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The Future of the Spy Novel is Human

As technology creeps into modern espionage, the lasting legacy of John Le Carré’s spy stories ensures that espionage will remain human in the public’s eye for many digital ages to come.

Words: Katherine Voyles
Pictures: Chris Yang

In late December, it seemed as if two different shows were playing out on the same screen. On one half was the death of John le Carré, whose stories of George Smiley and the Circus (le Carré’s invented name for the British Secret Intelligence Service) remade the spy novel. On the other half was the news that Russian hackers stole secrets from some of the most sensitive parts of the American government by hacking the cybersecurity company SolarWinds. So what should we make of the split-screen — the death of the master spy novelist alongside the real-life story of signals intelligence? While it seems that human intelligence is being eclipsed by the technological, in fact, there’s good reason to believe that the future of the spy novel is human.

To understand the nature of le Carré’s legacy and why it will endure, it’s useful to look first at his novels themselves before coming to grips with the relationship between fiction about intelligence and the work of intelligence. In fact, le Carre’s chief legacy is that he insisted that spy stories are human; the novels he wrote were fundamentally about people making bureaucracies and bureaucracies making people. The structure and inner-workings of a complex governmental system become visible through the characters that populate it, but the characters also create the system within which they work. The Circus turns Smiley’s stomach but he’s nothing without it and it’s nothing without him. The Circus and Smiley make each other. The Circus is a term of le Carré’s own invention and using idiosyncratic terminology, the novels reveal the secret world in its intricacies and complexities — the sheer number of tasks to be completed and the allocation of those tasks to different characters in different parts of the bureaucracy are central to the novels.

For all the focus on Smiley as a spy, Smiley also exists outside his profession. His marriage to the faithless Ann, his love and affection for the people in the Circus (mixed with other emotions, to be sure, but still there) embed him in social relationships that are separate from his work. That the lines between Smiley as Smiley and Smiley as spy are hard to trace underscores this. And, of course, he’s also a product of a specific time, place and ideology; a character formed by the realities of and strains against a declining and deindustrializing England. These pressures, in turn, impact the concerns of the Circus.

The complicated dynamics between spies and the places where they work that are the beating heart of espionage fiction provide a framework for people in the open world to understand the secret world.

The complicated dynamics between spies and the places where they work that are the beating heart of espionage fiction provide a framework for people in the open world to understand the secret world. The push and pull of personalities and priorities that characterize Smiley’s world are familiar to the reader of newspaper stories that go inside intelligence agencies. Telling the story of the relationships between people in an agency and of people to their agency is one way of telling the story of the work of intelligence. In a piece for the Washington Post, Jeff Leen remembered what interested David Cornwell (le Carré’s given name), “David was not so interested in the tech, the calibers or the weaponry. ‘That’s easy to get, and I can fill that in later,’ he told me when we were alone. He wanted the feel of the relationships between the characters, the casual talk, the unexpected detail that resonated or revealed new depths.”

Sir Alex Younger, who led the Secret Intelligence Service in Britain, in a letter to the editor in The Economist, weighed in on the relationship between spying in fiction and spying in real life, noting, “Despite inevitable tensions between the secret and published world, the relationship has generally been of mutual benefit. We are painted in the minds of a global audience as some form of ubiquitous intelligence presence. This can be quite a force multiplier, even if it means we are blamed for an astonishing range of phenomenon in which we have no involvement at all.” What matters then isn’t necessarily the representative accuracy of espionage in fiction, but how the published world shapes readers’ understanding of espionage. As a former head of the secret world, it’s perhaps inevitable that Younger takes a different view than a member of the published world. British author, Ben Macintyre, in the New York Times, claims that spying and fiction correspond to each other, “Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes. You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you make that world, the better you are going to be at it.” The published world finds it useful to draw out the similarities between the secret world and its own while the intelligence world embraces the published on the grounds that it isn’t very much like the open world at all. Yet, no matter how realistic, spy novels serve to humanize intelligence operations in our minds.

Because the secret world is closed to those who do not work in intelligence, the published world is the way in. News stories about intelligence and technological advances that aid the collection, analysis and production of intelligence are weighed against themes, scenes and characters in spy stories. Spy stories are captivating not because they truly and accurately portray the look and feel of espionage; they are captivating precisely because they are imaginative. An intelligence officer turned novelist, Charles McCarry, put it this way, “I was surprised to read in the newspapers that I was writing spy novels. But I had no choice but to go on making up stories about men and women who happened to live in the worlds of espionage and politics, which happen to be worlds that I know something about…A friend who worked with me overseas in the old days once told me that he liked the parts of my novels that I made up better than the parts he remembered from real life.” The future of the spy story — both the published and the lived — is human because the past of the spy story, especially in le Carré’s hands, is human.

Katherine Voyles writes on the cultures of national defense and national defense in culture for publications including Public Books, the LA Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Task & Purpose, Small Wars Journal and War on the Rocks. She holds a PhD in English from the University of California, Irvine and is a Managing Editor at The Strategy Bridge.

Katherine Voyles

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