In their own (code) words: 2

Welcome to this week’s installment of ‘in their own (code) words’, one of a series of posts, featuring excerpts from the writings of the world’s spymasters.

I’m taking from Allen Dulles’ The Craft of Intelligence, written in 1963. Dulles (1893-1969) had a long and storied career in intelligence, including a role as the first civilian director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Today’s excerpt deals with the planting of Soviet spies that Dulles calls “illegals”:

…Outside the embassy and buried away under the guise of some harmless occupation, perhaps in a bookstore or a photography shop, was quite another center devoted to the “dirty” operations. This was headquarters of the “illegal residentura,” composed mainly of officers who over a period of years had carefully been turned into personages whom it would be almost impossible to identify as Soviet nationals, much less as intelligence personnel. The illegal, unless apprehended with the agent or betrayed by him, can disappear into the woodwork if something goes wrong. There will be no trail leading to a Soviet diplomatic installation to embarrass or discredit it…

…A man chosen for illegal work in any of its aspects will be sent to live abroad for as many years as it takes him to perfect his knowledge of the language and way of life of another country. He may even acquire citizenship in the adopted country. But during this whole period he has absolutely no intelligence mission. He does nothing that would arouse suspicion. When he has become sufficiently acclimatized, he returns to the Soviet Union, where he is trained and documented for his intelligence mission, and eventually dispatched to the target country, which may be the same one he has learned to live in or a different one. It matters little, for the main thing is that he is unrecognizable as a Soviet or Eastern European. He is a German or a Scandinavian or a South American. His papers show it, and so do his speech and his manners…

…When an intelligence service goes to all the trouble to retool and remake a man so that he can succeed in losing himself in the crowd in another country, it naturally does so in the expectation that the man will stay put and remain active and useful for a long period of time. There is no rotation here of the sort that is common among officials of most diplomatic and intelligence services. Also, for obvious reasons, if the “illegal” has a family, the family does not accompany him. The wives and children cannot also be “made over.” He goes alone, and even his communications to his wife and children must necessarily be limited and must pass through secret channels…

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website (November 27th, 2009).

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Harry Palmer Files – 001 – RIP Karl Malden / Leo Newbegin

This post originally appeared on the Mister 8 website, July 3rd, 2009 and coincided with the passing of actor Karl Malden

Starting today, and continuing every Sunday, we’ll be looking at the Harry Palmer series of novels (in which the character doesn’t actually have a name), their author — Len Deighton, the films based on them, the star of those films — Michael Caine, and the television movies that followed, and giving my thoughts on all I encounter. I’ll inevitably be drawing heavily on the collection of Kees Stam, author of The Harry Palmer Movie Site, and other odds and ends that I’ve turned up over the years.

I’ve been intending this series of posts for awhile, and it’s unfortunate that the sad news of the death of Karl Malden serves as the kick-off to the series, but so it goes…

Karl Malden credit in Billion Dollar Brain

In the last film of the Palmer trilogy, Billion Dollar Brain, Malden played Leo Newbegin, an old acquaintance of Harry’s who wants to get him involved in a profitable venture involving a supercomputer and a megalomaniacal Texas billionaire. Newbegin’s true goals aren’t cooperative or altruistic, but self-serving. In the end, he’s brought down by that commonplace Achille’s heel, love for a cold and uncaring, yet beautiful blonde.

Billion Dollar Brain was certainly not the highlight of Malden’s career (actually, it’s hard to put a finger on a single highlight — was it How the West Was Won? On the Waterfront? Patton? His role on television’s Streets of San Francisco?), but even here, in a mostly thankless role, he excels. In his character’s debut, he’s nude in a sauna, greeting the secret agent turned detective who once saved his life:

“It’s a bit warm in here for me, Leo,” says Palmer.

“Well don’t be shy, take your clothes off,” replies Newbegin. Then, responding to Palmer’s hesitation: “Oh, come on, don’t be so British!”

In fact, why don’t we enjoy that entire scene, which may have also been, as you’ll see in the end, an influence on nude scenes in the Austin Powers films:

Malden was one of those classic character actors, always recognizable from the bulbous nose he got from twice breaking it as a youth, but also melting into any character put before him. Malden would substantially improve any film that he was a part of, this one included.

Kees was kind enough to upload an interview with Malden from the set of Billion Dollar Brain. I thought this exchange was especially interesting:

Interviewer: It seems that the heroes of films today are the new ugly so-called, as opposed to the pretty boys of yesterday.

Malden: I think they’re coming to their fore — they’re just beginning to come to their fore. I think you take a look at Burt Lancaster. You take a look at Lee Marvin, you take a look at Ernest Borgnine, who is kind of the leader of this whole thing. I think we’re gonna have our day, and I belong in that category, the leading man, the ugly leading man…

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In their own (code) words: 1

Welcome to the first part of a six part series, ‘in their own (code) words’. This series first ran in November/December 2009, on the Mister 8 website.

I’m looking at Allen Dulles’ rather stolid The Craft of Intelligence, written in 1963. Dulles (1893-1969) had a long and storied career in intelligence, including a role as the first civilian director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Operating in countries which have recently obtained their freedom from colonial status, the Communist movement endeavors to present itself as the protector of the liberated peoples against their former colonial overlords. In support of these activities, promising young men and women from the target areas are invited to Moscow for education and indoctrination in the expectation that they may become the future Communist leaders in their homelands. Also they bring to the bloc for training in intelligence and subversion individuals of a different type who on their return will help to direct the local Communist party apparatus.

As a part of the apparat, Moscow also vigorously uses all the instrumentalities of its propaganda machine. In one year, according to the Soviet Ministry of Culture’s report, the Soviets published and circulated approximately thirty million copies of books in various foreign languages. This literature is widely and cheaply distributed through local bookstores, made available in reading rooms and in their information and so-called cultural centers. In many countries throughout the world, they control newspapers and have penetrated and subsidized a large number of press outlets of various kinds which do not present themselves openly as Communist.

With some of the most powerful transmitting stations in the world, they beam their messages to practically every major area of the world. They step up their propaganda to the particular target areas which they consider to be the most vulnerable, and adjust it as their policy dictates. An organization known as the All Union Society for Cultural Relations Abroad, which poses as an independent organization but is strictly controlled by the Communist party of the Soviet Union, endeavors to establish cultural ties with foreign countries, supply Soviet films and arrange programs to be given by Soviet artists.

Then the foreign news agency of the Soviet Union, well known as Tass, a state-controlled enterprise, has offices in more than thirty major cities of the Free World. It adjusts its “news” to meet Soviet objectives in the recipient country. All these instruments of propaganda are part and parcel of what is called the agitprop.

These organizations and assets teamed together are, in a sense, Moscow’s orchestra of subversion. many of these instruments, and in some cases all of them, can be and are used under Moscow’s careful supervision to bring pressure on any country they are seeking to subvert, or as a background to prepare for future subversion. They keep the orchestra playing, even to those countries like the United States, where the burying process, even by their estimation, is far removed.

Such is the apparatus of subversion we face today in the cold war the Communists have forced upon us, and I have added a glance at the history of the immediate past in dealing with it. To meet this threat we will need to mobilize assets and apply them vigorously at the points of greatest danger and in time–before a take-over, that is before a new Communist regime becomes firmly installed. Experience so far has indicated that once the Communist security services and the other elements of the apparat get their grip on a country, there are no more free elections, no way out.

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website (November 20th, 2009).

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Helm For the Holidays

Happy 2013, everyone! Let’s check in again with agent-of-unnamed-government-organization Matt Helm, and his creator, author Donald Hamilton, in the second volume of the Helm series, The Wrecking Crew.

First, I want to address an issue I had with the last novel, Death of a Citizen, and a comment that addressed that somewhat, because that comment also addresses this novel. I wrote: “In a way, it’s a shame to take something as complete as this book to build a series upon. I hope the next book proves me wrong.” Bill Koenig, contributor to the HMSS Weblog, responded with the following:

“Death of a Citizen was written as a one-off but Hamilton’s editor felt it had potential as a series if the character’s name was changed (it was George originally) and if the wife were killed off (she wasn’t, Hamilton found another way of continuing the series). The second novel was originally done as a one-off with a different character and Hamilton had shelved it. He revamped it with the more pro-active Matt Helm and it worked. It wasn’t until the third novel, The Removers, that Hamilton had actually started a Helm novel as an actual series entry.”

This is interesting because, as I noted, the first novel felt quite complete and would have been fine as a stand-alone. I read the second novel with Bill’s comment in mind, and I came to admire Hamilton’s edits that made The Wrecking Crew flow seamlessly from its predecessor. The decision of Helm’s wife is addressed, and the antagonist of the previous novel is referred to in incredibly effective, but brief, segments as Helm explains his business to one of the female characters in the novel.

The female characters, Sara, Lou and Elin, sort of dominate the novel, and Helm’s semi-sexist attitude toward them is interestingly juxtaposed with Hamilton’s treatment of the characters. At a certain point in the novel, Helm’s profession of love for women in skirts, and his dislike of pants, has become almost a catchphrase, but perhaps Helm represents the man in transition from chauvinism to respect for women as equals. In many ways, the three female characters provide the forward progress of the novel, forcing Helm into action where bureaucracy would otherwise keep him impotent. By the novel’s end, the women have either proven themselves to him, or haunt him because of the promise of what they could have been and the gumption that they showed. It’s incredibly difficult to write a review of a novel without spoiling it completely, but my copy of The Wrecking Crew spoils something that happens in the last 20 pages on the back cover blurb, and anyway, more people end this book dead than alive. It’s part of reading a book about a professional assassin, I suppose.

Before, I said that Helm’s group was unnamed, but we learn from one intelligence agent in the novel that they have nicknames, including the German-supplied Mordgruppe and the stateside moniker that supplies the novel’s title, The Wrecking Crew. The internal conflict of the last novel is supplanted here by a return to decisiveness on the part of the character. He is playing the role of Matt Helm, photographer, occasionally, Matt Helm, bumbling secret agent, but inside he is always “Eric,” a hardened killer. The prey is an opposite number working for, it is insinuated, the Soviets, codenamed Caselius. When trying, barely, to procure information on the agent, Helm doesn’t begrudge the man his job, or feel superior:

I’m perfectly happy to be on his level, doll. It’s the level of a tough, intelligent, courageous man who could probably make a better living selling automobiles or insurance or whatever they sell in Russia, but who prefers to serve his country in the front lines, such as they are today. I don’t hate him. I don’t despise him. I don’t look down upon him, as everybody else seems to, from some kind of a higher moral plane. I’m just prepared to kill him when and if I get instructions to do so, whether it means anything or not. Meanwhile, I’d like to find out who he is.

The potential informant is Lou, the widow of a journalist who wrote a piece on Caselius. Her husband was mysteriously shot down in a total accident, and she only managed to survive because her husband’s body selflessly blocked the rain of bullets. She’s striking out on her own as a journalist, and needs a photographer for an assignment in Sweden. Mac has brought Helm in on this one because he knows a bit of Swedish, because he has photography experience, and, interestingly, because he’s a bit out of shape. The assignment calls for a sort of double-disguise–as noted above, Helm plays the photographer, but also puts on the act of an incompetent American spy, almost to the point of Inspector Clouseauism. The way that Hamilton crafts scenes where Helm runs through what he should be doing, and then swings his fists around ineffectively is fascinating, especially in an early point in the book where, had “Eric” been in control, a horrific death could have been prevented.

Most of the book plays out like an espionage-tinged mystery. Who is Caselius? Who of Matt’s acquaintances can be trusted? Is he the only one wearing the double-disguise? Why all of these pictures? It’s an effective way to create a page-turner, and when the answers start coming, they start coming fast and furious, and sometimes unexpectedly. I’d be interested to see the original draft of this story, before it was rewritten to be part of a series. After the killing, the denouement is not entirely satisfactory, but fits with most everything that’s come before it.

Where the story shines is in the writing of Hamilton and the world he creates. It’s a world where the job of espionage is as mundane as taking pictures, and the killing is quick and dirty. The game at hand is fairly shallow, and most of the cards are on the table. For Helm, it’s a matter of playing out the final hand to see what cards his enemies and accomplices have been hanging onto. I was a bit worried after Death of a Citizen that I wouldn’t be able to get into the swing of the remainder of the series, but if The Wrecking Crew is a sign of things to come (and I hope it is), I’ll be enjoying each of these holiday excursions into the universe of Helm.

Still uncertain? Here’s a sample of Hamilton’s writing to convince you:

I didn’t sleep very well, in spite of the pills. I kept seeing a slender, disheveled woman with bright hair that looked blonde in the dusk, stretching out her hands toward a shape in the woods, pleading for mercy. Then the dream changed. I was being attacked from all sides. I was overwhelmed, pinned to the ground; they were all over me and I was being slowly smothered by the weight of them… I opened my eyes abruptly to see light in the room. A man was bending over me. His hand was across my mouth.

We stared at each other in silence, our faces less than a foot apart. He was quite a handsome and distinguished-looking man, with thick, black, well-combed hair, grayed at the temples. He had a little black moustache. He hadn’t been wearing a moustache when I’d seen him last, there’d been no gray in his hair, and his arm had been in a cast up to the shoulder.

“You are careless, Eric,” he murmured, taking his hand away. “You sleep too heavy. And you still have bad dreams.”

“I don’t know why they bother with a key for this room, the way people wander in and out at will,” I said. “Roll up your left sleeve.”

He laughed. “Ah, we play tricks. It was the right one, don’t you recall?” He started to take off his coat.

“Hi, Vance,” I said. “Never mind stripping. I remember you.”

I got up, shook my head to clear it, went into the bathroom and started the hot water running. I got a jar of instant coffee and a plastic cup out of my suitcase. I loaded the cup with the powder and went back to the bathroom to fill it. The water was almost hot enough. I sat down on the bed to drink, without offering any to Vance. I hadn’t invited him. If he was thirsty, he could supply is own coffee, or at least his own cup.

“Don’t smoke,” I said to him as he produced cigarettes. “I don’t, and somebody might wonder who stunk up the curtains.”

He chuckled and lit the cigarette. “They will think it was just your lady friend. The one with the strange hair.”
I rose and knocked the cigarette from his fingers and stepped on it. “I said don’t do it!”

He looked up at me. “Careful, Eric!”

I said, “I could take you, Vance. I could always take you.”

He said calmly, “It was never proved. Some time we must try. But not here and now.”

I sat down on the bed again, and polished off my almost-warm-enough coffee. “Sorry, amigo,” I said. “I’ve had a rough night, and nembutal makes me irritable. Furthermore, I’m not in a mood for jocular references to the lady in question. She happens to be dead.”

“Dead?” He frowned quickly. “The commotion in the park?” I nodded, and he said: “At whose hands? Yours?”

“Why do you say that?”

“One of my reasons for coming was to warn you against trusting her too far. It wasn’t a message we could send through her apparatus, naturally. It appears that her department is secretly investigating some derogatory reports, which they only recently got around to mentioning to us.”

“I’d say the reports were probably correct,” I said. “But it was our man who got her. At least he announced himself by name, and now I’m inclined to think it actually was Caselius. Unfortunately, he gave me no opportunity to look at him in the light, and I think he was disguising his voice. . . . It was a cat-and-mouse act, Vance. Kind of lousy. They let her assist at her own funeral; they let her co-operate with them in making a holy spectacle of herself; they let her think until the last moment that she was just helping them to kid me along. Then they killed her. He killed her.

“It was a great joke, and whoever set it up would have wanted to be there to laugh. That’s why I think it was Caselius himself. He wouldn’t have bothered to arrange all that specialized fun for another guy. He’d have wanted to be there to finish her off himself, and see the horror in her eyes as she realized how cruelly she’d been tricked.” After a moment, I said, “I figure he killed her because she’d served her purpose and he couldn’t leave her alive to talk. That means she had something to talk about. I’ve got to go on to Kiruna in the morning with the Taylor woman. Can you check on two men for me?”

“I can try.”

I said, “One man I don’t know. But she said she was going to be married as soon as she finished her tour of duty here; and I think the bereaved fiancé deserves a little of our attention. Somebody filled her full of fine ideals and used them to make a sucker of her. The other is a man who currently calls himself Jim Wellington. I have no evidence of a connection between him and Lundgren-he does know Taylor-but maybe you can find one. Watch out for him; he’s been through the mill.

“He wasn’t one of ours, but he made a flight with me into France from our usual field, some time in late ’44 or early ’45. Some of those people went bad later, and some even changed sides. He might be one of them. I don’t know his outfit, but I’ll give you a description and Mac can find the date I made that flight and check the official records for my companion. Tell him it was that prison-break operation at St. Alice. My job was to take the commandant out of action with a scoped-up rifle five minutes before they blew the gates. I got the damn commandant, all right, but nobody else showed up, as in most of those lousy cooperative jobs, and I had a hell of a time getting clear.

“Hell, I’m talking too much. I guess I’ve got a bit of a jag on. She wasn’t much, Vance. Just a pretty clothes horse with intellectual and moral pretensions that she didn’t have the brains to live up to-just the kind who’d be a patsy for a clever character with a humanitarian spiel. But I don’t like the way she died, amigo. I just don’t like the lousy way she died!” He said, “Take it easy, friend Eric. In our business, one does not work well if one lets oneself become emotionally involved.”

I said, “I’ll get over it. I’m just a little shook-up tonight. Somebody held up a mirror, and I didn’t like the looks of the fellow inside the frame. As for that guy Caselius–”

He said, “You had better get over it. You are going to have to restrain your vengeful impulses.”

“What do you mean?”

He was reaching in his coat pocket. He said, “This is ironical, Eric. It is really very ironical.”

“Maybe,” I said. “I can see that it’s a lot of things, but I haven’t spotted much irony yet.”

He said, “I had another reason for coming, a direct communication from the master of ceremonies himself.”

“The master of-”

He laughed. “MC,” he said. “Mac. It is a joke.”

“I’m not up on all the jokes yet,” I said.

“This is no joke, however,” he said. He gave me a folded sheet of paper. “Read it and you will see the irony, too. I could tell you the gist of it, but I will let you decipher it yourself so as not to miss the full flavor of Mac’s prose.”

I looked at him, and at the paper; and I took the paper to the little writing table by the wall and went to work on it. Presently I had it lying before me in plain language. It had my code number and the usual transmission signals. The station of origin was Washington, D.C. The text read:

Representations from female agent Stockholm have led to serious case of cold feet locally. Temporarily, we hope, your orders are changed as follows: you are to make firm identification of subject if possible but do not, repeat do not, carry out remainder of original instructions. Find him, keep him in sight, but don’t hurt a hair of his cute little head. Realize difficulty of assignment, sympathize. Working hard to stiffen local backbones. Be ready for go-ahead signal, but under no circumstances take action unless you receive. Repeat, under no circumstances. This is an order. This is an order. Don’t get independent, damn you, or we’re all cooked. Love, Mac.

This post originally appeared in the Mister 8 website (January 1st 2010), and appears here with the permission of the author.

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Man v. Machine: The Artificial Evil

We’ve been talking extensively about robots so far, so let’s switch gears today and take a look at computers. I was originally going to cover a bevy of espionage films today to build my ideas around, but why bother? Why bother when a shining example has been provided by one of the greatest films, espionage, sci-fi, period, of all time: Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

Alphaville Poster, Art by Armstrong Sabian

Brief recap: In the futuristic titular city, journalist / secret agent Lemmy Caution arrives on a secret mission from the outlands — to capture Professor Von Braun, the creator of super computer Alpha 60, and to use his knowledge to take down the dictatorial machine. In Alphaville, Caution encounters automaton after automaton, people ruled by the cold logic of a computer that has outlawed love and poetry. In Alphaville, logic is order, and those who act illogically pay the price with their lives. Caution falls in love with Natasha, Von Braun’s daughter, and his ability to have emotions, to act illogically, serves as a monkeywrench in the orderly machine that is Alphaville.

If you haven’t seen it, stop reading now, and do yourself a favor. It’s one of a number of full-length movies recently uploaded to Google Video, so go watch it.

There exists a myriad films about amoral computers driving out the experience of humanity with logical function — within the genre of espionage, I’d also thought of discussing The Billion Dollar Brain and The Prisoner episode The General. Perhaps the most well known of these computers-gone-bad is HAL 9000 from the Kubrick/Clarke film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his oft-quoted line, “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave.”

But as with our previous discussions on robots, I question whether the actual evil might lie with the creators of HAL.

Luciano Floridi and J.W. Sanders addressed the idea of computers perpetrating evil deeds in their 2001 essay, “Artificial Evil and the Foundation of Computer Ethics” by creating a new nomenclature for … well, evil. They start by defining the nebulous term with the help of Kekes — evil is an action that “causes serious and morally unjustified harm” — and identify two traditionally acknowledged forms of evil: Moral Evil (ME), that which results from human autonomy and responsibility, and Natural Evil (NE), which comes from the natural world (i.e. earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters). These terms, they offer, are not enough to describe modern occurrences of evil:

More and more often, especially in advanced societies, people are confronted by visible and salient evils that are neither simply natural nor immediately moral: an innocent dies because the ambulance was delayed by the traffic; a computer-based monitor ‘reboots’ in the middle of surgery because its software is not fully compatible with other programs also in use, with the result that the patient is at increased risk during the reboot period. The examples could easily be multiplied. What kind of evils are these? ‘Bad luck’ and ‘technical incident’ are simply admissions of ignorance.

To this end, Floridi and Sanders offer a new term: Artificial Evil (AE). They address the question above as well — are not the evil actions of the man-made system the fault of the men who made them?:

…This leads precisely to the main objection against the presence of AE, namely that any AE is really just ME under a different name. Human creators are morally accountable for whatever evil may be caused by their artificial agents, as mere means or intermediaries of human activities (indirect responsibility)….In the same way as a divine creator can be blamed for NE, so a human creator can be blamed for AE.

Some technologies, they argue, exist as artificial and autonomous agents: (remember this was written in 2001) webbots, expert systems, software viruses, robots. These agents are nomologically independent from their human creators, and therefore their ability to initiate evil actions is also independent from their human creators.

Today’s questions:

1. Do you think there is truth to Floridi and Sanders’ claims?
2. If so, what can be done?
3. Do we see these autonomous agents, capable of enacting artificial evil, in current society, even if not on the scale of a city-running, dictatorial super-computer?

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, 20 June 2009

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Man v. Machine: Goodguy Cybernauts

Fiction, especially spy fiction, is rife with robots created by evil geniuses bent on world domination and/or destruction. Sometimes those robots are destroyed by superhero secret agents, but sometimes they miraculously develop a moral consciousness, turn on their creators, and choose to do good. Let’s take a look at a pair of those today!

The first is truly a “cybernaut,” a human-looking (specifically Dick Gauthier-looking) bot named Hymie, invented by Dr. Ratton and dispatched by KAOS to kill Maxwell Smart (of Get Smart, naturally). In the end, when Hymie’s creator calls him a monster, he short circuits and is able to overcome his programming and save the day:

Hymie became a full-fledged member of CONTROL, though he was sure to say that his first preference is IBM, which he thought would be a, “nice way to meet some intelligent machines.” I’m wondering if, since the Avengers episode that seems to have coined the term “cybernaut,” hadn’t aired in the U.S. yet, if the episode where Hymie first appears was the first time American audiences heard the word. I also wonder if the writers of Get Smart used the term independently of the Avengers?

(For anyone interested, Dick Gauthier sells autographed pictures of himself as Hymie, for a relatively inexpensive price, as far as celebrity autographs goes.)

Our next good guy robot is not from a secret agent television show, but, like Jonny Quest, exists in a world predicated on Cold War tensions. Even beating out the Pixar movies, which I adore, this is my favorite animated film of all time: The Iron Giant.

Based on a novel by Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant was directed by Brad Bird, who later went on to make The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The film features a giant metal man who crash lands off the coast of Maine, and the young boy who teaches him about the important things in life: love, fun, Superman. A four-story tall robot is hard to hide, and so rumors begin to spread about the Giant. Those rumors are investigated by the U.S. Army, specifically Kent Mansley, who comes to see the Giant as a threat to the American way. Mansley, though the villain of the piece, does have a semi-valid point: the Iron Giant is a weapon, though with Hogarth’s help, he learns to suppress his violent programming.

If you haven’t seen this film, go out and find it. Playing the voice of the Giant is by far Vin Diesel’s best performance, and I still prefer this over Bird’s Pixar films.

Two questions to think about today:

1. Isn’t a robot that breaks programming, by it’s very nature, defective?

2. Is it wrong (speaking hypothetically) to build robots that do bad, or morally ambigious things, to give them self-awareness to realize this, and yet to not allow them to break their programming?

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, 5 June 2009

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Man v. Machine: Badguy Cybernauts

Peel and Steed encounter a Cybernaut

Today, we’ll be looking at the trenchcoat- and trilby-wearing metal automatons known as the Cybernauts! The bots made their first appearance in the October 1965 episode of The Avengers that was later the first one to be broadcast in the United States (in March 1966). The episode has proved to be popular on both sides of the pond, and many media critics cite it as an episode important to the thematic growth of the series.

James Chapman in Saints and Avengers: British adventure series of the 1960s (2002) suggests that the episode presents an about-face to earlier views of technology seen on the program, and stemmed from growing fears of a society ruled by technology:

While resistance to progress is dangerous, so too is progress itself if it remains unchecked. Whereas earlier Avengers episodes had advocated investment in science and technology as the key to securing the nation’s future, the series now suggested that in the wrong hands they could be used for diabolical ends. Again, The Avengers can be seen as responding to contemporary concerns, particularly the ideas expressed by academics such as Theodore Roszak that technocracy (the organisation of society based on principles laid down by technical experts) could all too easily lead to a form of totalitarianism. The danger of technocracy taken to the extreme became a prominent theme of the ‘classic’ period of The Avengers.

Jeffrey S. Miller, writing in his Something completely different: British television and American culture (2000) builds on David Buxton’s view that The Cybernauts, and similarly themed episodes, reflected a British class struggle that was mostly lost on Americans:

Of those narrative conventions coming out of the Bond movies and other secret agent shows, none was more important, as “The Cybernauts” would indicate, than the menace of technology. David Buxton argues that The Avengers represents a discourse on the place of technology in accommodating modernity to the traditional British class structure. A danger when used by a nouveau riche class (including scientist / entrepreneurs such as Armstrong) without regard to a traditional elite, technology is equally problematic when used by aristocrats to defend the old order against the rising welfare state. The middle ground, he argues, is technology in the service of consumption and fashion, a middle ground American audiences already found themselves occupying, thanks to Bond, UNCLE, Drake, and other secret agents….The narrative deployment of technology as the tool of evil, familiar to American audiences not only through previous secret agent movies and television programs, but through their own fears of nuclear holocaust, became the central motif of Avengers plots, superseding the Cold War even in many episodes in which Cold War concerns were directly referenced.

Norman Weiner

The use of the portmanteau term “cybernaut” appears to have originated with this episode, though later it was used by scientists in descriptions of potential robot-manned space flights, and more recently has come to mean anyone who explores digital space — the internet, virtual realities, MMORPGs, etc. The word draws its meaning from Norbert Wiener’s use of “cybernetics,” or technological mechanisms, in his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings : Cybernetics and Society. Wiener would later go on to be a major influence on those who pioneered the field of robotics, but, fittingly, worried about the effect that robots might have on society — not because they’d go evil and run amok, but because they’d put people out of jobs. As he wrote in The Human Use of Human Beings, “The automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor.” Wiener set forth ethical guidelines and ideas in his work that he hoped would guide inventors and developers of the future.

But what do mad scientists care of ethics? In their world, cybernauts are the economic equvalent of hitmen-for hire, as John Steed and Emma Peel soon discover. While investigating the murders of businessmen set to bid on a new kind of integrated circuit, the pair find themselves searching for someone who can walk through walls, crack down doors, and break necks with a single blow. Eventually, the trail leads to crazed wheelchair-bound inventor Dr. Armstrong, who is using the faceless steel strongbots to eliminate his competition (Wiener was right — early in the episode, Armstrong brags to Steed that he has no need for employees besides the cybernauts). To give you a taste, here’s a tension-filled clip from the finale of the episode (note the casual glance Emma gives as the cybernauts beat up on their creator):

Steed and Peel faced off against the Cybernauts again in a later episode, in which the mad scientist role was played by Hammer horror films veteran Peter Cushing. In the sequel, Cushing plays the brother of Dr. Armstrong, and uses a new wave of cybernauts to take revenge on Peel and Steed for his brother’s death:

But that wasn’t the end of the Cybernauts. They returned again, in an episode of The New Avengers, where Steed, Purdey and Gambit fight the robots sent on behalf of a former double agent, Kane, who blames them for his disfigurement. Kane teams up with the man who originally developed the cybernauts for Armstrong, and in the conclusion winds up becoming half cybernaut himself — a cyborgernaut, if you will:

The last of the cybernauts? Not hardly, though this marked their last time on television. John Peel and Dave Rogers revived the killer robots for his The Avengers: Too Many Targets, which found Steed teaming up with all of his former partners to take down a new cybernaut threat. In the book that, in his Spy Television, fellow COBRAS agent Wes Britton calls, “One of the most interesting literary incarnations of any secret agent venture,” The Avengers, all of them, are in Africa investigating the murder of two agents when judo punches start to resound with a familiar clang. Here’s a taste:

Steed stared down at the broken robot. “It’s familiar, wouldn’t you say?”

“Very,” Emma admitted, chilled. “It looks like a Cybernaut. But it can’t be.”

On his knee, Steed poked at the exposed circuits with the ferrule of his umbrella. “A new generation of Cybernauts,” he agreed. “Ones that look like people we know–and act like them. These are sophisticated, Mrs. Peel. Very sophisticated.”

Emma thought back to their previous two encounters with the Cybernauts. They had been cold, emotionless robots, built by the crippled Dr. Armstrong. Powerful, silent, and programmable, they had twice been turned against her and Steed. The first time had been by Amrstrong, and the second time by the late inventor’s brother, Paul Beresford. But Armstrong had died, killed accidentally by one of his own creations.

“How can they be?” she objected. “Armstrong was killed.” She didn’t like where Steed’s thoughts seemed to be heading.

“So were the Cybernauts,” Steed said softly. “But machines can’t die.”

The question I’ll leave you with is this: are the cybernauts badguys? Or are they just a reflection of the evil desires of their creators? Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the opposite — a cybernaut created by the forces of good.

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, 3rd June 2009,

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Man v. Machine: The Robot Spy

For our first Man v. Machine post, I wanted to look at one of my all-time favorite cartoons. Jonny Quest may not have been a spy show, strictly speaking, but it’s definitely a product of the Cold War spy era. Writers Timothy and Kevin Burke hit the nail on the head when they describe the series in their book, Saturday Morning Fever: Growing up with Cartoon Culture:

For us, the original Quest episodes, which began appearing in prime time in 1964, are as perfect a distillation of their time as the early James Bond films, a luscious cocktail of technophilia, blithe masculinity, and charmingly innocent cold war ethnocentrism. Like James Bond, the Quest team lived off of a regular diet of evil Oriental masterminds, vaguely East Bloc no-goodniks, various supersecret gadgets, and manly derring-do, though they didn’t indulge in women, martinis, or caviar.

Particularly Bond-like is the bodyguard Roger T. “Race” Bannon, an agent from Intelligence One sent to protect the scientist Dr. Benton Quest and his inventions, lest they fall into enemy hands. In fact, according to Quest creator and artist Doug Wildey, Joe Barbera wanted to specifically draw on the James Bond series to set the tone of the series:

The Barbera influence was felt there because he had gone to see a movie called Dr. No and wanted to get in stuff like “007?– numbers. Which we included, by the way, in the first Jonny Quest. It was called “Jonny Quest File 037? or something. We dropped that later; it didn’t work. But that was his father’s code name as he worked for the government as a scientist and that kind of thing. That influence was felt.

Dr. Benton’s son Jonny, his friend Hadji, and the family dog Bandit were the real heroes of the show, which premiered in prime time (following the success of The Flintstones), but quickly transitioned to Saturday morning. If Jonny Quest indeed counts as an espionage show, I’m sorely tempted to call the theme song, by Hoyt Curtin, the greatest spy theme of all time (sorry, John Barry!). Often playing the Dr. No role for the series (appearing four times in the original series and returning for updates and movies) was the villainous Dr. Zin…

Because this post focuses on Man v. Machine, I want to feature Dr. Zin’s most popular appearance, and certainly one of the best episodes of Jonny Quest: The Robot Spy. In the episode, Zin sends a new invention to spy on Quest headquarters, an invention that is one of the most recognizable robot characters ever on a Saturday morning cartoon show.



Jonny Quest was a high quality television show from a time when Hanna Barbera held high standards for the quality of their animation. If you’re interested in seeing other episodes (and I hope you are), Amazon carries The Complete First Season (quite inexpensively too, if you’re willing to take a used copy).

A memorable show is sure to spawn imitators and homages, and Jonny Quest led to one of the best: The Venture Brothers, soon to enter a fourth season on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. In a second season episode called Fallen Arches, the robot spy makes an appearance as an invention of Dr. Rusty Venture, in a quite humorous send-up of comics, Quest, and Cool Hand Luke. Track it down!

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, June 2, 2009

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