Category Archives: Literature

Thrilling Cities, James Bond, & Ian Fleming’s literary fiction

IF YOU HAVEN’T READ Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities, I reckon you probably should if you like witty, readable books. At least have a glance at a witty, readable review of it. One key passage that could do with some elaboration is this one:

Fleming was periodically weighed down by a kind of directionless, spiteful ennui, which often fired his best writing – Casino Royale, From Russia, with Love, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”. Reading his novels in sequence, one is bewildered by the mood swings between, for instance, From Russia, with Love, the cynical book in which Fleming comes closest to Le Carré, and actually kills 007 at the end (obviously, it didn’t stick), and its follow-up, the dizzyingly exuberant Doctor No. Today, he’d probably be called bipolar.

It’s unsurprising, really, that Fleming in a foul mood should kill off 007. It wasn’t only his general attitude toward life that was affected by his mood swings, but also his attitude towards his most famous creation. Gleefully pulpy Bond adventures such as Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Doctor No, Goldfinger and Thunderball burst with such genretastic staples as pirate gold, disguised Nazi war criminals, Chinese evil geniuses, all-lesbian crime gangs and missing atomic weaponry. Fleming grew up reading about the exploits of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Sapper Morton’s Bulldog Drummond, and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and at his most carefree seemed delighted to be keeping alive that lineage.

At other times, he was rather more cynical about his place in the literary world and seemed, as with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, to view his creation as an albatross keeping him from achieving greater literary respect.

Of course, Fleming did have some heavyweight admirers in the literary world. Kingsley Amis was the most prominent, writing two books of analysis of the character, one serious and one tongue in cheek, as well as a continuation novel after Fleming’s death. Roald Dahl, too, counted himself as a fan and wrote the screen treatment for You Only Live Twice. Raymond Chandler thought Fleming a fine thriller-writer, and he should know. Anthony Burgess noted that he had read and enjoyed every one of the Bond novels.

What Fleming lacked, though, was any body of work outside of Bond on which to be judged, with the small exceptions of the children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and two nonfiction books: the aforementioned Thrilling Cities and The Diamond Smugglers, cobbled together from leftover research for Diamonds Are Forever. That’s not to say that the Bond books are entirely without literary merit; just view the passage below from “Octopussy” for evidence:


-it’s just that the obvious limitations of the Bond format of exotic locales, dastardly villains, daring escapades, and sex and booze and food and sex and cigarettes and sex and death don’t much reward experimentation, which is likely why most of Fleming’s occasional stabs at literary fiction are in the short-story format. “Octopussy”, excerpted above, is a slow and rather melancholy rumination on guilt and probably the peak of Fleming’s ability as a writer.

In the same collection appeared “The Living Daylights”, which returns us to somewhat more familiar territory with Bond ordered to snipe a Soviet sniper in order to aid a defection. We’re thoroughly in Le Carré territory here, and treated to such stylistic flourishes as Bond’s mental description of Berlin as “a glum, inimical city dry varnished on the Western side with a brittle veneer of gimcrack polish, rather like the chromium trim on American motor-cars”.

Earlier, Fleming had taken Bond as far away from formula as he’d ever get with “Quantum of Solace”, a stylistic and thematic homage to Somerset Maugham with Bond appearing only to listen to another character whose party he’s attending tell him a story about two other figures and their broken marriage. It’s good stuff if a little pastichey, with the only really unconvincing element being the questionable necessity of having Bond himself appear at all.

Mind you, the Bond of the short-stories spent about as much time relaxing as he did going on missions. “The Hildebrand Rarity” introduces us to a truly vile American businessman, Milton Krest, and his vessel the Wavekrest. Krest has no plan more dastardly than to use somewhat unethical fishing techniques to retrieve the rare fish of the title, but he’s a more convincing portrait of evil than a whole cartoonish parade of Draxes, Goldfingers and Blofelds. We finally end up in murder-mystery territory as Krest is found murdered with two possible suspects (we as readers are allowed to know James Bond didn’t do it) and a subversive lack of solution.

Finally, there’s one Bond novel that attempts to enter literary-fiction territory (though look out for flourishes in Casino Royale and From Russia, with Love): The Spy Who Loved Me, in which a nice yet somewhat broken Canadian girl recounts her life and sexual history for two-thirds of the novel before Bond shows up and takes care of the thugs menacing her in the present. It was released to reviews ranging from indifferent to hostile, and Fleming quickly decided he was embarassed by it, leading to a film “adaptation” that used the novel’s title and very little else. Actually it’s really not that bad (aside from one cringeworthy line extolling the merits of “semi-rape”) if one’s able to accept that it’s really not much of a Bond adventure.

Still, its reception seems to have put Fleming off from doing anything other than sticking to what he knew best, and he stuck to formula for the superb On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before the rushed You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun. One wonders how he would have fared in the literary world had he not been so afraid to experiment; the presence of Bond himself in each of these stories feels like nothing more than a crutch and they’d all be the better off simply ditching the whole pretence. But I suppose albatrosses aren’t easily got rid of.


Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities, & the reluctant traveller

TRAVEL WRITING STEMS from a variety of motives – to inform, to amuse, to educate, to show off or to make a bit of money. But sometimes the best travel writing comes from writers who don’t even want to be there in the first place.

That was the case for Ian Fleming in 1959, when The Sunday Times all but forced Fleming to make a several-weeks’ trip around Asia and then on to the United States via Hawaii. Despite Fleming admitting himself to be “the world’s worst sightseer”, who “had often advocated the provision of roller-skates at the doors of museums and art galleries”, the trip went ahead and resulted in a series of articles for the paper, one for each city visited; these articles were later compiled to form one of Fleming’s few non-James Bond books, Thrilling Cities.

But Bond aficionados will find much that is familiar; not only the glamour, but the seediness, the snobbery, the murky threat of violence, the constant boozing and the malaise of the novels can all be easily recognised throughout the travels recorded here. The first city visited is Hong Kong, where Fleming’s descriptions are enjoyable both for what has changed – “when the remaining forty years of our lease of the mainland territory expire, I see no reason why a reduced population should not retreat to the islands and the original territory which we hold in perpetuity” – and for what is still eminently recognisable: “the streets of Hong Kong are evidence that neon lighting need not be hideous, and the crowded Chinese ideograms in pale violet and pink and green with a plentiful use of white are entrancing not only for their colours but also because one does not know what drab messages and exhortations they spell out”. While staying in Hong Kong, Fleming also makes a jaunt to Macau, where he latches on to stories about the gold-smuggling trade, with “the internal Geiger-counter of a writer of thrillers ticking furiously”, before making his way on to Tokyo.

“I hate, small, finicky, breakable things, and I am slightly over six feet tall”, complains Fleming, who has had reservations about Japan from the beginning: “Before and during the war they had been bad enemies and many of my friends had suffered at their hands.” But in his short three days there, Fleming is won over both by his companions – Orientalised Australian Dick Hughes and Japanese “Tiger” Saito – and by the eccentricity and charm of Japanese culture. Despite feeling clumsy, awkward, and out of place, a good-humoured, “when in Rome” attitude soon overtakes him, and in a brief three days he manages to take in a meeting with Somerset Maugham, a Judo demonstration, a Japanese bath, a visit with a soothsayer, and an evening with geishas, all sake-soaked and never in violation of his anti-itinerary: “no politicians, museums, temples, Imperial palaces or Noh plays, let alone tea ceremonies.” The judo, bath, geishas, and Maugham are uniformly delightful, but the soothsayer is rather a wash, predicting Fleming will live to eighty, return to Japan, and is about to enjoy a streak of good luck. The latter cheers him, his companions having dispensed grave warnings to him against his flight out of Tokyo: flying on Friday the 13th is bad enough but, going Eastward to Hawaii, he will cross the dateline and experience two Friday the 13ths in a row.

As with the soothsayer’s other predictions, the streak of good luck is nonsense. The flight gets off to a bad start, rattled by Typhoon Emma, but Fleming doesn’t mind. His devil-may-care alter ego Bond actually prefers to fly on the 13th, he reminds us: “There are practically no passengers and it’s more comfortable and you get better service.” The comfort, the service, and the drinks see him asleep by midnight. After four hours, the voice of the captain awakes him: “There has been an explosion in number three engine and a fire […] I have no hydraulic pressure.” Luckily, this happens to be the most unflappable airline pilot in the world: “We have altered course for Wake Island where I shall carry out a no-flap landing at an unusual altitude and faster than is the custom […] I have made many three-engine landings and also many without hydraulic pressure, so – see you on the ground!”

In their own day, most of the appeal of the Bond novels and, by extension, Thrilling Cities, was aspirational; the diabolical villains and lurid exploits were just conventional story-building elements. Air travel alone was a thrilling and romantic experience, beyond the means of most, never mind staying in the best hotels, playing in the best casinos, wearing the finest suits, drinking the finest wine, eating the best caviar – the novels work as a sort of lifestyle porn, and Thrilling Cities, lacking the villains and the exploits, still works on the same level. Today, air travel, exotic places, skiing, fine dining and cocktails are no longer unobtainable for the average person, but that aspirational element remains; rather than vicariously living like an international playboy, today’s reader instead longs for a time when boarding an aeroplane was an adventure rather than a chore.

With a USAF rescue-plane and two Navy craft deployed, the captain breezily makes his landing (“To lighten the load, I am about to dump fuel, so there will be no smoking please.”) and Fleming’s en route to Honolulu, where his spirits remain high despite his failure to take to surfing, his distaste for plinking ukulele music and his dismay at hordes of elderly American tourists.

Fleming’s thriller-writer senses kick in once again in Los Angeles as he discusses the Mafia with Police Captain Hamilton, and his gambling connoisseurism in Las Vegas, providing a quick summary of how to gamble sensibly that is the level-headed antithesis of Mr. Bond’s high-stakes play. Speaking of Bond, Fleming was so wearied and miserable by the time he reached New York (via Chicago) that, as an apology for his rubbishing of the city, American readers were offered a humorous short-story about him. “007 in New York” isn’t much of a thriller but its throwaway nature is precisely what makes it enjoyable, with a rare and light-hearted ending in which Bond fails his mission – plus, there’s a recipe for “scrambled eggs James Bond”.

Fleming’s trip was so successful that, having barely finished submitting his articles, Fleming found himself being asked by the paper to make another trip. The Sunday Times had Latin America in mind, suggesting the appropriately thrilling Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana, but an already-weary Fleming was only willing to go as far away as Europe, making most of the trip in his own car and finding many of his destinations boring or repellent.

First on the agenda was Hamburg, where Fleming – often caricatured as an old Tory, but really more of a libertarian – briefly praises the sex industry (“normal heterosexual ‘vice’ is permitted to exist in appropriate ‘reservations’ and on condition that it remains open and light-hearted. How very different from the prudish and hypocritical manner in which we so disgracefully mismanage these things in England!”) before moving on to Berlin where he is oppressed by Modernist architecture, Cold War tensions and the spectre of Hitler.

In “The Living Daylights”, James Bond thinks of Berlin as “a glum, inimical city dry varnished on the Western side with a brittle veneer of gimcrack polish, rather like the chromium trim on American motor-cars”. If anything his creator is even harsher, but one wonders whether it’s the ghastliness of the city itself or the ghastliness of his mood that’s to blame. Fleming was periodically weighed down by a kind of directionless, spiteful ennui, which often fired his best writing – Casino Royale, From Russia, with Love, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”. Reading his novels in sequence, one is bewildered by the mood swings between, for instance, From Russia, with Love, the cynical book in which Fleming comes closest to Le Carré, and actually kills 007 at the end (obviously, it didn’t stick), and its follow-up, the dizzyingly exuberant Doctor No. Today, he’d probably be called bipolar.

Even so, Fleming takes out some frustrations in a still-thrilling description of buzzing down the Autobahns, which takes up a good third of the chapter and makes the arrival to pleasant, dull Vienna rather an anti-climax, as is Geneva (“to include Geneva among the thrilling cities of Europe must seem to most people quixotic”). Italy is a bright spot: tracking down retired gangster Lucky Luciano in Naples, and Gracie Fields in Capri, before noting down an amusing bit of bother in Pompeii when a French tourist’s wife is refused entry to the Lupanar, where “childish pictures […] show you how to make love – if you were the right shape and extremely athletic”. The unimpressed Frenchman protests, “Pah! […] You think I have come a thousand miles from Paris to see that? Why, I was doing it myself when I was sixteen! […] These stupid Romans had no idea how to make love. And you mean to say you won’t let my wife see this nonsense!”. And after a discourse on how ugly and dull lava is, our author makes his way to Monte Carlo, where an amusing encounter with a sarcastic English girl and a visit to Jacques Cousteau both prove so restorative to the author’s spirits that he ends up closing the book with an incongruous “What fun it all was! What fun ‘abroad’ will always be!”

Still, travel at the best of times tends to take it out of us, but in another six weeks, six months, or a year we find ourselves looking back on our adventures with nothing but fondness, and presumably it was so for Fleming too, who probably expected to make a third trip once he’d recuperated sufficiently. Sadly, a heart attack at 56 meant that not only would there be no third trip, there’d be no more of his Bond novels either. Given how many of his experiences and impressions from Tokyo made their way directly into You Only Live Twice, it’s hard not to wonder what sort of adventures he was planning for Bond in Macau, Honolulu, or Naples. Still, the adventures recorded here provide an appropriately thrilling little volume which, if it is too dated to be of much value as a guidebook, is so of its time as to be indispensable as social history, and should be treasured and re-read as the witty, crotchety, yet always endearing record of a reluctant traveller.

Ian Fleming Author the creator of James Bond 1963

Nada the Lily, Black Panther, & the colonial adventure

EVER SINCE READING, as a teenager, H. Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novels She and King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quatermain, I’d been hungry to find more from Haggard. It wasn’t until, as an adult, I was gifted a Kindle and found an ebook of his complete works that I was able to: aside from the well-known titles already mentioned, hardly anything remains in print from an author who was once one of the English-speaking world’s most popular.

This likely has to do with much of Haggard’s work’s status as colonial fiction, which has had a hard time attracting any readers since around the advent of post-colonial literature. Kipling, one of the most prominent writers of his own time, is nowadays hardly read, save for the odd academic defence or condemnation. Heart of Darkness remains on syllabi, likely aided by being so deconstructionary and generally difficult, but the rest of Conrad’s colonial fiction is obscure.

Haggard himself inaugurated the genre with King Solomon’s Mines, but his full oeuvre of more than fifty novels spans almost half a century and an array of genres including early examples of science fiction and the historical novel, and settings ranging across Africa, Europe, Asia and North and South America as well as throughout human history. Popular sales and enthusiastic reviews sustained his career well into the twentieth century, and dozens of film adaptations appeared, from Georges Méliès’ 1899 “The Pillar of Fire”, based on She, to Hammer’s 1965 treatment of the same material, while the last thirty years has seen Haggard’s only screen representation come from the 2008 Asylum mockbuster Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls, taking more cues from the successful (and Haggard-influenced) Indiana Jones films than the text it purportedly adapts. To this day, echoes of Haggard’s work are evident in all kinds of stories of adventure and fantasy, exploration and colonisation – the recent success of Marvel’s Black Panther film, set in a Haggard-like hidden African kingdom, attests to this – but his novels themselves remain little-read and overdue for re-interpretation.

The books in question, it must be said, range in quality as well as content – though the very roughest still make for stirring yarns – but the most remarkable among them is Nada the Lily, an early example of the spin-off prequel for a successful series, exploring the younger days of Umslopogaas who, in Allan Quatermain, had played a formidable variation on the Man Friday noble savage part.

Already the ambition of Nada the Lily is evident, for it is hard to imagine the original Man Friday, nor any of his literary descendants, meriting their own derivative work – particularly not one in which the narrative is at no point driven by their relationship to white European characters. In fact, the entire cast of Nada the Lily are black Africans, and many of them are real historical figures, or closely based on them: while the “Lost World” literary genre began with the imaginary Kukuanaland of King Solomon’s Mines, and was more fully explored in the hidden Zu-Vendis kingdom of white Africans in Allan Quatermain, Nada the Lily’s action takes place in the very real Zululand, and in what was then the fairly recent past. We would not, either, expect the prequel to a fantastical adventure story to fall more into historical fiction, then still a relatively young genre having been codified by Sir Walter Scott in the first half of the century. No prior attempts appear to have been made at a novel of African history, and Nada holds the distinction of being the first ever novel with an entirely black cast. In fact, given the paucity of African written records, such a novel could probably only have come from a colonial adventurer such as Haggard, who relied heavily on the oral histories he picked up from natives as well as the partial reconstructions attempted by some of his contemporaries, such as the missionary Henry Callaway.

In a favourite technique of Haggard’s, the narrative is presented as a genuine artefact, with occasional interjections by its “editor”. In the frame narrative, a white explorer becomes stranded in a sudden and mysterious snowdrift, whereupon he gets caught up hearing the main story, which is recounted to him by the elderly Mopo, who was once witch-doctor to the great king Chaka (better known to modern readers as Shaka Zulu), and father of the beautiful Nada who is the object of the young Umslopogaas’ love. Umslopogaas has been raised as Nada’s brother but is in actuality the son of Chaka, kept secret by Mopo due to Chaka’s policy of having all his sons killed lest one should rise against him.

Following Chaka’s assassination by his half-brother Dingaan, Nada is forced to flee, taking refuge on the great Ghost Mountain, with “a grey peak rudely shaped like the head of an aged woman” in a manner recalling the twin peaks nicknamed Sheba’s Breasts, in King Solomon’s Mines. Unlike Sheba’s Breasts, however, the Ghost Mountain really exists, though Haggard never visited and took some dramatic licence in its depiction. Here his carefully-researched historical epic takes a turn into the phantasmagorical territory which made his name, with Umslopogaas’ introduction to the mountain’s unique resident, Galazi the Wolf, who has been raised by the mountain’s resident wolf-pack (Kipling acknowledged in a letter to Haggard that the concept for The Jungle Book grew from reading Nada the Lily), though presumably the “wolves” are hyenas. Galazi acts as the pack’s leader and the wolves do his bidding, making for an unforgettable Haggard set-piece as he makes his last stand on the Ghost Mountain.

Haggard’s blending of fantastical elements with historical narrative makes Nada the Lily one of his most appealing works; his books have always been sold on his great imaginative power, while the lofty tone of his prose, informed by Homer and the King James Bible, is often undercut by a lack of polish and an occasional clumsiness. He himself seems to have been aware of this, but preferred to leave his manuscripts unrevised, asserting in his autobiography The Days of My Life that “wine of this character loses its bouquet when it is poured from glass to glass”. The energy and roughshod nature of his earlier adventure novels is less evident in the latter half of his body of work, which is dominated by melodramas and further historical tales. Indeed, the narrative of Nada the Lily itself is revisited and continued in a trilogy of novels – Marie, Child of Storm and Finished – which fully integrate Allan Quatermain and his wife Marie into the action, covering a number of key historical events such as the Great Trek, the Weenen Massacre and finally the Anglo-Zulu War with the detail of an amateur historian and, in some cases, an eyewitness. All are captivating, but Nada the Lily stands as the ultimate Haggard work. The tone is set in the very opening lines of the “Introduction”, as detailed documentary narrative begins to give way to the spellbinding voice of folk-tale or oral history:


Some years since–it was during the winter before the Zulu War–a White Man was travelling through Natal. His name does not matter, for he plays no part in this story. With him were two wagons laden with goods, which he was transporting to Pretoria. The weather was cold and there was little or no grass for the oxen, which made the journey difficult; but he had been tempted to it by the high rates of transport that prevailed at that season of the year, which would remunerate him for any probable loss he might suffer in cattle. So he pushed along on his journey, and all went well until he had passed the little town of Stanger, once the site of Duguza, the kraal of Chaka, the first Zulu king and the uncle of Cetywayo. The night after he left Stanger the air turned bitterly cold, heavy grey clouds filled the sky, and hid the light of the stars.


The synthesis of styles is sufficiently convincing to allow for a premonition much later in the book, and spelling out its underlying theme, not to spoil the narrative immersion:


Thou canst not kill this white men, for they are not of one race, but of many races, and the sea is their home; they rise out of the black water. Destroy those that are here, and others shall come to avenge them, more and more and more! Now thou hast smitten in thy hour; in theirs they shall smite in turn. Now they lie low in blood at thy hand; in a day to come, O King, thou shalt lie low in blood at theirs.


So prophesies Mopo to Dingaan, elaborating on a prophesy made earlier by Chaka with his dying breath. The Shakespearean wrangling for the Zulu throne which has driven the novel’s tragic events is given a deeply ironic weight by the reader’s sure knowledge that all of this contending for power is in vain, and the alienating effect on the European reader shown himself as Other, as relentless monster, is increased by the richly immersive detail with which the novel portrays the Zulu way of life. The cultural destruction wrought by colonialism has never been more vividly made plain, though Chinua Achebe’s novel of immediately pre-colonial Nigerian life, Things Fall Apart, does make use of a similar effect.

Both are novels which make no attempt at “whitewashing” pre-Christian African values; Nada the Lily’s heroes and villains alike are recognisably Zulu in culture, with their multiple wives, pragmatic attitudes toward death, and glorification of war and conquest. Haggard’s treatment of Chaka, in particular, is spectacular. His cruelty and paranoia, and the sheer arbitrariness with which so many of his acts are conceived and carried out, is chillingly similar to the tyrants that came before and after him: Genghis Khan, Caligula, Idi Amin. Yet Chaka is also a visionary, terrible but great, and fits in with popular conceptions of tragic conquerors like Caesar or Napoleon.

Like every one of Nada the Lily’s characters, in short, his actions play out on a grand, larger-than-life scale, something Haggard was unique among Victorian authors – and even early-to-mid 20th-Century writers – in acknowledging could be afforded to native African affairs. The aforementioned superhero film Black Panther has broken a number of box-office records, and won much critical acclaim for its images of a bold, vibrant, and epic black African adventure directed at mainstream audiences. Yet it has an antecedent, more than a century old, in Nada the Lily and the rest of the series.

H Rider Haggard

The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, & the impression of agelessness

Tolkein toking

HERE’S A NICE bit of character description from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: “The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.” It works on a few levels: it surrounds the character of Elrond with the same aura of ageless beauty and mystery shared by so many of Middle-Earth’s legendary inhabitants (Gandalf, Galadriel, Treebeard, et cetera); it plays nicely with themes of dusk, night, gathering darkness, and the light of hope shining through, that crop up everywhere in the rest of the book; and, in a way, it works as a metaphor for Tolkien’s writing itself, “ageless” and “written [with] the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful”.

I always surprise myself by remembering just how young The Lord of the Rings really is, so successfully does it create the idea of itself as an ancient myth, an archetype. It also feels like the birth of the fantasy genre, probably just because its high-fantasy descendants have dominated the market in the 60-odd years since its publication from 1954-55.

Nevertheless, there was much fantasy before it, and it bears remembering. Three great pulpy strands predate it by half a century: the heroic fantasy of Robert E. Howard, the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft, and the planetary romance of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the last of which would, of course, inspire the later (but still earlier) Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, and older yet are the scientific romances of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Those are only the major subgenres of pulp fantasy writing, and there’s plenty more outside of pulp fiction that it still feels odd to remember came first.

The entire Golden Age of Science Fiction, for instance, had come and gone. So had many important works of the New Wave of Science Fiction, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, and Isaac Asimov’s entire Empire and Foundation trilogies. Ayn Rand, the rum old bugger, had already published We the Living, Anthem, and The Fountainhead, and was probably hard at work on Atlas Shrugged.

James Bond had already had three literary adventures and his first film (albeit a telefilm) by the time LotR‘s publication had finished. Rock ‘n’ roll, if we date it from the appearance of Elvis’ “That’s All Right” single, was ten days old when the first volume appeared, and Godzilla would be born between the publications of the first and second volumes. Kong was already an old-timer from over twenty years ago, but American monster movies were getting hot again, with The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! already released, and It Came from Beneath the Sea shortly to follow.

Superheroes had already dominated comic books for a decade, fallen out of favour, and would in a couple of years be making a comeback. Batman was old hat when The Lord of the Rings came out.

And Tolkien wasn’t the first popular scholar to revive interest in hero-myths, either. That would be Joseph Campbell with his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. And Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis was on his fifth Narnia book.

So how does it manage to convince us all of its age? Well, it draws a lot on some legitmately ancient, pre-Christian literature and mythology which, even if it remains obscure to most to this day, surely triggers some reflex in our Jungian collective unconscious. Surely. Also, it consciously avoids reflecting the attitudes, concerns, or even language of its contemporary time, and could just as easily fit in amongst the novels of the 1920s or even 1860s. Perhaps more so: Tolkien doesn’t write like Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch, and he certainly doesn’t write like Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck.

He must have seen a lot of himself in his characters, an old-fashioned anchor in a sea of modernism. I bet he’d be pleased with the impression of timelessness his books created, not that he was the first to do so; it gives me pause to think that the King James Bible is younger than most Shakespeare, while most of the Scottish, Irish, and English folk ballads are no older than the 18th century (and sometimes significantly younger).

Quantum of Solace, Licence to Kill, & what’s in a name

WHO’S GOING TO BE the next actor to play James Bond? Well, fingers crossed Daniel Craig will sign on to do one final picture: it would mean that his run matches the original five of Sir Sean Connery, and would allow the producers to finish the arc that has run through his pictures since 2006’s Casino Royale, resolving the cliffhanger ending of Spectre and leaving things open for a relatively fresh start with 007 Number Seven. Sadly, Craig’s unlikely to sign up for another, having claimed he’d rather “slit [his] wrists”. So if not him, then who? The big four names being tossed around are Aidan Turner, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston, and Idris Elba, presented there in descending order of how good a choice I think they are. Incidentally, here’s that popular shot from Poldark of Turner sans shirt, getting some scything in and unknowingly auditioning for the Bond part:aidan-turner

Well, that’s all well and good. But what are they going to call Bond 25, I wonder-? Most likely, they’ll come up with an original title, probably something one-word and mysterious, like Skyfall or Spectre. Hey, how about naming the movie Risico, in that case?

“Risico” was one of the short stories featured in Ian Fleming’s collection For Your Eyes Only. But how can that be? When the 16th Bond film was still in production, the producers made an announcement: they had exhausted the pool of Fleming titles, and the new picture would have an original name, Licence Revoked. The title was a probable reference to John Gardner’s continuation Bond novel Licence Renewed, but it later became Licence to Kill, following its original title’s poor testing with US audiences (the title change came at great cost to the producers, just one of the many factors in the disaster of Licence to Kill‘s production). But the producers were telling blatant fibs! Fleming wrote twelve Bond novels; eleven of those twelve formed the first eleven Eon Productions pictures, though filmed out of order compared with their source material. Even referring to the novels as source material is slightly misleading; as the series continues, the films diverge more and more from the novels whose titles they borrow. Dr. No, From Russia with Love*, Goldfinger, Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service provide basically straightforward adaptations of their source novels, while You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun take the basic plots of the novels simply as templates, playing out in a grander, more comedic style with a number of original story additions. The film supposedly based on The Spy Who Loved Me, the one novel Fleming was embarrassed by, instead uses an original story, albeit one that borrows elements of You Only Live Twice, and was sufficiently different from the novel whose title it uses that screenwriter Christopher Wood was allowed to pen a novelisation entitled James Bond, the Spy Who Loved Me. Its follow-up, Moonraker, used the villain name, but little else, from its novel; millionaire British philanthropist and secret Nazi Sir Hugo Drax became American entrepeneur and secret eugenicist Hugo Drax; once again, the original plot was novelised by Christopher Wood, and once again, past Bond films were a partial inspiration, Drax’s scheme and motivation being a space version of the underwater vision of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s Karl Stromberg.

At that point, with no more novel titles to use (Casino Royale was legally unavailable to the producers, thanks to the 1954 television film and 1967 spoof versions), the producers turned to short stories, first fancying “For Your Eyes Only”, then “Octopussy”, “From a View to a Kill”**, and “The Living Daylights”. In fact, the end credits of The Spy Who Loved Me announce the next film as For Your Eyes Only, showing the producers intended to turn to short story titles before even exhausting the novel titles available to them (the success of Star Wars caused them to embrace the science-fiction-sounding Moonraker title, though the novel itself contains no space-travel elements). These short stories predictably proved difficult to stretch to feature length, and the films at this point became cannibalistic hybrids: For Your Eyes Only draws part of its plot from “For Your Eyes Only”, but also looks to “Risico”, From Russia with Love, and one unused sequence from the Live and Let Die novel. An updated version of the short story “Octopussy”‘s events, updating WWII to the Korean War, forms the backstory of Octopussy, being told in brief by the title character, and takes an auction scene from “The Property of a Lady” and its broad plot from Goldfinger. A View to a Kill takes from its short story only the setting of Paris, before moving on to a plot that once again draws on Goldfinger, with some original elements. The Living Daylights similarly adapts its short story for one scene in a mostly original plot.

But the producers still had literary content left to mine, in spite of their public fibbing. Licence to Kill re-uses elements from the Live and Let Die film and novel as well as The Man with the Golden Gun novel alongside elements from the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity”. Licence to Kill thus bears the same degree of similarity to that short story as FYEO, Octopussy, AVtaK and TLD do to their respective short story titles, so why isn’t it entitled The Hildebrand Rarity? The likely answer is that what was meant was that they had run out of story titles that sounded good. “Risico”‘s title comes from a phonetically-rendered pronunciation of “risk”; “The Property of a Lady” would have worked for Sir Roger Moore but not for Timothy Dalton’s harder-edged interpretation of the character; “The Hildebrand Rarity” sounds more like Sherlock Holmes than James Bond; “007 in New York” is deeply underwhelming; and “Quantum of Solace” is basically word salad.

About that. GoldenEye takes its name from Fleming’s Jamaica house and uses an original plot (with some elements of the villain drawing on the Moonraker novel); Tomorrow Never Dies was a garbled version of the in-story newspaper slogan, “Tomorrow never lies”, and used a wholly original plot; The World is Not Enough is Bond’s family motto from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and uses yet another original plot (though aspects of the finale draw on Kingsley Amis’ continuation novel Colonel Sun). Finally, Die Another Day‘s title is a fragment from a Housman poem, and draws mostly from the previously unused plot of the novel Moonraker, plus re-used elements of the Diamonds Are Forever film, and brief references to the novels The Man with the Golden Gun and Colonel Sun.

Then in 2006 came Casino Royale, the first Bond to bear a novel’s title since 1979’s Moonraker (and the first mostly straightforward adaptation of a novel since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Having recovered the rights to adapt the famous first Bond novel, the producers opted to reboot the franchise entirely, discovering in the process a reverence for the Fleming source material that had been missing from the series for some time. In trying to craft a followup, the producers opted to continue with the Fleming loyalty, picking as a title Quantum of Solace, taken from an atypical short story which homaged Somserset Maugham and in which Bond was barely a character. Of course, the Quantum of Solace movie opted not to adapt that story, and instead went for something mostly original; though its very last scene does present a sort of adaptation of “007 in New York”, the bulk of its plot grows out of the last act of the Casino Royale movie (and also bears an unfortunate resemblance to Licence to Kill). Daniel Craig, for his part, claimed that the film reflected the same themes as the short story, but to date “Quantum of Solace” remains the only one of Fleming’s novels or stories not to have any part of its plot worked into a film.

The use of Quantum of Solace as a title was well-meant, but as soon as it was announced there came an enormous backlash from casual fans who were unaware that blame for the (admittedly horrendous) title lay with Fleming, not Eon. I believe that, had it not been for that backlash, Bond 23, which became Skyfall, would likely have been entitled Property of a Lady. I also believe, given the increasing concessions to the style of Roger Moore’s era evidenced in Skyfall and Spectre, that it would have been a wholly appropriate title. It’s certainly the most Bond-y feeling title of the remaining unused ones, but my hopes are high for a Bond film entitled Risico, after which, we’ll see about Property of a Lady and The Hildebrand Rarity. We’re unlikely to ever see a Bond picture entitled 007 in New York. But how about a fun little “007 in New York” short? It could be released on YouTube to build hype for the next movie, shown in cinemas before an appropriate feature, released as a DVD extra, or made to tie into a major television event, like the 2012 Olympics’ “Happy and Glorious” Bond short.

So, what’s in a name? Well, nothing really. I understand the producers’ eagerness to use a cool-sounding Bond title, and that that desire trumps a sort of historical completionism. In the meantime, little bits of innuendo towards the stories are creeping in, meaningless throwaway references such as Casino Royale‘s character of Solange, named for one in “007 in New York”, or the presence, in Spectre, of a “Hildebrand Antiques and Rarities” as well as a repurposed Hans Oberhauser (“Octopussy”), all of which are all well and good, but add up to very little.

Still, I’ll be going to see Bond 25 no matter what title it gets saddled with, and I note at this point that I disliked the generic Skyfall title even more than the outlandish Quantum of Solace one. Anyway, nothing will stop me from hoping.

*This was the first Bond to slightly adapt a title, losing the comma from the novel’s title of From Russia, with Love.

**The short story is entitled “From a View to a Kill”; the film simply A View to a Kill. This decision was obviously made after the film was in the planning stage, as the end credits of Octopussy announce the next film’s title as From a View to a Kill, becoming the second instance of the end credits making a mistake regarding the next film’s title. After A View to a Kill announced The Living Daylights, this practice was dropped entirely; otherwise, The Living Daylights would have mistakenly announced Licence Renewed, GoldenEye would have mistakenly announced Tomorrow Never Lies, The World is Not Enough might have mistakenly announced Beyond the Ice and, if I’m correct, Quantum of Solace would have mistakenly announced Property of a Lady.

Joseph Conrad, 20th-Century cinema, & Hearts of Darkness

Colonel KurtzTHERE IS A particularly portentous moment in Peter Jackson’s King Kong: the ship boy, all along, has been reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, having been attracted to it because it’s a maritime adventure story; however, they’re nearing Skull Island, and he finishes the book, reflecting “It’s not just an adventure story, is it?”. The subplot probably wasn’t necessary in a film that’s already a three-hour remake of a 100-minute film, but it’s indicative of the mythopoeic approach Jackson took on it (by the way, I really enjoyed Jackson’s Kong: I can handle a little pretension). Soon afterwards, there’s a Conradian moment where the crew end up getting themselves bitten by one of the native boys, trying to bargain with him using a chocolate bar.

That what was, in 1933, a straightforward adventure film should become, in 2005, an epic with literary & philosophical ambitions shouldn’t be surprising. The influence of Heart of Darkness extends not only to those intellectuals who embraced it, the T.S. Eliots & Orson Welleses, but to the entire adventure genre. Previously, there had been other writers working within the same broad colonial adventure genre; there was, for instance, H. Rider Haggard, whose novels & short stories present vast imaginative vistas, or the political consciousness-raising of Rudyard Kipling, but Conrad’s stroke of genius his presentation of the journey into the heart of wilderness as a philosophical voyage into the dark heart of humanity has had a transformative, though slow, effect on that type of narrative, & you would now have to look hard nowadays for travels into the wilderness that aren’t Conradian. Even the source material suggests this, with Marlow’s early line that the Thames, too, has been one of the dark places of the world*.

One major early Heart of Darkness was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Parodying R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, where that novel an entry in the prolific “Crazy Island” genre saw a group of British schoolboys create a paradise of reason & order upon being shipwrecked, Golding’s novel has them descend by choice into savagery. Filmed in 1963, 1976, & 1990, Lord of the Flies is a major high-school text, & many subsequent Hearts of Darkness have drawn equally upon it & the original witness, for instance, the Alex Garland novel/Danny Boyle film The Beach.

Hearts of Darkness are, for whatever reason, especially prevalent in the cinema. John Boorman’s Deliverance & Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, both based on novels, locate their heart of darkness in the forests of America. Rural America is a brutal, cannibalistic place in a huge number of horror films, the most notable of which include Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre & Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (both of which, naturally, received remakes). Lars von Trier’s foray into torture porn, Antichrist, draws on several of the pictures cited here & makes its rural landscape literally hostile.

Great Britain as a setting is largely too small & orderly to accomodate the necessary wilderness, but a few have gone for it anyway. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs has quiet American Dustin Hoffman move to Cornwall, wherein he is bullied by the local nasties to the point of violent retribution. Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake moves the action to the American Deep South. Eden Lake featured an encounter with a brutal gang of happy-slapping delinquents in the English woods, while Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (based on a novel, Ritual by David Pinner) sends an evangelising Christian policeman to a remote Scottish island full of pagans, with unhappy results. The Wicker Man‘s remake, by Neil LaBute, unprofitably moves the island in question to the Pacific Northwest, while the sequel The Wicker Tree, which was first published by Hardy as the novel Cowboys for Christ, implausibly finds paganism alive & well in the Scottish Borders (“with England”!).

Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust depicts the clash between civilisations in the rainforests of South America, as do a host of lesser cannibal movies. South America was also the setting for Werner Herzog’s twin colonial-satire masterpieces, Aguirre, The Wrath of God &, even better, Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo is the tale of a Jesuit who goes mad in the jungle, insisting a river steamship be dragged overland up a mountain, in order to deposit it in a different river, & became all too literal a metaphor when its director went mad in the jungle, filming the picture by dragging a real steamship over a mountain. Roland Joffé’s The Mission plays almost like a more respectable, less immediate version of Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

A number of Australian films find their heart of darkness in that strange, mystic landscape: Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout; Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock & The Last Wave**; Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend, which also got a remake by Jamie Blanks, & which plays like a mash-up of Roeg’s WalkaboutDon’t Look Now, in which a heart of darkness of sorts is found in the foul waterways of Venice.

The biggest & probably best of all of these cinematic Hearts of Darkness was, of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which brilliantly relocated the novel to Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War. Dense, yet also sprawling, the picture brilliantly identified all of the many inter-related thematic threads of the novel: the insanity of colonialism/war; the inner darkness of humanity; the ultimate failure of language; the façade of civilisation; the brutality of invading cultures to indigenous ones. So complete an adaptation was it that by the time a more faithful version arrived, directed by Nic Roeg & starring John Malkovich as Kurtz, it felt superfluous; not only had it been done better already, but Roeg himself had already gotten Heart of Darkness out of his system with Walkabout (ostensibly based on a minor novel). Even the Apocalypse Now making-of, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, felt more authentic, depicting Coppola, Herzog-like, going mad in the jungle.

Even the less thoughtful pulp adventures, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or certain of Tintin’s adventures, tend to have a touch of Conrad. Videogames, too, have had their Hearts of Darkness, though the otherwise fine Heart of Darkness wasn’t one of them. Spec Ops: The Line draws equally from Heart of Darkness & Apocalypse Now, while setting its action in Dubai. Far Cry 2 explicitly drew on Heart of Darkness, but really every title in the series owes something to it. We might even get a whiff of it in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a game of jungle survival & weighty introspection, which received two similar sequels. Michael Ancel, who proved a left-field choice to develop Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie, explored another Heart of Darkness with Beyond Good & Evil, which, like the aforementioned game Heart of Darkness, really didn’t owe that much to the text it was named for.

Personally, I hope we see many more of these. It’s probably my favourite novel, & it might well be my favourite genre, too.

*This line, & how fertile the simple idea of transplanting Heart of Darkness to other settings has proven in practice, suggests Chinua Achebe is wrong in asserting that Conrad’s novel relies on a racist, imperialist view of Africans. The rest of Conrad’s bibliography succeeds in imbuing a similar horror to South America, the West Indies, London, & the open sea.

**The Year of Living Dangerously & The Mosquito Coast, too, are suggestive films. Weir must be the cinema’s foremost Conradian.



Asimov, Lovecraft, & promiscuous continuities


HERE’S A piece of news for you: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus 2, formerly known as Paradise Lost, Prometheus: Paradise Lost, & Alien: Paradise Lost, is now called Alien: Covenant, until a new title for it rolls around. Pfft, who cares? Prometheus was rubbish, & the whole world is much more excited for the same-franchise, rival-movie, Neill Blomkamp’s maybe-one-day-to-see-release Alien 5. And if we have to see Ridley Scott revisiting a gritty early sci-fi classic, aren’t we all way more excited for the Blade Runner sidequel? Yeah? Kind of? Yeah.

You know, in another world, both movies would be the same thing. Scott stopped just short of including explicit reference to Blade Runner‘s Tyrell Corporation in Prometheus. Given the visual & thematic similarities of Alien & Blade Runner, it only makes sense to bind them together as sisters in continuity. But, it could be argued, it doesn’t even require a Prometheus to do that. The recent videogame Aliens: Colonial Marines had absolutely no qualms about including a cheeky nod to Blade Runner. OK, given it also includes nods to Prometheus & Spaceballs, it may not be that significant, especially since Colonial Marines has trouble even fitting itself into the franchise. But the more authentic Alien: Isolation also enjoys a good Blade Runner nod.

& then, of course, there’s the matter of Soldier. Released in 1998 & forgotten shortly thereafter, the film was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson & written by David Webb Peoples, also credited for Blade Runner. Sharing many elements of continuity with Blade Runner, & incorporating several references to other Philip K. Dick works (Blade Runner was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Peoples admitted to seeing it as something of a sidequel to Blade Runner. But freeze-frame enthusiasts would also have determined that it shares a continuity with Aliens, thanks to a reference to Kurt Russell’s character Sgt. Todd 3465 having received training with the M41A Pulse Rifle & the USCM Smartgun. Those even fonder of freeze-framing may also have discerned the wreckage of Event Horizon‘s Lewis & Clark alongside a wrecked Blade Runner spinner. It seems appropriate, given that Event Horizon, also directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, so effectively aped the look & the mood of the Alien series that it was more satisfying than the same year’s Alien: Resurrection. About the only property it seemed to resemble even more closely than Alien was the videogame franchise Doom: in Doom, an experimental teleporter on Mars accidentally opens a portal to Hell; in Event Horizon, an experimental FTL engine in space accidentally opens a portal to Hell. Doom, the most influential first-person shooter game in history, had begun life as an Aliens licensee, before legal issues required a quick reskin & change in backstory. & what other weapon should Todd have been trained in the use of? The DOOM MKIV BFG! Perhaps we shouldn’t take all of this too seriously: the really really freeze-frame-savvy would also have spotted references in Soldier to Executive Decision (in which Kurt Russell starred as Dr. David Grant), Escape From New York & Escape From L.A. (in which Kurt Russell starred as Snake Plissken), Stargate (in which Kurt Russell starred as Colonel Jonathan O’Neil, & which also deals with aliens contacted via experimental portal technology), Tango & Cash (in which Kurt Russell starred as Lieutenant Gabriel Cash), The Thing (in which Kurt Russell starred as R. J. MacReady, & which owes its structure, mood, & nightmarishly-designed alien villain to Alien), Captain Ron (in which Kurt Russell starred as Captain Ron), Backdraft (in which Kurt Russell starred as both Captain Dennis McCaffrey & his son, Lieutenant Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (& thus indirectly every other iteration of Star Trek, too), & the Dexter Riley trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, & The Strongest Man in the World (which starred Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, & whose use of Medfield College, a fictional university setting shared with The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, & Flubber, recalled the use of fictional Miskatonic University in the works of Lovecraft). Soldier was clearly having its fun, & “Tannhauser Gate” has become almost an obligatory reference for science-fiction works.

But, at the same time, there might be something to this. Science-fiction giants of the late-twentieth century, Alien & Blade Runner both established handy ready-made references that later films could easily piggyback on, aiming perhaps to gain a bit of easy credibility or, less cynically, just to make audiences smile. Both were accepted into a wider canon of what we might call “promiscuous continuities”: fictional shared continuities which were a) open to new entries, b) proved to be attractive continuities for other writers, & c) could have continuity easily established with a throwaway line or references. Most of these pre-established promiscuous continuities came from pulp literature, in which originality is uncommon, but so is litigation. Prominent promiscuous continuities include: the Cthulhu Mythos, a cosmic horror continuity established by H.P. Lovecraft & others; the robot stories of Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics are sufficiently simple & sensible to be adopted whole by numerous other writers; & the world of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in which mech armour is deployed against alien “bugs” (probably shares DNA with the aforementioned Doom: just as Aliens FPS games look like Doom ripoffs; just as the Doom movie, when it finally appeared, looked like a ripoff of Aliens, Event Horizon, or even Resident Evil, itself a videogame-to-film adaptation by Paul W. S. Anderson; just so, the eventual Starship Troopers movie owed a fair debt to the superior Aliens).

Academics would call this wealth of pre-established suggestive connections intertextuality, though the key difference is that, where intertextuality requires only that another work is being referenced, these are cases of it being invoked, i.e. the use of elements from that work are to establish that both take place within the same wider narrative universe. Connections to these promiscuous continuities are often so casually established that it’s easy to miss &, like invoking magic with spells, there are usually certain preferred phrases with which to do it. For Blade Runner, you just have to say “Tannhauser Gate”. For Asimov, it’s “Three Laws”, while for Lovecraft it might be Miskatonic University, the Necromonicon, or Cthulhu. Alien is often referenced via the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, while the Terminator films, sharing much cast & crew with the Alien series, are invoked in Aliens with Cyberdyne Systems.

Aliens just couldn’t stop namedropping, so it only made sense when a Freeze-Frame Bonus gag in Predator 2 led to a full-fledged crossover film directed by Paul W. “him again!” S. Anderson. In the comics world, things were taken even further with an Aliens versus Predator versus The Terminator comic. Aliens came out in a more innocent time, & writer-director James Cameron was probably only aiming for window-dressing in hitting the big promiscuous continuities: the android Bishop, we are told, is Three Laws Compliant, while Starship Troopers, required reading for the actors, was invoked in one throwaway “bug hunt” line. Meanwhile the first Alien film, without ever directly referencing Lovecraft, has also been suggested to do a better job recreating the mood & themes of his works than most official adaptations, & between it & Prometheus, Lovecraft’s celebrated At the Mountains of Madness has pretty much been covered.

If one has to go to Alien for their Lovecraft fix rather than to other, more official sources, this is likely because most official Lovecraft film adaptations were by either Stuart Gordon or Brian Yuzna or both, whose successful Re-Animator set a comedic tone influenced by The Evil Dead & Ghostbusters, both of which suggested themselves as unofficial Lovecraft films. Lovecraft’s sphere of influence, however, extended beyond the cinema; it was a sufficiently promiscuous continuity for Doctor Who, who found himself battling Lovecraftian Old Ones several times in the novels; more officially, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos & Robert E. Howard’s Hyperboria (home of Conan the Barbarian & other, less successful, creations) were mutually dependent. Conan the Barbarian even became a part of Marvel Comics continuity, which also included G.I. Joe, TransformersStar Trek, & another promiscuous continuity of the cinema: Godzilla.

Ayn Rand, Communism, & the evils of sunflower seeds

Sunflower seed

FOR Christmas my mother got me a Kindle, which will certainly make a friend of mine who’s a dead-tree purist sigh “Harumph!”, but which is also a jolly convenient device to own if you’re not in the habit of keeping a notepad around when you read for pleasure or, much worse, scrawling in the margins of the book itself. It’s also enabled me, for the first time, to fulfill a long-held ambition: to record, in the name of whatever public interest there might be, the exact number of times Ayn Rand, the rummest old bugger in American philosophy, equates the chewing of sunflower seeds with the villainy of Communism, in her début We the Living. I noticed this idiosyncracy when I first read the book, three years ago: here’s a rather crude cartoon I made about the tendency on my tumblr, but, since I wasn’t yet a Kindle owner then, & since I didn’t feel like starting the book over again & making a note of each appearance, I had to sigh & wait, I suppose, for Christmas of 2014. So here, for the record, is every occurence in We the Living of Soviet villains chewing sunflower seeds:

1) pp. 1-2: “There were no schedules, no time-tables. No one knew when a train would leave or arrive. A vague rumor that it was coming rushed a mob of anxious travelers to the stations of every town along its way. They waited for hours, for days, afraid to leave the depot where the train could appear in a minute—or a week. The littered floors of the waiting rooms smelt like their bodies; they put their bundles on the floors, and their bodies on the bundles, and slept. They munched patiently dry crusts of bread and sunflower seeds; they did not undress for weeks.”

2) p. 11: “A young fellow leaned against a wall under the signs. A crumpled lambskin hat was crushed over his pale hair that hung over his pale eyes. He stared aimlessly ahead and cracked sunflower seeds, spitting the shells out of the corner of his mouth.”

3) p. 12: “From below, among the boots and swishing, mud-caked skirts, someone howled monotonously, not quite a human sound nor a barking: a woman was crawling on her knees, picking up the grain mixed with sunflower-seed shells and cigarette butts.”

4) p. 14: “Below, there was mud and sunflower-seed shells; above, there were red banners bending over the street from every house, streaked and dripping little pink drops.”

5) p. 40: “a sailor tottered unsteadily, waving his arms, spitting sunflower seeds.”

6) pp. 52-3: “The other faction watched them silently, with cold, unsmiling eyes. Its speakers bellowed belligerently about the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, ignoring the sudden laughter that seemed to burst from nowhere, and the impudent sunflower-seed shells sent expertly at the speaker’s nose.”

7) pp. 75-6: “A freckled boy with a soldier’s cap far on the back of his head, stopped his hurried waddle down the hall and barked at Comrade Sonia: “The hero of Melitopol? Ever heard of Andrei Taganov?” He sent a sunflower seed straight at a button on Comrade Sonia’s leather jacket and staggered away carelessly.”

8) pp. 77-8: “In the lobby of the Mikhailovsky Theater, among trim new suits and military tunics, a few felt boots shuffled heavily and a few calloused hands timidly removed leather caps with flapping, fur-lined ears. Some were awkward, diffident; others slouched insolently, defying the impressive splendor by munching sunflower seeds.”

9) p. 102: “A soldier cracked sunflower seeds and sang about the little apple.”

10) pp. 125-6: “High on the roofs, the snow was melting, gray with city dust like dirty cotton, brittle and shining like wet sugar, and twinkling drops dripped slowly, trickled in little gurgling brooks from the mouths of drain pipes, and across the sidewalks, and into the gutters, rocking gently cigarette stubs and sunflower-seed shells.”

11) pp. 157-8: “Tenants came bringing their own chairs and sat chewing sunflower seeds. Those who brought no chairs sat on the floor and chewed sunflower seeds.”

12) p. 192: “There were more leather jackets, and red kerchiefs, and sunflower-seed shells in the college corridors, and jokes about: “My parents? Why, they were a peasant woman and two workers.”

13) pp. 223-4: “In 1924, a man named Lenin died and the city was ordered to be called Leningrad. The revolution also brought posters to the city’s walls, and red banners to its houses, and sunflower-seed shells to its cobblestones.”

14) p. 296: “Acia sat on the floor, mixing sawdust, potato peelings and sunflower-seed shells in a broken bowl.”

15) p. 363: “An hour later, Pavel Syerov left his office, and—walking down the stairs, on his way to the street, chewing sunflower seeds and spitting out their shells—saw the man in the leather jacket again. He had not been mistaken; it was Andrei Taganov.”

16) p. 364: ““Well, I’m glad to see you. A rare person to see, aren’t you? So busy you have no time for old friends any more. Have some sunflower seeds?” “No, thank you.” “Don’t have the dirty habit? Don’t dissipate at all, do you? No vices, but one, eh? Well, I’m glad to see you taking an interest in this old station which is my home, so to speak. Been around for an hour or so, haven’t you?””

17) p. 364: “Syerov stood, frowning, an unbroken sunflower seed between his teeth, and watched Andrei descending the stairs.”

18) p. 393: “Pavel Syerov lay on the davenport, his stocking feet high on its arm, reading a newspaper, chewing sunflower seeds. He spat the shells into a pile on a newspaper spread on the floor by the davenport. The shells made a little sizzling sounds, leaving his lips. Pavel Syerov looked bored.”

19) p. 394: ““Sure,” said Pavel Syerov, spitting a shell down on the newspaper.

20) p. 394: ““Sure,” said Syerov, sticking a seed between his teeth.”

21) pp.395-6 “Pavel Syerov sat down heavily and his feet scattered the pile of sunflower-seed shells over the floor.”

22) ““Comrade, stop chewing sunflower seeds. It’s disrespectful.””

We the Living, published in 1936 in a pre-Cold War United States in which Communism was looked on favourably by the intellectual left, caused something of a small stir in its depiction of the nightmarish realities of life in the USSR which Rand knew only too well, having lived in Russia for eight years of her adolescene & early womanhood after the Revolution, before escaping to the States, & it is difficult not to see the novel’s heroine Kira Argounova as a thinly-veiled author self-insertion, the events & situations described mostly drawn from life. So naturally, it would seem that the distate for sunflower seeds that the authorial voice suggests is Rand’s own: notably every chewer of sunflower seeds is a party-line Communist, except for one instance involving a rabble who are, nonetheless, uncouth & distasteful. Twenty-two instances in a 400-page novel of unsympathetic characters chewing sunflower seeds seems not to be a coincidence or oversight, although it is true that We the Living has many more unsympathetic characters than sympathetic ones; the connection between Communism & sunflower seeds is in any case made plain in the thirteenth quotation above, in which the change of name from Petrograd to Leningrad fills the city with revolutionary banners & posters, which sounds plausible, & sunflower-seed shells, which sounds less plausible. Rand’s father, like Kira’s, was a middle-class Jewish business owner, which fact made life particularly hard for both young women, & it seems plausible to me that Rand never had much occasion in pre-Revolutionary Russia to associate with the working classes, which occasioned a certain distaste for them on her part, & given she has more experience to draw on than I do of life in the USSR, I can believe that the chewing of sunflower seeds is more common in the Russian poor than in its middle or upper classes: I’m no expert on sunflower-seed demographics. But it does not seem possible that Leningrad’s streets were strewn with sunflower seeds only after its name change. Why would that occasion a surge in their popularity? Did the pre-Revolutionary seed-chewers use to dispose of them politely, but after the Revolution, become sufficiently emboldened to spit them on the pavements? It seems a possibility, I suppose, but I wish We the Living had expounded on that point. Instead, we have in the medium-length novel twenty-nine instances of the word “sunflower”*, which is many times more than several words which seem appropriate to the novel’s anti-Communist theme, such as “Communism” (19), “Bolshevik” (2), “Marx” (13), “Engels” (1), “Trotsky” (8), or “USSR” (6). It is also 29 more times than it appears in the only other book I have so far downloaded to my Kindle, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, & it is, I suspect, 29 more times than in most novels. But maybe Ayn Rand knows something about post-Revolutionary Russia that I don’t, & perhaps Nineteen Eighty-Four might have been better with a line about a human face chewing a sunflower seed  forever.

*There are a few references to sunflower-seed oil, which is the reason for there being more instances of the word “sunflower” than examples of sunflower-seed-chewing.

Lions, Witches, & the many ways to write a sequel

narnia publication order

SEQUELS ARE great. This Summer I’m excited for The Purge: Anarchy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Expendables 3, & Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Sequels, when done well, can succeed in so many ways: they can expand the original’s scope, like The Godfather Part II; they can take an entirely new approach to a similar scenario, like James Cameron’s Aliens; they can even be nothing more than an improved retread, like James Cameron’s Terminator II: Judgement Day. Sometimes they can improve on an original while also spoofing it, like Bride of Frankenstein or Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The Child’s Play series didn’t even become memorable until its fourth chapter, the utterly ridiculous Bride of Chucky. Why, if I’d never done a followup to “Interest, identity, & a scientist named Stephen Senn” then you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

So sequels are great. What about prequels? Their track record is less impressive, but X-Men: First Class & Rise of the Planet of the Apes were both the best entries in their respective franchises. The best sequel of all time, The Godfather Part II, is actually as much prequel as it is sequel.

So prequels are good too. What about midquels? What’s an midquel? Wikipedia can explain, but then I’d have nothing to write about, & luckily it happens that one particular well-known series contains examples of every sort of sequel known to humanity. If you’ve read the title of this article, then you might have guessed that it’s C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. So The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a regular old original work, which, when it was written, had nothing to do with anything*.

Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, & The Last Battle are all sequels, each successively following up on the events of the previous, providing one continuous narrative.

The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel, which is a work set before but written after a previous work. Some people, including Narnia‘s publishers, would say that the reader ought to start reading the series with The Magician’s Nephew, which is plainly nonsense, since it was written by an author who had written The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for readers who had read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, & assumes its reader is familiar with the fictional world of Narnia. Of course, some prequels, more so than that one, are created to be friendly to newcomers in what may have become a complex & intimidating fictional chronology, but even in those cases, veterans will find them more rewarding**.

The Horse and His Boy is a midquel, which means a work that takes place entirely within the timeline of an already-existing work, which is what The Horse and His Boy is to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, ie. it takes place in a brief period of time within the longer period depicted in the final chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Were one to be picky about reading the books in internal story order – a silly idea – one would have to leave a bookmark in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, returning to complete it only after reading all of The Horse and His Boy.

You might also hear about “distant sequels”, works which take place long after – say, a hundred years at least – the original, & thus will likely only share a universe & general history with their original, since all characters are likely to have died. Luckily enough, C.S. Lewis covered this with Prince Caspian, a regular sequel for the Pevensie children, but a distant sequel for the world of Narnia itself, in which one thousand years have passed since their last visit.

Originals, sequels, prequels, midquels et cetera: trust cosy, safe Narnia to provide a cosy, safe guide to what they are. Well, OK, there are also interquels, which Lewis never touched, but that just means being a sequel to one work as well as a prequel to another. Any of the Narnia sequels could be an interquel, if we found out Lewis wrote them out of sequence. O, & don’t try making sense of whether works involving time travel qualify as any of these: you’ll do yourself an injury.

*Except for The Bible, it has everything to do with that.

**We might make an exception here for very inconsistent prequels, whose plotholes would go unnoticed by newcomers while alienating veterans.