Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Macropolitics and Micropolitics of Spy Fiction

In discussing the concern mentioned in my title, I suppose I should define my terms.

By "macropolitics" I mean the the international scene that is the reason for the existence of intelligence services in the first place. The question of whether or not a government sees other countries as threatening, which countries those might be, and the nature of that threat could all be thought of as macropolitical.

By "micropolitics," I mean the politics of the intelligence service itself. I would put such things as the office politics ongoing within its corridors, its rivalry with other intelligence services of the same nation, its dealings with legislative oversight, its concern for public relations under that heading.

Both have been part of the reality of intelligence work from the start, and neither is new to the genre, with the two commonly figuring in the same plots. The novels of Ian Fleming present a convenient example, as with Moonraker. That novel centers on Hugo Drax's building a ballistic missile system for the British government, and its plot gets properly underway after a murder at Drax's facility. The threat from the Soviet Union in the early Cold War years supplies the novel with its macropolitics. The jurisdictional questions raised by Bond's investigating a question of domestic security, the frictions between the Secret Service and Special Branch, the concern for Drax's image as a celebrated public figure, are micropolitical.

However, by and large the attention given to micropolitics has risen over time. An obvious reason for this is that such services became increasingly professionalized and bureaucratized in the twentieth century, as a result of which the life of organizations simply became a bigger part of the realities of espionage. (Already Maugham, writing of his experience in intelligence during World War I, wrote of the spy as a "tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine.")

Another is that this same transformation of spying into an affair of large, permanent organizations made espionage and its workings better known to the public--while writers drew on the little details for the sake of achieving verisimilitude in the eyes of a more sophisticated readership. (Moonraker, notably, opened up with a lengthy account of the Service's workings.)

And still another is the development of the more politically critical tradition within the spy story, which regards the workings of that machinery with skepticism and distrust. (Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, for example, is a satire of the backward-looking imperial romanticism, bureaucratic ass-covering and sheer stupidity that he found in the British Secret Service--which also defined the novels of John le Carré, whose work included, among other things, an homage to Greene's book in The Tailor of Panama.)

Still, that hardly seems to be all of it. It often seems that as it becomes harder to portray the macropolitics as a titanic struggle against barbarian hordes on the verge of crashing through the gates, the micropolitics get more attention. World War Two spy stories, for example, rarely seem to devote much time to that sort of thing--in part because a real, colossal, life-and-death shooting war was being waged against an enemy acknowledged by nearly everyone to be so genuinely threatening,  and so horrific, as to justify almost anything in many minds.

By contrast, Cold War spy stories, because they are set within a "cold" war, contain greater room for doubt about just how dangerous the enemy is, just what the rights and wrongs are. The war never went hot, after all, and the aggressiveness and power of the Soviet Union were never what the hawks said--the Stalinists a realpolitik-minded group relatively accepting of the status quo, and the Bomber and Missile Gaps pure fantasy. Consequently, despite the status of militant anti-Communism as a default attitude in much of the Western world, there was room for greater introspection of this sort, greater sensitivity to the complexities of the situation, with even an undisputed hawk like Tom Clancy able to own that the Soviets had valid security concerns of their own, and look forward to the dismantling of the strategic nuclear missile forces at Cold War's end.

The post-Cold War era saw even less consensus regarding the international scene, the mainstream finding the challenges to the prevailing order more ambiguous, more diffuse. Some still saw Russia as threatening, but it was economically and militarily a shadow of what it had been, and in any event, shorn of the ideology that made it so objectionable to orthodox opinion. China remained Communist in name, but not in any other sense. Its economy was much more dynamic than post-Soviet Russia's--but most realized it was to be quite the while before that rapid growth translated into very much state power, widening the scope for observers to watch the trend with as much optimism as fear, especially as Western companies profited from trade and investment, while many hoped that economic liberalization heralded political liberalization. Iraq and North Korea, despite the grandstanding, were easily dismissed as small-timers, and non-state terrorism was even more easily dismissed than that.

Accordingly, the proportion of micropolitics to macropolitics in our spy fiction went up yet again--with the updates of works originally created in the Cold War period making this especially obvious--"continuation" Bond novels like John Gardner's SeaFire (where the Secret Service is thoroughly overhauled for the post-Cold War), or Jeffrey Deaver's Carte Blanche (where Bond begins his career against the backdrop of the War on Terror) particularly noteworthy in this regard. This was at least as much the case in the cinematic adaptations of the series after the reboot. These gave James Bond some external enemies to fight (a vaguely imagined terrorism, the Quantum organization behind it), but in Skyfall the villain was an ex-operative looking to avenge his personal betrayal against M herself, nothing more and nothing less.

One might see in this the ascendance of that tradition of political critique that undoubtedly played its part. Still, relatively little recent spy fiction has taken such a line, least of all in the more popular work. And despite a flirtation with a more critical view in Quantum of Solace, the Bond films in particular remain an endorsement of the idea that we "need these guys," Skyfall in particular exalting the continuing value of operatives like Bond (any irony in the menace coming from an ex-SIS operative with a grudge apparently unintentional).

What it really seems to suggest is an anemia on the part of the print side of the genre, which on the whole has not been so fresh or innovative or had the cultural impact that it did before, while the movies deal less in the old essence of spy fiction than in its hollowed-out forms and trappings.

Still, as the success of Kingsman, Spy, and Mission: Impossible 5 (or is it 5 million?) has already demonstrated this year, and as Spectre will almost certainly demonstrate again this autumn, writers and audiences still seem to be having fun doing that.

Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on Spy Fiction

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