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Science Fiction Techniques in Spy Novels: James Bond and George Smiley


One of the upsides of spending two weeks traveling on business in Eastern Europe is that it really adds some perspective to spy fiction. For years I’ve meant to read more of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and to pick up John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy. So I worked my way through them and came to an interesting conclusion: both Fleming and Le Carré are science fiction authors. I don’t just mean that in the sense that they use fantastical conceits or gadgets. Instead, I mean that they establish cognitive estrangement for the same reasons and using the exact same narrative devices and prose techniques as speculative fiction authors.

Cognitive Estrangement and the Novum as a Defining Characteristic of Spy Fiction

Reading Fleming and Le Carré brought to mind Darko Suvin’s concepts of cognitive estrangement and novum. Suvin uses cognitive estrangement to describe the method by which science fiction establishes itself as operating in a made-up world where the rules of our humdrum reality need not apply. That estrangement contributes to both our sense-of-wonder and to the genre’s escapist label: it gives us a world that we can inhabit where the impossible becomes possible, and thus opens our horizons to as-yet unimagined concepts.

All fiction relies on cognitive estrangement to some extent: even when we read a contemporary mainstream novel, we accept its fictional premises. How many people do you know who live or speak like fictional characters? None. Effective dialog and effective characterization both rely on carefully considered pruning of reality. Writers are like Mister Miyagi, carefully sculpting his bonsai tree. The natural tree may still be interesting and beautiful, but Miyagi shapes it to underline that beauty. Fiction works the same way. But the difference between speculative fiction and realistic fiction is the degree of cognitive estrangement demanded of the reader. And here is where Suvin’s second concept of novum comes into play.

Suvin claimed that science fiction relied on incorporating something new, something different, something outside of the experience of the real world as a device to achieve a cognitive estrangement. It might be time travel, or aliens, some fancy whiz-bang technology – doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is a marker that tells the reader “Here there be dragons” and thus puts the reader into the frame of mind for receiving a fantastical story. Reading the Bond novels and the George Smiley novels, I’ve come to the conclusion that spy fiction works in the exact same way.

In order for us to enjoy a spy novel, we need to inhabit a world that most of us don’t ever see: the world of espionage, and assassination, and skullduggery. Does this world exist in actuality? It’s naive to suggest otherwise. But as I’ve never been a spy, it is as foreign to me as Middle Earth or the planet Arrakis. Are there some authors who portray this world more realistically than others? I’m sure there are (I’ve heard rumors that actual spies tend to prefer Le Carré’s novels to Fleming’s, for example). But who cares? In each case, as long as it is fiction, all that matters is the ride that the story takes us on, and whether it is compelling. Just like with science fiction, this ride’s effectiveness is dependent on the story’s ability to establish cognitive estrangement: on its ability to take me into that fictional world alongside our own.

World-building and Character as Tools of Cognitive Estrangement

I’d argue that the techniques Fleming employs are very similar to those used by urban fantasy writers (particularly those who write episodic urban fantasy, like Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris).

Much urban fantasy posits a “hidden world” alongside ours. We might go our whole lives without ever touching on the affairs of the supernatural that Butcher’s Harry Dresden deals with every day. The same holds true for the cloak-and-dagger world that James Bond inhabits. In both cases, the authors need to establish a degree of trust that we will buy into their reality. And they generally do so in similar fashions.

Like Harry Dresden, James Bond is an initiate. When we first meet him in Casino Royale (or in any of the Bond novels), he already knows the score. He may have more or less experience, he may be more or less jaded, but it is through his already-experienced eyes that we perceive his world. This is a classic device in episodic fiction (see my earlier post on episodic heroes), and it is one that works just as well in spy fiction as in urban fantasy or science fiction.

Secondly, Ian Fleming gives us a setting that while ostensibly realistic, is entirely outside most readers’ experience. Bond doesn’t go to work in a small town in northern New Jersey. If he did, I’d have difficulty buying into the story. Bond travels to exotic locales, places where I’ve never been or places where I’ve only been as a tourist. The result is that Bond’s environment is a priori new to me. I’ve never been to Jamaica, and so the setting Bond moves through is as new to me as Tolkien’s Shire.

Fleming uses classic fantastical devices to make this world real for the reader: he employs the tried-and-true science fictional method of salting his story with very small details that ground his setting and earn my inherent trust in his skills as a storyteller. He goes into painstaking detail about the planes, trains, and automobiles that Bond interacts with. He uses precise language to describe the settings where the action takes place. He doesn’t infodump that information: he just uses it like a dash of spice in his prose, and even though I know that at times it’s absolutely inaccurate, I accept it because it contributes to the story’s flow and the establishment of his environment. I see no difference between this approach and the way George Alec Effinger establishes the Budayeen in When Gravity Fails or how William Gibson assembles his cyberpunk reality in the Bridge trilogy.

It’s easy to see Fleming’s gadgets or his larger-than-life villains as being the primary novum that establish cognitive estrangement, but I actually think it is his world-building that really does it. If we had not already bought into Fleming’s fantastic slice of our world, then we would never believe in Bond’s gadgets or in his monologuing villains.

Neologism as Novum: John Le Carré and the Language of Tradecraft

In many ways John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People) are like the anti-James Bond spy novels. Bond is crystal clear in that he is on the “right” (British) side. Even in those books where Bond wrestles with doubts, it is a superficial wrestling and not one that really drives to the heart of the story. The heart of Bond is adventure. The heart of George Smiley is ambiguity (or as Kingsley Amis put it in The James Bond Dossier, anguished cynicism).

The Smiley trilogy is set in a world that more clearly borders on our own. Smiley’s adventures take place in London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Prague. These aren’t tourist wonderlands like Caribbean or the French Riviera. I can’t speak for every reader, but these are often places where I’ve spent a fair amount of time. Unlike Fleming, Le Carré doesn’t spend a lot of time with detailed descriptions of his settings or of the ingredients that make up those settings. His focus is on his characters. The setting, and the world that his characters occupy comes across, but it is always filtered through the film of his characters’ perceptions.

But even if he doesn’t salt his prose with telling details to make the setting seem real for us, Le Carré does use a different science fictional technique to establish cognitive estrangement: neologism. Like James Bond, George Smiley is an initiate: he understands the world of spies and secret service. And that comes through in the language that he uses, in particular in his reliance on the jargon of the trade. His fluency with terms like “tradecraft” and “lamplighters” and “mole” (a term which Le Carré actually popularized, based on a translation of the KGB term for a long-term deep cover agent).

These neologisms are employed to the same end as other science fictional neologisms (grok, hyperspace, warp, cyberspace, ansible, etc.). They establish a sense of cognitive estrangement without distracting from the story. Those of us who aren’t spies don’t use words like “tradecraft” or “lamplighters” in our everyday speech. But whatever our profession, I’m sure we’ve all encountered jargon before. It’s a very real and unavoidable part of life. Because Le Carré uses these terms so fluently, so sparingly, their use buys our belief in Smiley’s world and his perceptions of it.

Of the two techniques, I think Le Carré’s is the harder sell. It is a very fine line to walk between successfully establishing cognitive estrangement, and confusing the reader. But I think he pulls it off, and the fact that words he introduced (mole, tradecraft, etc.) can now be found on most any television show is a testament to his success at pulling it off.

Science Fiction Tropes in Spy Fiction?

If spy fiction relies on science fiction techniques, do the tropes of science fiction get play in spy fiction? Here, I think the answer is less clear. The two genres definitely share some common ancestors. Most spy fiction (in particular the James Bond novels) probably trace their lineage to the noir mysteries of the pulp era. The George Smiley books can probably be traced back to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare or Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. The same books often show up in science fictional lineages, but I’m not sure if the two genres share more than a reliance on the same techniques. It’s something I’m going to be thinking some more about, but I’d love to know what everyone else thinks. How are spy fiction and speculative fiction similar? How are they different? What methods and devices work in one but fail in the other?

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. sftheory1 #

    This is an interesting essay, but I have some issues with it.
    For one thing, Suvin’s types of estrangement can be used for any work of fiction for which the reader is unfamiliar with. In The Spy Who Loved Me, the last part of the book is set in rural New York, which is likely to be as alien to British readers as Jamaica is for you or London is for me. Indeed, a novel dealing with a convenience store clerk will be alien for all but convenience store clerks. So, is this a technique for science fiction only or all of fiction?
    Secondly, when you argue that the Bond series borrows techniques from Urban Fantasy, you should flip the borrowing around. The Bond series comes out of the detective genre, and the detective genre’s techniques are major influences for many of the episodic UF series.
    Another thing, Fleming’s style is, for me, journalistic. His attention to detail in his world building comes from his work as both a journalist and as a travel writer. And this, I think, imparts the verisimilitude of the narrative.
    Now, the villains do occasionally come across as super villains (Blofeld being the most obvious one), but some of them are highly realistic (the Spangled Mob for instance). And as far as the gadgets go, I don’t remember Fleming using anything but current technology. What tech there is in Fleming’s Bond is not the s.f. of the film Bond.
    So, I guess what I’m questioning is whether or not Fleming and Le Carre are science fiction writers or spy novel writers, and whether or not the techniques they use are similar to science fiction because those techniques are common to all literature rather than the province of science fiction solely.

    November 22, 2011
    • Admittedly, world-building as a tool for cognitive estrangement isn’t unique to either spy fiction or science fiction. Like I said, all fiction relies on it to some extent. But it’s a question of what devices a book uses to evoke that estrangement, and to what degree the story relies on that estrangement. I’d argue that spy fiction and science fiction both need more estrangement than a purely realistic novel, and that in Fleming’s case he merely employs a science fictional technique to get us there.

      And you’re absolutely right that if anything UF borrows from Fleming (and from the detective stories that both draw from). I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise, just to mention that they’ve got a lot of similarities.

      You’re also absolutely right that Fleming’s style is to a great extent journalistic. But arguing whether style produced the effect, or the desired effect motivated the author’s choice of style is a little bit like pondering the chicken/egg sequence. Many of the characteristics that make Fleming’s style journalistic are also the same characteristics that contribute to his world-building, which in turn contributes to estrangement. There are other ways of achieving the same effect, but Fleming happened to choose a technique that is journalistic in style.

      As for the gadgets, Fleming wasn’t quite as over-the-top as the movies, but I’d say From Russia with Love is pretty gadget filled (Rosa Klebb’s gear especially), as is Dr. No’s whole establishment (his “dragon” and obstacle course), or even arguably Blofeld’s electric chair setup in Thunderball. Yes, it was all current technology but applied in fairly unexpected and novel ways (a gun disguised as a telephone?). We buy into the outlandish devices because by that point in the story we’re already invested in its reality.

      And you’re absolutely right: both techniques (detail-oriented world-building and neologism) are universal in fiction, regardless of genre or sub-genre. But I suspect that both speculative fiction and spy fiction rely on them to a greater degree than other genres.

      November 22, 2011
      • sftheory1 #

        The issue that remains, I think, is that you initially claim that Fleming and Le Carre are science fiction writers (or at least their series are). While Suvin’s theory does give some circumstantial support, there is no direct evidence for that assertion.
        I’ve never read Le Carre, but I have read most of Fleming’s Bond. Certain tropes, certain world building techniques may be similar (and likely originate within both science fiction and spy fiction’s common literary ancestor), but that doesn’t make Bond science fiction. Is it speculative? Maybe, but that is a matter for the reader to decide. I think certain Bond novels are more “realistic” while others are more “fantastic.” Do they, however, cross into science fiction? No, but there is a slight speculative and fantastic element to some of the novels.
        I guess what is at issue is how one defines science fiction. How broad or narrow is the genre? While Fleming may enjoy spicing up the text with tech, it does not make it any more science fictional. Science fiction, for me, is positing a sense of wonder at the possibilities of science. It is a fiction about science and the wonders it imparts.

        November 23, 2011
      • I see your point. Spy fiction like James Bond or John Le Carré certainly isn’t science fiction along the lines of Joe Haldeman, Arthur C. Clarke, or Ursula K. Le Guin. If anything, it is very soft science fiction because the “science” aspect of it is almost marginal. But I fall into the camp that believes science fiction (and fantasy, and horror) are defined more by the techniques they employ than by their ostensible content. There are too many classic science fiction stories (by folks like Le Guin or Delaney) that work without relying on technology or other classic SF tropes, or that even eschew generating that hard-to-pin-down sense of wonder (at least as I define it – sense of wonder is an awfully slippery term).

        For me, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels push the same buttons as adventurous Bond stories or the more morally focused Smiley stories. That the Culture novels are set in space puts them further along the science fiction spectrum, but they’re still riding on the same track.

        November 23, 2011
  2. KR #

    Really great article. I just finished my first le Carre (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) and had been trying to get a grasp of his style. I think your comparison of the spy novel to spec. fiction is spot on.

    November 23, 2011
    • @KR: Thanks! I’m a recent Le Carré convert, too, and I’ve really been enjoying his writing. In particular Le Carré does some cool things with storytelling structure in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honorable Schoolboy.

      November 23, 2011

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