For writers of thriller novels, the Cold War was a massive topic. Then Al Quaeda came along, and it has been a gift for novelists. Despite its dreadful credo and the countless deaths, pain and suffering it has been responsible for, the central theme of an organisation bent on attacking all things Western has formed the core of so many novels since 2001. Add in the asymmetric nature of the distributed war that has caused wholesale re-organisation of armed forces and countries’ intelligence services and we have another rich seam for authors to exploit.
Dig even deeper and another rich seam shines in authors’ lamps – high technology. This asymmetric war against terrorism is sci-fi coming to life, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), known terribly as Predators – surely soon to be come as generic a term as did the Hoover did for vacuuming homes in the UK (nothing to do with J Edgar Hoover at the FBI vacuuming up personal information and scandal for use against celebrities, worthies and his bureaucratic enemies – nor is ‘hoovering’ a term to describe cross-dressing). Note to readers in the US – I believe that the term there is ‘electroluxing’.
Predators, high quality satellite surveillance, cyberwarfare, robot soldiers, smart weapons – the new technology list goes on almost endlessly.
And the timing! This asymmetric war came along at just the right time both for novelists and armed forces. The Cold War was over, the US space effort was running down (the Shuttle program having been ended) and Western armed forces’ budgets were being cut – their role in a relatively peaceful world was in question (relatively being the key word there). Armed forces and novelists alike were casting about for ideas. What good fortune to have a new type of war, with a new set of weapons and a whole raft of new, sexy technology!
Novelists have to have something to write about, and those who can absorb the zeitgeist and convert it into entertainment have a valuable service to perform, and an eager audience to engage, even if the core theme is so dreadful. It has been said that during the Cold War, President Reagan learned more about the US Navy from Tom Clancy’s novels than he did from his advisers.
So, where will the next rich seam come from for thriller writers? Well, I’m convinced that it is the rapid emergence of China as a financial, industrial and outward-facing military power. Chinese emergence is being driven from the bottom up by a vast population with rapidly rising expectations, ingenuity and a hunger – both literal and metaphorical. The only way that this internal pressure can be managed is to let it out, gradually.
The lid of the kettle that is the Chinese Communist Party wants to stay firmly on top, so other ways have to be found to relieve that internal pressure. Turn the heat down? That’s where my analogy breaks down. Repression must increase to keep pressure down. Either other outlets must be found or the size of the kettle must be increased.
So, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army grows its Navy, turning the Chinese Navy outward from a simple coastal defence force to a global blue water force, with a nuclear powered aircraft carrier under test, manned space flight and its long term Golden Shield cyberwarfare program. And that’s just the military side.
China has also ripped open western markets, with a huge migration of manufacturing resources plant and jobs alike – from the West to China, with its hungry, low wage population. It also has a strong influence on strategic metal supplies (such as being a major producer of the rare earth metal neodymium); on the other hand, it is a major buyer of Australian iron ore – the exports to China forming an important part of Australia’s foreign currency earnings.
Financially, it is the largest foreign holder of US dollars and one of the top three in the published gold bullion reserves list.
These are scenarios ripe for thriller novels!