I Spy, I Fear, I Wonder: Espionage Fiction and the Fantastic.
Don D'Ammassa, C. C. Finlay (M), James D. Macdonald, Chris Nakashima-Brown, Ernest Lilley.
In his afterword to The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross makes a bold pair of assertions: Len Deighton was a horror writer (because "all cold-war era spy thrillers rely on the existential horror of nuclear annihilation") while Lovecraft wrote spy thrillers (with their "obsessive collection of secret information"). In fact, Stross argues that the primary difference between the two genres is that the threat of the "uncontrollable universe" in horror fiction "verges on the overwhelming," while spy fiction "allows us to believe for a while that the little people can, by obtaining secret knowledge, acquire some leverage over" it. This is only one example of the confluence of the espionage novel with the genres of the fantastic; the two are blended in various ways in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, Tim Powers' Declare, William Gibson's Spook County, and, in the media, the Bond movies and The Prisoner. We'll survey the best of espionage fiction as it reads to lovers of the fantastic. Are there branches of the fantastic other than horror to which the spy novel has a special affinity or relationship?
Lilley was a last-minute replacement for John Shirley. If I'd known he was going to be on the panel ahead of time, I might not have gone, being deeply unimpressed with his behavior at a World Fantasy Con panel about non-European urban fantasies. Mostly (but not exclusively) thanks to him, you get a bonus rant about sexism at the end of this.
Note on panel composition: five white males. (Nakashima-Brown's name was acquired by marriage and not ancestry, according to a later conversation with him.)
Because more time has passed, I'm less certain about some of these expansions; I've noted this where it occurs. I welcome clarifications or corrections to the notes from those who were there.
Finlay: definition of the espionage genre?
Macdonald: cynicism, bleak
Nakashima-Brown: travel through present-day dystopia
Macdonald: may never know what it was you were really doing
Lilley: not nearly as much in novels as in real life, tend to have feeling some impact but still cog in machine (missed something)
Macdonald: Company [CIA] guys he met, tended to feel they needed to read better grade of spy novel (spent 15 years in Navy, last 4 years in Panama in intelligence)
D'Ammassa: there's an atmosphere found in majority of spy novels: individual engaged in 1 of 2 missions: get information from organization or sabotage operation of organization
Lilley: left out: individual working for an organization whose directives are not his
D'Ammassa: doesn't necessarily have to be a professional, could be an innocent dragged in
Finlay: so how does this connect up with SF?
Nakashima-Brown: both involve movement between different worlds. In spy genre, different parts of world are hidden from each other: middle-class, underworld, spook country (in Gibson novel of same title, three characters represent different aspects)
Finlay: _Spook Country_ interesting because present-day novel not future
Lilley: in fantastic, agent is always an alien by virtue of role with regard to people around him (human or not, but never part of community around him), gives interesting latitude in behavior
Finlay: spy by nature has to live a lie
[comment I wrote in my notes at this time: very gendered language]
Finlay: back to intersection, spy as literally alien
Lilley: describes Stross's Laundry books, where intersection between magic & science is math, use computers as gateway. thinks that largely get to SF through Bond gadgetry as connection
Macdonald: first of Mageworlds books is meditation on (among other things) open-source intelligence collection, heroine goes from world to world to find out who killed her mother; used to get fan letters from priests, nuns, 15 year old girls, and intelligence agents; also Peter Crossman novels (_Apocalyse Door_ to be reprinted in paperback this December!) [see my booklog entry for description]
Finlay: really means and methods not gadgets [I think this was a reference to Macdonald's books]. what about style influence on cyberpunk?
Nakashima-Brown: yeah, ideal prototype for describing world experience mediated through gadgets, media products, also secret identity vehicle for describing experience of alienation
Lilley: different between cyberpunk in general: connections to people around them are genuine, unlike spies
Finlay: really true? Le Carre, tension driven by real relationship developed under false circumstances
Nakashima-Brown: Milgram (? not sure I heard this right) similiarly
Lilley: objection withdrawn; but still at core there's an awareness of agents that connections will be cut at need
Nakashima-Brown: not knowing whether any emotional relationship is genuine
Macdonald: _Tailor of Panama_ throw-against-wall-able because among other things, title character was selling wool suits in _Panama_. That's the character who everyone was told that he was a spy, and they reacted as such, but wasn't
Lilley: genesis of character in _Deep Space 9_?
Nakashima-Brown: _North by Northwest_ scenario [something I missed], late cyberpunk works, geeks enlisted by accident
D'Ammassa: reflected on where SF most brought something to spy novel: Robert McCannon, _Wolf's Hour_, WWII spy novel, agent is werewolf, integral to novel (easy to infiltrate if look like dog); several novels with spy as telepath
Macdonald: did have entire U.S. program where trying to develop distance reading of Soviet leaders' minds
Lilley: Russians had done some wonderful speculative things, Faraday death ray, wouldn't touch until we saw them doing it
Macdonald: PK program resulted in nothing actionable
Lilley: even SF has given up psionic sphere to large extent
rosefox from audience: it's gone into paranormal romance & urban fantasy, much of which is also very much on espionage model, twisted to various degrees; Dresden Files for example
Finlay: great point, other direction moving into is downloaded intelligence on chip; also: do we see connection going back other way, technothriller influenced by SF
Macdonald: would call technotrhiller near-future SF because someone told Tom Clancy this stuff works
D'Ammassa: terrible writer Stephen Koontz, book about something buried in desert
Nakashima-Brown: Clancy very akin to hard SF, all about machines & training of individuals, all defined through training and interations with machines
Lilley: one of favorite secret agents in media, John Drake (? Internet says from British 1960s TV show _Danger Man_/_Secret Agent_) almost no gagdets
(someone) fantasy espionage titles?
Lilley: also Stross
D'Ammassa: Fafhrd, Leiber
audience: Tim Powers, _Declare_
panel: in description
D'Ammassa: also Powers' new one
audience member: Scott Lynch, Lies Locke Lamora
other audience member: crime novel, so arguable [whether fits as spy, I think]
Finlay: what does genre fiction get from borrowing
Nakashima-Brown: some: just commercial gambit
Finlay: Stephenson and Gibson are making living writing
Nakashima-Brown: Gibson's most recent [have sold much better, I think]
Macdonald: why: because it's fun
D'Ammassa: _Riddle of Sands_ [Erskine Childers], thought to be origin of modern spy novel, is SF: British novel, Germans discovered to be preparing to invade (sort of SF because never really happened), incredibly influential (1911-ish) [1903 per Wikipedia]
audience member: invasion genre was very popular in Britain; also: what SF gets from spy novel, same as also gets from detective story or trial story, characters are explicitly going around finding out how things work; can be very lazy way of worldbuilding
Lilley: Ian Fleming's travel novels versus spy novels, little bit of plot thrown in to latter
me: spy stories get you chance to employ improvisational intelligence; cited non-SFF TV show _Burn Notice_
panel generally: cool stuff, yes!
D'Ammassa: spy genre's message: individual can have an effect on world, even more so in SF; _Wasp_, Erik Frank Russell; one spy on a planet can undermine
[Arrgh, a recent thing I read is very relevant to this but it's a spoiler. Arrgh.]
Nakashima-Brown: American adventure protagonist prototypes discussed by Finlay in talk previously
Finlay: spy is not passive observer but participant in big events, so that's part of appeal, like seeing improvisational & applied intelliegence
Nakashima-Brown: but is it a common aspect of American adventure protagonist?
Lilley: think something there
Nakashima-Brown: farmer fixes all own stuff
Lilley: Russian general, said what terrifies him about American military, truck broke down, 5 GIs fix it
audience member: [similar quote, I think, was that] difficulty in planning to fight American soldiers is that they don't read own doctrine or manuals
audience member: in general sf reading, find that detective format more readily crops up
Lilley: reason is agency (in organizational sense): SF generally is suspicious of large agencies, presumed corrupt/misguided, detective more natural fit
Nakashima-Brown: thus protagonist who is outsider to spy world & lured in is so attractive
Lilley: general evolution of spy character over series novels, more and more disillusioned
audience member: Stross theorized that all spy novels from US are driven by horror of nuclear holocaust; then other audience member mentioned UK invasion fiction; running joke in anime circles that Tokyo most explosive city in world; so maybe something to this, cultural outlet
Lilley: WMD in fiction, gives license to throw everything out window, part of appeal
(someone) Jack Bauer
Lilley: as society's mistrust of goverment goes up, viability of spy genre has decreased
Nakashima-Brown: no different ethically than working for corporation with crass private interests
Lilley: whereas early it was interesting because you had good guy pretending to be bad guy
audience member: _La Femme Nitaka_, TV series that was very definitely SF
Lilley: women as spies, "there's quite a lot there, isn't there?"
audience member follows up: had same producer
audience member: wondering about: in contemporary detective fiction, lots of women; wheras spy novels, the classic is always male, and the panel is always saying "he" and not even pausing for "he or she"; is genre still that gendered, and if so why
Lilley: "female spies in genre are not women, men painted as women"; lots of female agents, not in action hero mode, much more effective
[I am not sure what the last clause means now, whether it's referring to real life or fiction]
audience member follows up: what do you mean by painted as? elaborate
D'Ammassa: think if changed name, pronouns, wouldn't notice difference
(different) audience member: TV series _True Spy_ was so popular producers made an SF version, _World of Giants_, spy shrunk down
Finlay: back to gender issue, didn't think answered question
audience member who asked question: no you didn't
(different) audience member: husband-and-wife team, innocent civilians coopted, _Above Suspicion_, about twenty of them [Helen MacInnes, if the Internet can be believed]
Nakashima-Brown: spy novels very dominated by 20th century experience of going to work and having identity supressed in very male way
Finlay: isn't that just limits of men writing spy fiction? _Alias_ etc. taking different view of gendered roles
audience member: what about real world of espionage?
panel: it's very gendered
me: but this is SF!
D'Ammassa: underestimate influence of marketing departments & publishers, perception is (rightly or wrongly) that spy genre is men's literature, while detective novels are women's; once tried to sell series to men's adventure publisher with female protagonist and failed; does seem to be changing , _Rogue Angel_ series quasi-spy
Lilley: detective series is highly introspective by nature
Finlay: so how about women who were spies in real world and went to write, how does that inform their fiction: Alice Sheldon [James Tiptree Jr.], someone else
Macdonald: they were analysts not operatives (for a long time the language section at Langley [CIA] exclusively recruited from Bryn Mawr)--it's fun, get good stuff, but also incredibly tedious
Finlay: that's real world, no reason to stay with in genre fiction, has anyone done that?
Lilley: look at book covers [I don't know what that means any more]
rosefox from audience: struggling with idea of men in wigs, no-one would notice? women would notice if they prefer women characters, also based on idea that there's some essential difference between men and women tied to action
Lilley: male & female, talk about modality, action hero modality is historically male, when women jump into that modality, bringing anything but XX?
me: WHY ISN'T THAT ENOUGH!?!
[written in my notes at this point: "can I eat him, boss?" Which quote from Loiosh, scavenger familiar of Vlad Taltos, is one way I express frustration]
Lilley: that modality is limited in ways I would like to be expanded
(someone on panel, possibly still Lilley) if changed to Jane Bond, would women identify with?
rosefox from audience: you bet! bring on the sexy Russian women
audience member: Dorothy Gilman, Mrs Polifax, elderly female spy
Lilley: female M in Bond movies does bring something more to role
various people all at same time: because Dench is a better actor
Nakashima-Brown: more of an emotional relationship there now
Lilley: oh yes
[written in my notes at this point: "please boss!"]
Finlay: asked whether answered question
audience member who originally asked: not straightforward answer but appreciate coming back to
audience member: Stross [drawing from?] Dilbert; also tension between egalitarian feminism & difference feminism
audience member: re: invasion fiction: what era, is _War of Worlds_ part of
audience member: Kim Newman's literal masters thesis, 1885 to [? WWI, I think?]; _War of Worlds_ & _Dracula_
audience member: Stross: Cold War & Lovecraft, people think unthinkable
Nakashima-Brown: Lovecraft full of secret agents, just don't know they are until end when go insane
The bonus rant about sexism
I propose that from now on, whenever anyone pulls out "this female character is just a man in a wig/makeup/women's clothing," we heckle them. Because it is a sexist, gender-essentialist, heterocentric, transgendered-insulting thing to say and deserves to be called out as such.
To say that a female character is actually a man in woman's clothing is to assert that there is something uniquely, irreducibly, and universally female. That every single person in the world who identifies as a woman has that something in common. And, moreover, that they share that something with not one single man on the planet. [*]
Yes, that's logically what it boils down to. Because if you admit that men and women can both have whatever identifying trait, then you admit that a fictional character with that trait could be either male or female, and you can't insist that a character must "really" be one or the other.
[*] Don't say "chromosomes" because it's not accurate. And anyway when we're talking about fictional characters we're talking about their entirety, not just a limited physical component. If you find yourself thinking "what about innate physical differences" anyway, go read the Feminism 101 FAQ.
I think it's much more fruitful for readers, critics, and writers to evaluate characters as individuals, considering whether an author has portrayed that individual in a way that makes sense on their own terms. So you could say that, for instance, the author hasn't satisfactorily explored the tension between a character's expressions of compassion toward the ill and their killing a wounded enemy. Or that this character's upbringing would not seem to lead to them having sex with people they haven't known very long and aren't emotionally attached to. Or whatever.
(Note that none of these examples are impossible, just that they may require more exploration from the author to create a character capable of encompassing these traits.)
Not only is this less sexist, it is more specific and therefore more useful. And, bonus, it avoids embarrassing moments like asserting that there is "something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing" or a male author with a default-female name being assumed to be a woman and told that (s)he couldn't convincingly write a man's point of view.
(I use this example because it's recent and I had it to hand, not because I want to be a person who only upset by bad behavior when it's felt by members of the dominant group. If you have handy links to similar examples happening to women, please leave them in a comment.)
I should note here that the next day, someone who'd been at the panel suggested that one way an author couldn't just change the name of a character is if they didn't change the character's experience of discrimination. I believe the example he used was that if a character was changed from white to black, that character would have a much harder time getting a taxi cab on the street.
This is true, though of course limited in applicability to books using that kind of social background. But in my experience that's never what people who pull the "man in women's clothing" are talking about: they're talking about the character's personality and the plausibility of their actions.
If you don't believe a character is plausible, be specific about what you find contradictory or implausible about that character, and don't fall back on tired stereotypes. Because what you're saying when you just use "man in women's clothing" as an objection is that men are the default and women have to justify their very existence as characters, and by extension as people. And I refuse: I exist, and you're not going to tell me otherwise.