The nihilism of Middle East terror has never really captured the minds of thriller readers. But now new, more colorful backdrops are emerging. ackdrops ar
Politics over terror, a new background for fiction
BBC World Affairs Correspondent and thriller writer Humphrey Hawksley on the challenge of the political thriller in the 21st century.
PAUSE, IF YOU CAN, for a toast to two larger than life figures who are offering international thriller writers their most fertile ground for years.
Tin pot dictators, red-eyed drug barons and corporate greed have never quite delivered the canvas of the Cold War and Second World War. An assassin killing for terrorists and gangsters does not have the same chill as one on the payroll of a government.
The post-Nine Eleven landscape stays on the cusp of promise, but hasn’t yet produced a magic ingredient that weaves fiction around Islamic intrigue, the Patriot Act and suicide bombers. So, six years on, there’s yet to be created a universal figure to succeed James Bond, George Smiley, Modesty Blaise, or – for the tail end of the Cold War -- Jack Ryan.
The characters are there and waiting. Now, Hu Jintao of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, both keepers of a nuclear missile code, are poised to deliver a fitting canvas should Charlie Fox, Jack Rain, Jack Reacher and others choose to use it.
Soviet jackboots (and their Nazi predecessors) created an apocalyptic backdrop in which the enemy had a vision to conquer and build something unpalatably different. Great non-fiction writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, together with polarizing leaders like Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher, helped complement the characters of Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko and Le Carre’s Karla.
Rival nations are positioning themselves for a long game in which the Middle East and the struggle within Islam will become a proxy war of grander designs
The War on Terror is evolving in a far messier way, partly because at the end of the day the stakes are not as high. While Al Qaeda might again attack Manhattan, and even use a dirty bomb to do it, we cannot envisage a green crescent flag flying above the White House in the way we could the Hammer and Sickle. Nor can we picture Times Square lit up with Islamic TV shows and its sidewalks patrolled by black-robed religious police, as J. Edgar Hoover once imagined Marxist cadres smashing down the white picket fence to usurp the American dream.
A great hero is only as interesting as his antagonist and, essentially, most readers do not empathize with Islamic terrorists and what they want to achieve. Nor do they think they will win. While in its competitive genesis the Soviet Union created Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit Earth, Al Qaeda has failed even to make its own explosives or the vehicles it uses as weapons. Its motivation is one of the self-made victim out for revenge. The goal is to destroy. The result is poverty, random killing and mindless slogans.
It is precisely because of the bleakness of the Islamic scenario, that we have been transfixed by the Polonium-210 murder of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. First, it was a ruthless and sophisticated assassination with ripples that went to the heart of the Russian government. And second, the trail of Polonium nuclear dust took us through London’s most fashionable bars and restaurants where the clientele are beautiful and dangerous, and the barmen would happily mix James Bond a martini (however he wants it) in exchange for a lavish tip and a droll one-liner.
Set that against a trail through squalid Palestinian refugee camps to colorless Afghan caves, mix it with humorless conversation, bad food, an absence of exotic characters, and an enemy who believes to win is to die, and you’re in a setting where most readers don’t want to go with people they don’t want to meet.
But now rival nations are positioning themselves for a long game in which the Middle East and the struggle within Islam will become a proxy war of grander designs. Terror may remain a backdrop, but it doesn’t have to be the all. New power blocks that threaten our comfortable lives are being formed in Moscow, Beijing and Brazilia, all with exotic playgrounds from which to create magnetic characters.
Far from taking Russia backwards with his more uncompromising foreign policy, President Vladimir Putin is positioning his nation as a rejuvenated global power. His oil and gas reserves enable him to manipulate Europe’s energy supply. His hand is seen tampering with Europe’s new democracies from Estonia to Ukraine. His brand new SS-27 Topol-M mobile nuclear missile arsenal challenges America’s defense shield, and far from being an ally against Islamic terror he is beginning to exploit it.
It is precisely because of the bleakness of the Islamic scenario, that we have been transfixed by the Polonium-210 murder of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
Putin is overseeing the creation of Iran’s Busher reactor, that is at the heart of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Russia has also just announced that it will build a nuclear reactor in Myanmar, or Burma, run by one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, and a country where China also has a massive military and intelligence presence.
China, too, is becoming confident enough to project itself in a way that is alarming the United States. Already, it has played a duplicitous role with Islamic violence. Without China, Pakistan, which spawns many of the terror groups, would probably implode. China bankrolls Pakistan’s army and supplies its equipment. It has helped Pakistan build nuclear weapons and has encouraged the Islamic insurgency in Kashmir in order to keep India embattled.
China also uses despotic North Korea in its Pacific power game with Japan and the United States, with no coincidence that Pakistan and North Korea trade nuclear technology.
Both Russia and China are now wealthy with predatory, sophisticated economies run by highly-skilled patriots who, as often not, are armed with degrees from Ivy League business school. While Russia flexes the muscles of its fossil fuels, China’s influence runs deep into the US and global economies. It holds some US$500 billion in US Treasury debt and supplies pretty much everything we buy from Walmart and other big chain stores. From underwear to airliners, the Chinese Communist Party holds sway over the American way of life.
China is bankrolling corrupt African leaders and pouring billions of dollars into Latin America, where Venezuela and Cuba are leading a left-wing alliance to challenge the United States. In both those arenas, China’s totalitarian will may soon be coming face to face with America’s values of freedom.
These rich pickings offer up again that metaphysical battle between good and evil, with enough no-man’s land for moral uncertainties, and a high-stakes end-game of nuclear cat and mouse.
Indeed, for the international thriller writer, it is water in a Jihadist desert.
Therefore, the toast I propose is to the charismatic President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the elliptical Hu Jintao of China, both big leaders with big, rattling ideas.
And should there be a drop left in glasses, we may toast a third -- the diminutive former rampaging student activist and now President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. He has placed nuclear apocalypse back on the table, and, as much as he is able, has included high diplomacy, cunning and touch of empire-building to fulfill his ambitions.
Those authors with multi-book contracts hinged on the post-Nine Eleven Middle East will need him.