James Bond style secret agent

Book review: ‘Superspy Science’ by Kathryn Harkup

Image credit: Oliver Nowak/Dreamstime

Science, death and tech in the world of James Bond.

Reading ‘Superspy Science’ brought back memories. Let me share a couple of them.

How do you like this? “My name is Zakhov, Avvakum Zakhov.”

Hmm... Sounds weird... Let’s try again:

“My name is Boyev, Emil Boyev.”

Even harder to digest for an ‘English-speaking ear’ more accustomed to one of the world’s most popular soundbites: “My name’s Bond. James Bond.”

No wonder.

Trust me, had the West lost the Cold War, the first two quotes could have been on everybody’s lips too. Why? Because both Avvakum Zakhov and Emil Boyev were the former communist world’s answers to James Bond.

Let me explain. In the Soviet Union of my childhood and youth, where Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and the movie versions were strictly banned, the global phenomenon was either silenced completely or silenced and heavily criticised. Grossly misunderstood as a belligerent and ardently anti-Soviet Western killer spy, rather than a parody of a sophisticated Englishman, James Bond was regarded as one of the strongest symbols of Western hostility to the USSR. The comic, let alone ironic, element of the books and films was completely lost on the ever-so-geriatric Soviet leadership.

As children, we were taught to perceive Bond as an epitome of our sworn enemy and I remember how, when I was in my thirties and saw a Bond movie for the first time in Australia, I was genuinely surprised to discover how funny and non-sinister he actually was. I was also taken by all the fantastic gadgets and by the fact that many were the prototypes of either already existing or brazen future technologies.

Yes, the technology aspect which is the focus of Kathryn Harkup’s excellent book (Bloomsbury Sigma, £17.99, ISBN 9781472982261) was paramount in banning Bond books and movies on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain for fear that, if published or released, they would expose the technological backwardness of that very ‘wrong side’. Such a mood grew considerably after the Caribbean Crisis [editor's note: this is how Russia referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962] which, as some Western critics (James Fleming, the author of ‘Bond Behind the Iron Curtain’, among them) assert, was at least partially provoked by the first and only scathing ‘review’ of the film version of Dr. No in the leading Soviet newspaper Izvestiya (‘The News’) . Equivalent to a belligerent Politburo statement, it was almost a declaration of war that triggered demonstrations of protest all over the Western world.

The war didn’t happen, but hostilities continued and it was allegedly decided at a special Communist Party Central Committee meeting in 1963 that a new communist and Soviet James Bond had to be created. The task was delegated to friendly Bulgaria, whose secret services were used to carrying out their Moscow counterparts’ ‘dirty jobs’. (The murder of the dissident Georgi Markov with a poisoned  umbrella tip in London in 1978 was one ‘technology of death’ that was rather primitive compared to Bond’s.)

In no time, Bulgaria produced not one, but two ‘communist’ 007 equivalents. Avvacum Zakhov appeared in a book ingeniously titled ‘Avvacum Zakhov Versus 007’ by writer Andrei Guliashki. Some time later, Emil Boev featured in several novels with more sophisticated titles (among them ‘Big Boredom’ and ‘What Could be Better Than Bad Weather?’) by Bohomil Rainov. The latter was a good writer, far superior to Guliashki: one must at least possess a certain degree of self-confidence to call one’s own novel ‘Big Boredom’.

All of the above were hastily translated into English and, I suspect, secretly smuggled to the West to counterbalance the ‘Bond propaganda’.

Yet, none of the Bulgarian opuses really took off, not even in the former communist bloc countries. The reason - and now we finally return to the reviewed title – being an almost total lack of cutting- (let alone killing, or at least stabbing) edge science and technology. Instead, the agents’ tools were limited to some old boring phone boxes, antediluvian photo cameras and rusty pistols. Even the tested old umbrella tip was nowhere to be seen.

Kathryn Harkup is a huge Bond fan who happens to be a scientist as well as a great writer and ‘Superspy Science’ makes it clear why Bond novels and movies constitute such inimitable fun. I would call it a techno chronicle of all James Bond movies, with the books generously thrown in. It is even structured in a chronological order, with numbers from 001 to 025 to mark the 25 existing Bond movies - from ‘Dr No and the gun-barrel sequence’ to ‘No Time to Die and the nanobots’.

Can even a tyro Bond fan resist devouring such chapters as (in no particular order) ‘003 Goldfinger and the Laser’; ‘004 Thunderball and the gamma gas’, or ‘017 Golden Eye and the EM pulse?’ A real James Bond techno treasure trove! Most of the chapters are even structured as if they were film scripts.

I want to finish with a quote from the book’s introductory ‘Pre-title sequence’: “This book is an extended version of... conversations and speculations after watching a Bond film, told from the point of view of a fan and a scientist... So, with cuffs straightened, vodka martini in hand and tongue firmly in cheek, let’s take aim straight down the gun barrel and head off on our mission to explore the science of James Bond.”

I promise you a gripping exploration.

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