We look at the supercrime potential of some of the Bond movies’ iconic baddies and ask if they could realistically have got away with their devilish plots.
You know you’ve made it as a supervillain when not only has James Bond shown up at your mountain lair, but your henchmen have successfully tied him and suspended his exhausted frame over a pool of hungry sharks. Now is the time when you can reveal your dastardly plot to rule the world or simply blackmail it for one trillion dollars.
However, think for a moment. Are you telling 007 the full details because you just want to gloat or have you suddenly realised your henchmen are spineless sycophants and what you really need before you go ahead with your attack is a decent second opinion on the plan’s viability?
Follow the money
Financial mayhem looms large in the Bond villain playbook. It seems the obvious choice for anyone with a grudge against the West or a monolithic crime syndicate. When you consider capitalism is only too capable of destabilising itself on a semi-regular basis - seven years for a wobble, 70 for a catastrophic implosion - surely the supervillain only needs to give it the gentlest of prods in the right direction?
Unfortunately for the cause of criminality, Bond villains lack subtlety. They insist on waging war literally where they could be inventing arcane computational schemes, such as derivatives and collateralised debt obligations, and so profit from them on the open market before standing back to admire the destruction. The theme is one of Bond’s longest running.
Although not directly based on any of Fleming’s work, 'Goldeneye' repurposed ideas that were written out by the more overt science fiction treatment given to the 1970s movie of the 1955 novel ‘Moonraker’. In the original ‘Moonraker’, as it is set much closer to the end of the Second World War, Hugo Drax can still be a fully paid-up member of the Third Reich’s Nazi Party rather than the independently Nietzschean nutter of the 'Moonraker' movie. Bent on revenge for the defeat of his regime and to please his Soviet paymasters, the novel’s version of Drax aims to take out the City of London and the UK’s financial heart with a single missile - after cashing out on the stock market.
In 'Goldeneye', the weapon does not actually have to land on London. It is an orbiting nuclear weapon designed to deliver an intense electromagnetic pulse (EMP) rather than physical destruction. As the villain, former double-zero agent Alec ‘Janus’ Trevelyan intends to simply wipe the disk drives in the Bank of England after breaking in electronically and diverting funds to a host of offshore bank accounts.
However, EMP delivered by nuke is far from being a precision instrument. It’s like swatting a fly with a cannon. If triggered from low orbit, Goldeneye would be far more destructive to the UK economy than Trevelyan’s plan as it would probably wipe out most of the electricity grid and fry just about every computer in the country that happened to be switched on at the time. In fact, make that half of Europe. Ironically, the data on the disks themselves would probably be intact, not that anyone would be too bothered about recovering the data for a few months in the chaos that would ensue.
Trevelyan would probably find his stolen electronic wealth would not count for much in the reprisal that could easily have followed the detonation of a nuclear warhead in the upper atmosphere over London. Also the plan suffers from the small issue that Goldeneye would be banned by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons in Earth orbit - they can only be launched from the ground - and therefore would have attracted attention long before Trevelyan obtained its control codes. However, he does score nine out of ten for having the ability to bring a good chunk of the Western economy, and the world, to its knees without necessarily realising it.
Operating several decades earlier, Auric Goldfinger naturally avoided electronic funds transfer and went after the gold on which the US monetary system was supposedly established. Originally, Goldfinger’s aim was simply to steal the money. However, the scriptwriters of the movie 'Goldfinger' took account of criticism of Fleming’s original plot, in which the goldbug would attempt to make it out of landlocked Kentucky with tonnes of the yellow metal. They decided that Drax-style financial mayhem presented a more realistic plot device. Working for the Soviet SMERSH agency, Goldfinger’s team would irradiate the gold hoard, making it impossible to shift for decades afterwards. In theory
Yet Goldfinger overestimated the power of gold even in the early 1960s. Just seven years after filming, US president Richard Nixon would formally take his country off the gold standard. In practice, fractional reserve banking and the role of the dollar itself as a global reserve currency had already diminished the purpose of gold as a form of backing to the dollar. The disclosure that 3 per cent of the world’s gold had been irradiated and was therefore untouchable for a while might knock confidence. However, its role is simply to sit in a vault for years on end and the US government could arguably borrow against the large foreign-owned stock of gold at the Federal Reserve in New York, already operating a number of policies in place to discourage the exchange of dollars to gold. It’s hard to see SMERSH’s plan for economic ruin having much, if any, lasting effect.
In any case, if the US government wanted to clean up its gold, it would take a while, but be possible. The same diffusion or centrifuge techniques as those used to enrich uranium for reactors and weapons would separate out pure gold from radioactive elements that have different atomic weights. The lasting effect would be the loss of some gold, rendered unstable, to far less valuable metals such as mercury.
Villains in later Bond movies rein in their economic ambitions, the latest episodes more in keeping with the original novels, with only slightly greater chances of success. Elektra King, working with career terrorist Renard, planned in 'The World is Not Enough' to wreck a Russian pipeline by triggering a nuclear explosion in the Bosphorus with the simple ambition of making her oil more expensive. As repeated oil shocks have shown in times of shortage, the price goes up, but only for a while and when it comes to oil and gas, countries in eastern and central Europe are open to building pipelines.
Supposedly eco-conscious company Greene Planet picks on Latin American country Bolivia in Quantum of Solace, buying land to dam up the local water supply in order to ensure a monopoly contract. Boss Dominic Greene was apparently unaware of the ability of governments to renationalise industries, forcibly if necessary, as well as the geography of Bolivia which gets a lot more rainfall in its agricultural regions than the movie implies.
Global laser surgery
Nothing says you’re worth it more than a diamond-studded laser and with one of those, Spectre chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld intended to hold the entire world to ransom. Like US president Ronald Reagan almost two decades later, Blofeld failed to reckon with the problems of laser physics when you need to fire at things from a long distance, especially when you have a lot of air in the way.
The reality is that, by the time the light from Blofeld’s laser reached the White House or any other target, it would be spread across a much larger area because of atmospheric dispersion and absorption. It might heat things up a bit but would fail to have the destructive power the supervillain intended, even if he could have given the satellite a powerful enough source of energy. The use of multiple satellites coordinated to focus on a single point might have improved his chances - and multiplied his already massive costs.
Even without the problem of thermal blooming, Blofeld’s idea that diamonds would make more powerfully destructive lasers was aesthetically attractive, but an overly expensive option. He could have kept the diamonds and packed something far cheaper into his satellite design. The US military demonstrated that cheap old carbon dioxide provides easily enough focused energy to punch holes in steel. Also, for real destructive power you would need to adopt designs such as Miracl, a US military design from the 1990s based on deuterium fluoride and provided with energy from rocket fuel. A high-energy X-ray laser using a plasma reaction fed by a nuclear weapon would potentially be more destructive, but public demonstrations of X-ray lasers have been peaceful and at much lower energies used to study material structures at the atomic level.
The Icarus satellite from 'Die Another Day' worked around the power problem by making it entirely solar powered - focusing light from the sun into an intense beam and then aimed at the ground. Somehow, it would do this without melting, but it’s the heat-distribution problem with high-energy lasers that has caused laser scientists to look again at diamond.
Diamond is an incredible conductor of heat. It’s now one of the key applications for the synthetic-diamond industry. Although not the only team working on diamond lasers, researchers at the University of Strathclyde in 2013 built a design just millimetres in length that can produce wavelengths at high power that conventional technologies cannot. Using high-power beams of a particular frequency of light, a surgeon could repair lesions without risking other delicate structures nearby because they absorb certain light frequencies, such as a deep yellow-orange, much more strongly than surrounding tissue. However, these lasers are unlikely to be turned into superweapons.
Max Zorin’s plan in 'A View to a Kill' encapsulates the Silicon Valley dream. Think up a madcap idea, get some venture funding and seal the deal by submerging Silicon Valley and letting his investors profit from making the silicon chips they sell much more valuable.
By pumping water into key sections of the two faults that straddle the San Francisco Bay Area and then detonating a large bomb above a section of ground that is acting as a brake on the movement of the faults, nature would supposedly complete Zorin’s plan to inundate the low-lying industrial centre with water from the San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately for Zorin, unless such pressure had built in the faults that the quake was already ready to happen, the energy needed to act as the trigger would be phenomenal.
If it were not for the need to make it look like an accident rather than an act of war, the villain might as well simply drop a nuclear warhead on the region to destroy the area. However, even if that part of the plan worked and orbiting spy satellites did not pick up the tell-tale seismic aftermath of such a large explosion preceding the actual earthquake, the geopolitics of chipmaking had already passed the movie by.
At the time the film was being made, Japanese manufacturers had successfully pursued an effective but far less deadly scheme for claiming dominance in key parts of the chipmaking industry. They would simply drive up supply and then undercut US competitors. The Japanese companies picked the memory-chip market as their preferred target for the first wave of dumping. Such dumping practices continued in the industry for decades, albeit wielded by different countries as they sought to carve out a niche in chipmaking.
The practices damaged Intel at a vulnerable point. The US company regarded memory as its key product line at the time, although IBM had bet the future of the surprisingly successful personal computer on Intel’s x86 processor design. The computer giant, seeing a problem with supply, took a 12 per cent stake in Intel in exchange for a $250m cash injection in 1982, later increasing that to almost a third.
IBM’s move meant Intel could capitalise on the PC revolution and quickly become the world’s most successful and profitable chipmaker. If Intel had not received that help, global IC manufacturing would probably have an even stronger Far Eastern balance than now. Yet the shift by US manufacturers beyond Silicon Valley had already started in earnest. All of Intel’s key fabs are now outside Silicon Valley - and that shift started in the 1970s. Intel’s third fab, opened in 1972, lay east of Silicon Valley - and the Hayward fault targeted by Zorin - with a site near Livermore, California. It shut in 1991 as production spread even further afield.