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.
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. It 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.