Like most New Yorker’s I read a lot. This is a function of having a daily commute between Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and the East Village in Manhattan, leaving me with a half hour or more, twice daily, with little to do other than sit on the train and read. I don’t tend to select especially challenging material for the ride. It simply isn’t an environment that lends itself to such. But a good espionage book, some non-fiction, a comic book — stuff like that. Recently, as I’ve mentioned previously, I started exploring the world of science fiction books from the 70s, 80s, and a bit of the 90s. Some of them were books I’d read before and wanted to reacquaint myself with. Most are things that I completely missed, having been largely unconnected to any sort of conduit that would have clued me in to such things. I have no idea what I was doing most of my life.
In the early 1990s, I read Neuromancer. I read it enthusiastically, devoured every word , and fell in love not so much with the story, which was good, but with William Gibson’s razor-sharp acumen with the written word, with his style, and above all, with his ability to articulately describe sensations and scenes in ways no one had ever thought of, and yet made absolute and perfect sense and conveyed exactly certain feelings and visions that could not, it would seem, ever have been described any other way. At least not effectively. And yet, despite my unbridled passion for the book, when I started talking about it to someone a few months ago during one of those late-night sessions where conversation devolves into fuzzy reminiscence about setting motherboard jumpers and using VAX terminals, I discovered that all I had were vague impressions. Besides the names of a couple characters and a thing about spacefarin’ Rastafarians, I remembered absolutely nothing about the book.
There’s something to be said for patience. Or for grim determination. Whichever you think best suits the situation. Sometimes, you endure something unenjoyable simply because you’re committed to an overarching principle, and in the end, the investment of time in that unenjoyable stint results in blossoming appreciation for some later point. That’s pretty convoluted, isn’t it? So let me say this. I watched Battlestar Galactica, the new series (I watched the old series, too, but that has no bearing on this tortured explanation). When we got to the “New Caprica” arc, I was not on board. I didn’t exactly hate the New Caprica episodes, but I really disliked a lot of them, especially any of them that spent way too much time (which would be any time) with the “Starbuck in her apartment prison” subplot. I grew increasingly impatient with the storyline. But then, just when I was on the verge of pronouncing this a “Babylon 5, season five clusterfuck,” we got the episode where Galactica — and Pegasus — undertake their fiery rescue of the New Caprica colonists. Now that whole bit — that was just some of the greatest television, ever. And I realized after the fact that it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful or exciting if I hadn’t sat through the New Caprica episodes. Those episodes were the back-breaking hoeing of the field that eventually bore the delicious fruit of that Galactica-Pegasus rescue mission. And then, suddenly, all those other episodes were worth it.
I like steampunk. Let’s just get that out of the way, since steampunk is one of those things that makes some people roll their eyes. Whatever, man. I like airships and clockwork and industrial tools that are covered with brass filigree. I don’t entirely approve of the preoccupation with brown clothing, nor do I approve of the gratuitous application of goggles to everything, but beyond that, steampunk and I get along very well. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker was the first steampunk novel I read — provided one doesn’t include Verne and Wells and the Victorian science fiction writers in the genre. Within the genre, or subgenre or whatever steampunk is (I’m pretty sure it occupies the same territory as cyberpunk once did, only with fewer mirrorshades and more goggles), it’s a bit of an anomaly in that it’s not set during and fetishizing the British Victorian era. Instead, author Cherie Priest decides to stick to a similar time period but a different and more familiar setting: the United States, albeit a United States in which the Civil War has dragged on long past its actual conclusion and steam-powered walkers, airships, and other such contraptions are commonplace.
Oh yeah, I forgot that I never finished reviewing all the Bond books by Ian Fleming. In a way, that in itself is a fitting review of the final of Fleming’s influential adventures starring international pop culture icon James Bond. There is nothing about The Man with the Golden Gun that I would call bad. But there sure is a lot of it — as in all of it — that I would call unmemorable. Fleming was dying (some people say he even died before he finished, and what remained was polished off by his long-time friend Kingsley Amis). He was sick of Bond. But he’d had the bad fortune of ending the previous, and one of the best, Bond books on a cliffhanger, as he had taken to doing with most of the stories once he realized this was going to be his career. Well, this, and spokesman for cigarette holders.
After the critical and popular misfire of The Spy Who Loved Me — A literary experiment that was noble in intention but fell apart in execution — the pressure was on Ian Fleming to deliver a top notch Bond adventure to make up for things. At the same time, it’s obvious that Fleming was beyond the point of wanting to crank out another by the numbers book. He was going to have to find a way to work within the expectations people had of what a James Bond book would deliver to them, but find ways to tweak and alter the formula where he could. The result was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, regarded by many — if not, indeed, most — people as the finest Bond adventure Fleming ever wrote. For most of its pages, it is an exceptionally well executed but formulaic Bond adventure. The twist comes near the end, which leaves Bond an emotionally shattered man, cradling the body of his dead wife.
After a worthwhile idea (exploring the effect on a normal person’s life when they come into contact with James Bond) that turned into the savagely crummy The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming had a lot to make up for. The trick for the author was finding something unique to do with the long-lived character of James Bond while still fulfilling the basic expectations of the Bond formula. Unfortunately for Fleming, as with many authors, musicians, and movie makers, when you strike upon a successful franchise you either make more or less the same thing over or over — variations upon a theme — and have people talk about how your work has become stale and formulaic or you make a radical change in the work and listen to people complain about how things changed and the author has turned his back on the essence of what made the series successful. After the dismal The Spy Who Loved Me, it would have been fair to write Fleming and Bond off as having dried up. No one could have expected that Fleming would bounce back with the best book in the series.
I hope whatever good will was generated for you (provided you liked the book as much as I did) by Thunderball is still fresh in your memory, because you’re going to need to lean heavily upon it if you ever want to make it to the end of Fleming’s next Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s tempting to just skip this one entirely and move immediately on to the next book, so bad is The Spy Who Loved Me and so well documented is the near universal dislike for the book from fans, critics, and Ian Fleming himself. At this point it seems like adding my opinion is just gratuitous piling on, because I’m not going to have all that much to say that’s different from what has previously been written about this book. If I’d read the book and found it to be the “best of the series,” then at least I’d have a more unique position which I could defend.
OK, now this is more like it. After muddling through a series of unsatisfying short stories — some of which were frustrating because they contained the unrealized kernel of a great story, others because they had next to nothing to do with James Bond — Ian Fleming returns to familiar territory with one of my favorite books in the entire series. Thunderball combines the breakneck action of Doctor No with the breezy travelogue spirit of Diamonds are Forever as Fleming proves once again that he is at the time of his game whenever he’s writing a Bond story set in the Caribbean. Thunderball also marks a major development in the series in that it features the debut of the shadowy international criminal organization SPECTRE and its mysterious mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Goldfinger was a decent enough adventure for James Bond, but it also smacked of “going through the motions” and relying on remixing ingredients from previous novels: the card cheat angle from Moonraker, the SMERSH funding angle from Live and Let Die, and a couple other things here and there. The next book in the series is a break from the full-length novels. For Your Eyes Only is a collection of short stories of wildly varying tone and quality that possess ample ability to entertain yet do almost nothing to advance the world of James Bond. In fact, he’s hardly even in a couple of the stories. Nothing here fits into the larger Bond continuity as established by the novels (this disposability would not hold true for the second collection of short stories), and nothing stands out as spectacular. Still, if you are a Fleming completist you’re going to read this collection anyway, so let’s dig into it shall we?