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readercon catchup #2: I Spy, I Fear, I Wonder: Espionage Fiction and the Fantastic

I Spy, I Fear, I Wonder: Espionage Fiction and the Fantastic

this one started off with C C Finlay asking the panel what they considered basic elements of the spy genre. Ernest Lilley said it requires cynicism and bleak world view and Chris Nakashima-Brown said they are a realist dystopia of the present. James Macdonald said the spy doesn’t fully grasp the larger machinations of his world, but Ernest put a caveat on that, saying that in reality it was true, but in fiction, which requires more closure, some knowledge is required. I think James replied something to the effect that this was one of the problems with the believability of spy novels, in his experience.*

Don D’Amassa said spies have 1 or 2 basic missions: get information on a person or instituation, or sabotage a person or institution, and Ernest added that they are always working for someone else, which raised a nice but brief conversation about agents as always alien, or ‘other’, and that most spies have no close relationships**, but this last was refuted by Chris who brought up Le Carre, and the difficulty as a spy of not knowing not only whether others’ feelings are genuine, but your own as well.

this led to discussion of the ‘innocent enlistee’ into the spy world, of which there are numerous examples, though James made an interesting comment that there is very little innocence in the world, a topic which came up again later.

C C noted that cyberpunks make perfect, ready-made spies (they’ve got the gadgets, secret identities in the form of online avatars, etc.), and Ernest mentioned Charles Stross’ “The Atrocity Archives” and “The Jennifer Morgue”,*** as further examples of this being what sf has brought to the spy novel (gadgets, data, etc.). Don mentioned that sf also gave the paranormal, such as “The Wolf Hour” (werewolf in WWII). discussion of psionics came next, though roundly lamented as a brief spark without any staying power. the audience pointed out that psionics hasn’t disappeared, but actually gone over into urban fantasy and paranormals.

titles of fantasy spy novels followed, including Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories**** and Tim Powers’ “Declare”. somewhere in here, James said that the rules for writing are cool stuff now, more cool stuff later. Ernest also observed that detective novels are more detailed by virtue of the detective, whose job it is to observe in order to succeed. he also said that sf is generally suspicious of large agencies, making detectives more common in sf.

the audience asked about the statement in the panel description that spy fiction is a reaction to a fear of [insert large scale paranoia here, such as nuclear war]. Ernest agreed, using WMDs as an example, explaining that the larger the fear, the more leeway the protagonist has, i.e., the ends justify the means, regardless of depth.

then the panel took a sudden and unexpected (for me) turn, when an audience member asked a question about the propensity of males and the assumption of males in the genre. it was a purely straightforward question, without any negativity or intent that i could see. the response was equally straightforward and without intent: that female spies in genre fiction are not women but men painted as women.

this didn’t go down too well with the majority female audience, who raised a number of excellent questions/points, ranging from ‘if you change the names and pronouns and nothing else changes, how does that prove that the original character was not a woman?’ (which forced me to reconsider my own perceptions of so-called inherently gender-based traits, particularly in our modern western world, where equality means equally good and equally bad), to ‘if you changed the name to Jane Bond, i’d be all over that – bring on the russian women!’ (reminding me that my comfort-level and familiarity with non-heterosexual relationships is not nearly as ingrained as i sometimes like to believe).

it started to get a slightly contentious, though not out of hand, but then we ran out of time and another panel was moving in. however, i think this would make an excellent topic for next year’s readercon, at the very least.

…and that brings me to page 11 of my notes and the end of my brain’s ability, today. man, am i long-winded.

* which, by the way, is apparently extensive with 15 years in the Navy in ‘passive and active intelligence’, and which immediately prompted me to put some of his books on my to-reads.

** ‘except of course the women he sleeps with, with whom he certainly develops deep and meaningful bonds’- said with extreme sarcasm and much laughter from the audience.

*** to-reads!

**** these have been on my list for years. obviously, not much use being on my list doesn’t help at all, eh? guess i should stop pointing them out, then. right. by the way, this is also where i made an ass of myself proposing The Lies of Locke Lamora. i felt so proud of myself for finally contributing something in a discussion, small as it was, and then AAANNNHH! sorry hans, wrong guess. care to try for double jeapordy where the scores can really change? yep, i was effectively – and accurately i completely admit – corrected by another audience member that LLL is actually crime fiction. i contend that there are similarities, but we were talking pretty specifically about spy fiction, here.

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