Arthur Hailey: Technothriller Writer?

Generally speaking, alternate history questions about how some creative artist’s career could have gone differently are not my favorite thing. There are just too many inputs and inspirations, and one would be hard pressed to find something more volatile than popular culture tastes. That being said, I’ve found one author who I can definitely see sliding into a different genre if he’d come to fame 10-15 years later.

That author is Arthur Hailey, most famous for his novel Airport, which inspired the movie that spawned the entire disaster genre (and its parody in Airplane!). Hailey loved to write books that examined a complex thing (be it banks, airports, car factories, or what not) in amazing detail, before climaxing in some kind of crisis. He also loved technology to the point of taking too many futurists at face value (Passenger pods loaded into planes on conveyor belts!)

Hmmm, massively researched technical detail? A love of technology? That sounds like he’d be right at home with technothrillers.

In fact, I can so easily imagine Arthur Hailey’s Aircraft Carrier. The carrier and everything from the catapults to the air tasking order is described in minute detail. As is the drama surrounding members of the crew, which will consist of at least two middle-class Americans committing adultery. Then, in the final chapters of the book, the carrier will sail into action! But it won’t be a full on Fuldapocalyptic world war with the carrier fending off a hundred Tu-22s in the GIUK Gap while a nuclear sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head. Hailey just wasn’t that high stakes a writer, and his target audience probably wouldn’t go for something as tense as that. It would probably be something like El Dorado Canyon, probably against a fictional OPFOR country. The carrier accomplishes its mission, but not before a million more “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL” infodumps are launched and at least one of the adulterers is blown up.

Look, I didn’t say it was going to be a good technothriller.

Indeed, as much as Clancy and Bond’s books may have been dated and rendered less potent by their technology becoming considerably less novel, Hailey’s have aged far worse. And I’m not (just) talking about their culture and characterization. Their entire gimmick is “this is a thing.” And if you already have the slightest familiarity with that thing in ways that audiences in the 1960s and 1970s did not, the books become empty clunkfests.

Still, it’s very easy to see the success of someone who wrote in a very similar style (Airport is basically a peacetime technothriller, after all) translating to something else down the road. That’s the fun of alternate history.

Novel Update And An Observation

So, I’m close to the end of The Lair of Filth, the sequel to The Sure Bet King. It’ll take touching up, polishing, and so forth, but I’m in the final arc of the draft. With that in mind, I’m already thinking of the plans for my next novel. While exact details need to be outlined, I’ve settled on “a pop epic about aviation” as the general subject.

It seems like quite the leap to go from sports betting to air transport. Or is it? When looking at the economics, I was a little (pleasantly) surprised at the similarities between the two seemingly opposite industries.

  • First for the most obvious and most unpleasant: Both are volatile, low-margin industries. The revenues from sports betting are dwarfed by other casino games (particularly slot machines), and revenue can swing on events like all the favorites winning. Similarly, airlines are barely-to-unprofitable with the exception of a few outliers like Southwest and Ryanair. And they are an incredibly cyclical, event-vulnerable industry.
  • Second, the barriers to entry are, for the most part, extremely low. Certainly lower than one might think. Stuff like pay per heads and aircraft leasing, or similar turnkey solutions, allow for many entrants, particularly in the less-demanding offshore world. Of course, maintaining that business is a lot harder…
  • Third, the products are almost commodotized. It’s numbers on a screen/an airplane with seats in it. There just isn’t much except for deals and pricing that distinguishes one sportsbook/airline from another most of the time. And both have also been hit hard by the ability of consumers to price shop on the internet.

So maybe it won’t be that different after all…

The Warhead Mystery

David Seed’s magisterial analysis of nuclear terrorism in fiction has confirmed one large suspicion I had about such books: The warhead MacGuffin is, far more often than not, stolen or donated by a sinister benefactor instead of being scratch-built. The Sum of All Fears is one big exception, just as how Red Storm Rising has Iceland invaded and the war staying completely conventional from start to finish. Because I love overthinking stuff like this (in violation of the wise words of literary theorist Mr. Hippo that not every story has to have significance), I have a few possible theories.

Theory 1

Theory 1 states that this is an example of being, even accidentally, technically reasonable. There are large practical issues with constructing even the simplest Little Boy-esque designs. The biggest and most obvious is appropriate fissile material, but there’s more that’d be hard to do and harder to do in secret. Of course, most authors would probably be going with their gut telling them it’s just easier to skip that step. Seeing so many writers get absolute basic technical details wrong makes me think it’s more a broken clock being right at that moment than anything else.

Theory 2

Theory 2 is less generous and states that it’s because it’s easy to write, means you don’t have to research, and can just say “here, they got a nuke.” Even The Sum of All Fears, as (over)-researched at it was, did this in a way by almost literally dropping the Israeli bomb into the laps of the antagonists.

Theory 3

Theory 3 is simply the result of bandwagoning. Because everyone else is having the nukes being sold or donated, the authors are simply writing what they know. Tom Clancy is weird in that while a lot of people adopted his themes, his exact style is not replicated nearly as much (and understandably so)

_ _ _

The warhead issue symbolizes something I’ve noticed about fiction: Realism is often not really that much of an asset. Roughly speaking, a lot of the people won’t know any better, many of the ones who do know won’t care, and a giant subset of those who do care will find issue no matter what. This combined with thrillers almost always succeeding and failing based on execution and not concept means my advice would just be to write what you’re comfortable with.

My personal take is this: Since I’ve been reading so much on the topic, and since I find the stolen/gifted nuke overused, I feel like I’d have the warhead be scratch-built if I wrote a book on the subject.

The Super-Mansion

The conclusion of The Sure Bet King took place at a Los Angeles super-mansion. My current WIP is also focused around a super-mansion. The super-mansion is one of those setting places that I just love. They’re (impractically) big, they can have a lot of stuff, and they can have very different themes.

The closest thing to an official definition of a “mansion” is “a luxury home at least 5,000 square feet in size”. Super-mansions are even more nebulous, with their only real distinguishing feature being their bulk. My own definition is “it’s a super-mansion if any one room in it is bigger than an entire normal mansion”.

About The Incident: Blog Update

So, the long-feared Russian all-out invasion of Ukraine has begun. I kind of suspected this would happen when A: 75% of the Russian Army, including units from Eastern Siberia, was moved to the border, and B: The Kremlin began making knowingly impossible demands. Frankly, knowing what I know now, it’s kind of miraculous that it took thirty years to get this far.

(And no, Ukraine couldn’t have kept its for all intents and purposes unusable nukes it technically inherited, and it still did the right thing in not trying.)

Fuldapocalypse will continue as normal, as fiction is not real life. I will refrain on commentary as even the well-informed and honest accounts can be subject to confusion. However, I will say that when it became clear that war was inevitable, I made the very deliberate decision to pivot away from my Soviet-Romanian “big war thriller”, and not just because of the general concept or even the area. Having a massive, high-tech, Russian-led army striking against a former client whose only effective resistance is urban and unconventional warfare is a little too on the nose-in fact, the scenario is so similar that you could basically do a find and replace for “Belarus” and “Bulgaria” and change nothing else.

Thankfully, I do have some very good news. The pivot away from that concept to a follow-up thriller involving gambling, mansions, nuclear weapons, and dirty black ops in Southeast Asia with aged characters from The Sure Bet King has gone beautifully. The plot for that has finally clicked, and I’ve been making excellent progress there.

Another Missing World War III Tale

There’s another type of story that seemingly just doesn’t appear in the conventional World War III niche (as far as I can tell): Stories centered around those with neither political or military capability. And by that I don’t mean the opponents in later Tom Clancy novels. The poor innocents caught up in the heat of war are often used in historical wartime fiction, but seem at best only in parts of conventional Fuldapocalypses (ie, Bannon’s wife in Team Yankee).

I think the biggest reason is well, no real incentive to do so. I don’t really have the best knowledge, but I can speculate that historical fiction writers don’t need to use an inherently contrived “Cold War hot but not that hot” setup to tell such a story. There’s plenty of historical conflicts that readers will understand better, and if a fictional one is needed/wanted, making it small, contemporary, or both can offer more of a hook.

So it’s a catch-22. The subgenre would benefit immensely from outsiders bringing their perspective. But most outsiders, even cheap thriller writers, don’t have much motive to write such a thing.