Crossroads: I Spy, with My Little Eye…Espionage in Speculative Fiction

Hello and welcome to August! I was away for much of July on a “blogging vacation”, and I very much missed you and our ongoing genre mash-up conversation while I was gone.

Now that I’m back, this month we’ll be looking at the ways in which speculative fiction intersects with spy fiction, from John Le Carré’s George Smiley and Ian Fleming’s James Bond right down to Iain M. Banks’ Bora Horza Gobuchul and George R.R. Martin’s Varys the Spider.

With their fill of secrets, deadly enemies, and high stakes, what’s not to love about a good spy story? As readers, we’ve been devouring them for over a century: on the heels of the sensational Dreyfus Affair, readers in Western Europe especially flocked to the genre. Between the late 19th century’s burgeoning anarchist movements (featured in works like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale or G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) and European Great Game politics (in turn covered by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “His Last Bow“) high-stakes espionage caught our imagination. Our fascination with spies continued into the twentieth century, buoyed by the two world wars and particularly heightened by the ever-present tensions of the Cold War.

The English Girls by Daniel Silva As a genre, espionage has successfully straddled the fence between its (pulpy) adventure fiction roots and high-brow critical literature. Even now, espionage authors top the commercial bestseller charts (Daniel Silva’s The English Girl is at #2 on the NY Times list as I write this) while still earning critical plaudits and awards (Graham Greene was runner-up for the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature and was awarded the British Order of Merit).

One would think, therefore, that speculative fiction – itself a genre with roots in both pulp adventure and speculative philosophy – would incorporate more elements of espionage fiction into its toolkit. What speculative fiction author could argue with the techniques that (putatively – I know it’s not that simple) either propel books to bestseller status or to top-flight award shortlists?

In researching this series of posts, I was struck time and again by the relative scarcity of espionage in speculative fiction. Of course, there are notable examples: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series prominently features two competing masters of espionage (Varys the Spider and Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, respectively – and even Tyrion Lannister plays a deft hand, at that); Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday, Tim Powers’ Declare, C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner universe, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, Iain M. Banks’ Culture sequence, and Robin Hobb’s Farseer books all prominently feature spies and espionage. And yet, spies and spying are minor enough in the field that neither The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction nor The Encyclopedia of Fantasy feature entries on “espionage”, “spies”, or “secret agents”.

This begs the question: Why not? Are there structural, artistic, or aesthetic differences between espionage fiction that inhibits its merger with speculative fiction? Or is espionage fiction instead already so well-merged as to have become invisible through its own ubiquity?

Coming Up…

I’ll be exploring these questions throughout the month of August. Next week, I’ll take a look at how espionage fiction works: at the major authors and history of spy fiction (since it is a genre particularly influenced by real-world history), and the aesthetic and structural trends informing its evolution. Then, I’ll look at how speculative fiction incorporates espionage into its plot structures, character archetypes, and narrative techniques. And lastly I’ll contrast the two genres, specifically focusing on where they diverge in an attempt to identify the challenges to integration.

I hope to see you next week when we start looking at Chesterton, Kipling, Conrad, Greene, Le Carré, Fleming, Clancy, Silva and more! In the meantime, do you think that speculative fiction is lacking in espionage or replete with it?

Chris Gerwel is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer. Raised in New Jersey, he spent ten years in Central & Eastern Europe in the market research industry, and today when he isn’t reading or writing speculative fiction, he works in the software industry. He lives in northern NJ, with a beautiful wife and a rambunctious puppy, and also writes the weekly blog The King of Elfland’s 2nd Cousin.

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4 thoughts on "Crossroads: I Spy, with My Little Eye…Espionage in Speculative Fiction"

  1. Marilynn Byerly says:

    Here are a few books that you may want to add to the discussion.

    Sarah Jane Stratford’s THE MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN. It’s promoted as an urban fantasy, but it’s an historical spy novel with vampires. English vampires discover that Hitler’s “final solution” includes vampires so they go into Germany to stop the Nazis.

    MASQUES, Patricia Briggs, traditional fantasy. Reprint of her first novel. Shapeshifter and magic user, Aralorn works as a spy. When she looks into a threat to the beloved Master Mage ae’Magi, she discovers he is even more evil than people believe him to be saintly, and he intends dire things for everyone. With the help of a mysterious mage who stays in the shape of a wolf, she tries to stop him. A really good first novel with some of the problems of a first novel. Nice main characters and a truly creepy villain.

    STEEL’S EDGE, Ilona Andrews. “The Edge” series. Fantasy with a strong romance. Both having lost loved ones to slavers, powerful healer Charlotte de Ney and spy Richard Mar join forces to bring down influential people who run a vast slave running operation. Romance in this darkness and evil is not what either expects. Another exciting Edge story. In some ways overshadowing the main characters, the younger members of the Edge families in these novels move forward to start their own adventures as spys.

    1. Chris Gerwel says:

      Thanks for the suggestions! I’m definitely going to include them in my further research! Some of these – based just on your descriptions of them as urban fantasy – also remind me of Gail Carriger’s new YA Finishing School series (the first book of which is Etiquette & Espionage), which I’ll be discussing more in the weeks to come as well.

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