There’s No 21st Century le Carré. Can There Be?

John le Carré, who passed at the close of 2020, was a perfect spy novelist: a literary talent with an Oxford, MI6, and MI5 pedigree writing at the height of the Cold War. It is unsurprising the 21st Century has not seen an heir to his rare combination of skill and experience. More broadly, however, the post-Cold War Western security landscape has not produced the same calibre of fiction that the Cold War did. There was no le Carré of the War on Terror, nor was there an Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy.

Perhaps the medium of the blockbuster novel is itself antiquated, but there also have not been definitive mass audience films or TV series about post-Cold War intelligence characters with anything like the relevance to a time, place, and conflict like those following le Carré’s George Smiley, Clancy’s Jack Ryan, or even Fleming’s James Bond through the Cold War.

The Bourne films were cinematic successes but essentially ignored the War on Terror. 24 achieved some mass cultural salience and did not a bad job of addressing terrorism from a public relations perspective, but it studiously contrived its terrorists to avoid too much verisimilitude with actual transnational organizations and their political and ideological pretensions. Homeland grasped the nettle with respect to America’s actual war adversaries but plot-wise saw more House of Cards-style shark jumping than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or even Fauda-like grit. The Bond movies of the late 20th Century complacently rehashed the Cold War, focusing on Soviet and North Korean anachronisms; though Goldeneye (the best of the post-Cold War Bond movies) did grapple with the issue of post-Soviet Russian state formation. The best espionage art created during the Post-Cold War decades was not (explicitly) about them: The Americans was full-throatedly a 1980s time trip.

As the 21st Century ground on, interesting explanations for this phenomenon were offered by Matt Gallagher in The Atlantic and Emma Mustich in Salon, both in 2011. These articles persuasively identified the diminished scale of Post-Cold War conflict as the reason for nostalgic security fiction, respectively pointing to American society’s general detachment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the War on Terror’s lack of a true existential threat. More recently, Leonid Bershidsky picked up the same theme for Bloomberg and again found a worthy explanation in the need for a state-level actor as grist for good spy drama.

Gallagher, Mustich, and Bershidsky’s valid arguments boil down to an “End of History” theory of spy fiction: that high-level clashes between global powers are the key to compelling espionage art, and a unipolar world just didn’t provide good material. This reasoning has strong resonance with Ross Douthat’s theory of recent history in The Decadent Society. Descriptively, the story of relentless Cold War reboots is entirely of a piece with Douthat’s observation that the West has found itself culturally exhausted and trapped in a nostalgia loop probably since the 1969 moon landing, and thus certainly since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Why were we unable to escape the clash of powers paradigm for cultural products? Furthermore, if we accept that “History” has reasserted itself (or perhaps just begun), why has our art been unable to track the latent causes of today’s History, which necessarily must have been lurking under the surface from 1989 to the present? One theory is that Western audiences were conditioned to find some subjects more memetically “interesting” than others during the 20th Century. That there are epigenetic-like settings governing our collective curiosity and these had been tuned to a Cold-War frequency by a sticky dial. Another theory is that some periods are intrinsically more interesting than others — humans find clashes of civilizations compelling all the way down and the interludes are inevitably dull. A third is that we let our optimism distract us from our curiosity. That Goldeneye’s (1995) Soviet-revanchist General Ourumov and MI6-turncoat Alec Trevelyan of the “Janus” international crime syndicate were actually dead ringers (as far as popcorn villains go) for future Vladimir Putins and transnational actors, but the heady hope for an End of History saw 007 and his CIA friends nip these chaos actors in the bud, allowing Western audiences (and future artists) to not so much as recognize a placid reality as take a vacation from turbulence for a few decades.

Similarly, perhaps such a willful blindness allowed Western audiences to miss the extant spy intrigue hiding in plain sight. As Tyler Cowen argued for Bloomberg in 2018: “Spies Are More Common, and Boring, Than You Think: If you keep looking for James Bond, you’ll miss the thousands of bureaucrats collecting bits of intel”:

John Negroponte, former director of national intelligence, admitted in 2006 that the U.S. was deploying about 100,000 spies around the world. Given that the U.S. is the world’s technology and military leader, and yet has a relatively small share of global population, is it so crazy to think the number of people spying on us is larger than that?

Cowen, Bloomberg Opinion; Marginal Revolution (July 31, 2018).

Ubiquitous espionage is actually the opposite of boring, which, of course, is likely why Cowen wrote about it. While the average spy accordingly would be less James Bond-like than Hollywood suggests, the average person would be more James Bond-like than Hollywood suggests. The problem is we had been misdefining boring after the end of the Cold War, paying attention to Bond the institutionalist not Trevelyan the disruptor with an esoteric (Lienz Cossack?) agenda, not to mention ignoring the possibility that lesser versions of these charismatic characters might be more available in daily life than most audiences and artists were attuned to.

We still largely remain trapped in a Cold-War cultural template. Hope for a renaissance in spy fiction has been found in the reemergence of state-level conflict familiar to a 20th Century audience. As Bershidsky had observed at the beginning of 2020, “state actors are back” and “of late, news reports have provided enough material for a silver age [of spy thrillers] to start — if authors take heed.” But why settle for silver?

Berhsidsky’s simple “if” contains profound insights about the West and global media in the 21st Century. The question of whether today’s Hollywood is willing and able to address spy games with China as it did those with the Soviet Union in the 20th Century is self-answering in the negative. The concept of Hollywood itself, though, is also a relic of the 20th Century. It is already clichéd to say cultural communications are unbundled, distributed, decentralized, disintermediated, demonopolized, etc., etc.

Therefore, there cannot be a le Carré of the 21st Century if that means following a 21st Century George Smiley through the halls of 20th Century power (Whitehall bureaucracy, the “Oxford Circus”) via a 20th Century medium (the novel, the Hollywood blockbuster). A 21st Century le Carré would follow the diffuse power and hardly-hidden hands of state and non-state spies through the capillaries of 21st Century cultural authority: Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Substack, blogs, LinkedIn (!), and podcasts, producing that content through those very same channels, and blurring the lines between news and fiction, fact and propaganda, truth and deception — deploying the same themes that defined the “golden age” of spy art, and may yet define our own.