NRA: Pilot on the River Kwai

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 69-71

The task of a double-agent is to appear completely loyal while being actively disloyal.

So, for example, if you were ever to find yourself posing as an accomplice of a mass-murdering embodiment of evil while secretly working for the forces of good, you would want to do everything you could to reassure your psychopath boss that you supported him while doing everything possible to disrupt, delay, expose, undermine, sabotage, subvert or otherwise foil his plans. That’s the job.

Rayford Steele gets this exactly backwards.

“What have I done?” asked someone other than Rayford Steele.

Rayford is serving as the personal pilot of the Antichrist. Nicolae Carpathia needs a good pilot to carry out his murderous schemes, and Rayford has proven to be just the guy for the job. We readers know that in his heart,* Rayford despises Nicolae and everything he stands for, yet day after day, he assists the Antichrist by dutifully fulfilling every task he is called on to perform.

Rayford does not seem to enjoy doing this, but his lack of enthusiasm has not affected his performance in any way. When it comes to providing everything Nicolae needs from his personal pilot, Rayford has done exactly what any fully devoted servant of the Antichrist would have done.

That was bad enough earlier in the story, when Nicolae’s agenda consisted mainly of weirdly arbitrary steps, like building a global capital in the Iraqi desert or unifying the world’s currency. But at this point in the story, the evil mastermind has finally gotten around to acting like an evil mastermind — nuking dozens of cities and slaughtering millions of people.

Rayford hasn’t done a single thing to try to stop him. Worse than that, Rayford has assisted and enabled this slaughter.

The authors do not seem to think that this makes Rayford culpable for the mass-death they’re now describing, but I don’t see any way to avoid that conclusion. Nicolae is killing people. Rayford is helping him.

This isn’t one of those spy-thriller scenarios in which the hero has to participate in some small degree of evil in order to protect his cover so that he will later be able to prevent something even worse. Rayford isn’t participating in Nicolae’s plans in order to protect his cover — he’s just blindly carrying out every order he is given. In any case, considering the mass-murder that Nicolae is carrying out at this moment in the story, it’s hard to imagine a more urgent time for Rayford to intervene.

Rayford reminds me a bit of Alec Guinness’ character in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Col. Nicholson is the commander of British forces in a World War II Japanese POW camp. When the prisoners are ordered to build a bridge for the Japanese military, Nicholson goes mad and sets about to build the greatest bridge they have ever seen.

Yet both Rayford and the authors seem to imagine that he’s William Holden, the counterpoint to Guinness’ character who parachutes in to dynamite the enemy’s beautiful new bridge. They inexplicably think that Rayford’s loyal service is somehow heroic. In their eyes, he’s a courageous “Tribulation Force” soldier infiltrating the inner-circle of the Antichrist.

They seem to have forgotten that infiltrating the super-villain’s lair is only the first step. The hero also has to do something once he gets there — something other than faithfully serve the super-villain as an efficient and effective assistant.

Chapter 4 of Nicolae begins with a half-page vignette in which Nicolae prepares to broadcast to the world he’s busily bombing into oblivion.

At the sound of a knock on the cockpit door, Rayford shut off the hidden button and turned expectantly. It was a Carpathia aide. …

Odd. The last chapter made it very clear that there were only nine people on this plane: Rayford, Amanda, the copilot, Nicolae, Fortunato, and four “ambassadors.” Now suddenly Nicolae has a whole staff of people on board with him.

… It was a Carpathia aide. “Do whatever you have to do to shut down all interference and patch us back through to Dallas. We go live on satellite in about three minutes, and the potentate should be able to be heard everywhere in the world.”

Yippee, Rayford thought.

Again, Rayford is supposed to be a double-agent. The task of a double-agent is to appear completely loyal while being actively disloyal. But here, and throughout these books, Rayford is completely loyal while appearing disloyal.

Rayford mutters and grumbles. He’s rude and sarcastic. But he always comes through when Nicolae needs him.

“Shut down all interference and patch us back through to Dallas,” the aide says. And Rayford shuts down all interference and patches them back through to Dallas. It does not matter to Nicolae that he does so while muttering sarcastically to himself. Nor does it matter to the millions of people that Nicolae is killing. Rayford’s muttering does not make them any less dead.

In a better novel, I would worry that Rayford’s abrasiveness and open dislike for his boss would risk blowing his cover as a Tribulation Force secret agent. But that hardly matters here, since without any subversive mission or agenda, he’s not really much of a secret agent. Plus it seems implausible at this point that he still has a cover to be blown. Rayford doesn’t bother to hide his contempt for Nicolae, and the Antichrist already knows that Rayford is a Christian convert. I imagine Nicolae knows all about the Tribulation Force and just doesn’t care.

If anything, the Antichrist is probably disappointed that the Tribulation Force isn’t larger. They supply some of his most loyal and capable employees.

The “Yippee” bit, I’m guessing, is meant to make Rayford look “cool.” It echoes the earlier scene in which Rayford wises off to the soldier on the highway, or that wretched business with Buck making faces behind Verna Zee’s back when she was his boss.

I think Jerry Jenkins watched a lot of 1980s comedies — stuff with Bill Murray or Chevy Chase — and latched onto a glimmer of an idea that sarcastic insubordination is the key to making your hero funny and likable. Alas, Jenkins hasn’t quite grasped why such rebellious characters are funny. (Hint: They’re rebellious because they actually rebel.) And he proves utterly unable to imitate the thing he’s trying to mimic here.

The problem isn’t just that Rayford’s smirking commentary lacks any wit or originality. The bigger problem is that cracking wise may be appropriate when, say, the boss orders everyone to work through lunch, but it seems monstrously inadequate as the only expression of rebellion when the boss is ordering you to participate in the killing of millions of people.

Look back at, say, Stripes, Fletch and Caddyshack, and you’ll notice that one common thread running through all those movies is that they never ask us to like a character who is willingly complicit in genocide.

Meanwhile, Buck and Verna Zee are rather nonchalantly reacting to the destruction of Chicago.

Buck was on the phone with Loretta when Verna Zee slipped behind the wheel. She slung her oversized bag onto the seat behind her, then had trouble fastening her seat belt, she was shaking so. Buck shut off the phone. “Verna, are you all right? I just talked with a woman from our church who has a room and private bath for you.”

I’m not sure how to respond to this little section. On the one hand, Buck’s behavior to Verna in this scene is uncharacteristically decent. Just consider that sentence: “Buck shut off the phone.” That’s the most selfless act we’ve ever seen from him.

It is good of Buck, here, to overcome his instinctive misogyny and dislike for Verna and to begin treating her like a fellow human being, a refugee who just lost her home in the war. He goes out of his way here to be nice to her — literally going out of his way, as he arranges for her to stay at Loretta’s, then rides there with her instead of heading off directly to try to find his wife who, you’ll recall, may be dead for all he knows.

I want to enjoy Buck’s surprising kindness, but his lack of urgency following Chloe’s crash — “… he heard an explosion, tires squealing, a scream, and silence” — makes this scene frustrating. This leisurely reaction to the “huge aerial attack on the city of Chicago” seems to be shared by the rest of the Global Weekly staff:

A mini traffic jam dissipated as Verna and Buck’s coworkers wended their way out of the small parking lot.

Wending does not seem like an appropriate response to the sudden arrival of World War III. People should be rushing off to rescue loved ones, to collect supplies, to fill bath tubs, to “flee to the mountains” without turning back to get a coat.

Buck and Verna exchange apologies as they wend their way toward Loretta’s house in Mount Prospect. Eventually, to pass the time on their commute, Buck mentions something about Chloe perhaps lying bleeding on some highway.

Buck told her of his urgency to locate a vehicle and try to find Chloe.

“Cameron! You must be frantic!”

“Frankly, I am.”

She tells him to take her car, and then, to convey just how frankly frantic he is, Buck says:

“I’ll let you lend me your car, but let’s get you settled first.”

“You may not have a minute to spare.”

“All I can do is trust God at this point,” Buck said.

Jenkins doesn’t mention it, but I imagine Buck has been silently praying for Chloe all this time. “Lord, I’ll let you save Chloe. I’ll deign to allow you to do that for me, God …”

Having learned of Chloe’s plight, Verna shows more urgency in this scene than Buck:

She sped to the edge of Mt. Prospect and slid up to the curb in front of Loretta’s beautiful, rambling, old home. Verna did not allow Buck to even take the time to make introductions. She said, “We all know who each other is, so let’s let Cameron get going.”

She tells Buck to keep her phone as long as he needs it, and Buck takes the wheel all set to race off to rescue his wife:

Buck pushed the driver’s seat all the way back and adjusted the mirror.

Well, OK, safety first. You don’t want to race off on your high-speed rescue mission with the mirrors improperly adjusted. But now he’s all set to race off to find Chloe:

He punched in the number he’s been given for Nicolae Carpathia and tried to return that call. …

He doesn’t get through to Nicolae, but rest assured, as soon as he finishes that phone call, he does, eventually, race off “toward the only route he could imagine Chloe taking to escape Chicago.”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* “The Lord seeth not as man seeth,” 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”

For many evangelicals, that verse has gotten mingled with the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith and not by works to produce the notion that what we do is always less important than what’s “in our heart.” Actions don’t matter. Consequences matter even less. The crucial concern is always intent — having a “good heart.”

I’d guess that this is part of what Rayford’s sarcastic “Yippee” remark is meant to show us. Sure, he may be serving the Antichrist and co-operating in Nicolae’s mass-murder, but in his heart he opposes all of it.

I wrote about this sentimental “good heart” idea a long way back, when then-President Bush was praising Vladimir Putin’s “good heart”:

This approach also explains why evangelicals — including George W. Bush — can get so angry and aggressively personal in any political or ethical dispute. If you believe that the only (or at least the primary) reason you hold political opinion X is because you love Jesus, then you will also come to believe that anyone holding opinion Not-X must therefore not love Jesus. Thus evangelicals who disagree will quickly move to accusing one another of not loving Jesus, which — for an evangelical — is about the worst thing anybody can accuse you of (except, of course, for homosexuality or voting for Clinton).

This is what prompts President Bush’s angry indignation when any initiative or position of his administration is questioned. He interprets all such questions as challenges to the Goodness of his Heart. Thus his response is usually to angrily reassert that he has a Good Heart, without ever responding to — or hearing and considering — the substance of the critique.

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  • EllieMurasaki

    Business opportunity! Hit up Cafepress or Zazzle.

  • Oddly, I’m almost positive that in a later book in the series, Leon is described as tall, though not as tall as Manly Ray-Ray.

    I’ll try to find it when Once Upon a Time is over.  ;)

  • Kiba

    Ha. I’m about the same height as you and I live with my grandmother who’s about 5’1.” I usually get called her medical monkey because I’m usually the one responsible for the hanging of things, pulling things from the upper cupboards/shelves, and what have you.

    Around here the thing I usually smack my head on is the light fixture of the ceiling fan >.< 

  • Carstonio

    The two romance novels I’ve read, both historical, seemed to have a fair amount of pandering. The woman was described as more desirable than her rival, in both appearance and personality, as if the writers made the sexist assumption that the readers were catty. But that pales next to the action genre’s pandering using machismo and xenophobia, or to Ellanjay’s pandering to the persecuted hegemon mentality.

  • The novels usually portray Supreme Sidekick Leon as more of an overweight buffoon.

  • Yeah, again with the weight thing, coming from Jenkins.  Weird.

  • It’s not weird at all.

    Right-wing men think it is a woman’s duty to be beautiful. Hell, what am I saying, most of the United States thinks it’s a woman’s duty to be beautiful, no matter their politics. A woman must be fuckable or she is completely and utterly without any worth whatsoever. And fuckable means skinny. 

    So you get Glenn Beck simulating vomiting in a bag on the radio for hours because supposedly the thought of having sex with a beautiful plus size model makes him so disgusted. She’s beautiful and young, but she’s “fat”, so she must be disgusting. The fact that Glenn Beck is not-beautiful (to put it mildly) nor young are things that matter. Men’s attractiveness is not a thing we are to think about, ever. Women’s attractiveness is all that matters about them, ever.

  • You don’t send someone who loves killing (Zimler) to do what is
    essentially an espionage snatch and grab job (someone with skills at
    moving about undetected, hiding in the shadows, and computer penetration
    and data retrieval).

    I just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Crouch and Vandemar repeatedly complain that they are professional killers, and are not in the business of making sure people are Not Killed, after their employer (apparently) changes his mind about how to deal with one of the protagonists and decides he wants her lured into his trap, not killed. Crouch and Vandemar are decidedly the Wrong Guys For The Job.

  •  I got it, though I was wondering if he grew rather than shrank.

  • Guest

    My husband has at least twelve inches of height over me. He bends over a lot for the kissing. Or I stand on the second stair from the bottom.

  • Daughter

     Pointing out that romance heroes tend to be tall isn’t a dismissal of romance novels, nor does it make any statement about the quality of such novels overall. I was just noting that given how common tall heroes are in fiction overall, this is probably a very minor flaw in set of horrifically flawed books.

  • Isabel C.

    @Carstonio:disqus : As a reader and a writer, I don’t see anything wrong with a little wish-fulfillment. Winding up more conventionally-attractive and successful than the person you dislike is a common enough fantasy, and not a particularly bad one as long as you don’t let it overtake your life.  I also don’t really see it as a sexist one, although that depends on how it’s presented–the assumption that women and only women will care deeply about being prettier would be sexist, but I’ve seen a fair number of tropes where guys eye the ex-QB’s receding hairline and smirk, or whatever.

    And I’m going to stand up for pandering, up to a certain point. No, you shouldn’t play to racism/sexism/etc, but if those things aren’t present, why shouldn’t you give your audience what they want? And as an audience member, why shouldn’t you seek out emotionally satisfying fantasies? That’s kind of the basis for half the storytelling in the world.

    In re: parents and attitudes and blah: Ugh, “rebellious heart”, what the hell is that  bullshit?I mean, I can understand and advocate a stance where yes, you do have to do this thing, kid, and I don’t particularly want to hear any complaining about it.  My folks had that policy on occasion, probably out of a desire not to have their lives be vast vortexes of preteen whining and sulking. And I think there is value in teaching kids that yep, sometimes you need to suck it up and do this thing *and* be pleasant about it, because having to do stuff you don’t like does not give you the right to make life miserable for everyone else, and the world does not always want your opinion.  Having encountered and dated a few versions of Compulsively Honest Guy, I really wish more people would learn that.

    But that’s a different lesson. That’s There Is An Appropriate Time and Place to Vent, or Other People’s Feelings Are Also Important, or Seriously, Nobody Needs Your Opinion On Farscape Right Now. These are very different than the lesson that you don’t get to be unhappy about anything authority, even proper authority, makes you do, because that lesson is wrong and sucks. 

  • depizan

    *shrugs* A “tick” under six feet tall still seems tall to me.

    It certainly isn’t short.  I think average height for men is somewhere around 5’9-5’10 something like that.

    Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be boggling at the possibility of Ken Ritz being 6’7.  It could be that in the alternate reality of Left Behind, average height for men is 6’1.  No, wait, that’d still make him pretty damn tall.

  • Maybe Van Helsing is Tsion? He kind of talks like him… Looking forward to a “King Laugh” scene.

  • Münchner Kindl


    In the years since, I’ve become more and more aware of this notion that
    it’s allegedly not enough to obey your parents, you have to be actively
    happy about it or what you’re doing doesn’t count.

    Paul Watzlawick cited the related attitudes – that parents expect their children to always be happy because they are doing so much for them, so every non-happy face is an accusation – and the expectation to do tasks voluntarily and hence happily (what Fred cited his mother saying about cleaning the room in the Philemon essay) – as messing children up considerably because it denies their real feelings and requires them to replace them with manufactured ones. Not good at all for raising healthy people.

  • Münchner Kindl

     Even worse is that Kirk Cameron plays Buck in the movies, so I’ve pictured him as normal-sized male (with blond locks and smarmy smile), not 6+. I mean 6 ft. = 1.80 m is already big for a guy compared to a normal-sized 1.65 m (5ft 6in) woman, although more Americans seem to be 6ft. than Europeans (non-representative sample).

    Esp. if Buck is supposed to be young – he’s 10 years older than Chloe, right, so in his mid-30s? (Though he thinks as if he’s her father…)

    Most men under 40 aren’t that tall, they get another spurt late. The college-aged guys through mid-20s and late-20s are all normal size and rather thin, and small-shouldered, from what I see.

  • I had that a few times when I was a kid, so there’s definitely secular parents who can fall into the trap of thinking their kid isn’t behaving exactly the “right” way and accusing them of motives they never had.

  • aunursa

    Esp. if Buck is supposed to be young – he’s 10 years older than Chloe, right, so in his mid-30s?

    At the beginning of Left Behind, Buck is 30 and Chloe is 20.  It’s now about 19 months later, so he is 31 or 32.

  • Tricksteron

    IIRC average height for an American male is 5’9″.  For an merican female 5’4″

  • depizan

     Making these guys not just tall, but extremely tall.  (Which is what makes it so noteworthy, really.)

    It’s got to be an alternate reality.

  • Tapetum

     My family runs very tall – not quite basketball tall, but still very tall. I’m so used to men being tall that I once got in trouble for describing my husband as average height to a friend. He’s 6’6″.

  • Tapetum

     Isn’t that hard. My husband and I do it all the time (5’8″ and 6’6″). He bends at the neck and shoulders and I tip my head back and stand tall. Works fine.

    My favorite couple for height differential has to be Miles Vorkosigan and Ekaterin, though. She’s tall (5′ 10ish?) and he’s under 5′. So many things taken for granted in romance turned topsy-turvy with that one fact.

  • Tricksteron

    Don’t forget he had a Friends With Benefits relationship with Taura who was what, around eight feet tall?

  • Tapetum

    I love Miles’ comment to Roic, when the latter is considering romancing Taura about how making love to her is like being “mugged by a goddess in the dark”. Miles plainly sees being physically outmatched by his love interests as not a turn-off in the least, and Lois, bless her, manages to convincingly have Roic come to the same conclusion, despite Roic being a conventionally strapping, strong young man, who would normally be the big, strong one in a romance.

  • Lori


     That’s There Is An Appropriate Time and Place to Vent, or Other People’s
    Feelings Are Also Important, or Seriously, Nobody Needs Your Opinion On
    Farscape Right Now.  

    I’m totally down with 1 & 2, but 3 can be a little tricky :)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    When are you lot going to join the rest of the world and adopt the metric system? I keep having to convert all the imperial measurements to get a handle on just how tall 6ft whatever is. Once it goes above 6f2 all my brain gets is “really bloody tall”.

  • Daughter

     An over 40 growth spurt? I’ve never heard of such a thing (unless it’s weight, not height).

  • Tricksteron


  • Aaron Boyden

    Once it goes above 6’2″, I’m not sure you need to get any more than “really bloody tall,” unless you’re scouting centers for a basketball team or something.

  • EllieMurasaki

    We’ve been trying to convert to metric for ages. As evidence I present the 400g grocery items that cost the same as a pound of said used to. Ditto the liter bottles of stuff that we get for the same money that used to buy a quart.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I get the sarcasm, but you know that the world is bigger than America + Europe? Cos every damn time I refer to “the rest of the world” people decide I actually mean the smallest continent. 

  • Umm, a liter is a bit more than a quart, actually.  Just sayin’.

  • EllieMurasaki

    1 L ≈ 0.87987699 quart

  • Are you sure you aren’t looking at the dry or Imperial quart?  I think you’re American, right?  The quarts we use for bottles are 0.946352946 liters.

    ETA: Yep, that’s definitely an Imperial quart, none other.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Thus demonstrating my point.

    What the hell is a quart based on anyway? The volume King Henry VIII could urinate in one go?

  • Well, it’s a quarter gallon, obviously, hence the name.

    OK, OK, so I got curious and checked up on the gallon, too, then.  The general gallon-size concept seems to come from the wine & beer business, of course.  What I found amusing is that the Imperial gallon in particular is the volume of 10 pounds of water.  The US gallon is what used to be known as the wine gallon, as opposed to the ale gallon.  Yummy.

  • P J Evans

     I think we must have been home-brewing our ale (non-standard containers) but importing all the wine. Otherwise I think we’d have gotten Imperial measurements, along with feet and inches.

  • Tricksteron

    Hah!  Stinkin’ furriner!  There ain’t nuthin’ beyond our borders but mist and goblin critters!  You is a figament of yur own imaginationing!

  • Immaterial

    Eh, I’m an Aussie and I think in feet and inches for personal heights – and nothing else.

    I’m 6’1 (quite tall for a woman). My partner is 5’7 (slightly short for a woman, but close enough to average). My mum is 5’8 (average height for a woman, though she says it was tall when she was young). My dad is 6’0 (very slightly above average for a man). Men are, on average, about 3″ taller than women, and are still on average just a little shorter than me.

    I know my height is 185cm, but it doesn’t feel as right :P

    None of my brothers are over 6’3, though my baby brother-in-law is about 6’7 (he *just* squeezes in under a doorframe which I know to be 6’8), and by his height “really bloody tall” is about what fits :P

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I also got curious and looked things up.

    While all sorts of different gallons have been defined at various times, the earliest I saw was from 1303 when Edward I defined a dry gallon as being the volume that contains 10 pounds of wheat. OK, so what’s a pound based on? Apparently the grain (5760 grains in a troy pound and 7000 grains in an avoirdupois pound), which is the mass of a single barleycorn. In England, anyway. In other countries other grains were used.