Best Defense

Fiction: We often use it to make the strange more familiar, as in spy novels

Spy novels introduce us to unusual or technical information, potentially confusing events, and unfamiliar social or professional customs.

The fictional Red October, while modified, would look quite similar to this Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine. (Bellona Foundation via Wikimedia Commons)
The fictional Red October, while modified, would look quite similar to this Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine. (Bellona Foundation via Wikimedia Commons)

 

By Katharine Voyles
Best Defense office of fictional realities

Maj. Benjamin Griffin recently argued that “fiction and imagination are central elements of strategy.” In writing about novels, Griffin focuses especially on Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy.

Interestingly, he writes about a month after the British chief of the Secret Intelligence Service weighed in with his own thoughts about the relationship between spying in life and spying in fiction in a letter to the editor in the Economist, “Despite inevitable tensions between the secret and published world, the relationship has generally been of mutual benefit.” Alex Younger ends his letter by siding with George Smiley over James Bond: “[D]espite bridling at the implication of moral equivalence between us and our opponents that runs through John le Carré’s novels, I’ll take the quiet courage and integrity of George Smiley over the brash antics of 007, any day.”

The particular powers of spy novels to make a world made of words seem like the ones in which we live are certainly matters of imagination and characterization, but they are also matters of how fiction generally, and stories of espionage in particular, make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

Ian Fleming and Clancy make accessible unusual or technical information, potentially confusing events, and unfamiliar social or professional customs. A Clancy or a Fleming novel is dense with detail and is made denser still through explanation of that detail. Fleming is famous for M’s set-piece speeches to Bond. No reader of Bond can forget the pages-long descriptions of the workings of Fort Knox in Goldfinger or the diamond trade in Diamonds Are Forever. But it’s Clancy who perfects this. Consider The Hunt for Red October. Jack Ryan has enlarged photographs of a large, Russian submarine with unusual hatches on its sides, and does not know how they might be used, but knows someone who can help him.

The back and forth between Ryan and Skip Tyler over the Red October’s propulsion system is exemplary. In one exchange Ryan asks “Cavitation?” immediately after Tyler used the term. Like Ryan, the reader stands in need of explanation, explication and expansion. Tyler provides it. In fact, that answer runs for a page before Ryan asks another, equally succinct, question that kicks off another page long speech from Tyler. The pattern repeats until the scene ends. When I was 12 my dad and uncle took me and one of my younger brothers to see the movie, and by the end even I was talking confidently about the “Caterpillar Drive” after listening to Alec Baldwin talk with James Earl Jones and Sean Connery about it for 90 or so minutes. The back and forth between Ryan and Tyler, between detail and the discussion of the significance of that detail, familiarizes the strange.

To do this Clancy and Fleming draw on techniques novelists have used for at least a hundred years, if not more. In 1966 Kingsley Amis described “The Fleming Effect” in The James Bond Dossier as the way that the judicious use of detail “‘bolted down’” the novels “to some sort of reality.” Quite possibly, but spy novels also learn to be lifelike from other fiction. Sherlock Holmes laying it all out for Watson, and through Watson to the reader, at the end of a Conan Doyle story or Hercule Poirot gathering suspects in the library to point his finger at one of them to then explain how he knows they are murderer at the end Agatha Christie novel also make the strange accessible by resolving a mystery. And Conan Doyle and Christie, in turn, learned a thing or two from the Victorian realists whose sprawling, detailed novels of everyday life made a rapidly changing Britain knowable to itself.

Spy novels, and none do this better than those written by le Carré, also make the familiar strange. Smiley’s unhappy, faithless marriage is central to the novels. His attachments to others in the Circus, some profound and some less so, are also central to the novels. When the longstanding mole, sent and kept by Karla, is revealed as Bill Haydon, lover and cousin to Ann, the intimacy and familiarity redoubles the deception.

The resonance between spy services and spy novels, the importance of imagination and fiction for strategy are enabled by the capacity of fiction itself to make the unusual ordinary and the ordinary unusual, which underscores the importance of morality, courage, and integrity in word and in deed that C lifts up at the end of his letter. In an age of robust surveillance, globalized communications and broad executive power these qualities and disciplines are crucial for readers, writers and practioners alike.

Katherine Voyles hangs her PhD in English in Seattle, where currently does her teaching, researching and writing.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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