After the somewhat limp and uninspiring Bond caper Die Another Day, back in 2003, the producers of the films took a long hard look at the role James Bond has in the modern age. When a character is created as the last hurrah of the British Empire, and is molded by the Cold War, how can it make plausible sense to keep all of those tropes going without any sort of irony in a world that has changed so much? And what they came up with was the Craig-era Bond series, and while some have said they strayed too much from the path, and are basically Bourne-done-again; at the very least, they did SOMETHING new, which was desperately needed. Solo, a new novel in the James Bond series, fails to learn any of these points, and stumbles around the same exact things that have been done a million times, but without the benefit of having any of Ian Flemings original gravitas attached.
Solo is set in 1969, 6 years after the latest placed original novel. Bond momentarily contemplates his life now that he is 45, but this rare chance at character development is shelved aside in favor of describing in insipid detail the meal James had for dinner. He is called in by M to deal with a situation in Africa, where a fictional land called Zanzarim is having a civil war, which James must resolve in order for the British oil contracts to be fulfilled. Along the way, there are of course going to be twists aplenty, and of course also a few girls that fall into bed with him just because. Bond’s major antagonist this time is an ex-Rhodesian mercenary named Kobus Breed, who is kind of funny to read even for us South Africans, just to imagine his accent going even, but in the end he fails to inspire the level of villainy that previous Bond villains have done.
Aside from everything else mentioned, my singularly worst problem with this story is that its written from a third-person personal perspective. In the movies at least, James Bond is an outside figure to us, we guess at his motivations and his plans and actions are therefore more interesting. In the novels, you’re inside his head all the time, listening to a constant self-congratulatory series of comments about how superior he is to everyone else around him. And then, to add insult to injury, everyone around him agrees with how wonderful he is. And if they don’t, they’re probably a deformed drug dealing child trafficker, so that makes it understandable why they couldn’t see James’ brilliance. Sometimes I just feel like the only one at the party that hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, because even though many things are relevant to the time period, Bond is still a sexist, racist, imperialist, snobbish, violent and offensive person, and being inside his head just makes it all the clearer.
James Bond in this form is like a child’s fantasy, where they have a tough time at school and rush home to vent by writing stories about how they beat up all the mean people and all the girls wanted them and how they were amazing and suave. It bares very little comparison to anything in the modern world of fiction. I’m never one for historical revisionism, but I am a fan of contextualizing, and Ian Fleming wrote his stories in a certain way because of the world he lived in, and he passed on many years ago, so pretending to be a man from the 1950’s isn’t a very productive avenue to pursue. If I did a modern remake of KKK propaganda piece The Birth of a Nation from 1915, but I failed to modernize or address it in anyway, and simply presented all of its negative qualities in full force again, would I actually have done anything meaningful? Or does James Bond get a free ride because he’s a famous character?
Worst of all, flawed as they were, this one still isn’t even close to being as much of a classic as the original novels. There’s no reason for it to exist.