Visits from an Old Friend (part one)

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  • Monday, March 25, 2013
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  • Sean Ellis
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  • Tom Clancy once observed that a new Clive Cussler novel was like “a visit from an old friend.”  When I first read that, I couldn’t have agreed more.  When I first discovered Cussler in my teens, I knew that I had found a series of adventure novels that would keep me company, and ultimately inspire me in my own career as a writer.   Now, some years have passed, there have been a lot of developments in the Cussler universe, and I find that Clancy’s statement holds true…but not quite in the way I thought it would.

    Human relationships are not static.  They grow, evolve and change in response to factors ranging from personality growth to unexpected crises to geographical proximity.  To further complicate matters, friendship is a shared experience, and no matter how dedicated we are to preserving the status quo, we may have very little influence on what the other participant in the equation does.  Sometimes, we fall out of friendship, and sometimes, even though we stand loyally by our friends through thick and thin, we find ourselves shaking our head in disbelief at the things they do.  We may not go so far as to formally dissolve the friendship, but we may after a time, start to look at those “visits” as something, not to be cherished, but rather endured.

    So… yes, I’ll admit it.  I don’t quite look forward to a visit from my “old friend” the way I once did.  Judging by the comments I’ve heard and read from fellow Cussler fans, I know that I’m not alone feeling this way, and that realization has prompted me to make an objective examination of exactly what it is that I feel has changed.

    First however, let me address something that long time Cussler fans probably don’t think much about: there are still people discovering Clive Cussler’s novels for the first time.

    Just think about that for a moment.  Maybe it’s someone getting ready for a long flight who blindly grabs a paperback from the airport gift store.  Maybe it’s someone browsing the stacks at a used bookstore who—as amazing as it might sound—has never heard of Cussler, but is drawn in by those awesome covers that show things blowing up.

    For the professional creative artists—I’m talking writers, filmmakers, musicians—there’s a simple calculation that must be observed; you always need new fans.   That’s why, for example, superhero movies often ignore the deeply textured lore of the comic book canon, and try to strike a more universal tone. Filmmakers know (or rather gamble on their belief) that the true fans will show up no matter what, but they also know that if they don’t appeal to a much larger audience, they won’t make back their investment.  That’s just how the world works.  Writing a novel is a bit different because it’s not as logistically demanding as making a movie, but the considerations are the same.  The long-term fan doesn’t always appreciate this, and may feel personally offended if the stories deviate from their expectations.

    I discovered Clive Cussler right about the time the “first” Dirk Pitt novel—Pacific Vortex—was released, shortly following the publication of Night Probe (the fifth or sixth Dirk Pitt, depending on how you want to line them up).  I immediately scooped up the backlist and devoured them all.  Right from the start, I noticed a shift in the tone and style of the novels, but at the time, I didn’t give it much thought.  I was in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of the friendship, and Cussler could do no wrong.

    As the years wore on, I became more critical of the novels as they came out.  I can remember initially being very disappointed with Cyclops…and then with Treasure.  I was so disappointed with Dragon that I actually swore off Cussler for a while—which wasn’t that hard to do since he averaged a new release every two years back then.  Now, in fairness, I think this says more about me as both a reader and a fan, than about the novels, but I don’t think anyone would argue that there was a pronounced change in style between…say Deep Six (my all time favorite) and the books that followed.

    For a long time, I considered there to be three distinctive periods of Cussler novels, and there is now a fourth.  The first period was very short—just two novels, or three if you count Pacific Vortex.  These were as close to “hard-boiled” as Cussler ever got.  They were told almost entirely from Pitt’s point of view, and the action was up close and personal.  There were few supporting characters, and the plotting was fairly tight. 

    The second period, the big evolution, began with Raise the Titanic, and in my opinion continued through Deep Six.  Pitt is still the hero, but now he’s part of a much larger tapestry, and often isn’t central to the plot.  In this period, Pitt is the everyman hero, who walks on stage in the middle of a big drama and ultimately becomes the focal point of the solution.  A perfect example of this is Vixen 03, which features a sympathetic anti-villain (yes, I just made that word up) who is drawn into a plot to launch a stunning false-flag attack on Washington DC, and accidentally almost releases a deadly nerve agent.  I call this the Ludlum period for Cussler, not because there was any real similarity (IMHO) between the two novelists, but because the stories were more in the vein of espionage thrillers.  The “sunken treasures” that Pitt went looking for were fairly contemporary in nature—ships and trains that had been lost for a century or less.  Cold War era politics definitely set the tone for these stories, and while the plots were big and their resolution would have created an alternate future for our world (a world where Canada became part of the United States) Cussler didn’t try to rewrite the ancient past.

    The next evolution was a little more subtle, and my decision to mark Cyclops as the turning point is somewhat arbitrary.  The plots of the third phase stories remained outrageous (and I mean that in a good way) but now Dirk Pitt is the central figure from the get go.  In some cases, this requires an incredulous contrivance, such as Pitt wrangling a runaway blimp while participating in windsurfing race off the Florida coast.  Pitt is no longer an “everyman” but now more of a Superman—well, he was always that, but from this point forward, all pretenses were cast aside.  What really changed in this period though was the reliance on the supporting characters, particularly the omniscient maritime historian St. Julien Perlmutter and the equally informed NUMA computer genius Hiram Yaeger.

    I mentioned that I was disappointed with the books of the third period, but in fairness to Cussler, I think a lot of that was the result of my own expectations.  As the years passed and I renewed my friendship, I reread those books and discovered that I didn’t hate them after all; I just needed to experience them from a different perspective.

    The fourth period is not marked so much by a change in style as it is a change in management.  I am speaking of course about the emergence of the Cussler brand and the involvement of collaborative writers.  It is evident, both from anecdotal reports and from some pretty significant plot developments in the Dirk Pitt stories, that Cussler originally intended to retire from writing and pass the torch to his protégés, and particularly, to his son Dirk Cussler.  For the most part, that is exactly what has happened, with one notable exception: Dirk Pitt was also supposed to retire, clearing the way for his son, Dirk jr. to carry on the adventurous tradition—more about this later. 

    The Cussler brand has been both a blessing and a curse for Cussler fans—a blessing because now it means we get three or four books a years, instead of a book every two years—that’s three or four Cussler-style stories (that’s third period Cussler, just so we’re clear) with big action, historical mysteries, buried treasures, and audacious plots.  It is a curse for much the same reason.  Not only has it become damned expensive and time-consuming to keep up, the frequency of output has dampened the novelty of the experience.  A visit from an old friend is great, but when that old friend shows up every weekend…?

    I’ve wrestled with these feelings of disloyalty, and as I listen to the comments of friends and read the reviews of the latest Cussler novels, I know that I’m not alone.  A lot of the conversations seem to focus on the collaborative authors—some are loved, some are loathed—and often, cynical motives are ascribed to Cussler and/or his publishers.   I think those conversations are worth having, but I’m not ready to fold up my tent and declare this friendship to be over.

    Next week, I’ll talk a little more about the various flavors of the new Cussler brand and the authors writing them—and just in case you’re wondering, I’m very optimistic—and I’ll focus in a little more on what I think needs to happen to cement the bonds of friendship as we move into the next generation of the Clive Cussler experience.

    I’d love to hear from fellow Cussler friends.  What has your journey been like?  What do you think of the latest evolution?  Leave a comment and if I can, I’ll address some of these responses next week!


    Steve Manke said...

    I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't discover Cussler's work until after the Sahara movie hit. I liked the movie and saw it was based on a book so I looked up the author. I started reading the books in order, but starting from Sahara and moving forward. Once I reached the most recent book at that time, I jumped back to the beginning and started from there.

    So, while my reading order was a little messed up, I absolutely agree with the changes the series has taken over time. If asked, I would've had a hard time delineating the break points but I think you nailed it. Likewise with the changes to the characters and the tone of the stories.

    I can't say that I've been disappointed with the newest books, but there is something very special about some of the early books. I blasted through the series at near light speed so it's hard to tell one story from the next in my mind without going back to the book descriptions. I literally read them back to back.

    In fairness, I haven't read Poseidon's Arrow yet. I think that's one of the books drawing the most criticism at the moment. I've also read that some folks are critical of the Isaac Bell books. Personally, I'm a big fan of that series. Though, there too, I'm behind the curve. The Striker is out but I haven't had a chance to read it.

    There's no question that the Pitt character has evolved over the years. But, how could it not? We're talking about a lot of books and a lot of years. Certainly Cussler changed a great deal over those years as well.

    Perhaps most interesting of all is that Clive Cussler's work has remained so popular for so long. That audience has continued to grow and expand. As you hinted, people have grown up reading Pitt books! Personally, I'm glad Clive chose to work with other authors rather than close up his computer and retire. It makes me wonder where the characters will go in the next stage of their evolution.

    David Wood said...

    The Isaac Bell series is my favortie of all the current Cussler series. It's the least formulaic and, because it's historical fiction, the subject matter feels "new" to me. Like Sean, I no longer keep pace with all his new releases, but I enjoy, to varying degrees, the ones I do read.

    Rick Chesler said...

    Started reading Cussler as a teen with what I think of as his "classics"--The Mediterranean Caper, Pacific Vortex, Iceberg, etc. I read them all, and remember that when Robert Ballard found (although didn't raise) the Titanic for real, I was using a newspaper clipping of an article about that as my bookmark for Raise the Titanic. I guess that was '86 or so. I continued reading through Deep Six, Cyclops, Sahara, etc, and after that I got more into Crichton. I've read a handful of the new generation Cussler stuff, esp. the Austin/Zavala series, but not most of them. I like how Pitt's son was brought into it (don't like series that go on for decades yet the main character(s) are frozen in time), and that new stories are sitll coming out, but for me those early books will always be what I think of when I hear "Cussler," and to this day they bring a big smile to my face.

    Unknown said...

    My Clive Cussler experience began with my wife buying me Raise The Titanic, due to my interest in that ship and in fact all things maritime. I found it to be an interesting read, especially as the real Titanic wreck had not yet been discovered at that point. As subsequent Cussler books appeared, I acquired and read them all, plus going back to get the small number of earlier Cussler works. I have them all, and while I certainly agree that some are "better" than others, and that his style has gone through more than one phase, I do still enjoy them. I have also been privileged to visit his car collection in Arvada, Colorado and that is an experience not to be missed. No one - not even Clive Cussler himself - has ever claimed that his books are contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature . . . they were never intended to be. The represent good action and adventure novels featuring interesting premises and settings. I would certainly count them more than a few steps above the typical "beach read' that is forgotten as soon as the final page is read. I still look forward to each new book in all of the different series. I guess I'm hopelessly hooked . . . not that that is a bad thing!

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