Science Fiction, Spies, Writing

Sci-Fi vs. Spy-Fi

November 29, 2010

For most of my creative life I’ve considered myself, first and foremost, a science fiction and fantasy guy.  As a kid growing up, SF spoke to my desire for change, suggesting fascinating futures where the world could be shaped, modified, and improved.  SF suggested that the world could be better (or at least cooler), that dreams could be realized, that people with vision could influence the greater scheme of things.  And, make no mistake, SF and fantasy also reflected my desire to escape the present.  Not that my childhood was horrible; in retrospect, I had it pretty easy growing up.  But at the time it often felt horrible, and writing what-if, sense of wonder stories gave me a sense of control at a time when I felt powerless.  Reading SF and fantasy took me out of myself, and helped me imagine worlds where everything could be different.

Science fiction has, consequently, been the main focus of my creative output ever since I started bashing out adventures on an old Smith-Corona typewriter when I was thirteen.  And it still very much feels like a core part of me.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, to look at my website.  Lately the tags and categories skew every more strongly toward spies and spy fiction.  Partly this is because of the Spy 100 project, of course, but I think the sensibility is gaining ground in my mind.

Spy fiction, I think, speaks more to my need to grapple with the complex problems of the real world.  The ethical dilemmas and internal struggles of the characters in spy fiction seem to relate more to the experience of being an individual struggling to get by in life, while being acted upon by external forces.  It generally does a better job of reflecting my desire to confront the present — to figure out how to exist in a difficult world.  Where science fiction feels outward and proactive, but often escapist, spy fiction feels inward and reactive, but relevant and engaged.

(A note, here:  Yes, I’m making sweeping generalizations.  There is relevant and engaged science fiction, and there’s escapist spy fiction.  But, since this  post is kind of about getting a handle on dueling passions, I’m speaking more to my specific conceptual mindset than to broader genre realities.  Work with me, here!)

So while I’ve always considered myself an SF and fantasy person, I think deep down I’ve always been a spy fiction person, too —  in kind of a deep cover way, not entirely acknowledging the fact.  Without really thinking about it, I’ve been trying to combine these genres for my entire creative life.  Indeed, my first short story series was “The Shammers,” about an interstellar team of con artists.  (Picture Firefly meets Mission: Impossible, from the sophisticated perspecive of a fifteen-year-old in the mid-1980s — yikes!)  A healthy percentage of my published SF stories have spy-fi angles.  And, on many levels, my work at Futurismic reflected these converging sensibilities — the desire to combine that traditional SF sense of expanding possibilities with the more down-to-earth, problem-confronting situations of spy worlds, where people negotiate complex social systems and treacherous hidden agendas in order to move things forward.

So have I been miscategorizing myself as a primarily science fiction and fantasy person?  I don’t know; I do feel like SF is still a major part of my makeup.  But I do suspect that, until recently anyway, I’ve been neglecting to think of myself as a spy guy, too.  Appropriately, it’s been a clandestine part of my creative nature.

Hopefully, making a stronger effort to examine these two interests, and to understand the audiences of both genres, will improve my efforts to fuse them.  They’re distinctly different worlds, but I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, and I’m convinced they can complement each other.  Until now, though, I haven’t put much thought into exactly how, a process that’s probably long overdue.

Consider it a work in progress.  🙂

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  • MoviePen December 1, 2010 at 5:21 am

    Many spy movies really have a lot of science fiction in them (Bond gadgets come to mind) – it’s just that the focus of the story is all about the subterfuge and spying, and the science fiction takes a seat waaaay in the back of the bus.

    A more focused merger of the two genres is really not that much of a stretch.

  • Christopher East December 1, 2010 at 8:51 am

    I’m not saying it’s never been done before. I’m just saying I’d like to get better at doing it myself. There’s a trick to balancing the needs of those two audiences that I haven’t mastered, and would like to.

  • Jenn Reese December 1, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Bond can certainly be futuristic in its gadgets, but I really think it’s far more of an adventure series than a true spy series, if you consider stuff like Mission: Impossible (the TV series), MI-5, Sandbaggers, and other more hardcore spy shows. Bond is really a terrible spy, honestly. Those movies are fun, but I don’t think they’re realistic takes on spies in any way.

  • Chris East December 1, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Now that I think about it, while I’ve seen spy shows that borrow SF ideas (Alias, for example) and SF writers who’ve written spy-ish SF technothrillers (McAuley, Kress, others) I’m not sure there are many examples that have quite connected as perfect hybrids of the two forms, enjoyable though they may be.

    As for Bond, that franchise doesn’t push my spy buttons *or* my SF buttons at all, so…bad example for me!

    Also, for the record, the original Mission: Impossible lapses into bad SF *way* more than is good for it! 🙂

  • Will December 1, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Off on a tangent…Poul Anderson’s Flandry of Terra predates Fleming’s Bond.
    What would a LeCarre story look like in an SF setting?