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‘Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.’

He laughed. ‘But don’t let me down and become human, yourself. We would lose such a wonderful machine.’

I asked my dad about Ian Fleming’s novels when I was a kid. He raised his eyebrows as if to communicate a world of adult themes and dodginess far beyond my childlike understanding. Bear in mind this is the man who gave me The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to read when I was young, from which I don’t think I ever really recovered. I put aside any ambition to read the James Bond series until today.

I think I see dad’s point now.

The book opens with Bond singing the praises of casinos, the sights and smells that add to the sense of adrenaline when huge amounts of money are at stake. He has been assigned to embarrass and humiliate an enemy agent known as Le Chiffre in a game of baccarat. His opponent is known to have lost most of his money in a failed chain of brothels throughout France and this game, held at the Royale-les-Eaux casino, is his last desperate attempt to recover some of his lost capital. As the finest baccarat player in the British secret service Bond has been given the job of making sure that does not happen, in the hopes that Le Chiffre’s Soviet spy-masters will eliminate him once it is made clear he has squandered their funding.

Bond’s French contact Mathis is helping him maintain his cover as a Jamaican millionaire visiting the casino to play. A second British agent, Vesper Lynd, is also assigned to the case. As Mathis explains, how could a successful business man explain not having a beautiful woman on his arm at the casino? Finally, Bond is introduced to a CIA undercover operative named Felix Leitner, who assists him with the provision of additional monies when Le Chiffre has an unexpected run of good luck.

The majority of the book is occupied with the duelling games of chance between the two men. Aside from the scenes within the casino, Bond discovers that somehow his cover has been quickly blown. There is an attempt on his life by a team of Bulgarian bombers and a hidden gun is secreted onto the floor of the game itself when he becomes too much of a threat to Le Chiffre. A battle of wits ensues, with Bond attempting to outmanoeuvre the enemy both within and outside the casino.

Fleming’s prose oscillates rapidly between purplish excess and a dry, notational style more appropriate to an official document. Then there’s the waspish contempt for women that’s much in evidence, with Bond resenting Lynd’s assignment: On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. When she is kidnapped at one point by Le Chiffre’s goons he snarls that she is a ‘silly bitch’. Bond justifies himself by describing the life of a spy as an extravagant existence for the bachelor, hence his ornate drink’s orders and refined taste in food. He has spent a lot of time thinking about pleasure for himself. It is widely regarded that this was Fleming’s fantasy for the life he had left behind, as he wrote Casino Royale when he was soon to be married.

As a product of personal fantasy, the book is remarkably unusual. It depicts a Cold War being fought almost like a game in a gentleman’s club. The setting underlines this theme appropriately. Bond does not hate the men he kills. They simply lost to him. He dismisses the significance of his ‘00’, status by remarking it only required for him to kill two men. Even M admits to a peculiar admiration of Le Chiffre – a communist, embezzler and pornographer, lest we forget. Fleming’s villain is described as a concentration camp detainee – due to, it is implied, Jewish ancestry – who has taken his unusual moniker as he is only a number on a passport. The quote I chose above comes from an extended sequence when Bond and Mathis debate the morality of spy-work. He questions whether Le Chiffre is actually a villain (and this after having survived prolonged torture at his hands).

Casino Royale is almost neurotic in Fleming’s second guessing of his fantasy and an attempt at relativistic realism. It is a curious, unfathomable and perverse novel.

I swallowed a pill and recklessly lit a cigarette and concentrated on not throwing up. I don’t know how much it was actually motion sickness. A lot of it was fear. There is something very frightening about knowing that there is nothing between you and instant, ugly death except a thin skin of metal made by some peculiar strangers half a million years ago.

This is funny. I enjoyed reading Joan Didion’s book from yesterday, with its descriptions of immigrants and pioneers crossing the wilds of America and then I pick up this book – which once again describes a host of people setting out for the unknown. Except in this instance, Frederick Pohl is describing people catapulting themselves out into the vastness of space itself.

Robinette Broadhead hates his name. He has tried to go by Bob, or Rob, or Robbie, but none of these attempts at settling himself with a new title work. It’s an essential conflict within himself that he has lived with his entire life, one plagued by indecision and guilt. His mother was a miner and died when he was quite young. He blames himself for this and when he wins a lottery that would ensure he never would have to risk the same fate, he spends his earnings on a ticket to Gateway, a mysterious structure in orbit around Venus.

Gateway was built by an alien race known as the Heechee, long gone already. The humans who first discovered it found a docking bay of sorts, filled with a collection of vessels designed for interstellar flight. Those brave enough to climb into these spaceships and operate the controls were catapulted across the galaxy to strange new stars. Sometimes they would return with more evidence of the Heechee civilization and be rewarded generously by the corporation that controls Gateway. Many never return, or their ships do, with the crew long dead.

In cashing in his chips to avail of this opportunity Robinette has elected to pursue an even more dangerous career than the one that claimed his mother’s life. It did work out for him though. He made a huge score, one that has bankrolled a life of leisure and easy living. So why does he attend therapy sessions with a robot every week? What happened during his last trip out from Gateway that has caused him so much guilt? How could someone as interminably indecisive as him have become a winner?

Pohl alternates between Robinette’s therapy sessions with Sigfrid, who does occasionally utilise a holographic image of Sigmund Freud, and his life between journeys out into space on Gateway. Deeply in denial about what has occurred, this analysand makes life very hard for his robot analyst, cursing and abusing poor Sigfrid despite the fact that no one is forcing him to attend these sessions. No one has even ordered him to strap himself down each time. While Sigfrid finds it difficult to get Robinette to answer a simple question about last night’s dream, the reader is made privy to his experiences in training, his growing love affair with a veteran space traveller and his own sexual ambiguity.

This future society of Pohl’s devising is also very convincingly imagined. For one the human race is struggling due to a serious lack of resources. The discovery of Heechee artefacts was a remarkable stroke of luck. Much of the life of Gateway explorers relies upon luck. They do not understand the Heechee vessels they travel in, or even after almost two decades of exploration know anymore about that alien civilization than they did when they first discovered the station. Dumb luck is a recurring phrase within the book and these space prospectors toss themselves into the void with little hope of returning unharmed by the perilous journey.

The novel’s themes are all beautifully illustrated by Robinette’s profound survivor’s guilt. I also admire how Pohl lets us get to know his protagonist and the people in his life, taking the time to develop their characters. As the book progresses the tension surrounding whatever event caused Robinette to enter therapy despite his boundless success continues to build.

This is masterfully written, character-driven science fiction.

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