By Nader Elhefnawy
Arguably the most widely read science fiction of the 1980s, though rarely recognized as such, were the military techno-thrillers that topped the bestseller lists in that decade--novels like those written by Tom Clancy, Stephen Coonts, Dale Brown, Payne Harrison and Ralph Peters. The genre attracted little attention from serious critics in its heyday, and with the decline in its popularity it has received less attention of all kinds. Nonetheless, the place of these novels in a much longer history of such writing, and its connections with the science fiction tradition more broadly, are both well worth a look.
The Military Techno-Thriller: An Overview
As the "techno-thriller" label makes clear, these were thrillers in which the "techno" was central, in particular high-technology military weapons systems that were either very new recent, or believed likely to be available in the near term (as with the stealth bomber in the 1980s). The "thriller" aspect came from the weapon(s) being at the heart of an international crisis (again, supposed to be plausible in the foreseeable future), giving the machines and their operators the chance to do their thing.1
There were two basic plot structures, both epitomized by Tom Clancy's early writing. In the first, one side or the other in the conflict at the heart of the plot develops a key technology, which its rival wants to capture or neutralize-as in 1984's The Hunt for Red October, where Soviet naval captain Marko Ramius defects to the West with his country's latest ballistic missile submarine, instigating an international crisis.2 In the second type, an aggressive move by the Bad Guys forces the Good to wage large-scale combat to stop them, as in 1986's Red Storm Rising, where NATO battles a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
In both cases the focus was on the development of the crisis, and the detailing of the military action. Given that the books' plausibility was key to their interest, there was a considerable emphasis on verisimilitude, routinely extending as far as the inclusion of earnest author's notes about the real-world relevance of their tales; lists of acknowledgements of technical advisors; research bibliographies; glossaries of the terminology used; and particularly in Dale Brown's case, the opening of novels with excerpts from real-world news sources pointing the way to the unfolding of the tale.
The authors' biographies also tended to emphasize their authority on the subject, pointing up their credentials as military veterans (like Stephen Coonts and Dale Brown), or at least, familial connections to the armed forces or membership in military associations. Some authors, capitalizing on their fiction, acquired a measure of status as "public intellectuals" on defense matters, including Tom Clancy and Ralph Peters.3
Across The Media Spectrum
These novels constituted one of the major publishing phenomena of the 1980s, of which Tom Clancy was perhaps the outstanding publishing success. His 1988 book The Cardinal of the Kremlin was the biggest selling novel in the United States its year, and Clear and Present Danger the biggest seller not just of 1989, but the whole decade.
Through the 1990s four of his books were the second-highest sellers in the American market in their years (1991's The Sum of All Fears, 1994's Debt of Honor, 1996's Executive Orders and 1998's Rainbow Six), while Without Remorse ended up in the number four slot for 1993 on Publisher's Weekly's annual list. This made him the fifth highest-selling author of that decade, after only John Grisham, Stephen King, Danielle Steele and Michael Crichton (all of whom, excepting Crichton, wrote many more books than Clancy did), while the three novels he published in the 2000s hit similar highs.4 All this enabled Clancy to "franchise" his brand name to an unprecedented extent.5
No other author came close, but many others enjoyed long, lucrative careers, particularly Dale Brown and Stephen Coonts, who likewise franchised their names (in the Dreamland and Deep Black series respectively).
The genre's impact was not limited to print. Hollywood's output of military-themed films during these years included quite a few starring high-tech machines. The high point of the trend was 1986's #1 box office hit, Top Gun, but there were also the Iron Eagle series (1986, 1988, 1992, 1995), Firebirds (1990), Under Siege (1992, sequel 1995), Crimson Tide (1995), Broken Arrow (1996), Executive Decision (1996), and Behind Enemy Lines (2001, sequels 2006 and 2009)-as well as the films based on the Jack Ryan novels (1990, 1992, 1994, 2002), and Coonts's Flight of the Intruder (1991).
Spy films like The Peacemaker (1997) and the newer Bond films likewise reflected the trend, the Timothy Dalton-Pierce Brosnan era movies displaying an abundance of "ripped from the headlines" plot points and real-world military hardware.6 Goldeneye (1995) not only included post-Soviet power struggles, loose nukes and Russian Mafiosi in its storyline, but incorporated a Tiger helicopter, a flight of MiG-29s and a T-55 battle tank into the action, and even had Bond himself getting an important clue from a spy satellite's feed.
Television got in on the game, too, with a slew of naval aviation-themed dramas including CBS's Emerald Point N.A.S. (1983-1983), ABC's Supercarrier (1988), the syndicated Pensacola: Wings of Gold (1997-2000), and of course, NBC and CBS's JAG (1995-2005).7 Something of the approach was also evident in an array of other programs ranging from spy shows like 24 (2001-), to the presidential dramas The West Wing (1999-2006) and Commander in Chief (2005-2006), to science fiction shows like the UPN series Seven Days (1998-2001), in which military techno-thriller-type crises and weapons inspired the plots of roughly a third of the episodes.
Given that strategy games, tactical shooters and combat vehicle simulators have been an important part of video gaming from the beginning, the stuff of the techno-thriller was an obvious subject for it, and it may be here that the output was largest. Many video games using these themes were original titles, like Sega's After Burner (1987) and its sequels, or the Command & Conquer franchise, but others were based on successful films-and in some cases, successful books as well, Clancy again being particularly influential. His Red Storm Rising became the basis for a video game in 1988, but he made a deeper mark by cofounding Red Storm Entertainment in 1996, which launched the popular Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series.
Inspirations and Precedents
The military techno-thriller did not appear out of nowhere, but rather had numerous precedents and sources of inspiration, some going all the way back to that wellspring of our imaginative fiction, the nineteenth century; and looking back at them provides powerful lenses for understanding the phenomenon.
Spy Novel 2.0
It is common to regard the techno-thriller as a development of the spy novel, and there are some grounds for viewing it as an update of the genre, in line with the changes in intelligence gathering during a twentieth century dominated by world wars and cold wars, and the technological metamorphosis of modern life. In place of the ad hoc operations and amateur operatives of an earlier time, intelligence became the purview of large, permanent (often multiple) bureaucracies staffed by salaried employees (only a very few of them "spies" in the traditional sense), in control of giant budgets and ultra-sophisticated equipment (like networks of listening posts and spy satellites), and which were typically involved in very slow, very long, very complex campaigns--a very far cry from the Bondian stereotype of lone supermen who single-handedly do all the legwork and black bag stuff and puzzle-solving and fighting needed to take down vast conspiracies and criminal empires in days.8
Perception lagged reality, of course, and the older image remains alive and well today. Nonetheless, spy fiction reflected the transformation of intelligence (and national security generally) into the territory of big, high-tech "alphabet soup" organizations from quite early on. This goes even for Ian Fleming's work-as in his careful detailing of the Soviet counterintelligence organization SMERSH in From Russia With Love (1957) (which opens with an author's note about the subject), or the "Vindicator" bomber's hijacking in Thunderball (1961). Martin Woodhouse's Giles Yeoman novels, like Tree Frog (1965), were also notable in centering on the adventures of a scientist involved in technical analysis.9
As all this was going on, Michael Crichton began a lucrative career telling stories starring the science instead of the people, and flaunting their research in ways that make fiction seem almost factual, as in his bestselling The Andromeda Strain (1969). While less rigorous in their handling of such details, Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels (like 1976's Raise the Titanic!) are often identified as examples of this direction.10 If anything, this broader shift in fiction reinforced that trend, and there were two obvious responses to the increasingly inescapable change.
The first was to present lone protagonists in the most obvious way that they could be such: a situation compelling them to work outside (and often against) "the system" as a hapless outsider sucked into the intrigue, or an insider forced to go rogue-as in the novels of Robert Ludlum, Trevanian and James Grady.
The alternative was to embrace the new reality, Craig Thomas pushing the envelope with his "espionage adventure" Firefox (book 1977, film 1982) in which MI6 sends airman Mitchell Gant into the Soviet Union to steal a prototype "MiG-31." The result has been widely hailed as the first '80s-style techno-thriller but the approach was exemplified by Clancy, his books notable in their presenting not the story of a single character or group of characters, but a sweeping, intricate, even "epic" picture of the human and technical machinery of the American (and Soviet) national security state(s).
Rather than having his protagonist Jack Ryan conveniently turning up in the right place at the right time, every time, so as to dominate the narrative, the story's action is widely diffused among a large number of organizationally and geographically dispersed viewpoint characters.11 This includes a large number of minor ones, whose sole connection to one another is their playing some small part in the evolution of a common crisis; and whose sole function in the story is to provide a higher-resolution view of some particularly interesting bit of the larger situation.
As a result, the space given any one character tends to be limited. In The Hunt For Red October, for instance, scenes in which Ryan is even present comprise less than a third of the text.12 Near the middle, Ryan even disappears for a fifth of the book, these parts devoted instead to the intricate dance between U.S. and Soviet ships and aircraft in the North Atlantic, and giving great attention to incidents only loosely connected to the sub chase, like a skirmish between U.S. and Soviet fighter pilots.
Instead Ryan's centrality owes to his being bureaucratically positioned to see the situation only glimpsed in parts by the other "dramatis personae" as a comparative whole.13 Consequently, as one assessment of Clancy's Red Storm Rising puts it, not individuals but whole countries often come across as the really relevant "characters."14
The Return of the Invasion Story
It is worth noting that the modern spy story started to take shape as a genre in the years prior to World War I, often in connection with a different genre that also flourished at that time, and which was also influential on the '80s-era military techno-thriller: the "invasion story."15
George Chesney's 1871 novella The Battle of Dorking got the field started with its depiction of a German invasion of England in a combination of futuristic war drama with political propagandizing.16 The stories that followed in its footsteps flourished until World War I, the destructiveness of that war (and the still greater destructiveness expected of any war that followed given its precedent, and the maturing of air power and chemical weapons during its course) badly damaging the traditional view that war could be heroic, profitable or even justifiable.
This is not to say the invasion story vanished altogether.17 However, it was much rarer, while the view that modern technology made another major war likely to destroy civilization-a position H.G. Wells had already taken in pre-war works like The War in the Air (1907) and The World Set Free (1914)-was gaining wide acceptance. Taking their cue from Wells rather than Chesney writers depicting future armed conflicts increasingly presented images of irredeemable global catastrophe, as in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937).
The tendency was reinforced by the Second World War and the arrival of the nuclear (and missile) age. Some authors apparently expected modern civilization to survive a nuclear war, Robert Heinlein often writing them into the background in 1950s-era novels like The Puppet Masters (1951) or The Door Into Summer (1957).18 While presenting more traumatized cultures as an outcome of such a situation, the same might also be said of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
However, the vision of modernity's complete collapse, or even the annihilation of the species, as presented by Aldous Huxley in Ape and Essence (1948), trumped them by the end of the 1950s, a thrust exemplified by the success of novels like Nevil Shute's On The Beach (1957), Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), and Mordechai Roshwald's Level 7 (1959). Some of these tales used the image of a shattered civilization as an argument for preparedness (or emphasized the danger of enemy triumph rather than nuclear war as such), but even the more militaristic images tended to "celebrate deterrence" rather than depict old style victories in the manner of Chesney and his imitators.19 Commenting on that absence in 1966 I.F. Clarke said that in the post-atomic age, "the tale of imaginary warfare as it used to be has vanished almost completely"-perhaps never to return.20
Yet that was exactly what happened a decade later. The more aggressive foreign policies of the Reagan-Thatcher era struck some observers as echoing politics in the heyday of Chesney, and not unrelated was the attention given the possibility of waging large-scale war in a pre-nuclear fashion. The early 1980s were a high point for the anti-nuclear movement, but the period also saw strategists reviewing the possibility that a major war might be fought without escalating to the level of a large-scale nuclear exchange.21 Some of the anticipations of this sort were specifically technological, the theorists picturing ballistic missile defenses checking strategic nuclear arsenals, while "smart" weapons replaced nuclear weapons in key roles-though others pictured new political and military strategies causing the scenarios to play out in these ways.22
Whichever the case, British authors led the way once again, with General John Hackett's The Third World War: August 1985 (1978), a full-blown war story of the kind not seen in decades, complete with large-scale air, land and sea battles. However, the books were to be a predominantly American phenomenon, particularly after the U.S. Naval Institute put Clancy's Red October into print in 1984.23
Still, while depictions of large-scale conventional fighting between Americans and Soviets were more common than before, they had to accommodate nuclear-age realities in a way pre-World War I invasion story writers never dreamed of (a fact which may have portended the tenuousness of the genre's revival).24 The danger of nuclear escalation was never far from the characters' minds, and the conflict tended to be carefully delimited by the author, the fight either ending after a very limited exchange (as in Hackett's scenario), or a breakdown of political will on the part of one of the belligerents.25
Additionally, many of the conflicts played out on a scale well below the level of even limited great power war, typically in one of two ways. This was simpler, obviously, in the case of stories revolving around the acquisition or neutralization of a technological development as discussed above, since these typically centered on small-scale, covert actions, like in Brown's Flight, Harrison's Storming Intrepid or Timothy Rizzi's Nightstalker (1992). There was also the option of staging the conflict between the U.S. and a militarily much weaker opponent, like a Soviet proxy or other "rogue state," as Stephen Coonts did with Libya in Final Flight (1986), Richard Herman did with Iran in The Warbirds (1989) and Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin did with North Korea and South Africa in Red Phoenix (1989) and Vortex (1991), respectively.
A Modern Day Edisonade
The hawkish foreign policies that characterized the late 1970s and 1980s were just one aspect of a broader conservative turn in that period, one that can fairly be read as "neo-Victorian," and the techno-thriller genre frequently reflected this.26 Robert Lekachman noted in his review of Red Storm Rising that Clancy's "characterizations are on a Victorian boys' book level," in that
All the Americans are paragons of courage, endurance and devotion to service and country. Their officers are uniformly competent and occasionally inspired. Men of all ranks are faithful husbands and devoted fathers.27Minor as the role of character in such fiction was, comforting affirmations of traditional values were apparently a factor in their appeal for many readers, and their cultural impact. Indeed, many an observer has argued that they helped facilitate the political "rehabilitation" of the public image of the U.S. military (and indeed, of the resort to force) after Vietnam.28
This support of "traditional" values often extended to economic values as well, the 1970s and after seeing a rightward turn in economic thinking, the ideal of which was epitomized in the Thomas Edison-style inventor-entrepreneur-and the "Edisonade" celebrating him. As described by John Clute these stories (beginning with Edward J. Ellis's 1868 The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies) typically center on
a brave young inventor [who] creates a tool or a weapon (or both) that enables him to save the girl and his nation (America) and the world from some menace, whether it be foreigners or evil scientists or aliens; and gets the girl; and gets rich.29Given such a plot structure, these stories unsurprisingly overlapped with the American version of the invasion story, which, as H. Bruce Franklin argues in War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, tended to be
* More central to the story than in its European counterpart.30
* The work of a lone American genius.
* A device for enabling the U.S. to create a happier world order, whereas in the European tales (for instance, Wells's The War in the Air) the implications tended to be darker and more pessimistic.31
The discussion of the more recent echoes of the Edisonade tradition often view them as working subversively, critiquing or inverting the capitalistic, nationalistic and other values implicit in the stories, with steampunk in particular "a genre aware of its own loss of innocence" as Jeff Nevins put it in the introduction to last year's Steampunk anthology.32 However, this does not go for all of science fiction, the military techno-thriller certainly embracing the core idea in its tales of "Heroic Engineers."
Of course, in the late twentieth century it was not so simple a thing for a lone inventor to build a modern weapons system and use it at their discretion. Technological research and development is a less individualistic a matter than it once was, especially where high-tech weapons are concerned-one reason why such programs have long since been the preserve of vast national security states. Nonetheless, it was common for techno-thriller protagonists to help develop the weapons with which they fight, Dale Brown going furthest in this direction. Several of his characters, including Patrick McLanahan and his colleagues Wendy Tork, John Ormack, David Luger and Brad Elliott, are such warrior-engineers, as is Dr. Anne Page in Silver Tower, while millionaire whiz kid Jon Masters comes across as an even more direct update of the Edisonade protagonist.
Additionally, even while in government service, McLanahan demonstrates a strong possessiveness toward the systems he works on, using them at his own initiative so that even while wearing an Air Force uniform he is frequently all but autonomous. After retiring from the Air Force to start up his own company at the end of Shadow Command (2008), McLanahan actually departs with many of those weapons so that when he appears again in Rogue Forces (2009), he is making use of them as a private military entrepreneur.
It is also worth noting that even where a McLanahan-like figure is absent, the economic and technological values underlying the Edisonade remain present, not least a celebration of American technological ingenuity, American capitalism, and the relationship between the two (so that from the "country-as-a-character" perspective, plucky young America is readable as an Edison-style heroic inventor). This was especially the case in comparisons of it with the Soviet system, authors generally regarding it contemptuously, and capable of competing militarily with the capitalist West only because of its freedom from democratic constraints and humane impulses.33 As Dale Brown put it in The Flight of the Old Dog,
The Russians play by a whole different set of rules than we do. They don't answer to Congress, the press, the public, or the world . . . If they want a laser defense system now, they build one. If they need more money, they buy twenty percent less meat and thirty percent less toilet paper and to hell with public opinion.34Of course, the outcome was rarely in doubt were the U.S. to play its cards right-never a certainty, with writers routinely presenting their protagonists as bedeviled by the kind of hostile media and skeptical legislators liberals only wish existed, and unreliable foreign allies. However, their heroes almost always won the day in spite of them.35
Children of Starship Troopers
While the three genres discussed above--the spy novel, the invasion story, and the Edisonade--were all set in something like the real world, the fourth and last of the genres being discussed here was conspicuously set outside of it: "hard" military science fiction of the sort commonly set in the far future, or in outer space.
This style of story (seen by some as a continuation of the invasion story in safer, more distant territory) is at least as old as space opera, human beings participating in high-tech battles on other planets at least as early as E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space (1928), where Richard Seaton and his companions find themselves and their starship in the middle of the war between Kondal and Mardonale on the planet Osnome.
The output of such fiction in the years that followed was prolific, and understandably so; space is big enough, and the future technologically and politically distant enough, that a writer could imagine nuclear-age constraints not applying. Of course, the absence of those constraints could be, and were, used to just about every conceivable end to which a war story could be put.
The really relevant one for the techno-thriller was the combination of a martial (or even militaristic) outlook with relatively rigorous technological extrapolation. Again the tradition goes back at least to Smith (particularly in the Lensman novels), but is arguably exemplified by Robert Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers (1959). In this, and in the book's devotion of considerable swaths of the text to detailed descriptions of the recruitment, training, organization, staffing and equipment of the Terran Mobile Infantry, Troopers comes across as a "spiritual ancestor" for the books by Clancy, Brown and others in the 1980s and after.36
This also goes for some of the innovations Heinlein presented in that novel, in particular the "powered armor" used by Terran Mobile Infantrymen like his protagonist Juan Rico. This has not only been widely imitated in other science fiction, but also widely taken as a source of inspiration by military thinkers speculating about the next big thing in land warfare, frequently picturing the future infantryman inside an armored, high-tech exoskeleton, and often referring to the CAP troopers of Heinlein's novel in making its point.37 Not surprisingly, it has itself appeared in many a techno-thriller, as with many of the Dale Brown novels from The Tin Man (1998) on.
Sometimes, however, there was an even more direct influence. Throughout his career Heinlein took a strong interest in real-world defense policy, and the same goes for other military science fiction writers (and editors) like Jerry Pournelle, David Drake, Ben Bova and Jim Baen, who advocated a hard line in the Cold War and a heavy investment in military technology to support it. They were particularly vocal in the 1970s and early 1980s regarding initiatives later prominent in techno-thriller writing, like missile defense, with Pournelle himself even being credited with the "Rods From God" concept for a space-based weapon.38