Imagine a James Bond story with quantum computers, brain-computer interfaces, a cloud-shifting climate control system and a billionaire who owns his own launch system and satellite constellation.
Now imagine that James Bond is missing from the story.
That’s the unconventional tack taken by British author Kim Sherwood in her first-ever spy thriller, “Double or Nothing” — the kickoff to a trilogy that introduces a new cast of secret agents, plus some old favorites including M, Miss Moneypenny and CIA agent Felix Leiter.
James Bond, a.k.a. Agent 007, made his debut as the debonair MI6 spy 70 years ago in Ian Fleming’s first novel, “Casino Royale,” and went on to star in more than four dozen books and 27 movies. But “Double or Nothing” is not your grandparents’ 007 thriller.
“Ian Fleming, of course, was a product of his time, and I’m a product of mine,” Sherwood, a 33-year-old lecturer in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast.
Sherwood has dreamed of writing James Bond novels since she was the age of 10, and she finally got her chance when she was chosen by Ian Fleming’s estate to update the 007 saga for a new generation.
Part of that task involved bringing more diversity to the traditionally white male cadre of secret agents in the James Bond universe.
“It was really exciting, this idea of developing new heroes, but also a challenge, of course,” Sherwood says. “If you’re writing a James Bond novel and you are asking readers to care about other characters, it’s a stretch — because it’s James Bond, you know. He’s an icon. He dominates the spotlight. If he’s there, he’s who you pay attention to.”
Sherwood’s solution was to leave Bond completely out of the picture.
“I thought I would work that challenge into the story itself, and have him missing from the beginning, and introduce these characters who care about him and are trying to find him. So he’s both absent and present,” she says.
One of the main characters is Johanna Harwood, Agent 003, who had a romantic relationship with Bond (and whose name pays tribute to a screenwriter who worked on the early 007 movies). Agent 004 is Joseph Dryden, a gay Black veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Agent 009 is Sid Bashir, a spy of British-Asian descent who was involved in a love triangle with Harwood and Bond.
Sherwood says the double-O diversity isn’t just a politically correct gimmick: “There’s also this idea in intelligence agencies called perspective blindness, where if everybody in your group comes from the same perspective, they’ll all miss the same clues, and they won’t challenge each other. So intelligence agencies in the last few decades have really sought to diversify their agents as a strategic asset.”
That’s not the only nod to modern times. “Double or Nothing” also features a dramatic update in 007’s tech world. The biggest change has to do with Q, who has traditionally been James Bond’s geeky gadget-meister. In Sherwood’s novel, Q is a quantum computer that sifts through terabytes of sensor data to anticipate the bad guys’ next moves.
“A lot of intelligence agencies are using quantum computing and artificial intelligence to crunch these massive data sets — things that would usually take hundreds of years for the human mind to work out,” Sherwood says. “But they’re using them for things like trolling through the financial records of terrorists.”
Sherwood says turning Q into a quantum computer was a no-brainer.
“When I found out that intelligence agencies were using quantum computing, I just thought, ‘Oh, Q, quantum, “Quantum of Solace” — I can’t resist this. It has to go in the book,'” she says. “And the Flemings are really happy with it, because they felt like this is the way that spy agencies are going.”
Although Sherwood’s double-O agents have to deal with an international mercenary force that parallels Russia’s Wagner Group, the biggest threat they face in “Double or Nothing” comes from a billionaire’s scheme to manipulate the planet’s climate through geoengineering. Sherwood suspects that if Ian Fleming were alive today, he would have addressed the climate crisis as well.
“He wrote about the major concerns of his day, whether it was fear of communism or fear of the bomb, whether it was civil rights issues or changing gender politics,” she says. “He’s working out all of these issues through his stories. So I looked around and thought, what’s our biggest concern? And it felt to me like our biggest global concern, both existentially and practically, is the climate crisis.”
Intelligence agencies are concerned about climate as well — concerned enough to issue a report about the national security implications. “One of the things I found really intriguing in that report was this idea that rogue actors or states could use geoengineering to try and avert the climate crisis, but without global consensus and without really knowing how it would work out,” Sherwood says. (In 2021, a follow-up report projected increased risks to U.S. interests over the next 20 years.)
Sherwood asked a science-savvy friend to do a reality check on her fictional geoengineering scheme. “It was kind of worrying in a way, because they got back to me and said, yes, it can occur, and actually it could be much worse than you think,” she says. “So what I had done was a sort of watered-down version.”
She also talked to medical experts about the idea of giving Agent 004 a hearing aid that doubles as a brain-computer interface connected to Q. “They said, yes, that’s basically what’s going to happen — and they talked me through how a kind of neural link might be made between the human mind and a quantum computer, which I ended up using in the book,” Sherwood says.
Yet another tech twist was inspired by the multibillion-dollar space efforts created by the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. The billionaire in “Double or Nothing” controls a satellite network like SpaceX’s Starlink or Amazon’s Project Kuiper, as well as an air-launch system like the one pioneered with Branson’s backing at Virgin Orbit (which filed for bankruptcy last week).
Sherwood is intrigued by the mindset of today’s billionaires.
“Do they not see themselves as part of humanity? Do they imagine that on their private island or on their spaceship, they’ll somehow be safe?” she says. “I wish I could ask someone in this position how they rationalize it to themselves.”
Throughout the book, Sherwood works in subtler details that acknowledge how much society has evolved since “Casino Royale” came out in 1953. For example, Ms. Moneypenny is in charge of the double-O agents after what Sherwood calls “the world’s most overdue promotion” — and she drives a Jaguar sports car that’s been turned into an electric vehicle.
Will James Bond evolve as well? Or will he always be the martini-sipping spy with a penchant for bedding beautiful women?
“If there’s no martini, there’s no James Bond,” Sherwood says with a laugh. “For me, the really fun challenge of making this set in the present day was to take the essence of the character that we love, and to work out how you make this person psychologically viable today.”
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
Sherwood considers herself a James Bond superfan, so it’s natural to ask which 007 book she’d recommend as a warmup for “Double or Nothing.” Fittingly, she suggests having a double. Or maybe a triple:
- Casino Royale: “It’s where we see Bond become the man that we know him to be. … Fleming, in that novel, has the task of introducing his hero, putting him through this first crucial test and beginning his arc.”
- From Russia With Love: “We see Bond from the perspective of SMERSH as they plot his downfall. I looked a lot at any moment where Fleming looked at Bond from the perspective of other people. We have that in ‘From Russia With Love,’ structurally. We also have it in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me,’ which is a really different Bond novel. It’s the only novel to be narrated in first person by the main female character, and we see Bond through her eyes.”
Sherwood’s praise has earned those novels a place as the latest selections for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book shop. It’s worth noting that all three of these classic James Bond novels have been turned into classic James Bond movies. And if spy thrillers just aren’t your style, you can sort through CLUB Club selections going back to Cosmic Log’s beginnings in 2002.
“Double or Nothing” comes out on April 11. There’s also a new James Bond adventure coming out on May 4 to celebrate the coronation of King Charles III, titled “On His Majesty’s Secret Service.” To learn more about the 007 saga and its chroniclers, check out KimSherwoodWriter.com, IanFleming.com and 007.com.
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