The Changing Face of Spy Fiction by Charles Cumming

The Changing Face of Spy Fiction by Charles Cumming

Then, 9/11. And, overnight, a new antagonist – radical Islam. More brutal, more committed, and infinitely more ruthless than the KGB. Suddenly spy fiction was all the rage again. This was the era of Spooks and 24, of Daniel Craig’s Bond and Matt Damon’s Bourne. Novelists and screenwriters alike were given further fuel for their imaginations by the terrorist atrocities in Madrid, Bali and London; by the cack-handed invasion of Iraq; and by the dark shadow of extraordinary rendition. The West had a new bogeyman in the shape of Osama bin Laden; a malign, amorphous terrorist organization posing an existential threat to our future – al-Qaeda; and political leaders in London and Washington who were considered cynical, inept and duplicitous.

Suspicion of American motives – indeed, a strain of anti-Americanism – has long been a theme in British spy fiction. As is now widely known, our intelligence services are heavily reliant on their colleagues across the Pond, both for logistical support and when it comes to sharing what is called ‘product’. Downing Street has always worked hard – perhaps too hard – at maintaining cordial relations with the White House, a policy that led inexorably (and disastrously) to the quagmire of Iraq. The Bush Administration, with Cheney and Rumsfeld at the helm, was ripe for literary inquiry, particularly when Tony Blair attached himself so willingly to the Neo-Con cause. From Alistair Campbell’s ‘dodgy dossier’, to the spurious claim that Saddam Hussein could launch a missile strike against Europe within 45 minutes, the post-9/11 political landscape was grist to the mill of the spy novelist. If anything, we had too much to write about.

And then there’s Vladimir Putin. For decades, the Soviets were the designated ‘bad guys’ of spy fiction – cunning, sinister, poised to visit nuclear annihilation on the West. In the immediate post-Cold War years, the Russian mafia served as a useful duplicate, but the threat from radical Islam changed that. It is only as the profile of al-Qaeda has receded, and the cynical antics of Mr Putin have continued to grab the headlines, that the Kremlin finds itself once again cast in the role of villain.

Again, this is useful for the spy novelist. A brainwashed jihadi blowing himself up in a shopping mall, with the crazed expectation of somehow restoring a 14th-century Caliphate to southern Spain, is not as interesting, in character terms, as a conflicted Russian spy who may be considering an offer of recruitment from MI6. The best spy novels occupy the grey area that exists between right and wrong, the game of chess played between ideological adversaries. ‘We’ve both spent our lives looking for the weakness in one another’s systems,’ Smiley tells Karla in the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I don’t think le Carré himself wrote that line, but it neatly sums up the difference between Cold War spy fiction and its 21st-century equivalent.

The weakness in the Communist system was not always easy to see. The weakness in radical Islam is blindingly obvious; the maniacs who fly hijacked planes into buildings, or chop off the heads of aid workers in Syria, tell us nothing useful about ourselves, and are there- fore rarely deserving of serious literary inquiry.

Quite apart from the transformed geopolitical landscape, something else has changed within spy fiction since the end of the Cold War. When the spy novel was at its peak, in the 1960s and ’70s, the general public knew very little about the activities of their intelligence services. Nowadays, thanks to greater public accountability, allied to a deliberate policy whereby MI5 and MI6 have emerged from the shadows, that is no longer the case. Dame Stella Rimington was publicly identified as Director General of the Security Service in 1992, her photograph splashed across the front pages – a previously unthinkable breach of security. When I was briefly tapped up for a job at MI6 in 1995, the approach came via a family friend. Now, you can apply online. In effect, a piece of software will decide if you have the makings of a successful spook.

There have been intelligence failures: Iraq being one, but also the invasion of Kuwait, which presaged the first Gulf War, as well as the Arab Spring. Why did these events take our governments by surprise? Why did the CIA fail to anticipate 9/11? Were the spies asleep in their beds?

The Wikileaks scandal tapped into, and fed, this new mood of public cynicism towards governments and what le Carré has described as the ‘espiocracy’. Julian Assange leaked military and diplomatic secrets online, and published the private correspondence of civil servants and elected officials. With very few exceptions, the Wikileaks revelations showed that, by and large, most of those civil servants and elected officials, on both sides of the Atlantic, were doing their jobs diligently and within the framework of the law. At the time of writing, Assange remains under effective house arrest inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, reputedly incensed that his role as the white knight of free speech has been taken by an altogether more subtle and intriguing whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

Snowden, a computer systems administrator with a private sector firm contracted by the National Security Agency (NSA), stunned the world in 2013 with a series of revelations about the nefarious activities of the NSA and GCHQ. With the support of the Guardian, Snowden blew the whistle on illegal data mining and mass NSA eavesdropping, all of which went against the spirit, indeed the letter, of the American Constitution. This was a once- in-a-generation scandal worthy of a dozen spy novels. Armed with our iPhones and laptops, our Facebook and gmail accounts, all of us became central players in a global espionage drama that might have been conceived for the multiplex.

Snowden’s revelations, and Wikileaks itself, would of course have been impossible without the Internet. From mobile phones to laptops, from biometric passports to retinal scanners, from number-plate recognition technology to CCTV, advances in technology have meant changes in the nature of spying, and therefore in the way in which stories about spies are told.

Take the mobile phone, which has changed storytelling in the 21st century as radically as the discovery of the fingerprint changed detective fiction in the nineteenth. Any person carrying an iPhone can be followed, bugged, watched – even blown up – unless they take basic precautions. Our laptops and smartphones reveal an astonishing amount of personal information, from the calls we have made, to the photographs we have taken, to the websites we have visited. All of this information, as Snowden demonstrated, is potentially of interest to intelligence agencies, and therefore to those of us who write about them.

To give one example of the way in which technology has impacted on the spy novel: during the Cold War, an intelligence officer would travel ‘under alias’ to a foreign city, pretending to be, say, an accountant or an insurance clerk. If somebody decided to check out his or her story, an MI6 ‘backstop’ would be in place in the UK to answer the phone or reply to a telex, confirming the officer’s cover. Today, thanks to Google, LinkedIn and the like, it is almost impossible for spies to operate under alias in hostile environments. If one detail in their cover is wrong – an out-of-place text message; a phone call to a suspicious number – an entire fake identity will unravel in a matter of minutes. Most of the spy stories told by Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum thirty years ago, not to mention those by Deighton and le Carré, would have been impossible to devise in the age of the Samsung Galaxy and the MacBook Pro.

It may be that a combination of technology and greater public knowledge has stripped spying of its mystique. Where once George Smiley relied on the memory of Connie Sachs, he could now find out all he needs to know by logging into the computer archives at Vauxhall Cross. Yet the best spy novels, whether they were written in 1903 or 2013, have always been novels of human relationships, of deception and personal frailty.

I sign up to the idea that the spy novel acts as an examination of the human condition. We all lie, we all fall in love, we are all ambitious and, with the exception of the brainwashed holy warrior committing atrocities in the name of ISIS, we are all, by and large, well meaning. We do things we are ashamed of – small things, large things. We are obsessed by secrets. The desire for information, to know what our enemies (and friends) are thinking, is as old as time, a basic human desire which will never go away. For this reason alone, spying, and the spy novel, will endure.