Friday, 22 June 2012

“Bond. James Bond."

How many times have each of us heard those few, powerful words while sitting in front of the big silver screen, bag of popcorn at the ready, or when lazing before our own, room-sized entertainment facility? Words which bring to mind—however unrealistically—the captivating world of espionage, of spies, of daring do, and beautiful women—danger and intrigue, but with the assurance that no matter what occurs, the good guys will win. This is the Bond movie franchise, which tells the fictional, episodic adventures of a British secret agent, code named: "007", a man "licensed to kill", as he travels the world fighting and invariably defeating the varied and often unlikely enemies of the United Kingdom and the western world. The movies began a half century ago and are still going strong, however, there is a story behind the story. The Bond saga began as a series of novels written by the English author and World War Two Naval Intelligence officer, Ian Fleming (1908-64)—one case of a writer writing about what he knows.

There are twelve novels and two short story collections in the series, written between 1953 and 1966 (the last published posthumously). There are successor stories written by later authors, but I have never been a fan of such things. Let's put these to one side.

In the back of my mind for decades (I never like to rush things), I have had a hankering to read these novels, and at long last, I finally got around to doing so. First impression, I found them easy to read, "airplane" novels. In this they remind me of Anne Rice or Stephen King, quick, lite, and entertaining, but no more than that—the literary equivalent of peanuts. What I did find surprising, for such popular writing (100 million+ copies sold), is that the writing quality is mediocre. A sizeable percentage of each story is engaging and holds one's attention, but then Fleming drifts into long rambling passages that slow the pace of reading. I am sure that many of his readers skipped over these sections (as I found myself doing).

The novels themselves vary in quality. "Casino Royale" is the first, published in 1953. It is a well thought out story, with an entertaining plot and reasonable resolution. Conversely, the 1958 "Dr No" novel may well be the worst. The racist element is needlessly apparent, and the vapid, cliched heroine is the worst example of an adolescent fantasy. The Dr No character himself is unbelievably silly—the "king" of a guano island who wants to take over the world, and who performs meaningless "experiments" involving giant squids on wayward visitors? ummm. Was Fleming was growing tired of his own creation? Read "No" for a smile and laugh. Don't take it seriously, but you could say that about all the novels.

I suggest that Fleming would have benefited from a good editor. Someone to correct and prune his work. Fleming wrote only in the January and February of each year, and aimed to write 2,000 words a day. He certainly achieved this, but if he had spent March and April rewriting, his work would have been of a considerably higher standard. As a measure of my level of appreciation of Fleming as an author I do not believe that I will ever reread any in the "saga" of James Bond.

Turning to the protagonist himself, a surprising aspect of Bond's character emerges—he is an appallingly bad spy. For all of his capabilities: his tough talk, his experience, and attitude, on every mission he bumbles and is caught by the bad guys. One could ask is it good policy for a spy to always prominently introduce himself with his real name: "Bond, James Bond"? Also, is it good policy to fly into a mission first class, to drive an expensive sports car, to eat at the best restaurants, and chase the most beautiful women? The term "clandestine" seems not to have been known to Bond, however, this bumbling is understandable as a plot device. The tension leading up to the capture, the panic as Bond is imprisoned/interrogated/tortured, and the speculation as to how Bond will escape this time, each focus a great deal of reader attention. The alternative, a quiet and uneventfully successful operation would consume half the words and garner a quarter of the interest, however, based on any rational analysis of his performance Bond would most likely be dead by his second mission, if that. Let me say this again: Bond is a bad spy.

Having failed spy school, should we trust Bond with the security of the free world? Possibly not. Not because of his competence, but because of his politics. The world of Bond is a world of "elites". Bond believes in and moves in this world, ostentatiously referring to the name brands (vulgarly?) of prestigious goods and services, associating on equal terms only with elites, both ours and theirs, and regarding, automatically, as his inferiors anyone who is not an elite. In "You Only Live Twice" the head of the Japanese spy service, "Tiger" Tanaka, specifically states that the Japanese ruling class fear that the UK is declining due to the diminution of its elite and the rising influence of trade unions. Bond vigorously denies this. Straight out of the establishment playbook.

For Bond and Fleming elites rule the west and the "common folk" are disposable fixtures, who are fairly dumb, or mis-guided, sheep, to be lead and used—no more than cannon fodder. The awareness that there was a basic similarity between the ruling class of the Soviet Union and the western world never crossed Bond's nor Fleming's mind. Thus, even though Bond is ostensibly tasked with protecting the UK from foreign threats, principally the USSR, he is happy enough to cast non-elite domestic organisations in a bad light. Trade unions are a major bug-a-boo, they are always a source of concern and potentially no more than communist fronts. Rather humorously, in "Dr No", both "M" and Bond dismiss environmentalists as mis-guided fools, worrying about birds when there are far more pressing issues.

The "free world" Bond defends and approves of is this "elite" world, not the everyday world of everyman. Essentially, though it never emerges in the novels, Bond, as with every "security" organisation is tasked with preserving the status quo, against both foreign and domestic threats. Bond would no doubt be spying on British peace activists, anti-nuclear protesters, left wing political figures, if they ever proved a threat to his world.

Bond's nature matches this world of privilege and conflict. He is a cold man, deliberately alone, who rejects anything more than a superficial relationship with other human beings. His two cardinal virtues are his loyalty and his skills, the latter he places in service of the former. Bond is loyal to the point of death, willing to let himself be cut in half by a buzz saw rather than betray his duty, but it is not a loyalty to a set of ideals, rather to his own craft, his handful of colleagues and to 'M', the head of the secret service. Bond is a loyal mercenary, loyal to a faction, loyal to his chieftain, not a loyal patriot—to draw a distinction.

Bond's geo-politics is a mirror of his personal world. His politics are the coldest of the conservative Cold War fantasies. Ian Fleming wrote the 'Bond' novels in the 50s. They are creatures of there time, as are most things. From the perspective of two post-Cold War decades the caricature of the Russians, as a single, hard, cold, and ruthless group, dedicated to the overthrow of the west, appears ridiculous. The reality, a ruling class of old men and their corrupt cronies and lackies, desperate to hold on to their prerogatives, mired in a inept sea of bureaucracy, is never shown.

When reading Bond any number of literary comparisons come to mind. I will mention only one "J. Edgar Hoover On Communism", by J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover wrote about the threat of communism in 1969. He described the USSR in the most appreciative terms. He saw it as filled with cold, clear headed, focused people, whose sole reason for existence is the destruction of the USA, while, on the other hand, the USA is composed of cloth headed "liberals", whose namby pambyness will lead the USA into destruction. I don't know if Hoover read Bond (or read anything), but the two men share a common world view.

For Bond the struggle of east versus west dominates and subordinates any human need. Certainly, the era of "MAD"—Mutual Assured Destruction, when the west and east threatened to destroy each other many times over to ensure 'peace', such an attitude expressed in a fictional tale is not a surprise.

This raises the issue of Bond's "relationships". With a series that has a "Pussy Galore", it could easily be inferred that Bond had a low regard for women. For example, in "Thunderball" Bond describes how women are near exclusively bad and dangerous drivers. While one woman is bad enough, four women in a single car will incessantly talk, take their eyes from the road, and prove a menace to fellow travellers. A situation to be avoided at all costs. A good female driver is described as a woman who "drives like a man". High praise indeed from Bond! Yet, to balance the equation, as much as Bond stereotypes women, as much as women are portrayed as two dimensional characters, the same could be said of his male characters, certainly the minor male characters. His evil henchmen are cliched and disposable. Even Bond's elite compatriots who inhabit the exclusive world of "Blades" are no more than stereotypes.

In the novels the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated and identified. There is no Holmesian thinkery. The bad guys are visually indicated as such. Some exterior manifestation of the inner evil is always seen. The Blofeld of "Thunderball" has: a "squat nose", "dark lips", indicative of "contempt", "tyranny", "cruelty". It is boys own adventure. Conversely, in Fleming's pro-British view of the world the "bad" guys are never Englishmen, rather the English are invariably the good guys. To make the point again, there is no depth or analysis in Bond. Fleming is not the author one turns to for deep characters, women nor men. In the world of Bond, everyone is a cliche.

Morality is rarely explicitly mentioned by Fleming, but this, rather than indicating a lack of interest in the question, reveals an implicit acceptance of the conservative status quo. The morality of Bond is the morality of pragmatism. Bond finds it necessary to kill and maim, destroy lots of things, and commit nasty deeds, and what moralising there is is presented as a necessity. He does what he does as this is what he must do to achieve what he must, with regret, sometimes pondering for a few moments before agreeing to assassinate, but always with the necessary ruthlessness and despatch. I am reminded of a renaissance parallel (pardon me if I get the details wrong). Martin Luther stated that protestants must committ as many or more evil acts than the Catholics, in order to triumph over the Catholics. Bond would agree with this.

What I found surprising is a lack of reference to god. There is no religious moralising, and nary a reference to organised religion. I have not read a great deal of non-sf material from this period so I am unaware of how common a lack of religion is, but it was a little surprising, certainly different from the inherent Christian moralising of Victorian era writing.

An amusing aside to the Cold War are the references to the British Empire. It is only infrequently and peripherally mentioned, but wistfully. In "Dr No" a British governor is described as having spent thirty years of service watching the Empire collapse. Fleming lived his later years based on his estate "Golden Eye" in Jamaica. He was part of the expat, upper-class "elite" who benefited from the Empire. He regretted its departure, but his writing indicates that he knew its time had past, and that attempting to hang on to it was ridiculous in the Cold War era.

There are clear differences between the Bond of Fleming and of the movies. The novel Bond is a more realistic man, less the super action hero, also less sure of himself, but colder, and with a noticeable bent towards self-destruction. The movie Bond, certainly as played by Sean Connery, is a heroic character, but for all of that far more human, more approachable, and certainly more likeable. A minor point is the marked absence of gadgets in the novels as compared to the movies. The two media are thematicly different. The movies were entertaining escapism for the masses first, while the novels attempted to produce a gritty realism. Both succeeded in their aim, but both are two distinct animals. It would be worthwhile to know of the overlap between those who favour the written Bond versus those who enjoy the movie Bond. I suspect that the overlap would be small.

What autobiographical elements are their in the work? Fleming was indeed a 'spy' himself, how much of him is in the novels? I suspect a considerable amount. Bond drinks, smokes and gambles to excess, daring himself to live well and knowing that one day he will lose it all—which is how Fleming (Eton/Sandhurst) himself lived and died. Politics, again Fleming showed his own upper-class politics in his derision of trade unions, and the working class, while ignoring the faults of his own class. One wonders though, Fleming was not without humour. In "Thunderball" Bond is compelled by "M" to spend two weeks sweating out toxins, and abstaining from liquor and tobacco at a health farm. As his "cure" draws to a close Bond, in a newly healthy and clear headed state of mind internally ponders the possibility of himself becoming a peacenic, and gaining a desire to "change the world for the better"? In "Dr No" Bond is told that his preferred gun is a 'ladies' gun—haha.

Bond and Fleming both view the high-life vices as indications of a manly life, a life of action and decision. Those who eschew such vices experience only half a life or are aberrant in some manner. The tennis professionals of "Goldfinger", for example, who neither drink nor smoke, ultimately fail in their career, they play too carefully, they lack passion and conviction, thus they fade out. The Blofeld of "Thunderball", does not drink, smoke, nor engage in sex. He is an aberration of evil. The men who get down to business, in the world of Bond, have all the conventional vices in spades. Bond himself in "Thunderball" puts aside his newly found healthy life-style and returns to his earlier lifestyle when it is time to "get to work".

What then is this strange attraction that Bond has with women, and men? I am reminded of a rather tangental parallel. The recent reinvention of Sherlock Holmes, as acted by Benedict Cumberbatch, by Steven Moffat. Holmes is portrayed as an eccentric sociopath ("high functioning sociopath" as he describes himself), who is first seen on screen beating a corpse in one of his many experiments. Yet, a sociopathic corpse beater develops an instant fan base. For example, the coat that Holmes wore became a much in demand fashion item. Are we, men and women, perversely attracted to these human aberrations? Does the mental toll of the quotidian "good" life, cause us to envy and admire those who are not so bound?

Again, what is the attraction? Why has "Bond" proven so successful. First, I believe that it is the movies that are successful, and made Bond a household word, not so much the novels. The movies are entertaining, light escapism, with beautiful women, gadgets, and a thrilling locations. Absent is the darker side of Bond. Even the Cold War politics is different. In the movies it is a contest and game, in the novels a matter of life and nuclear death. So, why were the novels successful? The answer is similar, the novels are also escapism, but of a more sinister type. They proved successful because they portrayed a man who had escaped the alienation of the western world, a man who lived a seemingly "free" life, "living large" with women, excitement, and exotic destinations. Fleming did not always write well. I am sure that many of his readers concentrated on his descriptions of naked, blonde young women hunting for seashells on tropical islands, of extravagant and luxurious casinos, of a sophisticated reference to a rare fruit, and a mention of a "delicious" breakfast of yogurt and figs. All to vicariously escape, however momentarily, the commonplace of their own lives.

All in all, Bond is escapist entertainment, one lightly written, with a fictional world that only existed in the mind of the author, and others of a similar narrow, political persuasion. Fleming is entertaining often, but not always.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Prometheus (2012). Ridley Scott

I have been a lifelong fan of Ridley Scott, and I have just seen his latest movie 'Prometheus', so thusly it falls upon me to review this movie. What do I think?

The answer—good, I enjoyed it, entertaining, but if any reader is sensing any hesitation in my answer, you are correct. While it was a good SF movie, with all of the expected twists and turns, and a few not so expected, it lacked originality. Admittedly, it is hard to be original in a prequel, and certainly a prequel to a franchise with so many different episodes as this, but, even so, it was just a little bit of a let down—so much hype to live up to...

The movie was billed as something that would discuss the origins of humanity. Well, it did not. There were some unexplained scenes in the movie that hinted at this, certainly the opening scene where one of the aliens drinks/eats something, his body/DNA dissolves, and he falls into a waterfall (presumably on Earth—but are there not less deadly ways to spread DNA?), a few half-hearted references to god (the xian god). The closest to a direct response to this question is a finding that the deceased (not entirely) human-like aliens are 2,000 years old, "give or take", but that is hardly far enough in our past to count as the human origin. Lets just say that there are lots of loose ends in the story, loose ends that no one even attempts to tie up.

I will add to this that sitting in a cinema in Thailand, watching this movie, made me confront (again) the ethnocentrism of Hollywood. The crew of the ship was a geek cross section of US culture (but no Mexicans). The aliens 'engineers' were all tall, space-out caucasians. If nothing else this does reflect a lack of imagination on the part of the movie makers, their audiences, or both.

A second problem I have with the movie is the technology. It is both too advanced and too primitive. First, the advanced. It is the end of the 21st century, and humans have mastered interstellar travel. Ummm. No specifics, but two years of suspended animation carried the crew to a "distant" solar system. Strangely, I am reminded of the opening of the first 'Planet of the Apes' movie. Ok, way to go to the unnamed scientific genius, who figured that one out. Hope you got a Nobel and much more. The primitive is the other tech seen on the ship. It is not advanced enough. Many little things. For example, the 'glass' space helmets reflect light, whereas it would not be too much to expect these helmets to not be covered with glossy, distracting reflections, and no smart materials, sliding doors which make a sound, and where are the google glasses? Most of the tech looks like stuff from today and tomorrow, not a lifetime from now, however, I will mention one pleasing bit of hardware. The explorers used remote sensors, laser emitting flying balls, to scan and map the "creepy, underground caverns" they were walking through. For the first time in "Alien" history the crew of an advanced ship used tech to map areas of extreme danger, rather than just wander in.

Having said of all this, I was entertained by the movie. There were numerous, well crafted minor references to the previous movies. The Earth ship gave me a 2001 memory in a few scenes. Dr Shaw's self-medicated abortion will go down in movie history (that woman has balls). The android David is played supremely well. I perceived a strong HAL9000 vibe here. He is neither a mere copy of previous "Alien" androids nor a stock figure, he is the character for this movie and his role.

The criticisms I have made here I do admit are extreme, it is a movie, not a documentary, and certainly not an attempt to paint a picture of life in the last decade of this century. However, I am clearly becoming more demanding of my entertainment as I grow older. I expect it to be better (did someone say "Limitless" (2011) ?), not merely more of the same. The big question, the measure of my opinion of a movie: would I go and see it again? The answer, at this time—I am not sure.

And, while I am here, the movie was in 3D, which, as always, disappoints, me. The 3D effect was not overly pronounced and did not add a great deal to the visual effect. What is did do was darken the movie, making it just a little too dark. I am not a fan of 3D, and I see no reason to change my mind.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Venus transit 2012, June 6, Pattaya, Thailand

This was the second of my two Venus transits, and the last until the year 2117. So I was eagerly looking forward to this event. I had originally planned to return to Australia to view the transit in the Northern Territory, but, due to circumstances, this was not possible, so I observed the transit from my hotel balcony in Pattaya. This may seem an overly comfortable way to view the eclipse, but it was effective and the balcony provided a local hight point.

To observe I used my trusty Sony DSC-HX5V camera, and a number 11 welding glass. This glass was not sufficiently dark to safely observe visually, but it was entirely adequate for camera work. 
Initially, I was not optimistic about the weather. It is the rainy season in Thailand, and most days, and certainly most mornings had been cloudy. Even less propitious the day before the transit had been overcast, while there had been a thunderstorm off the coast the night before. So, I was pleasantly surprised when Wednesday morning I awoke to see only very light cloud in the pre-dawn sky, and every sign that this cloud would dissipate with sunrise, which it did.

My local horizon, even from a 2nd floor balcony, was high, so I could not see the sun until an hour after sunrise ~ 07.40. However, after that time I started snapping happily away. One good thing about photographing the sun, it is the one field of astro photography where there is no shortage of light! I decided that a set of photographs every 15mins was adequate. I took several at the time of mid-transit 08.31. From then on the transit seemed almost anti-climatic, I kept thinking that this was the last Venus transit I would see. I did sneak a few peeks through the welding glass, the disk of Venus was distinct. Again, as at the 2004 transit, I was surprised at how big it was. From Pattaya I could see the egress, and I managed to take some photos of this terminal phase of the transit, but my optical setup was not sufficient to allow for accurate timings.

For the final half hour of the transit the sun was too high to view from my balcony, so I had to come down to the street to take my photos. My photographing the sun provided some minor amusement for the Thais.

Overall, the transit was as good as it could have been. I saw it, both visually and photographically. And, I saw all of it I could expect to see from my location. In total, about four hours of transit. I am content with that. I recall, many decades ago in High School, thinking about this transit. I recall wondering what the transit would be like. Now I have seen both. One of my goals.

June 6 GMT+7 (morning)  12.93 N  100.88 E  25m
ingress exterior: 05:12:07 ingress interior: 05:29:57
Sunrise: 05.53
transit centre: 08:30:59
egress interior: 11:32:29 egress exterior: 11:49:51

Ray Bradbury 1920-2012 RIP

I was shocked and saddened to read yesterday of the death of the fantasy and science fiction author Ray Bradbury. This in itself was surprising as I was not a great fan of his work, his strong fantasy bent was not mine, however, many of his works, even though I had not read them for many years, affected me strongly. His "Martian Chronicles", vastly entertaining, yet rather silly accounts of the human settlement of Mars. The story of a boy and a circus "Something Wicked this Way Comes". "R is for Rocket" and "S is for Space", his collection of entertainingly vivid stories.

He had a long and successful life, respected by all. His longevity led me to believe that he would always be there. Sady, very sadly, this is not the case. You are remembered and are missed. You brought happiness, entertainment, and imagination to generations of children and adults. Ray Douglas Bradbury RIP.