Thursday, March 30, 2023

When A Writer of Spy Fiction Hates Technology By Sandy Manning

I write espionage thrillers, which means by definition that technology has to be involved. After all, in today's world much of the work of intelligence gathering is done through interception of electronic communications and through surveillance of social media. Cameras are omnipresent, not only fixed cameras on traffic intersections and on shops but those little computers in our pockets that also allow us all to record events that happen in front of us.


And yet - I hate reading about (or writing) technology. But I love spy novels.


What I like about spy novels is the challenge of someone using intelligence and nerve in a battle of wits with a dangerous opponent. I like to explore how people use deception and sleight of hand (so to speak) to ferret out information, and I particularly like to explore the sometimes not so moral choices that my characters have to make (and what it does to them) in pursuit of a greater good.


So how to write those kinds of novels without drowning in technology?


One way is to write about events from the past. I just moderated a panel on spying for Sisters in Crime. One panelist wrote about spying during the Revolutionary War. Another panelist wrote about spying in 1975 in connection with events in India. (The third panelist didn't write about spies, but she was a veteran of the CIA.)


I've read historical spy novels - and they're excellent. The technology that's used is not very, how shall I say it, technical. The emphasis is on the battle of wits, on the moral questions, and on questions of character. And of course, it's easier to do that in the past. In George Washington's day, the technology might have been putting notes inside a statue. In the 1970s, agents could bug a room or use a camera the size of a lipstick, but the cameras still used film, and the film had to be transported and developed.  There wasn't instant communication, with a spy able to immediately transmit data through a cell phone. The NSA wasn't gobbling up millions of electronic transmissions around the world and using algorithms to sift through and find anything of interest. And people's whereabouts couldn't be tracked by a phone that they carried.


But I don't write historical novels. We live in the here and now, and the political and social issues of today are what I want to write about. For example, my last novel, Bloody Soil, was about the rising threat from the far right, with the history of the Holocaust intertwined. In my novels, I want to not only give readers a thrilling experience with engaging characters, but to increase their awareness of issues that matter to our lives now and in the future.


So how to do that without writing too much technology?


One way I deal with it is by turning technology into another challenge for the characters to overcome.  Characters know that cameras are watching, that people are listening to communications and reading emails, so they act accordingly. They find ways to get around it. They communicate in code. They use disguises to get around cameras, much as they would have done in the case of human watchers. In Nerve Attack, Kolya, my protagonist, operating inside Russia, wears layers of clothes and a hat and scarf to conceal his face. After he's forced to kill an FSB agent, he ducks into a bathroom, removes his topcoat, and dumps the hat and scarf.


My spy world (and the world of intelligence) can also use technology against the enemy to give misleading information. I did that to some extent in my first novel Trojan Horse while keeping the focus on the characters involved.


But my books - and intelligence gathering - continue to have a focus on the human.


In the world of intelligence, human intelligence (HUMINT) remains vitally important. Some of the world's bad actors have learned not to send emails or texts and not to carry a phone. They use burners. They stay off social media. They can also use technology to send misleading information. That's why the best information still comes from an inside source who can reveal an organization's (or nation's) secret plans. That's why in Bloody Soil, my protagonist has to join the neo-Nazi group instead of just listening to transmissions or reading emails. Penetration of a dangerous group not only provides vital information, it is dangerous for the agent doing so. Being undercover can also put an agent in a position of having to commit a crime to conceal who he really is and what he's really doing. Not only can this happen in real espionage, but when a writer uses those situations in a novel, they make for great suspense and character development. I use the latter situation in Bloody Soil when my protagonist has to commit a murder or be killed himself.


So, it is possible to write about espionage in the here and now without being a techno whizz, both because it can be worked around and because not every kind of espionage requires advanced technology. And writers still create gripping tales of espionage that are set in our time frame without a degree from MIT.


AN AWARD-WINNING WRITER, S. Lee Manning is the author of international thrillers, Trojan Horse, Nerve Attack, and Bloody Soil, which uniquely feature a Russian-Jewish immigrant to the United States working for American intelligence. Her latest novel, Bloody Soil, deals with the threat from far-right extremists. Manning spent two years as managing editor of Law Enforcement Communications before embarking on a subsequent career as an attorney that spanned from a first-tier New York law firm, to working for the State of New Jersey, to solo practice. After taking a class in stand-up at the Vermont Comedy Club, she was a semi-finalist in the 2019 Vermont’s Funniest Comedian contest, and she still performs stand-up on occasion. Manning lives in Vermont with her writer husband James and their very vocal cat, Xiao.


  1. Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for the introduction to your novels. It sounds like use your distaste of technology to your advantage. Weel done, that. Your series is now on my TBR list. Looking forward to the reads.

  2. Glad to host you here, Sandy. Cloak and dagger is alive and well!

  3. How wonderful that books can be set in any age or flash back to the past. You’ve obviously made use of people, not technology. Good work!

  4. Omnipresent technology is a challenge to all writers, especially those of us who didn't grow up with it and still wander around vaguely in a fog about how all this actually came about and how it impacts everyone's lives.

  5. Perfect take on tech! The human element makes it so much more relatable to me as a reader than the person at the console cherry picking data bits. Well done!

  6. Love this! Technology sometimes makes me feel I'm always being spied on (as if there's anything anyone would want to see in my But what terrific fodder that makes for a writer. Awesome!

  7. Interesting information. I like knowing that human intelligence is still vitally important. Thanks for stopping by WWK today.

  8. I like human intelligence over all-technology all the time.