Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Colonel Sun review

    I'm a huge fan of the James Bond franchise, anyone who has read this blog will know that. It's one of my goals to eventually do a review of all of the movies up until Spectre. I'm not just a fan of the movies, though, but also the books. Well, sort of. I equivocate there because the novels have a wonderful panache to them which directly led to the films and a deep brooding atmosphere. They're also err, really racist at times.

    Ian Fleming gets some defense for being a "man of his time" (and quite progressive in some places--real life people aren't cutouts) but it can be disconcerting to read things like his description of Koreans. It's also something which reflects on me as the reader rather than Fleming himself. I have read the novels for both their history as well as their fandom value but for pure entertainment, they suffer because of values dissonance. Fleming's writing is also dramatically divergent in terms of style depending on which book you read. Moonraker is a silly-silly novel but fun while From Russia with Love is amazing and Goldfinger is probably the best but for the aforementioned description of Koreans.

    Which brings me to Robert Markham (a.k.a Kingsley Amis). When Ian Fleming died, his publishers wished to continue producing Bond novels. I'm not sure of the exact copyright issues but they commissioned a new novel which would secure their control of the literary portion of the franchise for decades to come. Crass commercial move or not, they chose someone who had a genuine love of the franchise as well as tremendous skill.

    Ian's widow, Ann, was less than pleased with their choice of author. Kingsley Amis was a huge Bond fan, no one could doubt it, with a number of books written on the franchise. No, the problem Ann Fleming had with him was his politics. Err, not to put too fine a point on it, but Kingsley Amis was a communist. This is rather noticeable as the literary Bond was all about murdering SMERSH before he ever heard of SPECTRE. Either way, Kingsley Amis typed out a book which I think is probably one of the best Bond books.

    But is still kinda racist.

    The premise for the novel is the demented Colonel Sun, a  Maoist Chinese operative with a pain obsession (because literary Bond villains are crazy like that), has kidnapped M. This is part of a larger plan to sew discord between the West and Soviet Union in order to benefit Red China. The book was written in 1968 so it was still four years before Richard Nixon went to China and utterly upended how everyone assumed the Cold War was going to.

    Kingsley Amis' politics are on full display here, much as Ana feared, but are more amusing in retrospect than offensive. Kingsley has Bond willing to team up with the Soviets against the Red Chinese because the author clearly believes the Maoists will be the enemy in the future. You know, instead of America and China becoming friendly rivals while the USSR's relationship sours even further.

    In any case, Bond isn't going to let M's kidnapping slide so he heads off to Greece and hooks up with GRU operative Ariadne Alexandrou in order to stop Colonel Sun's nefarious plan. They visit some beautiful locations, have a romance, and get involved with some ex-WW2 resistance fighters who are less than pleased by Ariadne's communist sympathies. It's all extremely entertaining but the book is quite short at a mere 224 pages.

    Ariadne is probably one of my favorite Bond girls and quite entertaining. Part of what makes her so appealing is the ash-blonde Greek is portrayed as a very well-rounded character. She's politically naive both in-story and out, believing in communism but clearly underestimating her superiors' darker side (one is actually a pedophile). She's also both a patriot as well as someone working for a foreign government. Lots of interesting contradictions which make her a character I would have liked to have seen more of.

    Colonel Sun is an inscrutable oriental Yellow Peril villain who is basically military Fu Manchu. He's not the kind of character who could fly in today's climate and probably just barely worked in the 1960s. The best moment of the character is when he breaks down and admits he thought being a monster would make him feel stronger but instead just made him feel vile. It's a bit of humanization which Fleming never afforded his villains even if Bond isn't the kind of guy interested in showing mercy to his foes.

    Greece is a perfect location for a Bond novel with the oceans, ruins, and local culture all being lovingly detailed. It comes alive off the page and I can't think of many places I've "visited" in books which have been as realistic. The fact it feels so authentic with just a comparatively small page count is also to the author's credit.

    I've read Colonel Sun, listened to it on audiobook, and purchased the B&W comic book version so I must like it a great deal. Even so, I admit the book has flaws and can't help but suspect some readers might prefer the later movie-influenced pastiches to this one. Still, I'm going to give this a recommendation for all fans of spy fiction as well as the literary Bond.


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