clancy brand" extended to "co-authored" paperbacks with the Op-Center franchise (just one of many such series' to soon bear his name, well before Coonts or Dale Brown were to have their own out), and from there to television (with a miniseries in 1995), and increasingly to video gaming too, with the signal moment the translation of his 1998 bestseller Rainbow Six into a first-person shooter video game--which had the advantage of coming at a time when video gaming was reaching an increasingly adult market, and at the same time, most of the big names in that genre were still science fiction titles (like Doom) or World War II titles (like Medal of Honor). Rainbow Six proved popular indeed, and while I do not think anyone has bothered to do a proper survey, I suspect that at least a few gamers were tempted by them to the books.

Thus the Clancy name remained a force to be reckoned with in the '90s.

Of course, looking back over this, one might be struck by how much sheer happenstance there was in these events--to the extent that they made all that much difference, about which, again, I can only speculate here. The book deal Clancy made that got his book out first was an unusual one--Red October accepted by the first publisher he hit, without an agent, even though the publisher in question (the Naval Institute Press) did not do fiction at the time. Had he been forced to follow a more typical course, Red October might have only got out years later, and things been very different as a result. Even without that, that the Cold War's end would happen when it did, making his lead over his rivals the more significant, was obviously not something that could have been planned. And getting the film adaptation of that book out just as his latest novel was becoming its decade's biggest seller was also far beyond his control. Even where those things he could control are concerned, it is far from clear just how much of it actually involved calculation on his part, like the style of plotting he adopted, or the changes of course with regard to Jack Ryan's adventures, especially in those critical early days.

Considering that I find myself remembering Patrick Anderson's 1988 New York Times Magazine article on Clancy, in which he remarked Clancy's insistence on "dumb luck" as a factor in his personal success. Given all that I have raised here his success seems far from inexplicable. Yet, that the pieces fell into place for him when they did, as they did, and went on doing so long after '88, turning a bestselling novelist into a major multimedia brand still going strong with new Jack Ryan novels and co-authored paperbacks, with new video games and a TV series on Netflix and perhaps more films on the way, can seem to mean that he had far, far more dumb luck coming his way than he had seen or knew back then.

1. In November and December 1989 Clear and Present Danger had five straight weeks on the #4 rung of the New York Times' bestseller list. On the December 31, 1989 list, covering the week after the invasion, this book with 18 weeks on the list already behind it rose to #3, where it stayed for three weeks before rising another notch to #2 (January 21, 1990). Given the ambiguity of bestseller list rankings one cannot make too much of it, but the timing of the rise when the book had been on its way down is suggestive nonetheless.
2. There were just nine $100 million movies in 1989 and 1990, eight in 1991. By contrast 2018 had 34 movies making that much or more.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

American Monarchists

A surprising number of Americans seem to romanticize Britain's upper classes, and its associated trappings--the ultimate symbol, idol, fetish of which is the monarchy.

The tendency clearly extends far, far beyond the well-known Anglophilia of blue-blooded Eastern Establishment types who feel the more blue-blooded and Established for a trans-Atlantic connection to the even older Establishment in Britain. Even some who should know much better seem awed by the upper strata of British society, feel inferior to them. I remember, for instance, C.M. Kornbluth's rather gratuitous remark regarding George Orwell's literary craftsmanship in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The prose is the prose of a man with an English public school education, and I have noticed that these old Eton and Cambridge boys can write rings around anybody unfortunate enough not to have attended a public school and an ancient university.
The lecture in which Kornbluth made this remark was, on the whole, deeply disappointing in its intellectual shallowness and sheer enervation (the title was "The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism"), but this line was nothing short of disgusting in its bowing and scraping before a pretension and snobbery that the individual object of his praise happily did not share (for the man who gave the world Oceania and The Road to Wigan Pier could never have made his mark on history had he shared it). And it says a great deal that a writer as intelligent and talented and accomplished as Kornbluth (six decades on The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law remain as relevant as ever, in their ways even cleverer and more relevant than Orwell's book) spoke it publicly in such a context, apparently without anyone thinking anything of it.

One reflection of this is that many Americans hear Received Pronunciation, and immediately attribute to the possessor of the accent an erudition and intelligence on a higher plane than their own--just as the only school whose name can beat "Harvard" in the snob stakes among adherents of the Cult of the Good School is "Oxford."

Another more significant reflection is that they think the feudal trappings of a British social system that, as H.G. Wells remarked in Tono-Bungay, was, and a century later remains, frozen circa 1688, are quaint and picturesque and essentially harmless, essentially not at odds with their cherished notion of Britain's as the Mother of Parliaments, which brought the light of democracy back into the world--and that, indeed, it is in poor taste, gauche, to criticize such things. However, the reality, as Adam Ramsay recently put it in his book, is a
House of Lords where a combination of the only hereditary legislators in the world, the only automatic seats for clerics outside Iran, and hundreds of appointed cronies get a say on all the UK's laws. This valve in the British state allows the interests of the powerful to flow freely, while holding back progressive change.
All this is combined with, as his colleague Laurie MacFarlane explains, "a head of state that is appointed not on the basis of merit, but by bloodline," with the whole operating under "an 'uncodified' constitution, which is to say that we don’t really have one." And it all gets crazier from there--the "less equal than others" status of the inhabitants of the seven-eighths of British territory outside the British isles, the principle of "asymmetric devolution," and the rest, complemented and reinforced by the culture of the civil service, and the culture of "empire-kitsch nationalism" sustained by the tabloids, which causes many to speak such stupidities as "We need a monarchy because we don't have a Hollywood!"

Altogether it is a spectacle of backwardness, unearned and unjustifiable privilege, reaction, which if similarly displayed by a nation of Africa or Asia (especially one which had suffered the kind of industrial hollowing out Britain did, living off of accommodating foreign financiers and the kind of balance of payments Britain has), would be treated by the very same people as grounds for racist scorn, proof that "those savages" are unfitted for industry, democracy, modernity and the rest of modern life. And all of it has real-world consequences, with the Queen's Stuart-ish, pre-1688-ish suspension of Parliament to permit Boris Johnson's shoving a No-Deal Brexit down the throats of the British people only the latest and most recent example. (Ask the Australians what happened in 1975 for another.)

Online, at least, one seems to encounter a little more alertness to the fact from British observers.

One wonders if this will give American observers, or at least those who pretend to be at least a little bit progressive, similar pause where fawning over "the Queen" is concerned.

Alas, to go by the fawning over Prince Diana I see today, I do not think it likely.

Flouting the Conventional Wisdom (On Quentin Tarantino's Films)

Over the years I have found that anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion on the matter of Quentin Tarantino's films almost immediately runs up against the intolerance of his fans for such an opinion--in real life, and of course, online. One may object to the violence, profanity, etc. in Tarantino's films (though his fans will take that as a compliment to Tarantino, whose "edginess" is thought part of his accomplishment, and testament to the critic's being a laughable prude). One may, to some extent, take issue with his films on the grounds of identity politics--the scripts drenched in racial epithets, the allotment of roles to women and so forth (because so few dare to challenge criticism coming from that direction, while even here, Tarantino fans stand their ground more than most).

However, one is not at all allowed to criticize, or even analyze, his movies as movies, to speak seriously of their aesthetic content, technical execution, or intellectual or political substance (or lack thereof). David Walsh, perhaps the most consistently interesting film critic working today, especially when it comes to discussion of the sort of "independent," art house filmmakers toward whom the middlebrow reviewers of the upmarket pages tend to be obsequious (though the team he works with is by and large very good here), has been a rare exception from the start. Writing about Pulp Fiction he did not deny credit where credit was due, in particular praising the performances of some of the cast (particularly that of Samuel L. Jackson). However, he saw the film as characterized by a "lack of spontaneity . . . self-consciousness . . . posturing . . . substitut[ing] for a serious look at life"; thought the filmmaking the filmmaking of a "show-off," constantly "overdo[ing] things," and "call[ing] attention to everything in his film which he considers clever or daring" with "a dozen exclamation marks," not least because he is more concerned with developing in the viewer a "certain attitude toward the filmmaker" than anything else. This was certainly the case with the trademark Tarantino dialogue, which he thought "inane" and (this bore that notice specifically) "called attention to itself far too often." Meanwhile, whatever faint "strand of revolt" and "sympathy for the underdog, the outsider" there may have been in it, whatever "feeling for the banality of lower middle class existence . . . its linguistic rhythms . . . kitsch . . . pathos of dead-end lives," is "swamped" by the reality that it is nowhere near so subversive as it may look to the untutored eye, Tarantino's "nonconformism" thoroughly conformist, not in spite of but in its brutality and nihilism.

While somewhat more warmly receiving Jackie Brown, Walsh made clear that the posturing and show-offiness and conformist non-conformism remained, while his opinion of the director worsened after he saw Kill Bill and its follow-ups, an output he deemed "unwatchable." In his review of the last Tarantino movie he covered for his publication, Django Unchained, he observed that Tarantino is "a seriously unskilled artist . . . a cultural huckster, with a minor talent for pastiche, reworking genres and creating blackly comic moments." He also notes that "[u]nder healthier circumstances, no one would have paid much notice" to him, and that he did get so much notice reflected the very "unhealthfulness" of those circumstances, what is retrograde in Tarantino aligning with what is retrograde in the prevailing opinion-makers, whose powerful response to Tarantino's "flippant tone and cynicism" reflects their decreasing "sympathy for democratic niceties."

What Walsh has to say of the artistic traits of Tarantino's films--the self-consciousness and the posturing, the inane dialogue, the self-satisfied show off-iness, the conformist non-conformism and general vacuity to which one can, with rare confidence, apply words like "middlebrow" or "Midcult"--has rung true for me since nearly the start. Indeed, already by the mid-'90s it seemed to me that those qualities virtually defined the much ballyhooed independent film movement, especially its neo-noir component, much of which has been directly imitative of his work. (Already seeing the first commercials for Suicide Kings I couldn't help burst out laughing at what a pack of cliches it had come to seem.)

Walsh's reading of the politics of Tarantino's reception may seem more arguable, shifting away as it does from specific features of a piece of . . . film, to the less certain matter of what it means, but it seems to me that Walsh is at least broadly correct here--the intellectual shallowness with which all this is received, the gleeful nihilism that the gullible take for "cool" and "edgy," but which is really just fascistic garbage (or actually fascist garbage). It is an opinion that I suspect Tarantino would reject, and I think he would be honest and sincere in his denial. (I had the impression that his support for Black Lives Matter, which seems to have cost him a measure of favor in recent years, was genuine.) Still, a deep political thinker he does not seem to be, especially when making his movies (nor a terribly consistent thinker, period, to go by what many have written about his latest, Walsh's very capable colleague Joanne Laurier among them). And, if unintentionally, he seems to reflect and play to and be welcomed by his reviewers and his fans not in spite of but because of exactly what these critics find so tiresome and repugnant about his work.

Monday, July 22, 2019

James Bond and Britain's Small Wars

Studying the Bond series for my books I found myself increasingly researching post-war Britain--to the point that I wound up writing two books concerned with that in various ways.





Done, I find myself thinking once more about how that history is reflected in the thriller fiction of that era, and not least the Bond series. The books were very much a product of their time--in presenting Britain in reduced circumstances, but nonetheless a global power on the basis of hopes that it could form a union between its perceived special competence at "the game" and the vast resources of the U.S. (embodied in the working relationship of Bond and his CIA colleague Felix Leiter). They are very much of their time, too, in speaking directly to many of the fears of British orthodoxy at the time--of Soviet-Communist infiltration of Western Europe (Casino Royale) and the Empire (Live and Let Die); of the age of the ballistic missile and the nuclear bomb (Moonraker, Dr. No, Thunderball); of the oft-troubled British balance of payments (Diamonds Are Forever); and even that reliance on America from which Britain always hoped for rather more than it got (above all, in You Only Live Twice).

Yet, the crises in which Britain became involved, the numerous end-of-the-empire wars which occupied its intelligence services and armed forces. just about never seem to turn up in the Bond novels and stories in significant ways. Bond never goes to Malaya or Kenya or Iran or Cyprus or any other such real-world hot spot.

Even reference to the conflicts is infrequent and even oblique. As he walks into Blades in Moonraker, Fleming remarks of Bond that the "casual observer" might, on knowing he had something to do with the Ministry of Defence, think he "[m]ay have been attached to Templer in Malaya. Or Nairobi. Mau Mau work"--which is as close as he gets to either of those wars. Later, in "The Hildebrand Rarity," Bond is in the Seychelles, checking out the islands as a possible fall-back point for the Royal Navy, after its prior "fall back" from Ceylon to the Maldives. Why that task? Fleming mentions Communist-influenced labor unions in Ceylon, but really Ceylon's kicking British forces out of the country was part of the broader backlash against British handling of the Suez crisis--not mentioned at all here.

Later, when Bond is meeting Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice to discuss an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, Bond, insisting on the legitimacy of British interest in the area, at this moment when British forces confronted Indonesia's Sukarno and drew up plans to protect India against Chinese invasion, merely makes vague reference to Captain Cook and the existence of Australia and New Zealand.

I suppose this avoidance of the subject is partly a matter of Fleming's attachment to those settings he knew and loved so well, and which suited his purposes better--Western Europe, North America, the Caribbean. However, it was also a matter of his entertaining his audience in particular ways. The Bond series, like so much of spy fiction since Duckworth Drew, blended adventure and action and intrigue with glamour to offer a particular sort of escape--and a story about Bond really doing "Mau Mau work" would not have been terribly consistent with that. There is a limit to which one can mix escapist adventure with the ugly realities of Empire and war--a lesson that writers seem to have forgotten in this age of relentlessly dark blockbusters.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Paramilitary Fiction and the Military Techno-thriller: The Question of Social Class

In one of the comparatively few scholarly articles written about the military techno-thriller, "Redeeming Vietnam: Techno-Thriller Novels of the 1980s" (which ran in the Autumn 1991 edition of the journal Cultural Critique), sociologist William James Gibson held that the techno-thriller provided a white-collar, middle-class counterpart to working-class populist paramilitary fiction. As Gibson put it, the naval captains, Air Force officers, intelligence analysts and the like who were the heroes of those works "are educated professionals" who "fight with their minds and with the most advanced technology science can develop," but still show, and assure their middle class audience that, they too "have 'what it takes' to fight the enemy"--not least, in bucking the enervated or sell-out Establishment types when the situation demands it.

Jack Ryan is, of course, an obvious example, consistently acting on his own in such a manner. In Patriot Games (1987) it is his own initiative that leads him to the rescue of British royals, and then in the end, his own actions that save his family from retaliation by the terrorists who assassinated them, with the tendency still more pronounced in later book. After the D.C. players abandoned a special-forces in Colombia in Clear and Present Danger (1989), the normally straight-arrow Jack Ryan personally undertook an unauthorized operation to bring them back, not just flying out on the helicopter tasked with the recovery, but personally manning its minigun, with which he mows down dozens of drug cartel soldiers.

Still, the matter strikes me as more complex than Gibson suggests. Before joining the CIA, Jack Ryan was a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, and a Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy, married to an ophthalmic surgeon whose father was a senior Vice-President at the iconic brokerage; but he was also the son of a cop and a nurse who does not get along with his hyper-privileged in-laws.

Indeed, in his confrontation with that Merrill Lynch VP in Patriot Games after the terrorists have put Ryan's wife and daughter in the hospital, Clancy strikes rather a populist note. Joe Muller, "a product of the Ivy League," and quite aware of his "importance in the financial community" acted in a high-handed manner toward Ryan, whom he never forgave for leaving the business, is a classic example of the overbearing, money-and-power obsessed rich man who doesn't understand his son-in-law's "trying to make the world a better place instead of trying to take it over with leveraged buyouts," and doesn't get that there are people he can't bully. Indeed, Clancy pointedly presents Ryan as averse to the man and what he represents, Ryan telling Joe in the same speech that if he stayed on Wall Street like he wanted, "working with [him] every day, moving money from Column A to Column B and pretending it was important, like all the other Wall Street wimps" he would, "hating it," have turned "into another miserable bastard in the financial world." It is not the middle class but another class that Clancy seems to be reassuring when Ryan remarks that, as far as making money there went, "I proved that I could do that as well as you, but I made my pile, and so now I do something I like."

The pattern recurred in such works time and again. Dale Brown's Patrick McLanahan--who, if anything, goes far, far beyond Ryan in loose cannon behavior as his own series proceeds--is imagined along quite similar lines. McLanahan, too, is the son of an Irish-American cop who "knew nothing else but work from age twenty to age sixty," after retirement, in his own cop bar, "The Shamrock." The sons continue both traditions, McLanahan's brother Paul becoming a cop in his turn, while after dad's death selling the bar--"family symbol" and "heirloom" that it is--is out of the question in spite of the unprofitability of the establishment that had dad working side jobs like security guard, and Patrick sacrificing much of his earnings as an Air Force officer to keeping it in business. Indeed, in Shadows of Steel (1996) Patrick, who himself "looked as if he might be more at home in a squad car or on motorcycle patrol than in a bar" is the more out of place because of what has become of the bar, the hang-out for "loud, adrenaline-pumped" beer-and-bourbon drinking cops now frequented by upmarket, touristy types who order "Napa Valley chardonnays . . . specialty espresso coffee drinks . . . cafe mochas . . . veggie appetizers," and expect to get them from decidedly un-McLanahan-like "cool, suave Tom Cruise-look-alike bartenders."

Also like Ryan, his in-laws don't think much of him, and let him know it (in considerably cruder terms than Muller uses--an anti-Irish racial epithet is spoken) when his wife winds up in the hospital due to enemy action in Day of the Cheetah (1989). Appearing two years after Patriot Games, the scene can appear derivative, but that Clancy's scene appeared worth imitating is in itself significant--and in any event, this was far from the last time he was to be in such a situation. Returning to the family home again in The Tin Man (1998), McLanahan goes after not the usual foreign adversaries, but a meth-cooking biker gang that hurt his brother in fairly Mack Bolan fashion (albeit, with the help of a little superhero technology that looks more Batman than Executioner).

For his part, Stephen Coonts' Jake Grafton, who like McLanahan began his adventures in print with an unauthorized air strike against Communist villains (in Hanoi in 1972 in this case) in Flight of the Intruder (1986), is the son of a farmer--not working-class, admittedly, but hardly a member of the elite. And Ralph Peters, if less given to playing up the humble roots of his War in 2020 (1991) protagonist George Taylor (another launcher of unauthorized military strikes in the midst of international crisis), was even more ardent about playing up the privileged backgrounds of many of those with whom he had to contend, juxtaposing him against the man with whom his girlfriend Daisy Fitzgerald is cheating on him, deputy director of the "United Intelligence Agency," "Clifton Reynard Bouquette." At times reading like a caricature of "the other have" in government service, Bouquette is a man who "knew the names of wines and waiters." By contrast Taylor, on account of the scars left by a disease he contracted during a deployment in Africa, "cannot sit in a restaurant without disturbing those around [him]"--and defiantly refuses the cosmetic surgery that would make him more socially acceptable, seeing his face as "the true badge of his service."

The result is that even if middle-class individuals may have "what it takes," the suspicion of moneyed, professional, "Establishment types" is almost as prominent in the techno-thriller as it is in the more overtly blue-collar paramilitary works.

Friday, July 12, 2019

A Genre of Flying Stories?

Looking back at the military techno-thriller, it seems worth remarking that not all combat arms or weapons systems were equally popular with writers, especially in tales more narrowly focused on the doings of particular characters.

I suppose if most people had to name a techno-thriller they would mention The Hunt for Red October--in many ways the book that established the American techno-thriller in the '80s, and certainly the career of the genre's most successful practitioner, so that they would think of it as a genre of submarine stories.

Still, it strikes me that rather more popular than stories of submarines, warships of any other type, or ground units, have been stories of aerial combat. It was the story of a fighter plane's theft, not that of a warship, tank or anything else that proved a critical early prototype of the genre--Craig Thomas' Firefox, which was to have two sequels. Later, Stephen Coonts made his name with flying stories (The Flight of the Intruder, Final Flight), while Dale Brown has managed an unmatched three-decade streak of bestsellers on the basis of the adventures of Air Force officer Patrick McLanahan. If less prominent or consistent, Payne Harrison, Richard Herman, Dean Ing, Barrett Tillamn, R.J. Pineiro, likewise became genre luminaries on the basis of the same theme, while it is worth remembering that Clancy himself, for all his association with naval action, offered plenty of battle in the skies in his books, not least Red October (where A-10s buzz the Kirov, and American Tomcats dogfight Soviet Forgers).

It retrospect it seems plausible that the aircraft-centered story had numerous advantages from a dramatic perspective. One is that an aircraft is a discrete unit, in contrast with an armored unit comprised of many vehicles dispersed over an extended territory--acres, square miles. One could say the same of a warship, of course, but a naval vessel is a large, complex grouping, hundreds or even thousands of personnel spread throughout a vast, compartmentalized hull. The entire vessel and crew may be subordinate to the will of a single captain, but this still diffuses the activity--the officer giving the order not performing the act, or even in the same part of the ship as the people who execute it. Someone in another, unseen part of the vessel loads the torpedo tube--and equally when the ship takes a hit, it is apt to be someone in another, unseen part of the vessel seeing the damage and personally coping with it. All that makes a great contrast with the individualism of a pilot flying an aircraft themselves, and even the small-group dynamics of an aircraft crew--in the case of Coonts' A-6, and even the then-popular B-2 bomber, just two people sitting close together.

Additionally the briskness of aerial warfare—of supersonic jets exchanging even faster missiles as they zip through the sky—may be easier to depict lucidly and make exciting than the slower movement and thicker "fog of war" of a ground unit in the middle of a large battle, or a submarine crew trying to work out from subtle sounds what is going on above and around them as they sit in a steel shell hundreds of feet below the sea. All of this reflected a key aspect of the tales, namely the taste for adventure and romance over the impersonal realities of high-tech, mass warfare.

On Being an "Adult"

Cultural commentators have always inflicted on the world a great deal of inanity about the younger generation not measuring up to their satisfaction. For quite a while (going back, at least, to Generation X) one of their favorite laments has been that the young are not "growing up." That they are not properly "adult."

It is the most obnoxious kind of criticism--nasty and at the same time opaque--because it is unclear just what they mean by "adult."

One may think of an adult as someone who can take care of themselves, and when the situation calls for it, take care of other people and things as well, and therefore be trusted with those responsibilities that have to be borne. That they have given evidence of the qualities this requires--a certain minimum of readiness to put obligations ahead of convenience, pleasure and even interest; a measure of understanding of themselves and of how the world works, and the ability to apply that to those ends.

This seems to me a reasonable thing to expect people to be.

But it does not seem to be what they have in mind at all. Instead they define adulthood in terms of certain external trappings that might be thought to imply all this--with the trappings taking precedence as what they are supposed to imply recedes from attention.

Specifically they have in mind a "middle-class job"--something involving a certain minimum income and stability permitting a suburban existence (putting up with the maintenance and other hassles of detached houses with big lawns is, apparently, part of the "package"), with authority over others and prospects for promotion. They have in mind, too, marriage, children.

Oddly enough, they also tend to make the judgment of "adult" or "not adult" on the basis of what one does in their spare time. Somehow it is adult to watch sports on TV and participate in a "Fantasy Football" league; but not adult to play football on a video game console. And artistic and intellectual pursuits, especially of the "geekier" kinds, are seen as suspect.

All of this gives away the game--the essential shallowness of it. This idea of adult-ness seems nothing so much as nostalgia for a certain image of the '50s--like so much else in the thinking of American conservatives, who consider the '60s and everything after to have been a falling away from all that was good in the world.

It also says much of their class and other prejudices--because the working class, the single, the childless, are consequently less "adult" than others, no matter how much of the adult virtues they actually possess.

And, of course, when they subject the much-maligned millennial to such criticism, they betray their essential bad faith. The thirtysomething college graduate working a minimum wage job as they live at home does not conform to their ideal--but never had a chance. The same social and economic policies that conservatives have relentlessly championed, which have made education synonymous with crushing indebtedness, which have made jobs rare and ill-paid and precarious, and housing out of their reach, all work against their ever having the kinds of households supposedly just given away when people are of age.

Ironically, in their having finished school, taken what work they could find, and accommodated their mode of life to the slighter means that went with the betrayal of the promise of a middle-class life for any and all who graduate college, one could credit these same "young people who refuse to grow up" with exactly those virtues the term "adult" supposedly sums up--and it is perfectly consistent with all this, too, that they should not get the least little credit for it.

Home Improvement: Nostalgic From the Start

Running into the odd Home Improvement rerun on cable, I am time and again struck by how backward-looking that superficially contemporary show was.

In the home and car repair and improvement theme that utterly saturated each episode; in its choice of setting in motor city U.S.A., Detroit; in its "salutes" again and again to everyone wearing a hard hat; it evoked less than the '90s than an earlier generation. I have in mind here the post-war boom--that period when American manufacturing commanded the world market virtually by default, colossal Cold War expenditures cycled money through the economy, and being an auto-owning suburbanite was the picture of the American Dream, exemplified by the industrial centers of the Midwest, where even a good many factory workers were participating in that "middle class" way of life.

The show didn't wear its nostalgia on its sleeve. One didn't see, for example, Tim talking about how much better things were when Ike was in the White House. One got the impression that nothing had changed at all. But it had. American manufacturing, the Midwestern industrial base, the relatively broad prosperity it sustained, and even the way of life with which it was associated, had all been in decline for nearly a generation when Tim the Toolman hit the air waves. Michael Moore, in fact, made his name by putting the very different reality on the big screen in Roger & Me years earlier (while as Home Improvement's run drew to its end, the overtly backward-looking That '70s Show presented a somewhat more realistic vision of that in the travails of Red Forman). And far from the region recovering from these problems, they have all got a lot worse--Moore's native Flint now famous for catastrophic fiscal and administrative failures that have left its residents without potable water in a crisis that has dragged on for year after year.

I don't see anyone using that as a backdrop to a popular prime time broadcast network family sitcom.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Delay of Bond 25

The latest word about "Bond 25" is that it will start hitting theaters in April 2020.

Assuming the franchise keeps to the schedule, this will be the first time in over three decades that a Bond movie has entered the summer box office fray.

More significant, however, is the fact that an April 2020 release date will mark the second longest gap between one Bond film and the next in the series' nearly six decade history. coming only after the nearly six-and-a-half year gap between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye--a function of not just the production headaches of this like every other long-running, big money franchise, but among other things (not least, the death of producer Albert R. Broccoli), the culmination of a long trend of decline culminating in particularly weak box office performance of Licence to Kill; and the end of the Cold War with all it implied for the spy genre.

Nothing really comparable is operative this time around. (Spectre was considered a letdown, but with nearly $900 million banked it was still one of the more successful installments in the franchise's history, even after adjustment for inflation, while comparison with the preceding film Skyfall was unrealistic, given the exceptional interest, and marketing opportunities, the fiftieth anniversary of the series provided, and which did so much to make it the series' highest earner of all time.) And there seems to be no real consideration of wrenching changes in the series' tone, aesthetic, theme--the course of the rebooted series, if anything, reaffirmed by the choice of Cary Fukunaga to helm and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (groan) to cowrite the script.

Rather the delay has me thinking of how a slower rate of output has been the norm for the series this century. The current plan will mean five Bond films in seventeen-and-a-half years--once every three and a half years, almost twice as long as was the norm pre-reboot. (Forty movies between 1962 and 2002, with that rate maintained even in later periods, two Bond films following Goldeneye in a mere four years.)

It all strikes me as underlining what is too little admitted, what is almost immediately beaten down by the boosters when anyone breathes any such word about any series--the franchise's increasing difficulty staying relevant.

When it started out this was simply not a problem. In the '60s the Bond films, without apparent strain, contributed to and rode a wave of popular fascination with spies and jet age glamour, but what really made the series was something more distinctive to it--the series' invention of the action-adventure blockbuster, both the technique for making such films (the fast-paced, set piece-centered structure that casts logic to the wind, the battery of cinematographic and editing technique that derives the most impact from those thrills).

No one else achieved anything really comparable then, despite wide imitation, which tended to settle for copying its more superficial elements. (A suave superspy? Let's do that, they all thought. But making an action movie to compare with the Bonds was generally beyond them, as a glance at the relatively high-profile Derek Flint movies shows.) This near-monopoly on its style of action movie-making remained the case even after the flood of Bond knock-offs turned into a comparative trickle, so that after the series' period of real originality (that first decade and its first half dozen movies) passed, and the novelty was reduced to an occasional set piece or gimmick that would stick in the popular mind, and it became repetitive of its own successes and derivative of those of others to sustain the glitter of the brand name (unmistakable in the chase-packed, blaxploitation-themed Live and Let Die), there was not a whole lot of real, head-to-head competition. (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, sure, they were hits--but they were doing something fairly different.)

Still, if slow, Hollywood did begin to catch up, Star Wars a signal moment in the process, while by the '80s Hollywood was adroit enough at this that the latest Bond movie could get lost n the summer crowd (up against Rambo and Mad Max and Commando in '85, against Predator and Robocop and Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop in '87, against Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon again and Batman in '89).

It got tougher still in the '90s, while by the twenty-first century it seemed like there was a new installment in a big-budget action franchise at the multiplex just about every week of the year--while the series' dispensing with much of what had made it distinctive made its standing out all the harder. (Already with Licence to Kill the results were looking like a generic '80s action film--while the producers' discomfort with the flamboyant plots and the self-indulgence of the character cost them much of what personality they had.)

As a result, instead of an assembly line more or less reliably chugging out Bond movie after Bond movie under the same team (director John Glen, who had been with the Bond franchise since the '60s, helmed five Bond movies in a row in the '80s), they have strained to "make it new" (ironically, while following the course of everyone else--"make it dark").

In the '90s changes of directors became frequent, while increasingly selecting the sort of "auteurs" who originally had no place in a franchise dominated by a creative producer (Broccoli a recipient of the Academy's Irving Thalberg Award for a reason). First there was the art-house break-out Lee Tamahori, given the charge of the 40th anniversary film Die Another Day, even before the reboot saw a turn to such directors as Marc Foster, Sam Mendes, and now the aforementioned Fukunaga. Again, the grosses have been good, but I am unconvinced this particular practice has really been all that helpful. There has, too, been the attempt at telling the story of how Bond became Bond, with a certain amount of soap operatic family drama and mythmaking tossed in. Not everyone was a fan of the approach. (I wasn't.) Still, many felt that this worked for Casino Royale, and Skyfall, each of those films giving viewers the sense that each of these was more than "another" Bond film. The reaction to Spectre, however, made fairly clear the limitations of that approach.

Is there much chance that the new team can come up with something, if only enough to give the franchise a bump like The Spy Who Loved Me, rather than continue a downward movement, the way A View to a Kill did?

I put that question to you, readers.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Historiography of Paramilitary Fiction

I have been reading and thinking and writing a great deal about spy fiction and military techno-thrillers.





It is not really possible to do that properly without giving a fair amount of thought to paramilitary action-adventure--the body of work about which I have had plenty of occasion to survey over the years.

I have found that there are plenty of works on particular series'--like William H. Young's A Study of Action-Adventure Fiction: The Executioner and Mack Bolan (the one which started it all)--and even works on subgenres, like John Newsinger's Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture; comprehensive round-ups of at least key swaths of the work published to date--like Bradley Mengel's Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction; and even a measure of critical examination of the phenomenon as a whole, like James William Gibson's Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America.

The works all have their interest and uses for the researcher, but none of these works amounts to a robust, "big picture" history of the genre's origins and development. My impression is that no one has attempted to produce such a history.

This may seem surprising. But it really isn't, given the way that scholars commonly treat genres of popular fiction. They tend not to take much interest in providing a comprehensive history of the genre, just look at such bits of it as fit within what happens to be fashionable at the moment. And even where a few buck the trend to produce something a little broader in perspective, the pressure to be rigorous, the notorious tendency to specialize it can encourage, leave them hesitate to go too far in putting the puzzle pieces together. This has certainly been the case with science fiction, for example--as I discuss at some length in Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry. The result is that there is a plenitude of rigorous but specialized work, and lots of stuff that affords a wider view but is written in a casual way (a principal reason why, before essaying the post-1980 history of the field that was my initial concern in the book, I had to spend so much time working out what came before).



However, even more fundamental than that is the fact that at the very high peak of its popularity the genre never attracted much serious critical attention. And since that peak the level of attention accorded the genre has receded very sharply indeed--so much so that when Gold Eagle, which is to paramilitary action-adventure what its owner Harlequin is to romance, never seems to have even got its own Wikipedia page. The site's disambiguation page for "Gold Eagle" simply identifies it as an "imprint of Harlequin Enterprises," and links the reader to Harlequin's page. There one finds in the three thousand word main text of the article only the acknowledgment that the company does own, among its other imprints, Gold Eagle, a publisher of "male action-adventure books." That's it--no reference even made to the fact that the company has been shut down, in part, I suppose, because literally no news outlet bothered to report it. (In fact, I only learned about the decision by chancing on a comment about it in a forum on the personal web site of one of its major writers, and afterward independently got confirmation from another of the company's authors--while so far as I can tell, my blog post about it is the most anyone has bothered to write on the subject.) It has likely factored into this that such related genres as the action movie or the techno-thriller have received surprisingly little of their attention, and that, all too often along the lines discussed above (which left me putting a lot of the pieces together myself when writing about James Bond, or Star Wars, or more recently, techno-thrillers).






One can hardly write a brilliant history, or even a bad one, of a body of work they have not even deigned to notice exists.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Science Fiction's Side Stories?

Most of this who dig into the history of science fiction in any systematic way quickly encounter a particular outline of that history, or at any rate, history of its leading theories and tendencies with regard to content and form, the associated movements, debates, the figures and publications with which they are most identified. This has the genre—definable as fiction in some important way founded on speculative science—increasingly cropping up in the increasingly scientifically-minded nineteenth century, with Mary Shelley, with Jules Verne, with HG. Wells, and on into the early twentieth, when, largely through the efforts of Hugo Gernsback in the '20s, this went from being an increasingly common story trait to a genre. He did not long remain its leading light, however, the years after shortly seeing the ascent of "harder," more extrapolative science fiction through Campbell's tenure at Astounding in the '30s and '40s, and the successors who built on his work in their turn in subsequent years, like the more social science-minded Horace Gold at Galaxy—while still others rebelled against it, often by favoring the standards of mainstream and even "highbrow" Modernist and postmodernist literature, as was already increasingly apparent in the '50s, the influential editors Anthony Boucher and Francis J. McComas declaring themselves interested in literature first and the speculative second, and the New Wave led by figures like Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison in the '60s and '70s edging still further in that direction. Afterward has been a fuzzier thing, less defined by dominant figures and audacious movements, and more so by the synthesis of prior streams, by nostalgic evocations of earlier works and themes, and above all by postmodernist experiment at the highbrow end of the field and ruthless commercialization everywhere.

Those reading this history, if examining it closely, find that it is usually written out in a rather casual, even vague way, especially when the "big picture" is their concern. This tends to take the form of "folk history," based on the casual and casually expressed recollections of the story's heroes--an Asimov or Aldiss in their writings about the genre, for example. Not least because they lived within a large portion of the field's history, their works and other acts the stuff of a fair chunk of that history, they frequently show great insight. Still, it is a far different thing from systematically amassing the documentary and other evidence for similarly systematic examination, and rigorously deriving conclusions from that, then presenting it all in such a way that the reader can judge the claims and the evidence and decide for themselves—alas, to be found only in explicitly academic studies of much smaller portions of the history (like the work of Mike Ashley on genre science fiction's earlier days, or Colin Greenland's work on the New Wave).

Writing Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry what I aspired to was a work providing a "big picture" of the genre's history on a more secure basis, in which the more academic studies were of considerable help, but to which end I found myself having to do a good deal of primary-source investigation myself. What, I wanted to know, did Gernsback do that mattered so much? What did Campbell have to say for himself, and why was it revolutionary? And so on and so forth. Would the facts really support the claims I had seen, or would they suggest something altogether different?

Indeed, initially beginning as a history of science fiction since 1980, I found myself having to do so much of this that much of the book wound up recapitulating what happened in earlier decades, just to provide a proper basis for analyzing more recent developments. Still, when all was said and done I found that the facts did indeed support the familiar outline. And so what I ended up with, rather than something radically different, just tweaked the outline here and there (I was surprised to see Gernsback incluing masterfully, surprised to see that most of those writers we think of as "New Wave" didn't really get what Ballard was talking about), fleshed parts of it out more than I'd seen others do, sourced it with, I think, more than the usual caution, but the essentials were the same.



In the end, it seems just to say that the outline is reasonably faithful to what actually happened. However, at the very least the experience reminded me that the outline is also far from complete. Certainly the key figures, the key movements, in the history, were all real enough, and sincere enough in promoting their theories, tastes, standards, which did exercise their influence in the generally acknowledged ways. And in covering all that I had occasion to discuss a good deal else, not least the genre's treatment of those themes that it handles as no other form of literature can (utopia and dystopia, catastrophe and transcendence); the broader development of media, popular culture and politics, with which science fiction constantly interacted; and the standing of the genre in relation to the cultural mainstream, mass audience, upmarket reviewers and academic critics alike.

Still, much else was going on around, alongside and even underneath all this.

I think, for instance, of how the old Gernsbackian science fiction, flowing into the stream of old-time pulp fiction alongside more grounded work like Doc Savage, laid the foundations for the rise of the comic strip and comic book superhero--and the fantasies to which they all spoke--or the odd kinship between science fiction and the hard-boiled crime tradition that eventually gave us noir. I think of how, at the same time that he was refining and promoting his vision of rigorously extrapolative, thought experiment science fiction, John Campbell was preoccupied by elitist fantasies of ubermenschen rising above, transcending, the common herd, and ideas which seemed to speak to that--Scientology, General Semantics, psi. I think of how science fiction has so often been a kind of scientists' equivalent of chivalric fantasy, and how alternate history has been bound up with wish-fulfillment--perhaps, the fulfillment of very dark and disturbing wishes indeed when we look at the genre's serving up one scenario of Nazi victory in World War II after another.

And I think that it is about this side of the genre's history--side stories, perhaps, from the standpoint of the "main line," but interesting and significant for all that--is what I will increasingly write about when I turn to the subject again.

Science Fiction as Chivalric Literature?

The chivalric tale of the Middle Ages and after glorified and flattered the feudal warrior-aristocracy. Likewise science fiction has glorified and flattered the scientist, and in much the same way—by presenting an utterly false picture of what they do. Far from the knight-errant doing great deeds in the pursuit of fortune and glory ever having existed, David Graeber suggests in his brilliant anthropological-historical-political economic study Debt that the image may be an adaptation of the merchant's pursuit of his trade for an aristocratic culture. There is, too, the disinterest of such fiction in how wars are actually fought and won (or lost). Such mundane matters as numbers and logistics are given short shrift, while personal heroics are all.

Similarly, instead of endeavoring to depict the reality of science as a cumulative, collective enterprise, increasingly institutionalized, it presents science as a ruggedly individualistic endeavor. The image goes hand in hand with the gross exaggeration of its figures' abilities, presenting heroes and villains alike who, for instance, are unable to go a day without idly throwing together some mind-boggling machine that will change the world, often in the course of action-adventure befitting the knight-errant. (Thus in Skylark Three Richard Seaton, while journeying in a starship of his own construction, builds a machine capable of near-instantly imparting perfect command of a foreign language to its user just to have something to do—and of course, conveniently get the heroes through the obstacles that crop up soon enough.)

Along with the power of the scientist in the lab, science fiction exaggerates the power of the scientist in society, perhaps even more than the old chivalric tale did the power and influence of its aristocrats. The knight, as an aristocrat, was a member of the ruling elite of his day, with even an impoverished nobleman legally set apart from and above the commoners, and as a matter of law enjoying all manner of privileges they do not, with such examples as tax exemption, priority in assignment to government posts and disproportionate voting rights in the legislature enduring fairly late into modern times.

No such claim can be made for the scientist. They have no special legal status, and indeed, not much privilege of any kind at all as anyone familiar with the abundance of underemployed and underpaid adjunct professors and postdoctoral fellows, or the hell the lucky few who land steady work go through to get some grant money, can attest. Indeed, for all the pious esteem for science and its practitioners it is not the genius in the lab but the possessor of great wealth, the head of the vast bureaucratic machine, who wields power and enjoys supreme status. Moreover, to the extent that education was a qualification for the position such figures attained rather than a badge of the privilege that positioned them to achieve such heights, they were far more likely to be trained in law or management than science, of which they frequently know little or nothing.

Indeed, the fantasy epitomized by the Edisonade was arguably that a talented scientist could through their skills win their way to the possession of such wealth, and the headship of such organizations (never mind the fact that, at that point, they would likely cease to do any real scientific work). Or that, even if they do not become a "tai-kun," their knowledge will make them the man or woman of the hour when it turns out that, contrary to what everyone else may have believed, what they were working on all this time was not useless. (Think of every disaster movie, every alien contact movie, every grandiose B-science fiction movie plot, period. Crisis strikes! And then a Man in Black shows up on the doorstep of some scientist who had previously been toiling quietly in obscurity to say "You'll have to come with us" and whisks them off to the White House to tell the President of the United States what to do. Not exactly how things went with climate change, was it?)

Of course, all that being the case, one might wonder: why should anyone bother to flatter scientists in this way? Certainly one reason is that, to a greater degree than later, people who were scientists, or at least had scientific training, played critical roles in establishing science fiction as a genre, while also regarding scientists as an audience worth courting. The individual who might be credited with a greater role than anyone else in bringing that about, Hugo Gernsback, was an electronics industry entrepreneur promoting amateur radio, who began his career as a publisher with what was initially a glorified catalog for his wares, Modern Electrics--in the pages of which he first presented Ralph 124C 41+ to the world. Things worked the other way as well, Gernsback not just using his stories to promote science, but apparently looking to scientists as an audience for his stories, certainly by the time of Amazing Stories. (In his editorials in that magazine he was emphatic about the potential of a writer's speculations, even quite ill-informed and fantastic ones, to inspire a scientist or technologist to the achievement of genuine breakthroughs, a not-so-subtle call on them to pay attention.) During his tenure at Astounding Science Fiction and Fact John Campbell, generally regarded as Gernsback's successor, was likewise scientifically trained (an MIT physics graduate) who saw science fiction as a quasi-scientific enterprise, with his scientist-writers (biochemist Isaac Asimov, aeronautical engineer Robert Heinlein, inventor Murray Leinster) performing thought-experiments and writing up the reports as stories in the pages of his magazine--and Campbell making much of the fact that scientists did read his magazine.

With scientists publishing and writing stories promoted on such grounds, and looking for a readership among scientists and engineers, it was natural enough that there should be a certain wish-fulfillment there, in line with a sense that if the world was not like that, then it ought to be and, perhaps, also that it would be, manifest in the much fawned-over ultra-Competent Men who filled the pages of their magazines. (The plus at the end of Ralph's name was, in his future, the equivalent of an aristocrat's title, an honor bestowed upon the most accomplished of the scientific workers who were society's most esteemed members.) And of course, if the genre changed, much, these editors and their writers had such a wide and enduring influence on the field that it would be unsurprising if others did not follow in their footsteps in this respect (the more so as, again, so many later science fiction writers were scientists as well).

However, where the long run is concerned a more persuasive explanation seems to me to be that even if the scientist's position in society does not rate it, such flattery has been immensely useful to people who do have real power. The powerful today, at the heads of those corporate and government bureaucracies, do need scientific laborers, and they have long looked to tales like these to attract young people to scientific careers in spite of the long and rigorous education required, the scarce economic support for those going this route, and the lack of glamour and modest remuneration generally awaiting them at the end of that road. And certainly the idea that the economic elite have got where they are through scientific-technological genius has been handy in legitimizing the ever-more inordinate wealth and status they enjoy. The boosters of great wealth prefer that Americans picture Silicon Valley rather than Wall Street—and that they think Silicon Valley's billionaires are that because of super-human technical skills rather than the blend of privileged social backgrounds and "street smarts" that let them seize the main chance provided by long government subsidy of the computer field and the unleashed demons of high finance. Indeed, one could say that in the end the glorification and flattery of the scientist has, even on that level, really been all about them.

Counterfactuals as Wish-Fulfillment

In considering the historical counterfactual E.H. Carr argued in his classic What is History? that when facing a major turning point in the course of events historians do
discuss alternative courses available to the actors in the story on the assumption that the option was open, [but] go on quite correctly to explain why one course was eventually chosen rather than the other.
One could always suppose that another course was taken, which may in many cases be "theoretically conceivable," but imagining that history actually did take them is "a parlour game with the might-have-beens of history" which does not "have . . . anything to do with history" as such, or with the historian's job.

If the devotion to counterfactuals was parlor game rather than serious historiography, then what did it mean that so many devoted so much time to it? Reading Carr's book one can see a political game being played on two levels. One was the broadly philosophical—namely, right-wing hostility to those who see rationally discernible tendencies within history, or even simply argue for cause-and-effect, above all the Marxists to whom they were so bitterly hostile, and conservative historians have championed counterfactuals precisely for that reason. (Indeed, it seems worth noting that their most prominent advocate of recent years has been neoconservative Niall Ferguson, who explicitly stated in a self-declared "manifesto"--to be found in his introduction to the Virtual History anthology devoted to the theme--that he regards counterfactuals as valuable because they are an "antidote" to "determinist" views of history, and associated political ideologies of which he disapproves, in his list of which he pointedly includes "the class struggle" and "socialism.")

The other is the shallower level of specific events, with the counterfactual tending to be a wish-fulfillment, a tendency that, again, was heavily political, and reflected in the propensity to choose certain subjects over and over again, rather than others that, from the more standpoint of thought-experiment, seem equally worthy. Carr in particular noted the tendency of such writers to choose the Russian Revolution rather than, for example, the Norman conquest of England or the American Revolution, no one wishing to "reverse the results" or "express a passionate protest against" the latter, while the anti-Communist certainly wished to do so against the former. As a result, "when they read history" they let "their imagination run riot on all the more agreeable things that might have happened," and become "indignant with the historian who goes on quietly with his job of explaining what did happen and why their agreeable wish-dreams remain unfulfilled," driving them to come up with their preferred version.

It is equally hard to argue with Carr on this point, with the tendency to treat the Russian Revolution in this way hardly less strong a half century on, historians who otherwise show more restraint unable to help themselves when writing of that subject, lamenting the "might-have-beens." (To cite one telling, recent example, Adam Tooze does so repeatedly in The Deluge where the Russian Revolution is concerned, but never anything else.)

It seems to me that what can be said of the historian's counterfactual can still more be said of the science fiction writer's alternate history, less bound by the demands of historiography, more susceptible to being mere wish-fulfillment. Considering what Carr has said of the counterfactual's intellectual roots it does not seem implausible that the genre developed and flourished in a context of anti-Communism, or that it coalesced into a genre in a period when such sentiment was at its height, were mere coincidences.

Still more than that, Carr's remarks have me wondering about that most popular topic of that genre, an Axis victory in World War II. Previously considering the matter I thought there was a mix of reasons, namely the combination of the conflict's familiarity, the way its scale and complexity afford numerous possibilities for it playing out differently in ways of significant consequence, and the fact that despite the diversity of understanding and interpretation of the conflict, a broad gamut of opinions accepts to a certain, crucial extent, the Nazis as villains, and the fight against them a "good war." However, given the strong case for alternate history as wish-fulfillment it seems that one must ask—has this genre been catering to closet, or perhaps not so closet, Nazis all this time?

This may seem an appalling charge to make. By and large the genre's major works have, naturally, been deeply anti-Nazi, from C.M. Kornbluth's "Two Dooms" and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle forward. Still, if the Nazi victory is presented by the authors with distaste, seeing it presented at all may still afford a certain satisfaction to those who would be sympathetic to the outcome (especially when such presentation can scarcely take other forms); while the distaste of such "liberals" and "lefties" for the scenario may add to their enjoyment. It seems all the worth considering given that, as Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies have argued in The Myth of the Eastern Front, a considerable subculture exists within the U.S which romanticizes if not the Nazi cause, then the Wehrmacht which was its military instrument—partly as a result of the extent to which senior German generals from that conflict were allowed to write the record in English of the conflict, and the post-war desire to rehabilitate a conservative West German Establishment for the sake of the anti-Communist crusade.

Considering this issue one might also consider the second most common subject in alternate history (or at least, in American writing about it), namely a Confederate victory in the U.S. Civil War. There would seem to be more, not less, sympathy for such an outcome in the U.S., more openly expressed; and one might guess, a larger number of people who would similarly take pleasure in its presentation.

Both these tastes would seem to be reflected in the way a good many readers have taken S.M. Stirling's Draka novels. The books, which picture the emergence of an extremely militarist, racist culture (one with considerable Southern input, and which out-Nazis the Nazis) in southern Africa that goes on to conquer the world, appeal to both pro-Nazi and pro-Confederate fantasy. Stirling insists that his books are a dystopia, but even if one grants that he means what he says, Stirling himself has remarked in interviews that many a fan has expressed the wish to "move there."

It seems quite possible that the "Dominion of the Draka" is not the only dystopia of which that can be said.

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