03 July 2007

Stormbreaker and the Enemies of England

Just because I disliked Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker, the first Alex Rider thriller, doesn't mean I can't find significance in its literary influences. And I'm not just talking about the James Bond novels.

Rather, there's a history over a century and a quarter long behind this scene, on page 104 of the US edition:

Alex stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing.

A submarine. It had erupted from the sea with the speed and the impossibility of a huge stage illusion. . . . The submarine had no markings, but Alex knew it wasn't English. . . . And what was it doing here, off the coast of Cornwall?
A hostile ship just off the British coast shows Horowitz's debt to what's become known as "invasion literature." This genre that began with The Battle of Dorking in 1871 and remained popular in Britain until World War I made thoughts of such warfare less entertaining. This field begat the British spy thriller through Erskine Childers's Riddle of the Sands (1903), so it's only fair for its echo to reverberate down through Stormbreaker. The invasion genre was also a major influence on science fiction via H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds (1898).

Two of my favorite authors even got into the act. In 1909, P. G. Wodehouse wrote a parody of invasion literature called The Swoop! In his Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz comic page of 1904-05, L. Frank Baum had his travelers from Oz spot a German naval ship off the US coast. (Nothing came of that.)

Usually the invaders in British invasion literature are Germans, though there's always the possibility of Russians and occasional Turks and Arabs as well. How does that change for Alex Rider's post-Cold War world?

Not much, it turns out. The bad guys in Stormbreaker are:
  • Russian assassin Yassen Gregorovich
  • Lebanese (in the UK edition) or Egyptian (in the US edition) computer genius Herod Sayle [Harrods sale, get it? aren't foreign names funny!]
  • scarred circus performer Mr. Grin
  • blonde-bunned assistant Fraulein Nadia Vole (as in rodent)
Vole's actually a triple threat because "Fraulein" is clearly German, but Nadia is a popular girl's name in both Slavic and Arabic cultures!

"Invasion literature" popularized the notion of an island surrounded and infiltrated by enemies, and Stormbreaker reinforces that world-view. The villain tells Alex, "You'd be surprised how many countries there are in the world who loathe the English. Most of Europe, just to begin with." The head of MI6 speaks of "China and the former Soviet Union, countries that have never been our friends"--WW2 alliances entirely forgotten.

There's no reason in Stormbreaker's plot for the villain to come from outside Britain, just as he doesn't have to be "so short that Alex's first impression was that he was looking at a reflection that had somehow been distorted" and he doesn't have to have "very horrible eyes." But he does, he is, and he has.

Sayle's stated motivation is that he was badly bullied at school because he was a small foreign newcomer:
"From the moment I arrived at the school, I was mocked and bullied. Because of my size. Because of my dark skin. Because I couldn't speak English well. Because I wasn't one of them. . . ."
To that Alex replies, "Lots of kids get are bullied and they don't turn into nutcases." Indeed, the book has already told us that Alex himself was bullied at a new school because of "his gentle looks and accent."

Of course, the book has also told us that Alex is "well built, with the body of an athlete"; English and white; rich; and highly trained in karate. So Alex was bullied only once. He acknowledges no difference between his situation and Sayle's, and the book implies that we shouldn't, either.

The succeeding books seem to extend this basic pattern. In the Main Criminals page of the Alex Rider website, five of the seven villains are foreign, three of those Russian. Only one, Damian Cray, is English. He's also (a) interested in India and Buddhism, (b) a crusader for environmental preservation and animal rights, and (c) linked by names and characteristics to certain gay British icons. Hmmm.

As it turns out, while I was cogitating this little essay Horowitz was writing on the same topic from another direction. In the 5 June edition of the right-wing Daily Mail tabloid he lamented that it's not so easy to be beastly to downtrodden groups these days. So where's a thriller writer to find scary villains?

Might I suggest exercising enough imagination not to rely on stereotypes that were cliché a century ago?

3 comments:

Jen Robinson said...

"Might I suggest exercising enough imagination not to rely on stereotypes that were cliché a century ago?"

Well put! I couldn't even get through this book when I tried to read it, for many of the reasons that you've cited in passing above. Thanks for the validation.

fusenumber8 said...

I'll second that with a rousing "what-ho!"

Glad to see I'm not the only one who thought the man a bit out of touch.

Anonymous said...

i am actually a big fan of Mr Horowitz and i actuall think that when people change things in US versions it doesnt make a difference... hey are still crazy criminals