As the spy world celebrates the birthday the noted author, Ian Fleming of the James Bond series, spy-tech historian Kristie Macrakis reflects on his role in bringing the world of spies and their gadgets to the masses.
With enthusiasm and trepidation I taught a new seminar on the Technology of Bond, James Bond several years ago. While planning the course I imagined my colleagues whispering in the corridors “she’s up to no good again.”
When I started teaching intelligence history as background for my last book, the stodgiest colleagues scoffed, but later relented as the field became more accepted.
But what my students really wanted was a course on James Bond. And so did I. Why not study how James Bond conquered the world and our imagination? Comparing fact with fiction proved to be fun and educational.
My favorite part in the James Bond movies had always been the entrance of the endearing gadget man, Q, who outfitted Bond with the latest and coolest gadgets, but I was no expert. And, unlike my male counterparts, I hadn’t even read Ian Fleming when I was an adolescent.
What an eye-opener! My students and I liked the Ian Fleming novels better than the movies. James Bond had more depth and character to him and didn’t always get the girl. The novels told interesting stories of heroes and villains with real life twisted through the plot. Surprisingly, the slam-bang, jaw-dropping outlandish technology was absent in the novels. Instead, we found low-tech reality dispersed by Major Boothroyd.
What happened? As we read novel after novel and watched the matching movie, we found that the British novels had been Americanized and transformed into Hollywood style films featuring the latest spectacular special effects. American technological enthusiasm had been injected into the British spy
Fleming’s spy-tech was closer to the realities I found in my research on the East German Ministry for State Security’s James Bond department. Perhaps the European style was less flashy than the dazzle of the American Office of Technical Services.
While the movies reflected Cold War culture and society, the novels had telescoped many World War II experiences into the early Cold War. Moonraker featured evil mustached Nazis building a rocket aimed at London and Diamonds Are Forever was a fictional portrayal of real life diamond smuggling from the forties and fifties (and of course, all the novels had their share of sexism and racism in them) Fleming had also written a non-fiction account featuring techniques like radioactive tracers to track the diamonds.
But my all-time favorite was From Russian with Love. The story is compelling, the structure of the book beautiful and the historical details realistic. I would rank it with John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from
the Cold as one of the best and most evocative Cold War spy novels.
SMERSH (the Death to Spies troop) really did exist but had their heyday in World War II. The portrait of the assassin was masterful and the plot surrounding the lektor, a code machine reminiscent of the Enigma, typical of the Soviet vs. British spy game. Fleming even threw in realistic tidbits like the famous Khoklov assassination attempt using thallium and the secret filming of sexpionage.
In the waning days of British imperialism, the novels even provided insight into relations among the intelligence agencies. In the Konspiratsia chapter, the Soviets (and Fleming) make a jab at US intelligence: they have the biggest and richest service and are the best technically but have little understanding for the work. The British had the brains and good education.
The topic inspired my students; they blossomed. I had rarely seen then so eager to conduct serious research (and not just on the internet). The Cold War timelines with political and technical highlights alongside the movies and films were wonderfully creative. I still have a graphic designers’ James Bond poster in my office.
Fleming deserves his place in the sun. Let’s add him to the Cold War spy novel greats.
Kristie Macrakis is the author of the recently released Seduced by Secrets: Inside the Stasi’s Spy-Tech World. She is a Visiting Scholar at the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. See http://www.seducedbysecrets.com for more biographical information Professor Kristie Macrakis