Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"The Techno-thriller" by William F. Ryan

I've been in a nostalgic mood recently, at least so far as my fiction reading is concerned, and that nostalgia has led me back to the novels of my youth. Technothrillers, mostly. I have read a few in the last couple weeks and even checked a Tom Clancy novel out from the library--I gave up on Clancy back in 1991 with his voluminous, over-technical, and down-right boring, The Sum of All Fears.

In my Internet perusing I found an interesting article about technothrillers in general, and Tom Clancy in particular. It was published by the venerable Virginia Quarterly Review in the Winter 1993 issue, and was written by William F. Ryan. Ryan asserts that Clancy is the father of the technothriller--an argument he doesn't quite prove--and that technothrillers are less literature (something I could agree with) and more propaganda than anything. Mr. Ryan captures the essence of the technothriller well:

The stories ring with patriotic fervor and a Manichean discernment of good versus evil. You always know your enemies. You quickly spot the good guys. You know from the outset which side will win because destiny commands it....The plots and crucial sequences always rely on advanced technology for waging war.

Mr. Ryan makes the obvious link between technothrillers and science fiction, but he also makes a more subtle connection between the technothriller and western. It is a disparaging connection--they are simple, the characters less than believable and very generic--but an accurate comparison. They are both uniquely American and very much rely on the upright morale code of the outsider to save and support society.

But what type of story doesn't rely on the alienation of the protagonist? And while it is true both genres can be insipid and stupid at times, I think it is an over simplification and a disservice to both readers and writers alike to label an entire genre, or genres in this case, as not worthy of an audience. Is The Hunt for October a classic? No, but it was original and really pretty damn good. While it may be difficult to cultivate a potential classic from the technothriller field, there are a number of westerns that have reached beyond their genre and become bona fide classics: Shane by Jack Scheaffer, The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie and many more.

Mr Ryan's views on the technothriller are interesting, but his analysis is skewed and biased; against genre fiction in general and military fiction in particular. In his final paragraph Ryan says:

What does all this say about the techno-thriller genre? Is it for fun and escape, or is it a bill of goods? Maybe it is both. Jules Verne couldn't be reached for comment. But I don't think he ever conceived a novel about science and propaganda.

I'm not sure propaganda can be removed from any art form, including literature. The authors biases, fears, hatreds and just about every other damn thing are bound to bleed into the storyline. It's who we are. A painter doesn't create a static, lifeless body, but they leave a portion of their humanity, their beliefs, on the canvas. Propaganda.

Why should a writer be any different? While we don't have to agree with the propaganda in any art form--and I certainly don't agree with the allegiance to authority, the inevitable wholesomeness of American culture and its war machine that most technothrillers espouse--it doesn't mean we shouldn't read it. Or enjoy it as a distraction. Instead it means we should understand what we are reading, what it means and its value as a vessel of perspective and morality. In other words, we should read critically.

Hell, I like technothrillers--at least the ones that can play out in less than 500 pages--and I don't support many of the ideas portrayed in them. I don't like violence. I don't think American firepower can solve much of anything. I have an aversion to authority, and I don't think the American military--or political system--is always right. But still, I like the books.

To read the article go Here

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