Friday, February 5, 2010

The Rise and Decline of the Military Techno-Thriller (Continued)

After the Peak
The end of the Cold War, and its receding into the imaginative distance, predictably took a lot of the wind out of the genre's sails. Like the spy story, the techno-thriller grew out of a context of international, "great power" conflict to which the post-Cold War era has no equivalent, without which it necessarily suffers--indeed, to an even greater degree than spy tales do.39 Nonetheless, the attempts by techno-thriller writers to keep the genre going as the world changed around them merit some attention.

In Search of Monsters to Destroy
First and foremost, techno-thriller writers (among others) strove mightily to find a substitute among the usual suspects for the status of "next" LPC (Large Peer Competitor), another power capable of confronting the U.S. with a large-scale, high-tech military challenge. A Russia under Vladimir Zhirinovsky-like nationalists and China going on the warpath were both popular choices, as in Dale Brown's Sky Masters (1991), Chains of Command (1993) and Fatal Terrain (1997), or Tom Clancy's The Bear and the Dragon (2000).

However, as Russia's economic and military power continued to wither through the 1990s, and Boris Yeltsin held onto the Russian presidency (ultimately handing it over to Vladimir Putin), the idea of hard-liners turning back the clock seemed increasingly passé. This did not eliminate the prospect of Western conflict with Russia, but the most extravagant scenarios fell by the wayside.

China was also problematic, not only because of the limits of its military capabilities, but American ambivalence about viewing the country (the booming of which is often presented as a validation of "the American way") as an enemy. Reflecting this outlook, the protagonists in China-centered thrillers were as likely to be intervening in the middle of a Chinese civil war on behalf of the Communist Party's opponents as combating Chinese aggression, as they do in Richard Herman's Dark Wing (1994) or James H. Cobb's Sea Strike (1998).

A number of writers also explored the possibility that U.S. allies would, in line with the neo-mercantilism fashionable at the time, turn into enemies. Americans battled Germany (or German-led alliances) in Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin's Cauldron (1993), Harold Coyle's The Ten Thousand (1994) and Joe Buff's Deep Sound Channel (2000); and Japan in Peters's War in 2020 (1991), Clancy's Debt of Honor (1994), Michael DiMercurio's Barrucada, Final Bearing (1996) and Coonts's Fortunes of War (1998).40 As worries about political spillover from economic competition inside the industrialized world faded amid the hosannas surrounding globalization (and the resurgence of American triumphalism) during the late 1990s, these fears faded almost completely.

In any case, such villains as they were able to create were usually good for only so much, their "enemyness" a more conditional, tenuous thing than the half-century competition with the Soviet Union.41 Certainly where Germany and Japan were concerned (and to a lesser extent, this was also the case with the more threatening versions of Russia and China writers invented), the aggressive behavior tended to be a brief, temporary aberration, their takeover by Really Bad Guys usually short-lived and running its course by the end of a limited, one-book conflict.42

As a result, writers increasingly turned their attention to smaller fry: "rogue" states like North Korea, Iran and pre-2003 Iraq; and non-state actors like terrorists and crime syndicates.43 However, rogue states appeared very limited opponents in the wake of the brief and one-sided 1991 Gulf War, and the margin of superiority American forces seemed likely to enjoy over any likely adversary afterward (the non-combat of 2005's Jarhead the ultimate commentary on the subject).44 Terrorists and drug lords were even less able to put up an interesting fight, given their tighter budgets and accustomed methods of operation.45

Accordingly, techno-thriller authors often tried to create a more level playing field, usually through the use of three devices.46 The first was to beef up the enemy's capabilities (often using leftover Soviet assets), as in Dale Brown's Shadows of Steel (1996), in which Iran acquires not just Backfire bombers, but a nuclear missile-equipped aircraft carrier.47

The second was to combine crises so as to threaten the U.S. with overstretch, as in Clancy's Executive Orders (1996), in which China and India get together with a united Iran-Iraq in a common plot.

The third was to find ever more ways to tie their heroes' hands politically-which usually meant developing the goings-on in Washington D.C. more fully.48 The interest in "Military Operations Other Than War" during that decade suggested an obvious option, placing their fictional soldiers in politically delicate peacekeeping missions where the "liberal establishment" could be an even bigger nuisance than usual.49

The Bust
Nonetheless, these devices only went so far, and the strain showed. Readers looking for high-tech military action would frequently get spies-and-commandos stuff only occasionally enlivened by a piece of new hardware, as in Larry Bond's The Enemy Within (1994) and Day of Wrath (1998); Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, Red Rabbit (2002) and The Teeth of the Tiger (2003); and Stephen Coonts's later work, as in "Tommy Carmellini" novels like Liars & Thieves (2004)-or worse, large doses of flat, dull D.C. hijinks.50 There was also a tendency toward repetitiveness, Coonts alone devoting three of his Jake Grafton novels to the "Arab villain get nukes" theme-Final Flight (1986), The Red Horseman (1993) and Liberty (2003).

The "War on Terror" may actually have contributed to this process, by focusing public attention on forms of military conflict in which the kind of high-tech action and intrigue the techno-thriller centered on was marginal.51 Additionally, it soon became clear that there was little audience for films and television presenting events in the Middle East as entertainment, the Hollywood talent agency AEI listing "Middle East-Iraq stories" squarely in the WHAT'S NOT side of its market trends sheet at the time of this writing.52

It may also be that the costly, protracted and highly divisive conflict diminished the appeal of military adventure in general--just as it would seem to have played against the nostalgia for the Second World War so evident in the late 1990s.53

In any case, many of the most prominent techno-thriller writers stopped producing new material entirely in this period. Tom Clancy, who produced a major book every year or two for almost two decades, has not published a new novel since The Teeth of the Tiger six years ago; and even the series other writers have been publishing under his name (Op-Center, etc.) generally sputtered to a halt around 2006, the novelizations of his successful video game series excepted. Richard Herman's last book, The Last Phoenix (2003), likewise appeared that year. After 1999's Traitor, Ralph Peters (who became a prominent critic of much of the investment in high-tech, "heavy metal" weaponry) turned away entirely from contemporary military thrillers to writing the Civil War era "Abel Jones" mysteries under the name of "Owen Parry."54

The newer writers who came along in the mid- and late 1990s-like James H. Cobb and Patrick Robinson-were not in a position to have the impact of their predecessors, though many of them continued to publish and some did appear on the bestseller lists, Robinson in particular. Richard Clarke's The Scorpion's Gate (2005) attracted attention, but more because of his earlier place in the National Security Council, and his public criticism of the Bush administration in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, than anything actually in the book.55

If anything, the change has been more complete outside of print. While video games remain a robust market for these tales (partly because of their lesser dependence on credible plots) the fading of the military techno-thriller from television and film roughly tracked the course taken by the novels, up to their even more complete disappearance. The successful JAG spin-off NCIS (2003-) features a mostly civilian cast of characters (including a very un-military Goth in Abby Sciuto) quite unlike the dress uniformed protagonists of the earlier show, and a pop-oriented soundtrack light years away from the military brass band opening theme of its predecessor.56 In line with the fashion in police drama over the last decade, it also favors forensics over military hardware. (NCIS's own spin-off, the new NCIS: Los Angeles, seems to be continuing in this direction.)

The military techno-thriller has also been relegated to the straight-to-video end of the film market, along with many of the action heroes who once starred in movies of the type.57 Large-scale battles in feature films during the last decade were much more likely to involve warriors armed with cold steel in historical and fantasy epics (a tide itself now ebbing) than engagements with modern weaponry. When the "heavy metal" hardware did come out, it was mainly to battle extraterrestrial, robotic or super-powered opponents, and the encounters are much more H.G. Wells than Tom Clancy, the soldiers in them typically being outmatched by a more sophisticated foe (like Starscream in his battle with a flight of F-22s in The Transformers).58

Legacies
The downward trend seems likely only to continue, given the genre's diminished and still-diminishing saliency. Contrary to the aggressive expectations of some futurists, two decades have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall without a U.S. clash with another major power, or even reason to think such a clash is much more likely in the near future.

Another is that the continued automation of military operations may only further diminish the scope for that sort of fiction, a point already being reflected in film (as in 2008's remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, where a pair of MQ-9 Reaper drones make a run on GORT).

Still, it would be a mistake to think the techno-thriller did not make a mark on fiction in general and science fiction in particular--just as the Victorian-era invasion story and Edisonade left their marks long after they disappeared or became unrecognizable.

One point of connection is the transitioning of many techno-thriller writers to fiction with a more conspicuous speculative element, like Payne Harrison in his Roswell-themed Forbidden Summit (1997) and Stephen Coonts in his similarly-themed Saucer (2002, sequel 2004), or Harold Coyle in Dead Hand (2002), in which an asteroid strike is central to the plot.

If anything, the relative latecomers seemed even more prone to doing so, like James H. Cobb in Cibola (2004); R.J. Pineiro in Havoc (2005) and Spyware (2007); and Richard Clarke in Breakpoint (2007). Dan Brown, whose early novels included 1998's Digital Fortress and 2001's Deception Point, may also be reasonably included in this group of techno-thriller writers who went on to other things.

Additionally, some writers went in the opposite direction, established science fiction writers delving into the techno-thriller genre. Dean Ing, whose long list of credits include the completion of a number of Mack Reynolds' manuscripts, as well as collaborations with Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling, penned novels like The Ransom of Black Stealth One (1989). John Shirley's Eclipse trilogy (1985, 1987, 1989) about rebels fighting a takeover of Western Europe by neo-fascists, has a reasonable claim to being a techno-thriller in its own right-and is notable in being written from the point of view of the political left, a genre rarity. More recently, Bruce Sterling produced what may be the closest thing to a parody of the '80s-style techno-thriller to date, in 2004's Zenith Angle.59 (Indeed, it was in cyberpunk more than anywhere else that writers showed some proclivity to stand the techno-thriller on its head the way H.G. Wells did with the invasion stories of his own time.)

More broadly, the style of the military techno-thriller, in particular its close detailing of the functioning of complex military equipment on the battlefield and the use of multiple viewpoints to extend the depiction of the action, has impacted other science fiction as well. Harry Turtledove's Worldwar and "Timeline-191" cycles, for instance, frequently read like period versions of the 1980s-style future war story. Similarly, David Weber's highly successful Honor Harrington series gives the impression of a Tom Clancy novel adapted for a context of interstellar warfare.

John Birmingham's recent novels too reflect such an influence, as with his "Axis of Time" trilogy (2004's Weapons of Choice, 2005's Designated Targets and 2007's Final Impact), in which an American-allied naval task force travels back in time from 2021 to World War II; or his more recent Without Warning (2009), in which the U.S. simply vanishes in March 2003.

Another Australian writer, Matthew Reilly, similarly combines high-tech military action with more extravagant science fiction elements in novels like Temple (1999) and the Jack West series (2005, 2007 and 2009). Reilly has perhaps drawn more attention for his prose style than any other aspect of his work, but his combination of three-way military battles with alien artifacts, cryptozoology, exotic technologies ancient and futuristic, and archaeological mysteries that make Dan Brown's speculations look positively tame, helped to make him one of the most noteworthy action writers of the last decade. As much as anything else, the work of authors like Reilly suggests our imaginary battles are only becoming more so.

1 There were some exceptions, however, like Stephen Coonts's Vietnam-era The Flight of the Intruder (1986), and Ralph Peters The War in 2020 (1991), which went three decades into the future.
2 Of course, when the MacGuffin was a piece of American technology, the job of the heroes was reversed: to stop the Soviets from capturing or destroying it.
3 Barrett Tillman also merits notice, though prior to his success as a techno-thriller writer he was (and remains) a popular military and aviation historian.
4 "Grisham Ranks as Top-Selling Author of the Decade," CNN.com, Dec. 31, 1999. Accessed at http://archives.cnn.com/1999/books/news/12/31/1990.sellers/index.html.
5 Besides the books actually written by Clancy, there were four series of novels (Op-Center, Net Force, Net Force Explorers and Power Plays), and two series of nonfiction books (one of guided tours of U.S. military units, the other biographies of prominent American military figures), produced by other writers under his name.
6 By contrast, the earlier installments in the series avoided such elements. A noteworthy example is the early script for The Spy Who Loved Me, in which real-lifeworld terrorists used nuclear missiles to threaten the world's oil fields, rejected as "too political."
7 Clancy's empire made a mark here as well in miniseries based on the Op-Center (1995) and Net Force (1999) books.
8 There is, of course, another alternative, the bleaker, harder, more critical view most often identified with novels by John le Carré like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963)--a subtler reflection of this more fragmented reality.
9 Political thrillers like Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's Fail-Safe (1962) and Anthony Gray's The Penetrators (1965) likewise anticipated the feel of the techno-thriller in their detailed descriptions of weapons and communications systems, organizations, and their broad depictions of large-scale, high-technology military crises.
10 Raise the Titanic! is particularly significant in this regard, its plot centering on the pursuit of "byzanium" fuel for an American missile defense scheme, and saw Soviet attempts to interfere with the project-only the first of several Cussler novels to contain a significant Cold War element. Later Cussler novels like Dragon (1990) and Sahara (1992) move even further in the "techno-thriller" direction in their plots and depictions of military action.
11 The diffusion may also be partly due to the novels being military thrillers as well as spy thrillers, war stories historically being more prone to the use of such large casts of characters; and publishers' demand for larger books, the older style of spy novel typically resulting in a relatively slim narrative. (Ian Fleming's Bond books, typically 60-70,000 words in length, are so short as to be nearly unpublishable today.)
12 In The Hunt for Red October, the scenes containing Ryan come to 148 pages out of 468 in the paperback edition (New York: Berkeley, 1985). The proportion of the text devoted to his thoughts and actions trends downward from there, to a mere 207 of Debt of Honor's 990 pages (New York: Berkeley, 1995). Obviously, the film versions presented a more conventional story structure.
13 Nonetheless, Clancy included his fair share of implausible coincidences getting Ryan into a shoot-out with a GRU agent aboard the titular submarine in The Hunt For Red October, IRA terrorists in Patriot Games (1987) and the rescue mission (during which he manned a mini-gun) in Clear and Present Danger (1989). The supporting characters of John Clark and Domingo Chavez were also a closer fit with the traditional image of the globe-trotting spy.
14 Karen Hinckley and Barbara Hinckley, American Bestsellers: A Reader's Guide to Popular Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 212.
15 To give one example, Erskine Childers's 1903 The Riddle of the Sands, in which a British Foreign Office employee on holiday happens upon German preparations to invade Britain, is considered an important work in both those genres: both part of the stream of invasion stories that started in the 1870s, and an early example of the new spy novel that would strongly influence that genre's development as well.
16 The best-known scholar of the invasion story is I.F. Clarke, who offers a history of it in his book Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-1984, later updated as Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3794. He also wrote two articles on the subject for the journal Science Fiction Studies which are available online, "Before and After The Battle of Dorking," Science Fiction Studies 24.1 (Mar. 1997). Accessed at http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/71/clarke71art.htm; and "Future War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1871-1900," Science Fiction Studies 24.3 (Nov. 1997). Accessed at http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/clarkeess.htm. Also see Nader Elhefnawy, "Revisiting the Victorian Techno-thriller," Strange Horizons, Feb. 23, 2009.
17 A notable, post-World War I example is Hector Charles Bywater's 1925 The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-1933.
18 Interestingly, this was despite Heinlein's recognition of the devastating power of nuclear weaponry quite early on, evident in essays like "The Last Days of the United States." This can be found in Heinlein, Expanded Universe (New York: Ace, 1980), pp. 145-162.
19 See Martha A. Barrter, "The Hidden Agenda." In George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Fights of Fancy (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993), pp. 155-169. Indeed, as H. Bruce Franklin argues, "Almost without exception, movies that dealt openly with atomic weapons from 1952 through 1958 were Cold War propaganda tracts," like the Jimmy Stewart movie Strategic Air Command (1955). H. Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, Revised and Expanded Edition (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), p. 182.
20 Clarke, p. 201. That went even for the limited "hot" conflicts the U.S. planned for and actually fought at this time (as in Korea and Southeast Asia). The absence is not even mentioned in Arne Axelsson's survey of early Cold War literature, Restrained Response: American Novels of the Cold War and Korea, 1945-1962 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990). It might be pointed out, however, that Gray's 1965 novel The Penetrators was an argument for the necessity of a conventional military option (specifically, the continued value of bomber aircraft in the missile age).
21 Not all of the writers who took this position were defense "hawks." Arthur C. Clarke depicted just such a version of a Third World War in July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century (New York: Macmillan, 1986). The idea of a World War III limited enough to leave high-tech civilization intact also frequently appeared in 1980s cyberpunk, as with William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy (1984, 1986, 1988), John Shirley's Eclipse trilogy (1985, 1987, 1989) and Victor Milan's Cybernetic Samurai (1986).
22 Much of the literature that followed explicitly reflected the interest in these possibilities. Laser-based missile defenses and space battles became popular subjects, as in Craig Thomas's later Mitchell Gant adventure, Winter Hawk (1987); Dale Brown's The Flight of the Old Dog (1987) and Silver Tower (1988); Tom Clancy's The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988); and Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid (1989). Then-novel stealth aircraft were also popular as a focus, as in the novels by Brown and Harrison, Coonts's Minotaur (1989) and Timothy Rizzi's Nightstalker (1992).
23 This may have been due to Britain's decline as a military power after World War II, making it difficult for writers to put it at the center of this sort of story. This reality may also account for the outpouring of fiction about the Special Air Service at this time which-by focusing on an area where smaller, less affluent powers can be competitive-filled that gap in British popular fiction. (Tellingly, when Frederick Forsythe retold the story of Desert Storm as a Clancy-style techno-thriller in 1994's The Fist of God, it centered on the adventure of an SAS officer.) John Newsinger analyzes the phenomenon at length in Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1997).
24 Besides Clancy's Red Storm, Brown's Silver Tower and Harrison's Thunder of Erebus (1991), there were Harold Coyle's Team Yankee (1987) (which retold Hackett's 1978 tale from the viewpoint of an American tank crew) and Sword Point (1989); Ralph Peters's Red Army (1989); and Barrett Tillman's The Sixth Battle (1992).
25 In Clancy's Red Storm, the Soviet escalation of the conflict to the tactical nuclear level is narrowly averted by a coup in Moscow. Such plots were sometimes criticized as wishful thinking, historian Martin Van Creveld referring to Red Storm Rising in his annotated bibliography as the story of how World War III "will not happen." See Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The Free Press, 1991).
26 Nader Elhefnawy, "Of Alternate Nineteenth Centuries," The Internet Review of Science Fiction (Jul. 2009). Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10562.
27 Robert Lekachman, "Virtuous Men and Perfect Weapons," New York Times, Jul. 27, 1986. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/27/books/virtuous-men-and-perfect-weapons.html.
28 Clancy in particular would be celebrated and denigrated as the "minstrel of the military-industrial complex." See Walter Shapiro, "Of Arms and the Man," Time, Aug. 21, 1989. Accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,958400-1,00.html. Andrew Bacevich offers a more critical examination in The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 116-117.
29 John Clute, "Yore is Us," The Infinite Matrix, Nov. 29, 2001. Accessed at http://www.infinitematrix.net/columns/clute/clute1.html. Roughly analogous, and much more famous, are some of Jules Verne's works, particularly Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), in which Captain Nemo uses his submarine Nautilus to exact revenge on the British Empire.
30 In the genre-defining British tale The Battle of Dorking, the German conquest is made feasible by the country's seizure of strategic North European coastlines and its clever use of deception against an overstretched and underprepared British Empire, new technologies playing only a supporting role (with the most notable the Germans' use of vaguely described "engines" to sink a part of the Royal Navy). By contrast, Stanley Waterloo's 1898 Armageddon-typical of the type-the airship Wild Goose enables the U.S. and its allies win a world war.
31 Franklin, pp. 131-134. In addition to the pre-World War I stories, this was also often the case in the early Cold War period when the U.S. had a monopoly on nuclear weaponry, though rare in the 1980s techno-thriller, where conflict (and its consequences) tended to be more constrained. Franklin, p. 52.
32 Jeff Nevins, "Introduction: The 19th Century Roots of Steampunk." In Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, Steampunk (San Fransisco, CA: Tachyon Publications, 2008), p. 10.
33 Tom Clancy in particular was given to never passing up an opportunity to insult the Soviets, in Red October even going so far as to denigrate the attractiveness of the models in the pornography Soviet sailors had in their lockers. Clancy, Red October, p. 420.
34 Dale Brown, The Flight of the Old Dog (New York: Donald I. Fine, 1987), p. 26. As anyone who has so much as glanced at a serious study of the Soviet economy realizes, this is a grossly oversimplistic picture, but the view had no shortage of adherents.
35 One such exception is Ralph Peters's 1989 Red Army, in which a divided Western alliance accedes to the Soviet conquest of West Germany rather than escalate the fight.
36 Anti-war space stories like Joe Haldeman's 1974 The Forever War; and low-tech space war stories, like Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai novels (starting with 1959's Dorsai!), which posit technological advances canceling each other out so that warfare still came down to close combat between small groups of men with small arms; would seem less relevant to this particular tradition.
37 George and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War: Power, Technology and American World Dominance in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 1996), pp. 378-379.
38 Franklin discusses this extensively in War Stars, pp. 200-205.
39 A quick glance at the bestseller lists of the 2000s (and even the 1990s) shows no spy story writer enjoying the prominence of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsythe, Ken Follett and John le Carré in the 1970s and 1980s, Clancy excepted--as well as a lower profile for the genre in general. (One can access a large archive of the New York Times's bestseller lists dating back to the 1940s at the web site of Hawes Publications, http://www.hawes.com/.)
40 These concerns were not totally confined to fiction. George Friedman and Meredith LeBard published a nonfiction book making the case for the likelihood of such a conflict, The Coming War With Japan (New York: St. Martin's), 1991. Friedman recently attempted to rehabilitate this prediction in The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (New York: Doubleday, 2009).
41 For a discussion of "enemyness" see Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation, revised edition (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007). This was already a problem even before the Cold War's end, as demonstrated by the climactic battle in Top Gun, where the Tomcat pilots engage anonymous black jets in a skirmish with a background underwritten to the point of absurdity.
42 Joe Buff is unique in having extended his saga of a Third World War fought between an Anglo-American alliance and a continentally dominant Germany across a half dozen books.
43 Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay were particularly popular villains before his regime's overthrow, as in R.J. Pineiro's Ultimatum (1994) and Chris Stewart's Kill Box (1998).
44 This was also because many of these states had earlier been Soviet client states, now making do without their old friend or sponsor; and because the Cold War context that made local actions appear more globally significant had vanished.
45 It is worth noting that the lack of really big enemies for the U.S. military to face had become something of a joke, as in Michael Moore's political satire Canadian Bacon (1994).
46 Contemporary readers may be surprised to know that Chesney used these various techniques in The Battle of Dorking to make the danger of a German invasion of Britain appear more plausible. See the discussion in Elhefnawy, "Revisiting the Victorian Techno-thriller."
47 On a more modest scale, this was even done with criminal syndicates, as in Brown's Hammerheads (1990), where the villainous drug smuggler amasses a small air force complete with fighter jets (an idea also seen in film, notably 1990's Firebirds and 1992's Aces: Iron Eagle III).
48 Richard Herman was particularly prone to invent situations in which small U.S. forces (often making do with less than the best equipment) were stuck battling a foe that ordinarily would be no match for American military power. In The Warbirds, only an American wing of F-4 Phantoms stands between a Soviet-backed Iran and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. In Iron Gate (1995), U.S. forces are compelled to try and keep the peace in South Africa with just a handful of A-10s.
49 Nonetheless, the level of interest in such situations was low because the conflicts did not affect "U.S. national interest" as commonly construed, or fit into familiar narratives of heroes, villains and victims offering readers "instant drama." (Indeed, many potential situations, like the war in the Congo, were virtually ignored by the American media.) Still, a few books were written about relatively unfamiliar situations. Jim DeFelice's War Breaker concerned large-scale fighting between India and Pakistan, while James H. Cobb's Sea Fighter (2000) is set in West Africa.
50 Space warfare in particular became rare, given its place at the high end of the technological spectrum. Nonetheless, a number of novels treating the theme did appear, including Hagberg's By Dawn's Early Light (2003) and Dale Brown's Strike Force (2007) and Shadow Command (2008). Still, it may be that the more limited scale and context of most of these conflicts (and perhaps the passing of the Cold War's memory) made writers more likely to depict tactical nuclear war-fighting, as in the novels of Joe Buff and Dale Brown (particularly the latter's 2004 Plan of Attack).
51 It might also be noted that with Saddam Hussein overthrown in Iraq, a friendly regime installed in Afghanistan, Libya downgraded considerably as an adversary and China, Russia and Pakistan combating a common enemy along with the U.S.; and the prevailing piety being that the "War on Terror" trumped all other concerns in international politics; the list of potential enemies seemed shorter still to those given to thinking in these terms.
52 The market trends sheet can be found at the agency's web site, http://www.aeionline.com/. Of course, the situation was similar during the Vietnam War, which saw the release of only one Hollywood film about the subject during its course--the controversial The Green Berets (1968). Nonetheless, there were exceptions. The controversial television series 24 did well, and JAG did see a ratings spike in its last years, while the David Mamet-created The Unit (2006-), which began as a mid-season replacement, was also a hit.
53 Indeed, the absence of really successful films of this type may be one reason why the film version of Frank Miller's 300 (2007) was so quickly accepted as a metaphor for the conflict.
54 For the latter half of the 1990s, Harold Coyle also stopped writing techno-thrillers, instead producing a trio of historical novels, comprised of a two book Civil War saga-Look Away (1995) and Until the End (1996)-and the French and Indian War story, Savage Wilderness (1997).
55 Indeed, weak as the spy genre presently is, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor and Ted Bell have made more of a splash than these authors, while Cobb's most recent writing has been for the Robert Ludlum franchise's "Covert One" imprint.
56 In fact, the show's use of music has garnered it considerable attention. See Phil Gallo, "CBS Finds New Way to Use Tunes," Variety, Feb. 2, 2009. Accessed at http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117999433.html?categoryid=2857&cs=1.
57 Examples of these movies include Wesley Snipes's The Marksman (2005), Steven Seagal's Submerged (2005) and Flight of Fury (2007) and Jean-Claude Van Damme's Second in Command (2006). This was even the case with the sequels to the relatively successful Behind Enemy Lines, appearing in direct-to-video format in 2006 and 2009 (without Owen Wilson).
58 Already in 1996 Independence Day was a bigger hit than any movie in which American servicemen tackled a real-world opponent, and as of 2009, far and away the most commercially successful film about the "War on Terror" is Iron Man (2008), which simply scratched the Communists from the original Stan Lee plot and replaced them with Islamic fundamentalists. See Nader Elhefnawy, "Science Fiction and the Post-Cold War," Internet Review of Science Fiction, Jan. 2009. Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10498.
59 In that novel, set against the backdrop of the War on Terror's earliest days, an American businessman offers a laser weapon for sale on the international market, which he uses to disrupt the workings of an American reconnaissance satellite in a demonstration of its power. His prospective buyers, representatives of the Chinese and Indian governments, however, prove spectacularly uninterested in the product.

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2 comments:

halojones-fan said...

I'd suggest that one factor contributing to the decline of techno-thrillers has been the increasing sophistication and accessibility of computer games; allowing a player to simulate combat on every level from individual (Call Of Duty) to small-unit tactical (Company of Heroes) to global strategic (DefCon). The examples cited are by no means an exhaustive list; a player can find a game to fit any desired level of simulation accuracy, time period, and scale of activity. The cultural movements that made the escapist draw of techno-thrillers attractive are now being met by a different genre of entertainment entirely.

Indeed, Clancy saw this coming, which is why he got himself involved in the "Rainbow Six" series of video games. (In fact the naval-combat portions of the novel "Red Storm Rising" were mostly writeups of gaming sessions with Larry Bond, playing "Harpoon".)

Nader said...

Hi HaloJones. Thanks for writing.

I think there's definitely something to that argument. If part of the fun of a novel like Red Storm Rising was vicarious participation in that kind of game play, then an actually interactive version would be even more appealing. (And of course, games are less reliant, so that implausible stories aren't such a big liability.)

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