They moved as Gods. And as Gods, they might have remade the world. But like the mad holy man Rasputin, who destroyed Russia through his own powerful influence… in the end, the psychic spies for the Motherland were only in it for themselves…….It is the 1990s. The Cold War is long finished. In a remote Labrador fishing village, an old woman known only as Babushka foresees her ending through the harbour ice, in the giant eye of a dying kraken – and vows to have none of it. Beaten insensible and cast adrift in a life raft, ex- KGB agent Alexei Kilodovich is dragged to the deck of a ship full of criminals, and with them he will embark on a journey that will change everything he knows about himself. And from a suite in an unseen hotel in the heart of Manhattan, an old warrior named Kolyokov sets out with an open heart, to gather together the youngest members of his immense, and immensely talented, family. They are more beautiful, and more terrible, than any who came before them. They are Rasputin’s bastards. And they will remake the world.
Given the subject matter of my new novel Rasputin’s Bastards (Cold-War espionage as conducted by irresponsible psychic savants), no one should be particularly shocked to learn the first Ian Fleming novel I read was the one with all the Voodoo: Live and Let Die.
I was nine years old. I’d just been to see the film, and although my parents tried, there was no way to keep me away from the paperback movie-tie-in edition of the Fleming novel. The cover alone was worth the price of purchase: it was the movie poster, featuring a black-haired Roger Moore surrounded by athletic-looking women, gigantic Tarot Cards, a big old ‘gator barfing up careering speedboats, and everywhere, great, blossoming explosions. The book itself was only slightly less exciting.
It was the first of many James Bond novels for me. By the time I was in my teens, I’d read them all, and I like to think as a burgeoning novelist, I’d internalized the good bits (notably, Fleming’s uncanny ability to drive a story forward at the same time as he offers up pages of what should be unreadably dull, story-halting exposition) while rejecting the bad bits: Fleming’s cringe-worthy racism, sexism and sadism.
Most of those last things went over my head when I was nine. I took the story in the same spirit as I would a C.S. Lewis Narnia fantasy, or the bloody-minded events of The Hobbit. James Bond’s adventures around the world battling mad spy-masters and foiling super-villains were cut from the same cloth.
In Live and Let Die (particularly in the film), the adventure moved into real fantasy. The chief villain in the novel is Mr. Big, an African American gangster working for the Russian spy agency SMERSH. In the film, Yaphet Koto plays both Big, and a Papa Doc Duvalier stand-in name of Kananga. Both are in deep with the Voodoo. In the film, Baron Samedi even shows up, surviving a bullet to the head at one point and in a short coda, laughing maniacally on the cow-catcher of a speeding train. No doubt about it: magic was a force.
In book and film, the villain employs magic, in the form of his virginal fortune-teller Solitaire, to stay a step ahead of 007. It’s unclear whether she is actually able to foretell the future through her deck of Tarot cards; but Big relies on her advice as though she can. Ultimately, her advice is no good–but not because she doesn’t have the Sight. She just likes the handsome guy from England better, so she lies for him. And for a time, anyway, Mr. Big is powerless in the face of it. Because he believes.
Rasputin’s Bastards follows from a lot of what Fleming was about. When I started work on the book, it was wholly in the spirit of a Bond novel. Except James Bond was a Russian, and he was mixed up in some business with some very peculiar former KGB colleagues, and he didn’t have the savoir-faire to always get the girl and win at bacarat.
And as I started to develop those very peculiar colleagues, who “dream-walk” around the world, manipulating an army of sleeper agents at will, I recalled the lesson of Solitaire.
A psychic spy program would never work, even if psychic spies themselves worked. It wouldn’t take long before these magical creatures simply started ignoring their masters, and used their extraordinary abilities for their own benefit.
They would be bastards about it, too.
The book took me a long time to write, because I have to admit that I was confronting my own feelings about magic, mysticism and psychic empowerment.
At the same time as I was sneaking away to read books like Goldfinger and Thunderball, I was accompanying my mother on something of a spiritual quest in the wake of my parents’ divorce. We did Transcendental Meditation, attended psychic seminars, even joined a Japanese church for a time that practiced something like Shintoism and promised a direct, transcendent relationship with a universal God.
In the novel, one of my favorite characters is Stephen Haber, a young man who works with the Bastards, but appears to have no talent for dream-walking, mind-reading or anything else. He yearns for it. And why wouldn’t he? His life in the flesh is nothing but pain and heartbreak; the empowered realm of the mind is not so much an escape, as it is a way to find meaning. So he haunts psychic fairs and listens to tapes that promise to unlock his psychic powers and shuts his eyes regularly, hoping for a glimpse of eternity. As desperate as he is, I find him to be one of the most hopeful characters in the book. He is yearning for the magic that many of the other characters in the book came upon easily, and squandered.
Many of us yearn for transcendence, just like Stephen does. And many of us seek it out, in churches and retreats and on yoga mats–even in the hyper-rational world of science fiction, where the Singularity looms like the face of God.
Sometimes, that yearning makes us into suckers–like Mr. Big and his inconstant Solitaire, or the Romanovs who let the original Rasputin into their house and so hastened the Russian revolution; or in my novel, the foolish masters of Rasputin’s Bastards who thought they could command the wind. But it’s a very human thing, seeking something larger.
You’ve pretty much got to be James Bond to resist it. ~David
David Nickle is the author of more than 30 short stories, 13 of which have been gathered in the collection Monstrous Affections. He is author of Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, and co-author of The Claus Effect, with Karl Schroeder. Years ago, he and Karl won an Aurora Award for the short story that inspired that novel, “The Toy Mill.” Some years later, he won a Bram Stoker Award for short fiction, for a story called “Rat Food” – co-written with Edo Van Belkom. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
Thanks David, I am looking forward to reading your novel and meeting Stephen!
Was there a movie that after seeing it…you just had to read the book? What was it?