Friday, January 28, 2022

Announcing . . . The Secret History of Science Fiction

Back in 2015 I published a history of science fiction--Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry--tracing what we commonly discuss as the "main line" of American (and to a lesser extent, Anglo-American) genre science fiction from the moment of its emergence as a genre in the 1920s largely centering on the activities of Hugo Gernsback, through the Golden Age and the New Wave, down into the twenty-first century, trying to explain what has too often been recounted as hazy fan lore in a more rigorous, lucid way.

All these years later I don't feel as if I have much to add to what I presented in that book in regard to the main line of the genre's development. But I have found myself taking an interest in many an aspect of genre history in back of that main line or underneath it--like what really kept science fiction stories selling in the old days, and how fandom has been having the same fights over and over and over again since the 1950s, and how in our time, however much some pretend otherwise, science fiction has become much more a thing that people watch or play than something they read.

The resulting pieces--many of them previously published but many also appearing here for the first time--are gathered together in The Secret History of Science Fiction, available in both paperback and e-book editions.

Get your copy today!

Why Do Writers Write About the Writing Life So Badly?

I have long felt that writers in every medium are overly prone to writing about writers, and that this is mainly a reflection of self-involvement and laziness and incuriosity and ignorance on the part of those who are in a position to make a living as writers about what other people do and how they live. I will add, too, that this attitude does not seem to me to be unrelated to how unbelievably closed the worlds of publishing, film and television production, etc. have become to people who are not personally connected with the business--the children and grandchildren of people in that field.

That being the case it does not seem too unsurprising that they seem to have not the slightest clue about what, for example, architects or lawyers or college professors do. But it is more surprising that they write so badly about their own profession--endlessly trafficking in the same stale clichès, not least the notion that writers spend most of their time sitting in some large, handsome bookstore signing copies of their latest for a line of starstruck fools winding out the shop door and down the block as they receive their gushing praises with a condescending smile on their self-satisfied faces.

Still, if surprising it is not inexplicable. Even if as writers they have some actual experience of what it is to be a writer, they don't write from that experience any more than they do when they write about those other jobs. Rather than life they write from what they have seen in movies and TV. (Pompous middlebrow critics will call this postmodernism. I call it creative bankruptcy.) Thus even if their canned biographies tell us that they went to college, and maybe even finished a whole semester (you'd be surprised how many college dropouts, nay, high school dropouts, are on the Hollywood A-list), their frame of reference seems to consist wholly of a half-remembered long-ago viewing of the bits of Professor Kingsfield being arrogant and abusive in The Paper Chase. And when they write about writers they write from bad movies and TV shows about writers, in which writers are sitting in those bookstores signing copies of their latest for starstruck fools--to the bewilderment and annoyance of the millions whose experiences of a writing career have been far more Kilgore Trout (who in spite of his vast output, "did not think of himself as a writer for the simple reason that the world had never allowed him to think of himself in this way") than J.K. Rowling.

Revisiting Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity

When I first started reading Robert Ludlum my first (even though it was long before the movie) happened to be The Bourne Identity, which I remember early on encountering in a three-book volume also containing Ludlum's two immediately preceding novels, The Holcroft Covenant and The Matarese Circle. By and large these three books, and the novels that followed them through the '80s and after, defined Ludlum for me, while I paid rather less attention to the earlier books. This was partly because they were less likely to be on a library shelf, less likely to be on sale in a bookshop. But it was also because those older books seemed less interesting. When I happened across The Osterman Weekend, for example, the domestic, suburban setting, and the comparatively low key character of the thriller, did not hold my attention as well as the action-adventure approach of the novels about Jason Bourne et. al., and did not pursue them further. Indeed, it was to be years, and a considerable broadening of my taste in thriller fiction, before I went back and gave those books another shot, and actually found some pleasant surprises in this works.

These days, I think, I prefer them to the later books. Part of this is that I place less stress on shoot 'em up action, more on the other ways in which thrillers can engage and entertain--while I might add, prizing the economy of the earlier, more compact books. There is, too, their freshness. After all, The Bourne Identity was Ludlum's twelfth novel in a decade's time--all within what was more or less the same genre. A good many writers get very repetitive long before that--and Ludlum did not wholly escape that tendency. Just a few novels in he was already reusing a number of his ideas--with scandalous revelations about American financing of the Nazis in their early days from The Scarlatti Inheritance; the pursuit of documents containing explosive secrets and small, secret factions scheming to engage in systematic blackmail of elites to further a small, secret faction's policy agenda from The Gemini Contenders; and the appearance of Black nationalist paramilitaries who blackmail the hero into cooperating in advance of the final showdown from The Matlock Paper; all appearing again in The Chancellor Manuscript.

The reuse of earlier ideas was still more pronounced in The Bourne Identity. The enlistment of an academic by the authorities in their operations, exploiting his desire for revenge against the enemy for the harm they did to his family, after which those same authorities treat him as a dangerous rogue (The Matlock Paper)--with the character's revenge seeing him fight in a major war against Asian Communists on whom he blames the death of his wife with reckless aggressiveness (as was the case with General MacAndrew in The Chancellor Manuscript). The element of international terrorism (The Holcroft Covenant, The Matarese Circle). The use of a real-life figure as a villain for added interest (The Chancellor Manuscript), though with that figure reimagined as a pulp fictional super-assassin (Ludlum's Carlos seeming to me to owe more to the Tinamou from The Holcroft Covenant than to what was actually known about Carlos). The particular reliance on settings in New York, France, Switzerland (The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Gemini Contenders, The Holcroft Covenant). The hero, unlike many a Ludlum protagonist, having a background as an operative that prepares him for the rigors of action-adventure (like Brandon Scofield in The Matarese Circle). And the great twist, that the agent does not know who he is, another, larger use of an earlier Ludlum theme, namely the plumbing of obscure, fragmentary memory to solve a puzzle (The Gemini Contenders, The Chancellor Manuscript)--with this variation on it less original than many appreciate. (Ludlum had not previously used it, but it was by no means new to the spy genre. James Bond himself lost his memory in Ian Fleming's original You Only Live Twice, hardly an obscure work.)

Of course, authors often do amass a body of work in which they utilized a great many ideas, and then bring the better ones together in their master work, the familiar parts producing something greater than their sum. But I am not sure that he uses them to better effect. The plotting of The Bourne Identity strikes me as less inventive or technically impressive or dramatically compelling than, for example, the plots of The Gemini Contenders or The Chancellor Manuscript--while certainly offering nothing to compare with the twist ending of The Holcroft Covenant. Indeed, the story is fairly simple compared to those predecessors, and this seems to me to be tied in with another difference, namely that Ludlum's edge was becoming dulled in an important way all too reflective of the mood of the country. The '70s-era novels like The Matlock Paper, The Gemini Contenders, The Chancellor Manuscript, and even The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Holcroft Covenant and The Matarese Circle, are more politically charged, angrier works than the Ludlum novels which followed. Thus the Jackal was not an element or tool of some oblique conspiracy on the part of the powerful like we saw with the terrorists in The Holcroft Covenant or The Matarese Circle, but simply the villain as conventionally recognized. And the object of the mystery, the stakes of the conflict, are narrower and more personal as Jason Bourne endeavors to elude his pursuers and figure out what--who--he had been before the loss of his memory. Even the authorities come off as rather less ruthless than they were in prior works. (Bourne came to them damaged and angry, rather than being cold-bloodedly manipulated the way James Matlock or Peter Chancellor was. Then they honestly believed the agent had gone rogue--turned killer. It is not so surprising that they do what they do next--and telling that this time around that agent is brought back in from the cold.)

Considering the contrast I also find myself considering that division within the spy genre that Julian Symons talked about, with critical, subversive thrillers looking at the dark deeds done by the powerful in the name of national security on one side ("People in high places betray the rest of us who put them there," Chancellor remarked in the book by his name, summing up the spirit of that angriest of Ludlum's novels)--and on the other, orthodox, nationalistic, status quo-affirming spy thrillers. The Bourne Identity, unlike many of Ludlum's preceding books, falls pretty squarely into the second category, no doubts existing in the end about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And considering that The Bourne Identity would seem to be Ludlum's biggest hit (the #1 novel of 1980, to which two of his next five books were direct sequels, and by far the most read Ludlum novel for a very long time), I can't help wondering if the relatively conventional, uncontroversial nature of the book on this level has not factored into its popularity, and Hollywood's willingness to make a franchise out of it while the planned adaptations of books like The Chancellor Manuscript and The Matarese Circle languish in development hell.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

On Depicting Stupidity

I have often had occasion to remark how crude and foolish--and simple-mindedly prejudiced--popular culture can be when it attempts to convey the intelligence of a supposedly intelligent character to the reader or viewer. When it bothers to go beyond merely beating us over the head with superlatives ("X is brilliant!" we are told ad nauseam) it relies on such lame devices as associating the character with prestigious institutions in an exercise in shameless name-dropping (MIT! Oxford! And always, Harvard), similarly associating them with intellectually prestigious activities (physics is probably the favorite there), or presenting outrageously caricatured displays of intellection (like Ted Mosby reciting Dante's Divine Comedy from memory in the original Tuscan--never mind when an "architect" who spends all his free time hanging out with the likes of Barney and the gang would have acquired such knowledge).

What we get is not a depiction of intelligence, but, in line with the fact that this stuff is generally created by simpletons for other simpletons (don't let the nonsense about how "brilliant" TV, fiction and the rest supposedly are today fool you for a second), a simpleton's image of intelligence, which tends to reflect not intelligence so much as a package of socially elitist prejudices. (To cite but some of the most obvious: the Cult of the Good School long since run utterly amok; the hierarchical esteem for those who work "with their brains" over those who "work with their hands"; those who work with numbers over those who work with words; those recognized as disproportionately contributing to large profits for the rich and powerful over those who make any other sort of contribution, in any degree; and a leisure-class valuation of hobbies, favoring activities in which practical accessibility to most for reasons of time and money, and practical utility, are both very low--like the unpurposeful mastery of disused languages or dialects.)

Yet, in spite of the extreme stupidity Park Avenue, Hollywood and the rest show when depicting (supposed) intelligence, popular culture is not much more adroit or convincing at conveying (supposed) stupidity. After all, what do they serve up on those occasions when this is required (as in, for example, the movie Idiocracy)? What we see is a lack of formal education and social crudity and sometimes simple nonconformity (as if the only reason why a person might not conform to the conventional expectation in everything they do is their simply lacking the brain power to know and respect what society esteems as against what it disesteems). And in that it appears that just as depictions of intelligence are about exalting elites more than anything else, depictions of stupidity are a mockery of those who did not "get the breaks."

I might add that, especially in comedy, it is striking how often, when it serves the writers' convenience, supposedly "stupid" characters prove remarkably witty. One example of this that has long stuck in mind is in The Simpsons episode "You Only Move Twice" (a rather better than average parody of the '60s-era Bond films which on the whole does credit to the "classic" phase of a show that has long struck me as a good deal "smarter" than most of what we see on TV).1 Here at his new school Bart's teacher sees that he is not quite up to the local standard, which is higher than the one at the school he had previously attended, and takes him aside to ask if he knows multiplication or long divison. Bart replies that he knows of them.

Anyone who can offer such a verbally subtle response so quickly to his interlocutor's question makes it very clear that they are by no means stupid--and this goes all the more for a mere ten year old in a difficult situation such as that one. And there we have yet another irony--that a genuinely clever piece of dialogue which should have been presented as testament to its speaker's cleverness is instead used to demonstrate an academic failure supposed to be reconfirm our impression of his stupidity, and get its speaker packed off to a remedial class.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Of Thomas Magnum and Harmon Rabb

A long time ago I ran into a post in a Google group raising the question of whether JAG's Harmon Rabb was "Thomas Magnum in Disguise," mainly because I had wondered something similar about these two protagonists of long-running CBS series' created and "showrun" by Donald Bellisario, and went looking to see if anyone else thought the same thing.

The post only began to touch on the similarities, but they can quickly come to appear overwhelming. As that post's author noted, both Harm and Magnum are sons and grandsons of naval officers who lost their fathers in a major war (Korea in Magnum's case, Vietnam in Harm's) and whose mothers afterward remarried, giving them an affluent civilian stepfather. However, both those figures followed in the footsteps of the biological fathers whose names they bear and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, then went on to join an elite, storied branch of the service (SEALs in Magnum's case, F-14 fighter pilots in Harm's), from which they have since departed for a second career which has them working as investigators, which work--naturally melodramatic and overglamorized, while affording a certain amount of variety (from seedy domestic stuff to paramilitary adventure), and giving them many a chance to play the action hero--is the basis of most of the TV series' episodes. Both are haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam, and especially captivity by the enemy (something Magnum personally experienced, but which in Harm's case was his father's fate), which is to involve them in private attempts to rescue "Missing in Action" personnel they believe to still be held there. Both discover long lost half-brothers in the course of their story, whose histories are significantly connected with the same war. Both have a "cool guy" bachelor image of which a flashy sports car is an important part, both are seen wearing Hawaiian shirts and smoking cigars. And both are played by physically similar actors (both Tom Selleck and David James Elliott 6"4, both dark-haired and light-eyed, with Elliott, like Magnum, wearing a moustache when portraying Harm's father).

All of this, of course, is hardly shocking, especially when one remembers that a long creative career usually gets to be that because of a good deal of recycling and reusing one's older ideas. By this time Bellisario had been in Hollywood for about two decades--and his last show, Quantum Leap, had not exactly topped Magnum, which was far and away his biggest hit (and remained so until NCIS exploded in the twenty-first century). It was quite natural that, consciously or unconsciously, he would have served up something so resembling Magnum--though at least two differences seem worth citing. One is the fact that it was not just Magnum being recycled, as becomes obvious when we look at that most critical non-Magnum element, namely its hero's being a flyer. Aviators were, after all, the heroes in that show for which he had written earlier in his career, Black Sheep Squadron, while Bellisario had earlier made Magnum's buddies a pair of ex-Vietnam War Marine helicopter crew (TC and Rick Wright, played by Black Sheep Squadron alum Larry Manetti), and even produced an aviation-themed show of his own in Airwolf--where, it might be added, the hero was always preoccupied with Vietnam MIAs, with the theme linked to a brother who was an army helicopter pilot (in what fairly obviously parallels JAG, where the half-brother whose life story is inextricably linked to the MIA issue is a Russian army helicopter pilot).

The other is the difference in tone. As Wikipedia informs us, while Magnum was supposed to originally be a cool "Bond type" the character was reimagined as a more "'everyman'" character with a good many flaws. He could be immature, overconfident, whiny, manipulative in petty ways, and time and again looked the fool before winning in the end, with all this generally handled in a spirit of fun. The article also informs us that this was Selleck's idea, not Bellisario's--and JAG does not repeat this, as if the show's management stuck to the initial "cool 'Bond type'" idea.

While one can read all sorts of personal motivations into that (like a determination to be proved right), I suspect that this at least partly had to do with the difference in premise, and period. It was one thing to present in such a manner a character who was an ex-Navy SEAL living as a "glorified beach bum," especially when glorified beach bumminess was part of the fantasy being presented. (Magnum may not be rich, but residing on the Robin Masters estate in Hawaii, driving a Ferrari, he lives like a king.) It was another to treat serving military officers so lightly, especially in the post-Gulf War '90s, when the attitude toward "reverent disengagement" from military affairs prevailed in American life.

Still, it seems to me that the decision cost the show in hindsight. Magnum's imperfections were important to making the character a relatable, likeable, entertaining "character," with Magnum's more humorous traits contributing greatly to its popularity--while if the '90s saw Americans treating their armed forces more reverentially that attitude was not what they were looking for from their pop culture in that era of snark. And so in the end, rather than becoming a pop cultural phenomenon like Magnum, JAG ended up just something "old people watched." Of course, they did watch it in sufficient numbers to keep it on the air for ten seasons, in the course of which it became the launch pad for an NCIS franchise that, now in its fourth incarnation, has stayed on the air for almost two decades--all of which makes it very far from being a failure.

World War II Counterfactuals, Again: Axis Victory as Heroic Failure

At this stage of things I rarely run across anything about World War II counterfactuals that I have not encountered before (and that usually many times), but Finian O'Toole at the least managed to detect what was for me an unfamiliar element in some very familiar images in his piece on Brexit in the Guardian.

O'Toole, discussing the then-recent miniseries version of Len Deighton's SS-GB approaches the British fascination with such scenarios through the lens of the cult of British "heroic failure." While he does not mention Stephanie Barczewski by name she wrote a book about the phenomenon just a little before O'Toole published his piece, which offered rather an interesting argument.

Barczewski holds that the ascent of the British Empire was a material triumph--of technology and wealth and organization (a view with which my own study of the matter has had me concurring). However, Victorian idealists were vehement about the idea of superior British character, to say that Britain's victories as conqueror and empire-builder were not about having the money and the ships and the guns and the system to apply them but rather those qualities of courage, poise, steadfastness of which certain of the upper classes of the country stereotypically made so much, and in which they insisted they were superior to all the rest of the world--an elite of James Bonds, basically. Occasions in which British soldiers and the like were not crushing hapless colonials in one-sided wars but fighting from the position of disadvantage, and forced to bear bitter defeat, were chances to demonstrate that. (One can add, too, that making much of the courage, "professionalism," etc., displayed by soldiers in some situation has long been a convenient way of diverting the audience from the whole matter of the reasons why the soldiers were there in the first place when these are inconvenient.)

Of course, World War II was no one-sided colonial campaign. Certainly after the fall of France Britain faced what was the stronger enemy, so much so that had it been truly unsupported Britain would likely have ended the conflict by seeking terms. (Simply put, the Germans never had much chance of knocking Britain out of the war with an air campaign or an invasion across the Channel, but siege-by-bombing-and-blockade drove Britain to bankruptcy by March 1941, and only colossal American aid kept the country in the fight.) That Britain was dependent on the material support of others only underlined that the war was, if not like some Victorian campaign in Africa or Asia, the most mass-technological-material war of them all, while when one looks past the legend to the reality one sees that British forces were at their most successful not when they went in for heroics, but when they embraced that mass-technological-material aspect of the conflict and carried on the fight scientifically (as Stephen Bungay, for example, shows to have been the case in the Battle of Britain in The Most Dangerous Enemy).

All this would seem to have fed into a tendency to imagine the war being fought by Britons without the material factors on their side, whether by imagining it differently than how it was, as with the reduction of the Battle of Britain to public school boys in Spitfires facing down an overwhelming German "juggernaut" (Bungay's debunking of which is one of his book's most interesting and useful aspects), or the fascination with commando operations critics like John Newsinger and Simon Winder have often remarked. It would also seem to have fed into fantasies of Britons fighting in a still more dire situation, of an underground resistance movement, or even disorganized individuals on an island occupied by the triumphant enemy--and done so more stolidly and successfully--than others who actually did suffer occupation, like those "continentals" on whom Britons are so prone to look down, and whom they are so prone to regard as less attached to humane liberal values than themselves (all as, vice-versa, they hold authoritarian, fascist politics to be an alien weed that could never take root in English soil, figures like Oswald Mosley never having had a chance, etc., etc.).

At best it seems awfully light-minded--and one does not need to go anywhere near "at worst" to see it as an evasion of a great many less than palatable truths about human beings, war and Britain's own history, both abroad in the wider world and at home.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Early Robert Ludlum Novels: Some Notes

Robert Ludlum's name has long been synonymous with the type of thriller he increasingly produced in the late '70s and '80s, and the pattern of which clearly characterizes his largest commercial successes. These were contemporary-set thrillers, written at what was then regarded as the "super-thriller" end of the scale length-wise, in which the protagonist, usually a solidly Eastern Establishment bourgeois-professional type, usually at least thirtysomething, usually single, finds himself caught up in an international conspiracy of distinctly contemporary character (international terrorism just about always there, though often with the terrorists as pawns in some larger game, maneuvered by some bigger and more powerful interest). In trying to get out of his mess the hero has to look over his shoulder at the pursuing authorities as much as at the more obvious villains of the piece (not unlike Richard Hannay in Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps).

The resulting adventure tends to be mobile in the extreme, with much travel involved (apt to be heavy on West/Central European locations, with Italy, Switzerland, France especially prominent), and that travel generally done in high style; involve him in a romantic/sexual relationship important to the plot (hence the preference for a hero who is single); and written for the age of the action movie, be packed with foot and car chases, close-combat fights and gunplay, in the course of which if the hero was not already an action hero type (as is the case with Jason Bourne), he is compelled to become one just to get through it all (as Noel Holcroft is). The adventure also tends to be sufficiently convoluted that one has a very hard time finding good summaries of the plots and how they progress. (Even Martin Greenberg seemed at a loss at times in The Robert Ludlum Companion.)

And the conclusion is unlikely to be a matter of the good guys simply figuring out what was up, catching the villain, telling the hero he is all in the clear and he can just get on with his life (in which respect it was very unlike The Thirty-Nine Steps). As a matter of fact the villains sometimes win, and win big. (In The Holcroft Covenant the Fourth Reich actually seizes power, and the tale closes with Noel getting its architect in his sights--the defeated hero turning to resistance and revenge after the villains' triumph. And while The Bourne Identity was tidier in its resolution than most there was no going all the way back to his old life for David Webb, and Carlos the Jackal was still at large, and Bourne/Webb and Carlos did indeed have occasion to face each other down again.)

Ludlum's less read earlier output was more diverse, and often very different. The Scarlatti Inheritance and The Rhinemann Exchange were World War II thrillers, as was the first half of The Gemini Contenders. The Osterman Weekend, The Matlock Paper and The Chancellor Manuscript were set domestically, with the events of the first two of those books all but confined to an apparently genteel community in the northeastern United States (an upper class suburb in the first case, a college town in the second), and The Matlock Paper more a crime story than a spy story (centered as it is on financially motivated drug trafficking rather than high-level political machinations). The Gemini Contenders, if more conventionally espionage-oriented, was in its stakes a Dan Brown-ish historical-religious thriller, and, with this going to a lesser degree for The Scarlatti Inheritance, a sprawling family epic, while The Chancellor Manuscript had a metafictional twist, and made use of real-life figures as characters in a manner going far beyond the use of Carlos the Jackal in The Bourne Identity (most significantly, J. Edgar Hoover). And in The Road to Gandolfo Ludlum even produced a comedy. Moreover, the books were rather more compact than they would later become, the hero's sometimes being a family man (as in The Osterman Weekend) limited the prospect of romantic entanglement, and the World War II tales apart, while these thrillers often entailing violence and danger, their often not having very much action, and the protagonist being just a "regular guy" who may not even get up to much in the way of physical heroics, and when he does so is just the ordinary man who had his "back to the wall." (That a hot war was on in the World War II stories made the difference in those books, I think.)

I suppose that in Ludlum's increasing adherence to a formula from the late 1970s on was a matter of response to market signals--writing what was selling. Yet as my description of the formula suggests it can be very limiting, not just with regard to premise and theme and structure and tone, but even character and setting. And writing every book out to super-thriller length was doubtless not only exhausting, but seems to me to have led to a good deal of overwriting, and certainly worsened Ludlum's notorious melodramatic tics. (The famous italics, the exclamation points, etc., seem to me to be more evident in the later and longer books than the earlier and shorter ones.)

Still, if it seems likely that cranking out one super-thriller after another according to a formula led to repetitiveness and srain (Ludlum's tendency to overwrite, his tendency to certain literary tics--the exclamation points and so on--seem to me to have got worse, while increasingly it was sequels to old hits and repetition of older concepts), it has to be remembered that the Ludlum novels of the late '80s, at least, were by any measure colossal bestsellers--and that when collapse came in the '90s, pretty much every writer in the genre was affected.* The result is that in the end other factors were clearly more consequential than the strain that came with sticking to the same rather limiting and difficult formula for so long.*

* The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990) were sequels to The Bourne Identity, The Icarus Agenda (1988) one to The Chancellor Manuscript, The Road to Omaha (1992) a sequel to The Road to Gandolfo. The relatively thin The Scorpio Illusion(1993) gave us international terrorists-whose-strings-are-pulled-by-corporate-power again (if, again, in relatively competent form, with a timely Post-Cold War update), after which The Apocalypse Watch (1995) provided yet another Fourth Reich plot, and The Matarese Countdown (1997) was one more sequel, in this case to the now long-ago hit The Matarese Circle.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Revisiting the Battle of Britain, the Blitz--and British Bankruptcy

In considering the air war fought between Britain and Germany in 1940-1941 (the Battle of Britain, and the Blitz which followed it) it seems to me worth remembering that when the Luftwaffe began its campaign most observers shared two assumptions about the consequences of aerial warfare.
1. Societies will crack quickly under aerial bombardment--the shock to morale quickly producing widespread disruption far out of proportion to the physical damage the bombers actually inflict, with Giulio Douhet arguing in The Command of the Air that a force of even twenty planes could "break up the whole social structure of the enemy in less than a week, no matter what his army and navy may do." (It is worth recalling that Douhet assumed a use of chemical weapons, but I am not sure that this was essential, the more in as the purpose of the gas in his 1921 book seemed to be to disrupt emergency response, rather than produce really mass-scale deaths; and that, given the very low numbers and primitive aviation technology of the day a larger number of more advanced aircraft solely using "conventional" bombs, such as were available by 1940, could not have compensated for the lack of chemical weaponry.) This confidence in the ability of a small number of aircraft to produce so much havoc was based on the second assumption, namely that

2. "The bomber will always get through." Stanley Baldwin's phrase is famous, the larger remarks of which it is a part less so. Simply put, the idea was that protecting a country against air attack meant covering far too much airspace, including at night and in bad weather, for any conceivable air force to be confident of intercepting an appreciable number of the bombers (given that this was a matter of pilots in aircraft with top speeds in the low hundreds of miles per hour, relying on their eyes to spot the planes and machine guns with which to shoot them down). The result was that "there is no power on earth that can protect . . . any large town within reach of an aerodrome" from "being bombed," and thus the only "defence is in offence"--in hitting back harder with one's own bombers so that the enemy state fell apart first--in a situation analogous to how people came to think about war waged with ballistic missiles (with the gas weapons bombers were expected to use in the interwar period analogous to the nuclear ones they expected ballistic missiles to deliver).
Of course, both assumptions were quickly shown up, by both the greater-than-expected resilience of societies in the face of air attack, and the advent and exploitation of radar which made it possible to detect incoming aircraft and efficiently and speedily direct interceptors at them. This made the technical inadequacies that might not have mattered so much otherwise critical--namely, that air force bombers could not reliably find their targets and strike them accurately with the technology of 1932, or even 1939, while even if they were able to do so it would take a good deal more planes to do the job, preferably bigger planes equipped and organized to fight their way through a far more formidable defense than anyone imagined at the start of the '30s. Ultimately it was to take a shift from a Bomber Command of hundreds of planes to one of thousands, with Blenheims replaced by Lancasters, led by Pathfinder squadrons equipped with radio navigation aids (Gee, Oboe) and even newfangled airborne radar (H2S), covered by radar jamming, chaff and long-range escort fighters, and utilizing their Mark XIV bombsights to become really effective in the face of even a long-attrited Luftwaffe--the products of what from the standpoint of the late '30s were a mobilization of resources and drive toward technical advance scarcely thinkable outside a world war.

In the interim the advantage shifted to the defensive--and joined with other advantages to make it the stronger form still. (In an aerial campaign where bombers and escorts are up against interceptors and ground-based anti-aircraft units it stands to reason that, all other things being equal, the bombers and escorts will get the worst of it. There is the reality that pilots in damaged aircraft over friendly territory are more likely to find a safe place to land and save their aircraft rather than lose their aircraft as they try reaching their more distant base. Pilots shot down over friendly territory, if surviving the loss of their aircraft, are far more likely to return to service, in contrast with downed pilots over enemy territory likely to get captured. And so forth.)

Indeed, Germany's failure to defeat Britain with its bombers is only one half of the story, with the other half Britain's failure to defeat Germany with its own Bomber Command, which says a lot about the reality of the situation--the more in when we consider the correlation of forces. In spite of the hype (so saturating the media even before the war that in the famous short story--published six months before the conflict's outbreak--the cover of the magazine Walter Mitty picks up asks "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?"), the Luftwaffe lacked a significant quantitative or qualitative edge over Britain's air force.

The result is that the German leadership's poor strategy in the course of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Blitz, and the German government's refusal to prioritize aircraft production, flawed as they were, were hardly decisive--even a far better performance here likely falling well short of what it would have taken to win air superiority over southern England. The fact seems to me underscored by the reality that so many of the counterfactuals about the invasion scenario rely less on a more astute use of the Luftwaffe than on the employment of German special forces to tip the scale (as with the notion of an airborne attack on the airfields of southern England).

Still, Germany did not have to win the air war (let alone successfully execute what the air war was supposed to pave the way for, an invasion of Britain) to win the war. The reality was that as the bombs fell German submarines (and planes, and surface vessels of various types) attacked British shipping (while in the Mediterranean Italy entered the war and conflict loomed with Japan in the Far East), such that German action and British efforts to fight it off succeeded in draining Britain's limited resources at a rate that was soon to spell exhaustion. As Clive Ponting reminds his readers, in the summer of 1940 Britain's leaders knew the country would be bankrupt before the end of 1941 and perhaps much sooner, after which point, in the absence of relief, the country would have had to take whatever terms it could get (likely to have been less generous when the dark day came in March 1941 than what they would have been in the summer of 1940). And ultimately it was the readiness of the U.S. to keep Britain from going under, at the price of truly unprecedented financial and material support (over the course of the entire war Lend-Lease eventually approaching the equivalent of a year's worth of Britain's pre-war GDP).

The fact is well known but relatively little talked about--I suppose because it is hardly flattering to the nationalistic myth about Britain standing alone against Hitler; because it underlines how leaders whose wisdom historians prefer to praise rather than denigrate failed to redress industrial decline and imperial overstretch that left Britain far weaker than it might have been in an exceedingly dangerous period; and because, quite frankly, that other ending to the story looks so inglorious compared to the image of a Britain that, had it gone down, would have gone down fighting, and the Churchill well aware of this so inconsistent with the Churchill of legend who promised to fight on the beaches and the landing grounds and in the fields and the streets and in the hills, for "we shall never surrender."

It is far more comforting to take for granted that the aid would have come through, while where counterfactuals and alternate history are concerned it is particularly appealing--writers of even the counterfactual, after all, more than is generally recognized, preferring what makes besides a pleasing story an interesting and dramatically satisfying one. It is simply the case that more people are interested in minute reconstructions of battles than in political economy, while the turning of history on the battlefield appeals to the dramatic sense in a way that running out of foreign exchange does not.1 For British writers, certainly, it does not help that the key decision would have been made not in London but in Washington, Britain's fate in another country's hands precisely because of how weak its leaders had allowed the country to become--while there is the problem of explaining how the alternative would have occurred. They would have to locate it in the vicissitudes of American politics in which they are that much less likely to have an interest--and which would not comport with the romantic view many take of the common values and "special relationship" of the "English-speaking peoples." Meanwhile my experience of World War II-themed counterfactual and alternate history has Americans not much more likely to speculate about such a turn, apparently more willing to imagine an Axis victory as a result of defeat than of the country's not trying at all, save perhaps as a sermon on the foolishness of isolationism (as with Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which does indeed turn on electoral politics taking a different course with Charles Lindbergh becoming President). Even then they tend to imagine America's fate in the situation instead of what other peoples might be going through (rather than, for example, envisioning a Britain under the Nazi jackboot, a much less plausible scenario of the U.S. itself being occupied), while not being much more inclined to pay attention to things like foreign exchange. I suppose there is a symmetry in that--but also a reminder of how national blinders break up the bigger picture of a world event, and how much our understanding suffers when we neglect "boring" stuff like gold reserves in favor of heroics during the Darkest Hour.

1. Reading the essay collection If the Allies Had Fallen: Sixty Alternate Scenarios of World War II, which contains contributions from such prominent historians of the subject as David Glantz, Richard Overy and Gerhard Weinberg, does not include among its sixty counterfactuals a single one considering Britain's financial exhaustion, or more broadly, the U.S. staying out of the war.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Social Class in Robert Ludlum's Novels

I remember years ago reading James William Gibson's comment on the Tom Clancy-style military techno-thriller as a white collar counterpart to the "blue collar" paramilitary novel, reassuring middle class men that they, too, have "what it takes" to be like the Mack Bolans and Dirty Harrys and John Rambos--to, when it was called for, spring into action and save the day.

Looking at the protagonists of the techno-thriller I was increasingly less persuaded of that reading of those books. Certainly Clancy's Jack Ryan can look like he is a world away from Dirty Harry--former stock broker, college professor, published historian, and let us not forget, the son in law of a Merrill Lynch VP who has also been knighted by the Queen, Jack also literally Sir Jack--making a meteoric rise up the ranks of the security state to end up President of the United States scarcely a decade after The Hunt for Red October. Yet Ryan's roots are as blue collar as those of Bolan or Harry, Sir Jack born the son of an Irish-American cop and nurse, not a WASP blue blood; it just so happened that Ryan was one of the blue collar kids who "made good," and just maybe because of the fact that they are a blue collar kid who made good have a mettle that the born-rich kids do not (that father-in-law of Ryan's not coming off looking particularly good in their confrontation in Patriot Games). The result is that the books are more persuasive as a fantasy of social mobility--and affirmation of the conservative's belief in America's possibilities for that mobility--than as reassurance to white collar types that they too have "what it takes."

However, what Gibson wrote in that article seems to me to be more applicable to the works of Robert Ludlum, whose politics were less the right-wing populism that has dominated the action genre than a centrism of '70s vintage--which in some respects can look relatively leftish today in this age of casualness about government torture and assassination, but in others look far from leftish indeed, with, in line with the tendencies of centrism, his politics in regard to class genteely conservative in type. As one quickly finds reading their way through his books Ludlum is deeply respectful of professionals, deeply respectful of elites--admiring and flattering of people who have wealth and position, to the point that one can add to the well-known list of Ludlum's literary tics (the melodramatic italics and exclamation points and lapses into passive voice, the relentless use of synonyms for "said," etc.) the tendency to characterization consisting mainly of a profligate use of superlatives, here, there and everywhere endless verbose tribute to the brilliance, integrity and other fine qualities of the all-but-superhuman individuals in question. (Indeed, a keyword search of The Parsifal Mosaic on Google Books showed that Ludlum used the word "brilliant" at least twenty times to refer to various characters in that one book alone. Twenty times.)

Moreover, while one might add that while Establishment corruption and treachery are major themes of his work, these only rarely, if ever, give the sense that they reflect on the caste in question--the more in as, rather than being outsiders to that world as in those more populist narratives, his heroes are, to a man of that same background, solidly Eastern Establishment bourgeois-professional types, as with professors James Matlock and David Webb, or TV executive John Tanner, or architect Noel Holcroft. (This is, not coincidentally, the background of the New York City-born, Rectory School-Cheshire Academy-Wesleyan University-educated Robert Ludlum himself--writing what he knows, but unlike, for example, his colleague John le Carrè, doing so with enormous respect and affection, rather than with a critical eye.1)

In fairness, if Ludlum bestows endless praises on the blue blooded he at least refrains from pouring scorn on the less fortunately situated. Still, where this matter is concerned a particular passage in his later book The Apocalypse Watch has long stuck in my mind. In it two characters are talking about the motivations of traitors and, those who are induced to betray by monetary gain or ideological principle apart (dismissed here as people "who identify with a fanatical cause that makes them feel superior"), characterized as "the malcontents who are convinced they've been shafted by the system, their talents unrewarded"--people described here as not going "further legitimately" mainly because "they're generally lazy, like students who'd rather go into an exam with crib notes . . . than study for it."

This view--which, not incidentally, is deeply centrist in its "psychologism" and consequent treatment of dissent, or even discontent, as a symptom of mental illness--is entirely consistent with the esteem for those on top. Essentially the world is a big meritocracy, where people generally what they deserve. Those who are on top are there because they deserve to be so. The same goes for those not on top, all the way right down to the bottom. And anyone who has problems with how things went for them is basically crazy.

It is not a cheering thought for most. And if it does not seem to have been much of a problem for Ludlum's pursuit of bestsellerdom, I would be unsurprised if it did not cost him a measure of affection on the part of those readers who would have been happier to see the patricians looking down on them their whole lives taken down a peg--as they so often were in more "blue collar"-oriented action-adventure.2

1. I find that the biographical information of celebrities available online tends to be vague with regard to indicators of class origin--their parents' occupations or wealth, such connections as may have helped them later in life, etc.--but we often are told what schools they attended. Their having gone to a private school charging $60,000+ (the median household income of an American family) per student tells you something about that background. And one finds that those who have been able to make it in the arts, contrary to the stupid rags-to-riches stories about people randomly "being discovered," very often did go to such schools, with all that implies about who gets a shot and who does not.
2. Looking back the closest Ludlum comes to an exception would seem to be The Matlock Paper (1973). In that novel the genteel facade of Connecticut's prestigious "Carlyle University" (an obvious stand-in for Ludlum's alma mater of "Little Ivy" Wesleyan) is torn away and one sees behind it real rot as the Pacific war hero and "grand old bird" of the Romance Languages Department Lucas Herron, and even university president Adrian Sealfont, are revealed as literal, drugs-and-prostitution racket-operating gangsters.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Making Sense of WGN's Transformation into NewsNation

I recall being perplexed by WGN's decision to become a part-time news channel ("NewsNation"). After all, we had been hearing for years about how cable was just doing worse and worse, the glory days of hits like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead receding into the past as the action moved to streaming. And we heard incessantly about how those who got their news from TV at all were old folk--the potential market a rather limited portion of the population whom one would guess were already spoken for with CNN and FOX and newcomers like Newsmax.

However, apparently impressed by how the horror show that was 2020 gave the cable news channels' viewership a boost the superstation decided to get in on the action. The results, of course, have not been impressive--the ratings, in fact, dismal. Still, considering details of the larger scene less publicized than that collapse in viewership of which we heard so much the essential decision seemed less profoundly counterintuitive. These were, respectively:
1. The Return to Niche Programming as a Strategy
2. The Increasingly High Valuation of Older Viewers
The Return to Niche Programming as a Strategy
I can remember how in the '80s and '90s the explosion in the number of channels, and the interest of the managements of many of them in producing and airing their own content, suggested an expanding space for niche programming--for instance, the possibility of a channel devoted exclusively to science fiction, which USA realized with the launch of the Sci-Fi Channel, which produced such cult fare as Farscape and Lexx.

Of course, later the managements of those channels became attentive to the possibility of wider, breakout hits (such as HBO's The Sopranos became), and in the '00s increasingly devoted themselves to pursuing such hits--in the case of the Sci-Fi Channel to such a degree that they no longer wanted to be Sci-Fi. Instead they became "Syfy" (whatever that was supposed to mean), while the channel that gave us Farscape and Lexx gave us blander, more general audience-oriented fare like Eureka and Warehouse 13, and packed its schedule with reality TV, and even WWE Wrestling. Eventually I stopped paying attention to it, and haven't looked back.

Since then the thinking has shifted again--it seems, because those big breakout hits have become more elusive, while the profusion of viewing options and the fragmentation of the audience has made trying to win a large viewership with a single show with a broad but limited appeal look less plausible than, again, producing something that any audience merely big enough to be profitable might like (with some hope of breaking out to capture a wider following). But what niches would be worth filling? As it happened, demographics and economics went a long way to answering that question.

The Increasingly High Valuation of Older Viewers
Younger people never stopped watching TV. Indeed, my guess would be that where visual media are concerned they actually watch more than ever. But they became much more prone to get that content from a streaming service via the Internet-connected device they take everywhere than watching a broadcast received via a conventional television made at a fixed time, with the content chopped to pieces by commercials and other such interruptions.

Thus by default TV in this sense meant the old--and where not long ago the fondness of the elderly for Matlock or CBS was a joke, now this orientation makes for a ratings winner, the more consequential because of what has happened with the distribution of income. Simply put, young people have MUCH LESS MONEY than their elders did at the same stage in their lives, and they have adapted to that poverty in ways that might well affect their habits even were times to get better for them--more prone to live at home, drive less, generally consume less. This makes the relatively affluent old a more natural target for advertisers yet again.

All of this has had predictable consequences for the content of the TV schedule, as with the increasing place of second-run content on cable. This is, partly, a matter of a declining readiness to fund the production of new content with the prospect of big hits more remote evident even on the channels least oriented to the older demographics (as with Disney). However, it is also a matter of the proliferation of channels devoted to classic TV, like H & I (Heroes & Icons), bringing back to the air shows that had virtually vanished--presumably in pursuit of older viewers who on landing on those shows will stop their flipping and watch them out of genuine pleasure at what they offer, more thoroughly nostalgic appreciation, or simply a feeling that bad old TV is more appealing than bad new TV.

All of this seems plausibly a factor in the case of WGN's transformation into NewsNation. Even before the change the backbone of its lineup was reruns of shows that skewed old--JAG (which was much joked about as an old person's show even when it was in its original run), CBS' Blue Bloods, and Tim Allen's Last Man Standing. Moreover, the tenor of these shows can seem significant given what has been said of NewsNation's politics. While marketed as a channel in the center of the political spectrum, NewsNation's own employees soon enough charged it with a conservative bias--which may seem a betrayal of its promise (and its continued PR, certainly to go by the Dan Abrams commercials I've seen), but which would seem natural from a business standpoint. The aforementioned shows were distinctly conservative favorites (with the gleefully lib-trolling Last Man Standing, according to one poll, having a liberal viewership of zero percent, exactly, literally zero percent)--suggesting this as the logical course for the channel from a commercial standpoint, especially after the channel's turn disappointed, and made trying to keep the audience their other shows have look like a safe strategy.

Of course, it remains to be seen where NewsNation will go from here. But the essential logic--the pursuit of niche audiences, and where broadcast television is concerned, the stress on pursuing older audiences--is likely to remain with the industry, perhaps so long as it continues to grind on in the new media market.

Remembering Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin's Cauldron

At this stage of things there seems little more worth saying about just how far removed from reality the realism-peddling military techno-thriller tended to be, not least in its political scenarios.

Still, one old techno-thriller has been coming to mind every so often lately as having displayed a bit more insight than the rest--Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin's Cauldron (1993).

Published back in the early '90s, when the world economy was looking sluggish, and neo-mercantilist competition between North America, some sort of European bloc and Japan looked like the new order of things, Bond and Larkin pictured exactly this happening. Here the West Europeans, particularly a France and Germany whose going their own way under rightist and none-too-democratic leaders precipitates the collapse of the NATO alliance, turn the newly ex-Communist states of Eastern Europe into semi-colonies, in a situation of deepening trade war, and deepening global economic downturn, which in turn contributes to an influx of refugees from the global South. Callous and exploitative mishandling of the refugee crisis contributes to far right backlash, not least in those East European satellites, with Hungary an early critical flashpoint.

Ultimately there is a revolt against the government that prompts aggressive military intervention by French forces to suppress the threat to its client regime that soon has them more broadly fighting the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and soon invading those nations outright to keep them under Franco-German ("European Confederation," or Eurcon) control. The U.S., with what remain to it of its European allies, intervenes to stop the aggression, while EurCon strikes up a deal with Russia (weakened, unstable, but still very heavily armed), raising the risk of things getting even uglier, fast . . .

The aggressiveness of a scenario in which the mid-1990s saw the U.S. at war with its recent European allies was, of course, a stretch by even techno-thriller standards (the kind of stretch that, I think, contributed to the decline in the genre's popularity). Still, the interaction between economic downturn and decay of the post-World War II trading system, the hints of a shaky and even fragmenting Western alliance, dissent in smaller nations confronted with German/EU diktat, the refugee crisis, the far right backlash, instability and authoritarianism in Hungary, France, and elsewhere in Europe, the resurgent possibility of armed conflict between the U.S. and Russia--all of this, wrongly anticipated as events of the '90s, could well have been "ripped from the headlines" of the late 2010s and 2020s. And as all this hints, if Bond and Larkin's book could seem merely one of a host of novels at the time envisioning some kind of clash between the U.S. and a Germany intent on mastery in Europe, Bond and Larkin, as was usually the case with their work, put rather more thought into the political their premise, and devoted more time and space to the development of the conflict on the way to the outbreak of their fighting, than any of their colleagues--and as is often the case when an extrapolation of this kind did not quite come to pass, it still offers the reader something to think about long after it has dated in the narrower ways.

Indeed, Bond and Larkin displayed sufficient sophistication that one might wonder if they did not look at theories of international politics not normally associated with the genre--the sort of stuff that uses words like "imperialism." However, if one might see something of the left's insights into this story of capitalist governments resorting to the final argument of kings in their competition for markets, no reasonable observer could mistake the Bond-Larkin scenario for a leftist one. Europe's working classes, especially as represented by trade unionists, come off as racist reactionaries, and the story is, in the end, a flag-waving, free-trading argument for the dynamic duo of "McDonald's and McDonnell-Douglas" as the world's best hope for prosperity, peace and progress--very much in line with what, in hindsight, shortly proved to be the conventional wisdom of their era.

Given how that outlook has suffered since the 2007 crisis I wonder if writers treating a comparable theme would imagine the same sort of ending today.

Just How Realistic Was the "Realistic" Techno-Thriller?

The military techno-thriller has always been sold on the basis of the plausibility of its scenarios, and the realism of their treatment. The topical, "ripped from the headlines" conflict, the treatment of actual weapons systems, the meticulousness of the writer's research, the endorsement of the package by military authorities, have been key to interesting readers--as is underlined by their openness to the genre being tied to their level of concern for "the next war." (Thus did the genre take off in the overheated political atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, wane as the world wars made another conflict seem unthinkably horrible, resurge again amid the political turn to the right, "Second Cold War" mood and Star Wars hype of the 1970s and 1980s, and then after the Cold War's end and the expectation that "big wars" were a thing of the past--and good riddance to them--wane again in the 1990s.)

But just how realistic were those thrillers? Looking at, for example, the work of Tom Clancy in his heyday, or Dale Brown, it seems safe to say that they gave a wildly exaggerated impression of the aggressiveness and recklessness of other countries (the Russians, the Chinese, were always ready to start a third world war they couldn't reasonably expect to win at the drop of a hat--in Brown's books in particular, over and over and over again), and of the clear-cut nature of international crises (beginnings and endings fairly cut and dried, the villainy all on one side--theirs--though often there was some blame to go round for the "peaceniks" too, not that they were ever really on "our" side), and the prospect of their having clean endings, even when armed force came into play (so that at the end of the book we usually just moved on). They depicted a great deal of death and destruction, but only very selectively. They showed plenty of battlefield death, but rarely, if ever, showed veterans of those wars struggling with wounds to mind and body for the rest of their life--certainly nothing to compare with a glance at the ward in Walter Reed. If they showed civilian suffering at all that suffering was usually directly and wholly the fault of the enemy, whose brutality was another reason to fight wars which were typically short and victorious. In the process they also encouraged a dangerous confidence in the good will and intelligence of world leaders to manage, constrain, deescalate the dangerous crises that the bad will and stupidity of world leaders created so endlessly. And where politics at home were concerned they were not much better, proffering a naive, sub-civics-class understanding of the subject, with little sense of just how wearing militarization and war on even a far more modest scale than they so casually depicted are on civil liberties, democratic norms and the fabric of the body politic in general.

Altogether it does not seem unfair to say that these books treated modern war pornographically--a term that, I think, merits proper definition, as my purpose here is to describe rather than throw around pejoratives (as "porn" is for so many), or confuse everything with sex in the sloppy and silly way of so much psychology (if only apocryphally Freud conceded that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, but the pop psychologists sure don't), or simply throw the word out for attention-grabbing or shock purposes (as with a certain sort of hack writer who will call mere presentation of pictures of tasty-looking food "food porn").

By pornographic what I mean is the taking of some sensational, significantly taboo subject matter that people are not supposed to speak of enjoying in "decent" company, removing it from its context, shearing it of its consequences, idealizing and intensifying it to make it seem better than it could ever be in real life, and then making a concentrated mass of it the whole show, the work consisting exclusively of the better-than-it-could-ever-be-in-real-life "good parts," such that the audience vicariously experiences that and only that over and over and over again.

Pornography in the usual sense of the term does this with sex (in a manner tailored to the tastes of its particular audience, of course). It is often said that action-adventure does this with violence (to the point that some cultural historians have connected it with pornography more narrowly--i.e. looking at the books Don Pendleton wrote before creating Mack Bolan).

The particular type of action-adventure that is the techno-thriller did this with the wielding of power at an international level, with costly and secretive weapons technology, with the violence and destructiveness of high-tech combat in its stories of international crisis.

I suspect I would have found this kind of thing hard to take as entertainment at the height of the Cold War, and that it made a difference that by the time I got around to the books that the Cold War seemed safely behind and nothing quite like it likely to come again soon, or even ever--that in those years one could imagine such events as the Norwegian rocket crisis or the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis or even the 1991 Gulf War were last aftershocks of the horribly earthquake-ridden twentieth century, and this nation-state power politics stuff had been left behind for cyber-utopia (or at least a different flavor of dystopia, like William Gibson's Sprawl stories or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. I could, at least as a still fairly young person who did not personally remember the worst days, look at the more unlikely superpower confrontation stuff over submarine defections and space lasers with a certain detachment, treat it as quaint the way we might, for instance, treat the Napoleonic Wars, where when reading Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubrey we are less likely to get into the rights and wrongs of Britain's siding with Europe's reactionary monarchies against a democratic revolution in France.

I suspect this all the more because I was still a heavy reader of the field when I started getting a formal grounding in International Relations. It was not as if I had not previously appreciated that techno-thrillers were fiction written to entertain, but all the same, the claim to at least some realism was a part of their interest, and the more I learned the flimsier did the claim seem--with the way war has pervaded all of our lives in this century making their claim seem flimsier still. The falsity of the picture of war the offer was, of course, evident to more experienced and astute observers after the outcome of the decade's Gulf and Balkan wars, but has seemed particularly incredible in the wake of the "forever" wars since 2001--one reason, I think, why in spite of some flickerings, the genre never recovered its old pride of place. It was simply too much for people coping with the reality of conflict to take as "fun."

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Why JAG Was an Older Person's Show: Reflections

Donald Bellisario's JAG had a ten season run and provided the platform for the launch of one of the twenty-first century's biggest ratings' successes, the NCIS franchise (the fourth show in which, NCIS: Hawaii, has just hit the air). All this may seem surprising given that it was hardly one of the past generation's more talked-about shows, with what little comment I remember about it jokes about the advanced age of its audience. (Notably I recall a fantasy sequence in one episode of Scrubs where J.D. is in the implausible situation of sharing an apartment with a large number of old men and yells for "whoever's been filling up my Tivo with JAG reruns to cut it out!") And if this seems like just a matter of cheap laughs Bellisario personally confirmed that the jokes, at least, were not baseless. When the show was canceled he acknowledged publicly that the age of the audience was a factor for advertising-minded executives, and even joked that the decent ratings with the 18-49 crowd it had in the earlier days were a matter of it being just 49 year olds who were 59 year olds a decade later.

Recently I have found myself giving some thought to the reasons for that. Certainly part of it would seem to be that JAG simply happened to run on a channel that, even before TV generally became an old-person thing , had a reputation for drawing an older crowd. (After all, in those years CBS was identified with Murder, She Wrote, and Diagnosis: Murder, and so forth in the very years when FOX and WB and UPN and others were going very hard after younger audiences, and getting them.)

Still, JAG was hardly the show to change that image. It was, after all, hardly Beverly Hills 90210 or Dawson's Creek or even Friends. Rather the show was a legal drama about the armed forces, with grown-up characters dealing with grown-up problems and any distinct youth interest lacking. Moreover, if the show's mash-up of A Few Good Men with Top Gun promised some action-adventure that was only part of the package--and those who came for the action did not necessarily stick around when it cut back to legal procedural. This seems all the more the case given what Bellisario and his team made the stuff of the episodes. The writers attempted to be contemporary with "ripped from the headlines" plots, like that other NBC hit Law & Order, and by making the gender politics of the armed forces (an ultra-fashionable topic at the time) a major theme.1 Yet the show's backward glance, a little more recognizable when one remembers that Bellisario was the creator of Airwolf (1984-1987) and Magnum P.I. (1980-1988) before he created JAG, and before that had worked on Black Sheep Squadron (1976-1978), was unmistakable.

Simply put, the pop cultural craze for things military in the '80s that helped make Airwolf a hit was well on the way from crest to trough circa 1995 when JAG came along. This went especially for a major factor in that craze, the "ghosts of Vietnam" with which Airwolf and Magnum P.I. were saturated (the protagonists of both shows were veterans of the conflict whose service in that conflict was background to many a store, while the issue of American MIAs from the conflict was central to Airwolf and prominent again in Magnum), and with which JAG was also saturated (not least through its protagonist Harmon Rabb's hunt for his MIA father, a running story through the first three seasons, which tied up with much else).2 And where in the '70s the old-fashioned feel of Black Sheep Squadron (at the time Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales called it a "war-is-swell series" for people who recalled "World War II as a rousing, blowzy, fraternity turkey-shoot") found an audience amid a period of nostalgia for World War II-themed entertainment, JAG's reverence and earnestness and what an earlier generation would have called its "squareness" were out of step with the irony-saturated '90s, a throwback to the '40s when the show did not recall the post-Vietnam '80s. All this limited the audience, with this going above all for the young, for whom G.I. Joe was just one more thing they enjoyed as children from which they had moved on to other crazes (to the Turtles, to the X-Men), for whom Vietnam was remote, for whom much in the ever-growing range of choice they had was more appealing--while it was a segment of the older population with which the theme and the baggage and the tone were likely to strike a chord, and apparently did.

Still, the game has changed a great deal since, and it says something that as reruns of old shows seem to be resurgent across the basic (and even premium) cable line-up, helped by the arrival of a growing number of channels devoted to classic TV. Indeed, after the show being off the air for a long time, this year I have spotted reruns on no fewer than three channels (H & I, WGN/NewsNation, even Sundance!) in what seems just one reflection of the way that older groups once shunned by advertisers have become a highly coveted demographic.

1. Apart from the pilot, where the theme of women in combat and the relations between men and women aboard ship were central to the murder investigation and the larger situation of which it was a part, and the consistent pairing of Harmon Rabb with a female partner (with all the opportunities to raise such issues such a pairing meant), the show devoted numerous episodes to such matters as gender discrimination, sexual harassment and the frictions and other complexities of male-female relations within the armed forces ("Chains of Command," "The Court-Martial of Sandra Gilbert," "Offensive Action," etc.). Indeed, Representative "Bobbi" Latham, presented as a standard-bearer for the cause of women in the military, appeared in no fewer than 18 episodes during the series' run (from "The Court-Martial of Sandra Gilbert" on).
2. The protagonist Harmon Rabb's father (played by David James Elliott, just like the son), we are told at the outset, was a Vietnam War "MIA," believed by his son to be still alive in Communist captivity, a fact that drove him to sneak into Southeast Asia as a teenager in search of him, and has since remained an obsession. Indeed, the fact is significantly referenced at the very start of the series, with Harm's assignment in the two hour pilot which launched the series taking him to the very carrier from which his father flew in the war ("A New Life"), and the ship's current Carrier Air Wing commander ("CAG") is one of the war buddies with whom he did it--Rear Admiral Thomas Boone--a connection that proves significant over the show, with, after his saving Boone's life in the pilot, Harm time and again coming to Boone's legal defense during the ten later episodes in which Boone appears. Meanwhile no fewer than six of the show's first sixty-two episodes ("The Prisoner," "Ghost Ship," "King of the Fleas," "People vs. Rabb," "To Russia with Love" and "Gypsy Eyes") had Harm's search for his father at the center of their plot, with the narrative arc concluding only with Harm's discovery of his father's fate--his transfer to the Soviet Union, his escape, his taking up with a woman with whom he had a child and whom he died defending from Soviet soldiers, though that is of course not the end of the theme. It resurfaced a number of times, not least in a Christmas-themed episode set during his father's service during the Vietnam War about a USO visit to his ship ("Ghosts of Christmas Past"), while afterward the half-brother he discovers his father sired in Russia, who happens to be a helicopter pilot (like some Russian counterpart to Airwolf's Stringfellow Hawke!) appeared in another dozen episodes (over seasons 6-8). And still other episodes evoked the conflict, sometimes in quite similar fashion, with Harm's boss Admiral Chegwidden, who has plenty of "ghosts of Vietnam" of his own, in one episode going overseas on a private mission to rescue a man who saved his life during that conflict ("Soul Searching").

On the Reputation of CBS as the Older Viewers' Network

I have recently had occasion to think about CBS' reputation as, well, an older person's TV channel.

One explanation for that reputation I have come across is that CBS was the king of the ratings back in the '70s and early '80s, thanks in large part to Norman Lear (All in the Family was the #1 show on TV for five straight years, and he had Maude, and Good Times, and The Jeffersons), and Dallas, and MASH, and Hawaii Five-O and Kojak, and 60 Minutes, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and Magnum P.I. and . . . well, you get the picture. In the 1973-1974 season it had nine of the top ten shows, eight the next season, and if there were ups and downs after that, between the 1979-1980 and 1984-1985 seasons on average seven of the top ten and eleven of the top twenty rated shows were running on that one channel, a truly extraordinary proportion of the market. Of course, CBS' hit machine virtually sputtered out later in the decade, though (one was more likely to see NBC at the top, with the likes of Cheers and Family Ties and The A-Team and The Cosby Show). The result was, presumably, that anyone who was still watching CBS was someone the channel won over in earlier, better days, who were sticking with their declining hits down to the end after most others jumped ship, were simply in the habit of watching the channel when they sat down in the front of the TV, and so because they were on the channel and see a promotion and maybe get interested, or just happened to have the channel on when the show started, wound up following shows that the rest of the public never noticed or never got interested in because their attention was directed elsewhere. And because the hits that made CBS viewers of people were from years earlier, and because it seems to have been the case that compared with younger viewers those older viewers were in their TV viewing habits more prone to follow channels than shows, that audience was on the whole older than the average.

I find this explanation plausible. But it also seems to me a matter of such hits as the channel managed to have when it faltered. Consider the biggest hit CBS generated between Magnum and the end of the century--Murder, She Wrote. Indeed, for the decade or so from 1986-1987 on, by which point most of the older hits were either gone from the air (like the Norman Lear sitcoms or MASH), or in decline (like Dallas), 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote were the CBS shows far and away most likely to make the Nielsen ratings' top ten--a weekly TV newsmagazine then late into its second decade (which had the curmudgeonly Andy Rooney for a mascot), and a "cozy" mystery series about a sixtysomething mystery writer solving murders--which were hardly the thing to bring in that younger crowd. And even if other CBS shows also made appearances in the top ten, like Touched by an Angel and Everybody Loves Raymond (a show about watching grouchy middle-aged people fighting each other when they were not fighting with even grouchier old people), they, along with more modest but still important successes like Diagnosis: Murder and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, affirmed the impression of a channel catering to an older audience. Then, as a result of holding on to viewers won in past days while finding it tougher to get new viewers the channel's viewers were on the whole older; the channel's management responded disproportionately to material aimed at an older audience; and so CBS kept the "old people's shows" on the air, and picked up new ones; while younger viewers passed on its offerings.

Still, when considering why this went so far it may be helpful to remember that, contrary to the solipsistic view prevailing, the outcome of a competition is never a matter of just what one party does, but what the competitors do as well--and it was the case that in these years the competition was getting a lot tougher, with there being that much more to draw away the attention of those younger viewers. After all, between the mid-'80s and mid-'90s the country saw the arrival of three new broadcast networks, all of which were very aggressively chasing younger viewers, and in at least some degree catching them. FOX had 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five, while the newer and even more youth-oriented WB had Dawson's Creek and Felicity and 7th Heaven (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed and Smallville for sci-fi fans), and UPN had Veronica Mars. Cable was scoring, too, with MTV, for instance, airing shows like Beavis and Butthead and The Real World. Meanwhile, if NBC had Matlock, The Golden Girls and Empty Nest it also had its family sitcoms, and much more youth-oriented shows like the college-set A Different World, and not long after, Friends, and Seinfeld (which if not being about teens or twentysomethings was not exactly about "adults" either, and still commanded quite the youth audience at the time), while ABC had its own youth-friendly TGIF block.

Not unrelated was that matter of "edginess." Where CBS had once been more daring and provocative than its rivals (as with the Norman Lear sitcoms, the politics of which ABC refused to touch--as one sees in its completely-missed-the-point attempt at All in the Family-minus-the-politics, the short-lived The Paul Lynde Show), it was now the channel known for offering safe, cozy stuff as the others pushed the envelope, with CBS offering Touched by an Angel as ABC contributed to broadcast TV's last truly great bout of moral panic over sex-and-violence-on-TV with NYPD Blue. (Indeed, it may say a lot that CBS' line-up from those days now makes up such a large part of the weekday lineup of the Hallmark channels.)

Certainly CBS did make some effort to vary its offerings that way, scoring cult successes with quirkier and sometimes more daring material (like The Flash, or Picket Fences), and even a measure of real commercial success (as with Northern Exposure), but when it broke with its pattern it seems to have more often been a matter of trying to make something out of its rivals' declining properties and outright cast-offs, and often not succeeding (as with its picking up longtime TGIF staple Family Matters well past its peak, only to see the onetime top twenty hit fail to make the top hundred in its one season on the channel, finishing out its run at a dismal #108). The result was that even when the channel started having top ten-caliber hits with a broader appeal--indeed, began setting trends with shows like the reality TV-pioneering Survivor and forensics show boom-launching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (I didn't say they were good trends, just that CBS launched them)--the old person's image stuck and the channel never quite shook it. But then TV was becoming an old person's scene anyway, the young inclining toward the Internet, especially after streaming took off, and indeed a glance at the Nielsen ratings these past few years, dominated by the NCIS franchise, and The Big Bang Theory franchise, and Blue Bloods, make it look like it's the '70s all over again, with 2020-2021 seeing it ratings champion for thirteen straight years.

Monday, January 3, 2022

How Has Robert Ludlum's Readership Held Up Over the Years?

When I was researching The James Bond We Forget I found myself looking for empirically useful indications of the readership of the James Bond novels in recent years--originals and continuation novels alike. In the process I hit on the idea that the number of Goodreads ratings a book got might be an indicator. Going by these it seemed that, as I had suspected, there were not many of them. Casino Royale, greatly boosted by the hit movie, still had some 70,000 ratings when I looked--and the figure fell by more than three-fifths between there and the next book, Live and Let Die. The numbers continued trending downward from there, to about 10,000 for The Man with the Golden Gun, while the continuation novels did even less well--some of them having under a thousand such ratings.

Just for the sake of comparison, Fifty Shades of Grey, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train each have over 2 million ratings, and Me Before You over 1 million ratings. Of course, the books in question were older and the platform less favorable to them--but compare Casino Royale even with Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October--which had well over 300,000 ratings.

Recently I wondered where Robert Ludlum fits into the picture. As it happens his novel The Bourne Identity has an impressive 420,000 ratings--doubtless also helped by having been the basis for an identically titled hit movie. But, even with the boost provided by hit adaptations of the sequels, these did far, far less well. The Bourne Supremacy has about 181,000 ratings, The Bourne Ultimatum a mere 63,000. And while Bourne got his continuation novels the way Bond has the ratings for these dwindled fast--the more recent of these scoring about a couple of thousand. Meanwhile Ludlum's non-Bourne novels have not held up all that well readership-wise, if one goes by this measure. The most-rated non-Bourne novel is The Matarese Circle, with a mere 42,000 ratings, The Icarus Agenda having about 30,000 (not sure why it ended up next in line), and The Aquitaine Progression a little under 19,000, with his The Road to Omaha (one of his two comedies) at the bottom of the list with just 4,000.

I think I was more surprised by the limited evidences of a readership for Ludlum than for Fleming. After all, Fleming's storytelling style (telling the doings of James Bond as though he were writing Madame Bovary, while every so often subjecting us to a thirty-page account of a card game) is not what readers of popular fiction these days expect from a thriller, such that Bond fans--especially fans who think of a Bond movie as properly a light, fun, gimmick-packed action-adventure secret agent procedural--quickly drop the books in disinterest. Meanwhile they never acquired the level of cachet a John le Carrè has had, leaving those who might otherwise bear with them unwilling to struggle with an old, difficult book--while many regard the social attitudes of that Edwardian Etonian as unforgivable. (Race and gender get all the press, but there is much, much more there to be offended by.)

By contrast Ludlum was a more recent writer (not 2020, but still, not a writer already being lambasted as a reactionary in the '50s), offering more straightforward, brisker, more action-packed novels. (Indeed, I think that more than anyone else he can be credited with having brought the paperback shoot 'em-up-style just arriving on the scene in the '70s into the high-end, big-press hardcover spy thriller.) There is, too, the cachet that the Ludlum media franchise has had--which I expected to do more for the readership of his books than the Bond movies manage to do for Fleming's books (let alone Gardner's), as well as the buzz that a number of his works make from development hell (as with those versions of The Matarese Circle and The Chancellor Manuscript that we heard about). But it has been far from being enough to save him--and at least to go by what I see on the Goodreads pages, a reminder that where popular fiction is concerned blockbusters very quickly lose their appeal for most readers. Indeed, I suspect that had Doug Liman's film The Bourne Identity not become a hit back in 2002 the Ludlum name (which through the '90s went from topping the bestseller lists to falling right off of them) would be all but forgotten today save by a few older fans and hardcore students of the form--a latterday William Le Queux or E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon