Crossroads: Society, World-building, and Estrangement in Spy Fiction

Growing up in a household where the legacy of Communism loomed large (my parents had fled Communist Poland during the ’60s), poison-tipped umbrellas and double-or-triple-agents were regular mealtime conversation. And with no James Bond showing unviewed in our home, the romanticized adventure appealed: Fast cars, neat gadgets, romance, danger – what’s not to love?

But as I grew older, I found that there is far more to spy fiction than the romanticized image of James Bond in beautiful spies in tropical locales. Paranoia, moral ambiguity, the “us and them” mentality where neither “us” nor “them” is clear all added a dark tinge to my enjoyment of the genre, and elevated it from escapist adventure to something darker, more personal, and more primal.

James Bond vs George Smiley

This progression – from escapist entertainment to thought-provoking thrill-ride – was very similar to my experience of reading speculative fiction. At first, I read fantasy and science fiction for the sheer fun of it. And it wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized it could actually say something meaningful.

So if the two genres are so similar, then how does the espionage fiction genre actually work? What are its key characteristics in a structural, aesthetic, and thematic sense? What techniques do authors like Le Carré, Greene, and Silva employ to tell their stories? And how do those characteristics and techniques relate to their more speculative counterparts?

Spy Fiction is All About Tension

There is a reason why spy fiction overlaps so heavily with the thriller genre: Both are defined by their build up of tension. Of course, without tension any narrative in any genre would fall flat. But espionage fiction tends to place tension and its accumulation front-and-center, mining every narrative element to extract as much tension as possible.

In fact, espionage fiction begins to layer tension even before we read the first sentence: Spy fiction’s tension starts in the reader, based on the reader’s own knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about history and the world.

Spy fiction in the Western world got its start (by volume, at any rate) on the cusp of the 20th century, on the heels of the Dreyfus affair. Authors like Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel), William Le Queux (The Great War in England), Anthony Hope (The Prisoner of Zenda), Rudyard Kipling (Kim), and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (in at least three of the later Sherlock Holmes stories) all capitalized on the reading public’s fascination with the Great Game of European and also colonial politics. Others like G.K. Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday) and Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale) spoke to their middle-class readers’ concerns about anarchist/socialist revolution.

When these early stories were written, they were products of the apprehensions of their middle-class reading public. As such, the reader brought the tension from those apprehensions to their reading of the texts, effectively coming to the first page of each story like a coiled spring.

This a priori establishment of tension is one that has served the espionage genre well: As the political and cultural concerns of the day shifted, so too did the nature of the “threat” examined by the genre. While the aesthetics of technique may change, this focus on contemporary fears has remained a constant in the genre.

Before World War I, William Le Queux and Erskine Childers (The Riddle of the Sands) titillated readers with the threat of German invasion, while Chesterton and Conrad mocked their fear of the anarchist next door. Between the wars, William Somerset Maughaum (Ashenden: Or the British Agent) and Alexander Wilson (The Mystery of Tunnel 51) focused attention on the “red threat” growing in Bolshevik Russia, with that threat only to be (temporarily) supplanted by the rise of fascism in Germany.

WWII and the Cold War, however, mark the long “golden age” of espionage fiction, as the public’s mounting concerns about arms proliferation, MAD, technology, economics, and contemporary public revelations of espionage failures (e.g. the Duquesne Spy Ring, the Cambridge Five, the Six Day War, the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of Georgi Markov, and the later arrest of Aldrich Ames). Authors like Ian Fleming, John Le Carré, Graham Greene, Paul Christopher, Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, and Julian Semyonov explored both the technological and ethical implications of the changing world, often intentionally blurring the lines between good and evil.

As the iron curtain unraveled and the threats of terrorism and narcotics rose in its place, spy fiction evolved to reflect those new concerns. While in the meantime, the aesthetics of the genre have gradually shifted, leading to new techniques being used to further build on that tension.

A Familiar World Made Strange: World-building in Espionage Fiction

Part of the tension in espionage fiction is derived from the world’s familiarity. When we sit down to read a spy novel, we know the world it is discussing. However, just as authors in the noir tradition need effective world-building to transport the reader into an unfamiliar environment embedded within the familiar, so too do the authors of espionage fiction. To maintain the world’s familiarity while simultaneously estranging the reader, the espionage genre has developed two opposing strategies:

The Exoticized Strategy

Authors like Ian Fleming (Casino Royale) exoticize the world by (typically) setting the story in glamorous, exotic locales. Most readers are not familiar with the tropical islands most Bond novels are set on, and even those of us who are have typically only experienced those islands as tourists. By placing James Bond in a glamorous environment unfamiliar to us, lavishing descriptive passages on that environment, and then showing us that environment’s cutthroat underbelly, Fleming manages to maintain consistency with our familiar world while simultaneously making his (outlandish) story both plausible and entertaining.

This is a technique originally pioneered by writers of adventure fiction (Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard, in particular). It explicitly romanticizes the adventure and implicitly promotes the nationality/ethnicity/worldview of the protagonist, thus distancing the reader from any underlying ethical concerns and fundamentally Othering both the villain (who in Fleming’s case is rarely British) and “the locals” (who cannot manage with Bond’s help). Yet despite its problematic nature, it remains a time-tested technique, effective at establishing a fun and entertaining story, even if it limits the opportunity for thematic depth.

The Familiarized Strategy

The flip side to this technique (mastered by both John Le Carré and Graham Greene) is to focus attention on the far more quotidian aspects of espionage, and to explicitly make the characters (heroes and villains alike) and their experiences as relateable for the reader as possible.

George Smiley - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Gary Oldman)

Le Carré’s George Smiley, for example, is the inverse to Fleming’s debonair James Bond. Where Bond is suave, Smiley is frumpy. Where Bond is physical, Smiley is mental. Where Bond is unwavering in his convictions, Smiley is wracked with what Kingsley Amis called “anguished cynicism”. And yet the two are equally unwavering.

Le Carré’s narration is far more interior when compared to Fleming’s. His novels are set in far more dreary locales (West Berlin, London, Prague, etc.), and where he chooses to spend words on describing the environment it is solely to make it ordinary, to relate it to the discomfort an ordinary man (like George Smiley) might feel were he to be there.

Le Carré familiarizes the reader with his world through a classically science-fictional device: neologism. By now, most of us are probably familiar with much of the jargon of espionage: Tradecraft; mole; lamplighter; to break someone; to turn someone. These are phrases familiar to anyone who has seen a couple episodes of Burn Notice. But that wasn’t always the case.

Le Carré’s George Smiley novels are fascinating for the way in which they used words unfamiliar to their readers in order to establish that the otherwise completely mundane world the text described was fundamentally alien to the reader’s experience. Those terms I just listed? Most of them were actually coined in popular usage by Le Carr&eacute. Some (such as “mole”) were actually obscure translations of foreign spy slang, not even used by English-speaking spies themselves…until Le Carré popularized them.

Where Fleming’s technique of exocitization focuses the reader’s attention on the adventure and fun of the story, Le Carré’s (and Graham Greene’s) familiarization focuses the reader’s attention on the internal experience of the characters. This highlights the characters’ ethical quandaries, and tends to foster significant ambiguity as to the “right” choice for them to make.

Notably, neither Le Carré nor Greene (unlike some of their successors, like Daniel Silva) offer the reader any neat solace or rationalization at their stories’ ends.

Neologism and Technology in Spy Fiction

Technology has always been central to espionage fiction: Either serving as the Macguffin or as a key tool used to solve plot conflicts. The popularity of technology as a key narrative device is a relatively modern addition into the espionage toolkit, really becoming popularized in the mid-80s with Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October.

Like for so many other elements in the espionage genre, Ian Fleming laid the groundwork for this aesthetic technique’s development. Just as Fleming lavished descriptive prose on his exotic environments, so too did his authorial eye linger on the guns, gadgets, watches, and cars beloved by his hero.

While the technology was (somewhat) within the realm of plausibility, Fleming never failed to provide significant technical detail on each of the key devices that Bond would use to foil the villain. From a narrative standpoint, this serves a very similar function to the science fictional tendency of infodumping with technobabble. It estranges the reader, and provides for a sense of technical verisimilitude (even if the technology itself is utterly bogus).

Authors like Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October), Len Deighton (The Ipcress File), and Robert Ludlum (Jason Bourne novels) all provide in-depth explanations of their underlying technologies, not unlike the explanations provided in much classic hard SF. In some cases, such authors’ focus on the technology (notably Clancy’s) has drawn criticism as distracting from the action of the story – yet plenty of readers enjoy his books precisely for the verisimilitude and realistic technical detail they offer.

The Shifting Sands of Time

What I find interesting – and notable – in the history of the espionage fiction genre is the gradual shift away from the ethically charged ambiguous stories of John Le Carré and Graham Greene. Fewer and fewer novels are structured using the world-building technique of familiarization, and an increasing number of espionage novels are shaped like techno-thrillers with their concomitant focus on both technology and romanticized adventure.

The aesthetic shift away from quietly discomfiting stories like Greene’s The Human Factor or Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold may be a result of commercial pressures, or it may simply be a reflection of our own changing tastes (or both, or maybe neither). Yet it is an interesting trend, and one which may is occurring in parallel with the changing nature of our cultural and political tensions.

At every turn, the concerns of the (western) middle class have found themselves reflected and amplified in espionage fiction. Because that is one of the primary purposes and uses of the genre: To explore our apprehensions and examine individual, societal, and political responses to them.

Many have said that science fiction is a commentary on the present, even if it is ostensibly a commentary on the future. Espionage fiction is explicitly a commentary on the present, and it is simultaneously set in the present. One might think that science fiction and fantasy are well positioned to incorporate espionage fiction’s structures and techniques, especially if speculative fiction has pioneered the most sophisticated techniques of world-building and neologism.

Next week, we’ll look at some of the challenges faced by speculative fiction that wishes to build on the espionage tradition.

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