Book Review: Diamonds Are Forever (1956) by Ian Fleming

“Nothing is forever. Only death is permanent.”

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Inspired by news of African diamond smuggling as featured in a 1954 Sunday Times article, Ian Fleming’s fourth James Bond novel leads 007 on an undercover adventure through the heart of America in search of an international gang running the “richest smuggling operation in the world.” Despite being ostensibly a Cold War spy novel, the Russians and SMERSH are wholly absent. Instead, Bond infiltrates a gang of diamond smugglers in order to discover an illegal supply chain stretching from Sierra Leone to the United States.

Diamonds Are Forever shares a great deal in common with Live and Let Die. Both novels take place in the shady milieu of the American criminal underworld, and both novels simply ooze with disdain for American culture —“It’s not as if this is Iron Curtain business. America’s a civilized country. More or less” (18); it’s fierce and corrupt but “that’s how it is in America these days” (70). In a travelogue of sorts, Bond travels from New York to Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and along the way his heavy-handed disgust for the United States becomes blatantly apparent. According to Bond, America is a sleazy land of would-be cowboys, dingy diners offering “jumboburgers” and hot dogs, run-down motels, six-lane freeways, casinos, gangs, crime, drugs, racism, and rampant commercialism. Bond sees Americans as little more than a pack of slack-jawed imbeciles who cannot help themselves when salivating over money and cheap thrills. Appropriately, the book’s title is even borrowed from an American diamond advertisement in Vogue Magazine: “A Diamond is Forever.” As Christopher Hitchens once noted: “the central paradox of the classic Bond stories is that, although superficially devoted to the Anglo-American war against communism, they are full of contempt and resentment for America and Americans.” Along this journey, Bond wants nothing more than to escape from the cultural despair in America –he hopes to return to the greener pastures of England sooner rather than later. As a consequence, Diamonds Are Forever is not exactly a joyous reading experience –the stakes of the mission are low and Bond seems mostly bored or uninterested in his mission.

At the outset, Bond has just returned from a two-week vacation in France (following the events of Moonraker). M has been approached by higher ups at the Treasury (and the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Trade) regarding a troubling economic trend. The illegal diamond trade is costing England $2M pounds per year –England’s “Diamond Corporation” appears to be losing a significant chunk of its profits to an American company called “House of Diamonds.” Typically, the legitimate diamond trade in England nets some fifty million pounds. The problem is not that diamonds are being smuggled per se, but rather that smuggling is economically benefitting the United States at the expense of England. So why isn’t the United States addressing the diamond smuggling racket? According to M, the FBI is simply too busy dealing with domestic gang activity in America to focus on anything else. Furthermore, smuggling actually helps the American economy so there is little incentive to stop the trade.

At any rate, Bond visits the London office of “House of Diamonds” flanked by Sergeant Dankwaerts, and they discover that the office is headed by an odd little fellow named Rufus B. Saye. Meanwhile, a dentist in Africa has been smuggling diamonds inside people’s teeth to the United States, however Sir Percy Sillitoe (a character based on the real former head of MI5) has been cracking down on smuggling in the region. Nerves are high among smugglers in West Africa as they demand increased pay from the operation ringleader, a mysterious villain known only as “ABC.”

Bond assumes the persona of “Peter Franks,” a golfer and low-level smuggler (the alias of Peter Franks is suggested to Bond by Assistant Commissioner Ronnie Vallance, an old friend from the Moonraker affair. As Peter Franks, Bond travels to New York and meets with a contact at the House of Diamonds named Michael “Shady” Tree (a “red-haired hunchback”). Soon it is revealed that this whole smuggling operation is run by the “Spangled Mob,” a criminal enterprise headed by twin brothers Jack Spang (his alias is revealed to be Rufus B. Saye, the eccentric head of the London office) and his twin brother Seraffimo. Under the purview of both brothers, the Spangled Mob purchased the House of Diamonds corporation five years earlier and now they also own the Sure Fire Wire Service, which engages in illegal operations, as well as the Tiara Hotel in Las Vegas, where Seraffimo runs his end of the business (Fleming apparently based the Spang brothers on Jack and Solomon Joel, early 20th century diamond merchants and thoroughbred racehorse breeders). Bond initially scoffs at the idea of the American mob being a serious threat, they are little more than “a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves.” However, in time he comes to realize the true extent of their power in America.

At the heart of the novel is a philosophical search for something lasting and enduring, something that survives “forever.” While many things in life are fleeting, like the flashy things Bond finds in Las Vegas, diamonds mined in Africa remain evergreen and beautiful, hence why they drive so many people mad. Indeed, diamonds serve as a metaphor for obsession in the novel: “Now he could understand the passion that diamonds had inspired through the centuries, the almost sexual love they aroused among those who handled them and cut them and traded in them. It was a beauty so pure that it held a kind of truth, a divine authority before which all other material things turned…” (11). In the world of James Bond, only diamonds and death are assured, however there are moments of hope in other unexpected places… In America, amidst a world of vapid consumerism, Bond meets a rare diamond in the rough –Tiffany Case, a jaded woman with a troubled past. She is a 27-year-old American citizen from San Francisco with blonde hair and blue eyes (5’6”). As a child, her father abandoned the family in a Tiffany’s with a case (hence the name “Tiffany Case”). Her mother ran a “cat-house” in San Francisco, but she made the mistake of not paying off a local gang, while foolishly placing her faith in bribes made to the police department (in Ian Fleming’s America, bribery and criminality rule the day). In response, the gang attacked and savagely destroyed her “cat-house” before brutally gang-raped Tiffany at the age of sixteen. This shockingly vicious memory presents the image of a broken, tortured woman hardened by years of alcoholism, and ensconced in the a-moral criminal underworld of America.   

“She was very beautiful in a devil-may-care way, as if she kept her looks for herself and didn’t mind what men thought of them, and there was an ironical tilt to the finely drawn eyebrows above the wide, level, rather scornful grey eyes that seemed to say, ‘Sure. Come and try. But brother, you’d better be top” (35).

In addition to the introduction of Tiffany Case, we are also given the return of Felix Leiter, everyone’s favorite delightfully hokey Texan CIA agent (Bond’s counterpart within the CIA in the events of prior novels Casino Royale and Live and Let Die). Last we saw of Felix, he had been brutally wounded, bitten by sharks at the conclusion of Live and Let Die. In fact, Bond recalls that Felix was in a “cocoon of dirty bandages on a bloodstained bed in a Florida hotel” (64). As a result, Felix now brandishes a steel hook as his right arm, and a noticeable gimp thanks to a mostly replaced left leg. At this point, Leiter has left the CIA and is working as a private detective for Pinkerton’s, a company in the vein of “The Eye That Never Sleeps.”

As it turns out, James Bond and Felix Leiter are pursuing the same enemy (the Spangled Mob), and this leads them on an odd side-quest to Saratoga Springs, NY for a horse-racing bribery scheme (a horse named “Shy Smile” and his jockey Tingaling Bell) as well as a subsequent fiasco in a mud and sulphur bath. For me, these adventures represent a dreary mid-section of the book which is a bit wandering. However, this section does introduce two quirky henchmen –Wint and Kidd. Wint is a chubby sadist who nervously sucks a wart on his thumb (he is deeply fearful of traveling and carries with him a personal tag that identifies his blood type as F). Kidd is white-haired pretty boy nicknamed “Boofy” by his friends. In addition to being partners in crime, they are also gay lovers for some reason. In the film version of Diamonds Are Forever, this pair is portrayed as campy and ridiculous, but in the book they are slightly more fearful assassins.     

When things go awry in New York and Bond is unable to secure his payment from the House of Diamonds, he is sent off to Las Vegas (upon arrival he curiously stops at an oxygen bar) and he quickly begins gambling inside the “Tiara” where Tiffany Case works as a card dealer, but Bond’s gambling success actually draws the attention of Seraffimo Spang himself. This leads to a tense car chase and shoot-out (Bond is being driven around by Felix Leiter’s undercover compatriot Ernest “Ernio” Cuneo) which only ends when Bond is captured and taken to an old western-themed ghost town in the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas (it is called “Spectreville,” which is derived from the nearby Specter Mountain Range and which marks the first time Ian Fleming incorporated the word “spectre” into his writing). Bond is then horribly tortured in a “Brooklyn Stomping” as Wint and Kidd employ the use of soccer cleats to stomp on Bond’s body. During the night, while barely conscious, Bond is awoken and rescued by Tiffany Case. They flee together on an old railway pushcar as Seraffimo pursues them in a luxurious vintage Pullman train (dubbed the “Cannonball”) which only ends in a sudden crash, killing Seraffimo. Bond and Case are then surprisingly saved by Felix Leiter who appears out of nowhere. When all is said and done, Felix decides to remain behind in Las Vegas, while Bond and Case fly to New York where they board the magnificent Queen Elizabeth as it sets sail en route to London.

Here, the pace of the novel slows considerably. James Bond and Tiffany Case gaze out over the endless sea and enjoy lavish food and drink together. There are some lovely scenes of romance between Bond and Tiffany as they flirt and seemingly fall in love (at one point Bond rather uncharacteristically admits that he wouldn’t mind settling down and having a child or two, even though he believes marriage is not about two people getting together, but rather more so about one person being subtracted). Bond feels as if they have “all the time in the world.” After they sleep together, Tiffany Case is suddenly kidnapped by the two Spangled Mob henchmen, Wint and Kidd, who have secretly snuck aboard the ship. In a rush, Bond discovers their room which is located directly below his own. He climbs down the wall of the ship and breaks in through their window and shoots both men. While dying Wint remarks: “Mister. Nothing is forever. Only death is permanent. Nothing is forever except what you did to me.” Bond and Tiffany are then reunited (Bond stages the room to appear to be a murder-suicide). Now all that is left is for Bond to visit West Africa and assassinate the other twin brother, Jack Spang, a task which he easily completes in the end. As it turns out Jack Spang was both “Rufus B. Saye” and “ABC” (his alias of “ABC” was partly taken from the French letters for his name “Ah-Bay-Saye” per a cable from headquarters, pp. 213). The diamond-smuggling pipeline, which initially began with Jack Spang (a.k.a. “Rufus B. Saye” or “ABC”) and then proceeded through Michael “Shady” Tree via House of Diamonds only to end in Las Vegas, has now been officially destroyed. Like the image of a scorpion in the book’s opening chapter (wherein “greed had won over fear”), thanks to British intelligence, the only way to deal with a predator like the House of Diamonds corporation is to crush it. These opening and closing scenes in West Africa really stuck with me. They serve as a nice metaphor for the ways in which greedy diamond smugglers are eventually handled (no thanks to the second-rate American FBI.

There are several minor callbacks to earlier Bond novels in Diamonds Are Forever. Aside from Felix Leiter’s mangled limbs, the scene in which we first meet Tiffany Case (which reads like a scene straight out of Raymond Chandler), Tiffany is scantily clad playing music, but Bond deliberately skips over “La Vie en Rose” due to the painful memories it invokes of Vesper Lynd as portrayed in Casino Royale. Another example of a callback is an early scene at MI6 which features brief cameos of Miss Moneypenny and Loelia Ponsonby (Bond calls her “Lil” even though she does not like the name per Moonraker). These little details offer some delightful continuity between the novels. We also get a bit of background on James Bond’s time in the service (blink and you might miss it in the novel), such as Ronnie Vallance, an old friend from the Moonraker affair, and there is a brief allusion to Bond’s early days in the Service as he apparently traveled widely through Strasbourg into Germany, through Niegoreloye into Russia, over Simplon, and across the Pyrenees.  

Ian Fleming actually conducted fairly extensive research for this novel, much of which wound up in a nonfiction book entitled The Dimond Smugglers (1957). He also took a trip through the United States which inspired many of the events in Diamonds Are Forever –many characters are named after people he met, like Ernest “Ernio” Cuneo, and even a Studillac makes an appearance in the novel (a hybrid Studebaker with a powerful Cadillac engine) after it was encountered by Fleming when he met a rich American socialite, William Woodward, Jr., who happened to own one. In a strange turn of events, William Woodward, Jr. was killed (perhaps accidentally) by his wife who feared he was a prowler. Fleming dedicated the novel to his memory.         

This is not the best Bond adventure in my view –there are vast stretches in the middle of the book that drag and the whole mission is also a bit confusing. Why would MI6 send one of its top assassins to investigate diamond smugglers in America? Like Live and Let Die before it, Diamonds Are Forever is a bit of a stretch for me and it beggars belief that British intelligence would go to such great lengths over a few million pounds. Nevertheless, Tiffany Case shines as a compelling paramour for Bond, and the return of Felix Leiter is a welcome return, even if Fleming chooses to portray American culture as an essentially vapid, hollow wasteland.   

Fleming, Ian. Diamonds Are Forever. Thomas & Mercer in Las Vegas, NV c/o Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. 1956 (republished in 2012). Paperback edition.

Click here for my review of the film Diamonds are Forever (1971).

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Star Trek TNG: Season 1, Episodes Three “The Naked Now”

Stardate: 41209.2
Original Air Date: October 5, 1987
Writers: John D. F. Black and J. Michael Bingham
Director: Paul Lynch

I put it to you all, I think we shall end up with a fine crew… if we avoid temptation.”

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Enterprise is running at Warp-7 to rendezvous with the S.S. Tsiolkovsky, a science “research vessel” which has been routinely monitoring the collapse of a red super giant star as it devolves into a white dwarf. However, something has been going wrong aboard the S.S. Tsiolkovsky. The Enterprise receives a strange communication filled with rowdy voices having a “wild party” and a woman sends a seductive message –”Well, hello, Enterprise, welcome. I hope you have a lot of pretty boys on board, because I’m willing and waiting. In fact, we’re going to have a real blowout here.” And then an emergency hatch is blown out aboard the Tsiolkovsky. As they approach, Riker beams over with a boarding party consisting of Data, Geordi, and Lt. Tasha Yar (for some reason, they are not wearing protective suits). All of the Tsiolkovsky crew are mysteriously dead. Someone aboard the Tsiolkovsky had tampered with the temperature controls, and there are frozen bodies lying strewn about the research vessel. Meanwhile, the Tsiolkovsky remains in close orbit of the red giant while the star faces an impending collapse (sound like a familiar plot?).   

Back aboard the Enterprise, Geordi begins perspiring and behaving erratically –he appears to be confused and intoxicated. He easily escapes from sick bay and runs into Wesley Crusher who is toying with a new machine that allows him to use a repulsor ray and voicebox technology which allows him to mimic people (like Captain Picard). Later, Geordi is found by Lt. Yar gazing off into space in the observation lounge, claiming there are “wild things” coming into his mind. Lt. Yar helps Geordi return to sick bay where his mysterious sickness can be further researched. It is revealed that Geordi has been stricken with some unknown “polywater intoxication.”  

Soon, this strange contaminant spreads to the whole crew by mere touch or proximity. Crewmen are seen dancing and kissing. The “training division” has apparently ordered a mandatory lecture on metaphysics, and Data mentions a “rather peculiar” limerick about a woman from “Venmus” (neither Data nor Worf seem to understand the limerick in an amusing gag). Regular order has quickly broken down aboard the Enterprise. Wesley Crusher contracts the disease from Geordi, and then uses his machine to mimic Picard’s voice and instill himself as captain while taking over the engineering bay where former engineers now behave like drunken children. It causes pure chaos as Picard loses control of the ship. In one of the more infamous scenes in this episode, Lt. Yar saunters through the ship, kissing random men, and then infamously seduces Data (apparently Data has also contracted the disease somehow?) Data claims he has been “programmed in multiple techniques, a broad variety of pleasuring…”

Riker and Data dig back through old records from the original Enterprise where they discover the vaccine developed by Dr. McCoy in “The Naked Time.” Unfortunately, the vaccine is ineffective when employed by Dr. Crusher –even against Data. With time running out, Picard is infected and the nearby red giant suddenly begins to explode. Riker, who has been infected but is not displaying symptoms for some reason, leads Data to commandeer the engineering bay from Wesley. In doing so, Data needs to replace all the missing “isolinear chips” which have been haphazardly strewn all over the ground –the chips are needed to boot up the ship’s engines and escape the coming planetary explosion. Before the job can be finished, Riker begins to succumb to the disease and Data and Wesley seem to be at least somewhat lucid as Wesley uses his repulsor beam to push the Enterprise far enough away in order to escape. In effect, he saves the ship from destruction. In the end, Dr. Crusher alters the old vaccine originally created by Dr. McCoy (details are never given) and it miraculously works –the whole crew is inoculated.  

As things return to normal, the crew are left with some awkward memories. Picard declares, “I think we shall end up with a fine crew… if we avoid temptation” (cue the odd glances between Data and Lt. Yar, and between Riker and Deanna Troi). The Enterprise speeds away at Warp 3, Heading 294, Mark 37… engage!  

My Thoughts on “The Naked Now”

An obvious homage to the classic episode “The Naked Time,” “The Naked Now” is a silly circus episode filled with plot-holes and screwball sexuality –but it still manages to elicit glee. The low point of this episode is obviously the oddball seduction of Data by Lt. Yar (there is also a bizarre grunting noise made by Picard while Dr. Crusher attempts to seduce him which is a close second). Perhaps little more need be said on this account, but I still had a lot of fun with this goofy adventure –it offers a smiling nod to long-time fans of TOS. This raucous romp gave me a few good laughs!  

The following are a few questions I had about this episode: Why does the Enterprise remain in orbit around a collapsing red giant if they know the other nearby ship is empty and an explosion is imminent? Why not just leave the area to avoid a crisis? While they wait around, Wesley Crusher takes over the engineering bay and prevents escape anyway. Also, I guess the security aboard the Enterprise-D is as loose as the original Enterprise, especially if a young boy can easily take command of the ship in mere minutes. And how exactly can Data catch the “polywater” disease? Why don’t the Enterprise instruments register a disease was present in Geordi? Why did the crewmen not wear hazmat or contamination suits when they boarded the Tsiolkovsky as in “The Naked Time”? Will Wesley’s repulsor ray and voicebox technology ever reappear in future episodes? So many lingering questions from this one.


John D. F. Black wrote the original script for “The Naked Time,” the fourth episode of TOS, and thus he was given writing credit for this episode. However, the initial idea of copying “The Naked Time” in TNG came from Gene Roddenberry who asked DC Fontana to draft a script. Roddenberry wanted to introduce the “wants and needs” of characters in the show. Upon submitting a draft script, DC Fontana was dismayed to find her script had been significantly revised by Gene Roddenberry, who inserted a great deal of sexual content. DC Fontana submitted a strongly worded memo and asked to have her name concealed in the credits as a pseudonym “J. Michael Bingham.” “The Naked Now” is based on an incomplete teleplay by Roddenberry entitled “Revelations.” In “Revelations,” Geordi infects Lt. Yar while making unsuccessful sexual advances toward her.

Director Paul Lynch (1946) is a former newspaper cartoonist and photographer before becoming a film and television director. He directed five episodes of TNG and later five episodes of DS9.

Star Trek Trivia:

  • In one of the few moments of background for Lt. Tasha Yar, she reveals that she was abandoned at the age of 5, and escape a harsh upbringing at the age of 15.
  • Data reveals he has skin and pores and apparently “leaks” something akin to blood when pricked, along with “other” normal human bodily functions.  
  • Brooke Bundy appears for the sole time as chief engineer Sarah McDougal in this episode. Geordi La Forge was assigned the post on a permanent basis in season two.
  • The SS Tsiolkovsky ship model was a redress of the USS Grissom from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). Michael Okuda created a plaque for the Tsiolkovsky that stated that it had been created in the Soviet Union. A copy was subsequently sent for display at the Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics in Kaluga, Soviet Russia. The USSR disintegrated in 1991, four years after this episode was produced.
  • Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was a Soviet rocket scientist.  
  • According to Wil Wheaton, Jonathan Frakes sharply criticized this episode, going so far as to call it the worst segment of TNG, saying he felt “totally ashamed” by it.
  • There is a rare moment in this episode wherein Deanna Troi addresses Riker as “Bill.”
  • This episode marks the first appearance of the 24th century medical tricorder.
  • Gene Roddenberry apparently made an unexpected cameo (of sorts) in this episode. Around the fifteen-minute mark, as Data explores the database for info, a brief picture can be seen of Roddenberry’s head superimposed onto a parrot. This is a reference to his nickname “the Great Bird of the Galaxy” as created during the initial run of TOS.

Click here to return to my survey of the Star Trek series.

An Introduction to Plutarch

Often regarded as first among the biographers of antiquity, the details of Plutarch’s life are somewhat opaque. Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus was born in Chaerona, a small town in Boetia (located north-west of Attica along the road between Athens and Delphi). He was likely born at some point during the reign of Claudius (perhaps somewhere around 45-50 AD) to a wealthy and well-connected Greek family within the Roman Empire. Plutarch’s lineage included a line of magistrates. Some of his family members are briefly mentioned in the Lives. His great-grandfather Nicarchus was whipped by Roman soldiers and forced to carry grain to the coast (mentioned in the “Life of Antony”), and his grandfather Lamprias was an eloquent speaker, often under the influence of wine. He studied philosophy under Ammonius in Athens during the reign of Nero when the emperor made his incursion into Greece during the twelfth year of his rule (the sixty-sixth year of the new Christian era). 

By all accounts, Plutarch lived a temperate and contented life –he was a friend of emanant figures in his day. He was a lover of the finer things in life, a lover of animals and a despiser of all things pretentious and haughty. He was a thinker and a writer, and therefore, an elite in ancient culture, writing with an eye toward the literate and high-born patricians. Plutarch and his wife Timoxena may had as many as five children, three of whom likely died in childhood (a common tragedy in those days). A particularly notable Plutarchian letter survives to this day which sought to address his wife’s grief at the loss of their daughter. Plutarch was a worldly man, a cosmopolitan intellectual who traveled widely to places like Egypt, Italy, and Asia Minor. In Rome, he delivered a series of famous lectures on philosophy in Greek and only learned Latin later in life when he retired to his “small town” of Chaerona where he set about to write the “Parallel Lives,” his magnum opus. He also served in a political role as commissioner of sewage and public buildings. Plutarch was appointed Archon of the city as well as a lifetime priest at Delphi. Apparently, he lived to be an old man and died at some point during the reign of Hadrian. His two surviving sons gathered the corpus of Plutarch’s writings, but sadly most of these are lost to us now. The two chief works that have endured today are the Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (or simply the “Lives”) and the Moralia (a collection of Plutarch’s essays on a myriad topics).   

Throughout Plutarch’s writings, he stresses a practical philosophy –he believes people should strive toward harmony with the world and with oneself. Like Plato, Plutarch does not seek flight or retreat from this world. He rejects the Stoic school of thought, but he encourages self-control and rejection of the passions like anger or pity or grief because they lead to bitterness, resentment, and antipathy. Plutarch believes the art of reading is a moral activity, it is an aesthetic experience and therefore the act of imitation, or mimesis, is paramount to understanding good writing and how to be a good person. Thus his great work, the Lives, is less a work of history in the vein of Herodotus or Thucydides, and more an ambitious moral project –an effort to offer ancient biographies which encourage imitation of great and noble deeds. Some lives are exemplary and therefore worthy of imitation (like Lycurgus), while others are not (like Cato). However, Plutarch is rarely explicit in which lives he elevates for readers to imitate –we must discover them for ourselves.     

Additionally, Plutarch is hardly a nostalgic simpleton nor is he a mere hero worshiper, although he can be somewhat loose with the truth on occasion. His series of intimate portraits are derived from letters, rumors, anecdotes, and dialogues –all more commonly acceptable forms of authority in his day. Each biography contrasts the life of a Roman man with the life of a Greek man (purportedly demonstrating the superiority of the latter). Plutarch does not write about politics and war on a grand scale, but rather he describes an individual’s moral character and offers it up for scrutiny. An account of a particular life is a different form of story-telling from either a Platonic dialogue or an Aristotelian treatise, it offers anecdotes. Plutarch is a moralist, and as such, he believes the question of historia (or “inquiry”) is subordinate to the pursuit of moral character. The Lives is a work of instruction. It forces us to ask, amidst the rise and fall of empires throughout history, who are the men who truly lived well?

In Plutarch, we are given the image of a blissful man –an intellectual scholar and a friend to many, a pleasant fellow perhaps residing on a vast country villa in a rural region of Greece under the Roman Empire, prior to the overwhelming dominance of the Christian revolution. His domestic tranquility was matched only by his love of learning. Appropriately, many of the Lives are addressed to one of Plutarch’s closest friends, Quintus Sosius Senecio, honorary consul who served alongside Roman Emperor Trajan. While the facticity of Plutarch’s biographies will forever exist beyond the veil, Plutarch nevertheless supersedes other ancient biographers, like Diogenes Laertius, in revealing certain deeper truths about human nature. The impoverishment of the biographic format still allows for a courageous pursuit of philosophic inquiry. In reading the Lives, it becomes apparent that Plutarch is a devotee of Plato and Aristotle. He looks fondly back to the Greeks for strength and admiration. The intended order of Plutarch’s Lives remains somewhat ambiguous, but the Lives, themselves, remain one of the most authoritative windows into antiquity –indeed Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Rousseau all found refuge and inspiration within the Lives of Plutarch.

For this reading I used the John Dryden translation of Plutarch’s Lives with revisions by Arthur Hugh Clough.  

Book Review: Shadows of the Empire (1996) by Steve Perry

“Face it, if crime did not pay, there would be very few criminals”
-Laughton Lewis Burdock, a philosopher

Rating: 3 out of 5.

An experimental multimedia project spanning comic books, toys, trading cards, a book, a video game, and even a soundtrack, Shadows of the Empire was a remarkable milestone in the history of Lucasfilm. Upon its launch in 1996, as a child I remember how exciting it was to see new Star Wars products released. Many of us hoped there would be a new movie, but alas it was never to be. The novel Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry was as far as they went; it was the result of Lucasfilm’s deal with Bantam Books. By that point, Perry had written several Aliens books as well as a cheap royalty-less novelization of the movie The Mask, so he was granted a deal to write the new Star Wars book. He has also written for Batman: The Animated Series, as well as Conan books and other tie-in novelizations. He later returned to Star Wars to write the MedStar duology and Death Star with Michael Reaves.     

Shadows of the Empire takes place in the gap between the films The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker’s hand has been severed by Darth Vader, he has learned the dark truth about his father, the rebellion is at its lowest point, and Han Solo has been frozen inside a block of carbonite and whisked away by the bounty hunter Boba Fett aboard his Slave I ship to be sold to the crime lord Jabba the Hutt. Much of the novel concerns the search for Han Solo by Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian. They are also joined on and off by fellow rebels, Wedge Antilles and his twelve X-Wing pilots of Rogue Squadron. Finding Han Solo takes them to two moons called Gall and Kile which circle Zhar, a gas giant located in one of the outer rim systems (naturally they lose Han to Jabba the Hutt). Along the way, they also meet one of Lando’s friends, “a freelance cargo delivery” (or more appropriately “a smuggler”) named Dash Rendar, a red haired, pale skinned, cocky braggart who is tall and lean, with green eyes, freighter togs, gray coveralls, and a low hanging holster on his hip. He is the spitting image of Han Solo. Indeed, his character might even be called a cheap knock-off of Han Solo. “This is Dash Rendar, thief, card cheat, smuggler, and an okay pilot.” Rendar’s ship, the Outrider, is almost the size of the Millennium Falcon with an offset cockpit module, and it carries his droid LE-BO2D9 or “Leebo.” Rendar once trained at the Imperial Academy for a year or so behind Han, though Rendar was wealthier and more highly placed. His brother was a freighter pilot who mistakenly crashed into the Emperor’s private museum. As punishment, the Render family property was seized and Dash was banished from Coruscant. He hates the Empire, but apparently not enough to join the rebellion. Can he be trusted? Only time will tell.

At the same time trouble is brewing within the Empire. Under the thumb of the “zeyd-cloth” robed Emperor, Darth Vader faces a new Imperial nemesis named Prince Xizor (“sheezor”), a prominent underworld ruler of the Black Sun syndicate, the largest criminal organization in the galaxy. Rich beyond the income of many planets, Xizor is the descendant of Falleen royalty but his family was tragically exterminated in an Imperial mishap which occurred about 10 years ago when a mutant bacteria escaped from a research lab and forced approximately 200,000 Falleen to be “sterilized” (including Xizor’s mother, father, brother, two sisters, three uncles). For this, Xizor secretly blames Darth Vader, he is “duplicitous and devious.” Who are the Falleen? Apparently, they are a quasi-reptilian species who lack emotional outbursts and possess super-strength. Xizor is over 100 years old but he looks to be about thirty, his head is bald with a top knot pony tail. He has earned the trust of the Emperor by revealing the location of a secret rebel base (in the Baji Sector on the Outer Rim, in Grand Moff Kintaro’s section within the Lybeya System hidden on one of the larger asteroids, but instead of rebel-owned, it is actually owned by Ororo Transportation the same company that dared to tread on the Black Sun’s spice operations). However, at the heart of Xizor’s actions is a personal vendetta against Darth Vader. “If Xizor could have hurled a bolt through time and space to strike Vader dead, he would have done it without blinking” (2). Xizor concocts a plan to subvert Vader, and make him seem disloyal to the Emperor. When he learns that a “son of Skywalker” exists, Xizor makes it his goal to kill Luke Skywalker, whereas Darth Vader is eager to confront his son and convert him to the dark side so they can jointly rule the galaxy. This all becomes apparent in the novel’s memorable opening scene which features the holo-conversation between Darth Vader and the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back –with the small addition that Xizor is listening in on the conversation alongside the Emperor.  

Shadows of the Empire takes us on a journey through the “scum and villainy” of the galaxy’s criminal underworld –a world of spice-trading, slaves, gambling casinos, smugglers, arms deals, Bothan spies (the “Bothan spynet”), and Jabba the Hutt’s criminal enterprise. These include characters like Greedo’s uncle Avaro Sookcool who owns a casino in Equator City on Rodia (Greedo was the famous Rodian bounty hunter who was killed by Han Solo in A New Hope), and also a Bothan named Koth Melan, whose father was executed for espionage by the Empire some twenty years prior. He has covert intelligence for Leia that the Bothan spynet has learned of a massive new Imperial military project details held on a computer. This leads to an adventure on the Bothan homeworld of Bothawui (a clean and cosmopolitan world) and further explains what Mon Mothma mens when she says “many Bothans died” to retrieve information about the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi.  

Within Xizor’s own Black Sun criminal syndicate, we are introduced to Xizor’s lieutenants who have all earned the honorific “Vigo” from the old Tionese for “nephew,” in order to keep up appearances off being a family. There are nine lieutenants: Vigo Lonay, a Twi’lek; Vigo Sprax a Nalroni dark-grey fur; Vigo Vekker a Quarren; Durga the Hutt; Kreet’ah the Kian’thar, Clezo the Rodian; Wumdi the Etti; Perit the Mon Callamari; Green the human (who is reveled to be a traitor). Most importantly, we meet an attractive blond-haired female named Guri. Like an Epicanthix warrior, she is actually an HRD (or human replica droid programmed to be an assassin a la the replicants in Blade Runner). Xizor acquired for nine million credits (her ship is called The Stinger). Like Grand Admiral Thrawn, Xizor rules his syndicate by fear –“Fear was a better weapon than a blaster or lightsaber” (119).

In one of the more controversial decisions in the novel, Prince Xizor is portrayed as sexually deviant. He is also maniacally obsessed with Princess Leia –he lusts after her in the hopes oof achieving a perverted “conquest.” Conveniently, the search for Han Solo leads Leia and Chewbacca directly into the hands of the Black Sun. They are then lured into Xizor’s ornate palace within the “Imperial Center” on Coruscant by Xizor’s assassin Guri. Once alone with Leia, Xizor releases his Falleen “pheromones” which apparently cannot be resisted by females. She very nearly gives herself over to Xizor, but then quickly comes to her senses thanks to Chewbacca who escapes Coruscant in order to find help –in this instance, why doesn’t Leia simply flee Coruscant with Chewbacca? In addition to his lust for Leia, Xizor has been plotting to use the princess as bait to draw Luke Skywalker to Coruscant so that Xizor can finally kill the “son of Vader.” In a way, his ploy works. While ducking in and out of capture, evading Darth Vader as well as the Black Sun, Luke narrowly flees imprisonment by a bounty hunter named Skahtul (a reptilian Barabel species). He reconnects with the rebellion, and then Luke, Lando, and Dash use an old smuggler’s trick en route to Coruscant which consists of hiding behind a freighter in order to avoid Imperial scrutiny and, once on the planet’s surface, they concoct a scheme to invade Coruscant through the shadowy underground (while the droids Threepio and Artoo amusingly man the Millennium Falcon). Killing scores of stormtroopers, our heroes rescue Leia and utterly destroy Xizor’s palace with the use of a thermal detonator. Xizor escapes to his skyhook and sends out waves of TIE fighters but the rebels are temporarily saved by Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron, but the real savior ironically comes in the form of Darth Vader who surprisingly turns on Xizor as a result of his refusal to obey Imperial edict. Vader’s ship decimates Xizor’s skyhook. Luke decides against killing Guri, and sadly Dash Rendar’s ship, the Outrider, appears to be destroyed at the end… but is anyone ever truly dead in Star Wars?

While I generally found Shadows of the Empire to be a fun Star Wars novel, I was not particularly fond of Prince Xizor’s portrayal as a nymphomaniac. Understandably, it was a divisive decision among fans. A few other moments elicited questions from me. For example, when Luke is sent back to Tatooine to simply wait around at Ben’s remote hut while looking for any sign of Boba Fett –why do this? Wouldn’t it make more sense to send Luke somewhere of importance to the rebellion? Was this included merely to ensure that Tatooine made an appearance in the book? How did Dash Rendar suddenly appear to help Luke in this remote area of Tatooine? How did the Bothans manage to deliver a message here, as well? Why wouldn’t Luke have returned to Dagobah in order to complete his Jedi training?

At any rate, Shadows of the Empire is a nice conduit (not a sequel but rather an “interquel”) that explains how our heroes found Han Solo at Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi, and it offers some compelling political intrigue in the feud between Darth Vader and Prince Xizor. In the end, Vader’s hope for a familial empire wins out over Xizor’s desire for revenge. Since I am fascinated by the minute details shown in the expansive world-building of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the following are a few random things worth noting from the novel:

  • Synstone material was used to construct Ben Kenobi’s hut on Tatooine and it is seated at the edge of the Western Dune Sea (here, Luke recovers an ancient leather-bound Jedi instruction book and he constructs his lightsaber).
  • At another point, Darth Vader’s thoughts are relayed from inside his hyperbaric chamber. We learn than Vader can actually breathe outside his chamber without the use of machinery for about two minutes at a time (he hopes to strengthen his breathing for longer intervals using the dark side of the force).
  • Some people with an electrical training can hack into the holonet and use the communication system.
  • The Menari Mountains are mentioned again (I remember seeing multiple references to this mountain range on Coruscant in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy), and religious fanatics apparently watch over Monument Park in the mountains.
  • Imperial skyhooks over Coruscant are referenced frequently in Shadows of the Empire. Xizor’s skyhook features an ornate botanical garden, he poached Vader’s own gardener.
  • In Xizor’s skyhook botanical garden, he possesses a 600-year-old miniature firethorn tree. These trees grow in a single small grove of the Irugian Rain Forest on Abbaji.
  • A Ho’Din creature named Spero a “Master Fardener” makes a brief appearance, as does Bousshe, an Ubese bounty hunter.
  • Luke remembers a fictional shipjacker named Evet Scy’rrep he used to watch as a kid on “Galactic Bandits,” a show on the holoproj.
  • Xizor’s skin turns from green to orange/red when he lusts after a woman.
  • Moonglow is mentioned, a rare expensive fruit.
  • We revisit Beggar’s Canyon on Tatooine. Beggar’s Canyon is apparently a group of inter-linked canyons in the desert.
  • Saaber Enterprises is described as the Empire’s anti-espionage operation.
  • Xizor transport Systems (XTS) is a major shipping conglomerate owned by Xizor.
  • Kothliss, a Bothan colony world, is referenced in the novel.
  • Apparently, Luke’s signature black garb as worn in Return of the Jedi was one of the disguises given to Luke by Dash Rendar on Coruscant (Leia dons Bousshe’s outfit as a gift).
  • We learn that there are other syndicates besides the Black Sun, like the Tenloss Syndicate.
  • In addition to the nine Vigos of the Black Sun, Xizor’s loyal sublieutenant, Mayth Duvel, makes an appearance.
  • The name of Xizor came from Lucy Autrey Wilson, Director of Publishing for Lucasfilm, who combined the Portuguese pronunciation of the letter X (sh-) with the second syllable of the English word “razor.”
  • Apparently, a miniature of Xizor appeared as an audience member for the pod race scene in The Phantom Menace. His name has also appeared at Disney’s theme park attraction (where you can order a “Xizor salad”).  

“Even when fighting the great sabercat, it is best not to turn your back on the lowly serpent.”
–Old Sithian Proverb (p. 252).

Perry, Steve. Shadows of the Empire. Random House World. New York, NY. (Originally published on May, 1996).