Goldfinger! (wah-WAH, wah)

goldfingerI’ve been re-reading the original James Bond novels, for the first time in about 30 years, in order of publication. Entering the Flemingverse gives an interesting glimpse of the post-war world. Austerity Britain comes off worse compared to just about everywhere else. There is still a mix of common technologies where a man who drives a 1933 4½ litre Bentley can do battle with a man intent of firing a nuclear warhead at London. It’s an exercise in culture-specific attitudes, brand snobbery, gross sexism, surprisingly less racism than I had expected, occasionally poetic insight into the ways of the world, and very wry humour. And it’s all great fun.

I’ve just finished Goldfinger. It was made into the third Bond movie, so it comes from that time when the movies stuck reasonably close to the original plot. This is the seventh novel in the series, but for some reason it’s the one where I was particularly struck by the similarities and differences between novel and movie: what stayed the same; what changed; and which (allowing for the fact that two different art forms will always have differences) is better.

The book is by no means perfect. For example, I’ve never understood the allure of Pussy Galore. She comes in on page 167 of a 224 page novel, and is a lot more interested in Tilly Masterson (still alive at this stage in the book; in the movie she is killed off about five minutes after appearing) than in Bond. She is happy to go along with Goldfinger’s plan, until she decides on page 216 to switch sides, with no discernible impact on the plot at all other than giving Bond someone to have sex with shortly after the last page. The interaction between her and Tilly is cringeworthy and you have to wonder if Fleming had actually met any lesbians. (I suspect the answer is: in fact, yes; knowingly, no. Note also: “She said, not in a gangster’s voice, or a Lesbian’s, but in a girl’s voice, “Will you write to me in Sing Sing?”” In the Flemingverse, gangsters, lesbians and girls all have distinctive voices. It’s fun to imagine Honor Blackman saying novel-Pussy’s lines.)

However in the Flemingverse a lesbian is only a woman who hasn’t met the right man yet and on the last page she sure enough melts into the right man’s arms.

Half the denouement is in flashback, thus giving it the excitement of a strand of wet spaghetti. Bond, Goldfinger at al are on a plane, as per the movie. It’s Oddjob who gets sucked out of the window. Goldfinger just gets throttled. The plane doesn’t have fuel to reach land, so Bond holds the crew at gunpoint and orders them to ditch the plane in the sea near to a weathership. And that is the bit in flashback – one moment the plane hits the water, the next Bond and Pussy are safe on board the ship, remembering how the plane snapped in two upon impact and took the crew and its cargo of gold to the bottom of the sea. The final special effect of the novel, so to speak, relegated to memory. Come on! The movie probably couldn’t have managed it within the budget, but the effects budget of the imagination is unlimited. I just have the feeling Fleming got bored at that point and wandered off.

But on the plus side …

The novel opens with Bond having a one-corpse-too-many angst attack, having just had to exercise his double-0 licence yet again. It’s a flash of vulnerable humanity that none of the screen Bonds have been allowed to show. The plot continues, recognisably similar to the film, though Jill Masterson’s death by gold paint occurs off stage. The golf match between Bond and Goldfinger is just as tense and just as funny, but Bond is invited to a post-match dinner with Goldfinger, and only just avoids giving himself away as a spy by setting up Goldfinger’s cat as the guilty party who has interfered with all the hidden internal cameras in Goldfinger’s home. Goldfinger gives the cat to Oddjob for dinner, raising the utter bastard score to 15-all.

Bond sets off across Europe after Goldfinger, in a chase that is much more exciting on paper than on screen. On screen, Bond simply uses a beep machine overlaid on a map. On paper, he has to use his own judgement as to Goldfinger’s route, based on only on the strength of the homing signal, and gets it wrong on a couple of occasions, requiring quick thought and fancy driving to rectify. His journey across Europe is lovingly described – the landscapes, the weather, the food and wine sampled en route – and again the grey 50s Britain that the readers knew comes off much worse by comparison. Then Tilly Masterson enters the story and royally screws Bond’s plans up, and both are captured. This is the “no, Mr Bond, I expect you to die” scene from the film. But this is where the really interesting difference sets in. Goldfinger spares both Bond and Tilly because he suddenly realises he has need of them.

The set piece, Goldfinger’s magnum opus, is to knock off Fort Knox. Between the book and the movie, someone worked out that shifting Fort Knox’s gold reserves would be impossible in the time allowed, so the movie plot was changed to make Goldfinger want to irradiate America’s gold supply and ruin its economy. Either version is a major logistical challenge which means that Goldfinger has to recruit several different American crime syndicates for their resources and coordinate a very large operation. In the movie, he tells the crime bosses about his plans, kills the one who won’t play ball, and then kills the others anyway – I never did understand that. In the book he fully intends to recompense them for their work, in gold, so they all survive apart from the one dissenter. And he decides at the last minute – as a whizzing circular saw draws ever closer to Bond’s whizzing apparatus – that he needs Bond and Tilly as respectively an administrator and a secretary to make the whole complex operation run smoothly.

You have to wonder why this didn’t occur to him at any point in the planning stages. Maybe he’s just not a details man. Anyway, this is the first and I think only time that a Bond villain acknowledges the administrative and logistical overhead of running a major villainous operation. It appeals to me as a writer and as a science fiction fan, wanting to know how things work and make the fictitious world internally coherent. Of course, the movie would have ground to a halt if it had tried to include this point, but in the novel it just ups the tension as Bond is drawn in, becoming an unwilling part of the machine he is trying to destroy. To stay alive, he has to do his job, which means make it work, because Goldfinger will kill him in an instant if he starts to slack off.

One more example of why Books Are Better.

Write what someone knows

“Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.” – Joe Haldeman

And yet Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War was heavily influenced by his experiences as a Vietnam vet. I’m nowhere near brave enough to disagree with Joe Haldeman but fortunately I don’t think I have to. We agree from different directions.

Five Lies Creative Writing Teachers Tell makes the same point. It’s good but often misused advice, and it’s the misuse that gets dealt with on that link: the advice being hammered in to the point where you’re not even allowed to use your imagination. As the writer points out, J.K. Rowling isn’t really a wizard, but “The good tutor will get to know you, and encourage work which is attentive to your experiences”.

I would take that further: “your or at least someone’s experiences”.

Because, yes, writing has to start with what is known. My most basic level of knowledge is knowing what it is to be alive. I’m a human being with a place in the world – sensory input going 24/7, human relationships, knowing what I like and what I don’t. A character on a page has to give the impression of a similar level of existence. If you can’t believe they existed before you opened the book, or that they will go on existing after you close it, then the author isn’t writing what they know.

But with that given, then it’s time to start making stuff up. Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity is told from the point of view of the native of a planet with a surface gravity 700 times stronger than our own, which is laughably petty compared to the world of Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, where it’s 67 billion times stronger. Neither author can claim first-hand knowledge of such environments, but they too can start with the basic knowledge of being alive and take it from there.

My type of science fiction tends to be closer to home, with mostly human characters. I’ve never time travelled – but I have been in some fairly insalubrious third world slums, so if I want to imagine a European city of previous centuries, that’s what I picture. I’ve never worn a spacesuit, but I have scuba dived: I know the sounds and sensations and slightly claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed by your personal life support system, keeping you alive bare centimetres from an environment that could kill you, simultaneously giving you immense freedom and severely curtailing your possibilities. I’ve never been in a spaceship, but I’ve travelled by aeroplane, so I know that illusion of normality coupled with the ever-present knowledge at the back of your head that you’re in the belly of a fantastically complicated machine hurtling through the sky several miles above the ground and that isn’t normal at all.

Other things I have done: driven a car; sailed a boat; grown up in an army family; fired several types of gun; stood on the floor of an active volcano; walked up Snowdon, across Salisbury Plain and through an Indonesian rain forest (not all on the same day); flown an aeroplane under supervision; taken off, flown and landed a glider solo; been in unrequited love. I’ve never divorced, had a serious illness or died, but friends have and (sorry guys) you can bet I was paying close attention. And each of those experiences, or scenarios developed and extrapolated from them, has appeared in my published writing.

Ted, the titular teen of The Teen, the Witch & the Thief, has a stepfather Barry with whom he doesn’t get on. An unexpected pleasure of writing The Comeback of the King was being able to give new depth to Barry that was entirely consistent with what we learned of him in the first book, but which showed a lot more sympathy. The reason: between writing the first and second books, I became a stepfather of a teenager myself. I tip my hat to all Barrys everywhere.

Alumni of the Milford writers’ workshop have access to the Milford Skills List. Everyone who attends gets a chance to write down a few areas of expertise that they are willing to share with other members. And fantastically useful it is too. I was recently able to quiz a retired GP on the best kind of fracture to have, from a dramatic point of view, and how to perform a field amputation. I doubt she has any direct experience of the latter, but again, based on what she does know she was able to extrapolate.

So there you have it – write what you know, or failing that, find out what someone else knows, and write that. And then do something new with it.

Blimey, um, I mean, of course I got it right

Everyone likes to be right. When that rightness can be traced back to luck and a bit of intuition – or, if you like, pure accident – then it’s even better.

The contention of The New World Order, though its seventeenth century characters lack the vocabulary and scientific knowledge to work it out, is that around 35,000 BC the majority of a subspecies of the genus Homo disappeared through a wormhole into a parallel Earth. The few that remained soon died out in our world altogether, leaving only tantalising mythological hints, until in the nineteenth century some of their skeletons were discovered and identified in Germany’s Neander valley (or, in German, “Neander thal”). I see you’ve got it.

The ones who left develop a civilisation parallel to ours, in fact slightly ahead, so that when in our seventeenth century they find a way back to this world, calling themselves the Holekhor, they are at what we would call an early twentieth century level of technology.

At the time of writing I couldn’t get a definitive answer on whether our ancestors and Neandertals could interbreed, but it was necessary for the plot that (a) they could but (b) rarely did, at least, successfully. For a lark, I declared as fact some purely theoretical, off-the-cuff New Scientist speculation that they were the source of our genes for blue eyes and red hair (both mostly found in Europeans or their descendants, and Neandertals do seem to have been most numerous in Europe). But Sir George Monk does the maths:

“The existence of Master Matthews showed that English and Holekhor could interbreed, and reports from certain quarters of the garrison towns indicated that interbreeding was frequent … Yet the fact that the same towns were not crawling with little red-haired bastards showed that successful interbreeding was rare … Given a fixed population of Holekhor, still very much a minority in England, Monk could see that within a couple of generations they would have all but vanished, absorbed into the main body of the English.”

So, reader, imagine my joy at reading “Modern human females and male Neandertals had trouble making babies. Here’s why“. I was right! As Sir George couldn’t possibly have told you, it’s all down to wonky genes – DNA analysis shows that male Neandertals “had mutations in three immune genes, including one that produces antigens that can elicit an immune response in pregnant women, causing them to reject and miscarry male fetuses with those genes.”

So there you have it – “facts” about the Neandertals devised purely for authorial convenience, turning out to be true anyway. For your jobbing sf author, it doesn’t get much better.