Just How Realistic Was the “Realistic” Techno-Thriller?
The military techno-thriller has always been sold on the basis of the plausibility of its scenarios, and the realism of their treatment. The topical, “ripped from the headlines” conflict, the treatment of actual weapons systems, the meticulousness of the writer’s research, the endorsement of the package by military authorities, have been key to interesting readers — as is underlined by their openness to the genre being tied to their level of concern for “the next war.” (Thus did the genre take off in the overheated political atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, wane as the world wars made another conflict seem unthinkably horrible, resurge again amid the political turn to the right, “Second Cold War” mood and Star Wars hype of the 1970s and 1980s, and then after the Cold War’s end and the expectation that “big wars” were a thing of the past — and good riddance to them — wane again in the 1990s.)
But just how realistic were those thrillers? Looking at, for example, the work of Tom Clancy in his heyday, or Dale Brown, it seems safe to say that they gave a wildly exaggerated impression of the aggressiveness and recklessness of other countries (the Russians, the Chinese, were always ready to start a third world war they couldn’t reasonably expect to win at the drop of a hat — in Brown’s books in particular, over and over and over again), and of the clear-cut nature of international crises (beginnings and endings fairly cut and dried, the villainy all on one side — theirs — though often there was some blame to go round for the “peaceniks” too, not that they were ever really on “our” side), and the prospect of their having clean endings, even when armed force came into play (so that at the end of the book we usually just moved on). They depicted a great deal of death and destruction, but only very selectively. They showed plenty of battlefield death, but rarely, if ever, showed veterans of those wars struggling with wounds to mind and body for the rest of their life — certainly nothing to compare with a glance at the ward in Walter Reed. If they showed civilian suffering at all that suffering was usually directly and wholly the fault of the enemy, whose brutality was another reason to fight wars which were typically short and victorious. In the process they also encouraged a dangerous confidence in the good will and intelligence of world leaders to manage, constrain, deescalate the dangerous crises that the bad will and stupidity of world leaders created so endlessly. And where politics at home were concerned they were not much better, proffering a naive, sub-civics-class understanding of the subject, with little sense of just how wearing militarization and war on even a far more modest scale than they so casually depicted are on civil liberties, democratic norms and the fabric of the body politic in general.
Altogether it does not seem unfair to say that these books treated modern war pornographically — a term that, I think, merits proper definition, as my purpose here is to describe rather than throw around pejoratives (as “porn” is for so many), or confuse everything with sex in the sloppy and silly way of so much psychology (if only apocryphally Freud conceded that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, but the pop psychologists sure don’t), or simply throw the word out for attention-grabbing or shock purposes (as with a certain sort of hack writer who will call mere presentation of pictures of tasty-looking food “food porn”).
By pornographic what I mean is the taking of some sensational, significantly taboo subject matter that people are not supposed to speak of enjoying in “decent” company, removing it from its context, shearing it of its consequences, idealizing and intensifying it to make it seem better than it could ever be in real life, and then making a concentrated mass of it the whole show, the work consisting exclusively of the better-than-it-could-ever-be-in-real-life “good parts,” such that the audience vicariously experiences that and only that over and over and over again.
Pornography in the usual sense of the term does this with sex (in a manner tailored to the tastes of its particular audience, of course). It is often said that action-adventure does this with violence (to the point that some cultural historians have connected it with pornography more narrowly — i.e. looking at the books Don Pendleton wrote before creating Mack Bolan).
The particular type of action-adventure that is the techno-thriller did this with the wielding of power at an international level, with costly and secretive weapons technology, with the violence and destructiveness of high-tech combat in its stories of international crisis.
I suspect I would have found this kind of thing hard to take as entertainment at the height of the Cold War, and that it made a difference that by the time I got around to the books that the Cold War seemed safely behind and nothing quite like it likely to come again soon, or even ever — that in those years one could imagine such events as the Norwegian rocket crisis or the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis or even the 1991 Gulf War were last aftershocks of the horribly earthquake-ridden twentieth century, and this nation-state power politics stuff had been left behind for cyber-utopia (or at least a different flavor of dystopia, like William Gibson’s Sprawl stories or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I could, at least as a still fairly young person who did not personally remember the worst days, look at the more unlikely superpower confrontation stuff over submarine defections and space lasers with a certain detachment, treat it as quaint the way we might, for instance, treat the Napoleonic Wars, where when reading Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubrey we are less likely to get into the rights and wrongs of Britain’s siding with Europe’s reactionary monarchies against a democratic revolution in France.
I suspect this all the more because I was still a heavy reader of the field when I started getting a formal grounding in International Relations. It was not as if I had not previously appreciated that techno-thrillers were fiction written to entertain, but all the same, the claim to at least some realism was a part of their interest, and the more I learned the flimsier did the claim seem — with the way war has pervaded all of our lives in this century making their claim seem flimsier still. The falsity of the picture of war the offer was, of course, evident to more experienced and astute observers after the outcome of the decade’s Gulf and Balkan wars, but has seemed particularly incredible in the wake of the “forever” wars since 2001 — one reason, I think, why in spite of some flickerings, the genre never recovered its old pride of place. It was simply too much for people coping with the reality of conflict to take as “fun.”
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.