Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


Tonight, HBO will be premiering a new film version of Fahrenheit 451, one that stars Michael B. Jordan as “fireman” Guy Monag and Michael Shannon as his boss, Captain Beatty.  If one may forgive the expression, it’s a hotly awaited production.

That said, regardless of whether the HBO film lives up to the hype or not, don’t forget to read the book that inspired it!

Written by Ray Bradbury and originally published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 takes place in, what was then, the near future.  It’s a world where the citizens are too shallow to realize that they’re living under an authoritarian regime.  Everyone is kept docile through the use of pharmaceuticals and there is no culture beyond what’s televised on the “parlor walls.”  (Actually, Bradbury’s near future doesn’t sound that different from our present.)

It’s a world where books are forbidden.  Of course, some citizens still insist on trying to hide books in their attics and their basements but, fortunately for the government, there’s always somebody willing to inform.  Whenever it’s discovered that’s someone’s been hoarding books, the firemen are deployed.  Of course, these fireman aren’t used to put out fires.  Instead, they burn books.  Fahrenheit 451, we learn early on, is the temperature at which paper will burn.

Guy Montag is one of the firemen.  Though he can’t always explain why, he doesn’t feel satisfied with his “perfect” life.  Even when his wife Mildred survives an overdose of sleeping pills, Montag can hardly be bothered to react.  Guy has started to have doubts.  When he meets a teenage girl named Clarisse, he’s stunned when she says that she doesn’t care about “how.”  Instead, she cares about “why.”  Guy finds himself intrigued by Clarisse, even if he still finds himself wondering if she’s going to inform on him.

And then there’s Captain Beatty!  Beatty is Montag’s boss but at times, he almost seems to be encouraging Montag to doubt the system.  Beatty even reveals that he used to be an avid reader himself.  Is he sincere when he encourages Montag to read or does he have ulterior motives of his own?

Fahrenheit 451 holds up remarkably well.  True, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and things slow down a bit whenever Montag interacts with Faber, a former English professor.  But, much like Orwell’s 1984, the book’s central theme remains relevant today.  Right now, there are people on both the Right and the Left who would happily burn books if it meant doing away with ideas and opinions with which they disagree.  (I imagine even some of our self-righteous centrists would be more than willing to burn a book or two in the name of bipartisanship.)  Democracy dies not in darkness but in ignorance and the best way to keep a population ignorant is to not only burn anything that challenges the state but to also ridicule the very idea of thinking for one’s self.  That is the society that Bradbury portrays in Fahrenheit 451 and it’s one that feels very much like our own.

One final note: I found my copy of this book at Half-Price Books last December.  The copy that I found once belonged to a student named Ashley and she filled the margins with notes about her friends Taylor and Sidney.  At the start of the book, they were best friends.  About halfway through, she suddenly hated both of them but, by the end of the book, they were friends again.  Yay!

Altered Carbon, Book Review by Case Wright


Altered-Carbon-bc

I grew up loving pulpy detective stories of the 40s.  Sam Spade and The Thin Man were my heroes from another time.  They dealt in visceral reality and tarnished ideals, but still meted justice to the deserving.  However, because of the mores of the time period, the more explicit side could only be implied.

“Altered Carbon” takes the Gumshoe genre mixes in the concept of a Ronin (A Japanese samurai who no longer has a liege lord and becomes a sword for hire), has the mystery take place hundreds of years in the future, but still keeps the setting of the Rainy City (Seattle, My Home) and Bay City (Future San Francisco).  What results is greatest pulp detective story that I have ever read.  The story touches upon issues of morality and our technology stripping us naked of our humanity.

In the future, we are able to download our memories onto flash drives and re-upload them into “Sleeves” (bodies grown or bought).  Crime is punished by you losing your body and putting your consciousness on a server where it will remain for as long as 200+ years, making you return to a body not your own and family scattered in time.  We have colonized worlds throughout the galaxy and corporations and the super rich rule us all.  The wealthy are able to have unlimited bodies to download into, giving them immortality and total perversion.

Takeshi Kovac is taken out of storage by an extremely wealthy man – Lorenz Bancroft- who is over 300 years old because he wants to find out who murdered him.  I’m going to be cautious about spoiling anything in this excellent book, but I will tease some more as to why it should be read.

Kovac was chosen because he a former “Envoy” (hyper-trained marine of the future).  He searches through brothels both high and low end to solve the murder.  He battles pimps, robots, enhanced humans, and virtual torture.  Be warned, it has the steamiest sex scenes I have ever read in my entire life.  If sex, violence, and mystery doesn’t interest, keep browsing, but you’re making a mistake.

Book Review: The Man With The Golden Gun by Ian Fleming


(SPOILERS)

On August 12th, 1964, Ian Fleming died in Canterbury.  He was 56 years old.

Like his famous creation, James Bond, Ian Fleming was both a heavy drinker and a chainsmoker.  Unlike Bond, he suffered from heart disease.  In 1961, he had his first known heart attack and his health was always precarious afterward.  It is said that his last words were to the ambulance drivers: “I am sorry to trouble you chaps. I don’t know how you get along so fast with the traffic on the roads these days.”

Eight months after Fleming’s death, his final James Bond novel, The Man With The Golden Gun, was published.  (One more collection of short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, would follow in 1966.)

The Man With The Golden Gun opens with a brainwashed Bond attempting to assassinate M and ends with Bond turning down a knighthood and again declaring his loyalty to Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  In between, Bond is tasked with tracking down and killing the notorious assassin, Pistols Scaramanga.  (Scaramanga is known for using a golden gun.)  Bond once again goes undercover, assuming the name Mark Hazzard and working his way into Scaramanga’s operation.  Felix Leiter makes another appearance and, by the end of the book, it looks like Bond might even find happiness with his secretary, Mary Goodnight.

It’s an unfortunate book.  Apparently, Fleming had finished his first draft but was still in the process of editing when he died.  As a result, The Man With The Golden Gun has all the flaws that you would associate with an early draft.  The plot is thin.  There’s little nuance or subtlety to the dialogue.  Bond comes across as being rather dull, showing little of the wit or personality that was present in both On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice.  Scaramanga is a bit more interesting but he can’t compare to the great Bond villains like Blofeld or Goldfinger.  There’s really not much else to say about The Man With The Golden Gun.  It’s a sad way to end Fleming’s Bond series but, at the same time, it doesn’t diminish everything that Fleming accomplished in the previous novels.

Anyway, since I’ve reviewed all of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, I guess now is the time to rate them all, from best to worst.  Not included in the list below are the two collections of short stories that Fleming wrote, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy.

From best to worst:

  1. On Her Majesty Secret Service (1963)
  2. From Russia With Love (1957)
  3. Moonraker (1955)
  4. Goldfinger (1959)
  5. Dr. No (1958)
  6. You Only Live Twice (1964)
  7. Casino Royale (1953)
  8. Live and Let Die (1954)
  9. The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
  10. Diamonds are Forever (1956)
  11. Thunderball (1961)
  12. The Man With The Golden Gun (1965)

Despite Fleming’s death, Bond would live on.  Not only would there be the films but other writers would continue Bond’s literary adventures.  Later this year, I’ll start in on the non-Fleming Bond novels.  Until then, I hope everyone has enjoyed this look back at Ian Fleming’s original novels!

Bond, as visualized by Ian Fleming.

Book Review: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming


(MAJOR SPOILERS)

You Only Live Twice, the 11th James Bond novel, opens 8 months after the tragic ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Tracy Bond is dead.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld has vanished.

And James Bond is no longer the man who readers thought they knew.

Over the course of the previous ten novels, one thing that remained consistent about Bond was his ruthless and unsentimental approach to his job.  For the first 9 books, Bond was the man who reacted to Vesper Lynd’s suicide by coldly announcing, “The bitch is dead.”  Then, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond finally fell in love and married, just to have Tracy murdered an hour later.  The first few chapters of  You Only Live Twice introduces us to a Bond who has become a shell of his previous self.  The man who used to always be in control of every situation is now drinking so heavily that it’s causing him to screw up at his job.  The once committed professional is now rarely in his office and, when he’s summoned to a meeting with M, he actually shows up late.

M has decided that he only has one option.  It’s time to demand Bond’s resignation.  The scene where M says that he has no choice but to fire his best agent is a shocking one.  For 10 books, Bond has been M’s best agent.  M is almost a paternal figure to Bond.  To read M casually talking about dismissing Bond not only shows us how far Bond has fallen but also reminds us that there’s no room for sentiment in intelligence work.

Fortunately, before going through with his plan to fire Bond, M speaks to a psychologist who explains that Bond is suffering from shock and that, in order to become the man that he once was, he needs to be given a task that will restore his confidence, an “impossible” mission.  If Bond succeeds, it’ll be the first step to dealing with his grief.  If Bond fails, his career will be over.

That’s how Bond eventually ends up in Japan, trying to convince the head of Japan’s secret service, Tiger Tanaka, to share intelligence with the British.  Tanaka says that he’s willing to do so if Bond does him a favor.  The mysterious Dr. Guntram Shatterhand has moved into an ancient castle and has set up his own “suicide garden.”  Tanaka wants Bond to kill Shatterhand.  Once Bond realizes that Shatterhand is actually Blofeld, he’s more than happy to do the favor.

Of course, it won’t be easy to penetrate Shatterhand’s castle.  However, with the help of actress Kissy Suzuki, Bond disguises himself as a mute Japanese miner named Taro Todoroki and heads out to get his revenge.

You Only Live Twice is one of the stranger Bond novels.  Far more than any of the other Fleming books, You Only Live Twice deals with Bond’s psychology.  In fact, the story is often so twisted that it’s tempting to wonder if perhaps the entire thing is some sort of fever dream.  Much like a German silent film, it sometimes seems as if the book’s bizarre and outlandish plot is actually a reflection of Bond’s twisted mind.  We’ve never seen Bond as self-destructive as he is at the start of this book and it’s probably not a coincidence that his mission leads him to a literal suicide garden.  When Bond transforms himself into Taro Todoroki, it allows him to leave behind the baggage of being Bond and only by denying his identity can he finally defeat Blofeld.  As for Blofeld, he’s such a bigger-than-life villain in this book that it sometimes tempting to think that he may have leapt fully formed out of Bond’s damaged psyche. Blofeld is the opponent that both Bond and Fleming needed.

And just as Bond found freedom in his new identity, it seems that it did the same thing for Ian Fleming as a writer.  There’s a liveliness to Fleming’s prose that suggests that he actually enjoyed writing this odd chapter of Bond’s life.

And then there’s that ending!  Despite the fact that I already gave a spoiler warning, I’m not going to reveal the ending because it’s one of the most shocking and unexpected endings in the history of the Bond novels.

Tomorrow, we finish up our look at Ian Fleming’s Bond novels with The Man With The Golden Gun.

Book Review: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming


(MAJOR SPOILERS)

“The World Is Not Enough”

— The Bond Family Motto, as revealed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

First published in 1963, Ian Fleming’s 10th James Bond novel opens with Bond in a familiar situation.  He is back at the Casino Royale, both to gamble and to visit Vesper Lynd’s grave.  Much as he did after being tortured by Le Chiffre, Bond is considering resigning from Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  However, in this case, Bond’s desire to quit is not motivated by petulance or wounded pride.

Instead, it’s due to frustration.  Bond has spent the past year searching for any evidence that SPECTRE and Blofeld survived the events of Thunderball.  Bond is convinced that SPECTRE no longer exists but M disagrees.  Feeling that he’s wasting his time, Bond has even written out an official resignation letter.  From the minute that we read Bond’s self-satisfactory resignation letter (along with Bond’s thoughts as to how M would react to each passage), we realize that, after two novels in which Ian Fleming seemed to be bored with his most famous creation, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is going to be a return to form for both Bond and Fleming.

As opposed to continuing to search for Blofeld, Bond is much more interested in getting to know Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo.  When Bond first sees Tracy, she’s boldly racing past him in her car.  The second time, he rescues her from the social embarrassment of revealing that she doesn’t have the money to cover her gambling debts.  The third time, he prevents her from committing suicide in the ocean.  It’s only after all of this that Bond learns that Tracy is the daughter of Marc-Ange Draco, Europe’s biggest crime lord.  Draco and Bond discover they have a lot in common.  They both operate in the shadows and they both want to protect Tracy.

That’s right, James Bond is in love!  Over the course of Fleming’s novels, James Bond falls in love three times.  The first time was with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and it ended with Vesper’s suicide.  The second time was with Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever and it ended when Tiffany left him for an American.  The third, and final time, is with Tracy.  Just as he did with Vesper, Bond eventually asks Tracy to marry him.  This time, Bond and Tracy actually do get married but the marriage only lasts an hour before ending in tragedy.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features Fleming’s darkest ending since From Russia With Love concluded with Bond seemingly dropping dead in a hotel room.

What makes the ending so shocking is that, up until those final few passages, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is such an enjoyable and almost carefree adventure story, a throwback to Dr. No and Goldfinger.  With the help of Draco, Bond discovers that Blofeld is currently hiding out in Switzerland.  However, ultimately, it’s Blofeld’s own vanity that exposes him.  Blofeld writes to the College of Arms, asking for confirmation that he is actually descended from royalty.  Assuming the identity of genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, Bond travels to Switzerland and uncovers Blofeld’s latest plot.  It’s actually a pretty silly scheme, one that involves brainwashing British girls to return home and destroy Britain’s agricultural economy.

But it doesn’t matter how silly Blofeld’s plot may be.  Indeed, the plot is so over the top that it’s impossible not to enjoy it.  In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fleming seems to have rediscovered his passion for not the character of Bond but also for M.  (One of the book’s best scenes occurs when Bond visits M on Christmas morning.)  This is a fun read, without any of the slow spots that were present in Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, while Fleming was writing his book in Jamaica, Dr. No was being filmed nearby.  Not only does Fleming work a winking reference to Ursula Andress into On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but he also revealed that, like Sean Connery, Bond was Scottish.

All in all, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the best of Fleming’s original novels.

Book Review: The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming


First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is easily the most controversial of all of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels.

The Spy Who Loved Me was not the first of the Bond novels to keep James Bond off-stage for the majority of the story.  From Russia With Love, one of the best of Fleming’s novels, keeps 007 offstage until about halfway through the book.  The difference is that, even before he makes his first appearance, everyone else in From Russia With Love is obsessed with Bond.  As well, From Russia With Love dealt with a world that Fleming knew well, the world of international intelligence operations.

The Spy Who Loved Me, on the other hand, is mostly about a young Canadian woman named Vivienne Michel who spends most of the novel discussing her background until, eventually, she finds herself being held prisoner by two cartoonish American gangsters named — I kid you not — Sluggsy and Horror.  Fortunately, James Bond eventually shows up and rescues her.  Vivienne not only narrates the novel but Ian Fleming even gave her co-writing credit on the title page.

In the book’s prologue, Fleming explains:

I found what follows lying on my desk one morning. As you will see, it appears to be the first person story of a young woman, evidently beautiful and not unskilled in the arts of love. According to her story, she appears to have been involved, both perilously and romantically, with the same James Bond whose secret service exploits I myself have written from time to time. With the manuscript was a note signed ‘Vivienne Michel’ assuring me that what she had written was ‘purest truth and from the depths of her heart’. I was interested in this view of James Bond, through the wrong end of the telescope so to speak, and after obtaining clearance for certain minor infringements of the Official Secrets Act I have much pleasure in sponsoring its publication.

So, The Spy Who Loved Me is a bit of an experiment.  That Fleming often grew tired of Bond as a character is well-documented.  Not only did Fleming have to come up with a new adventure every year but Bond himself couldn’t change from being who he had been since the early 50s, a serious-minded civil servant who occasionally saved the world.  With this book, Fleming largely used Bond as a plot device, a deus ex machina.

Instead, the novel is dominated by Vivienne.  Oddly, for someone who wants to tell us all about James Bond, Vivienne spends a good deal of time focusing on her life before she ended up at that hotel.  We find out about her first boyfriend, an insincere British boy named Derek and also about her second boyfriend, an autocratic German named Karl.  The scenes with Derek and Karl almost feel like a parody of the coming-of-age genre.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t compelling scenes to be found in The Spy Who Loved Me.  Fleming was too good of a storyteller for anything that he wrote not to have some sort of value.  But, at the same time, it’s still obvious that the story is being written by a British man in his 50s who is trying really, really hard to sound like a Canadian woman in her 20s.

And then — oh my God!  Sluggsy and Horror show up!  I’m sorry but there’s no way that you can take anyone named either Sluggsy or Horror seriously.  They are, without a doubt, the weakest villains since Diamonds are Forever gave us the Spang Brothers.

On the plus side, Horror did apparently inspire Jaws, the henchman played by Richard Kiel in the film versions of both this book and Moonraker.  And, even if the experiment didn’t quite work, it’s still interesting to see Bond through someone else’s eyes.

Fleming was so dissatisfied with this novel that, when he sold the film rights, he specifically required that the film not use any material from the book.  While The Spy Who Loved Me may not be Fleming’s strongest work, he would follow it up with the last great Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

We’ll look at that one tomorrow.

 

Book Review: Thunderball by Ian Fleming


After the publication of Goldfinger in 1959, Ian Fleming’s next installment in the adventures of James Bond would be a short story collection, 1960’s For Your Eyes Only.  It would not be until 1961 that another Bond novel would be published.

That novel was Thunderball.

Thunderball originally began life as a screenplay.  In 1959, Ian Fleming met with producer Kevin McClory to discuss the possibility of McClory producing a Bond film.  Working with McClory, Fleming developed not only the basic storyline of Thunderball but also created the villains who, in the 60s, would replace the Russians as being Bond’s main villains.  It was while working with McClory that Fleming first created both SPECTRE and its enigmatic leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Ultimately, Fleming and McClory had a falling out, putting a temporary end to McClory’s plans to produce the first James Bond film.  Instead, the first Bond film would be produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli and Fleming would turn the screenplay into a novel.  This led to problems when McClory and screenwriter Jack Wittingham sued Fleming, claiming that they owned the rights to Thunderball’s story.  As a result of a settlement, McClory won the right to produce the eventual film version of Thunderball, with Broccoli and Saltzman received executive producer credits.

McClory would later claim that, as the producer of Thunderball, he had the right to produce other James Bond films as well.  This led to several years of lawsuits, during which time McClory remade Thunderball as Never Say Never Again.  Reportedly, he was trying to raise money for a third remake when he died in 2006.  (Later, the McClory estate would sell the rights to Thunderball, SPECTRE, and Blofeld to MGM.  The end result was SPECTRE, a film that totally wasted one of Fleming’s most intriguing villains.)

Reading Thunderball, it’s easy to see that Fleming was thinking in terms of cinema when he came up with the story.  Most of the action takes place in the always photogenic Bahamas.  There are lengthy action scenes, involving planes being hijacked and underwater combat.  The storyline, which features two atomic missiles being stolen by SPECTRE’s Emilio Largo, is tailor-made for the movies.

Thunderball even starts with a lengthy prologue, the type that should be familiar to anyone who has seen any of the Bond films.  M sends Bond to a health spa, where Bond ends up getting targeted by an international criminal named Count Lippe.  The health spa scenes are among the most enjoyable in the book.  Not only is Bond forced to drop all of his “bad” habits but afterward, he actually discovers that he does feel healthier and more active.  Soon, he becomes a bit of a health fanatic and gets on the nerves of almost everyone who works with him with all of his “good” habits.  It’s easy to imagine that Fleming was having a little bit of fun at the expense of all the critics who claimed that Bond was  somehow a bad role model.  Of course, by the next novel, Bond was back to all of his old habits.

As for the rest of Thunderball, this was a book that I wanted to like more than I actually did.  After Bond gets finished at the health spa, he gets sent to the Bahamas track down the missiles and it becomes a rather standard thriller.  It doesn’t take long for Bond to both figure out that Emilo Largo stole the missiles and to seduce Largo’s mistress, Domino.  Felix Leiter makes another welcome appearance but, on the whole, it all feels rather slow and uninspired.

However, Thunderball will always be an important work in the Bond canon because it introduced the world to Blofeld.  Though Bond and Blofeld never meet (that would have to wait for later novels), the book’s best chapters deal with Blofeld’s background and the way he manages SPECTRE.  As is typical of many of Fleming’s villains, Blofeld is described as being someone who does not drink, does not smoke, and who has no interest in sex.  A reoccurring theme in all of Fleming’s Bond novels is that a man with a certain amount of minor vices is far more trustworthy than a man with none.  It’s a good thing that Bond eventually recovers from going to that health spa because otherwise, he never would have been able to defeat SPECTRE’s nefarious schemes.

Fleming would follow Thunderball with one of his most controversial novels, The Spy Who Loved Me.  We’ll look at that one tomorrow!