Monday, 31 August 2015

Crusaders and Tigersharks

At some point in my impressionable youth I came across Barrett Tillman's On Yankee Station, a simultaneously accessible and authoritative account of US naval aviation during the Vietnam War. Following on from that I read his MiG Master, a study of the Vought F-8 Crusader, an undeservedly forgotten carrier aircraft, and enjoyed it too. I reacquainted myself with both in my 1990s flirtation with academia but otherwise Tillman ended up filed in the recesses of my mind, probably resurfaceable with a bit of context, but otherwise one for the past.

Sparked a little bit by Singer and Cole's Ghost Fleet, I've nosed around such things as Command: Modern air and Naval Operations, musing that perhaps as a non existent summer segues into autumn maybe some time spent in front of a PC recreating sundry old Harpoon like scenarios might be mildly diverting. Connected with that a dig through their archive surfaced a mention of a Barrett Tillman work of fiction, Warriors

Long out of print, Warriors is still relatively easy to track down for not very much, and it's worth a look. Techno thrillers suffered with the end of the Cold War, and the story arc of Warriors was rapidly overtaken in period by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm ushering in the short 21st Century, but the passage of time serves to unearth some of the inherent value to narratives like this. 

Positing a scenario whereby in 1990 Saudi Arabia takes an unorthodox approach creating a parallel air force trained by Western pilots and equipped with the in real life stillborn Northrop F-20 Tigershark and becomes enmeshed in a sprawling recapitulation of the Yom Kippur war Warriors is unusual (very much so for its time) in taking an ambivalent view towards the role of Israel in the Middle East. It's a stance which did not make the novel popular in some quarters at its time of release, but viewed from a perspective 25 years after its publication you can see its point.

Warriors is capable of surprising; where initially it feels like a typical late Cold War military thriller with female characters spatchcocked in as an afterthought, the plot is more well rounded and nuanced than first impression suggest. It's unflinching in its approach to mortality, and much in the vein of Bob Forrest-Webb's Chieftains is not a novel which rewards those who become attached to core figures.

The description of an evolving Middle East and a pan-Arab consensus against Israel rings hollow in an era of Islam's great war of religion and the rise of Islamic State, but the notion of a fragile Saudi monarchy, an interventionist Iran moving beyond the shadow of Khomeini, and a Russia increasingly enmeshed in shaping the region, does indicate that maybe there are aspects we can still learn from, despite the manifest changes the world has seen.

Do we now read 1980s works of this manner in the same way we read pre WW1 war scare fiction? I don't think we do - and if we're being realistic in the same way as the literature of the early 20th century had its ups and downs there's a lot of fairly forgettable material that rode in on the wake of Clancy and his peers. Warriors is not high literature, but when dealing what Tillman knows best it's well written, thought provoking, and keeps you interested throughout.

Worth the investment, and more than that, worth reminding me that Barrett Tillman has written some fine books about aviation.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Iconic James Bond

It's a Thursday night, I've come home interested in something burbling in the background, and lo and behold in the outer regions of things satellite there's a Bond film to be found. It's For Your Eyes Only, it took me a while to figure out the name, and I figured that it's not quite a proper Bond film.

James Bond's interesting. I grew up somewhere in the 1970s or 80s (boundaries are vague) and so the Roger Moore era of high kitsch was introduced to me as somehow serious spy fiction. The formative me viewed Moonraker dispassionately, thinking that chemical weapon labs in Venice, transhipment hubs in Rio, and hidden launch platforms in the Amazon were perfectly feasible (and who says they're not?). That small me had no problem when a couple of years later I read the original Fleming and discovered that he didn't have hijacked space shuttles, cable cars, or space marines in the book at all, and really it was much more about the south coast of England and the mundanity of the nascent British space programme

It's a theme the lovely Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club guys explored with Pink Gin and the Man with the Golden Gun a while back, but it's worth disconnecting Fleming's books from the film cannon. The films are escapism, and they reflect the mores of their time; this means they sometimes date a little, showing how society has accepted and sometime celebrated less savoury approaches towards women and displayed unfortunate ethnographic stereotypes. So, when this evening I described "For Your Eyes Only" as somehow not resonating as Bond film what was I thinking?

Vague relative @SeafrontPages suggested it was something to do with the uncertainty of the Thatcher era and a Sheena Easton soundtrack. He's probably got a point.

Colleague @unfortunatalie asked if it was because there wasn't quite enough misogyny in it? She may also have a point.

The truth is probably somewhere else though. 

Bonds should have an iconic location?
FYEO has the whole Greek monastery scene

Bonds should have a massive plot?
No, when they captured the Ambler vibe in Casino Royale (Craig) they worked impeccably

Bonds should be more misogynistic?
Skyfall is maybe the most challenging here in terms of exploitation, FYEO is way more accommodating

So why not remember For Your Eye's Only? Maybe because inherently it's just an okay film. It's not outright bad like the later Dalton or Brosnan works, yet not as good as high points of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, From Russia With Love, or The Spy Who Loved Me, and as such we forget about it. 

Maybe it's time to go back and read some Fleming and see if there's something to be found.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Neuromancer meets Red Storm Rising

In the summer of 1987 my teenage mind was captivated by a weighty tome lent to me by an American friend. The wide-ranging narrative and a whiff of authenticity that somehow overmatched everything else in the techno-thriller cannon. I was ahead of the game, I read Red Storm Rising pleasingly before it got its release in Europe, and when it broke on European shores it became a phenomenon that even my parents managed to pick up, prompting a somewhat curious “are they talking about that book you read on the television now?”.

Red Storm Rising probably wasn’t the first of its type, General Sir John Hackett certainly got there first with his Third World War, but it undeniably spawned a genre. Along with Clancy, the likes of Larry Bond, and Hank Brown mined a rich seam like a gift that kept on giving until the end of the Cold War cut them off at the knees.

The techno-thriller went through a long fallow patch. The 1990s weren’t kind to them and even the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to spark a credible narrative that recaptured the majesty of Clancy in his pomp.

As a reader it was fine, we found other things to read. Charles Cumming captured the Eric Ambler quiet school of espionage fiction, we ploughed back into history with John Biggins, and when feeling virtuous we would read something a little more like (whisper it) respectable literature, with Alan Hollinghurst, John Irving, and a newly grown up William Gibson.

Remember that last name, because the arrival of Singer and Cole's Ghost Fleet has made most people refer back to Clancy and Red Storm Rising, but as I progressed into it I found myself remembering another novel I read in the mid 1980s rather more than I expected to. Ghost Fleet may well be a Red Storm Rising for the 21st Century, but if so it’s every bit as much an homage to Gibson’s Neuromancer too - and in a nice touch it’s this which gets the namecheck from Singer and Cole in the running text a bit more than the Clancy link that most reviewers (and yes, my hand is up here too) initially introduce things with.

Linking with early Gibson introduces what one of the key subthemes of the novel - Dave Eggers caused some controversy in 2014 with The Circle, and while I read and enjoyed it, I could see why it simultaneously annoyed those in the technology community and may have been a little inaccessible to those outside it. Ghost Fleet works very well as a cautionary tale about society's reliance on devices to tell us things. This is powerfully linked as the novel reaches a climax, as a US Navy officer peers at a data screen rather than a horizon and reflects that "[t]he anxiousness he felt at that one missing piece of data flow was a reminder of how quickly people took for granted the sea of information they floated in. He only hoped that being thrown back into the dark would be even more disorienting for the Directorate generals and admirals who had enjoyed a war of such data dominance so far."

Leaving the roots aside, what’s Ghost Fleet like as a read? Gratifyingly it’s good, and part of me wants to say it’s very good. Just like Clancy (and indeed Gibson) it’s absorbingly pacy, with a series of vignettes telling enough of a story and creatively using negative space to create the vision that what you read is part of a far larger and more sprawling narrative which, critically, yields an interest in knowing more about what’s left unsaid.

There's an authenticity to the Singer and Cole's universe. Revolving around a Mahanite geopolitical view references to how we arrive at the setting from a contemporary point of departure all feel perfectly credible, with notions such as the Second Timor War, the Dharan dirty bomb, and the New York Quake all feel real, and like the unsaid elements of the conflict in Ghost Fleet, become part of a broader story that you want to know more about.  

The style of writing can raise a smile, insights into the fate of Richard Branson, the ultimate expression of Tour de France doping, and victory drives involving children surrendering tablets to be harvested for microchips all make Ghost Fleet a pleasant as well as interesting read.

Is it this century's Red Storm Rising? In truth I'm not sure, but then again I'm also the thick end of 30 years older than I was when I read Clancy's book, so maybe it's about perspective. While lapping up Ghost Fleet there was a part of me that whispered it wasn't quite as wide ranging and magisterial as Red Storm Rising, but equally saying so felt like needlessly carping, because remember, I was having fun reading Ghost Fleet. Either way, Ghost Fleet is a rattling good read, and sticking with the 21st century, remember, you still can't get an eBook of Red Storm Rising.

Disclaimers and disclosure are good things to includes in anything published. Here's a personal bit of disclosure: my PhD looked at the USN of the 1970s and 1980s in some detail, and as such the personality of Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt featured strongly and positively. In an era when the notion of heroism is brought into question by Donald Trump, I'm delighted that Ghost Fleet salutes a great surface ship sailor in Elmo Zumwalt.

You can get your copy of Ghost Fleet from Canelo here.

Disclosure: an advance copy of Ghost Fleet was provided by Canelo Books.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Tony Southgate in his Own Words

A few years ago I read Tony Southgate's autobiography, which as motor racing books go is right up there with Vic Elford's Reflections and John Horsman's Racing in the Rain. If you've not read it and like the idea of motorsport being a freewheeling innovative place please track down a copy of it - trust me, you'll like it.

It's probably not the sort of book that would reward reading as an ebook. and I'm guessing your local bookshop won't have it in stock, so if you're looking for a bit of instant gratification have a listen to the latest Motor Sport Magazine podcast, where their usual roster of suspects travel to Northampton to sit down with Tony Southgate and produce an hour and a half of utterly absorbing conversation about racing car design touching on the period when Southgate worked and the present day.

As a hallmark of a great podcast it's not just crammed full of brilliant insights (not least Southgate's persistence in not enunciating the 's' in Arrows) but leaves you wanting to hear more - the Osella years, for example, always appealed to me, but aren't covered in the audio. As they say, this could have been an 8 hour production, and there's a lot of me that wishes it had been.

Seriously - go and have a listen, in an era of over sanitised commercial motor racing it's a breath of fresh air. For those of you of a South London persuasion (and my sympathy if you are not) it's also worth having a listen for the references to Lola's origins in Bromley - I've been trying to track down where exactly they were - there's a school of thought holding they were in Ravensbourne Road - but does anyone have anything more precise/accurate than that?