05 November 2008

Book Review: SeaFire

SeaFire (1994)
By John Gardner

It is 007 season again, as a new film flies up in our face in a media blitz. The blaring digital billboard at the corner of Sawtelle and Olympic flashes nothing but ads for Quantum of Solace, played in rotation like “Stairway to Heaven” on a Led Zeppelin-only satellite radio station.

But those double-Os on the billboards are infectious, so when this time of year comes around, I get hungry for some literary Bond. I’ll probably read another of the Ian Fleming books; I’ve gone through them multiple times since junior high school, but they never get old. I’m even willing to read the worst of the lot, The Man with the Golden Gun, although I probably won’t.

However, I feel a duty to finally slog through the last of John Gardner’s Bond novels. I finished off Death Is Forever this time last year, not long after Gardner’s death, leaving only two unread. I said I would get to SeaFire soon, but here it is, a year later, and I haven’t budged. But now I will. SeaFire down, only COLD (or Cold Fall as it’s titled in the U.S.) to go.

Please, hold the applause, he writes cynically.

SeaFire at least starts on movement. Bond and his female companion, Frederick “Flicka” von Grüsse, stop a pirate raid on a cruise ship for the ultra-rich owned by Sir Maxwell Tarn. The action hardly has a chance to start before Gardner decides to wander into a description of the ship and its history. Weird timing; this doesn’t augur well. An explosion goes off and cripples the ship, forcing all aboard to abandon the luxury liner.

Flicka’s appearance in the book shows Gardner trying to pull his Bond books more tightly together, since she was the heroine of the previous novel, Never Send Flowers (which I’ll sheepishly admit I liked more than the other later Gardners—it has a strange charm). Flicka has switched from Swiss Intelligence to British Intelligence as part of the new Double-O section that Bond directs. This isn’t Ian Fleming’s Double-O, however, but is called “Two Zeroes” and there are some differences, such as . . .

Oh, who cares? Gardner is looking to find another way to glide away from anything remotely Fleming, re-writing rules haphazardly probably because he was bored with the whole series. “Two Zeroes.” Sure, fine. Let’s move on.

MicroGlobe One, the watch committee that supervises the new Double-Os, sends Bond and Flicka on their new mission: flushing Sir Max Tarn out into the open so Intelligence can discretely investigate his years of illegal arms-dealing. Because Bond and Flicka were on Tarn’s demolished cruiser, they have an “in” with confronting him. I don’t understand why either. Oh, it seems that Tarn’s private submarine may have torpedoed the cruise ship in the first place. The later explanation for why all this happened reads as if Gardner had to squeeze it in because he had written himself into a corner.

Bond and Flicka get their cover blown immediately when they meet Tarn at a hotel in Cambridge. MicroGlobe sure has done a really swell job at managing “Two Zeroes,” eh what? Bond and Flicka end up in the clutches of two clones of the film versions of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, Mr. Cutherbert and Mr. Archibald, before they make an easy escape from the house where they’re imprisoned. At least the repartee between the two chummy assassins adds some flavor.

While Bond casually escapes from imprisonment, Tarn and his wife fake their fiery deaths in a traffic accident. Bond volunteers to extract an informant from Tarn’s new hiding place in Seville, Spain—which leads to an actually exciting motorcycle chase.

The pursuit of Tarn now starts to fly all over the map. Bond learns that Tarn believes he’s the second coming of Adolf Hitler, and this Neo-Nazi business is a touch clichéd. Gardner handled similar material in Icebreaker, his third 007 novel, and the ploy feels desperate here. As Tarn stands before his fanatical followers, repeating Nazi slogans in a goofy display in a small Bavarian town, I had to wonder if anyone thought in 1994 that Germany might face serious danger of a Neo-Nazi rising. It doesn’t seem the least convincing here, no matter how many times Gardner reminds us of its possibility in Bond’s worried thoughts. Tarn makes next to no impression as a villain, and appears only a few times, which makes the comparisons to Hitler that Bond keeps insisting on seem silly. I think liberal democracy in Germany can survive a fellow like Tarn and his few goosesteppers just fine.

Tarn’s great dastardly plan—the SeaFire of the title—is set to unleash in Puerto Rico, where Gardner whips through a finale involving a submarine, new flying technology, and an old Spanish Fortress. Sounds interesting. But it’s strictly a rush-job with no build-up. And if Bond had just used the damn telephone, none of it would have happened. Some nice travelogue material about Puerto Rico, but you can get that from the hilarious Progress Island short on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Once again, Gardner pads the scant action with conversations in hotel rooms and briefing sessions. Bond even flies all the way to Israel to have a hotel room conversation and then fly right back. When the book seems to get its engines revved up for the final stretch, Bond gets yanked back to London for another briefing. The effect this has on the pacing is lethal. The book limps into its final section with almost no fuel left in the tank.

The story does contain a few surprises, such as a nice turn with Trish Tarn that does a double flip to create a real shock. Mr. Cuthbert and Mr. Archibald have an interesting twist in their characters—it’s unrealistic, but seems like something Fleming might have tried. MicroGlobe has a traitor as well. These bits of excitement and the unexpected put SeaFire a notch above Death Is Forever and The Man from Barbarossa. But there’s still not enough to get excited about going on here. A motorcycle chase, a spin around with a car in a Bavarian village . . . that’s about it.

A huge complaint I have about Gardner’s Bond books, especially these later ones, is Bond himself. He’s a blank, a bore. The vivacity and edge that Fleming gave him, and which some of the better performances in the films delivered, are absent. Bond does no entertaining in these books, he only goes through the motions. When Gardner does drop in some characterization, it’s misguided, like Bond enjoying jazz, engaging in twenty-questions with Flicka over movies, and debating the merits of Cambridge over Oxford. And he drinks tea, something Fleming, in a famous passage from Goldfinger, states that Bond detests. (Gardner had earlier caught flack for tea-drinking in Brokenclaw, but apparently didn’t learn. Fleming is unequivocal: Bond thinks tea is “mud.”)

The Flicka relationship is a damp one; it worked fine in Never Send Flowers, but not here. The sexual bantering between the two turns distracting the second time it happens. Bond in a “cute” relationship doesn’t read well. And the marriage proposal makes no sense at all if you’ve read any Fleming—but it does lead into a nice reverie about Bond’s love life in the classic novels, one of the times Gardner allows himself to go into the past of the character.

An unexpected face pops up: Felix Leiter, Bond’s talkative American pal who came so alive on Fleming’s typewriter. Gardner rarely brings in ol’ Felix, and he doesn’t do half-bad with him here.

Gardner drops in an uncharacteristic personal joke: a false company front called “Rendrag Associates.” (Reverse it, you’ll see what I mean.)

So, to sum up the second-to-last James Bond novel from John Gardner:

On the good side, we have a fast opening, a serviceable motorcycle chase, a few interesting twists, and Felix Leiter.

On the not-so-good side, the pacing stinks, the author seems bored, the characters are dull, the finale falls flat, and the villain is a practical no-show.

I don’t think this adds up to a recommendation. Here is my generosity: there are worse Bond novels. Use that as your pull quote.

I know I sound unreasonably bitter about SeaFire and Gardner in general. But I chose to read this book because right now I’m in the middle of National Novel Writing Month, and I’d rather have some passable and light entertainment reading that I don’t feel I have to plunge into every day and devour. I’m writing my own book now, I can’t have a riveting classic taking up my time.

Will I tackle COLD during the rest of NaNoWriMo month? Unlikely; I think I’ll see you next year for that one—I need some Fleming now.