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September 16, 2003

What the world needs now…
Posted by Teresa at 12:03 PM *

…is some good mysteries and thrillers written by and for pissed-off centrists and liberals.

Comments on What the world needs now...:
#1 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 12:14 PM:

And I thought quite a few British triller writers were lefties. Anyway, American culture once produced the work of genius that is The Maltese Falcon. So I still choose to believe it isn't irredeemably bad.

I guess we're luckier in this country, practically all our good writers lean leftwards - except for J G Ballard and Amis, of course.

#2 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 12:22 PM:

I'm puzzled. Technothrillers, yeah, I can those being primarily written by folks on the right. But mysteries and thrillers as a whole . . . is the writing of those dominated by those on the right?

#3 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 12:26 PM:

Hey, Larry, if you leave off the sarcasm marks a lot of people are likely to miss them....

It's an interesting question posed here, though. I've heard (and I wish I could remember from whom!) that murder mysteries are inherently conservative (_pace_ Carla Black, among others!) in that they aim towards the restoration of Natural Order -- if someone kills, they should be caught and punished. There's not a whole lot of suspense (in general, and exceptions can be found) in "that rat bastard facist (or polluter) deserved to die, and I get to get away with it!".

George Chesbro does some good mysteries that aren't very conservative, and have major skiffy components (and he was totally shafted by Khoumeni around CITY OF WHISPERING STONE -- he wrote a really interesting mystery set around Iran/Persia that didn't include the religious conservatives as a serious force; Khoumeni got power shortly after the hardback came out, before the paperback. Remember this when you applaud fiction authors who appear prescient.) -- he's well worth a look.


#4 ::: Howard Weaver ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 12:31 PM:

"Mysteries" isn't a genre I read, so I'm not sure of the field, but doesn't Carl Hiaasen count as a mystery writer? The books I've encountered have a distinctly progressive perspective.

#5 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 01:36 PM:

Hmm. Okay, I'm a moderate (centrist, if you prefer; I don't object). And I was thinking of writing a non-fantastical mystery. Would that help? I can pencil it in after the next two books on my list...

I'm actually curious what one would consider the heart or aim of a centrist (or liberal, but I'm not really a liberal -- you can tell, I piss off both liberals AND conservatives) mystery. I could easily envision it in terms of a thriller, but the mysteries I read rarely have overt political themes, and the social ones are rarely in areas under great contest. Thoughts on this?

(By the way, I don't think "catch and punish murderer" is specifically a conservative aim. I think where politics differ is on what constitutes appropriate responses to a known murderer.)

#6 ::: Graham Sleight ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 02:45 PM:

I have no idea where John le Carre9 is politically, but he certainly seems to be getting more radical as he gets older. A couple of his post-Cold War novels, The Night Manager and The Constant Gardener, are concerned with institutional corruption and, respectively, the arms trade and drugs companies' activities in Africa. He's not published any fiction post-September 11th (though there was that rather strident anti-US piece in The Times a year or so ago), but there's a new novel, Absolute Friends, coming next January.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 03:02 PM:

Hey, we were just looking at the current nonfiction bestseller lists. That's all.

#8 ::: Bill Humphries ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 03:45 PM:

Charlie Stross mentioned Christopher Brookmyre's thrillers on his site, and I've read several. They are fun little books, and nearly every one of them has a Tory as the bad guy.

#9 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 04:00 PM:

There is a mystery for pissed off lefties and centrists. It's released serially, and it's a 'shared world' sort of project - lot of authors and whatnot.

It's called The New York Times.

#10 ::: Tim Hall ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 04:11 PM:

Iain Banks? Or does he (when writing mainstream) think of himself as a Serious Novelist rather than a genre hack?

Almost all British SF writers I've read recently (Banks, Ken MacLoed, China Meiville) are lefties.

#11 ::: Bryant ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 04:23 PM:

Not to take the quip too seriously, but George Pelecanos has written a really excellent run of mysteries/noirs set in and among the poorer sections of Washington, DC. Not really overtly liberal, but certainly pissed off.

#12 ::: Berni ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 05:00 PM:

Doesn't Sheri Tepper write mysteries under another name? I can't think of a less conservative writer than she. Does anyone know if her mysteries are as lefty as her SF? (Assuming that you consider radical feminism and animal rights as lefty, of course.)

#13 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 05:17 PM:

Sparkle Hayter and Amanda Cross spring to mind. Likewise Kinky Friedman [sp?].

Cozies, at least, tend not to be all that political, really.

#14 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 06:01 PM:

Tom: The famous essay on mysteries as restoring the natural order is "The Guilty Vicarage," by W.H. Auden.

#15 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 06:09 PM:

Tepper writes mysteries under at least two psuedonym (A. J. Orde and B. J. Oliphant); horror (only one book that I know of) under E. E. Horlak; and probably much more than any of us can follow.

Which kinda begs the question -- why are conservative mysteries bestsellers? Douglas Hurd went from being a thriller writer to being an MP....


#16 ::: Philip Brewer ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 06:41 PM:

Paul Erdman writes some financial thrillers that might be considered centrist. They're not really left wing, but do show a certain faith in big institutions (the Fed, FDIC, the IMF) to keep things together, even if most individuals (government leaders, bankers--especially Swiss bankers) can't be trusted.

(I just looked and discovered that one of his stories was the first title for Forge Books!)

#17 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 07:04 PM:

Anyone that endorses the IMF cannot in anyway be called left wing.

IMF = scum.

#18 ::: Sue ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 09:46 PM:

Agreed, Kinky Friedman is fairly centrist, with wide dispersal all over the map. He dined at the GWBush white house but got blurbed by Clinton and Gore. Uses "Taking a Nixon" as euphemism for defecation. Something to annoy anyone with any rigid beliefs, and amuse everyone eclectic. I tend to be less angry at the end of one of his books than before, for whatever help that offers.

Which makes me wonder, is the idea to ehnance the anger/annoyance, or to soothe it?

There are good murder mysteries all across the spectrum too - explicitly lesbian mysteries, Barbara Neely's Blanche mysteries (race and class conflict as somewhat angry African-American housekeeper solves mysteries among her screwed-up wealthy clients), for that matter Walter Moseley's mysteries also mix race and class issues from what has to be a left-of-center perspective on the US spectrum. Laurie King has two distinctly feminist series' already. Also some good Afr-Am feminist mysteries.

On a (ahem) less literary note, L.J. Braun's "The Cat Who..." series is about as centrist as one can imagine. Probably won't be appreciated by the "pissed-off" classes, however.

#19 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 12:11 AM:

See, that's interesting. I have about five gajillion "Cat Who" books, and I never really thought of them as sociopolitical in theme or expression.

Maybe it's just that when I sit down to read a mystery, I rarely am looking for anything deeper than the story told.

#20 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:15 AM:

It was entirely predictable that Teresa's offhand remark would inspire a farrago of fannish category-mongering. Is this extant series "liberal" or "progressive"? Who cares, he explained.

Teresa's point is this: There are five books catering to really pissed-off liberals currently tearing up the hardcover bestseller lists. The question of whether Carl Hiassen is a liberal is very boring, much more boring than (say) reading Carl Hiassen. (I recommend reading Carl Hiassen.) The question Teresa is posing is: look, a demographic! Take a chance! Go to extremes! Get rich, maybe!

Or, alternately, piss around with fannish games of who's precisely what degree of what. With hex grids and twelve-sided dice. Most scientific.

#21 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:17 AM:

The Plain People of Blogdom: What the hell crawled up your ass, PNH? What are you on about?

PNH: Nothing more than this: Teresa made a wild-eyed visionary statement, and 90% of the response she's gotten is dweebish pilpul. Yes, that's a technical term.

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:19 AM:

Uh, yeah. That's about it: These guys are burning up the bestseller lists. Looks like a good time to expand that product line.

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:23 AM:

I'll take "wild-eyed visionary" if it's all I can get, but the effect I was aiming for was "commercial as hell".

#24 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:42 AM:

Ah... see comments about sarcasm marks earlier on this thread.

Narrow bandwidth of this sort of correspondance makes it hard to know what people are saying, in some cases. Not _pilpul_ here -- attempting to get some sense of what's being discussed without Full Knowledge. As a bookseller, I might be thought to be paying attention to what sells on the PW list; as a specialty bookseller, mostly it's important to me in knowing what _not_ to stock, because the chains will discount it to hell and back and we'll just get people who complain about us charging full price so we might possibly pay the rent this month... (and mostly I leave that end of things to Dave, my business partner who Pays Attention in that way -- I'm much more interested in "what's a bit offbeat that tickled my sensawunda this week that I can sell to the undecided person who wanders in today?").

Not everyone who posts here is _au courant_ with the current bestseller lists. To berate them/us for not getting your injokes is directly parallel to why Deb Notkin says "If you don't understand Tom's jokes, it's not your fault." I do try not to make people feel bad for not understanding my jokes -- I still use them as a sorting mechanism for later conversations....

Tom (yes, the same Tom) Whitmore

#25 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 04:24 AM:

Hmm. Now I can't shake the thought of a left-centrist fictional answer to the *Left Behind* series... it's intriguing, but neither can I connect the dots in my mind to come up with a likely author, main character, and plot scenario.

Besides, who has the stomach to spend time inventing a subtle, intelligent, and deadly hard-right conspiracy for the heroes to fight against, while the real world has conclusively proven that subtlety and intelligence are surplus to requirements in the conspiracy business?

I sometimes wish Tom Clancy could be plucked from 1983 and used to replace his 2003 self. I was in sixth grade around the time his Jack Ryan series jumped the shark... even then, silly little twit that I was, I think I was able to spot the *exact moment* that his characters stopped being non-partisan Plain Americans and started having thought-bubble soliloquies about Why Liberals Make The Baby Jesus Cry.

#26 ::: David Frazer ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 05:29 AM:

I've been vaguely toying with the idea of a liberal geopolitical/military thriller -- an anti-Tom Clancy -- that would champion international co-operation and respect for human rights. The only problem is that I can't think of a plot, and I'd need to be an expert on military and security affairs. One would need to find an independent analyst or perhaps a disaffected former CIA officer to serve as a technical advisor...

#27 ::: Stuart Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 07:46 AM:

Gosh. Maybe what the world needs now is for Patrick to go and have a lie down? :)

Maybe a link to the relevant bestseller lists (and prior knowledge that Author X writes for the pissed-off-liberal demographic) would have helped tame the pilpul reflexes.

Tom> "Which kinda begs the question -- why are conservative mysteries bestsellers?"
Dunno - but I always thought that the reason technothrillers tend to be written by right wing types is that they use the same 'Fear change!' tactics as conservative rhetoric to affect their audience.

#28 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 09:30 AM:

I always thought that the reason technothrillers tend to be written by right wing types is that they use the same ‘Fear change!’ tactics as conservative rhetoric to affect their audience.

Yeah. It’s why Bruce Sterling doesn’t sell as well as Michael Crichton. You get the feeling the average reader would prefer to keep the motherhood statement, thank you very much, and have the genie pretty much back in the bottle by page 300.

I think there ought to be a niche for “eco-thrillers” along the lines of Stephenson’s Zodiac, though. Plucky folks with flannel shirts and R.E.I. memberships take on evil corporations.

Come to think of it, the last John le Carré (The Constant Gardner) was kind of like that, although it was “Oxbridge establishment vs. evil corporations.” He’s been pretty liberal for a while, and we could definitely use more like him. Maybe Valerie Plame will take up fiction. :)

#29 ::: Holly ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 09:41 AM:

Well, mine will be finished by Halloween. Coming soon to a slush pile near you.

Somehow I don't think that distopian SF-thrillers will ever make the NYTB list, though.

#30 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 09:52 AM:

Hello? Still looking for an example of:

1) Key points in a moderate (or liberal, if you must) mystery.
2) Why the "Cat Who" books are centrist.

-- T (who would happily cash in on the trend if she thought she stood a chance of being published before it stopped)

#31 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 12:09 PM:

Sorry, Stuart. Sorry, Tom.

Context: I wrote that post while sitting at my desk at Tor. Obviously, that's not where I normally write my weblog; but I'd just been listening to a couple of editors talk about the liberal surge on the nonfiction bestseller lists, and it occurred to me that if liberals and centrists -- basically, the political mainstream -- were so ticked off that they were buying all that nonfiction, they'd probably enjoy fiction in the same vein. I posted the observation as a one-line quickie, and went back to work on the manuscript at hand.

What's funny is that I'm now sitting here trying to figure out how to explain why "need" seemed to me to obviously indicate "books yet to be published", and I truly can't think how to say it. It's too basic. This feels very odd.

#32 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 12:30 PM:

"Need to be introduced to the reading public while this climate lasts", would be how I'd guess you meant it.

I mean, new books tend to come with more attention focussed on them, whereas old, existing ones may go unnoticed. Particularly here (meaning the U.S.), where "Fresh! New! Exciting!" is the watchword of the consumer.

Or, er. Something like that.

#33 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 12:42 PM:

Definitely an interesting question, T -- and there have been allusions to it (are mysteries inherently conservative? are bestselling mysteries more so? what would a bestselling centrist/left mystery look like [and what examples do we have of left/centrist mysteries that weren't bestsellers?]).

I've tried to look at books already published to point to what's missing, to point to what _could_ be published -- I'm not a fiction author, and have no intent to be one at this point. And I still think it's odd that most thrillers are conservative, in the deep sense -- not Republican-as-that-term-is-currently-understood, but Conservative. Auden's essay is a good start on why (thanks, Arthur!).


#34 ::: Stuart Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 12:48 PM:

Ah, fuggeddabboutit!

I actually did pick up on the fact that you meant 'books still to be published'. I don't agree with PNH that what everyone was doing was just trying to fannishly subdivide books into genres. If you had said 'What the world needs now is books about Dogs' then I think it would be perfectly ok to say 'hang on, there are already books about Dogs - look, here are White Fang and a Scooby Doo novelization' 'But surely that novelization doesn't count because Scooby isn't a real dog?' etc etc.

Sometimes subdivision is good - it lets you know when you have stopped eating your burger and have begun chewing on your hand. :)

#35 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 12:51 PM:

Because an oversimplified political schema is congenial to mystery and thriller plots? Because so much of what the Right believes has already been converted to fiction?

By complete coincidence, I was just saying something relevant to this in that Calpundit piece Patrick linked to. An earlier commenter had despairingly said that everyone was so frightened by the 9/11 attacks that they'd given Bush & Co. a free hand to do whatever they wished. I said:

If being scared by 9/11 were enough to stampede us into rubber-stamping Bush & Co.'s policies, New York City would be a very different place.

Yes, there are people out there who want to turn the events of 9/11 into a vast and perpetual game of "ain't it awful". They're trying to deal with their real and legitimate fears by replacing them with gaudy, fraudulent, melodramatic fears -- essentially, with fiction.

They're doing this because, while the stupid melodramatic WMDs-under-the-bed versions are frightening enough to match the anxiety they're experiencing, and are therefore satisfactory, those stories are also at bottom fictional. That is: They will not happen. They will not come true. So if you can convince yourself that these stories are what you're scared of, on some level it must follow that you're actually safe. The stories are desirable because they're not really believable.

(The stories about being angry because you're the most terribly oppressed class in society, which one hears with bizarre regularity from prosperous and privileged white conservatives, may or may not be a comparable construct. I'm still thinking about that.)

It's harder to play Reader's Digest-style games of "ain't it awful" when you can remember pulverized WTC raining down on your neighborhood. If this is a story, then the unhappy ending already happened, and it happened here. It could happen here again. There is no safety but safety.

#36 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:19 PM:

Tina, at first blush I would think that "thriller" and "liberal agenda" are inherently incompatible. I can't speak for mysteries because I haven't read widely in the genre.

Who are the bad guys in thrillers? Governments. Government radicals. Fanaticists. Corporations. Wealthy old white men. Drug dealers. Any combination of the above.

Okay, any liberal/centrist folk would logically be against those things, but so are the conservative heroes of your traditional thrillers.

So what defines the liberal/centrist hero? Well, what does she want to achieve? International cooperation and respect for human rights? Those things aren't the stuff of drama, they're the stuff of meetings and bureaucracy. Nobody wants to read that.

Got a non-violent agenda? How is she going to thwart the big bad evil government/madman/
corporation/old guard fat cat? Your hero(ine) can either

1) kill him, (not allowed, because we want to respect human rights!)
2) use the system to bring him down legally (but that would mean resorting to the status quo--tsk!)
3) or negotiate with him, which requires the assumption that said badguy is a rational human being, and if that were the case the conflict wouldn't be there in the first place.

I suppose your heroine could exercise her high-ranking position of power to organize a surgical military strike composed of troops from all the countries in the U.N., each utilizing their unique capabilities to ensure that no civilians were harmed, and then after the evil corporation/government/drug lord was exiled to a desert island somewhere, you could have a denoument in which the heroine and her rugged Taoist sergeant love interest proudly survey the rebuilding of the small country/village/family business in a spirit of communal cooperation and environmental responsibility.

That would be nice, but a) no one would believe it, and b) you'd get panned for sentimentality.

My point is, cooperation and negotiation do not make for good drama. Conflict and violence do. Just write a nice dystopic allegory instead. The Jungle comes to mind.

#37 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:31 PM:

Cat Who books and their politics: Well, when Qwilleran inherits all that money, he sets up a foundation to give it all away. Most of the projects it funds are pretty middle of the road though. Often helping people pull themselves up by their bootstraps sorta thing. Where this places them on the political spectrum I am unsure. The political spectrum has changed all out of recognition from what I grew up with so I hesitate to speculate.

I do believe mysteries are inherently conservative for the traditional meaning of conservative, not what passes for that today. Murder is the negation of our social contract on how to live together; it is chaos and anarchy. The detective restores the status quo by bringing the murderer to justice thus restoring and strengthening the agreements by which we create civilization.

Or something.

MKK--confirmed mystery addict

#38 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:34 PM:

And I still think it's odd that most thrillers are conservative, in the deep sense -- not Republican-as-that-term-is-currently-understood, but Conservative.

Tom, somebody else mentioned techno-thrillers being about fear of change, but I think at heart all thrillers are like that.

All sarcasm aside, thrillers involve threat, crisis, as their driving conflict. Hero steps in, averts crisis, and the status quo is maintained.

Perhaps a liberal thriller would involve change being initiated, not merely crises being avoided. Maybe that's the key: we need a thriller in which the hero is attempting to initiate change for the better.... in which case the VP character is (from the tradition thriller hero's point of view), the villian....

It's all in the motivation. I must go and make notes to myself, now....

#39 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:39 PM:

Nicolas Freling. Nobody seems to have mentioned him yet.

Some of his works are set in France and some in the Netherlands. Aware of many points of view in many countries because in Europe other countries are indeed your immediate neigbors.

On an unrelated note, there's this political thriller I remember reading and I can't for the life of me remember who wrote it. Does anyone recognise it from the following description?: I found it remaindered in '96 or so. Seems to have followed on the coattails of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Took place in the Pacific Northwest, featuring environmental acivists, a talk radio station where the station manager (whose name might have been Novello) turned out to be an undercover cop. There was a secret society called Group that had something to do with using jet planes to smuggle arms to mercenary soldiers. There were scenes in a garbage dump and a fish farm. It was a paperback with a black cover with white and yellow Times Roman lettering. I really enjoyed this book and I would love to find it again if anyone can tell me the title and author.

#40 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:54 PM:

Holly M: I don't equate "liberal" with "non-violent", and I likewise don't equate "liberal" with "always against death".

But, I can think of a non-violent scenario. Maybe the villain to be toppled is subject to other laws, rather than being the law, and the story could be about gathering evidence and exposing the villain. I have definitely read stories along those lines (Robin Cook comes to mind, and while I don't know I'd define his protagonists as liberal, they may well be moderate).

Like I said, thrillers, I can see doing as liberal/moderate. Mysteries... okay, that brings me to:

MKK: Yeah, I guess I can see that point of view, but I guess it never really occurred to me that was really a political thing. There are plenty of people of all stripes who fund things they like. But looked at from a certain angle, I can see Qwill coming off as fairly much a moderate.

I suppose now what I'm wondering is "Is any book with a conspicuously politically moderate protagonist a book that would appeal to moderates overall? Or does it require a specific subset of actions and themes?"

#41 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 02:09 PM:

Hello? Source of new plots and new bad guys?

#42 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 02:26 PM:

Alright, Teresa, now you're just being an editor.

"I want something new and fresh."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. You come up with it. You're the writer!"

"Well how am I to know what's new and fresh if I can't even find a definition of what's old and stale?"

It's ALL been done!

#43 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 04:09 PM:

There are plenty of very best-selling examples of left-wing 'thrillers':

Illuminatus!, Wilson and Shea
Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins
The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey
Firestarter, Steven King

and the grand-daddy of them all (at least on my shelf):

It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

I dont' know about you, but I have a very modest standard of living and figure I could retire on any one of those. Maybe on the one about the good CIA and the bad CIA and the war between them...

#44 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 04:57 PM:

Well, for mysteries, how about the late Irish writer Bartholomew Gill? His last (or one of his last) books, Death of an Irish Sinner, definitely sounded like a pissed off centrist/liberal. And hey, the villains were ultra-rightist Opus Dei types.

#45 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 07:02 PM:

I came up with (what I thought was) a fantastic plot for a liberal/lefty thriller last October, based on some pretty neat coincidences (stuff like a CIA agent telling an Iraqi defector who had a plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein that the US wasn't ready for that to happen for another 4 years or so) and whatIthoughtatthetime was a very clever conspiracy theory.

Then it all went mainstream on me. So I wrote a fantasy novel for Nanowrimo instead.

#46 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 07:04 PM:

correction: (stuff like a CIA agent telling an Iraqi defector who had a plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1998 that the US wasn't ready for that to happen for another 4 years or so)

Sometimes when you omit two words the sentence still makes sense.

Sometimes it doesn't.


#47 ::: Sue ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 08:48 PM:

"Perhaps a liberal thriller would involve change being initiated, not merely crises being avoided. Maybe that's the key: we need a thriller in which the hero is attempting to initiate change for the better.... in which case the VP character is (from the tradition thriller hero's point of view), the villian...."

In addition to the others mentioned, Neal Stephenson's books pretty much all fit this list. It's the main theme of _Diamond Age_ and the dominant "real-time" plotline of _Cryptonomicon_ (the one about using the hidden gold to fund security for the very poor third world).

I'd also recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's _Escape From Kathmandu_ as tall tales of adventure with definite social-reform goals. Not mystery however.

Lots of SF genre adventures ought to count towards techno-thrillers aiming at social change rather than restoring the status quo. Not the dystopias of course, but the more optimistic among them. Probably not a coincidence, now, is it?

I can actually think of lots of traditional mysteries with a left-centrist appeal that are still "conservative" in the Auden sense. What these do is make the victim be someone very progressive and sympathetic, so that restorative justice requires validating that agenda.

No idea how well they sell though, since I get most books from the very good public library in town. (Does that mean I'm no longer welcome here? Oops.)

#49 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 09:23 PM:

Mysteries may or may not be inherently conservative, but noir fiction, which is often written from the point of view of of a criminal and may end without the guilty being punished as in a conventional mystery, is not only often anything but conservative, but has even been defined as inherently "showing the contradictions of capitalist society" by left-wing Spanish ciritic Javier Coma. The movie Chinatown would be a perfect example of this.

#50 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 09:25 PM:

Sorry...make that "critic."

#51 ::: Barbara ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 09:31 PM:

I just finished Al Franken's book, and believe me it is not centrist, but of course no one expected it to be. The writing is convincing but nothing you'd want to ape. You can get very angry reading it, if you want to be more pissed off than usual. If not, read the new Tony Hillerman --The Sinister Pig. He's to the left of center, and it's a quick read. Have fun.

#52 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 10:12 PM:

Teresa: nevermind. It made sense in my head.

#53 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 11:12 PM:

How could a book with a title like The Sinister Pig be anything but left of center?

#54 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 03:07 AM:

Patrick says:

> It was entirely predictable that Teresa's
> offhand remark would inspire a farrago of
> fannish category-mongering. Is this extant
> series "liberal" or "progressive"? Who cares,
> he explained.

Uh... I care actually.

I've been thinking to myself for a while that almost all the technothriller or (cringe) 'men's adventure' books I can think of are solidly right wing - Tom Clancy's an obvious one, and Frederick Forsyth has a few pages of intense grovelling to Margaret Thatcher in may of his books. I guess I have some half baked thoughts about why this might be so, but I was actually waiting till the next 'free thread' or whatever they're called came up here, so I could toss the topic in for discussion. You could have knocked me over with a truck when I saw this topic come up.

> Teresa's point is this:
I guess I didn't catch her context - nor apparently did a few other people. Is that a reason to get so upset when a discussion goes in a direction you hadn't expected?

> The question of whether Carl Hiassen is a
> liberal is very boring, much more boring than
> (say) reading Carl Hiassen.

To you. They both sound like they have their merits to me.

> Or, alternately, piss around with fannish games
> of who's precisely what degree of what. With hex
> grids and twelve-sided dice. Most scientific.

That's pretty uncharitable of you.

#55 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 09:50 AM:

>Sue said:
Lots of SF genre adventures ought to count towards techno-thrillers aiming at social change rather than restoring the status quo.

I'm glad you picked that up. It occured to me as I was writing the previous post, but I didn't want to segue further than I already had.

I've noticed that trend, too, and it's led me to suspect that the majority of SF writers/fans are of a liberal bent. Is this a coincidence? Are we drawn to spec fic because we're all optimists and want to believe that things can change, show the way so to speak? Or do we write the stuff about possible, positive change and everybody else thinks it's make-believe?

adamsj, In the interest of definition, I'd like to hear what, in your mind, makes Firestarter a liberal/centrist story, other than the professed alignment of the author?

#56 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 11:02 AM:

Holly Messinger said, "adamsj, In the interest of definition, I'd like to hear what, in your mind, makes Firestarter a liberal/centrist story, other than the professed alignment of the author?"

I can't speak for him, but to me, it's a liberal thriller because (a) the government is the big bad, (b) the little guy has to fight for his right to just lead a life instead of being subsumed as a Government Weapon, and (c) at the end she takes her story to Rolling Stone, which implies to me that King intended it to be fairly 'fuck the government, trust the left-wingers'. :->

(Pardon the profanity)

#57 ::: Kevin R ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 06:05 PM:

Hmm... It's interesting that someone mentioned Opus Dei. They play heavily in _The Da Vinci Code_, which is a techno-thriller with a plot that would make most Christian conservatives want to hold a big 'ol bonfire, since it portrays the Church as covering up the "truth" that Jesus was mortal and married. Actually, it's almost a Wiccan Left Behind, though I'm a (left-wing) Christian and I still find it an enjoyable read.

I don't think thrillers *have* to be conservative, though even _Da Vinci Code_ is conservative if you view it as returning to a millenia old status quo... Hmmm... methinks I'm over-thinking this, nay?

#58 ::: Sarah Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 08:26 PM:

Hasn't anyone mentioned James Lee Burke yet? I was delighted to discover his books, since they are classic violent mystery/adventures with a distinctly leftist slant. You can get all those whizbang thrills without feeling guilty about it. I think they have sold well, too.

#59 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2003, 12:11 AM:

Dunn's Conundrum and The G.O.D. Project, by Stan Lee. (No, I haven't found out whether it's the same Stan Lee.) The second is a bit more predictable, especially after An American President; the first starts out like a conservative thriller and turns 180 degrees so gradually you don't notice until it's done. Both from the 80's; no sign of any more since these two, which is a pity because the villains are the sort of plausible we're-doing-this-because-there-are-bad-people-out-there-don't-you-want-more-security types the Bush administration is dripping with.

#60 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2003, 06:36 AM:

Who was being sarcastic? I certainly wasn't (a change I know, for me). I believe several British lefties write good thrillers/mysteries and I was just surprised that they hadn't crossed over. Ben Elton is certainly left-wing, and his book "Stark" had the brave eco-warriors fighting against the evil multi-millionaire bad guys.

But maybe that doesn't count? I'm not very up on genres, I'm afraid. As far as I'm concerned there are three types of book. Good books, bad books and books I haven't read yet. And, no Tom, I'm not being sarcastic.

#61 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2003, 08:46 AM:

Hi, Holly and Eloise,

I was thinking in particular of the comments made by the evil intelligence agency people in the story. For instance, they mention with some lip-smacking glee how they'd like to knock Teddy Kennedy's plane out of the sky. (It's been about twenty years since I've read it, okay? I may be weak on detail here.) They identify themselves as right-wing conservative.

(This is a late seventies novel, just after Church, Pike, and the CIA reforms. I think they make some reference to these events as well, but I could be wrong.)

I was also struck by the way they attacked the Postal Service and, yes, Rolling Stone, but not just the grace note at the end--one of the evil intel people mentions it earlier as a target.

Little guy vs. big organization isn't a lefty theme--it adapts to the politics of the time.

Contrast Firestarter to, say, Shibumi (much creepier), which has generally liberal sentiments, but which I wouldn't call a lefty novel.

Really, though, what I'm wondering is: Why isn't someone writing a mystery/thriller right now about electronic voting fraud? You could make this a local event, or a national conspiracy, or something between (maybe a local test before the national rollout), depending on your tastes. You want that book coming out in about a year, right in time for the next stolen election.

It's a shame novels aren't published serially anymore--I remember reading The Andromeda Strain in ten (or was it twelve?) parts in my local newspaper--'cause this one would be perfect for that. Maybe if the price was right, something could be worked out through the trade association for alternative weeklies--great publicity, too.

If you wanted to get really crazy with it...well, you could. Let me leave it at that.

#62 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2003, 11:05 AM:

adamsj: probably several somebodies are writing thrillers about electronic voting fraud; the topic has been around long enough that there may even be some manuscripts submitted, and one of them might be readable. But would it be plausible enough for a publisher to buy it? As noted above, Firestarter came out after revelations about the CIA's new clothes, clay feet, etc.; right now enough people are talking up electronic machines as the sought-after replacements for creaky old systems (here in Boston they've just announced that all the pure-mechanical machines will soon be replaced by electronics) that finding something wrong with them would be SF+thriller+liberal, which is probably not seen as a large market. (cf what happened to the Stan Lee above -- two books that I thought were good reads, one found on a remainder table, no more published.)

And I'm smacking myself over not mentioning Wilhelm as a liberal mystery/thriller writer, but she does everything so quietly people don't notice; she doesn't -"start with an earthquake and work up to a climax from there"- as I understand the Franken does.

#63 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2003, 12:31 PM:

Sure, it's plausible--at least plausible enough to enough people to sell it. Remember the demographic postulated above: Pissed-off centrists and liberals. Those are people who already believe the last presidential election was stolen--give them a means and an opportunity which go along with a motive they already understand and feel passionately. Where's the difficulty in this?

Also, remember that remaindered != unsuccessful. It typically just means the book was over-printed (or thought to be) in hardcover. (Really, what don't you see remaindered these days?)

Coincidentally enough, I picked up Kate Wilhelm's No Defense for my wife, remaindered (well, cheap--maybe the chain over-bought. I guess that's not remaindering, which I think of as a publisher activity. Perhaps my definitions are off). That's the third in that series--my wife was reading the fourth earlier this summer. They're still puttin' 'em out--I figure they're selling.

(Of the three in that series I've read, I'd say only the second falls clearly into our category, and gets there with a plot twist I didn't particularly like.)

What we don't have for this--which Left Behind and its ilk do have, in spades--is a means of putting such a book into the hands of a lot of highly motivated readers (the evangelical bookstore) and then into general distribution (rack jobbing of evangelical books into grocery stores and W*l-M*rts)--thus the end run through the weeklies.

#64 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2003, 07:21 PM:

We don't? The nonfiction is selling.

Centrists. Mainstream. We're not just talking about the far end of the curve.

#65 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 10:15 AM:

I own a Farfisa, but still I aspire to play even one note on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

You're right, of course, but it'd still be cool to see what one could do with a distribution system like that--and I think the political impact it has had cannot be overestimated. There isn't any such niche system on the left side of the culture with a hook into the mainstream. The closest would be gay/lesbian bookstores and health food stores (and a fair number of those are wingnut outlets).

But I think you've misplaced your spread on these demographics. There are people from far left to extremely moderate who are still mad about the theft of the last presidential election. The range as wide as the readers of books from the rack of "Inspirational Reading" at the W*l-M*rt--they, too, range from far right to fairly moderate (and occasionally past).

(Where I'm from, Oklahoma and Arkansaw, that is the mainstream. I sometimes feel a bit of disconnect with people from the coasts on this--I felt it with CalPundit the other day.)

If you're looking for a book that'll appeal along that entire spread, from the far ends into the moderates, I'd think it's easiest to generate excitement among the extreme ends. The reason serial publication in alternative weeklies came to mind is as an inexpensive means to reach that exactly that group of people, with the added benefit that they are readers.

Non-fiction writers also have some advantages over fiction writers in this particular case.

Non-fiction writers have outlets for excerpting the book--fiction writers don't. And there aren't many rookies hitting homers with left-wing non-fiction--Michael Moore and Al Franken are media people, Krugman and Conason and Ivins have columns. Even counter-cultural icon Annie Coulter can promote to her fellow Deadheads in "The Other One", her new column for Relix Magazine.

Still, if I were a writer (a professional writer. I specialize in the three P's--poetry, polemic, and and parody--which you'll note do not include profitability) I'd be going for the throat on this one. It's a hot topic now, and will be even hotter after the 2004 election. Voting machines, especially the more sophisticated ones, will be a matter of contention in close races.

You want this book out and about before the November election. The big bump will come after the election, especially if one is sufficiently prescient (I can't bring myself to say 'lucky') to pick a scenario for fraud which matches a real accusation closely enough. From there on out, maybe a book every two years, tied into the election cycle.

There's a formula/model for this--Tom Clancy's Jack Clark--only our story is that of a dedicated partisan politico, not someone running for office, but a behind-the-scenes worker. As this person's abilities to defeat the dirty tricks of the other side become more apparent, he or she (and a small working team) rise in the party organization, eventually becoming players in their own right.

It's a good story. Someone ought to tell it.

#66 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 12:36 PM:

I don't know where you guys get the idea that leftists don't have their own book distribution system. They do. Their outlets are called "bookstores". The centrists use the same system.

We're talking about the political mainstream.

#67 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 03:53 PM:

I agree with you that distribution wouldn't keep a well-written leftish political techno-thriller off the shelves. I'm not saying you couldn't sell a book like that through regular channels.

But it is a marketing challenge.

If the techno-thriller as we know it is slanted to appeal to people outside the target demographic, then you have to convince those people to read the book. Does changing the slant of the book take it outside the genre? Do Tom Clancy readers identify with his politics? Can you afford to blow off genre readers who don't like the politics of the book? If so, is it a genre book?

I wouldn't let questions like this stop me, but I think they're worth asking, as they suggest marketing the the book as though it were just another genre novel would be ineffective.

That's the book guy in me. Now the politico wants a word.

There's a difference between a book distribution system available to you and a book distribution system of your own. About the only ideological grouping in America which has the latter is the right-wing evangelical Christian movement, which does quite well putting its books into the mainstream. (Books bought in a grocery store are more the mainstream than books bought in a bookstore, I'd say.)

They have a nice tool there, and I envy it. It'd be fun to use something like that.

I don't like it, but the Left Behind series, Frank Peretti's books, and the like are mainstream. I preferred my youth, when I could walk to the 7-11 or the Quick Shop and buy Robert Heinlein or Richard Brautigan off the paperback rack, but those days are over. Now it's This Coming Darkness and Tribulation Force which are commonplace and pervasive.

Sorry--I think the cynic took over toward the end there.

#68 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2003, 02:08 AM:

After a visit to my local grocery store, three things:

  1. It's Jack Ryan, not Jack Clark. Geez--I'm getting old.
  2. I didn't expect to see Ursula Le Guin, Charles Sheffield, and Jerry Pournelle looking at me from the YA section, but I sure did enjoy it. The YA titles are more grown-up than the adult ones.
  3. There isn't any non-fiction in the mass market stuff except the occasional true crime book. That kinda shocked me. I'm not even sure I saw any diet or self-help. The 'best-seller' list for hard-cover and trade was quite interesting: #3 was some sort of diet book. All else on the list was fiction. I saw one political book--a trade paper by Bill O'Reilly.

I wish now that I'd been visiting W*l-M*rt and keeping track of the books at Sam's Club--I know I've seen both the Hilary Clinton book and Clinton-bashing titles there, but not Al Franken.

But I take your point more clearly now (I think): Books like Lying Liars and The Great Unraveling sell in ordinary bookstores. Look there to sell books to those same people.

#69 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2003, 10:22 AM:

Please don't mention the business about Ann Coulter being an old Deadhead. I don't want to think about it. It makes me twitch.

I do like your proposed formula.

The technothriller per se is primarily distinguished by its large number of technical details (often concerning weapons systems, but not necessarily limited to them), which are lovingly foregrounded. I don't think a specific set of political beliefs are essential to technothrillers, but whatever the politics are, you have to talk tough about them. To see a good example of a technothriller that foregrounds technical details about something other than weapons systems, and talks tough about non-rightwing politics, see Neal Stephenson's Zodiac.

I believe the talking-tough requirement is a side effect of the central promise of technothrillers: I can tell you how this part of the world really works. Thus, "talking tough about politics" = "I know what's really going on."

In their promise to give you inside information on the machinery of the world, technothrillers are related to Arthur Halley's books like Airport and Hotel, where diverse characters wander through chanting "Plotty-plot-plot", but the real focus of the story is the behind-the-scenes look at how a complex system like an airport or an old-fashioned grand hotel really works.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and most non-romance alternate histories, also have this nature, though in their case the technology has been swapped for history.

Distribution: I miss the days of Brautigan and Heinlein in the wire racks too. I could explain what happened there, but it would take a long time, and I have a lunch date with a writer. One consoling thing I can tell you is that the available selection of books on a spinner these days doesn't necessarily tell you anything about the tastes of the readers who walk past it.

Don't underestimate the gay and lesbian bookstores. They turned over a lot of books, and the fact that you could track their sales led marketers to understand that gay readers are a big market segment. Their prejudices melted like cotton candy in the rain. I know that the amount of SF and fantasy they sold had a considerable impact on marketing within the genre. You got scenes like a dead-straight marketing person saying "It's got gay content? Good!"

And the moral of that story is: It matters where you buy your books.

#70 ::: bruce purcell ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2003, 03:28 PM:

Dean Ing. Very hard-core techno; liberal politics.
Center left? 'The Skins of Dead Men', 'Nemesis' books.
America's a center left country.

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