Spy Fiction Redux

The study of international relations (IR) is, by its very nature, abstract as the interactions among nations are spread out over the planet. The conduct of diplomacy, espionage, and war are very remote from the day-to-day lives of average people, but such exotic events are brought into homes and imaginations of average people through spy fiction. Despite that fact that spy fiction may not be the most elevated of literary genres, it has helped generations of readers to enlarge their notions about the world and inform them about the forces that impact their lives. Gaining such knowledge, especially about war, can be dangerous, but spy fiction grants the opportunity gain such experience vicariously.

Ian Fleming created the preeminent spy fiction character, James Bond over the course of fourteen books. Coming out during the Cold War (1947-1991), James Bond made it fun, or at least not so scary. The Cold War did not feature armies moving across the globe as did World War II, which was still recent enough that it was still fresh in people’s memories. Instead it entailed espionage in the shadows, which Bond portrayed in terms of international travel, exotic gadgets, and beautiful women. What’s not to like? The Bond villains were not portrayed as the Soviet Union exactly but in terms of nameless enemies determined to destroy the western way of life. The movies from the early 1960s, Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thuderball exemplified this then new storytelling dynamic, and young men found the travel, cars, and women both exciting and attractive. James Bond helped set the male ideal and consumerist tone of the next few decades, even if they were slightly adolescent and the IR specifics were more than a little murky.

John le Carré (i.e.,David John Moore Cornwell) provided a more mature, informed, and sophisticated literary perspective on the Cold War than Fleming. Carré’s struck first with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in 1963 with its message of moral ambiguity. It was always clear that Fleming’s Bond was always the hero fighting for freedom and the west. Carré’s spy was more tired, flawed, and world-weary. The constant lying, being away from one’s family, and watching well-meaning people getting ground down between the great powers of the Cold War, it all too easy to lose track of the ideals motivating the conflict. In fact, when the western powers employ the same tactics of deception and violence as their opponents, it is possible to lose track entirely of their differences. A decade later, Carré addressed the defection of Kim Philby in his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Philby was a British aristocrat who passed information to the Soviets and though he was suspected, he was never seriously questioned because he went to the right schools, said the right things, and knew the right people. It was inconceivable to people that somebody they thought they knew so well could be a traitor. Philby’s defection caused a major rift between American and British intelligence. Carré explored the search for the mole at the top of British intelligence in all its institutional and interpersonal detail. Novels are the ideal art form to delve into the inner life of characters, and spy fiction with its attendant espionage provided a rich source of material to inform that inner life. The constant double-dealing and deception takes its toll on spies.

Robert Ludlum wrote many books but is best known for his series of books about Jason Bourne, which was first made into a movie in 1988 but was reprised again with Matt Damon over a decade later in 2002. Ludlum’s Bourne series took a very institutional perspective of espionage by exploring its bureaucratic aspects. Specifically, Ludlum did not explore the tensions between the Cold War protagonists, the United States and Soviet Union, as had Fleming and Carré. Instead Ludlum explored the tension between the bureaucracy and the individual, in this case Bourne who even though he devoted his life to the bureaucracy found himself pursued by that same bureaucracy. Ludlum had a background in theater and masterfully employed its narrative techniques in his spy fiction novels. When Bourne is initially introduced, he is found floating in the Mediterranean Sea with amnesia, which as it turns out is rare in real life but is a standard plot device. The reader follows Bourne and learns about Bourne at the same time that Bourne is learning about Bourne, which works well. The man versus bureaucracy theme explores the standard “dupe” deception in which master spies allow a relatively experienced person to take the blame for those better able to play the espionage game. Bourne is being sought because his amnesia makes his actions impossible to interpret by the bureaucracy, but the skills he remembers allows him to evade capture. The Bourne character also allows for exploration of the excesses of the 1960s era CIA and its MK Ultra program that pursued mind control through psycho-active drugs.

Tom Clancy was an insurance agent who parlayed an interest in the military into a career as a thriller writer, although what he explored was more the military than espionage per se, but close enough. Clancy broke out with the novel The Hunt for Red October, which was later made into a movie. At times the Cold War plot seen more a way to showcase Clancy’s encyclopedic knowledge of military systems. One of key ways that the Navy and Air Force differ from the Army and Marines is their view towards technology: that is, the Navy and Air Force focus on manning weapons systems, ships and planes, while the Army and Marines focus on the individual and view technology as a way to extend the individual’s natural capabilities.

Trevanian (i.e., Rodney Whitaker) was an academic turned thriller writer who achieved initial success with The Eiger Sanction and wrote a number of books, however Shibumi seemed to be his best. The title is a Japanese term meaning “effortless perfection,” which is a personal goal sought by the book’s protagonist, Nicholai Hel, a go master turned assassin. The book ranges from World War II to the Cold War, but presages the post-Cold War by focusing on trans-national corporations generally and oil companies specifically that sometimes operate as states unto themselves. Carré has also tried to transcend the Cold War certainty to address the dangers and uncertainties inherent in the post-Cold War era, which is hard because computers and foreign direct investment are considerably less interesting than sex and violence. In focusing on oil and the cultural challenges associated with its geopolitical positioning, Trevanian pointed the security and espionage issues of the 21st century. Perhaps his protagonist also points towards the way spy fiction should be pursued as well.


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