The Military Techno-Thriller: A History

The Military Techno-Thriller: A History

I absolutely loved Nader Elhefnawy’s “The Rise And Fall Of The Military Techno-Thriller.” So when I found that he’d written a recent big-picture overview of the genre , I was delighted and eagerly snapped it up. Rather than starting with the classic ‘invasion novels’ of the late 1800s, Elhefnaway moved even further, beginning in the 1600s.

Thus begins a multi-century tour de force, deftly pointing out not only the books themselves but also the cultural context behind them. This book is both long enough to be comprehensive (mostly) and short enough to be easily readable, making it the best of both worlds.

The picture it paints of the “techno-thriller” per se is of a genre that could only really thrive at one very specific sort of time. It has to exist in a period of heightened military tension that can’t spill over into any sort of massive backlash and a period of novel technology at the same. Such a period existed around the turn of the 20th Century and in the 1980s. At least in the latter case, it was not sustainable even without “events”, and with the “events” (ironically consisting of a war in the first period and a peace in the second), both were doomed.

There are a lot of fascinating insights that made me go “a-ha”, for lack of a better term. Elhefnawy’s statement that “Full-scale great power war scenarios like Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, Coyle’s Team Yankee or Ralph Peters’ Red Army (1989) were in the minority” matches what I found after starting this blog-my “blind man touching the elephant” background in wargaming and alternate speculation made me think the ‘big-war’ subgenre of that sort was considerably larger than it actually was. Another insight I found intriguing was the notion that Red Army was as successful as it was because it was novel in large part compared to other Fuldapocalyptic tales. And the tone of the writing, being frequently critical but never sneeringly dismissive, works very well too.

I think my biggest substantive disagreement with Elhefnawy’s conclusions is his depiction of the technothriller now. He mentions the “rise-of-China/return-of-Russia” change in geopolitics, but argues that “Nonetheless, the cultural trends evident in the 1990s proved quite robust”. I think that shift gave the the technothriller a bigger bump in popularity than he gives it credit for, especially given the headwinds it’s had to work against (the fragmentation of publishing and pop culture).

And while I don’t want to nitpick the omission of certain areas in something that’s meant to be a general overview, there’s a few I where thought more detail could have been warranted. In particular are what he calls the “vigilante novels” (ie, Mack Bolan). These are interesting in that they provide a parallel track of pop culture that both stood apart from and moved closer to the technothriller across the length of time. That phenomenon gets a segment but deserved more. There’s also the long-term “squeezing” of the mainstream publishing industry, and a deeper look at how that and the push for big, higher-margin books both helped and hurt the technothriller would have been nice. (It’s mentioned several times, but never in too much depth).

Still, these are just very small critiques for an excellent book that examines an overlooked genre through a variety of interesting perspectives in a highly readable way. I cannot recommend The Military Techno-Thriller: A History enough for fans of the genre.

Technothrilllers and WWIII

Technothrillers and WWIII

There is obviously an extreme amount of overlap between the two, but as someone who’s read a lot of both, I don’t think that every World War III story is a “technothriller”, and every technothriller certainly isn’t a World War III story.

Technothriller is hard to define. In some ways (and keep in mind I love weird analogies) it’s like progressive rock-hard to truly explain but often identifiable as part of a genre if viewed/listened to[1].

Also like progressive rock, the technothriller genre was arguably something of a specific time, was ultimately niche at heart, contained elements that would seem to make it unfavorable to a mainstream audience, was generally scorned by serious critics, had a seemingly imaginative premise turned too into follow-the-leader[2],  fell into decline both from outside factors and its own excesses, and was lucky to last as long as it did at the top of the charts.

Ok, I might be taking it too far. But still.

The decline of the technothriller can be studied in several critical articles. Among the reasons given, by both them and me are:

  • Simple changing tastes and trends. (This is probably the most realistic answer, but the least complex. Oh well.)
  • The fall of the USSR contributing to those changing tastes and trends by sapping the technothriller of its immediacy and forcing them to be more contrived.
  • Said contrivances becoming more and more blatant[3], combined with the genre staying with a “big picture” format not as conducive to grubby brushfires as a small-scale focus would be.
  • High-technology stuff in the post-Gulf War period becoming ubiquitous, losing its earlier novelty value. Smart bombs and cruise missiles? Those were routine now.
  • The genre arguably being more suited to video games like the Splinter Cell series than books.
  • The genre arguably being niche to begin with and only staying in mainstream consciousness due to two things happening as it emerged. Those being the beginning of the digital era and the intense late Cold War (the argument in this article).

So for specifics, it’s easy to find perfect overlap. Red Storm Rising, the archetypal World War III story, is also an archetypal technothriller. But even at the time, there were examples on both ends that did not fit neatly into the other’s niche. One of the best-executed was Ralph Peters’ classic Red Army, one of my favorite World War III tales.

Not only is Red Army decidedly gritty and focused on a Soviet victory, but Peters frequently takes care to not go into details about bits of hardware. This helps add to the immediacy and fog of war a lot, but makes it feel less like a techno-thriller. But even in the more conventional examples, there’s differences. Larry Bond’s 1989-published, ultra-formulaic Red Phoenix[4] is still a regional conflict, while the genre-booster of The Hunt For Red October is focused on avoiding the Third World War rather than starting it.

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As the technothriller began to decline from mainstream bookshelves, the World War III subgenre, already a niche-within-a-niche, did so as well. But it fell back on a smaller but very stable base. The wargamers.

Red Storm Rising was famously aided by the original Harpoon board game, and the setting became popular among wargamers for very obvious reasons. Even beyond politics, its appeal is great, for it allows for massive battles of tanks, artillery and aircraft impossible in any regional clash.

This, combined with the influence of the existing 1980s classics, had many effects on how the subgenre developed. But what was more important was the increasing “decentralization” of publishing as a whole. The technothriller/world war genre got a small bump in the mainstream market as the rise of China and resurgence of Russia from its 1990s slump brought “high-tech”, high-end conflict back into vogue.

But beyond that, self-publishing and the internet made it far more easy for “niche” fiction to spread[5], which meant that all kinds of thrillers-World War III, cheap thriller, homage technothriller, all could flourish. In some cases, this pulled the heirs of Clancy and Hackett closer together, in some cases it pushed them farther apart.

How this new paradigm manifests in the actual stories varies considerably, and thus it can only be examined on a case by case basis. But there is a trend throughout the period-the technothriller and World War III stories are never entirely together, but never entirely apart.

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[1]At its most broad, prog rock can be defined as “any rock music made in the 1970s with synthesizers.” Likewise, technothrillers can be defined as any thriller book featuring high technology while not reaching the level of outright science fiction. It’s not helped by Tom Clancy, its forefather, not liking the term and insisting he didn’t create or expand a new genre.

[2]For technothrillers, it was Clancy and Bond. For prog rock, it was the hordes of Yes copycats.

[3]See the opponents in Cauldron.

[4]If I had to list a single commercial book that had the most and most obvious technothriller tropes, it would be Red Phoenix. Note that this does make it necessarily bad, just formulaic, at least in hindsight.

[5]On a personal note, it was internet published/posted military alternate history that played a gigantic role in getting me into this kind of genre to begin with.