One Possible Introduction to Fictional Espionage

One of the key features about Cyberpunk literature is that it depicts a system of almost total control over the mass population. That system is trans-national: all humanity shares one corporate dystopia, controlled not by a single power, but by cabal of rivals. The rivals are all engaged in a perpetual cold war, and the objective is monopolies via competitive advantage. The big Cyberpunk corporations all do everything, from bathing costumes to computers, and all seek perpetually to expand their influence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see the emergence of Cyberpunk in the dying days of the USSR, when it began to appear that the capitalist ideology had won and the brightest thinkers began to forecast the end-point of the capitalist agenda. In Cyberpunk, small heroes win small victories over individual corporations, tilting the technological balance of power in the corporate struggle, but nothing really changes. Even if a corporation is wholly destroyed, the system remains inviolate. Hackers win battles whose existence is a structural necessity for the system to function. It’s depressing, and I think it’s supposed to be, as the heir to the equally futile Cold War, where victory seemed equally illusory for two generations.

Fiction, on the whole, isn’t about systems – it’s about people. I think for me, the key innovation in Gibson et al is that they had the courage to looked deep into the abyss of the system of control, courage that I think we only get glimpses of in the parent genre of espionage fiction. Most spy stories follow the lead of your Flemings or Ludlums, following one protagonist’s struggle against specific foes who can be defeated. The system is unperturbed, but normalcy is restored (albeit, temporarily) to the Agent’s sphere of knowledge. The glimpses we get of larger, systemic, concerns occur in the ideologies of the espionage villains. In The Third Man, Holly Martin tracks down his old friend Harry Lime, who explains that people are insects, and that every illegal act is simply an expression of a whole system of human progress. Harry Lime suggests a deeper reality than encompassed by the extremely personal interactions of Holly Martin. Major Calloway too attempts to explain to Holly Martin the importance of a system of human interaction and the perturbations to that system caused by Lime’s smuggling, but it is only when Martin sees the specific victims of the systemic imbalances that he relents and agrees to hunt his friend. And ultimately, while we see these glimpses of problems in the system of post-war society, we feel like the situation is resolved by the death of Lime. The view of Holly Martin, that it is specific people who matter, rather than the system of civilisation, is supported by the structure of the film.

The maxim that seems to govern the design of these stories is that if you go high enough, you reach one man who is the avatar of the system’s corruption. Slay the avatar, and you slay the problems. This is completely wrong, as I think can easily be seen from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was the avatar of change, and his death was no more than a blip in the rearrangement of the USA’s social and political structures. The number of individuals in all human history who were truly crucial to the alteration of the system as a whole must be tiny – we might speculate about what a long-lived Alexander or Subutai Khan might have accomplished, but one JFK more or less seems irrelevant in comparison to the system of the world. Nevertheless, the myth of the individual remains more-or-less supreme, and the idea that individuals are interchangeable parts is commonly used only as an aesthetic device to suggest an existential bleakness. It is an emotional rather than structural device. Of course, there are exceptions, and if we look at a larger scale – such as the whole Bond canon rather than a single novel – we can be persuaded that the persistent necessity for our favourite spy hero does suggest a larger world than we see in any single work.

Cyberpunk allows a sense of narrative closure by making the inter-changeability of its characters a feature, and by prophesying revolutionary technological change. In Neuromancer, we don’t really care about the dystopian state of the world, only about Case – and the fiction makes it plain that however vital for this specific mission, he is eminently replaceable in every other way. Wintermute provides an ideological “out”. In The Matrix, Andersen’s ordinariness is the refrain of Agent Smith – the dramatic beats of the story follow Neo’s awakening closely, there is no wider perspective on the total system of Control. Neo’s emergence from Andersen marks a threat to the System – a threat which has been re-sublimated into the Matrix by the end of the sequels. In Western Espionage fiction, Capitalism ™ plays the same role as Technological Revolution ™ in Cyberpunk. It is a recurrent fantasy in Cold War spy fiction that the real infiltration beyond the Iron Curtain is the tendrils of corruption synonymous with Capitalist modes of supply and demand. However, spy fiction fights the obvious fact that agents are expendable in order to maintain their protagonists and antagonists as singular figures- they are clinging to a personal mode of storytelling that derives from Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. As Uncle Joe said – a million deaths is a statistic. He might have carried on that a system of destruction achieves meaning only in a single death.

For me, these two forces, of systemic churn and individual irrelevance, reach a comfortable co-habitation in the works of Frederick Forsyth, especially in The Fourth Protocol, where disaster is averted only by one man working outside the system of Intelligence to link the Russian infiltrator with domestic terrorism. Even in eliminating the specific threat that is the subject of the novel, it is clear that the price was Preston’s career and an acknowledgement that the whole affair changed nothing and meant nothing.

This is the central concept so elegantly described as “A Wilderness of Mirrors”. No infiltration or conspiracy is the real enemy, there is no rosetta stone that allows an understanding of all the parts, there is no final and complete solution, no way to win an ideological war except through the mass participation of the general population in a total revolution. That concept has been the foundational idea for every revolution from the French Revolution, and is fully articulated in the foundational writings of each of the communist revolutions. The existence of the Cold War proves how compromised the idea of revolution is – being continually re-absorbed into adapted systems of control, with an ideological flavouring additive.

As we move beyond the Cold War, Espionage fictions become more honest, no longer having the clash of ideologies to mask what have always been power struggles. Once the late cold-war “Technological Thrillers” spear-headed by Tom Clancy shed their ideological colourings and enter the world of Corporate Espionage through the proxies of Nationalities, they become Cyberpunk in all but attitude.

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