Revisiting the Victorian Techno-thriller
By Nader Elhefnawy
23 February 2009
The term "techno-thriller" is broadly applied to a very wide body of fiction, encompassing writers as diverse as Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, and Dan Brown, in a tradition going back to Jules Verne. However, especially in the 1980s, the term tended to be applied more narrowly, to military-themed action-adventure stories of the sort written by authors like Tom Clancy, Larry Bond, Stephen Coonts, Dale Brown, and Harold Coyle, all of whom became bestselling authors in the middle of that decade.
Offering a mix of geopolitics and high technology (either actually existing technology, or something plausible in the near future), these novels tended to revolve around two types of plot. In one type, the invention of a bit of technical wizardry by one side or the other threatened to upset the global balance of power. If the "good guys" (us, of course) owned the device, then the story concerned their efforts to protect it from the "bad guys" (usually Soviets and their proxies, plus the occasional Qaddafi stand-in), as in Dale Brown's Day of the Cheetah (1989); if it was the bad guys who had it, then the good guys had to neutralize it somehow, either stealing or destroying it, as in Brown's Flight of the Old Dog (1987) or Clancy's The Hunt for Red October (1984). The second type of story revolved around a political move (usually an aggressive one by the bad guys) setting the stage for a military clash, like a Soviet invasion of Western Europe in Clancy's Red Storm Rising (1986) and Coyle's Team Yankee (1987).
It is common to think of these techno-thrillers as an update of the spy novel. There's some basis for such a view, given that intelligence gathering and international intrigue are often prominent, or even central to their plots (as in Stephen Coonts's The Minotaur (1989), essentially a spy story revolving around a fancy airplane); and that these books to a considerable degree supplanted earlier approaches to that subject matter. The tendency certainly reflected the technologization and bureaucratization of intelligence gathering, as spy satellites, listening posts, and computers became a bigger part of this field of activity, and the improvised operations and lone amateurs of an earlier age gave way to vast government agencies staffed by trained and salaried professionals, of whom only small numbers were actual spies in the old sense. However, more than that, these novels represented a resurgence of a genre long thought dead, namely the "future war" story as it was known prior to the outbreak of World War I.
Thinking about the future of war is as old as thinking about the future generally; the thinking about superweapons as old as war, and the idea of technologically created ones as old as the modern idea of applied science. Tellingly, Francis Bacon raised the issue in his classic The New Atlantis (1626), in which the scientifically-minded, nature-conquering Bensalemites proudly tell the story's narrator that they possess "ordnance and instruments of war and engines of all kinds . . . stronger and more violent than yours are, exceeding your greatest cannons and basilisks [heavy siege cannons]." In Margaret Cavendish's "utopia" The Blazing World (1666) (an almost absurdly reactionary book, even by seventeenth century standards), the heroine uses a submarine navy in a military campaign that establishes the British monarchy as rulers of the world. A century later, an anonymous writer penned The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925 (1763), a less technologically fantastic story (in it war remains very much an eighteenth century-style affair), which works out toward a similar conclusion. After this there would be flurries of such stories at moments of particular international tension—the invention of the hot-air balloon in the 1780s, the on-and-off fighting of the Napoleonic era, the naval scares that swept Britain in the 1840s and 1850s.
However, it was Royal Army engineer George Chesney's 1871 story The Battle of Dorking that truly got the genre going. In this tale, an old veteran of the Volunteer Force (a British army reserve branch founded in 1859) is in the future recounting his personal experiences during (and reflections on) Germany's invasion of Britain. The well-orchestrated attack catches a beleaguered, overstretched British Empire by surprise, and ends with the conquest of the island, after which Britain is stripped of its colonies and trade, and reduced to a third-class power.
After the story's first appearance in Blackwoods Magazine, Chesney's piece went through a flurry of reprints amid raging controversy—and shortly after that, a frenzy of imitation as other British authors during the next four decades exploited Chesney's devices to tell their own stories, as I. F. Clarke recounts in his masterful study Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-1984 (1966). (An updated edition appeared in 1992.)
Some of the more famous of these "invasion stories" include William Le Queux's The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) and The Invasion of 1910 (1906), and Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903). The genre was also evident in theater, particularly Guy du Maurier's hit play An Englishman's Home (1909), in which invading soldiers (thinly disguised Germans) break into a middle-class English family's house and proceed to tyrannize its inhabitants. As historian Robert K. Massie notes in his study of the era, Dreadnought, An Englishman's Home "played to packed houses for eighteen months" (639). (The stories had their counterparts on the continent, and also across the Atlantic in the United States. The American contributions are surveyed and analyzed in H. Bruce Franklin's brilliant 1988 study War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, of which an updated edition went into print in 2008.)
This vast, influential body of fiction is barely known today, however—all but ignored not only by general audiences, but by literary scholars as well, who, with few exceptions, do not accord the invasion stories much attention. This is partly because they display the particular strengths and weaknesses of the 1980s-style military techno-thriller that followed in their footsteps a century later (which has similarly been ignored by highbrows). At their best they offer the fun of geopolitical chess and exciting action. However, they tend to suffer from bland or thin characters; prose ranging from the mediocre to the atrocious; and the crudeness of their propagandizing.
Their strengths also tend to deteriorate with age. The geopolitical chess all too often derives its interest from its topicality, the instant drama of a "plot ripped from the headlines" that can only fall flat after the headlines have changed. A fascination with yesteryear's version of high tech (technology having been a key source of their interest, particularly in the American brand), a nostalgic appreciation for the vibe of a past era, also happens to be a very particular taste.
If anything, the more overt didacticism of the Victorian novels makes the weaknesses especially pronounced. While Clarke praises Chesney for his comparative restraint, his narrator is still prone to subjecting his readers to harangues against those who would skimp on national defense, while also pushing plenty of other conservative shibboleths (including a Thomas Friedman-like celebration of free trade in the very first few paragraphs).
The scenarios, invariably conceived to make a simple, dramatic point—a case for introducing the draft, or the need to counter a new weapon—tended not only to be lacking in real political insight or human drama, but plainly preposterous. While this tends to be more obvious with historical hindsight (another reason these stories suffer with age), British writer P. G. Wodehouse, best known for inventing the ultimate valet in Reginald Jeeves, offered an early parody of them in The Swoop!, or How Clarence Saved England (1909). (The story was not a success, the British public apparently not having much of a sense of humor about the matter at the time.)
Chesney, praised by so many critics for his eye for realistic detail, is no exception to this pattern of ridiculous scenario-making. While his recounting of the Volunteer's experiences is in many instances carefully and realistically detailed, the larger political and military situation in which he has been swept up is not. Instead Chesney strains to pile crisis on top of crisis on top of crisis until the British Empire finally breaks (just as contemporary techno-thriller writers frequently have done with the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union).
Specifically, Britain has to cope with multiple, simultaneous emergencies in its territory, including rebellions in India and Ireland, and an American threat to Canada, that draw away virtually the whole of the army; a much stronger and more aggressive Germany, which has already annexed Denmark and the Netherlands (not only adding to its resources, but better positioning it to launch its invasion); and some very lame plot twists to take the Royal Navy out of action, including the decoying of the larger part of it down to the Dardanelles, and the disabling of the rest with vaguely described "engines."
That Chesney had to introduce such an improbable constellation of alterations to the British Empire's real-world situation to lay the groundwork for a successful German attack should have been taken as an indication of how secure Britain was, rather than how vulnerable. Nonetheless, the response was often hysteria, which was no more accidental than the flourishing of Chesney's stories at this time. Certainly it might be pointed out that Jules Verne had firmly established speculation about the future as a subject of popular fiction, but other causes were rather more ominous. This was a period of rapid, even ferocious technological change in warfare, something of a shock to the sensibilities of the day. Despite the appearance of the occasional visionary, war was not generally thought of as a technological affair. Indeed, the great philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz—whose personal experience of war was in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, literally from Valmy to Waterloo in his case—did not once mention technology as such in his classic study, On War (1832).
However, from the standpoint of four decades later, such a view was inconceivable. During the interceding half-century, muskets gave way to repeating rifles, solid cannon balls to explosive shells, wooden sailing ships to steam-powered ironclads, while trains and telegraphs reinvented communications and logistics. The new technologies also made themselves felt in the politics of the day: in the invasion scares that exercised Britain from the 1840s on, driven by the fear of French (or other) steamships conquering Albion; in the destruction of half the Ottoman fleet by the Russian navy in the Battle of Sinop (1853), which led to the Crimean War; and in the American Civil War, the conflict that not only gave the world the Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Hunley, but, even more thoroughly than the Crimean conflict, ushered in the age of modern warfare.
More impressive to Europeans, however, was the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, in which smaller but better-organized Prussia took advantage of the railways to deal a crushing defeat to the country that for the last two centuries had been the continent's military superpower. The rise of Germany was particularly worrisome not only to the French, who suffered a humiliating defeat and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German Empire, but to the British. While France would go on being Britain's principal adversary through the rest of the century, the potential of a challenge by a united Germany, as Chesney's story indicates, did not go unnoted at this moment when Britain was (in hindsight) passing its zenith as a dominant actor in world affairs.
The changes only became more dramatic from there, as the tools of war continued to undergo rapid change, yesteryear's ironclads giving way to dreadnoughts and submarines and torpedoes; as machine guns became kings of the battlefield, and the possibilities of mechanization and aerial warfare were dimly glimpsed; and the new united Germany became the dominant power on the continent and hoped to become dominant beyond it as well in a period that saw a dramatic renewal of empire-building. The cause of that imperialist movement may be the subject of much argument (anachronistic behavior, failed economic policies, class politics, Social Darwinist ideologies, etc.), but the fact itself is not. Where in the middle of the nineteenth century the imperialist project had been falling into disrepute, and liberal critics of the British Empire were talking about chucking the colonies, this was the age when terms like "jingo" and "Weltpolitik" were coined, the time of Alfred Mahan, and Benjamin Disraeli, and Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Cecil Rhodes, who declared against this backdrop that "all thoughts of a little England are over."
The era between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I saw the Congress of Berlin, in which European states carved up Africa; French expansion in Southeast Asia; scrambles for the crumbling Ottoman Empire and the South Pacific. Countries that had not been colonial powers before—like Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Japan—now joined the club, while the United States expanded beyond the continent, especially after the Spanish-American War. And as they all armed to defend those territories, Germany's construction of the High Seas Fleet in particular set off alarms in Britain.
Amid a shifting balance of political and technological power, a scramble for new territories, and a seemingly unending arms race, crisis became the new normal—between Austria and Russia over the Balkans; between Britain and Russia over the whole route to India; between France and Germany over Morocco; between one power and another (or among several powers) over China, the Nile, the Caribbean, and countless other places.
In short, Chesney's story appeared just as a perfect storm of anxiety, jingoism, and technological development was coming together, while feeding into the storm that made for its success in the first place. Certainly many writers were sincere in advancing their own ideas, but still others were exploiting the mood, or used by others looking to shape it, as was certainly the case with Le Queux, whose Invasion of 1910 was commissioned by newspaper owner Lord Northcliffe. Still others capitalized quite shamelessly on the enthusiasm. Massie notes that the Territorial Army set up a recruiting station in the lobby of the theater showing Du Maurier's play "so that fiery young men, erupting out of the stalls once the curtain had fallen, could volunteer on the spot" (639). Ultimately, in Clarke's analysis, the invasion stories
helped to raise the temperature of international disputes . . . played their part in helping to sustain and foment the self-deception, misunderstanding, and downright ill will that often infected relationships between the people of Europe[,] . . . had become an established means of teaching every kind of aggressive doctrine from the duty of revenge to the need for a bigger fleet . . . [and] perpetuated an archaic attitude to war by helping to maintain the belief that another war would not cause any profound changes in the state of the world. (135)
Indeed, Clarke goes so far as to say, "There can be no doubt that the authors of the many tales of future warfare shared in the responsibility for the catastrophe that overtook Europe" in the First World War—an event which the Victorian techno-thriller did not survive. Not only did the immense wastage on the killing fields of the Western front (immortalized in so much modernist literature) powerfully impact the mass mind, but the invention of bomber aircraft and chemical weapons, and the prospects for combining the two, had much the same effect on observers in the interwar years as nuclear weapons would have later: to make the resort to warfare appear less a legitimate political tool than an act of self-immolation. Inevitably there was, as Clarke put it, a "retreat from the old, heroic and aggressive attitudes. The chief enemy is no longer some foreign power; it is the immense destructiveness of modern weapons" (161).
Not surprisingly, far better remembered than the stories of writers like Chesney and Le Queux are the contributions of H.G. Wells, who, aside from being a rather better wordsmith than most of the competition, and doing a much better job of guessing at what future warfare would really be like, subversively turned the genre on its head. Far from joining in its promotion of militarism, imperialism, and aggressive nationalism, he used the trappings of the invasion story genre to attack those very same ideas.
In The War of the Worlds (1898), the inhabitants of the world's most powerful empire face an enemy whose sheer power renders all talk of "readiness" ridiculous; Victorian Britons experience colonization from its other end. In The War in the Air (1907) and The World Set Free (1914)—as well as his later future history The Shape of Things to Come (1933)—war finishes off civilization, and the message the tale carries is not about the menace from this or that foreign power, or the need for more soldiers or better armament (what could possibly serve against the Martian tripods?), but a call for a scientific world state which will do away with war altogether.
Taking their cue from Wells rather than Chesney, most writers depicting future wars presented a picture of annihilation. Rather than offering exciting action sequences, they told of massacre, dimly glimpsed because the sheer scale of it made it impossible to describe in the traditional ways. Unlike in the work of Wells, however, the disaster does not shock the world to its senses, but brings the end of civilization, or even the extinction of the species, as in novels like Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937); or films like the 1939 MGM cartoon Peace on Earth (the only piece of animation ever nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize). The trend grew only more pronounced after World War II, with not only a fuller realization of the destructive power of bomber fleets, but the addition of ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs to the superpower arsenals, with effects portrayed in books like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), and Mordechai Roshwald's Level 7 (1959).
Such war as did still occur was scaled down and shoved into the shadowy margins, as in tales of espionage by authors like Ian Fleming, John Le Carré, and Trevanian; took the form of "big" crises that bring the world to the precipice, like in Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's Fail-Safe (1962); or simply relegated to distant futures and faraway worlds. Writing the first edition of his book in 1966, Clarke observed that in the post-atomic age, "the tale of imaginary warfare as it used to be has vanished almost completely" (201). Absent were fictionalizations of the "conventional" version of World War III that military futurists contemplated. As of the publication of the first edition of Clarke's book, no author had bothered "to write an account of the limited warfare that might develop [instead]" (202).
Indeed, it seemed very unlikely that such an account would ever be written, but time proved Clarke wrong—and only a decade later. Again, the writing of future wars hardly seems to have been accidental; the same forces that gave rise to that earlier wave of fiction (jingoism, anxiety, and changes in military technology) reconverged to afford a fertile ground for its revival. The late 1970s and early 1980s were the years of a conservative, hawkish backlash in the Western world, epitomized by the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the transition from détente to a "Second Cold War." They were years of anxiety about national power, especially in the United States, amid plummeting economic growth, an energy crisis, and an overblown image of Third World revolutions everywhere and the Soviet Union (puppet master of all!) on the march.
And of course, there were dramatic technological changes afoot, or at least seemed to be, centering on what was fashionably termed the "Revolution in Military Affairs" (or RMA for short). The notion that smart bombs would replace nuclear ones, that effective anti-missile defenses were at hand, that computers were about to change everything, helped renew interest in the prospect of a conventional World War III.
Interestingly enough, the first writers to respond to this new situation in this way were, once again, British. Craig Thomas published what was arguably the first of the new techno-thrillers, Firefox, in 1977. A year later, General Sir John Hackett—a former commander of NATO's Northern Army Group—oversaw the writing of a (mostly) conventional World War III, The Third World War: August 1985. Shortly afterward, however, the field became an American-dominated one, especially after Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts published their first novels in 1984. What was once nonexistent had become routine again, and remained so for several years (and, not surpisingly, all the charges Clarke made against the pre-World War I invasion story could be fairly made against these successors to it).
The genre declined with the demise of the Soviet Union, though, and the waning of public interest in the prospect of a new "Large Peer Competitor" which might step into its place, writers quickly using up the dubious possibilities of a German or Japanese return to the warpath, a resurgent Russia, an expansionist China. The modern "invasion story," like its predecessor, was properly a tale of great power wars, not skirmishes with small fry like drug lords, terrorists, and even rogue states incapable of fighting a decent set-piece battle. The attempt to fit their dynamics to this smaller scale resulted in plain spies-and-commandos stuff occasionally enlivened by a piece of shiny new hardware—the difference between Clancy's anti-environmentalist screed Rainbow Six (1998) and the grandly mounted battles of his earlier Red Storm Rising.
Not surprisingly, the "War on Terror" did nothing to revive it, given its lack of scope for epic dogfights, tank battles, and naval actions, except of course in the most overheated imaginations. And so the trend of the 1990s continued, with established writers losing readers, or tiring of the game and moving on to telling other kinds of stories. Few new ones appeared, and generally had less impact (though the utterly awful Patrick Robinson scored some bestsellers). Today the genre is not as dead as seemed to be the case in 1966, but a long way from its vigor circa 1986, at least in novel form. The future of what political scientists refer to as the "international system" remains ambiguous, but the new-style invasion story may have already seen its last hurrah.