Moonraker

by Ian Fleming

 

When I last read this book, in 8th grade, I tried to get credit from my teacher for reading a “classic.” Having seen the movie, in which Roger Moore’s Bond has sex in space, she didn’t buy it. The book, however, is much more grounded in reality, and Bond doesn’t have sex with anyone. I like to imagine him questioning why he even became a secret agent in the first place. Cue Bond’s midlife crisis.

"Maybe a new Aston Martin will make me feel better."

“Maybe a new Aston Martin will make me feel young again. That or killing a guy.”

Bond’s mission this time starts out when M gets mad about a card cheat at his club. Nothing makes British gentleman angrier than people who cheat at games that the working class doesn’t play, so he assigns Bond to take care of the problem, in a seemingly egregious abuse of his authority. The cheat, Hugo Drax, is a war hero and entrepreneur in charge of creating Britain’s latest nuclear deterrent, a ballistic missile called the Moonraker. Bond meets Drax and decides that he’s a boor and not a real gentleman, so he beats him at bridge. Everyone’s problems are solved. The end.

No, just kidding. I mean, Bond does humiliate Drax in history’s most exciting game of bridge, but there’s more. There have been strange goings-on at the Moonraker test site, and the first test launch is only a few days away. M sends Bond to figure out what’s going on. You know the drill.

Moonraker‘s an interesting early Bond book, in my opinion. MoonrakerIt leans heavily on a theme that pervades Fleming’s Bond series: Britain’s place in the world. Fleming alternates between freaking out that Britain is no longer a superpower, and reassuring his audience that yes, Britain is still the most important and civilized nation on Earth. He gets deep into ethnic and class politics; in addition to his idealization of the British gentleman in contrast with the common man, he’s generally pretty willing to write off entire nationalities or races. In Live and Let Die, it was African-Americans. In the case of Moonraker, it’s Germans. Fleming’s suspicion and distrust of Germans is important because at its heart, Moonraker is about an independent British nuclear deterrent being built by former Nazi German scientists. Fleming is aware of this contradiction, and seems to be saying that Britain doesn’t need to adapt or compromise its identity in order to maintain its dominance. Nonetheless, it’s clear he hasn’t quite arrived at a solution to the crisis of British identity in the post-war era.

Interestingly, while the book’s explicit message is that adaptation will be the death of Britain, Fleming himself isn’t afraid to shake things up. Moonraker is definitely a Bond book, but it does stray from the formula a little bit. For one thing, its pacing is totally different; in addition to the inverting the structure by introducing the villain before assigning Bond his mission, the book takes place over just a few days. This is partially because Bond’s assignment takes him not to the other side of the world, but just a few minutes down the road to the cliffs of Dover. The domestic setting and shortened time span intensify the story, making Bond’s mission seem that much more urgent.

The other outlier in Moonraker is its Bond girl, Gala Brand. For whatever reason, Fleming seems to have a specific type of female that he writes into Bond’s adventures. Bond girls are often trapped in a situation beyond her control, or scarred by some past trauma, or frequently both. (Think Vesper Lynd, Solitaire, Tiffany Case- the originators of the stereotype.) Gala’s different. She has secrets, sure, but she’s introduced to Bond as an undercover police officer, so that’s not really a big surprise. She needs an ally more than she needs a savior, and while Bond sure doesn’t fail to notice how hot she is, they spend the majority of their time together working, rather than romancing. I don’t want to give away what happens with them in the end, but it’s refreshing to see a Bond girl who’s not immediately and completely wrapped up in 007’s world.

All in all, Moonraker turned out pretty well. Fleming seems a little more self-aware than usual, as he works to flesh out the meaning of Bond while consciously rejecting his own tropes. It’s different, but definitely not in a bad way.

Live and Let Die

by Ian Fleming

 

Gotta get it out of the way right now: this one struck me as a little bit racist. It starts on the second page, in which Bond compares himself to a “negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witch-doctor.” Later on we get to the chapter called “Nigger Heaven” (referring to Harlem). Oh, and Bond’s mission involves taking down a nationwide organization of American Communists. That last one doesn’t seem so bad, right? Well, the organization in question consists of every black person in America. They toe the line out of malevolence, stupidity, or fear of Mr. Big’s voodoo powers. Fleming seems to have some, uh, old-fashioned views on race. Of course, if you’re reading any James Bond book, you’re probably at least aware of some of the more odious attitudes that can be found within. I mean, Bond isn’t exactly a feminist hero, either, so you can’t be surprised that he’s not at the vanguard of civil rights and tolerance.

That being said, Fleming writes a hell of a book. Live and Let DieAnd a refreshingly short one; I mentioned before how short Casino Royale was, and the rest of the Bond novels are no different. They’re quick and violent, and 007 rarely wastes time brooding. Sure, there’s always some exposition, and Fleming revels in the details of, for instance, a train ride from New York to Florida, which I doubt is actually as romantic as he seems to think. (I’ve ridden Amtrak.) But when action gets going, it goes hard and fast. The first action sequence of Live and Let die takes place beneath a Harlem nightclub following a burlesque act, and there’s something about the scene that just keeps you entranced.

This is also when 007’s nemeses started to become the “Bond villains” that we’re all familiar with. While Mr. Big is, like his predecessor Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent, he’s also an unusually large man with a skin condition whose appearance leads his cronies to believe that he’s also the zombie of Baron Samedi. (Black people are really into voodoo in in Fleming’s America.) In both appearance and status, Mr. Big is the first larger-than-life Bond villain, and he provides a good template that the books and movies return to again and again. (Kingsman jokes on this idea by giving Samuel L. Jackson’s villain a lisp. Actually, that whole movie is a great homage to and send-up of Bond and other spy movies. I highly recommend it.)

By the by, in addition to reading Live and Let Die the first time I read the Bond series in middle school, I started the book again a little over two years ago. I even started writing this very blog post. Unfortunately, I left a Dr Pepper on my bedside table next to the book, and apparently those Chipotle cups just aren’t meant to hold liquid for very long. I took the book off the table and left it somewhere to dry, then I went on to read something else. I ended up moving soon thereafter, packing up all my Bond books and letting them sit in a box for almost a year. I moved again, and again, until I finally ended up in a semi-permanent spot. Everything was unpacked, and I finally got around to finishing my soda-stained book as well as this blog post.

I just wanted to let you know how dedicated I am to the craft.

Live and Let Die might be the most politically incorrect Bond novel, at least to a 21st century reader, but the completist can’t just skip it, and its action makes it worth checking out anyway. Also, I wasn’t kidding about Kingsman. See that shit.

Watchmen

by Alan Moore (illustrated by Dave Gibbons)

Watchmen 1986 - Chapter 1 CoverEvery once in a while, a book or movie or, in this case, comic, comes around and totally changes the game for all future books/movies/comics. In the comic book world, Watchmen (1986) is the best example of that. Watchmen is the wild brainchild of Alan Moore, who built a completely new world around the modern Superhero in this franchise. Ditching the hero vs. villain concept, Moore forces us to see a spectrum of morality in which heroes sometimes look and act like villains and villains sometimes look and act like heroes.

The premise is that superheroes are real – they just don’t have super powers. In the 1940s and 1960s, there forms a band of masked vigilantes known as the Minute Men. The game changes when a research physicist is exposed to a blast of radiation. He uses his immense brain and will power to bring his atoms back together and build himself a human-esque shape. Now able to transport himself through space and time, Jon (now the blue Dr. Manhattan), becomes the first true super human, leaving the rest of the world in a vulnerable state.

The nonlinear story is told with flashbacks and subplots throughout, sometimes in the same panel. The main plot takes place in 1985 New York City: The United States is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, and vigilante crime-fighting is now illegal. Most of the Minute Men have retired, except for the two government-endorsed heroes, the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, and one outlaw, Rorschach. The story begins as Rorschach discovers that the Comedian has been murdered. He believes that this, along with allegations against Dr. Manhattan, is evidence that someone is seeking to take down all past and present vigilantes. This becomes the main storyline: Rorschach seeks out the other Minute Men to share his suspicions and track down their shared enemy.

This is paralleled throughout the graphic novel through a kid who reads a comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter”, in which a sailor floats home on the backs of his dead crew to warn his town of approaching pirates. Let us pause and take a second to appreciate Alan Moore’s genius in this: the kid is reading pirate comics. In a world where superheroes are real, almost commonplace, kids read pirate comics instead of superhero comics – How clever! Anyway, as the unnamed kid reads Tales, the comic reflects events going on in the world around him. Meanwhile, there are several flashbacks in each chapter, explaining how and why the masked men (and women) took on their second persona, and how they all came together to fight crime.

In the end, what makes Watchmen so special is the psychology of Moore’s characters. Superheroes are, underneath it all, just human. They make choices, mistakes, sacrifices. They choose to compromise their morals, or not, in the face of dire circumstances. Despite immense power and influence, there are consequences. Ultimately it is unclear which character is morally superior. That is the brilliance of Alan Moore. He doesn’t tell you which character does the right thing. He has the characters ask the question, and allows the reader to decide for herself – what price should we pay to avoid war? Is the preservation of human life worth sacrificing our humanity?

Who watches the watchmen?

American Nations

by Colin Woodard

 

We Americans carry a bunch of different identities: ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, race, political affiliation, and so on. Depending on your values, some of these identities may be important to you, or not at all. Colin Woodard argues, however, that there is another identity that is both impossible to ignore and virtually unknown: that of our respective “nations.”

These unseen nations strongly influence our values and help to sort our other identities. American Nations MapSome nations are individualistic, others communitarian; some diverse, others intolerant; some authoritarian, others egalitarian. The values of each nation derive from those of the original European settlers of the territory, as indicated in the names of New France, New Netherland, and El Norte. Other nations are founded by religious minorities, Caribbean slavers, or Scots-Irish immigrants, and others derive their values from settlement patterns in the western half of the continent.

This paradigm seems refreshing to me. I know the concept of regional differences isn’t new, but Woodard backs up most of his claims with historical evidence, and he explains historical events in ways that seem to fit his interpretation. For example, his account of the Civil War demonstrates how the so-called “border states” came into being, and why “conservative” Appalachian areas such as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee largely opposed the breakup of the Union. Going further back, Woodard views the Revolutionary War not as a unified continental effort, but more akin to a series of “national” wars of liberation. Instead of, “The war in the north meets the war in the south at the decisive Battle of Yorktown,” Woodard describes each nation’s reaction to the war, and puts regional opinions and activities into greater context to explain why the war happened the way it did.

An obvious criticism of this model struck me pretty early on. How can the most important identity in American culture be something that 99% of people have never heard of? We know about regional differences, but Woodard defines these differences in very specific, distinct ways. Would most Americans understand how a Bostonian was different from a New Yorker or a Philadelphian? Do eastern Marylanders understand themselves to be part of a culture that’s centered in Virginia? Do Montanans align with Georgians politically because they consider themselves to have the same values, or is it a looser, “lesser of two evils” coalition? Woodard has well-defined nations, and I think that’s a plus, but culture isn’t always clearcut. Every state and locality in America has a slightly different feel, which makes me wonder when it’s appropriate to identify one nation, and not another.

There are other questions I have as well. Woodard calls southern elites “slave-lords,” and that works for most of his historical account; I’ll forgive him the use of that term for the hundred years after the Civil War, for even though slavery had been defeated, southern blacks were not full citizens in any sense. After the civil rights era, though, I question Woodard’s assessment of Deep Southern culture. For one thing, it seems like he excludes black Americans from his monolithic “Deep South.” They’re an identifiable ethnic minority with a different set of values, so I question why this never becomes one of Woodard’s nations.

Secondly, Woodard seems to believe that while southern culture has changed with the times, it’s still a culture based on traditional values including racial inequality, just as it was at the time of the Civil War. Is he really trying to say that the federal government hasn’t, at the very least, dragged the Deep South, kicking and screaming, into a modern, tolerant America? The Deep South described in American Nations would abhor, even in 2015, a nation that allows minorities of all types the same political rights as anyone else. American NationsThe lack of an ideological alignment between Woodard’s Deep South and modern American society and politics, and the lack of a real neo-secessionist moviement, present a problem to Woodard’s thesis. Perhaps Americans are loyal to the idea of the United States, or they’re just afraid of the federal government; whichever it is, Woodard doesn’t address this dilemma.

If I can get in one more challenge to American Nations, it’s to Woodard’s prognostications about our future. Throughout our history, Woodard says, we’ve held our federation together, sometimes by a bare thread, often through sheer luck. The inference that one might draw from this is obvious: the United States of America is an unstable coalition that will fall way easier than we’d like to think. He reminds us that only a couple of decades before the fall of the USSR, a prediction of that collapse would seem equally outlandish. In comparing the longevity of the US to that of the USSR, Woodard’s implying that we might only have decades left as a single country before we splinter. While he doesn’t actually predict a timeframe for this dissolution, he quotes academics who believe that El Norte (stretches of the southwest that had been colonized by Spain) will cease to be part of the US within a hundred years.

Obviously, I don’t believe that. I think there’s more to being an American than living in a region with a defined cultural history. Americans clearly have different values in different places, values that often conflict with one another. We fight for our values tooth and nail. But values can change. Woodard’s assessment of Yankeedom (New England and large swaths of the midwest) changes over time, from intolerant utopianism to a more inclusive communitarianism. Woodard traces these cultural changes among the nations, and then bafflingly concludes that our nations are perpetually incapable of finding common cultural ground; in his view, we’re just a collection of nations with diametrically opposed views, similar to Huntingon’s Clash of Civilizations, but on a smaller scale. I disagree with this assessment; I think there’s more that brings us together than pulls us apart. But only time will tell who’s right.

Anyways, I thought American Nations was really great. Woodard assembles our shared cultural history into a completely new model, and backs it up with solid evidence. I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, but  Woodard’s created a fascinating account and a concise, readable narrative. I’d recommend this book to any student of American history.

The Chronicles of Prydain

by Lloyd Alexander

 

I loved these books as a kid. I don’t always regress towards children’s books, but sometimes I tire of more “adult” fare, or I just need to go back and enjoy something I’ve already read. This is one of those times. Ironically enough, though, it took me way longer to finish this children’s series than, say, a Wheel of Time entry, despite the comparative brevity. Why? I hate to say it, but I think some of the magic might be lost on a twenty-five-year-old. Maybe it’s because I’ve been retrained by heavier tomes like Wheel, but it was hard to get into a fantasy that seemed to just zip along, moving from scene to scene without giving the story a chance to rest. A longer book isn’t always a better book, but it’s important to let tension build awhile before resolving a conflict.

The two hundred or so pages of each of the five books in the series have our hero Taran embarking on an adventure, usually to save his beloved Prydain from the evil Arawn Death-Lord or one of his buddies. At the start, Taran is just some young gun- a hot-headed Assistant Pig-Keeper- but he grows in each novel, as a young man and a leader. The Chronicles of PrydainThe books all follow the classic quest structure; while each has a different feel, and though the object of the quest changes, they all fall into that general category.

The installment I enjoyed most, Taran Wanderer, has Taran riding around the countryside in search of knowledge; he sets out to learn where he comes from, and when he fails to find a satisfying answer, he looks for other ways to define his identity. As he travels from village to village, learning new crafts and ways of life, the book becomes more like a parable or a fable than an adventure novel. This tonal shift, along with the slower pace and the lower stakes, really sets the fourth book apart from the rest.

At some point I realized that I was reading these books not in isolation, but as part of the larger fantasy canon. I’ve read a good bit of the stuff by now, and pretty early on in The Book of Three I found myself comparing aspects of the series to other famous fantasies, both earlier and later. Alexander supposedly based the Prydain series on Welsh mythology, which I know nothing about, but it’s impossible to miss the influence of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King on these books. Likewise, it was clear to me that Alexander inspired authors like J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan to create their famous fantasy series. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman, asked about the similarities between Rowling’s Harry Potter and one of his own characters, responding, “I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White.” There are countless examples of this across the years, and it’s fun to try to pick out what came from where.

An unfortunate result of a genre that’s constantly borrowing from itself, however, is that the stories might not seem as fresh as they did the first time you read them. I felt that there was nothing in Prydain that wasn’t done in a more original way in another fantasy book or series. Though this obviously isn’t really Alexander’s fault, it took away from what was clearly supposed to be an exciting narrative. I ended the series unable to recall what excited me so much about it in the first place.

No, Alexander’s Prydain novels don’t hold up too well as an adult, not as well as, say, The Golden Compass. But they’re meant for children, so whatever.