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  1. The Impossible Job: Zero Minus Ten

    The following article is the opinion of one individual and may not represent the views of the owner or other team members of CommanderBond.net.

    “If those Bond curmudgeons didn’t read the books for the sole purpose of picking them apart, they might see there’s some pretty good stuff in them. Look, I’m not Ian Fleming and never will be.”

    -Raymond Benson
    The CBn Interview

    Hands up, I admit it; I’m a Bond curmudgeon (whatever one of those is). Curmudgeonly in many things. But, credit where it’s due, Jacques Stewartand more credit than I’ve previously felt necessary to give him, Raymond Benson recently gave an exceedingly tolerant interview to CBn and this set me wondering whether, in a determination to believe that there is no other Bond writer but Fleming, I’ve misunderstood the motives, both Mr Benson’s and those commissioning his work, behind producing six Bond books between 1997 and 2002.

    In preparation of something else, I’m tearing my way through the Bensons and have wondered: perhaps I just misjudged the lad; perhaps he wasn’t quite that bad. I suppose the ultimate conclusion is that I’ve seen worse.

    Given the apparent intent behind this series of continuation books, about which Raymond Benson is remarkably and most entertainingly candid, I pose one question: are these literary Bond, or are they novelisations of as yet unseen Bond movies? Given the interview, it appears to have been a deliberate move to stay in sync with the films; effectively try to piggyback on their success, rather than on the success of Bond as a literary hero.

    I’m still not too sure of the answer, but let that be the driving force behind what is to come, the issue to return to. I guess that raising the question means that I’m still not sold on the idea that they present any sort of extension to what Ian Fleming was doing; rather, they are an “unofficial” adjunct to the Eon series. If one starts from that position, the books may be more credible. But even then, not without their problems.

    Please consider this: I came to Bond via the books, not the films. The films are (very much) secondary; they’re generic action pictures with some high spots. They’re not directed with any particular flair, and the dialogue generally comes across as serviceable. Many are terribly lazy, relying on audience expectation of formula to get away with a number of lame ideas. This, I appreciate, is a minority access point. The Bond market is one where the vast majority are attracted by these incredibly successful films. A trite point, maybe, but I would ask for tolerance in my reaction to Mr. Benson’s style. I came to expect the literary Bond to mean certain things. I have come to expect the Bond film style to mean certain different things. Overall, he may have been more successful in replicating the one that the other.

    I’m only going to refer to the original stories; the novelisations answer their own question and the short pieces don’t really help address the core issue. And if I start banging on about “Fleming did/did not do XYZ” feel free to hurl things. Or just hurl. But, again, I’d ask for a pause for thought. Perhaps it is time to grow up, move away from “He’s not Ian Fleming so he can’t do this” to “This is Raymond Benson, and this is what he can do…” As far as literary Bond is concerned, just as with the heirs of Connery, trying to be the original is the impossible job, the improbable job even. Perhaps it’s time to judge it on its own merits, such as they appear to be.

    But even in that, a question. Was Mr Benson, in drawing so much on Fleming’s characters, which appears to be a decision he took rather than one imposed on him, inviting the comparison anyway? If not intentionally, in writing about characters and incidents originally devised by Fleming, and described by Fleming, in seeking continuity of “Bondworld”, was the principal achievement by such action merely feeding ammunition to those who would deride him? If he had not actively sought comparison to Fleming, and I believe him when he states he did not, tactically it may still have been better to leave Fleming’s material alone. It is difficult to (say) read the Draco of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and then the Draco of Never Dream of Dying and not compare. Accordingly, it’s a fundamental problem with the Benson approach that he would not have us consider him as Mr Fleming, which is a fair request, and yet insist on overloading with Fleming characters and references and incidents; these two positions don’t appear justifiable. In so relying on Fleming, comparison was inevitable. Difficult to escape it. Strategically, it may have been better to create more and rely less; the opportunity for unfavourable echoes of the past may have been significantly reduced.

    If the apparent intent of the publisher was to shadow the films (female M, the obligatory Boothroyd and the promotion of Moneypenny to a substantial character; the cars), would it have been wiser (and easier to escape the looming shadow of Fleming) for Mr. Benson not to have decided personally to use so much Fleming and to have stuck to film characterization, abandoning references to the past? In his desire to create continuity both to Fleming (which does not appear to have been the desire of the publisher, if the interview is accurate) and to the films, did the books merely fall between the two media and satisfy neither? Were they written by someone who knew too much? Would it just have been better to go one way or the other and not both? Were they, ultimately, overambitious?

    I’m just throwing out questions, but it strikes me that the more successful of the Benson books are those that best balance these two different concepts; where they go too far either way, there’s a collapse. Either the style becomes exceedingly detached reportage, as if describing scenes played out on a screen, at which point as a literary exercise the book is terribly weak, or the plot starts to turn on incidents buried in Fleming, at which point there’s a bit of a sense of showing off to a few mates. Damned difficult to balance the two; by and large I believe him to have succeeded when the books are viewed as a whole (save one) but I return to the initial question; is that combination really the continuation of the Fleming series…?

    Without wishing to appear too pretentious, but for the sake of comparison within themselves, I’ll advance piffle some suggestions on plot, style (references to He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named are unavoidable because there are invitations to compare), the villain, the girl and try to answer the question – film or book?

    Note: Inevitably, this will contain substantial spoilers.

    Zero Minus Ten

    The Plot

    Strengths: There’s genuine entertainment here. More than the recent films, the plot seems fairly consistent and it’s fun to see Bond working for some “bad” guys. There’s a patent sense of urgency to the conclusion, and genuine panic for Bond when he is abandoned in Australia shortly before the denouement; the only man in the world with the knowledge to stop things and he can’t. Obviously he’s going to get out of it, but whilst the “walkabout” is ongoing one does actually care how, and that he does. Structurally, placing that period in the wilderness at a point when the clock is already ticking definitely works. Query whether it makes the ending a bit rushed, but this detachment from the countdown is a definite highlight.

    The background to the plot obviously dates the story but I don’t see a particular problem in knowing that in 1997 James Bond saved Hong Kong from a nuclear explosion; indeed, to watch recordings of the handover ceremony and imagine the desperate fight in Victoria Harbour going on at the same time – fun. On basic plot alone, this is well worth a read.

    Weaknesses: There seems to be a hell of a lot of padding. The mahjong game takes forever and seems directionless (see below) as does the Triad initiation ceremony (which doesn’t really appear to add anything, and interrupts the flow of the action for a fair old while). Perhaps these are more style issues, but there’s a detachment from the thrust of the narrative that makes them stand out. Story wise, although it’s novel to have Thackeray die twice, once Li Xu Nan becomes, albeit with reluctance on both sides, Bond’s “ally”, it’s evident what the twist will be. All the other characters have been exhausted or killed off or have only had a tenth of the attention paid to Thackeray paid to them, and there’s nobody left to be the villain.

    The style

    Strengths: So terribly, terribly good at “place”; the descriptions of Hong Kong and Kowloon and China (especially) and Macau are vibrant and display a genuine enthusiasm to present detailed research. The Triad ceremony, although I have reservations about its structure and ultimate necessity, is a key example of this effort. Other issues – the Boothroyd scene, the largely “family” atmosphere of SIS, although there is some sparkiness to the new M – seem to be style points imposed on Mr Benson and in so far as these are intended to reflect similar scenes in the Eon films, he can count them as a stylistic achievement. I can’t stand the Q branch scenes in the films, but that’s a pet peeve; what Mr. Benson does here tremendously well – throughout all his books – is capture the spirit of those exchanges, worthwhile or not.

    Indeed, it’s in reflecting the Eon style rather than the Fleming style that the book is at its best. Consider Bond’s entrance to “Shamelady”; irritation at the coy fan-boyishness of the name aside, he arrives home, not via the literary Bond route of driving up to the gates in a souped up American car and sitting in the dark to contemplate his sorry lot, but by performing a HALO jump into the bay. That’s how James Bond comes home. That is fab – can’t you just hear the Bond theme going full pelt at that moment? Such a monumentally outrageous entrance by film-Bond that it out film-Bonds film-Bond (and as the opening, is a very clear indication of the nature of the book… so literary Bond or film? Film). Great fun.

    Weaknesses The first major weakness is that a lot of it appears terribly mechanical, as if there were certain ingredients to get in there regardless of how well they are folded into the enterprise. The mahjong game is a key example here; Bond plays the villain at something, the villain cheats. Likewise the Triad ceremony; some lengthy of sinister foreigners doing sinister things (and whilst it’s hugely entertaining that ultimately it’s an Englishman doing the most sinister stuff, which goes beyond way Fleming’s limitations!) these two incidents just appear to be shoved in there.

    Now, obviously, Fleming was not averse to a bit of travelogue, but consider where it is most successful, and why. Much of You Only Live Twice is, indeed, descriptions of showing Whitey back in Twickenham how funny and suspicious in their blood-guzzling and chanting ways the foreigners can be, but once the plot is under way, once Bond has seen the Shatterhands’ photos, we then proceed with plot, uninterrupted by any such further digressions. Where it’s unsuccessful is in Diamonds are Forever, where it’s plot, then lengthy description, then more plot, bit more description and the thing comes across as disjointed. And that’s the problem here; the story of Zero Minus Ten is getting underway, and then it’s interrupted by the long mahjong game, and then it gets going again, and then it’s interrupted by a long Triad ceremony. And then it gets going again. Accordingly, two problems; the story wanders off for a while and it becomes rather hard to get back into it, and what comes across is a bit of a struggle to get it motoring again; also, the passages look like filler, not of the same consistency as their surroundings and robotically included.

    As a result, whilst these things are of some interest, the interest in the story they have rather artlessly interrupted is lost and, my view, they cause more damage than benefit.

    I have another issue with the mahjong game; I have to admit I got lost in it. I don’t doubt that its reportage is in total veracity, and accurate to the nth degree, but I wasn’t too sure, in a game spread over two chapters or so, that I was enjoying what I was reading. Perhaps that extra step, of considering what could be lost from the (presumably) accurate record of a game, rather than thinking one needed everything. A bit of a shave here might have upped the tension, made the incident far more economical, snappier and not so much of an intrusion. Yes, the card game in Casino Royale is reported in great detail, but the card game in Casino Royale is the plot; for proper comparison, read again the bridge game against Drax, or the Goldfinger golf – we don’t get every moment, as we appear to with the mahjong. As I’ve suggested, I don’t doubt for a moment Mr Benson’s knowledge; but here, as a tutor of mine once said, knowledge is not power; the use of knowledge is power and I’m not convinced how well it’s been used.

    The other issue about the game is that as an event, and given its prominence in the book, it seems inconsequential. Its ending adheres to the Chandler maxim of “if in doubt, have men enter the room carrying guns”, albeit here they’re carrying kitchen knives, but as an event it’s only touched on very briefly later on; this rather suggests that this sudden massacre was a convenient way to get the plot restarted after the lull the mahjong game causes.

    Curiously, the game is never mentioned again, given that it is evidently set up as an example of the villain cheating, and occupies a significant portion of the book. There’s another issue; we don’t get an insight into why the villain cheats. Bond appears to wonder at one point whether he cheats to establish that he can, like Sir Hugo Drax; but we’re given no reason beyond that, which is remiss and makes the villain and his motives hard to grab a hold of.

    With a reference to a Fleming character and a common incident from Fleming’s work, it’s accordingly not that easy to see this on its own merits. What is it trying to be? It can’t be Fleming – its creator admits it. It looks too much like a “tick-box” exercise. Whilst it’s an obvious cross-reference to have Bond gambling against the villain and cheat the cheater, there doesn’t appear to be much comeuppance for the villain as a result; nor is there that point at which the villain knows he has been cheated and is powerless to stop it (key things about the Drax and Goldfinger games). So, whilst I appreciate that the game was “essential”, and it’s utterly authentic, I’m not too sure it’s shoehorned in that well and the nature of the prose isn’t enough to let the writer get away with it.

    Second major weakness — it’s a film: OK, that’s a bit sudden, and in so far as that appears to be the market aimed for by Glidrose here, it succeeds, but page after page of expositionary dialogue is terribly wearing. I just find it unlikely that Bond and M, however much they are sizing each other up, would have a lengthy chat about the Opium Wars, or that a Triad leader would reveal so much about himself and his motivations, almost instantly, to a man he wants to kill. Fundamentally, there’s too much chat and no background. I find the conversations really unlikely but on the basis that one cannot put prose descriptions onscreen, I guess they were inevitable. The opportunity to show the research skills could have come via another method; it just seems like a lost (or abandoned) opportunity to ditch the dialogue and explore the extra dimensions a novel could give. The other irritating thing is that everyone knows key information at all important points (and not before). Accordingly, a lot of the dialogue is terribly stilted in the rush to impart vital info. Put bluntly, there’s nothing Bond doesn’t know here; the writer doesn’t deliver any information outside of Bond’s knowledge (which is very close to the know-all Bond of the films).

    Another way of approaching it? Why not have the first chapter, or couple of chapters, set during the Opium Wars? Would have made for a highly unusual start for a Bond book, expanding its ambition into the epic and, in my eyes, would have started Mr Benson off with real style, something utterly unique and without comparison, to stand or fall on its own merits. Also, such a move would have been to extend the responsibility for delivering narrative beyond the relatively few characters that appear, and could have meant more convincing dialogue. Just a suggestion.

    As minor points, I’m not too sure that the scene in Portsmouth couldn’t have been dealt with by reference, rather than having a “real-time” action sequence; although it was probably necessary to have a “real-time” action sequence at that stage of the book, because otherwise there’s a load of chat going on and the cinema audience will be getting restless unless there’s a gunfight of some description.

    Interesting to note references to Gardner’s women at one point. Interesting and… flawed, because then one has to wonder what this book is. If it’s there to appeal to the Bond market, weaned on the genuinely (and deliberately) shallow films, then by God, it succeeds. But these references to Gardner’s women… Who’s read those books? Where’s the public appeal? Is it film Bond or is it literary Bond? Corking along as film-Bond, requisite punch-ups and choppings and blowing things up and then one hits that and, apologies for making the same point, it doesn’t stack up as an exercise in literary Bond. Very curious artistic decision.

    So, yeah, Mr. Benson is not Mr. Fleming; hardly a revolutionary view. Yet there’s some evidence of trying, if not to ape directly the Fleming style (which year on year is ever more evidently the product of its time), then to cover similar ground – the absurd food, the gruesome sadism (the beating meted out by General Wong is especially visceral, and Bond’s reaction to it by far the most satisfying literary Bond moment of the enterprise) and the sexual content. On that last point, it’s interesting to read that Mr Benson thinks the literary Bond should be racy; I agree, but my view is that it’s not no-holds barred “filling” (a lovely image), but the raciness of a repressed Englishman living out fantasies in the 1950s and finding ways around it by experimenting with the perverse; there are other ways of being hardcore than being… hardcore. Accordingly, Sunni Pei’s private dance works as literary Bond; not too sure the repeated shagging does; seems a bit unoriginal. It goes beyond Fleming and Gardner in its graphic nature, but I always took literary Bond to be more sensuous and erotic than purely graphic. But then, I’m comparing again, so if judged on its own merits I guess it’s OK, and perhaps one can take the increased sexual detail as an advance by Mr Benson.

    The villain.

    “I always pictured Jeremy Irons as Guy Thackeray, by the way.”

    -Raymond Benson
    The CBn Interview

    Strengths: Whilst it’s an interesting first to have an English villain for a book (or at least one of English blood), and a fun parallel to have “the English” both create and then destroy Hong Kong through acts of violence, I’m not convinced that Thackeray is that strong a villain. It’s an interesting idea to make Bond’s nemesis a faceless corporate suit, but it should have remained an idea, really; there’s no colour here. A Jack Spang, basically. I guess the one strength is that the villain’s ultimate plot is plausible, and could be easily played in a film without having to resort to too much pantomime cliché of the Dr Evil type – avoidance of cackling nutters being a current Eon trend – but I’m not a fan of the character. What he’s up to is more interesting and far more arresting than who he is; this reinforces the book as a novelisation of a plot-driven film – who cares about the characters as long as things are happening – rather than a character driven literary Bond entry.

    Conversely, the three albino brothers is a really arresting touch – can really “see” them (film-Bond?) – and it’s a bit of a shame that they don’t have more to do. Lui Xu Nan is far more interesting, and the attention paid to him suggests the Bond/villain relationships of yore and so it’s effective sleight of hand at first instance to concentrate on him and let the reader forget about Thackeray for a bit. All the more disappointing that the most complex “new” character is sidelined towards the end in favour of a practically absent and uninteresting villain.

    Weaknesses: My major issue with Thackeray is that he’s out of focus; whilst his plot is relatively clear, the ultimate motivation is weakly explained. Making him an alcoholic, whilst this is a convenient shortcut to depriving him of needing a reason by suggesting his reason is overborne, isn’t that special a “tic”, and it’s a bit unclear why, if he is so soused, nobody has uncovered the cheating at mahjong already. The weakness also appears conveniently forgotten when he is pontificating or running and jumping. Odd. Again, this determination to give the villain a foible appears mechanically bolted on without being terribly well fused in.

    The physical description seems scant. Yep, I can see Jeremy Irons doing it but I can also see Alan Rickman or Bill Nighy or any sort of rangy Brit doing it. Thackeray just doesn’t seem altogether there. Perhaps this is subtle personification of the alcoholism, I don’t know. Not a favourite. True, lunatics living in volcanoes is going a bit far for literary Bond (if that’s what’s intended) but then villains such as Le Chiffre were just this human side of utterly grotesque. If what is intended is something akin to film-Bond, anyone coming to this after subjecting themselves to Max Zorin (say) or even Eliot Carver (the two Eon “corporate” villains) is going to wonder where the villain is. Whilst I’m tempted to state he is the weakest drawn literary Bond villain, I must remember not to compare and accordingly, he is Benson’s strongest “so far”; but things can only improve.

    On the film-novel analysis, it’s interesting from the Benson interview that he is thinking about his characters as being portrayed on screen; subconsciously at least persuaded in his purpose by the visual Bond rather than the written one.

    And as for the horribly self-conscious comments Thackeray makes about whether he should just shoot Bond instead of being in an action movie and using elaborate methods of execution, they’d work in smart-alec film dialogue, just about (given that Eon’s current theme is to hate the James Bond character and urinate over its legacy). But, whilst it has a parallel with the “Cowboys and Indians” routine delivered by Le Chiffre, it comes across as too knowing, too self-aware, for a book.

    The Girl

    Strengths: The scene in the Zipper club and the subsequent private dance Sunni Pei performs are fun, and early on in the relationship, she appears to be in genuine peril and worth rescuing. The scene with the mother at her apartment is a departure, certainly for the film women; some attachment, some family. Interesting. Albeit mum’s quite quickly forgotten about (one must keep the plot moving), it adds.

    Weaknesses: Save for being an interesting plot device to put her in peril, Sunni Pei’s attachment to the Triads and status within their organization seems to be underdeveloped; there never seems to be any doubt in Bond’s mind that he will trust this girl, despite her connections to a violent criminal organization.

    Bit of a shame that she becomes a bit of a loose end once the action moves to Australia; just another Bond girl. Also, it’s irritating that we find out at exactly the same time as Bond (this constant desire by the author that we know no more than Bond, and no earlier) that she is trained in martial arts etc., although that’s more to do with the approach taken to dialogue-heavy exposition rather than a flaw in the character itself.

    On the whole, more memorable than the villain and conforms to the “broken wing” theory, given that she is ultimately a prostitute. Interesting, if not terribly crucial to the plot towards the end. Character runs out of significance, becomes the standard damsel, which is a bit of a shame because early on she is something novel.

    Film or book?

    Film: The heavy dialogue is a key issue here. Would be a fun film, too. If done relatively straight it would solve Eon’s current problem in being unable to make the final half hours at all interesting, because the ending is pretty exciting. Beef up the villain, cut loads of the exposition, query the family friendliness PG-13ness of General Wong (despite it being substantially the best bit) and go for it.

    They won’t make it because of the date issue (although one could see it as Die Another Day, with Thackeray replaced by a North Korean loony and the Hong Kong handover replaced by NK and SK peace talks, or something), but they could have made it. Odd spots of showing off “Bond knowledge” aside, which do jump out at one, this wouldn’t alienate the casual reader too much, but it’s probably the casual reader who has seen a few Bond films. Nothing wrong with that; there are loads out there. As an extension of the Eon series, it pretty much works and is a decent place to start with written (albeit not literary) Bond if the only experience to that point is the Eon series.

    Worth Reading? — Yeah, on balance; interesting plot, some fun ideas, but some parts look too mechanical in trying to be literary Bond; works better as a film. As a book, (not insignificant) prose issue aside, with its distractingly redundant bits, it’s a bit like Diamonds are Forever; some really interesting ideas, but too much detail of too little consequence and a villain conspicuous by his absence. Abandon hope all ye who expect literary Bond, but as a curious hybrid nearer to the films than the books, worth a shot.

    Stay tuned… Next up in this series: The Facts of Death.

    Jim @ 2004-06-30
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