17 October 2017

Review: Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 354 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1959)
Acquired and read June 2017
Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

It's okay if a James Bond adventure starts with a low-key escapade where Bond discovers the villain cheats at cards-- even if Fleming already pulled this one in Moonraker, he's good at it. It's also okay if a James Bond adventure starts with a low-key escapade where Bond discovers the villain cheats at golf-- though even Fleming struggles to make golf exciting. What's not okay is having 143 pages of your 354-page novel taken up by Bond rooting out cheaters. It's decidedly low stakes stuff, like the old Superman story where he stops someone from fixing up Ivy League football matches. I guess it oughtn't surprise me, though, because this James Bond novel is more about Bond versus people who violate English social norms than most: in addition to people who cheat at gentlemanly pursuits, this book is Fleming's most racist yet, with some really awful stuff about Koreans, plus Bond "cures" a lesbian, and Bond blames the death of one woman (in this book, two "Bond girls" die which seems a pretty poor showing; actually are they the first women to die in the series since Vesper?) on the fact that she wouldn't listen to him, and the fact that she wouldn't listen to him on the women's suffrage, which masculinized women and feminized men.

I found this to be a less satisfying Bond novel on the whole; in addition to the languid opening, Bond feels like a bystander for too much of the story, even if we do learn that behind the scenes, something he did caused contingencies to be put into motion that saved the day. The best part of the novel is the long car chase where Bond tales Goldfinger from England to Switzerland; as he usually does, Fleming makes something that could be dull in other hands quite tense through his explication of minute details. If the rest of the book had been this good, it would have been great. As it is, alas. I am still looking forward to the film.

(I was surprised that the story's most famous image, death by gold paint, doesn't actually appear on the page; Bond is just told it has happened by the victim's sister. It's on the cover and of course in the movie regardless.)

Next Week: I'm all caught up on James Bond novels, so I'm cycling onward to another reading project. Join me for three months of a return to Oz!

16 October 2017

Review: Star Trek: Discovery: Desperate Hours by David Mack

I have some reviews of the first three releases of 2017's Fourth Doctor Adventures up at USF: The Beast of Kravenos (the Doctor, Romana, and K9 meet Jago and Litefoot), The Eternal Battle (the Doctor, Romana and K9 meet the Sontarans), and The Silent Scream (the Doctor, Romana, and K9 meet a silent film star). One of them is good.

Trade paperback, 368 pages
Published 2017

Acquired September 2017
Read October 2017
Star Trek: Discovery: Desperate Hours
by David Mack

The first Discovery tie-in novel is a prequel, set one year prior to the events of the Discovery pilot, "The Vulcan Hello." It has a neat concept courtesy of series co-creator Bryan Fuller, one which will probably never be done on screen: the Shenzhou meeting the Enterprise under the command of Captain Pike, which means that Michael Burnham meets her foster brother, a young Lieutenant Spock.

The plot is honestly pretty perfunctory: a mysterious alien ship threatens a Federation colony, so the Shenzhou and the Enterprise are sent to stop it. Captain Pike is ready to follow orders to destroy the ship with minimal investigation, while Georgiou favors a more scientific and diplomatic approach. It's in its characterization of Pike where the book falters the most: I never felt like I was reading about the thoughtful man played on screen by either Jeffrey Hunter or Bruce Greenwood. Pike here is too violent and too by-the-book.

Better was the characterization of Burnham and Spock. A young Spock is tricky-- there are points where he's more Data-esque-- but I liked these two characters together: mirrors of one another, both human-Vulcan outcasts in their way. I didn't always exactly get where Burnham was coming from, but that's consistent with her characterization on the television program (I finished the book after watching episode four), where she's very rash but says she's logical and focused, and where her attitude towards ends and means fluctuates. Burnham and Spock solving puzzles together on an alien ship was okay, but the part near the end of the novel where each has to confront what it means to live as the other, was excellent, some really sharp character-based writing from David Mack. Alas that we will never get to see Sonequa Martin-Green and Zachary Quinto do this on screen.

The best part of the book is Saru. On screen he's probably my favorite character. I didn't like the implausibly unprofessional bickering he and Burnham participate in, but that's an accurate reflection of the television series, unfortunately. (I feel like you could write a rivalry that wasn't so immature-- its brazenness reflects poorly on both captain characters for not quashing it.) What Desperate Hours lets us do that Discovery itself has not yet done is let us see those parts of Saru that have nothing to do with Burnham; since the show is mostly told from her perspective, so far we've only seen Saru interacting with her. Here, we get Saru running his science lab on the Shenzhou, Saru contributing ideas that help save the day, Saru interacting with the Enterprise's Number One (who he kind of falls for, as she's the first human he's met who doesn't act like a predator), and Saru ruminating on his past (he was rescued from his planet, where his people lived in caves, by a Starfleet crew). I really liked the way the book handled Saru.

Number One was characterized well, though I was mildly grumpy that Mack calls her "Una"; however, I understand that originates from a Greg Cox novel. I know it's hard to work with an anonymous character like this in prose, but it just seems wrong, like translating Chewbacca's dialogue directly in print. I was a little sad to get almost none of the other Pike's Enterprise crew: Boyce has one scene, and Tyler, Garison, and Pitcairn make tiny contributions, but there's no Colt (who's my favorite), and the only "expanded universe" Pike crewmember I noticed was Caitlin Barry from the 1980s/90s novels by D. C. Fontana and Peter David. Give me some Mohindas or Burnstein or Dabisch or Nano or Moves-with-Burning-Grace or Carlotti! You shouldn't really take this complaint seriously, though, because ultimately this isn't a Pike's Enterprise novel, it's a Discovery (Shenzhou) one, and the focus is in the right place. I just really like Pike's crew.

I do wish we'd seen more of the various Shenzhou crew, though. Mack wrote biographies for them all, and named many of them (including Kayla Detmer, the only one to make the transition to the Discovery other than Burnham and Saru), but there's not much in the book to make you care about them: I want previous adventures for Danby Connor that make me even more sad when he bites it at the Battle of the Binary Stars!

Anyway, on the whole this was an enjoyable book. I like the way CBS and Simon & Schuster seem to be handling the Discovery novels: rather than so-so outings slotted in between television episodes like how Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise all started out in prose, they're being used to flesh out the universe of the new show and connect it to the world of the old ones.

13 October 2017

"When we get marry we make them grow": Dr. No

Having started my Bond film odyssey with Casino Royale, I've finally made it back to the first film, Dr. No. Like a lot of the earlier films, this one mirrors its book pretty closely in terms of plot, with relatively minor tweaks (in the novel, for example, Dr. No is a guano miner, while in the film, he's mining radioactive materials for a nuclear reactor). The biggest is probably that more overt danger is introduced: a lot of Fleming's novels really go for the slow build in a way that probably wouldn't work on film, so the movie introduces a number of extra attempts on Bond's life to the earlier parts of the story, at a point where in the original novel it's not yet clear that foul play is even at work on Jamaica.

Strike that: Sean Connery himself is the biggest change in the film. Obviously I've four more Sean Connery performances to go, included the oft-praised Goldfinger, but of the three Connery movies I've seen thus far, this is definitely the best. In the early novels, especially Casino Royale and Moonraker, I maintain that Bond is a callous brute playing at civilization. Connery captures that in Dr. No, with one important twist: his James Bond is cool. This is driven home to us right in his first scene, where he iconically shows so little interest in Sylvia Trench that she falls for him right away. Connery makes Bond seem casual and effortless; he's just above everything that happens to him, whether it's wrestling his chauffeur or having sex with a suspicious secretary to draw out the bad guys. The predominant attitude that Connery projects is that 1) he's having fun, and 2) he doesn't care. Sometimes this becomes poor quippery (his one about the people who died chasing him being on their way to a funeral was a groaner), but most of the time it works really well. Connery's Bond doesn't have the sensitive side that Daniel Craig's would demonstrate, or that we see in books like Casino Royale or From Russia with Love, but Dr. No doesn't call on him to demonstrate it. (Hence why I think Dr. No is a superior film to From Russia, even though From Russia is a better novel.)

A man who will sleep with you, then send you to jail.

In this film, Connery's Bond is brutal when he needs to be, and without the goofy humor that would undermine later Bond films. He drowns a guy right in front of Honey Ryder and there's another scene where we see him strangle a guy to get a radiation suit. Perhaps the harshest is the scene where he lies in wait for Professor Dent, a geologist secretly working for Dr. No. Bond sets things up to make it look like he's sleeping in bed, then sits by the door playing solitaire. When Dent comes in, he empties six bullets into what he thinks is Bond's sleeping form (actually pillows), before Bond reveals his presence, forcing Dent to drop his gun. They talk a bit, and then Dent goes for his gun... only it's empty. Bond points that his gun only had six bullets to begin with, and then shoots and kills Dent-- and then shoots him again for good measure. Then he just unscrews the silencer from his gun and sits there. Look, I don't glamorize violence, but when I finished this scene, I was like, "how cool is James Bond?" He's just so casual about it that it becomes art, the best scene in an overall strong film.

And a man who doesn't like to lose... not even at solitaire.

What I like about these early Bond films of the 1960s is that they fundamentally take themselves seriously in a way that the ones of the 1970s don't. There are quips and humor and ridiculousness, but the world is real, and the danger feels real. (I haven't talked about Joseph Wiseman, but he does a great job as Dr. No.) When people get hurt, it really does hurt, as opposed to the comic violence of Diamonds Are Forever, and that's what makes Dr. No one of the better Bond films thus far.

Other Notes:
  • Since this is the first film, there are a number of recurring elements yet to be worked out. There is no big title song like there would be in later films, for example-- "Under the Mango Tree," which is performed in a bar, heard on a record, and sung by Honey, is as close as it gets. The visually distinct opening credits are here, but they're not as salacious as some later ones, being evenly divided between abstract dots, dancing women, and Jamaican assassins.
  • Even though it was the first film, there are still some elements that pick up on previous novels, unchanged from the books, most notably that Bond switches guns at the beginning. Fleming needed to do this in the books, but the films could have just started him out with a different gun to begin with! Peter Burton fails to make an impact as proto-Q.
  • Dr. No is linked in with SPECTRE, who we've already seen in From Russia with Love and Diamonds Are Forever in the film series. They've yet to appear in the books.
  • The film is very tied into some contemporary events, like the moonshot (which replaces a guided missile test in the novel) and the theft of Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington (Bond does a double-take upon finding it in Dr. No's base).
  • Some reviews call her a "marine biologist,"
    which seems to be overselling her qualifications somewhat.
  • Honey Ryder's backstory is simplified from that in the novel. However, the way Bond listens to her tell the story of how she got revenge on her rapist with a poisonous spider (it took him five days to die) is hilarious. "Well, it wouldn't do to make a habit of it."
  • Jack Lord turns up as the first of the many incarnations of Felix Leiter. He's not in the book.
  • Bond flirts with a woman in a club at the beginning of the film, and his famous way of introducing himself is actually in imitation of how she introduces herself: "Trench, Sylvia Trench." I didn't realize it until I looked it up on Wikipedia, but Trench actually reappears in From Russia with Love, where Bond is once again called away on a mission during a date with her.
  • Poor Quarrel.

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. Moonraker
  5. Live and Let Die 
  6. Diamonds Are Forever

12 October 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: Forever... (1975)

Trade paperback, 209 pages
Published 2014 (originally 1975)
Acquired December 2016

Read January 2017
Forever... by Judy Blume

The great paradox of young adult literature is that it was created to communicate a genuine young adult voice, yet that purpose was immediately co-opted by adults. S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was a teenager herself in 1967 and created a whole new market-- yet not even ten years later, the mid-thirties Judy Blume was cranking out YA novel after YA novel. Mike Cadden of Missouri Western University touched on this in his article, "The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel" (2000). As he says, "Novels constructed by adults to simulate an authentic adolescent's voice are inherently ironic because the so-called adolescent voice is never-- and can never be-- truly authentic. [...] [T]he YA novelist often intentionally communicates to the immature reader a single and limited awareness of the world that the novelist knows to be incomplete and insufficient. It is a sophisticated representation of a lack of sophistication; it is an artful depiction of artlessness" (146).

Where Cadden goes with this is to classify YA novels into three different narrative strategies, based on the extent to which the YA reader is made aware of the inherent irony: is the reader taught that the viewpoint of the novel of "incomplete and insufficient"? It's a useful classification system; where Cadden ends the article is to promote a model for "ethical fiction": Cadden argues that YA novels ought to make clear the limited viewpoints of their narratives, and that authors ought to "help[ ] young readers detect and cope with irony, complexity, and contingency so rich in the world they hope so desperately to know" (153). This fascinates me because one of Hinton's purposes in The Outsiders was expressly anti-didactic, she was tired of novels for teens that delivered pat morals on how to liver properly. But Cadden sees an educational purpose for YA lit, and of the books I taught in my young adult literature course, surely none was more educational than Forever..., which is basically a 200-page brochure on sex for teens. It covers both the logistics and the emotions of it: Katherine visits Planned Parenthood for birth control in a scene that seems like it comes straight out of a brochure, but she also learns about how your first time might not be amazing as you dreamed, and how you might think your first love will last "forever..." but it definitely will not.

I would probably peg Forever... as what Cadden calls "Single-voicedness and Character Narration": "Each text provides a single voice that is so highly confident that it is ultimately unassailable within the text. These books and speakers provide only one argument or position on a matter, and most important, they fail to provide within the text the tools necessary to reveal the contestability of these immature perspective to the equally immature reader" (148). Indeed, Katherine is confident throughout Forever... in her love for her boyfriend Michael, and her belief that is meant to be and will always be. For the adult reader, at least, her wrongness is clear, and Cadden does allow that hyperbole is a tool for revealing what he calls "debilitating world views" (153): "Hyperbole [...] is harder to detect than either the contradiction provided by multiple perspectives or the doubt suggested by a more self-conscious narrator" (149).

But I think that despite the unassailability of Katherine's voice (her parents disagree with her, of course, but the narrative itself doesn't provide the kind of tools that would cause Cadden to classify a book as "Double-voicedness and Character Narration"), Forever... provides a different way of leading to questioning world views: plot and story. Katherine might think she is completely right, but the actual events of the book show that she is wrong, even if the narrative doesn't acknowledge this in a double-voiced way.

The thing is, though, that Forever... is terrible. Katherine's narrative voice lacks any of the spark of Ponyboy's in The Outsiders, or of later first-person narrators like Titus in Feed or Briony in Chime. She is plainly and obviously a way for Blume to disseminate information to the reader about teenage sex, and this makes the book unable to engage an adult reader in the way that most YA fiction can. My students weren't fans, but I didn't expect them to be: I taught this book because its purpose is so unlike that of The Outsiders, despite The Outsiders creating the very genre in which Forever... operates.

What really fascinated me about the book was how much my students reacted against it. I mean, I didn't like it very much, but they took particular exception to Michael, who they saw as violating Katherine's consent. Not that he rapes her or anything, but the pressure he applies to Katherine (at one point he accuses her of being a tease) is uncomfortable, moreso to a group of millennials in 2017 raised on discourses around consent and rape culture that I just don't think were there in 1975. Blume appended a preface to the novel at some point (I'm not sure when exactly, but it's in my 2014 edition and contains a web address, so that provides something of a range) indicating that the book doesn't say as much about STIs as it ought, but I think the pressure that Michael puts on Katherine, and Katherine seems to accept as normal, has dated far worse. Not to accuse my students of inconsistency (because the different viewpoints may have actually been held by different people), but after lambasting the book for how didactic it was, and also agreeing that one of the good things about The Outsiders was its lack of moralizing, they also thought it hadn't taught something it ought to have taught, they there was a "debilitating world view" that had gone unaddressed. I'm not sure what to make of this inconsistency in our expectations for young adult literature, one that would recur throughout the semester.

10 October 2017

Review: Dr No by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 309 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1958)
Acquired January 2017
Read February 2017
Dr No by Ian Fleming

I'm often impressed by how much Ian Fleming does with how little. The Bond films are often globetrotting epics with multiple high-stakes fights. Dr No shows that you can get a lot out of a man trying to sit still while a centipede crawls over his face-- somehow one of the most intense scenes in these novels thus far! Bond doesn't do a whole lot here, but Fleming's Bond is human, and thus he struggles for every little thing he does do. When Bond, Quarrel, and Honey Rider have to hide from Dr No's forces on Crab Key, it's riveting; Fleming's attention to detail always serves him well in scenes like this. Honey herself is probably one of the most fascinating female characters in this series yet, and Dr No a strangely Gothic villain. Unfortunately, Dr No works better as an offstage premise; I enjoyed the bits where Bond and Rider and trapped in his weird hotel, but once he's revealed as contrivedly part of the Cold War and Bond turns the tables on him, the book deflates somewhat, as Fleming hasn't come up with a plan that matches sufficiently to the uniqueness of the character he's created. Still, one of the more enjoyable of these books-- Fleming's love of Jamaica always serves him well.

Next Week: He's the man, the man with the Midas touch: James Bond meets Goldfinger!

09 October 2017

Review: The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett

In other news, I have a review up at Unreality SF, of the H. G. Wells Big Finish Classic audio adaptation of The Shape of Things to Come. I would have never tried to bring this book to audio, but it's probably the best of Big Finish's Wells adaptations!

Hardcover, 275 pages
Published 2013 (originally 2011)

Acquired December 2016
Read April 2017
The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett

Barnett traces the history of gin, mostly in the Anglophone world, from its introduction to the present day. He's particularly interested in what you might call the moral status of gin: it is the center of various moral panics at first, but gradually over time become a drink with a higher class status. It's a little on the dry side, but it's pretty interesting, filling in a lot I didn't know. It's even a surprisingly useful social history of eighteenth-century England in general.

06 October 2017

"my tongue-tied young pride would not let my love for you show": From Russia with Love

Gotta get those cat-fighting women on there.
Is that really an authentic Gypsy cultural practice?
From Russia with Love continues our reverse James Bond journey, supplanting Diamonds Are Forever as the earliest Bond film we've watched thus far. Of all the Bond films, this might be the most accurate-to-the-book adaptation yet. Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever just went nuts, Live and Let Die was a sort of weird mish-mash, and Casino Royale is pretty accurate once they get to the book, but there's over sixty minutes of prelude tacked on to the beginning. From Russia with Love, however, apes the structure of the book very closely, down to starting with plotting bad guys rather than Bond himself (though there's a great pre-credits fakeout), and just lots of small details, like the woman giving a massage to Grant when his superiors turn up to brief him, and Kerim Bey's periscope installed in the Russian embassy in Istanbul.

The big change is that instead of Bond being ensnared by a SMERSH plot (SMERSH being the Soviet counterintelligence organization), it's instead a SPECTRE plot (SPECTRE being the nonaligned international terrorist organization). This works really well, actually, because it makes the obvious trap that is a Russian cipher clerk saying she's in love with James Bond and will give a decoding machine to the British a tad more complicated. MI6 knows there's something afoot, but they can't figure out what SMERSH's game is-- that's because SMERSH has no game, and they're as baffled by what's going on as MI6 is. SPECTRE plays the two organizations off each other, and Bond doesn't even have an inkling SPECTRE are involved until very later in the game. In the novel, there's a lot of time-biding going on, but in the film the same events acquire new significance as you know that Bond is being manipulated by SPECTRE (to the extent that SPECTRE agent Grant actually helps Bond at a couple key points in Istanbul).

Watch out, old man.

This is one of the best James Bond films I've watched so far-- not as good as Casino Royale, but the gap between it and the nearest contender, Moonraker, is astronomical. I'd say that's because it's a fundamentally serious film with moments of levity, whereas all the lower-ranked films are just goofy romps with no serious foundation. The scenes with Blofeld briefing his SPECTRE subordinates have a real sense of danger to them. (And I actually don't think Blofeld was called Blofeld, except in the end credits, only "Number One." The actor playing Blofeld was credited only as "?", but Eric Pohlmann did the voice and was really excellent: great, deep menace.)

The scene where Number One delivers a lecture on fighting fish and then feeds one to his cat is amazing. The Bond wiki pointed out to me that though Blofeld becomes associated with the Nehru jacket later on, here he's just got a normal suit.

The highlight of the film is a sequence where Bond and the female defector, Tanya Romanova, flee west on the Orient Express. When their contact is killed, things suddenly start to feel very claustrophobic-- when you're on a train, after all, there's nothing you can do to speed up or change direction. Unbeknownst to Bond, Grant is on the train with him, and Terence Young directs some really creepy sequences of Grant monitoring Bond's actions. Like in the Istanbul scenes, the fact that the audience knows what Bond does not is used to good effect. The stakes are kind of low, but that's good. When Bond films attempt to escalate the stakes, that's usually where things go wrong, with Blofeld suddenly cackling about a space laser or whatever. This feels like a real spy film, albeit one with quips.

The quips are mostly dumb, by the way (the "one of our airplanes is missing" reference is particularly weak), but you can ignore them pretty easily. The humor does work when it arises more naturally from the characters, like when M stops playing a recording by Bond to send Miss Moneypenny out of the room because it seems like 007 is about to reveal a sexual exploit-- and then Moneypenny just listens in with the intercom anyway.

Apparently Daniela Bianchi's voice was dubbed by an English actress because her Italian accent was too strong. I did not notice at all!

If there's a flaw in the film, it's that one doesn't believe that Bond actually cares for Tanya. In the novel, SMERSH is exploiting Bond's predilection for falling in love with vulnerable women, and though Bond never stays in love with them, Fleming depicts Bond as truly in love with the woman in each novel while the relationship lasts. In the film, though, Sean Connery never plays Bond's interest in Tanya as anything beyond 1) sexual and 2) desire to get the decoding device from her. This is probably most driven home when Bond and Bey snigger over Bond's sexual exploits. I don't know if this was a deliberate choice by the screenwriter/director/actors, or if it's just something they failed to communicate fully, but it does make it pretty impossible to invest in the Bond/Tanya relationship as the film draws to a close.

It feels weird to say that Ian Fleming cares about a woman's interiority, but he definitely cares more than the filmmakers.

Other Notes:
  • This is the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as the character who would come to be known as Q, but here he's just said to be the head of Q Branch. (I guess in the end credits he is dubbed "Boothroyd," but I didn't notice.)
  • The relationship between Miss Moneypenny and Bond is downright salacious here; they're rubbing their faces against each other and seconds from making out when M calls Bond on the intercom and interrupts them. Lois Maxwell played Moneypenny in the first fourteen Bond films (I think she's the recurring character to last the longest without recasting), and this is a far cry from the very dowdy look she had in Moonraker.
  • John Barry's score is super in love with Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme," playing it again and again, even over really mundane scenes like Bond checking into his hotel and riding the elevator.
Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. From Russia with Love
  3. Moonraker
  4. Live and Let Die 
  5. Diamonds Are Forever  

05 October 2017

Review: The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope

Trade paperback, 183 pages
Published 1991 (originally 1881-82)
Acquired December 2012
Read January 2013
The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope

Now we would look back at this book and call it science fiction; at the time it was published, it was considered a sort of utopian satire, like Erewhon or The Coming Race. It's weird to think that Anthony Trollope wrote science fiction, and there's nothing about his literary fiction that leaves me thinking he'd be particularly good at it. (George Eliot and Charles Dickens, though, I think would be capable of writing smashing sf novels for very different reasons.) I read it for the same reason I always pick up a nineteenth-century novel: it features a scientist. The narrator of The Fixed Period is John Neverbend, a social scientist and reformer who's worked out that if you euthanize everyone when they turn 67, society will be better off. As it is, one-third of the population contributes nothing! But as the death of the first man approaches in 1980, folks start to think that what seemed great in the abstract when the law was passed back in 1950 might not be so awesome when it's your friend or dad or neighbor who's got to be killed.

It's kind of a dull book, but where Trollope succeeds is in writing a narrator completely sure of his own righteousness. Neverbend just sees the world differently than other people, through the lens of rationality and statistics and the national interest. (The novel takes place on the independent former British colony of Britannula, which I think is in the vicinity of Australia and New Zealand.) Neverbend's plan is overturned, both by the people of Britannula and the British government, but he never sees why. Up until the very end, he is comparing himself to people like Galileo and Socrates, as scientific reformers who people didn't understand in their own age. Neverbend just doesn't get it, and he never will; his way of thinking is incommensurable with everyone else's, and in keeping this stubborn man (mostly) sympathetic throughout is where The Fixed Period's greatest success lies. You understand why Neverbend thinks what he does, even as you understand what he cannot: why everyone else thinks as they do.

03 October 2017

Review: From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 337 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1957)
Acquired and read August 2016
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

This reads like the ultimate James Bond novel. Not in the sense that Fleming has outdone himself, or perfected the formula-- I still reckon that Casino Royale is the best of these, and I don't see any sign of formula yet, neither the one from the films nor one of the books' own-- but in the sense that it feels final. Charlie Higson's introduction indicates Fleming toyed with killing Bond off in this novel, but even if I didn't know that, you can see how this book looks back at the trends and tropes of the earlier Bond novels and exploits them. Basically, the Russians note Bond's predilection for vulnerable women (seen in four of the five novels so far) and exploit it, staging a defection of an attractive young female cipher clerk in order to implicate Bond in a scandal. I'm curious to see where the novels go from here: is this trope done with, or will Fleming just keep using it anyway?

The format is a bit different than what we've seen previously. Bond doesn't show up for the first third of the novel, which instead details the inner workings of SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence organization. (Does SMERSH ever make it on screen? All of the film adaptations I've seen so far have excised the Russians for various reasons, and "SMERSH" is a dumb-sounding word, even if it was kind of a real thing. But if SMERSH makes it on screen ever, it must be in the film of this book, so I guess I'll see soon.) Here, Fleming's obsession with minute details serves him well: instead of carefully delineating meals or weaponry, we get the operations of Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence. I don't know if real Soviet intelligence organizations operated like this, but I would believe they would. It's a cold, clinical world where everyone does what they're told out of either total fear and paranoia or psychopathic glee.

Fleming times his switchover perfectly: exactly at the point where I was like, "Okay, where's James Bond?" the action switches to England. Honestly, the middle third of the novel is probably the weakest. Well, sort of. Bond goes to Istanbul, and we get to meet Kerim, the Head of T (MI6 operations in Istanbul), and he is a very entertaining character: he runs the Cold War as a sort of game, business, and family operation all in one. On the other hand, there's actually not a whole lot of relevance that happens in this section-- when Bond and Kerim go to see some gypsies, it has the sort of page-filling feel of the horse races in Diamonds are Forever. Lots of local flavor and color, but it's not really put to much use. Honestly, most of these Bond novels so far have been kind of weirdly plotted, except for Live and Let Die; I wonder if Fleming will get better at this as the series goes on.

The interest of all the local color is of course undermined by Bond's disgust at foreigners. Right from landing in Istanbul, it's all matter-of-fact racism from him: "So these dark, ugly, neat little [customs] officials were the modern Turks. He listened to their voices, full of broad vowels and quiet sibilants and modified u-sounds, and he watched the dark eyes that belied the soft, polite voices. [...] They were eyes that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to, that counted the grains of meal and the small fractions of coin and noted the flicker of the merchant's fingers. They were hard, untrusting, jealous eyes. Bond didn't take to them." Like, holy cow, Bond, even their "modified u-sounds" are evil? Bond likes Kerim, but of course Kerim's mother was English. It's this stuff that prevents one from fully engaging in the otherwise lavish descriptions of "exotic" Istanbul. Will I have to put up with this casual racism the whole rest of the series?

The last third of the novel is better, though. Like in Live and Let Die and Diamonds are Forever, we have Bond protecting a woman while on a slow-moving form of transport; the Russians really have figured out what it takes to make him fall in love with someone. It's tense and Fleming keeps the tension escalating throughout. If this part is done on screen as is, I can see it being really intense and captivating. I'm still impressed by how much Fleming makes you feel the pain Bond is in, and how hard it is for Bond to do things that look simple on screen-- like grab a gun while wrestling an opponent-- in a way that's completely captivating.

I'd place this in the middle of the Bond novels thus far: not as good as Casino Royale or Moonraker, but better than Live and Let Die or Diamonds are Forever. I'm interested enough to keep reading, at least.

Next Week: The sixth novel, but the first film: Dr No!

02 October 2017

Reading Roundup Wrapup: September 2017

Pick of the month: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. A strong book, but it really won through default-- nothing else I read this month was particularly noteworthy, alas.

All books read:
1. The New Doctor Who Adventures: Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks
2. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
3. The Transformers: Drift: Empire of Stone by Shane McCarthy
4. The Transformers: Punishment by John Barber
5. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
6. Star Trek: The Original Series: Elusive Salvation by Dayton Ward
7. Doctor Who: Andiba and the Four Slitheen by Justin Richards
8. Transformers: Combiner Wars by Mairghread Scott & John Barber

All books acquired:
1. The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg and Beyond by Peter J. Beck
2. Star Trek: Discovery: Desperate Hours by David Mack

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 646 (down 1)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 19 (down 1)

Also: A few recent reviews I've posted at Unreality SF include those of Big Finish's second Classic Doctors New Monsters release, which pits the fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth Doctors against the Vashata Nerada, the Racnoss, the Carrionites, and the Vashta Nerada again, as well as the first two releases of six "Big Finish Classics" versions of scientific romances by H. G. Wells: The Invisible Man (starring John Hurt!) and The First Men in the Moon.