Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bond Goes Goth – You Only Live Twice (novel)

Ian Fleming wrote three James Bond novels that included the evil Ernst Blofeld: “Thunderball”, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “You Only Live Twice”. These three novels are interesting because they present James Bond with a complete story arc, one that ends in the final book “You Only Live Twice”.

Most people are familiar with the film version of this book. James Bond goes to Japan, finds Blofeld in a hallowed out volcano and launching a space ship that eats up space capsules. Much of the look of that film ended up spoofed in “Austin Powers”, it’s iconic James Bond at his most swinging 60’s.

The book couldn’t be further from the film. Part of this has to do with the placement of the book versus the placement of the films. In the film version, “You Only Live Twice” is the first time James Bond comes face to face with Blofeld. But in the novels, Bond faced him in Switzerland during “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. That book ends in tragedy, and that tragedy carries over into the next novel. James Bond is off of his game, he’s making mistakes and endangering his missions. M is at a loss, but he comes up with a solution. He’ll put Bond in a no win scenario, and it will force Bond to come to his senses or die.

At first the no win scenario seems benign, decidedly anti-007. He has to go to Japan and convince the Japanese secret service to share their intelligence stream coming from Russia (the book was written in 1964). Britain is feeling left out because the US has access to all this great information. This is a diplomacy issue, something that Bond does not excel at, and it involves a culture he knows nothing about. This is his last shot so he can’t fail, but it seems impossible, especially when he gets to know the decidedly cool “Tiger” Tanaka – head of the secret service.

In the end Tanaka is willing to consider an exchange, but he wants Bond to perform an assassination for it. Turns out there is a mysterious doctor who has purchased an old feudal castle and turned it into a suicide haven. Its garden is filled with poisonous plants, venomous insects and snakes, bubbling pools of sulfuric mud and your typical pool of piranha instead of Koi. While it is meeting a need, the Japanese have the highest suicide rate in the world, Tanaka sees it as a cancer that must be purged. Bond is set up to take down the doctor and his castle of death. You get one guess to figure out who the crazed doctor turns out to be.

This book is many things, but it is not a James Bond adventure that most readers will be used to. Ian Fleming’s novels are not as fast paced and action packed as the films anyway, but this book comes across more like a travelogue with a dour and grim atmosphere.

Death permeates the entire book, from Bond lamenting over the death of Tereza, up to Blofeld’s perfect castle for suicide. The book even contains an obituary for James Bond, as well as a rebirth of sorts in the last chapter. The mission is hopeless, and Bond begins to feel that he will not survive it. This makes for a bleak novel that plays it very cold and very straight – just like a katana sword.

For all of that, it’s still James Bond. He still drinks hard, smokes like a train, beds nearly any girl who is willing and is deadly cool when it comes down to the wire. It just feels like a lot of the lightness and flippant nature of the character is gone. In its place is a man broken and is facing death.

If you look at the Blofeld series as a story arc, it is obvious that James Bond grows up in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. He gets married at the end! But here is the first time where Bond faces death at every turn and even goes into an underworld of sorts to face a supreme devil in the form of Bloefeld. It’s an ending that seems fitting not only for Bond but for the series as a whole. The next book in the series, “The Man with the Golden Gun” was never completely finished and the result is a lesser novel of the series. For me “You Only Live Twice” is a fitting end to an interesting literary character – especially since it is an atypical adventure for the British agent.

Have you read “You Only Live Twice”? What did you think of it? Do you think an author can and should take a chance with a well-known character and create something so different from audience expectations? Can you think of an example that worked?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Beginning? – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (novel)

Ever wonder how to set up a multiple book series? Why not study one of the most popular and famous series in print – Harry Potter. Now I know a lot of writers who look down on J.K. Rowling and her series, but I find them to be great reads and constantly entertaining and compelling. I think she did a good job not only telling her story, but laying it out. Reading the series through a second time I’ve been focusing on the way she constructs her tale. It goes without saying that I’m going to go into spoiler territory here. I’m also assuming you are familiar with most of the names and terminology here.

The fourth book in a seven book series, “Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire” (I’ll continue calling it “Goblet” for short), is the point where Rowling changes everything about the series. What started out as a playful series of adventures and fun takes its first real step into darkness. The most obvious are the death of student near the end of the book. In addition you have the return of the greatest force of evil in the series, now back to full power and prepared to wage war on the forces of goodness. But let’s take a look at some of the details that Rowling uses beyond these obvious points.

The first few chapters deal with Harry and the Weasley family enjoying the Quidditch World Cup. On the surface these scenes serve the basic function of providing Quidditch action in a book that won’t have any during the school year. But it also expands the scope of Rowling’s world in an entertaining way. We see that there are magical societies outside of the ones we are familiar with in England. This wider view not only fleshes out the world, but also makes the stakes of the later books higher. We understand that Voldemort’s desire for control of the magical world extends beyond the British Isles and into a larger world.

The other key element in this sequence is the appearance of The Death Eaters, Lord Voldemort’s followers. Up to this point, they’ve been kept as a vague idea, something that happened long ago. But we see them in action here, and Harry as well as the reader gets a sense of the fear they can generate. And when the Dark Mark appears and causes a frenzy of fear – things become even clearer.

At school Harry first hears about the wizards who battle the Dark Arts, called Aurors. These are embodied by Mad Eye Moody, a scarred, paranoid and dangerous wizard who teaches at the school. Moody in this book is a key element. Not only does he represent the tolls of battle against the dark arts, but he also shows the kind of will and personality needed in a time of war – something none of the children have ever considered. And beneath that is the secret that Moody hides – he’s not the real Moody at all, but an imposter. He’s a dark wizard working for Voldemort and doing his best to deliver Harry Potter to his master. This undermining of a dangerous Auror shows us very clearly how dangerous things are about to become.

It is the climax of this book that changes the tone of the series. The moment Cedric is killed in the cemetery nothing is ever the same for Harry Potter. He can’t turn aside from facing down Voldemort. He can’t ignore the consequences of his actions. In many ways, when Wormtail stabs Harry with the knife, he kills the child, and the adult Harry Potter is born.

The last chapter of the book is called “The Beginning” and it is fitting in many ways. This book marks the beginning of the war story that takes the rest of the series to complete. This marks the beginning of adult Harry and the final stages of his hero’s journey. From this book forward there is little time to be a child any more. The world has become too dangerous, and that danger is focused on Harry Potter.

What do you think of Rowling’s approach to this vital section of her Harry Potter story? Any other elements you can think of that reflect the major change in storytelling in this series? What did you think of this book in comparison to the others?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pants on Fire – Thank you For Smoking

The success of a book like “Thank you for Smoking” rests on the shoulders of creating a solid antihero. And if anything Nick Naylor is an antihero. He lies for a living. His job is to go onto television and radio and spin attacks against the tobacco industry into positives. He uses shaky statistics, charisma and a quick wit to keep twisting the attacks back onto the attackers, and he’s very good at it.

Christopher Buckley has created a very interesting character, one that is despicable and yet at the same time likable. Nick knows what he’s doing is morally wrong, but he’s so darn good at it, that the challenge seems to feed him. He rises to each attack, many seemingly hopeless and manages to get out of the predicament each time.

As a reader you keep turning the pages to see what new challenge Nick will face next and how he’ll get around it. He’s on Oprah with a young man who’s got cancer, and who was inspired to smoke by Joe Camel. How do you turn that into a positive – Nick does it. The senator from Vermont wants to put the skull and crossbones on cigarette packs. Nick turns it into an issue with Vermont cheddar cheese. He’s sent to Hollywood to get cigarettes into more movies and shown in a positive light. The whole situations provides a hilarious look at product placement in films.

The book as a whole is very cynical and black hearted, but it’s consistently amusing and had a few laugh out loud moments. It’s the character of Nick that keeps it interesting and fun. And even when I felt that the whole thing was getting stretched just a bit too thin, Buckly starts to wrap up his tale.

All in all it’s a good study on how to make an entertaining and interesting antihero.

Have you read, “Thank you for Smoking”? What did you think? Who is your favorite antihero character?