American Spy

American Spy

As ethnic minorities advance through the ranks of the United States government, some have wondered, not unreasonably, why they should owe loyalty to an institution that has oppressed, and in some cases still does oppress, them. Such criticisms were leveled at Barack Obama when he became president.

Conversely, few spy thrillers have dwelled on the interior majority-minority dynamics of the country in question. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson’s 2019 spy novel, quite uniquely does both at once. (And has been praised by the same Obama for it.)

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The Bridges at Toko-Ri

The Bridges at Toko-Ri

Korea was the first slugfest of the Cold War. It was where capitalism and communism had their first conflict on open ground, rather than through covert means such as in Greece and Iran. In America, it is something of a forgotten war, overshadowed by World War II before it and Vietnam after it.

James Michener, known for his epic historical novels, was a journalist during the war (and elsewhere; his experiences in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution were the basis for The Bridge at Andau, reviewed here). He draws on that journalistic skill in his 1953 novella The Bridges at Toko-Ri.

The book is about the toll war takes on people, on servicemen and their families. It revolves around naval aviators based on an aircraft carrier off the coast of the peninsula, tasked with destroying the titular bridges.

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Weird World War III

Weird World War III

From the moment Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the Americans, humanity has feared the possibility of a third world war. The first gave us trenches, machines guns and poison gas, and broke three empires. The second gave us the nightmares of Auschwitz and Nanjing and Berlin and Hiroshima. It would be insane to fight a third war like it. Yet speculative literature of all kinds has tackled the theme, from contemporary thrillers like Red Army and Red Storm Rising (review here) to John Hackett’s The Third World War to more openly futuristic tales like P. W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet.

There are many ways to write the story of Word War III. In 2020, Baen Books published an anthology dedicated to the notion. Weird World War III, edited by Sean Patrick Hazlett, boasts many luminaries of fantasy and science fiction, foremost among them David Drake and Mike Resnick.

It is a collection that runs the gamut in terms of what it does with the premise. Temporally, it is divided roughly equally between those set in a version of the Cold War that went hot and those set in the near future, predicting a maelstrom yet to come.

You can also put the stories on a spectrum between the completely fantastical and the hard science fictional. The result is a candy bowl of speculative literature that is a joy to read.

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The Game

The Game

If you liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (our review here), you’re going to love The Game. This little-known, underappreciated 2014 spy series has a plot worthy of John le Carré and an impressive cast.

Brian Cox, who stars as the Rupert Murdoch-inspired media mogul Logan Roy in Succession, is the director of MI5. Victoria Hamilton, who played the Queen Mother Elizabeth in the first two seasons of The Crown, is the secret service’s Soviet expert. Paul Ritter, who so brilliantly portrayed the man most responsible for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the eponymous 2019 HBO miniseries (our review here), and who sadly died of a brain tumor earlier this year, is cast perfectly as an sly, ambitious bureaucrat.

The central character is Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes), a young MI5 agent who stumbles on a communist plot to undermine British democracy.

Set in 1972 (Tinker Tailor takes place in 1973), the six episodes of The Game are a treasure trove of Cold War tropes. There are defectors and moles, secret American nuclear weapons, the “letters of last resort”: the prime minister’s instructions to the commanders of Britain’s four nuclear submarines in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. The IRA is involved.

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The Bridge at Andau

The Bridge at Andau

If James Michener is remembered for anything these days, it is for his epic historical novels that regularly pass the thousand-page mark. He was an historical writer in a grand tradition, one that has suffered from the declining attention spans of the digital age.

But he was also capable of writing leaner books that were just as gripping as his generational sagas. Caravans, his novel about Afghanistan, is one. Another is The Bridge at Andau, which is somewhat hard to categorize.

I found this book in the nonfiction history section of my local library, but the interior note with the publication information says it is a work of historical fiction. It is, puzzlingly, both.

Michener was a journalist covering the events around which the book is based; he was standing there at the titular bridge at one point. He interviewed a great many survivors of the events he covers, and the book is in large part based on their testimonies. Many of his sequences involve anonymized versions of real people, or composites thereof.

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Last Flight of the Arrow

The Last Flight of the Arrow

The Avro Arrow is one of those incredible what-if stories to come out of the Cold War. A Canadian-built fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the Arrow was a plane ahead of its time in the 1950s, not to mention the pride of Canada. And, like the British TSR-2 in the following decade, cut down before its time in circumstances that remain controversial and mysterious decades later.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Canadian author Daniel Wyatt reimagined the fate of this famous aircraft for his 1990 alternate-history technothriller novel The Last Flight of the Arrow. Taking place across the late 1950s, Last Flight of the Arrow puts the fighter straight into the Cold War standoff between NATO and the Soviet Union.

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The Courier

The Courier

Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably outstanding in The Courier, a Cold War thriller about an accidental British spy. Rachel Brosnahan, of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel fame, puts in a strong performance as his CIA handler. The production design is gorgeous; the story almost unbelievable, but it’s true.

Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a seemingly unremarkable businessman, really was recruited by the British secret service at the height of the Cold War to ferry messages from a Soviet defector in Moscow: Oleg Penkovsky (played aptly by Merab Ninidze), a colonel in the military intelligence GRU.

Penkovsky, the highest-ranking Soviet defector at the time, provided the West with crucial information about the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and strategy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not a stretch to argue, as the movie does, that the Penkovsky intelligence Wynne brought to London helped avert World War III in 1962.

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Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy

Romanzo di una strage

It’s the height of the Cold War. Italy’s Communist Party is still a force to be reckoned with. Far-left and far-right groups terrorize Italians in the streets, with the latter pinning their assassinations and bombings on the former in hopes of fomenting a neofascist coup: the so-called strategy of tension.

These are Italy’s Years of Lead.

Romanzo di una strage, released internationally as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy, deals with one of the opening acts in that twenty-year drama: the December 12, 1969 bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in the Piazza Fontana of Milan. Seventeen people were killed, 88 wounded. A prime suspect, anarchist leader Giuseppe Pinelli (played by Pierfrancesco Favino, whom you might recognize from World War Z), died in police custody a few days later. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Luigi Calabresi (Valerio Mastandrea), was himself killed in 1972.

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Back in the USSA

Back in the USSA

In some respects, alternate history is an examination of irony. There are many examples of serious alternate history. There are moments when characters reflect on how our own history is implausible or unthinkable. For something more tongue-in-cheek, Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman took the United States, capitalist and democratic and emerging victorious from the Cold War, and pasted the twentieth-century history of Russia, revolution and tyranny and eventual collapse, onto it in their 1997 collection Back in the USSA.

The history presented in the collection closely parallels our own only with the United Socialist States of America in the place of the historic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with the United Kingdom and a reformed Russian Empire splitting duties as the United States equivalent. This parodic take on twentieth-century history is peppered with existing objects from popular culture portrayed as real figures, rubbing shoulders with our own historical figures in new situations.

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Deutschland 86

Deutschland 86

Babylon Berlin is said to be the best drama series to ever come out of Germany. I disagree. My vote goes to Deutschland 83 (review here), in which border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is recruited by East German intelligence and thrust into the middle of a nuclear standoff.

The series wasn’t hugely popular in Germany, but it found enough viewers abroad to warrant a sequel. Deutschland 86 takes place three years later. Martin has been exiled to Angola. His aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), who is also a spy, is working on an operation in South Africa. Naturally they run into each other again.

The ten episodes masterfully weave together the events of the time in a compelling narrative: the slow collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Angola, Muammar Gaddafi’s support for international terrorism, the La Belle disco bombing in Berlin — all against the backdrop of the American-Soviet Cold War.

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