Friday, August 16, 2019

Spectrum 5: 1950s stories by Wallace, Thomas, Ashwell, and Ashby

1969 and 1972 paperback editions of Spectrum 5; I probably should have used the '69 image
on my last blog post because the cover looks like it may have been inspired by
James H. Schmitz's "Grandpa."
In our last episode we read half the stories in Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest's 1966 anthology of 1950s SF stories Spectrum 5, the half by authors I felt were more or less famous.  Today we experience the other half of the book's content, four stories by authors whom I, at least, am less familiar with.  Let's check out these "guys"--maybe we'll meet a new favorite!

"Student Body" by F. L. Wallace (1953)

Wallace has a single novel and like two dozen stories listed at isfdb. Barry Malzberg, whom we at MPorcius Fiction Log both take very seriously and consider a figure of fun, asserts that Wallace is a writer who deserves a higher reputation than that which he enjoys.  A story by Wallace is included in the 1979 anthology Neglected Visions, a book edited by Malzberg, Martin H. Greenberg, and John D. Olander dedicated to reprinting work by nine such SF writers who, according to Malzberg, have been unfairly neglected.

Marin is the biology officer with the first wave of colonists on a virgin planet.  Before the colonists got there the planet was surveyed by a whole team of biologists, but Marin finds that their survey is not accurate, that there are troublesome creatures on the planet they weren't warned about, namely voracious rodents that start taking a chunk out of the colony's limited food supplies.  Marin deals with this problem by designing a robot cat, and when even bigger rodents show up that the steel feline can't handle, by manipulating his supply of frozen animal material and breeding a pack of terriers the size of great danes.  The huge terriers soon have to contend with heretofore undetected native predators who are bigger still, beasts much like tigers.

By observing a captive native creature, and by using a sonar device to study in situ fossils without digging up the terrain, Marin figures out what is going on.  All these vermin and carnivores are the same species--when environmental conditions change, as with the introduction of the Earth dogs, the current generation of native fauna gives birth to a generation fully equipped to deal with the new conditions--for example, to deal with the dogs the rat-like natives gave birth to a generation of tiger-like offspring.  The sense of wonder ending is that when the human colonists kill the tigers with rifles, the next generation of natives looks quite like human beings--maybe the Earth-derived humans can negotiate with these creatures?  They had better learn to, because mouse-sized natives have stowed aboard the star ships which brought the colonists and have since headed home, and soon every planet in mankind's space empire will be infested with these quick-growing and quick-adapting alien creatures.  

This story is about average, not bad, but no big deal.  A little better than acceptable, I guess.  

"Student Body" is the only story in Spectrum 5 that is not from Astounding; its first appearance was in Galaxy.  It has been included in numerous anthologies, including ones edited by Groff Conklin and by Galaxy editor H. L. Gold.

"The Far Look" by Theodore L. Thomas (1956)

Uh oh, I read Thomas's 1970 story "The Weather on the Sun" in May and denounced it as a piece of garbage that romanticized politicians and bored me to death.  I implied that this irritating misfire was included in Orbit 8 because Thomas was friends with editor Damon Knight's wife Kate Wilhelm, but I am not aware that any such excuse is available for Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr. or British men of letters Amis and Conquest.  Well, let's do the right thing (for once) and try to look at "The Far Look" with an open mind.

"The Far Look" starts out long-winded and annoying.  As a scientist provides the background exposition to a subordinate egghead (and to us readers) Thomas buries us under a blizzard of mind-numbing minutia about Dr. Scott's pipe--how he fills the pipe,  the size of the match he uses to light the pipe, the gurgling noises the pipe makes, the size of the flame that comes out of the bowl of the pipe, how Scott waves the pipe around for emphasis and how he prods the junior scientist with the end of the pipe to put him in his place (that's right, Scott takes his disgusting cancer promotion device out of his mouth and touches one of his colleagues with the saliva-covered end of it as a means of enforcing dominance--sickening!) and blah blah blah.  Oh wait, I said I was keeping an open mind.  Well, let's take a look through all the tobacco smoke at the actual text of the exposition Scott delivers.

The United States has a base on the moon, staffed by two men.  Every month the two astronauts are relieved by a different pair sent up from Earth.  Many of the astronauts who return have become geniuses, the world's best in some field of art or science or business.  Earthlings can immediately tell which astronauts have become geniuses by looking at their eyes--those who have become geniuses have a "far look" and crinkles around their eyes.  Pipe enthusiast Dr. Scott is tasked with figuring out how spending a month on the moon has turned above-average men into supermen.

Once the seven Earthbound pages with the scientists are past and we are up on the moon with two of the astronauts, "The Far Look" is actually pretty good.  I like stories in which people in space suits go about the business of surviving in low-gravity, zero-atmosphere, environments, where death awaits only a few centimeters and a few seconds away, and Thomas actually does a good job of describing all the technical technological aspects and even the psychological aspects of two men's stay on the moon.  (And by "a good job" I mean the story is entertaining and builds an anxious, claustrophobic atmosphere--I am not competent to assess how realistic any of the science is.)

Over 27 pages we follow the astronauts' compelling adventures on Luna, their fears and their near death experiences, and then they are replaced and return to Earth with "the far look."  It's a little vague, but apparently the experience of being so horribly alone, and then returning back to the bosom of Earth and its teeming millions, is what turns the astronauts into geniuses.

I'm skeptical of the story's central gimmick (it's not clear what causes the astronauts to become superhuman and there is very little about how these newly superior persons behave on Earth) and the first part with the scientists, who we don't see again at the end of the story is poor and practically superfluous, but all the stuff on the moon is good and won me over despite my bitterness about Dr. Scott and his filthy habits and "The Weather on the Sun."  I am happily surprised to be able to give "The Far Look" a solid thumbs up.

"The Far Look," after its debut in Astounding, was chosen by Judith Merril for her second Year's Best volume, which means I own two printings of the story, I having purchased that Merril anthology in December of 2015 in New Jersey, and by Harry Harrison and Willis E. McNeilly for a 1975 anthology of Science Fiction Novellas.

"Big Sword" by Pauline Ashwell (as by "Paul Ash") (1958)

Here's another story I own multiple printings of.  After its debut in Astounding, Pauline Ashwell's "Big Sword" was included by Groff Conklin in his 1966 anthology Another Part of the Galaxy, a copy of which I acquired in Kentucky in 2016, as well as by Amis and Conquest in Spectrum 5.  In all three places the story appears under the masculine pseudonym "Paul Ash."  Ashwell has two novels and a score of stories listed at isfdb but I don't think I have ever read her work before.

Jordan is a spaceman and a scientist, currently the leader of a scientific expedition to planet Lambda.  At the start of his career he foolishly married a social climber who was only interested in his notoriety, Cora.  Cora divorced him while he was away on one of his expeditions, after she had given birth to his son, Ricky.  While back home on Earth, Jordan learns that Cora and Ricky, now fourteen, don't get along, and she is trying to send Ricky to some school for troublemakers so she won't have to deal with him, or even see him, for some years.  Instead of authorizing the shipping off of Ricky to this school, Jordan brings Ricky, who is interested in science, to Lambda.  He thinks that this trip will be a chance for him to get to know his son, whom he has hardly ever seen, but as leader of the expedition Jordan has almost no time to spare for Ricky.

Meanwhile, the 6-inch tall Lambda natives, of whom the human explorers are not even aware, are trying to open negotiations with the Earthers, who have unwittingly damaged their home.  Ashwell's aliens have an interesting biology and society, one so different from that of the humans that it makes any cross-species communication difficult--in fact their first efforts to communicate are perceived by the humans as an attack by invisible enemies or even an irresponsible practical joke played by Ricky.  (Some of the scientists are suspicious of Ricky.)

Luckily, Ricky turns out to be a rare human telepath--in fact the poor relationship he has with his mother and some of the expedition team members is largely a side effect of his psychic powers; Ricky, by picking up stray brain waves, innocently acquires knowledge that has lead Cora and others to think he has been snooping in their private papers.  Using his telepathy, Ricky, unbeknownst to all the adults, who have yet to even see a Lambdan, develops a friendship with the leader of the natives.  Ricky goes off with the alien leader to help him resolve an existential threat to his tribe, and Jordan, thinking his son has run away or is perhaps lost, organizes search parties and flies an aircraft in search of his son.  Ricky solves the Lambdans' dire problem and makes peace between human and native.  Tying up our other plot thread, Jordan even finds a wife among the other scientists.

Ashwell's aliens are very good, but the story feels too long and the whole deal with the precocious kid who is believed to have run away from home and who makes peace between the races feels tired and a little childish, like something from a sappy live action Disney movie from my youth.  I guess it all averages out to marginally good.  Suggesting that I am not necessarily an outlier in my assessment of where "Big Sword"'s strength lies, it was reprinted in 1983 in an anthology titled Aliens from Analog.

"Commencement Night" by Richard Ashby (1953)

In the 1960s the UN sponsored an elaborate experiment, Project Peace, that sought to find out how to prevent all the strife attendant with human life by studying human beings who were unaffected by history and culture.  A bunch of scientists took an island and exterminated all the rats and germs on it, then left a multicultural cohort of forty-five babies on the island.  It is now the early 21st century, and for decades a fifty-strong company of researchers has been observing the island through a multitude of hidden cameras and microphones as the children invented a super efficient language and multiplied to today's population of over 300 individuals.

One of the technicians on the research team is a former Olympic swimmer, and one New Year's Eve he was drunk and decided to leave the secret subterranean facility from which the researchers watch every move the experimental subjects make and take a swim around the island.  This lapse of judgement sets in motion a series of events which lead to the scientists learning that the island's inhabitants have developed psychic powers and been visited by space aliens.  (This is news because the islanders and E.T.s have been exploiting blind spots not covered by the boffins' cameras and mikes.)

The swimmer talks to an alien.  The alien explains that there is a Galactic Confederation with many member species, and they would like humanity to join, because humanity has some very useful skills, but we can't be accepted yet because our system of communication is too primitive--it is our inadequate ability to communicate that has lead to the wars and crime and greed, etc., that have plagued humanity throughout history.  When the aliens learned about Project Peace they secretly came down to teach the islanders their space language, in hopes of jump starting Earth's development of better means of communication.  Sure enough, because the islanders only know the alien language and not any Earth language or culture, they are all peaceful and honest hippies overflowing with love for everything.  As part of his work under the island observing the islanders, the swimmer has learned to speak the space language, and so the islanders are able, with their psychic powers, to change the swimmer's brain, erasing the negative effects of Earth culture so he, too, is full of love.  As the story ends we are led to expect that all the researchers will soon have their brains fixed and that humanity is on its way to joining the Galactic Confederation.

This is the worst story in Spectrum 5.  It is silly, it is sappy, and it is boring.  Ashby takes a bunch of SF elements (scientists who experiment on people, a Galactic Confederation, psychic powers) and instead of exploring them in any depth or using them as the building blocks for an entertaining story he just piles them up like a bunch of discarded bricks.  Gotta give this one a negative vote.

"Commencement Night" has been anthologized in only one place besides Spectrum 5, by Groff Conklin in Giants Unleashed, which was republished with the title Minds Unleashed.  Ashby has a single novel and like a dozen short stories listed at isfdb.


It ends on a sour note, but Spectrum 5 is a good anthology of more or less optimistic tales that celebrate science and the ingenuity and drive of the human race.   A worthwhile purchase.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Stories by Miller, Jones, Schmitz and Godwin from Spectrum 5

Back in the middle of July I purchased a copy of Kinglsey Amis and Robert Conquest's Spectrum 5, a 1966 anthology of 1950s SF stories; my copy of a 1968 edition has an irresistibly beautiful cover painting by Paul Lehr.

In their introduction, Amis and Conquest defend science fiction from the haters.  After making an appeal to authority (reminding us that C. S. Lewis, Angus Wilson, and William Golding are all SF fans) they get to some more serious literary analysis.  Novelist and James Bond fanatic Amis and poet and Sovietologist Conquest argue that while a good writing style would be nice (they suggest J. G. Ballard and Algis Budrys as examples of SF writers with a good style) it is not essential in SF, as what makes SF what it is is mythic themes (they present Jules Verne as an example here) or ideas (for this they offer the example of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s "Who Goes There," an SF story with "a brilliantly engineered main problem" resolved by an "unexpected but logical solution.")  As for the development of character, another virtue supposedly absent in SF, Amis and Conquest follow the line of Edmund Crispin, who noted that science fiction is about the relationship of humanity to some novel "thing," an invention or alien or cataclysm or whatever.  The character in such a story need not, maybe even should not, be too unusual or complex, because he represents all of mankind, acts as a sort of everyman.  Amis and Conquest's examples here include, again, Verne, as well as H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, the narrator of which represents an ordinary Englishman.

I don't know to what extent I agree with everything Amis and Conquest have to say, but it is a thought-provoking little essay that makes me want to see the essays at the start of the other Spectrum volumes.

Let's read four stories from Spectrum 5 by writers we have already discussed at least a little here at MPorcius Fiction Log, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Raymond F. Jones, James H. Schmitz, and Tom Godwin.  All four of these stories appeared in Astounding, which was sort of the flagship for SF that was about science and ideas and didn't necessarily focus on heroic or horrific adventures or prioritize literary style.

"Crucifixius Etiam" by Walter M. Miller, Jr.  (1953)

I loved Miller's 1954 story "I Made You," and liked his 1955 "The Triflin' Man" so I have high hopes for this one!

It is the year 2134, and Peruvian Manue Nanti wants to travel the world and see the sights: Notre Dame, New York skyscrapers, the pyramids of Egypt, the radioactive craters of Russia.  But he needs money to do so.  Solution: signing a five-year contract for a lucrative job on Mars!

On Mars Nanti works as a laborer, swinging a pick!  To breathe the thin air of Mars, laborers like Nanti have artificial lung machines implanted into their bodies.  The risk of using such a machine is that your body will likely forget how to breathe naturally, and your natural lungs will atrophy, and you won't be able to live without the uncomfortable machine, even back on oxygen-rich Earth.  (The engineers have better machines and better working and living conditions and don't run this risk as severely.)

Life for Nanti on Mars is a nightmare--no women, no friends (everybody on Mars is a jerk), the work is exhausting (there is a vague and not really convincing explanation for why they use picks and shovels instead of bulldozers and backhoes on Mars) and the lung machine is like a torture device, the valves pulling painfully at the skin in which they are embedded every time you move or try to breathe naturally.

For most of its 21 pages "Crucifixius Etiam" reads like one of those stories in which the space program is a foolish waste of time and humans aren't fit to live off of Earth--beyond Earth, Earthmen lose their culture, religion, morality, etc.  This is Barry Malzberg territory, and demonstrates that 1) Malzberg is not quite as innovative as he is sometimes considered, 2) pre-New Wave SF and Astounding in particular are not quite so technophilic and optimistic as sometimes considered!  It is also one of those stories in which the government and bourgeoisie abuse the working classes (represented by non-whites like Nanti) and major government and industrial projects, like terraforming Mars, don't have a legitimate goal, but are a scam that serve, as one character in "Crucifixius Etiam" puts it, as "an outlet for surplus energies, manpower, money....if the Project folded, surplus would pile up--[causing a] big depression on Earth."

The ending of Miller's story could be considered a twist--a hopeful and life-affirming twist!  When it is explained to Nanti that he and the other people stuck on the Hell that is Mars are building the first of 300 derricks and associated processing machines that will draw up subterranean frozen "tritium" and convert it to helium and oxygen so that in 800 years Mars will have an Earth-like atmosphere, he accepts his fate and believes his sacrifice is worthwhile.  Nanti sudffers now so that people in eight centuries can live on a beautiful healthy world!  Miller doesn't come right out and say it, but I believe we are meant to see Nanti and his comrades as like Christ, sacrificing themselves for others, and like Moses, unable to enter the promised land to which they are leading humanity; Miller includes priests and rabbis as minor characters, nudging you, I believe, to make this interpretation.

Not bad--Miller's style is good and all the economic, religious, and technological stuff, whether or not any of it is really believable, is interesting and serves a human story.  Anthologists Judith Merrill and Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty would see merit in "Crucifixius Etiam" and reprint the story (in Human? and their The Best Science Fiction Stories series, respectively) in 1954, over a decade before Amis and Conquest did.

"Noise Level" by Raymond F. Jones (1952)

I really enjoyed Jones's novel about disembodied brains, artificial life, and the perils of socialism, 1962's The Cybernetic Brains, so I am also looking forward to this one!

It is the Cold War.  A bunch of physicists are gathered together by the U.S. government under conditions of strict security to watch a film.  The film depicts a twenty-something demonstrating to government officials his anti-gravity device, a thing like a backpack that lets you levitate and fly around!  But during the demonstration the device explodes, killing the young inventor!  The assembled eggheads are told the young inventor was a paranoid with no friends who left no notes or blueprints describing his amazing invention, and they have been summoned to work on the top secret project of studying the wreckage and this genius misfit's library and lab with the goal of rediscovering the secret of anti-grav!

"Noise Level" is a smooth and pleasant read, though some may say it is too long (like 45 pages in my copy of Spectrum 5) and doesn't amount to much: it consists mostly of conversations and throws around concepts like Einstein's postulate of equivalence and metaphors involving whirlpools and signal to noise ratios.  The point of the story is that people get too set in their ways to be able to think outside the box and that being more open-minded is the path to making major breakthroughs.

All the physicists, before seeing that film, thought that anti-grav was impossible.  Some of them maintain that anti-grav is impossible and that the film is a hoax.  But seeing the film convinces some of them that anti-grav is possible--they get to work on the problem and in a few weeks have a working prototype of an anti-grav vehicle that weighs one hundred tons.  The twist of the story is that the film and wreckage and lab are all a government trick, just special effects and props designed to get the country's best physicists to abandon their preconceptions and free their minds so they can develop a technology that will allow us to explore the universe and give us a leg up on the commies.  The sense of wonder ending is the revelation that all the things we think are impossible are in fact possible if we can first convince ourselves that they are possible, which will free our minds and give us a chance, through hard work of course, to make them a reality.

This story is alright, and it has many of the hallmarks of classic golden age SF: a bunch of scientists, a paradigm shift and a sensawunda ending, and the use of trickery and manipulation by an elite group on an inferior group for their own good.  I can't help but find the lionization of elite trickery of the masses, which we see so often in classic SF (Asimov's Foundation stories and Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are my go-to examples) kind of sick and twisted, but at least this time the victims are a themselves a bunch of geniuses.

"Noise Level" was included in two anthologies published before Spectrum 5, one by William Sloane and one by Edmund Crispin, and was also selected by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss for a 1973 anthology of Astounding material.

"Grandpa" by James H. Schmitz (1955)

I enjoyed Schmitz's 1943 horror tale "Greenface" and his collection of stories about female psychic space cops who manipulate people (or just shoot them, you know, whatever works), Agent of Vega, so I've got no qualms about reading this one.

Cord is a fifteen-year-old boy, a member of the two-thousand strong team preparing planet Sutang for colonization.  Schmitz stories usually portray women in positions of authority, and as the story begins a seventeen-year-old girl is warning Cord that he had better start behaving or the Regent, the head woman in charge of the colony, will have him sent back to his home planet in disgrace.  Don't think that Cord has been smoking crack and playing dice while neglecting his duties, dear reader--Cord is a junior biologist and when he is supposed to be following orders he has been capturing native fauna and studying them in his unauthorized private zoo.  Cord is from planet Vanadia, a world settled relatively recently by humans, and he isn't as enamored of rules and regulations as the Terrans who make up the vast majority of the team's members.  (I thought maybe Schmitz here was trying to remind us of how British people sometimes see Americans and Australians as unruly uncouth cowboys.) 

One of Cord's jobs, apparently, is as a driver, so when the Regent comes by to make an inspection of the Colonial Team's work, Cord drives the vehicles she rides around the colony.  One of these "vehicles" is a native animal, a thing like a giant lily pad, 25 to 50 feet across, with all kinds of tendrils and paddles underwater; people can climb aboard this creature, which the humans call "a raft," and direct its movement.  (All you animal rights activists will be booking flights to Sutang when I tell you that the way one directs a raft is by shooting it with a heat ray pistol--don't get your granola in a bunch, treehuggers, the heat ray is--well, usually--set on low power!)

A dangerous situation arises related to the larger than average raft Cord and the Regent's party are riding (this raft has been christened "Grandpa") and it is Cord who saves the day using his knowledge of biology and his powers of observation and quick-thinking and quick-stabbing.

The real star of this story is the ecology of Sutang--Schmitz does a great job of coming up with and describing interesting alien life forms.  The character of Cord, the slightly subversive teen-aged boy, is fun (he hopes that a disaster will occur so he can be a hero and save his position on Sutang.)  A good story.

"Grandpa" has been anthologized many times, in books edited by Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg, Martin. H. Greenberg, Gardner Dozois, and still more. A well-regarded classic with something for everybody--alien monsters, the glorification of science and the colonization of the galaxy, people shooting off guns and stabbing enemies with knives, and women who tell you what to do for your own good whom the author doesn't portray as nags but as people we are supposed to admire.

"Mother of Invention" by Tom Godwin (1953)

So far, the stories I have read from Spectrum 5 have been stories that have been widely anthologized, stories that editors and/or readers have been crazy about.  But "Mother of Invention" has only been anthologized by Amis and Conquest, though it has also appeared in the Croat magazine Sirius in 1976 and a Baen collection of Godwin's work with a preface and an afterword by our hero Barry Malzberg.  Maybe this one is weak, or maybe Amis and Conquest have found an overlooked gem?  (It is also possible that this story's length, like 60 pages in my copy of Spectrum 5, has discouraged reprinting.)  Well, let's find out what is up with this one.

"Mother of Invention" starts with a sort of comedy scene, in which a concatenation of factors--including a nagging wife!--leads to a mistake by a technician engaged in inspecting a space ship's "nuclear converter."  This mistake, compounded with additional bad luck, leads to the five men who own the ship being marooned on a virgin planet they discover 30,000 light years away from civilization.

Aurora, the name they give this new world, has a very high percentage of carbon in its make up, and there are diamonds as big as your fist all over the ground and diamond dust in the air which plays havoc with the men's equipment as they search for the uranium and cadmium they need to repair their wrecked space ship. They are under a lot of time pressure, because in seven or eight months a star passing through this system (they erroneously thought this was a binary system--doh!) is going to annihilate Aurora.

Unable to find any uranium, and with their mining equipment ruined by the diamond dust anyway, the five adventurers decide to invent an anti-grav device.  Through dogged persistence, and by keeping their minds open, they accomplish in the wilderness what people in well-appointed labs back on Earth were never able to.  Then, like in an Edmond Hamilton story, they move Aurora itself away from the impending stellar collision and ride the planet back home.

Back in 2014 I read Godwin's novel The Survivors, AKA Space Prison.  As here in "Mother of Invention," in The Survivors a bunch of people find themselves on a barren planet but through hard work not only escape but trigger a paradigm shift and usher in a new period of human history.  "The Mother of Invention" is also like The Survivors in that it is quite bland.  The five explorers in "The Mother of Invention" lack personality, motivation and relationships--there is more human drama and characterization in the jocular little prologue than the main story.  (Maybe Amis and Conquest chose it specifically to prove their point about SF not needing characterization?)  After Schmitz's vivid and fascinating Sutang, Godwin's Aurora is woefully dull.  I gave The Survivors a marginal negative vote, but I'll say "Mother of Invention" is barely acceptable.  Like Jones's anti-grav story, it is very much a classic SF tale about male scientists who, in response to an external impetus, invent a technology that will revolutionize human life, but Jones injects more surprise, fun, and human feeling into his story.


The first US edition of Spectrum 5 has a
wacky collage cover--I think Joachim Boaz
loves this kind of thing
Godwin's piece is pretty marginal, but these four stories are all worthwhile reads, good examples of SF that glorifies science and technology and tells you that it totally makes sense to take terrible risks and make huge sacrifices to expand the power and reach of the human race.

Spectrum 5 includes eight stories; in our next episode I'll read the four stories in it by SF writers I don't think are quite as famous as Walter A Canticle for Liebowitz Miller, Raymond This Island Earth Jones, James Witches of Karres Schmitz and Tom "The Cold Equations" Godwin.

Monday, August 12, 2019


The six websites below sent some traffic my way recently, and I figured it only just to try to return the favor.  I am presenting them in alphabetical order, and, it should go without saying, but in case it doesn't, let me say that while I respect and admire the commitment to speculative fiction of the people who produce these websites, and think these websites are all worth your time, don't assume I agree with everything they have to say.


Castalia House"Castalia House is a premier Finnish e-publisher of fiction and nonfiction."  Their blog has lots of links and interesting articles about science fiction, fantasy, and manga and anime; there is a recent blog post connecting Australian SF author A. Bertram Chandler and Canadian mastermind A. E. van Vogt to the Dirty Pair!  Cool!

DMR Books. "DMR Books publishes fantasy, horror, and adventure fiction in the traditions of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and other classic writers of the pulp era. We are dedicated to bringing you the latest cutting edge action/adventure fantasy fiction, as well as reprinting obscure gems from days past."  It is possible their blog is still under construction, with only a test page, but their test blog post included a link to my writing about Edmond Hamilton and other people's writing about Michael Moorcock and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I consider the test a success!  The website of a Greek SF author with free e-books, monthly links to interesting articles and a blog with photos of reptiles and crazy graffiti!

The PorPor Books Blog:  I have been reading tarbandu's fun blog for a long time--I can remember reading it in my New York government office when I was supposed to be doing the business of the long-suffering taxpayers!--and he has been a generous supporter of MPorcius Fiction Log.  Tarbandu reviews lots of science fiction and fantasy and comics, but sometimes ranges further afield, writing about '70s pop music and producing special series of posts on various interesting topics, like his recent posts on fiction and non-fiction about the Vietnam War.

Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.  Joachim Boaz has long been a big supporter of this site, for which I am grateful!  His blog is one of the big wheels in the internet classic SF world, with lots of reviews of SF books and blog posts on recurring themes in SF cover art.  I'll never forget the time I was criticizing Harlan Ellison in Joachim's comments and Ellison himself appeared to put me in my place!

Speculiction....  Jesse, who must be some kind of speed reader considering his voluminous output, reviews 20th century SF, recent SF, mainstream fiction, biographies of adventurer types, and more, including video games!  Speed reader or not, each thing Jesse writes is thoughtful and takes the creative endeavor of writing (or producing a video game!) seriously.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Moonraker by Ian Fleming

She glanced at the ruthless brown face of the man beside her.  Did he have moments of longing for the peaceful simple things of life?  Of course not.  He liked Paris and Berlin and New York and trains and aeroplanes and expensive food, and, yes certainly, expensive women.  
I don't know about your computer,
but when I scroll down on my computer
this image looks really freaky
In our last episode I vowed to avoid Signet editions of the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming because I noticed that paragraphs, sentences and phrases I saw in the 1978 Panther paperback edition of the second 007 novel, Live and Let Die, had been wholly expurgated from Signet's 1963 printing of the book.  But when I looked up the third James Bond novel, 1955's Moonraker, at the internet archive I saw that the Signet edition was the only scan available. So I crossed county lines to borrow from a public library many miles away a 21st-century edition of Moonraker, one put out by Thomas & Mercer, who I guess are owned by amazon or something, in 2012. I can only hope this printing presents the text of the British first edition.  Don't let me down, amazonians!

The first chapters of Moonraker give us insight into Bond's life in London, what his work is like when he's not on an assignment gambling and killing people, and how he spends his free time.  We learn he is the best shot in the Secret Service, and that he regularly has sex with three different married women.  Don't ask me what happened to Solitaire, the Haitian-born Frenchwoman with psychic powers Fleming seemed to be suggesting was a love match for Bond in the last novel.  Maybe her psychic powers, which didn't protect her from getting kidnapped by the kind of guys who feed young ladies to barracudas, protected her from getting involved with a guy who has no respect for the sanctity of marriage?

M calls Bond into his office to talk about a dude he plays bridge with at his club, Sir Hugo Drax.  This is only the third James Bond novel but Fleming, we see, is already reusing his gags.  Do you remember how in Casino Royale the villain was a guy who (allegedly) suffered amnesia because of some tragedy in the war and then went on to become a mover and shaker in French society?  Well, Hugo Drax, who let's pretend we don't yet know is the villain of this one, is a guy who (allegedly) suffered amnesia after getting severely injured in a German attack on his British Army unit during the war and then went on to become a mover and shaker in British society.  Drax got rich and famous by buying and selling rare metals that are valuable because they are needed for making jet engines, and then started throwing his money around London, donating to charities and so forth, making himself a hero of the people.  Drax's latest exploit has been to design and build a missile, the Moonraker, and gift it to the British people to serve as Britain's deterrent against foreign attack!

M tells Bond that he is sure Drax is cheating at bridge, but he can't figure out how.  Bond being the best gambler in the Secret Service, M asks 007 to come to dinner at his club (Fleming spends a few pages explaining how awesome this club is--it is "probably the most famous private card club in the world," after all) and play with him and Drax and see if he can figure out how Drax is cheating.  M and Bond admire Drax, and want to prevent this hero from besmirching his reputation, especially since he has become a critical part of the United Kingdom's defense establishment!

The way to get Drax to quit cheating, so he and the best club in the world and the best missile in the world aren't embarrassed in front of the whole world, Bond decides, is to outcheat him and beat him.  Hopefully this will shock him into behaving like a gentleman.  When Bond meets this titan of industry, this pillar of the free world's nuclear defense, Bond is amazed to find he is no gentleman, but a loudmouth boor who bites his nails and sweats a lot.  Putting on his psychiatrist's hat, Bond figures Drax is under some terrific tension.

Bond is so offended by the guy's bad manners that 007 enters the game of bridge against Drax with gusto, hoping to teach this bounder a lesson.  (One of the subtler nuances in Moonraker is the fact that Bond himself, were Drax not there, would probably be the least gentlemanly person in the club--people who see him are always thinking he looks tough and ruthless and dangerous.)  Bond gets so caught up in the excitement--or maybe it is the booze and benzedrine he takes before the bridge game--that he bets more than his entire year's salary against Drax.  But he is a better cheater than Drax, and Bond wins something like ten times his yearly salary.

(Benzedrine is a recurring element of these Bond novels--Le Chiffre in Casino Royale used lots of benzedrine, and Bond used it in Live and Let Die before attacking Surprise Island and the Secatur.  Like the limpet mine used in that operation, benzedrine is a kind of call-back to WWII, when servicemen would take benzedrine to stay alert during long periods of duty.  Bond and so many of the people he interacts with, in the first three 007 novels at least, are what you might call products of the cataclysm of the Second World War.)

The next day Bond, still playing head shrinker (he does his psychoanalyzing several times in the novel), decides that Drax must be paranoid, a victim of delusions of persecution and delusions of grandeur.  Luckily Drax is no business of his anymore...oh, wait, Drax is his business.  Last night one of the fifty Germans working on the Moonraker project murdered the head of security for the project, a British government official, and then committed suicide.  M has decided that Bond should fill the vacancy left in the Moonraker security office!

Bond finds that, on the job, Drax is not the jackass he was at the club, but an efficient manager and skillful leader of men with a deep knowledge of rockets and associated subjects.  Drax hosts a dinner where Bond meets the German scientist at the top of the Moonraker project, Walter, Drax's German assistant (Drax says he's like a "dogsbody" or "A.D.C.") Krebs, and Drax's secretary, Gala Brand, a beautiful Englishwoman.  Brand, as Bond knows but Drax presumably does not, is a Special Branch undercover police officer who was insinuated onto Drax's staff to act as a spy for the British government.  After dinner Drax shows Bond the missile, which will be test launched in just a few days.  Bond goes back to admiring Drax for conceiving and managing such a large, complicated and groundbreaking project.

Bond, now living at the Moonraker site, does detective stuff involving fingerprints and going through files and all that.  He tries to get help from Gala Brand, but she is cold to him, resenting the fact that a foreign operative--a ruthless killer, no less!--instead of a fellow domestic cop got the position of head of security at the Moonraker site.  "...why had he been sent down instead of somebody she could work with, one of her friends from Special Branch, or even somebody from M.I.5?"  Suspicion centers on Krebs, who is a snooper whom both Brand and Bond find looking through their personal things, but is Krebs a saboteur working for the commies, a trusted member of Drax's team who is acting as an additional, secret, layer of security at Drax's orders, or just some neurotic with a compulsive need to go through people's drawers and bags?     

The Moonraker site is on the coast, and while investigating the beach below a chalk cliff to consider the way a Soviet commando team might attack the site, Bond and Gala Brand are almost killed by an avalanche that Bond is certain was no natural accident but an attempt to murder the two English spooks.  (Getting buried in chalk fragments is just one of the numerous instances of Bond and Brand getting bruised and lacerated over the course of the three or four days they work together.  Bond is like a bad luck charm, just ask Felix Leiter!)  Who is responsible for this assassination attempt?  A small group of the Germans?  All of the Germans?  And are they working against, or in concert with, British hero Drax?

Brand does a little detective work on her own, picking Drax's pocket, and figures out that on test day--tomorrow--the missile will not be launched into the ocean but into the heart of London!  Krebs spots her pretty English fingers in Drax's pocket as she is trying to return the evidence, and, lickety-split, the lady police officer finds herself tied up in the room of the house in Central London with the transmitter that will guide the missile into the city from the coast.

HQ knows about this rarely used house of Drax's (they just figure he has sexual liaisons there) so when Brand is missed Bond knows to look there.  He arrives just as Krebs and Drax are bundling the policewoman into Drax's Mercedes, and a car chase ensues, Bond's British Bentley pursuing Drax's German machine.  This car chase is very good, very exciting, the best scene in the novel.  As with the exciting car chase in Casino Royale it ends with triumph for England's enemies and Bond a captive of the villain.

Drax, as the reader may have been anticipating, was not a British soldier who lost his memory after being caught in an explosion during a German attack.  Rather, he was one of the German attackers severely injured by his own men's explosives while disguised as a Tommy.  As Bond and Brand sit, tied to chairs (getting tied to a chair is a normal occurrence in these 007 books), Drax tells them the story of his amazing career, from young German aristocrat studying in England to one of Otto Skorzeny's commandos, to a man missing half his face who is taken for a working-class English soldier suffering amnesia.  Once patched up and set loose in post-war London, he robbed a Jewish moneylender to get the cash to start his metals business.  Once established, he launched his ambitious scheme of revenge!  With Soviet help, he assembled a fifty-man crew of hardcore Nazi technicians and brought them to England to build the Moonraker rocket and install atop it a Soviet nuclear warhead.  (In return he sends to Moscow all the British scientific instruments that were supposed to be in the missile nose cone.)

After Drax is finished telling them his life story he leaves our heroes in a room that will be exposed to the incinerating exhaust of the missile test firing tomorrow.  Bond frees them by operating a blowtorch (one of Krebs's torture implements) with his mouth.  As Drax's secretary, Brand is very familiar with the gyros that control the missile's course, and knows what settings Drax has been sharing with the British government, settings that would guide the missile to the North Sea where a test target awaits.  She tells Bond how to reset the gyros and he sneaks into the missile and changes the settings from that London building to the target zone.  So, when the missile is launched it takes the course the British public listening to the radio expect, not the one the Germans expect.  The Germans, as the missile is taking off, are picked up by a Soviet submarine disguised as a Royal Navy sub.  I'm not sure it makes any sense, considering the disparate speeds of a supersonic missile and a submerged submarine, but somehow the Soviet sub with Drax and Krebs aboard is in the target zone when the Moonraker missile arrives and the atomic explosion sinks the sub, killing all on board.  In the last chapter of the novel M tells 007 that the British government is going to somehow cover up this whole mess--part of the cover up is sending Bond and Gala Brand out of the country on paid leave for a month so nobody asks why they are covered in bandages.  Bond hopes that Brand will become his girlfriend, but she is engaged to be married and Bond has to go to France alone.  (I guess none of those married women can get time off.)

This Croatian cover successfully
captures a memorable scene in which
Gala Brand looks up at the missile and
Bond notices the beauty of her throat
Above, and when I wrote about Live and Let Die, I mentioned the shadow cast on these 007 novels by World War II, and this is true of Moonraker even more than the others--it's a chance for the British to defeat German aggression yet again, with Allied World War II vet Bond in a struggle over the fate of London with Axis World War II vets Drax and Krebs.  In Live and Let Die Fleming presented stereotypes about blacks--e. g., that they are superstitious--and here in Moonraker he has Bond and other British characters voice stereotypes about Germans--they are "robot-like" and "precise," for example, and Drax's voice when giving orders is the essence of "Prussian militarism." 

Another of the recurring themes of the three James Bond novels I have now read has been the depiction of a United Kingdom in decline that requires US help to stay afloat.  In Casino Royale, Bond's operation is facing disaster until it is saved by an influx of American cash.  Here in Moonraker, the British government isn't capable of developing its own deterrent to Soviet attack and expects a private businessman to foot the bill and even manage the development of the necessary weapons!  As Bond puts it to M early in the novel, "...when you think what he's [Drax] doing for the country, out of his own pocket and far beyond what any government seems able to do, it's extraordinary...."  Near the end of the novel Drax calls the English "Useless, idle, decadent fools...too weak to defend your colonies, toadying to the Americans with your hats in your hands...."  Ouch! 

Because Moonraker is set entirely in England and Bond is sort of stuck in one place trying to figure out who the bad guy is among a bunch of foreign weirdos and jerk offs, it feels less like an adventure and more like a detective story.  The car chase is very good, but it feels like a revision of the car chase in Casino Royale, with Fleming whipping out some of the same striking images (e. g., the sound of the Bentley's exhaust reverberating from buildings along the road and Bond grabbing his Colt revolver and laying it beside him in preparation for blasting the other car's tires.)  The bridge game is more confusing and less exciting than the baccarat game in Casino Royale, and calling Germans a bunch of robots isn't as shocking or edgy as the talk about African-Americans in particular or America in general in Live and Let Die.  Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and Felix Leiter, Quarrel and Solitaire in Live and Let Die are more interesting people and have more interesting relationships with Bond than does Gala Brand.  I liked Moonraker, but I think it the weakest of the first three Bond novels, though I know there are those who think it the best of those first three.

More James Bond soon, but I haven't got my hands on a copy of Diamonds Are Forever yet so we'll take a different tack in our next blog post.  After a long series of posts on spy thrillers and weird tales and space operas we'll take a look at what you might call mainstream or paradigmatic science fiction stories, stories that first appeared in Astounding in the early 1950s.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Never before in his life had there been so much to play for.  The secret of the treasure, the defeat of a great criminal, the smashing of a Communist spy ring, and the destruction of a tentacle of SMERSH, the cruel machine that was his own private target.  And now Solitaire, the ultimate personal prize.
1978 Panther
Here's the second James Bond novel, Ian Fleming's Live and Let Die from 1954.  I definitely read this one as a kid, but all I remember about it is that it was the first time I ever encountered the term "negress" and that M tells Bond that "...the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions--scientists, doctors, writers.  It's about time they turned out a great criminal."  I've seen the silly but spectacular Roger Moore movie, of course, which has so many recognizable faces (Jane Seymour, Yaphet Kotto, Geoffrey Holder) but I doubt much of the book made it into that two-hour extravaganza.

I read a scan at the internet archive of a 1978 Panther paperback with a white-gripped automatic pistol and a woman in a red dress (not to scale) on its cover.  Chapter V of this British printing was titled "Nigger Heaven."  I glanced at a scan of a 1963 American edition by Signet and there Chapter V bore the title "Seventh Avenue."  A scene of two pages in Chapter V of the UK printing in which Bond listens in on the conversation of two African-Americans in a Harlem restaurant and Fleming laboriously reproduces their accents and lingo ("Guess ah jist nacherlly gits tahd listenin' at yah") was absent from the US paperback.  Flipping back and forth between the scans, I found another instance where text containing "the n-word" had been excised for American publication, as well as changes to the text the purpose of which I cannot fathom.  I will have to avoid these Signet editions as I continue to read the Bond novels. 

Signet 1963
In dribs and drabs here and there--but most frequently in Harlem and Florida--a large quantity of sixteenth and seventeenth century gold coins is turning up on the US market, sold to curio shops and pawnbrokers by black people.  CIA, the FBI, and the British Secret Service think Mr. Big, "probably the most powerful negro criminal in the world" has found the buried treasure of pirate Henry Morgan in Jamaica and is liquidating it.  Mr. Big is not just a gangster--he's also the leader of a voodoo cult and a Soviet agent, a member of SMERSH trained in Moscow!  The money gained by the selling the gold, laundered through a multitude of innocent African-Americans, is probably being used to finance communist espionage in the USA.  Bond is eager to exact revenge against SMERSH, and so is happy to lead the British half of the joint US-UK investigation of Mr. Big and is soon on a plane to New York where he meets Felix Leiter, CIA man, whom he knows from his recent adventure in France (chronicled in Casino Royale.)

In New York, Bond receives American clothes and a little training in how to act like an American, and learns more about the Haitain-born, half "negro" and half French Mr. Big and about voodoo. Bond reads a travel book about the Caribbean, The Traveller's Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Fleming generously (and perhaps pointlessly--these long extracts are by far the most boring parts of Live and Let Die) reproduces three and a half pages of text from it that describe a voodoo ceremony.  Mr. Big already knows Bond is in America and why he is there, and Bond receives some menacing mail at his hotel room.  Leiter, who loves jazz and says he likes black people, takes Bond barhopping up in Harlem so Bond can get an idea of what African-American life is like, and in hopes of getting a look at Mr. Big holding court at one of the many night spots he owns.

In Casino Royale and here in Live and Let Die, Fleming does not limit himself to presenting only Bond's point of view or to only writing scenes in which Bond himself appears.  In Casino Royale there were a few scenes with M and S (head of the division of the British Secret Service devoted to the USSR) and Moneypenny in which Bond was absent, and a scene inside Le Chiffre's automobile while Bond was pursuing him in his Bentley.  Sometimes we are privy to the thoughts of characters besides Bond.  Here in Live and Let Die, Fleming includes scenes of Mr. Big and his head of communications, The Whisper, and other Harlem residents--Fleming uses these scenes to demonstrate to us that Mr. Big has all of Harlem under his thumb and knows everything that happens in Harlem.  Mr. Big rules by fear, and by taking advantage of how superstitious black people are--they believe that Mr. Big is a zombie, one of the living dead and thus unkillable.

Bond and Leiter are captured via a trapdoor mechanism and Bond finds himself separated from the American spy, bound to a chair in the book-lined office of the very tall, very broad Mr. Big, a man of intelligence and education and extreme ambition.  Mr. Big has a beautiful Haitian-born French woman, purportedly a telepath, come in to assist in his interrogation of 007.  Bond senses that this woman, called Solitaire because she has rejected all male companionship, is attracted to him and may want to help him.  ("Solitaire" is also apropos because she uses tarot cards to liven up her telepathy act.)  Unfortunately, she can't prevent Tee Hee, a guy who giggles in a falsetto while he tortures people, from breaking Bond's left pinky finger at Mr. Big's order.

Mr. Big doesn't want to kill 007 or Leiter, just hurt them as a warning and an incentive to stop investigating him, so he lets them go.  Tee Hee is supposed to toss Bond in a pond in Central Park, but Bond outwits the torturer, killing him and two other of Mr. Big's thugs and getting back to his hotel in a car he steals from the criminals.  Leiter is supposed to be beaten severely, but the man in charge of him goes on easy on Leiter because they share a love of Duke Ellington and other jazz greats.

Bond takes a train south for St. Petersburg, Florida, while Leiter takes a plane.  St. Petersburg is where Mr. Big's yacht, Secatur, unloads the gold coins from Jamaica.   Solitaire, who hates the "nigger gangsters" (as she calls them in the British version, but not the American one) she has been shut up with for a year sneaks away from Harlem and contacts Bond, who agrees to take her with him in his private compartment on the train.  But most of the black people in NYC are working for Mr. Big and Bond's movements are observed, and an enemy is on the train, waiting to strike!  Luckily, a brave and decent black train employee warns 007 and he and the French psyker get off the train early, in Jacksonville, and transfer to a different train.

The Florida section of Live and Let Die sees Fleming unleash a lot of criticisms of the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Bond, an expert on fine foods, bitches about American eggs and coffee; an expert on cars, he bitches about the automatic transmissions and spongy suspensions on American cars which render driving a breeze instead of a challenge to one's athletic ability.  There's a crack about how the US is a land covered in junk and litter.  Solitaire and Bond both react with horror to St. Petersburg, which is full of gossipy old people and the young people who figure out ways to part the geezers from their retirement funds.  Solitaire complains that it is too easy to make money in America, which she says leads to poor customer service, and Bond calls North America the "great hard continent of Eldollarado."  . 

Bond and Solitaire reach St. Petersburg halfway through the novel and are immediately spotted because of Solitaire's foolishness.  (Remember how in Casino Royale Bond declared that working with women was dangerous?)  While Bond and Leiter are away from their rented cottage doing a preliminary recon on Ourobourous Worm and Bait, the live bait and sea shell company which they believe is where the gold coins are warehoused, Solitaire is kidnapped.  Then while Bond is asleep Leiter goes off on his own to infiltrate the Ourobouros warehouse, and is brought back by Mr. Big's henchmen a broken man--the CIA op is barely alive after having lost an arm and a leg to Ourobouros's ravenous man-eating shark!  (I guess this shark doesn't give two shits about Duke Ellington!)  At night Bond sneaks into the warehouse, where he discovers that the gold coins from Jamaica are smuggled in in fishtanks holding poisonous fish that the Ourobouros peeps are ostensibly importing to sell to scientists.  Bond gets in a fight with the guy who manages Ourobourous; this joker falls in the water with the shark that maimed Leiter, and doesn't come out again.               

Bond proceeds to Jamaica, where the final third of the novel takes place.  Bond, reflecting Flemings' own life experience, loves Jamaica and its "staunch, humorous people."  Aided by Strangways, the head of British intelligence on the island, and Quarrel, a mixed-race Cayman Islander said to be the best swimmer and fisherman in the Caribbean, Bond launches a one man assault on Surprise Island, where Mr. Big's people have set up shop excavating Morgan's treasure and where Mr. Big holds Solitaire prisoner.  (With binoculars the good guys can see that the crime boss and the telepath have arrived on Suprise Island in Mr. Big's yacht, the Secatur.)  Strangways provides equipment and oceanography books, and Quarrel trains 007 in swimming and spearfishing.  Then, on a moonlit night, while Mr. Big's men load the Secatur with the fish tanks full of gold, Bond, in scuba gear, crosses the three hundred yards of Shark Bay that lie between mainland Jamaica and Surprise Island.  He fights a huge octopus and a twenty-pound barracuda, and attaches a limpet mine to the Secatur's hull.  Then he gets captured, of course.

As a captive, Bond is witness to the efficient way in which Mr. Big's crew processes Morgan's vast treasure of (Bond thinks it worth four million pounds) and is reunited with Solitaire.  Mr. Big had hoped to marry and create amazing children with Solitaire (I suppose children with his genius and her psychic powers) but her treachery has convinced Mr. Big that she must die.  Mr. Big proposes to chain Bond and Solitaire to the back of the yacht and drag them through a coral reef so they get all cut up and then into the shark- and barracuda-infested waters beyond the reef where their blood will attract the fish.  Luckily, the limpet mine detonates seconds after the Secatur has passed beyond the reef and seconds before 007 and his psychic girlfriend reach the reef, sinking the yacht within the danger zone and leaving our heroes in the safe zone.  The blacks who survive the explosion are killed by the sharks and barracuda, including Mr. Big, who is close enough to Bond that the Englishman can see him being ripped apart by piscine teeth and hear his screams of agony.

By 2019 standards Live and Let Die seems pretty racist.  But to be fair to Fleming, Bond repeatedly stresses the similarities between whites and blacks.  He points out that most blacks are law-abiding, he says that British people ("particularly the Celts" Bond says to Leiter) are also superstitious, and says (in that restaurant scene deleted from the US edition) that blacks are like whites in that they are interested in sex and keeping up with the Joneses, the only difference being they don't bother to be "genteel" about it.  Leiter rhapsodizes about the central role played in American culture by blacks, saying that "most modern dances were invented" in Harlem, and that all the big bands Bond has heard of were proud to play in Harlem, the "Mecca of jazz and jive."  Bond finds black women attractive and finds the music he hears in Harlem mesmerizing.  I don't list these things to defend Fleming or try to convince people who are offended by the book that they shouldn't be, but to make sure I don't falsely characterize the author or his novel, which is full of black people who are villainous or gullible, but also includes admirable black characters and praise for aspects of African-American culture.

Another thing I found noteworthy about Live and Let Die, and this also goes for Casino Royale, is the large shadow WWII casts over the novel.  In both books Bond's service all over the world during the 1939-1945 war is mentioned repeatedly.  One reason Mr. Big is such an effective leader and successful criminal is that before he was trained in Moscow he was trained by the OSS and served the Allied cause in Vichy France.  When Bond requests equipment he wants things he used or learned about during the war: "And some of that shark-repellent stuff the Americans used in the Pacific....And one of those things our saboteurs used against ships in the war.  Limpet mine, with assorted fuses."

Live and Let Die is a good thriller; I thought all the train scenes were good--tense, and I liked the fight in the warehouse full of tanks of worms and venomous fish, and Bond's harrowing trip through Shark Bay.  The novel's gruesome violence is shocking (Leiter's dismemberment by a shark was a big surprise to me) and it was interesting and sometimes funny to hear a foreigner's assessments of 1950s America, its culture, landscape, and its people, white and black.  (If our English and French friends have such harsh things to say about us in these 007 books, my fellow Americans, I can only imagine what Russian communists will say if Fleming chooses to allow them to give voice to their opinions on the USA.)

On the negative side, Fleming does quite little with voodoo, socialism or telepathy beyond introducing them into his stories--these topics, rich raw material for philosophical discussion or supernatural or science fiction plot elements are mostly just window dressing.  The story would have been basically the same if Mr. Big wasn't involved in voodoo or revolutionary communism at all, but was just a gangster who ruled Harlem by murder and torture and was smuggling and laundering buried treasure and Solitaire was not a psychic but just some chick he wanted to sleep with who saw Bond as her ticket to freedom.  The voodoo/USSR/telepathy angles as written don't really detract from the book, but they feel like lost opportunities--for example, I was a little surprised that Solitaire's psychic powers neither came in handy, nor were ever debunked.

Next stop: Moonraker.


The 1978 Panther paperback I read has an ad in its final pages for "All-action Fiction from Panther."  I was a little surprised to see science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer's name on the list among all these espionage writers; the Panther book advertised is his 1970 novel inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan, Lord Tyger.  I have not read Lord Tyger, but my man tarbandu has, and he wrote about it a year ago.          


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

'The office was very jealous although they didn't know what the job was.  All they knew was that I was to work with a Double O.  Of course, you're our heroes.  I was enchanted.'
Bond frowned.  'It's not difficult to get a Double O number if you're prepared to kill people....How do you like the grated egg with your caviar?'  
As a kid I loved the James Bond movies with Sean Connery, George Lazenby or Roger Moore which would periodically show up on network TV full of commercials.  I even read four or five of the Ian Fleming novels, though I don't think I really "got" them, being so young, and they being so radically different than the films.  This was before puberty, so all the references to sex in the movies and in the books either went over my head or bored me.  I liked James Bond the way I liked the first Star Wars movie--I savored the ceaseless violence!

Reading Kingsley Amis recently brought James Bond to mind, so I decided to read the Ian Fleming 007 novels.  Even though Wikipedia says the county I live in is one of the wealthiest counties in America and one of the top five place to live in the USA as determined by some magazine, the county library system has no novels by Ian Fleming.  (I guess quality of life is subjective.)  So again my recourse is to the internet archive.  The first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953; I'm reading a scan of a paperback published in 1983 by Berkley.  This isn't one of the books I tackled as a child, and the only Casino Royale film of which I am aware is the spoof one starring Barbara Bouchet (you loved her in The Red Queen Kills Seven Times), so I have no idea what the plot of this thing is going to entail.

A dude named Le Chiffre, which is French for "The Number," is the head of a major French labor union (50,000 members!)  This joker goes by the name "The Number" because he purportedly lost his memory during the Second World War, in a Nazi concentration camp or something like that, and doesn't remember his birth name.  Le Chiffre's union is closely allied with the Soviet Union--the Reds send a pile of money to the union, and if World War III should erupt it is expected that those 50,000 working class brutes will sabotage NATO installations and otherwise pave the way for the Red Army to take over France.

One of Le Chiffre's many girlfriends is a British spy, and she alerts Her Majesty's Government that Le Chiffre has a big problem.  Le Chiffre invested most of the union's money in a chain of brothels, which you would expect to be a sort of no-brainer investment in France, but a sudden and unexpected change in French government policy has led to the gendarmes closing down all those whorehouses and the union losing all that money.  Should the commies in Moscow find out that Le Chiffre blew all the money they sent him, agents of SMERSH (the Soviet agency whose name is an acronym for "Death to Spies") will murder him, so Le Chiffre comes up with the plan of winning all the money back by gambling at a seaside casino.  (This guy's memory may be damaged but his brain is otherwise puttering along just fine--check out all the good ideas he has!)  The British government comes up with the idea of making sure Le Chiffre loses the rest of Moscow's money at the casino, which will discredit the Red union and neutralize Le Chiffre, by sending their best gambler to the casino to play against Le Chiffre.  And who is their best gambler?  James Bond, Agent 007, of course!

What kind of guy is James Bond?  We are told he is cold and all-business while on a job, and somebody says he looks like Hoagy Carmichael.  But one of the attractions of the James Bond books, and one thing they are criticized about, is the fact that Bond enjoys what you might call luxurious and sensual living, or taking advantage of the many fine goods and services a capitalist economy and the remnants of an aristocratic culture have to offer, or conspicuous consumption, and it feels like Fleming spends as much time describing the stuff of the good life Bond leads as on actual spycraft stuff.  Bond has a fancy car, a 4 1/2 liter Bentley.  He smokes seventy cigarettes a day, a special blend of tobaccos he has made by a fancy tobacconist.  In one scene he gets a massage.  Bond describes to a bartender exactly how he wants his drink constructed, telling Felix Leiter, the CIA agent accompanying him, "This drink's my own invention."  To a beautiful female colleague, Vesper Lynd, (she wears a black velvet dress that is "simple, and yet with the touch of splendour that only half a dozen couturiers in the world can achieve") he admits "I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink."  And Bond is crazy about casinos:
He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures round the green tables.  He liked the solid studied comfort of cardrooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of the chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quiet unhurried attention of good servants.            
Back to plot.  The seaside town of Royale is apparently full to the gills with French security personnel and foreign spies.  Besides Texas-born American spy and former Marine Felix Leiter and British wireless expert Vesper Lynd there is a Frenchman, Rene Mathis, who works closely with Bond.  But don't think "The Number" is outnumbered!  A multinational legion of commies and thugs is in league with Le Chiffre!  He has two bodyguards, one of whom reminds Bond of Lenny from Of Mice and Men; the other has bad teeth, a hairy body and carries a cane that turns out to be a gun.  Bond's hotel room is bugged, and a married couple called the Muntzes--he German, she Czech--is in the room upstairs listening in.  Bond's cover, that of a Jamaican millionaire, is blown before he even gets to Royale, and a pair of Bulgar assassins try to kill Bond by throwing a bomb at him but are instead blown up themselves--Bond's survival is due to pure luck, not anything Bond deserves credit for.

Luck is a theme of the novel, as you might expect it to be in a novel about gambling.  "Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued;" which sounds like something Machiavelli would say.  The second quarter or so of Casino Royale is taken up by baccarat.  Bond explains the game to Miss Lynd, which takes some pages, and then Bond has his big match with Le Chiffre.  As far as I could tell, this game is 100% luck; there's no planning or strategy or bluffing.  I guess you could count cards, but no mention of such a technique is made by Fleming.  Bond loses all of the British taxpayers' money to the Red union leader, but then the American taxpayers bail out their friends on Airstrip One--Felix Leiter gives Bond a huge wad of cash and 007 goes on to bankrupt Le Chiffre and gets all of the lost money back.

Having triumphed over one of the many tentacles of the international communist conspiracy via an all night gambling session, Bond and Vesper Lynd go to have a fancy breakfast to celebrate.  Bond, we have been told, is all business during a dangerous job, but now that the job is over he is focused on convincing the beautiful black-haired Vesper to have sex with him.  "He wanted her cold and arrogant see tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his."  Bond is into what we might call rough sex--one of the things about Vesper that attracts him is how she is self-contained, independent, rather than submissive--Bond figures having sex with her will always "have the tang of rape" because she will never give up herself entirely to a man, but always keep a private inner core.

We have also been told that Bond hates working with women, that he thinks they are just trouble with all their emotional baggage--instead of helping to accomplish the mission, a woman is a distraction: "One had to look out for them and take care of them."  As the second half of Casino Royale begins, Fleming provides evidence that Bond has the right attitude as Vesper Lynd gets kidnapped from the restaurant where they are drinking champagne and eating scrambled eggs.

After a car chase Bond is captured by Le Chiffre who tortures him by hitting him repeatedly in the testicles with a carpet beater.  This is a scene with powerful sadistic, masochistic and homoerotic overtones, undertones, and in-between tones.  Le Chiffre wants to know where Bond has hidden the money he won at the baccarat table, but 007 doesn't crack up.  Le Chiffre is about to castrate Bond with a carving knife when a SMERSH agent arrives to shoot Le Chiffre in the face, carve a Shcha (щ), which I guess is the first letter of the Russian word for "spy," in Bond's hand, and leave.

In the third quarter of the novel Bond is in the hospital recovering and having doubts about the morality of his career of spying on and assassinating people as well as suffering fears that he won't be able to perform sexually after the torture he has suffered.  Matis tries to convince him that he should continue doing his part in the defense of the free world, and Vesper Lynd starts making regular visits and the two begin to fall in love.

When he is released from the hospital, Bond and Vesper go to a little seaside hotel together, where they have sex and Bond even considers proposing to Vesper, but then odd little events and Vesper's moodiness spoil the whole holiday.  All is explained by the note Vesper leaves when she commits suicide--Vesper's Polish boyfriend, an RAF hero, was sent back home to spy for the British after the end of WWII and was captured.  The commies forced Vesper to act as a double agent for years; they threatened to execute her Polish lover if she didn't regularly send them info obtained in her office at the Secret Service.  It was Vesper who blew Bond's cover and exposed him to the Bulgar bomb attack, and the kidnapping was fake, so she is also to blame for Bond getting tortured.  She fell in love with Bond, but a relationship was impossible--she would have to betray Bond to the Soviets or SMERSH would kill her with the ease with which they killed Le Chiffre.

This tragic horror galvanizes Bond's hatred for SMERSH and he decides to dedicate his life to destroying that monstrous Soviet apparatus.

Casino Royale is a fun novel.  Fleming's style is brisk and the novel, 180 pages, is a quick read.  The car chase is quite good, and I enjoyed all the talk about spy craft, and even about baccarat, about which I knew nothing.  Bond doesn't come off as a superman but as a tortured soul (he puts so much effort into having fine meals and superior booze because he is alone all the time, he tells Vesper) who gets into trouble and is saved from total disaster by his colleagues or just sheer luck.  Let's see what the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, has to offer.