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12 August 2007

Undiscovered countries

It is telling, we think, that one of the premier authors of speculative fiction has chosen to abandon the search for futures in favour of works chasing, in various ways, the mysteries of the intelligence world. It is perhaps the defining element of our time, the ways in which the hitherto invisible world continues to intersect the common planes of existence – usually with dramatic and difficult consequences.

William Gibson conceived of cyberspace simply by looking at one of the first Apple advertising posters, and wrote of the virtual world on an old typewriter. His most recent work, Spook Country, is not so much a matter of de novo creation but rather the innovative weaving of threads of stories which touch upon the very root of the world in which we work. In a way, should he continue to explore these themes in his work, and eschew the easy answers of existing monologues in favour of his own unique voice, he might just become the voice of a new generation of intelligence literature in fiction – in much the same way that early Le Carré became quietly internalized in the narratives of an earlier generation. (In fact, a former SVR officer we once knew had an entire monologue regarding the works of David Cornwell, but that’s another story…)

We have never cared much for spy novels, nor other elements of such popular fiction. (Our interest in science fiction as the jester at the futurists’ table is a different matter…) But there is something in the better iterations of these works which has long served as a kind of metastructure and mythology for the shared endeavor – something one is full free to never take seriously as a real professional, but is acknowledged as a sort of gateway to attract and captivate young minds on the way to their own understanding of the real profession. For years, the literature of intelligence fiction even provided case studies for use when real cases were not available, allowing the very carefully selected expression of maxims and lessons within an unclassified context. Now, the collected volume of recent history is on the side of those who teach intelligence, with quite a bit of authentic declassified material to support a wide range of instructional cases. And for a long time, the literature of intelligence fiction has trended more and more towards the spectacular, and entirely entertainment focused – perhaps good yarns, but nothing that could be an assigned reading section. We think the profession is long overdue for a change – and very much needs the kind of fiction that can articulate the underpinnings of the intelligence instrument of national power.

We do not yet think Gibson gets there quite yet, but he is well on his way should he desire to pursue such a path. We think what small success he has had in setting forth fictional keystones of the intelligence profession’s ongoing narrative is entirely coincidental and unintentional, but there is great promise in what he might accomplish. After all, it is in the unanticipated interaction of things that the most interesting stories of the Long War are emerging, and he has a knack for capturing the essence of such intersections well. Whether in the systema inherited from the failing days of the DGI, reinterpreted through the lens of an entirely new kind of service, to the expression of rumours of a new kind of surrogate proxy in the far waters of Asia – the author has a distinct knack for envisioning higher order effects.

And it is this kind of speculative imagination that needs to be nurtured, not as the reality of the profession’s days, but in the campfire tales of evening and the dreams of its long if unquiet nights. For far stranger things will emerge to challenge the next generation of intelligence professionals, and it is in the quality of their imagination that they will first stand or fail when facing these new challenges. It is difficult to cultivate the sparks of vision, and far harder to sustain. them If a few pieces of fiction can help along the way, we would be glad to see it.

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