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—
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, 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 (usually Cold War-related) conflict at the center of the plot develops a key technology, which its rival wants to capture or neutralize—
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 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 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 including quite a few starring high-tech machines, frequently in a context of combat. 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)—
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, 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 furnished 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—
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 every aspect 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—
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 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—
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 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 its example flourished until World War I, the destructiveness of that war (and the still greater destructiveness expected of any war that followed given its example, 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—
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, with the publication 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"—
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—
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 Tom 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. One was to center the plot on small-scale, covert actions, as in Brown's Flight, Harrison's Storming Intrepid or Timothy Rizzi's Nightstalker (1992). The other was to stage the conflict between the U.S. and a lesser opponent, like a Soviet proxy or other "rogue state," as Stephen Coonts did in Final Flight (1986), Richard Herman did in The Warbirds (1989) and Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin did in Red Phoenix (1989) and Vortex (1991).
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. (27)
Minor 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 played a role in the "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—
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. (29)
Given 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 Edisonade's more recent treatments often view it 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, the same does not go for all of science fiction, and the military techno-thriller certainly embraced 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—
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 entrpreneur.
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. (34)
Of course, the outcome was rarely in doubt were the U.S. to play its cards right never a certainty, with writers routinely presenting their heroes as bedeviled by the kind of hostile media and skeptical legislators liberals only wish existed, and unreliable allies. However, their heroes almost always won the day in spite of them. (35)
Children of Starship Troopers
While the three genres discussed above—
This style of story 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 Robert 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)
After the Peak
The end of the Cold War, and its receding into the imaginative distance, predictably took a lot of the wind out of the genre's sails. Like the spy story, the techno-thriller grew out of a context of international, "great power" conflict to which the post-Cold War era has no equivalent, without which it necessarily suffers—
In Search of Monsters to Destroy
First and foremost, techno-thriller writers (among others) strove mightily to find a substitute among the usual suspects for the status of "next" LPC (Large Peer Competitor), another power capable of confronting the U.S. with a large-scale, high-tech military challenge. A Russia under Vladimir Zhirinovsky-like nationalists and China going on the warpath were both popular choices, as in Dale Brown's Sky Masters (1991), Chains of Command (1993) and Fatal Terrain (1997), or Tom Clancy's The Bear and the Dragon (2000).
However, as Russia's economic and military power continued to whither through the 1990s, and Boris Yeltsin held onto the Russian presidency (ultimately handing it over to Vladimir Putin), the idea of hard-liners turning back the clock seemed increasingly passé. This did not eliminate the prospect of Western conflict with Russia, but the most extravagant scenarios fell by the wayside.
China was also problematic, not only because of the limits of its military capabilities, but American ambivalence about viewing the country (the booming of which is often presented as a validation of "the American way") as an enemy. Reflecting this outlook, the protagonists in China-centered thrillers were as likely to be intervening in the middle of a Chinese civil war on behalf of the Communist Party's opponents as combating Chinese aggression, as they do in Richard Herman's Dark Wing (1994) or James H. Cobb's Sea Strike (1998).
A number of writers also explored the possibility that U.S. allies would, in line with the neo-mercantilism fashionable at the time, turn into enemies. Americans battled Germany (or German-led alliances) in Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin's Cauldron (1993), Harold Coyle's The Ten Thousand (1994) and Joe Buff's Deep Sound Channel (2000); and Japan in Peters's War in 2020 (1991), Clancy's Debt of Honor (1994), Michael DiMercurio's Barrucada, Final Bearing (1996) and Coonts's Fortunes of War (1998). (40) As worries about political spillover from economic competition inside the industrialized world faded amid the hosannas surrounding globalization (and the resurgence of American triumphalism) during the late 1990s, these fears faded almost completely.
In any case, such villains as they were able to create were usually good for only so much, their "enemyness" a more conditional, tenuous thing than the half-century competition with the Soviet Union. (41) Certainly where Germany and Japan were concerned (and to a lesser extent, this was also the case with the more threatening versions of Russia and China writers invented), the aggressive behavior tended to be a brief, temporary aberration, their takeover by Really Bad Guys usually short-lived and running its course by the end of a limited, one-book conflict. (42)
As a result, writers increasingly turned their attention to smaller fry: "rogue" states like North Korea, Iran and pre-2003 Iraq; and non-state actors like terrorists and crime syndicates. (43) However, rogue states appeared very limited opponents in the wake of the brief and one-sided 1991 Gulf War, and the margin of superiority American forces seemed likely to enjoy over any likely adversary afterward (the non-combat of 2005's Jarhead the ultimate commentary on the subject). (44) Terrorists and drug lords were even less able to put up an interesting fight, given their tighter resources and accustomed methods of operation. (45)
Accordingly, techno-thriller authors often tried to create a more level playing field, usually through the use of three devices. (46) The first was to beef up the enemy's capabilities (often using leftover Soviet assets), as in Dale Brown's Shadows of Steel (1996), in which Iran acquires not just Backfire bombers, but a nuclear-equipped aircraft carrier. (47)
The second was to combine crises so as to threaten the U.S. with overstretch, as in Clancy's Executive Orders (1996), in which China and India get together with a united Iran-Iraq in a common plot.
The third was to find ever more ways to tie their heroes' hands politically—
Nonetheless, these devices only went so far, and the strain showed. Readers looking for high-tech military action would frequently get spies-and-commandos stuff only occasionally enlivened by a piece of new hardware, as in Larry Bond's The Enemy Within (1994) and Day of Wrath (1998); Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, Red Rabbit (2002) and The Teeth of the Tiger (2003); and Stephen Coonts's later work, as in "Tommy Carmellini" novels, like Liars & Thieves (2004)—
The "War on Terror" may actually have contributed to this process, by focusing public attention on forms of military conflict in which the kind of high-tech action and intrigue the techno-thriller centered on was marginal. (51) Additionally, it soon became clear that there was little audience for films and television presenting events in the Middle East as entertainment, the Hollywood talent agency AEI listing "Middle East-Iraq stories" squarely in the WHAT'S NOT side of its market trends sheet at the time of this writing. (52)
It may also be that the costly, protracted and highly divisive conflict diminished the appeal of military adventure in general—
In any case, many of the most prominent techno-thriller writers stopped producing new material entirely in this period. Tom Clancy, who produced a major book every year or two for almost two decades, has not published a new novel since The Teeth of the Tiger six years ago; and even the series other writers have been publishing under his name (Op-Center, etc.) generally sputtered to a halt around 2006, the novelizations of his successful video game series excepted. Richard Herman's last book, The Last Phoenix (2003), likewise appeared that year. After 1999's Traitor, Ralph Peters (who became a prominent critic of much of the investment in high-tech, "heavy metal" weaponry) turned away entirely from contemporary military thrillers to writing the Civil War era "Abel Jones" mysteries under the name of "Owen Parry." (54)
The newer writers who came along in the mid- and late 1990s—
If anything, the change has been more complete outside of print. While video games remain a robust market for these tales (partly because of their lesser dependence on credible plots) the fading of the military techno-thriller from television and film roughly tracked the course taken by the novels, up to their even more complete disappearance. The successful JAG spin-off NCIS (2003-) notably, features a civilian cast of characters (including a very un-military Goth in Abby Sciuto) quite unlike the dress uniformed protagonists of the earlier show, and a pop-oriented soundtrack light years away from the military brass band opening theme of its predecessor. (56) In line with the fashion in police drama over the last decade, it also favors forensics over military hardware. (NCIS's own spin-off, the new NCIS: Los Angeles, seems to be continuing in this direction.)
The military techno-thriller has also been relegated to the straight-to-video end of the film market, along with many of the action heroes who once starred in movies of the types. (57) Large-scale battles in feature films during the last decade were much more likely to involve warriors armed with cold steel in historical and fantasy epics (a tide itself now ebbing) than engagements with modern weaponry. When the "heavy metal" hardware came out, it was mainly to battle extraterrestrial, robotic or super-powered opponents, and the encounters are much more H.G. Wells than Tom Clancy: the soldiers in them are typically outmatched by a more sophisticated foe (like Starscream in his battle with a flight of F-22s in The Transformers). (58)
The downward trend seems likely only to continue, given the genre's diminished and still-diminishing saliency. Contrary to the aggressive expectations of some futurists, two decades have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall without a U.S. clash with another major power, or even reason to think such a clash is much more likely in the near future.
Another is that the continued automation of military operations may only further diminish the scope for that sort of fiction, a point already being reflected in film (as in 2008's remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, where a pair of MQ-9 Reaper drones make a run on GORT).
Still, it would be a mistake to think the techno-thriller did not make a mark on fiction in general and science fiction in particular—
One point of connection is the transitioning of many techno-thriller writers to fiction with a more identifiable genre element, like Payne Harrison in his Roswell-themed Forbidden Summit (1997) and Stephen Coonts in his similarly-themed Saucer (2002, sequel 2004), or Harold Coyle in Dead Hand (2002), in which an asteroid strike is central to the plot.
If anything, the relative latecomers seemed even more prone to doing so, like James H. Cobb in Cibola (2004); R.J. Pineiro in Havoc (2005) and Spyware (2007); and Richard Clarke in Breakpoint (2007). Dan Brown, whose early novels included 1998's Digital Fortress and 2001's Deception Point, may also be reasonably included in this group of techno-thriller writers who went on to other things.
Additionally, some writers went in the opposite direction, established science fiction writers delving into the techno-thriller genre. Dean Ing, whose long list of credits include the completion of a number of Mack Reynolds' manuscripts, as well as collaborations with Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling, penned novels like The Ransom of Black Stealth One (1989). John Shirley's Eclipse trilogy (1985, 1987, 1989) about rebels fighting a takeover of Western Europe by neo-fascists, has a reasonable claim to being a techno-thriller in its own right—
More broadly the style of the military techno-thriller, and in particular its close detailing of the functioning of complex military equipment on the battlefield and the use of multiple viewpoints to extend the depiction of the action, has impacted other science fiction as well. Harry Turtledove's "Worldwar" and "Timeline-191" cycles, for instance, frequently read like period versions of the 1980s-style future war story. Similarly, David Weber's highly successful Honor Harrington series gives the impression of a Tom Clancy novel adapted for a context of interstellar warfare.
John Birmingham's recent novels too reflect such an influence, as with his "Axis of Time" trilogy (2004's Weapons of Choice, 2005's Designated Targets and 2007's Final Impact), in which an American-allied naval task force travels back in time from 2021 to World War II; or his more recent Without Warning (2009), in which the U.S. simply vanishes in March 2003.
Another Australian writer, Matthew Reilly, similarly combines high-tech military action with more extravagant science fiction elements in novels like Temple (1999) and the Jack West series (2005, 2007, and 2009). Reilly has perhaps drawn more attention for his prose style than any other aspect of his work, but his combination of three-way military battles with alien artifacts, cryptozoology, exotic technologies ancient and futuristic, and archaeological mysteries that make Dan Brown's speculations look positively tame, helped to make him one of the most noteworthy action writers of the last decade.
As much as anything else, the work of these authors goes to show that our imaginary battles are only becoming more so.
- There were some exceptions, however, like Stephen Coonts's Vietnam-era The Flight of the Intruder (1986), and Ralph Peters The War in 2020 (1991), which went three decades into the future.
- Of course, when the MacGuffin was a piece of American technology, the job of the heroes was reversed: to stop the Soviets from capturing or destroying it.
- Barrett Tillman also merits notice, though prior to his success as a techno-thriller writer he was (and remains) a popular military and aviation historian.
- "Grisham Ranks as Top-Selling Author of the Decade," CNN.com, Dec. 31, 1999. Accessed at http://archives.cnn.com/1999/books/news/12/31/1990.sellers/index.html.
- Besides the books actually written by Clancy, there were four series of novels (Op-Center, Net Force, Net Force Explorers and Power Plays), and two series of nonfiction books (one of guided tours of U.S. military units, the other biographies of prominent American military figures), produced by other writers under his name.
- By contrast, the earlier installments in the series avoided such elements. A noteworthy example is the early script for The Spy Who Loved Me, in which real-world terrorists used nuclear missiles to threaten the world's oil fields, rejected as "too political."
- Clancy's empire made a mark here as well in miniseries based on the Op Center (1995) and Net Force (1999) books.
- There is, of course, another alternative, the bleaker, harder, more critical view most often identified with novels by John Le Carre like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963)—
a subtler reflection of this more fragmented reality.
- Political thrillers like Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's Fail-Safe (1962) and Anthony Gray's The Penetrators (1965) likewise anticipated the feel of the techno-thriller in their detailed descriptions of weapons and communications systems, organizations, and their broad depictions of large-scale, high-technology military crises.
- Raise the Titanic! is particularly significant, its plot centering on the pursuit of "byzanium" fuel for an American missile defense scheme, and saw Soviet attempts to interfere with the project—
only the first of several Cussler novels to contain a significant Cold War element. Later Cussler novels like Dragon (1990) and Sahara (1992) move even further in the "techno-thriller" direction in their plots and military action.
- The diffusion may also be partly due to the novels being military thrillers as well as spy thrillers, war stories historically being more prone to the use of such large casts of characters; and publishers' demand for larger books, the older style of spy novel typically resulting in a relatively slim narrative. (Ian Fleming's Bond books, typically 60-70,000 words, are so short that length by itself makes them nearly unpublishable today.)
- In The Hunt for Red October, the scenes containing Ryan come to 148 pages out of 468 in the paperback edition (New York: Berkeley, 1985). The proportion of the text devoted to his thoughts and actions trends downward from there, to a mere 207 of Debt of Honor's 990 pages (New York: Berkeley, 1995). Obviously, the film versions presented a more conventional story structure.
- Nonetheless, Clancy included his fair share of implausible coincidences getting Ryan into a shoot-out with a GRU agent aboard the titular submarine in The Hunt For Red October, IRA terrorists in Patriot Games (1987) and the rescue mission (during which he manned a mini-gun) in Clear and Present Danger (1989). The supporting characters of John Clark and Domingo Chavez were also a closer fit with the traditional image of the globe-trotting spy.
- Karen Hinckley and Barbara Hinckley, American Bestsellers: A Reader's Guide to Popular Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 212.
- To give one example, Erskine Childers's 1903 The Riddle of the Sands, in which a British Foreign Office employee on holiday happens upon German preparations to invade Britain, is considered an important work in both those genres: both part of the stream of invasion stories that started in the 1870s, and an early example of the new spy novel that would strongly influence that genre's development as well.
- The best-known scholar of the invasion story is I.F. Clarke, who offers a history of it in his book Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-1984, later updated as Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3794. He also wrote two articles on the subject for the journal Science Fiction Studies which are available online, "Before and After The Battle of Dorking," Science Fiction Studies 24.1 (Mar. 1997). Accessed at http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/71/clarke71art.htm; and "Future War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1871-1900," Science Fiction Studies 24.3 (Nov. 1997). Accessed at http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/clarkeess.htm. Also see Nader Elhefnawy, "Revisiting the Victorian Techno-thriller," Strange Horizons, Feb. 23, 2009.
- A notable, post-World War I example is Hector Charles Bywater's 1925 The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-1933.
- Interestingly, this was despite Heinlein's recognition of the devastating power of nuclear weaponry quite early on, evident in essays like "The Last Days of the United States." This can be found in Heinlein, Expanded Universe (New York: Ace, 1980), pp. 145-162.
- See Martha A. Barrter, "The Hidden Agenda," in George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Fights of Fancy (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993), pp. 155-169. Indeed, as H. Bruce Franklin argues, "Almost without exception, movies that dealt openly with atomic weapons from 1952 through 1958 were Cold War propaganda tracts," like the Jimmy Stewart movie Strategic Air Command (1955). H. Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, Revised and Expanded Edition (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), p. 182.
- Clarke, p. 201. That went even for the limited "hot" conflicts the U.S. planned for and actually fought at this time (as in Korea and Southeast Asia). The absence is not even mentioned in Arne Axelsson's survey of early Cold War literature, Restrained Response: American Novels of the Cold War and Korea, 1945-1962 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990). It might be pointed out, however, that Gray's 1965 novel Penetrators was an argument for the necessity of a conventional military option (specifically, the continued value of bomber aircraft in the missile age).
- Not all of the writers who took this position were defense "hawks." Arthur C. Clarke depicted just such a version of a Third World War in July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century (New York: Macmillan, 1986). The idea of a World War III limited enough to leave high-tech civilization intact also frequently appeared in 1980s cyberpunk, as with William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy (1984, 1986, 1988), John Shirley's Eclipse trilogy (1985, 1987, 1989) and Victor Milan's Cybernetic Samurai (1986).
- Much of the literature that followed explicitly reflected the interest in these possibilities. Laser-based missile defenses and space battles became popular subjects, as in Craig Thomas's later Mitchell Gant adventure, Winter Hawk (1987); Dale Brown's The Flight of the Old Dog (1987) and Silver Tower (1988); Tom Clancy's The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988); and Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid (1989). Then-novel stealth aircraft were also popular as a focus, as in the novels by Brown and Harrison, Coonts's Minotaur (1989) and Timothy Rizzi's Nightstalker (1992).
- This may have been due to Britain's decline as a military power after World War II, making it difficult for writers to put it at the center of this sort of story. This reality may also account for the outpouring of fiction about the Special Air Service at this time which—
by focusing on an area where smaller, less affluent powers can be competitive— filled that gap in British popular fiction. (Tellingly, when Frederick Forsythe retold the story of Desert Storm as a Clancy-style techno-thriller in 1994's The Fist of God, it centered on the adventure of an SAS officer.) John Newsinger analyzes the phenomenon at length in Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1997).
- Besides Clancy's Red Storm, Brown's Silver Tower and Harrison's Thunder of Erebus (1991), there were Harold Coyle's Team Yankee (1987) (which retold Hackett's 1978 tale from the viewpoint of an American tank crew) and Sword Point (1989); Ralph Peters's Red Army (1989); and Barrett Tillman's The Sixth Battle (1992).
- In Clancy's Red Storm, the Soviet escalation of the conflict to the tactical nuclear level is narrowly averted by a coup in Moscow. Such plots were sometimes criticized as wishful thinking, historian Martin Van Creveld referring to Red Storm Rising in his annotated bibliography as the story of how World War III "will not happen." See Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The Free Press, 1991).
- Nader Elhefnawy, "Of Alternate Nineteenth Centuries," The Internet Review of Science Fiction (Jul. 2009). Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10562.
- Robert Lekachman, "Virtuous Men and Perfect Weapons," New York Times, Jul. 27, 1986. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/27/books/virtuous-men-and-perfect-weapons.html.
- Clancy in particular would be celebrated and denigrated as the "minstrel of the military-industrial complex." See Walter Shapiro, "Of Arms and the Man," Time, Aug. 21, 1989. Accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,958400-1,00.html. Andrew Bacevich offers a more critical examination in The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 116-117.
- John Clute, "Yore is Us," The Infinite Matrix, Nov. 29, 2001. Accessed at http://www.infinitematrix.net/columns/clute/clute1.html. Roughly analogous, and much more famous, are some of Jules Verne's works, particularly Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), in which Captain Nemo uses his submarine Nautilus to exact revenge on the British Empire.
- In the genre-defining British tale The Battle of Dorking, the German conquest is made feasible by the country's seizure of strategic North European coastlines and its clever use of deception against an overstretched and underprepared British Empire, new technologies playing only a supporting role (with the most notable the Germans' use of vaguely described "engines" to sink a part of the Royal Navy). By contrast, Stanley Waterloo's 1898 Armageddon—
typical of the type— the airship Wild Goose enables the U.S. and its allies win a world war.
- Franklin, pp. 131-134. In addition to the pre-World War I stories, this was also often the case in the early Cold War period when the U.S. had a monopoly on nuclear weaponry, though rare in the 1980s techno-thriller, where conflict (and its consequences) tended to be more constrained. Franklin, p. 52.
- Jeff Nevins, "Introduction: The 19th Century Roots of Steampunk." In Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, Steampunk (San Fransisco, CA: Tachyon Publications, 2008), p. 10.
- Tom Clancy in particular was given to never passing up an opportunity to insult the Soviets, in Red October even going so far as to denigrate the attractiveness of the models in the pornography Soviet sailors had in their lockers. Clancy, Red October, p. 420.
- Dale Brown, The Flight of the Old Dog (New York: Donald I. Fine, 1987), p. 26. As anyone who has so much as glanced at a serious study of the Soviet economy realizes, this is a grossly oversimplistic picture, but the view had no shortage of adherents.
- One such exception is Ralph Peters's 1989 Red Army, in which a divided Western alliance accedes to the Soviet conquest of West Germany rather than escalate the fight.
- Anti-war space stories like Joe Haldeman's 1974 The Forever War; and low-tech space war stories, like Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai novels (starting with 1959's Dorsai!), which posits technological advances canceling each other out so that warfare still came down to close combat between small groups of men with small arms; would seem less relevant.
- George and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War: Power, Technology and American World Dominance in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 1996), pp. 378-379.
- Franklin discusses this extensively in War Stars, pp. 200-205.
- A quick glance at the bestseller lists of the 2000s (and even the 1990s) shows no spy story writer enjoying the prominence of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsythe, Ken Follett and John Le Carre in the 1970s and 1980s, Clancy excepted—
as well as a lower profile for the genre in general. (One can access a large archive of bestseller lists dating to the 1940s at the web site of Hawes Publications, http://www.hawes.com/.)
- These concerns were not totally confined to fiction. George Friedman and Meredith LeBard published a nonfiction book, The Coming War With Japan (New York: St. Martin's), 1991. Friedman recently attempted to rehabilitate this prediction in The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (New York: Doubleday, 2009).
- For a discussion of "enemyness" see Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation, revised edition (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007). This was already a problem even before the Cold War's end, as demonstrated by the climactic battle in Top Gun, where the Tomcat pilots engage anonymous black jets in a skirmish with a background thinly sketched to the point of absurdity.
- Joe Buff is unique in having extended his saga of a Third World War fought between an Anglo-American alliance and a continentally dominant Germany across a half dozen books.
- Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay were particularly popular villains before his regime's overthrow, as in R.J. Pineiro's Ultimatum (1994) and Chris Stewart's Kill Box (1998).
- This was also because many of these states had earlier been Soviet client states, now making do without their old friend or sponsor; and because the Cold War context that made local actions appear more globally significant had vanished.
- It is worth noting that the lack of really big enemies for the U.S. military to face had become something of a joke, as in Michael Moore's political satire Canadian Bacon (1994).
- Contemporary readers may be surprised to know that Chesney used these various techniques in The Battle of Dorking to make the danger of a German invasion of Britain appear more plausible. See the discussion in Elhefnawy, "Revisiting the Victorian Techno-thriller."
- On a more modest scale, this was even done with criminal syndicates, as in Brown's Hammerheads (1990), where the villainous drug smuggler amasses a small air force complete with fighter jets (an idea also seen in film, notably 1990's Firebirds and 1992's Aces: Iron Eagle III).
- Richard Herman was particularly prone to invent situations in which small U.S. forces (often making do with less than the best equipment) were stuck battling a foe that ordinarily would be no match for American military power. In The Warbirds, only an American wing of F-4 Phantoms stands between a Soviet-backed Iran and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. In Iron Gate (1995), U.S. forces are compelled to try and keep the peace in South Africa with just a handful of A-10s.
- Nonetheless, the level of interest in such situations was low because the conflicts did not affect "U.S. national interest" as commonly construed, or fit into familiar narratives of heroes, villains and victims offering readers "instant drama." (Indeed, many potential situations, like the war in the Congo, were virtually ignored by the American media.) Still, a few books were written about relatively unfamiliar situations. Jim DeFelice's War Breaker concerned large-scale fighting between India and Pakistan, while James H. Cobb's Sea Fighter (2000) is set in West Africa.
- Space warfare in particular became rare, given its place at the high end of the technological spectrum. Nonetheless, a number of novels treating the theme did appear, including Hagberg's By Dawn's Early Light (2003) and Dale Brown's Strike Force (2007) and Shadow Command (2008). Nonetheless, it may be that the more limited scale and context of most of these conflicts (and perhaps the passing of the Cold War's memory) made writers more likely to depict tactical nuclear war-fighting, as in the novels of Joe Buff and Dale Brown (particularly 2004's Plan of Attack).
- It might also be noted that with Saddam Hussein overthrown in Iraq, a friendly regime installed in Afghanistan, Libya downgraded considerably as an adversary and China, Russia and Pakistan combating a common enemy along with the U.S.; and the prevailing piety being that the "War on Terror" trumped all other concerns in international politics; the list of potential enemies seemed shorter still to those given to thinking in these terms.
- The market trends sheet can be found at the agency's web site, http://www.aeionline.com. Of course, the situation was similar during the Vietnam War, which saw the release of only one Hollywood film about the subject during its course—
the controversial The Green Berets (1968). Nonetheless, there were exceptions. The controversial television series 24 did well, and JAG did see a ratings spike in its last years, while the David Mamet-created The Unit (2006-), which began as a mid-season replacement, was also a hit.
- Indeed, the absence of really successful films of this type may be one reason why the film version of Frank Miller's 300 (2007) was so quickly accepted as a metaphor for the conflict.
- For the latter half of the 1990s, Harold Coyle also stopped writing techno-thrillers, instead producing a trio of historical novels, comprised of a two book Civil War saga—
Look Away (1995) and Until the End (1996)— and the French and Indian War story, Savage Wilderness (1997).
- Indeed, weak as the spy genre presently is, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor and Ted Bell have made more of a splash than these authors, while Cobb's most recent writing has been for the Robert Ludlum franchise's "Covert One" imprint.
- In fact, the show's use of music has garnered it considerable attention. See Phil Gallo, "CBS Finds New Way to Use Tunes," Variety, Feb. 2, 2009. Accessed at http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117999433.html?categoryid=2857&cs=1.
- Examples of these movies include Wesley Snipes's The Marksman (2005), Steven Seagal's Submerged (2005) and Flight of Fury (2007) and Jean-Claude Van Damme's Second in Command (2006). This was even the case with the sequels to the relatively successful Behind Enemy Lines, appearing in direct-to-video format in 2006 and 2009 (without Owen Wilson).
- Already in 1996 Independence Day was a bigger hit than any movie in which American servicemen tackled a real-world opponent, and as of 2009, far and away the most commercially successful film about the "War on Terror" is Iron Man (2008), which simply scratched the Communists from the original Stan Lee plot and replaced them with Islamic fundamentalists. See Nader Elhefnawy, "Science Fiction and the Post-Cold War," Internet Review of Science Fiction, Jan. 2009. Accessed at http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10498.
- In that novel, set against the backdrop of the War on Terror's earliest days, an American businessman offers a laser weapon for sale on the international market, which he uses to disrupt the workings of an American reconnaissance satellite in a demonstration of its power. His prospective buyers, representatives of the Chinese and Indian governments, however, prove spectacularly uninterested in the product.
- Of course, when the MacGuffin was a piece of American technology, the job of the heroes was reversed: to stop the Soviets from capturing or destroying it.