Fights of Fancy

By Greg Mercer

Consider a novel in which a man must grapple with an advanced new technology to prevent cataclysm. Perhaps he (and it is typically a he) is a member of the military or an intelligence analyst fighting the next world war. He could be a scientist enlisted by the powers that be to help stop some new machine over which they’ve lost control. Or he could covertly wield that device against enemies of the United States foreign and domestic. Perhaps science has already run fully amok and he’s left to reckon with the consequences in a brave new world. This is the technothriller.

The technothriller—alongside true crime, pop history, exploitative detective fiction, and Christian-themed memoir—is a staple of the pallet of hardcover bestsellers at Costco Warehouses across the country, and is likely to remain so. Technothrillers are popular among general audiences, but they’re also notably popular in the world of politics and the military. Former troops and ex-spooks frequently write fiction informed by their careers and politicians like to illustrate the policymaking process with examples from popular culture. Jurassic Park is an easy touchstone for questions of genetic engineering; Tom Clancy is the common man’s military strategist. Recently, political scientists have stated to interrogate the technothriller’s ubiquity in the halls of power.

In a recent paper for International Studies Quarterly, J. Furman Daniel, III, and Paul Musgrave examine the genuine impact that military fiction can have on policymakers and military leaders. This is a somewhat controversial approach—Daniel and Musgrave note that a sizable portion of the political science field is devoted to “respectable” sources: scholarly writing, certainly not fiction. When examining political actors’ motivations, those in this school argue, resources like pop history and fiction have far less explanatory power than journal articles and vetted reports. This is a comforting idea. After all, we’d like to believe that the secretary of defense puts more faith in intelligence reports than paperback novels. Popular fiction in political science is mostly relegated to serving as a mirror of culture, not an explanatory factor. The technothriller, however, enjoys the position of being frequently cited by pundits and military influencers alongside policy papers and live reporting. The genre’s fictional scenarios have shaped how those at the helm of great powers viewed the Cold War and the uncertain days that followed.

The technothriller incorporates elements of many genres and is not itself exclusive. To roughly divide it, though, there’s the Michael Crichton school and the Tom Clancy school. One is science fiction-inflected; the other spins a war story informed by a stack of owner’s manuals.

Michael Crichton was concerned mostly with straight science fiction that happened to be suspenseful. His 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain typifies much of the more science-inflected side of the technothriller. It is concerned with scientists racing to neutralize an alien disease before it can wipe out life on Earth, with plenty of medical and scientific color drawn from Crichton’s own medical education. His technical detail would become the main selling point for most of his career. Even Clancy never approached the level of technical detail that is Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom lecturing on chaos theory for pages on end. Crichton’s style was to bring the audience up to speed on an esoteric scientific concept and then submerge his characters into a scenario where scientific hubris, human greed, or simple bad luck would cause it to explode dramatically.

Crichton rarely got very political, though. There are a handful of examples: the 90s xenophobia of Rising Sun’s Japanese corporations, the me-too-in-reverse of Disclosure, and Airframe’s argument for better airline regulation. State of Fear, however, is the largest and most politically weaponizable standout, in which ecoterrorists and the outrage industry attempt (with mixed success and nefarious aims) to artificially construct natural disasters to exaggerate the effects of climate change. By most critics’ assessments, Crichton’s biggest mistake here was inserting footnotes in the fictional text referencing actual research, usually to argue that the science of climate change is not as settled as the experts would have a character (read: the audience) believe, and then going on to include two appendices, one of which insists that the author does not have an ideology but would simply like to point out that science rarely hews very closely to political talking points. In the intervening decade, this “I’m not saying climate change isn’t real; I’m just asking questions” tone has curdled into something resembling “I’m not mad; I just think it’s funny that…”

Tom Clancy is considered by many to have invented the military subset of the genre with The Hunt for Red October, his 1984 debut novel, in which CIA officer Jack Ryan, who would go on to anchor many of Clancy’s novels, must locate a defecting Soviet nuclear missile submarine before the American and Soviet navies tear each other apart looking for it. Complicating this is the fact that the sub is equipped with a nigh-undetectable stealth drive. The novel enjoyed spectacular sales and spurned a film adaptation. Clancy went on to write military fiction (and occasional nonfiction) until his death in 2013. His books often featured detailed descriptions of military tech—ships, planes, weapons systems—folded in with suspenseful political intrigue. His combination of real (and real-ish) technology and believable, if not terribly thoughtful, politics lent his works a great deal of credibility. He had a reputation of knowing how the next major war would play out, right down to the tactical level. Whether this is accurate or not is, in some way, immaterial. He had a demonstrable effect on the military thinking of a number of American politicians, especially conservative ones.

The genius of The Hunt for Red October, both novel and film, is that through a late Cold War-setting, an abundance of technical detail, a plot concerned not with American and Soviet military grand strategy but the machinations and schemes of specific individuals within those militaries, and a surprising restraint re: the exercise of violence (a handful of gunshots are fired, one or two torpedoes detonate (don’t worry, it’s the bad Soviet sub—shot entirely in Dutch angles in the film—that suffers the consequences), and nuclear war is mentioned but is never really on the table as an imminent threat), Clancy is able to spin a contemporary war story that does not actually take place during a war. He spent the rest of his career trying to rebottle this lighting, usually by exaggerating an existing conflict or inventing a fictional one.

Of the two de-facto fathers of the genre, Crichton never really approached anything resembling actual politics. He never prescribed specific actions. The military subset of the technothriller, though, is often very interested in the real-world state of affairs. Novels, films, and television in this genre use contemporary politics and world events as jumping off points all the time. Clancy was mostly content to simulate realistic conflicts for dramatic purposes, but he gained a reputation of something of a military expert, mostly on the basis of his fiction. Politicians cited his work as realistic—or even influential. Seeing this relationship, other authors have used the genre to describe how they see the world to be—and even how they think it should be. P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet aims to describe a highly plausible (in the authors’ opinion) scenario for a US-China-Russia conflict. It aimed to capture the attention of military leaders; it did just that. Admiral James Stavridis compared it to Tom Clancy’s work and called it a “blueprint for the wars of the future.”

Daniel and Musgrave, however, look to cognitive science to ask whether popular fiction can help explain why leaders act the way they do. Research shows that sufficiently compelling writing creates a “synthetic experience.” The act of reading a novel or watching a movie causes our brains to automatically construct the fictional worlds in which these media are set. We consider, however briefly, the events and characters as if they are real. This leaves a lasting impression. We know that the events we witnessed were not literally real, but the emotions and intellectual experiences associated with them stick around. The combined mass of our general knowledge is an amalgam of genuine fact and the synthetic experiences we’ve absorbed from stories. Try though we might, we cannot separate these things when thinking through decisions and strategies.

Daniel and Musgrave present some well-known examples. Bill Clinton became interested in bioterrorism not from dry briefings but after reading Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event. While experts have decried to bioterrorism scenario in the novel as highly unrealistic, Clinton’s interest was nonetheless piqued. He ordered the government to invest more in bioterrorism preparedness. Ronald Reagan famously inquired about American strategic cybersecurity after watching WarGames, in which Matthew Broderick hacks into NORAD and narrowly averts a nuclear war.

Fiction can do more than introduce a president to a compelling technology. Daniel and Musgrave are interested in how policymakers might further internalize popular fiction. They examine how Tom Clancy’s novels helped shape conservative worldviews. For example, Reagan read Red Storm Rising, which features a conventional war between the US and the Soviet Union, ahead of the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev and later recommended it to UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, claiming that it accurately captured Soviet strategic intentions.

“The project began when my co-author and I were talking about Tom Clancy’s death,” Musgrave explains. “We were both fans of his novels growing up, and it’s plausible that his work influenced both of us to go into international relations. The original idea was for us to write something talking about Clancy’s theory of international relations, but we kept running into descriptions of moments or incidents where Clancy’s fictions seemed to have shaped real policy. That led us to think more about how that could have happened, and that in turn led us to think about how people begin to really, fundamentally perceive the world around them.”

The technothriller often hews to conservative international politics. Part of this is coincidence by way of necessity. It’s hard to have an anti-war message while also requiring your military characters and equipment to actually do something. There is action and reaction, which are often violent and exciting, but this does not necessarily describe politics with any realism. This makes for dangerous reading—if the combat depicted is highly realistic, how can one tell where the fictionalization kicks into high gear?

“If you have a simple, easily dramatized point, then fiction is really a great way to go. That’s one reason why there’s lots of technothrillers and war fiction but very few novels about diplomacy or trade negotiations,” Musgrave says of these quasi-realistic works and whether it’s wise for an author to try to sell a real political point with swashbuckling fiction. “I’m not sure it’s “wise” from the point of view of really showing how politics works—what Max Weber called the strong and slow boring of hard boards. Even The West Wing was pretty awful in terms of process and I would speculate that it’s really skewed how its fans see the way that politics “should” work. Real politics is both structural and messy in a way that fiction won’t allow. And that makes for lousy television, whereas the bad stuff makes for great TV.”

The danger here is that military fiction can describe expedient solutions to political problems through the exercise of violence. In Clancy’s Executive Orders, now-acting-President Jack Ryan (he’s elevated to office through plot machinations in the previous novel that bear a strange resemblance to the yet-to-occur September 11 attacks, trivia which cable news quickly seized upon) orders the assassination by guided missile of the head of an Iranian regime to prevent a larger global crisis and warn the rest of the world of the new “Ryan Doctrine,” which states the US will meet any attack with swift retribution. This is a hawkish line familiar to anybody who follows American foreign policy, but the destabilizing effects of such an action are swept aside. The novel offers assassination as morally justifiable and, moreover, highly effective. Yes, it’s fiction, but if fiction—especially the highly technically detailed and thus “realistic” fiction that Clancy dealt in—can have the influence that Daniel and Musgrave argue it can, then this is far more than a fantasy. The scenario in the book can be taken for genuine strategic thought.

This is not to suggest that readers of fiction are immediately swayed by every piece of media they consume. Technothrillers and realistic military fiction are also vivid illustrations of situations that, by virtue of being fiction, rarely receive the scrutiny and criticism that an actual military policy paper would. But a work of fiction doesn’t need to convert legions of new believers to make a splash in the policy world or become the face of a pressing issue. “It’s hard to measure how effective any given text can be,” Musgrave says, “because people often seek out texts that they think they’re going to like. When a Pentagon official reads Ghost Fleet and says that it’s great evidence about why the US needs to counter China through this or that change described in the book, that’s not necessarily evidence that the book changed the official’s mind—it might just be a convenient illustration for the official to use to pursue a policy she already wanted to employ.”

The Cold War also presented a unity of threat that has mostly dissolved. There’s the global power competition in Ghost Fleet, but other thriller writers have had to look to other, more far-fetched scenarios. The mythical electromagnetic pulse weapon—a consistent conservative hobby horse—presented in, for example, William Forstchen’s One Second After has the light veneer of being ripped from the headlines, but it also takes on a a power fantasy bent. An EMP is the theoretical application of the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear bomb, minus the blast. An EMP detonated over the US, a situation which vexes Newt Gingrich to no end, might wipe out the electrical grid and with it our modern conveniences, although it’s unlikely that anybody wants to employ such a weapon in combat. It’s a much-hyped red herring. The EMP is an especially appealing doomsday scenario for survivalist types because it asks us to imagine a world wherein urban life is impossible. Only those who could survive without modern electrical technology would last for any appreciable amount of time. That is, those who know how to hunt, fish, grow food, and apply first aid. These imaginary champions probably own guns and live outside of cities. This is the same fantastic catastrophe afforded by The Walking Dead. It’s an apocalypse for which one can fancy oneself well prepared.

While few fans of this genre genuinely hope for a cataclysm that will wipe out the effete urban coastal elites, leaving only the strong to survive, the EMP scenario in particular is a fantasy that affords such a reckoning. Compare it to stories of conventional nuclear war like The Day After or Alas, Babylon. In these stories, death comes for all. Some are annihilated in the first wave of nuclear strikes, others succumb to radiation poisoning, and still more survive both, only to be faced with a societal collapse for which nobody can be especially well prepared. Between the EMP’s slate-wiping and nuclear war’s guaranteed hell, the latter is the far more likely real-world eventuality.

Influence is not chained to literary merit. Clancy successors Brad Thor and (the late) Vince Flynn are probably as adept at instilling suburban two-car garage-owners and casual readers with a fear of imminent terrorist attack as Jonathan Franzen is at making master’s degree-holders resent their parents. Consistent readers of novels featuring terrorists and foreign militaries breaking down America’s door can’t be blamed for internalizing, to some degree, those threats. But the relationship between these works of fiction and their real-life manifestations hasn’t been studied with the rigor that Daniel and Musgrave take to Clancy’s influence. It’s hard to tell whether politicians adopt these authors’ scenarios wholesale, but their presence (and near ubiquity) in conservative media suggests the conditions are there.

In other ways, though, the zeitgeist seems to be wavering. It is certainly more fragmented. Few authors of any genre enjoy the sustained ubiquity that Clancy did in his heyday. Detailed, realistic fiction seems like less of a window into the halls of power and more a charming folly; the outside world often seems as shoddily-written as the worst airport paperback. Compare two recent film incarnations of serial thriller novels: 2012’s Jack Reacher, adapted from Lee Child’s series about the titular ex-Marine MP drifter, grossed $218 million, while 2017’s American Assassin, an adaptation of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series, grossed a mere $66 million. Jack Reacher is a rust belt-set crime thriller featuring a rogue sniper. American Assassin, on the other hand, features CIA black ops, sinister Iranians, and a rogue nuclear bomb. Jack Reacher certainly had star power on its side—Tom Cruise starred—but even the 2016 sequel still outperformed Assassin by nearly $100 million. This is no bulletproof indicator of public interest, but perhaps the post-9/11 and Iraq War glut of media featuring the aforementioned catastrophes has mostly waned in favor of more down-to-earth or escapist fare. Meanwhile, the threat of devious Iranian warmongers resides now primarily among right wing pundits and the current administration.


Greg Mercer is a writer based in Washington, DC

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