A Gun and a Bad Attitude

Another post I tripped over recently was Ian Coates’ “High-Tech & the Modern Thriller“.

He raises some good points about the difficulty of thriller writers these days who must stay abreast of all technology that can be used for intelligence work (not a small amount), and how it works, while incorporating it into their work, because it’s no longer the 1930s when an author (such as Christie) could simply stick everyone on an isolated island and let events play out.

I dunno about that.

I think about James Bond in his heyday, when the gadgets were four-fifths of the finale.  He even got into space in one movie (at which point, I stopped watching them).

On the other hand, the best James Bond move of recent date is Casino Royale, where Bond gets by pretty much with a gun and a bad attitude.  It took another 1.5 movies for Q to pop up.

Tech for the sake of it is boring, no matter how cool it is (and some of it is, I admit, pretty fucking cool).  They can overwhelm the story and blinker the reader into missing the fact that there is no character arc going on.

Tech with character, though, hell yeah.   I point to James Cameron for a really good example of getting the balance right.  The Abyss is a case in point.  Aliens, too.

Anothing thing about tech in thrillers.  Ever noticed how every gadget, program, app and device works flawlessly?  Outdated software never jams things up, caches never fill, apps don’t mysteriously slow down.  Files are never lost.

The super-advanced, beyond cutting-edge apps should  break down, because most of them are beta-stage only, or else so freaking new, no one has put them into situations the creators never anticipated and reported back to the designers on the meltdown of said device.

On top of that–not every government has an unlimited budget to let their intelligence operatives loose in toyland.

Even if they did, if espionage is out of favour with the powers-that-be, the money for cutting edge tech still isn’t going to appear.

Then there’s the bad guys.  They usually have money falling out of their pockets, yes.  But it’s not endless.  The richest man in the world still has to make a decision about this fifteen million dollar helicopter over here, or that new shiny gadget there.

They can’t have everything, even if they can afford it because those so-new-you’ve-never-heard-of-them gadgets are in limited supply.  Sometimes only one or two exist in the entire world.

So high tech is cool ‘n all, and it’s fun trying to keep up, but not everyone can.  It’s impossible.  Just as it’s impossible that every spy in the world has access to every peice of tech in the world and it all operates flawlessly.

Unless it is James Bond, in which case, geek out.

Queerer Than We Can Suppose

Recently, Early Bird Books released a list of 15 Nonfiction Spy Books More Thrilling Than John le Carré, (it’s a good list, too) along with the observation that “when it comes to spy stories, the truth is often stranger—and more compelling—than fiction.”

It puts in mind the J.B.S. Haldane quote:

My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Haldane was referring to science and future frontiers.

But the world of intelligence really is a different sort of frontier, one where, just like Vegas, what happens there, tends to stay there.

Even in this day of all-inclusive Internet and the decloaking of the true nature of public figures everywhere (here and here, for example), there are many places where intelligence and counter-intelligence professionals around the world talk about their work…and it even seems normal, after the frank in-the-buff revelations of the TV and entertainment world.

Only, in a profession that defines itself by its clandestine nature, those who really know the truth have been conditioned to not speak about it.  The real spies are unknown and invisible and prefer it that way.  Getting one of them to talk about their work–even the declassified stuff, and even just from the corner of their mouth–is next to impossible.

We think we know the spy world and can guess the rest.  I believe what we think we know is just a glimpse of a bigger picture from the corner of our eyes and that glimpse is blurred and out of focus, too.

Next time you watch or read a spy thriller that seems just too over-the-top to be believed…think about Haldane, and reconsider.

Overlooked and Underappreciated

I tend to catch up with TV shows long after it is sexy or trendy to be watching them. I like to binge watch a season, too—so I can absorb the structure of the story arcs as a whole That’s why I’m only just starting to watch Quantico, the ABC network’s TV series featuring new agents in training and a high-stakes conspiracy involving a nuclear bomb just to make it interesting.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the general quality of the show (surprisingly good), and its watchability (engaging).

I did want to circle back to something that bothers the shit out of me about the show, however.

All the major characters in the show are training to be field agents.

So far, so good.

Halfway through the season, though, a cadre of analysts-in-training go nose-to-nose with the “nats” (new agent in training). Through three or four episodes, the analysts were portrayed as geeks or worse, nerds, good for nothing but staring at screens. They were disparaged. When one of the major characters was kicked out of nat training and placed with the analysts, everyone—including the character himself—considered the move to be a demotion. A second-best compromise.

Which makes me shake my head.

I do understand that there’s nothing sexy about analyzing data. Only, it saves lives.

It has been stated more than once, in dozens of sources, books and by even more experts, that many of the world’s crises and in particular, terrorist activities, are anticipated by the intelligence community. Like a fly making a cobweb tremble, alerting the spider in the center, intelligence operatives pick up rumors and rumbles, disparate facts and uninteresting data that, if put together in the correct way, would terrify the crap out of their governments. 9/11 was not so much a failure of the intelligence community, but an inability of the intelligence analysts to put the raw facts together correctly.

Name any major political event in the last one hundred years, and I bet solid money that operatives had most of the major facts in hand before the event, but failed to pool their data, which would present a complete picture, or the analysts failed to interpret the data correctly—and probably because they didn’t have all the major facts to do so.

While operates are sexy and Bondesque, and I can understand the entertainment world’s focus on them as the heroes, I think it’s wrong to paint the analysts as second-best, because they’re not. They’re at least equal with operatives, the yin to the operatives’ yang.

Without analysts, the world would be a scary place.

TV and movies have a huge social impact—their influence is undeniable, and provable. Yale researchers have demonstrated, for example, that the movie The Day After Tomorrow increased the awareness of global warming and environmental change in the movie-going public. With clout like that, shouldn’t entertainers pause to consider the message they’re giving, while they’re soliciting next season’s budget?