Disappearing Content: The Memory Hole 2.0

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 11.41.12 AMOn his blog, Wings Over Scotland, The Rev. Stuart Campbell writes about a Kafkaesque removal of Youtube content by the BBC on its site, ostensibly for “copyright infringement” despite the fact that [from Wings’s post]: “Our videos are all in full compliance with fair-use laws. You are absolutely allowed to record and reproduce clips for news-reporting and discussion purposes. The BBC, of course, knows that perfectly well.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 10.29.18 AMCampbell goes on to note in detail that Scottish Conservative party and anti-Scottish Independence news organizations seem not to have run afoul of the BBC’s gatekeepers.

He details the Byzantine process of closed loops and dead ends he encountered when he tried to appeal. The combination of automated responses and references to appeals processes that lead back to step one is brilliantly—chillingly—effective.

It’s a recipe for Memory Hole 2.0, with a dash of Kafka for spice, leavened with liberal slogs of post-modernist self-reference. Worse, the automated and seemingly reasonable claim of infringement makes BBC’s actions seem like not what they are—silencing the record of dissent.

Orwell-memory holeWhile this is particularly disturbing for pro-Independence voices, it also points up a larger contemporary epistemological problem: how do we know what we know, if the evidence and facts that underpin our opinions and action are so easily disappeared?  How do we hold officials and others accountable when the record of their very words is so slippery?

A friend in the Academy told me recently about a periodical he relies on for his writing and research. To save money and space the university where he works now subscribes only to the online version of the journal and its searchable back numbers. But if the university fails to pay its subscription fee (which happened) or encounters some other difficulty, access to the whole journal, including its back numbers—its history—is lost. In days past, when libraries were late with a payment, the latest issue or volume might be delayed in arriving, but the earlier, already-paid-for editions remained in the stacks.  And if the journal were to go out of business, the volumes (the record) would also remain intact.  Not so now.  What, and how many, such things do we rely on that could vanish?

The so-called “cloud” is rife for this kind of Memory Hole mischief, whether calculated or merely irresponsible. How do you restore what’s lost? To whom do you appeal? In an online space where we the people are constantly expected to certify that we’re “not a robot,” it’s algorithmic ‘bots who are the guardians, and while marvels of technical prowess, they are also unaccountable, aloof engines of plausible deniability.

I’m aware of the irony of writing this on a platform that is itself ethereal, disposable.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.

The final book in the series, Who Governs,  is due out next year.

For a list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:
http://jamesmccrone.com/about.html

There are also a couple of Youtube clips of readings on the about author page.
(Check ’em out, while they last! 🙂

Noir, spy thrillers, and political history

“If I had to give [my work] a general theme, it would be something along the lines of ‘How the hell did it all come to this?’” -J-P Manchette

Crimereads features a fascinating discussion and exploration of the themes animating the final work of the writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, and why he abandoned the crime novel. Obviously, reports of the crime novel’s death are greatly exaggerated. Their number, variety and loyal followers attest to it.  But I was intrigued by the lure he felt for the fusion of noir fiction, spy thriller, and political history.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 17.10.55Manchette cites many of my favorites, like John Le Carre and Ross Thomas as having been very influential in his embrace of a new aesthetic. As Ethan Anderson put it in his ‘Do The M@th‘ blog about Ross Thomas’s work: “Thomas’s outsized passion for the mid-century American system gave his books a unique ambience, at once humorously bitter and happily jaded.” For his part, LeCarre gave us the anti-James Bond, George Smiley, a quiet, pudgy, near-sighted cuckold.

smiley

Alec Guinees as George Smiley

When I come to write the stories that grab me, I’m drawn to this noir-spy hybrid.  It’s a rich vein of crime and realpolitic, combining detective work and contemporary politics—a “who dunnit” (and why), plus “who gets power and why.” Leavening this compelling mixture is the fact that the things government (and quasi-government) operatives do to achieve their ends are often downright criminal, adding a noir level of complexity and moral uncertainty.

Call this suspense-thriller genre “Noirpolitic.

Putting characters into a story where not only crime but competing values are involved makes for rich, vivid storytelling. The tales of Le Carre and Thomas, though exemplars of the suspense-thriller genre, are generally less concerned with the literally ticking time bomb, and more about what’s going wrong and how to right it.

quietTo Manchette’s list of influential writers in this hybrid genre, I would add Graham Greene. His “entertainments,” like The Quiet American, The Third Man, Our Man in Havana and The Honorary Consul are extraordinary. Political events are not just backdrops for Greene’s and the others’ stories, they are integral, giving deeper meaning to the characters’ struggles and to the stakes if they fail. They inform the stories and give them an edge, whether it be Viet Nam as the Americans replace the French (Quiet American), or the gullible Agency in Our Man in Havana. As I struggle to write engaging thrillers, I keep these and other works in my mind, not to copy, but as strong examples of all that’s possible.

To write now, in the context of the decline of democracy, the rise of nationalism, backlash against globalism, fraying political alliances and norms, is to stare at a reality that’s all too noir.

Situational morality, suspect propaganda and win-at-any-cost gambits used to be the province of clandestine agencies. Now it’s mainstream politics. If, with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz, “politics is war by other means,” then we are simultaneously the prize to be won and the foe.

“How the hell did it all come to this?” is a question we should all be asking.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series is due out at the end of this year.JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.

 

 

Justice Delayed, Lagging Indicators

The Imogen Trager novels are a fearless examination of our current moment, but the books were years in the making.

A lagging indicator is an economic term for “a measurable economic factor [e.g. interest rates, inflation, unemployment rates] that changes only after the economy has begun to follow a particular pattern or trend.” (Investopedia.com) But there are lagging indicators in the political realm, too, where by the time something registers as an issue or problem it’s already happening, fully formed.

If the daily newspaper is the “rough draft of history,” as Philip Graham of the Washington Post claimed, then fiction, a game of “what-if?” can serve as history’s cadastral surveyor, articulating context, delineating boundaries and contending with problems.Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 11.47.44 AM

The Imogen Trager novels are a fearless examination of our current moment, but the books were years in the making. The outlines were there to see; and while the outcome wasn’t inevitable, the trajectory was real, and frightening. Faithless Elector, told through the story of an idealistic young researcher who’s in way over his head, spotlighted the inherent weaknesses in the Electoral College—weaknesses which remain latent and could still be exploited. Dark Network focuses on the gritty work of arresting a power grab and the forces arrayed to abet that seizure, told through the story of its feisty, committed heroine, FBI Analyst, Imogen Trager.

Imogen.site1In the real world, we’re shocked to be now confronted with authoritarian propaganda at the highest levels, dismayed by craven apologia for that propaganda; by an increasingly irrelevant, neutered main stream media, and an administration that has its hands on all the levers of power. But this state of affairs has been apparent to anyone with imagination. It’s disturbing just how much these first two Imogen Trager novels get right regarding the context and background in which the conspirators operate—a pliant media, cowed by power, machinations at the highest levels of the Justice Department; fake news, false claims of voter fraud, collusion and corruption.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 11.47.11 AM

Pres. Trump, Att’y Gen., Sessions (A. Jackson)

Long before Donald Trump assumed the presidency, Dark Network grappled with the frightful possibility of a president with no check to his power aided by a politicized Justice Department. Both novels were written before the current administration. Trump and Sessions and McConnell are absent from their pages. But their outlines are unmistakable.

 

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series, is due out at the end of this year.

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

 

 

Post-Modernist Bilge

In my Chosen Words post from earlier this week (3/16) on the difficulty of writing about what the conspirators in the Imogen Trager books want, I said, “the bright line between fact and fiction, party and faction, virtue and vice is growing dim.”

DarkNet.ad-poster-WITHOUT LAWIn the name of verisimilitude (and telling a good story), I’ve been struggling to get right the atmospherics of our time; to isolate and describe the tactics and threat posed by reactionaries. I wonder at how close I seem to be coming. In that same post, I noted the novels are “about Power,” and that where there is no law, there’s only power.

Today, two front page articles in the NY Times discuss both of my major themes:

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions
“Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.” (Christopher Wylie)

Trump and the Truth: A President Tests His Own Credibility
“Advisors say privately that Mr. Trump may not always be precise but is speaking to a larger truth that many Americans understand….To them, the particular facts do not matter as much as this deeper truth.”

This is post-modernist bilge, of a kind rightly derided on the left and right. When the rule of law is nakedly abandoned, when all facts are dismissed as subjective—as having an agenda—when truth is “provisional,” when learning and expertise are assaulted, we’re left with Power as the only true north; and power does not seek the best and brightest, nor the good to its cause; but rather the chancers, hucksters, opportunists, nihilists. Corruption is their by-word.  They leave destruction, misery (and in my books, death) in their wake.

It’s not that I’m reading the newspapers and—collage-style—cobbling together a plausible, dystopian thriller series. Our current state has been years—and millions of dollars!—in the making.  The Imogen Trager series has likewise been growing (albeit with a fraction of the monetary support).

I wrote the rough draft of Faithless Elector in 2000. It had been knocking around in my head for some years prior to that, but the Bush-Gore election demonstrated how finely poised our democracy had become.  Subsequent national elections continue to expose the problems of the Electoral College.

Since then, the threat from reactionaries has grown and has proved to be all-too real.  I followed up Faithless with Dark Network (conceived in 2015-16), about, among other things, problems at the FBI.  I’m generally worried about what I’ll inadvertently get right with this last book.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series, is due our at the end of this year.

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

 

 

When Ideologies Collide – The Imogen Trager Novels

“Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.” –Adam Smith

Dark Network, the second Imogen Trager novel, follows up on the “gripping” thriller, Faithless Elector. The quote above, from Adam Smith, is the epigraph for Dark Network.  It serves to underline the posture of both sides in the book, and it points up the dangers of the stark polarization we see in the real world: people who think they’re right (virtuous) rarely question what they do or why they do it; whereas those who admit to themselves that what they’re doing is wrong (vice) at the very least have qualms and need to justify what they do.Fe-DarkNet

In Dark Network, the bright line between fact and fiction, party and faction, virtue and vice is growing dim. Imogen Trager, the determined heroine of Faithless Elector returns, desperate to stop a murderous dark network intent on seizing the presidency. Once in the White House, with a pliant Attorney General and a do-nothing Congress there will be nothing to stop them.

But first they have to get there.

Taken together—or separately (both thrillers were created to stand alone; there’s no homework required!)—they’re stories about individual courage in the face of adversity, and about what we become in the process. Imogen will have to confront her own outlook as she chases the conspirators. The ultimate question becomes not only, will Imogen stop them seizing the presidency, but what kind of America will be left, even if she does? As she crosses the line between the need for action and her own morals and beliefs (“Imogen stared at the table top, wondering which Constitutional right she would be complicit in violating today. But just as quickly came a flash of anger. Deptford was  conspiring to subvert the electoral process and corrupt the Constitution. Now he wanted it to protect him?“), she begins to worry she’s facing a juggernaut that nothing can stop.

Dark Network is about power. The umbral conspirators are bent on taking power for themselves at the expense of everything we hold dear. The chilling, dark recognition at the heart of the plot is that the conspirators would say they were seizing power in order to preserve everything we hold dear. They are doing the right thing, they would say…for us. And people who think they’re doing the right thing are rarely troubled by scruples or conscience.

The tension for the characters in the novel centers on how far they are prepared to go in defense of their principles before they have abandoned them all.

While the thrillers Faithless Elector (March 2016), and its sequel, Dark Network (Oct. 2017) take current events as their impetus and resonate with the daily outrages and machinations of our time, they are first and foremost taut, plot-driven stories. They contend with themes that endure after the headlines have faded and events in the real world appear to have moved on. The latent weaknesses so plausibly exploited by the conspirators still exist.

The Imogen Trager stories are about courage, duty, fidelity and ideology: and what happens when those qualities and ideologies collide.

In Faithless Elector, a small, deadly efficient conspiracy seeks to overturn the result of a close election by getting a number of Electors to switch their votes, to become “faithless electors.”  The conspirators operate in the shadows, but it’s getting late in the day and the shadows are lengthening.

In Dark Network, it becomes clear that the conspirators are still trying to influence the outcome.  The protagonist, FBI Agent Imogen Trager, must fight against time, a sinister network–even her own colleagues–to find out who’s still trying to steal the election and stop them. There’s barely a month until the inauguration…

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

It’s not yet two o’clock…

I’ve been thinking about moments lately as I push on toward the ending of my third Imogen Trager novel. The point of a dramatic moment is that it destroys the equilibrium that existed an instant before. At the beginning of a story, things are as they are. They may be bad or good from the point of view of the main character, but there is some sense that this is how things are, how they’ve been and will be.

And then something happens.

That something requires a choice—either go forward or retreat; follow the clues or bury your head in the sand. These moments represent a place from which the hero(ine) can’t go back – even if they’d like to do so.  Like Adam and Eve, after the fall: you can’t unknow something, can’t undo what’s happened. Gatsby is famously shaken by the sight of Daisy and Tom’s little daughter—it’s all well and good believe you can repeat the past, but quite another thing when you’re confronted with a living, breathing manifestation of why you can’t. Moments are the heart of drama, and character will be revealed in the conflict that ensues.

In the novel 1984 Winston Smith decides to keep a journal, bringing him to the Party’s 4 booksnotice; in The Quiet American, the cynical Fowler meets the destructive innocent Alden Pyle; Ricky Tarr turns up with evidence of a mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy; Nick Carraway meets Gatsby. In Faithless Elector, Matthew Yamashita finds an unexplained number of deaths among electors. In Dark Network, Imogen Trager finds that the conspiracy is still at work, still trying to win.

For my characters, the need is to restore equilibrium (and the rule of law). These stories were never meant to be prophetic, but taut thrillers playing out a distressingly plausible scenario. As I’ve written elsewhere , these fictional stories have sailed just a bit too close to the wind. As I work toward the end of this third book, I worry again about what I’ll get right.

Fe-DarkNet

Because moments don’t exist only in fiction. William Faulkner has written that every Southern boy can conjure in his imagination that moment when “it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863” at Gettysburg, and everything is still possible. I re-read the passage recently, and it’s brilliant. It’s a meditation on whether the course to destruction had been set earlier and this was just one act along that road, or whether Pickett’s charge was the moment that set them on that road.

The nation is poised upon a moment. We know only that Mueller has filed indictments, is taking testimony. Will what the investigation reveals stabilize the status quo, or will it throw the nation further into upheaval? Is the coming moment one of destruction or resurrection? And for whom?

It’s not yet two o’clock, and many things are possible.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  Find them through Indybound.org.  

They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

Shakespearian Guilt

Reality threatens to outpace imagination, and I worry that justice and guilt are becoming quaint notions

Michael Smerconish writes today in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the silence (and poor sales) that come from writing ahead of the curve of opinion and understanding.  (I feel your pain, Michael!)Smerconish

His novel, TALK is about the rise of a right-wing radio host who has qualms about how he makes a living and what his actions are doing to the body politic.  When Smerconish published the book in 2014, he says, it was called “far-fetched,” “unrealistic” and “could never happen in America.”  Those who rejected my first book Faithless Elector during my wilderness years said pretty much the same things, adding: “no one knows or cares about the Electoral College.”  I think they do now.

What strikes me as I read about TALK and think about my own works, Faithless Elector and Dark Network, is that the outlines for our current situation have been in place for a long time.  It took only an effort of imagination to see where things were going and how it might turn out.  I continue to work on the final book in the trilogy and delve into who the conspirators really are and what they want.  But as I strive to understand them and write them, I find I have to abandon the current, anguished state of politics as (un)usual once again–this time in favor of a stark, vindictive reality.

This time, reality threatens to outpace imagination.  As I challenge and query the plot points and action in the current draft, as I fret over motivations, I worry that my own imagination may not have stretched far enough.  Maybe it requires a new perspective.

In TALK, it seems the protagonist Stan Powers is troubled with guilt.  In my books the protagonists are propelled by a sense of justice for its own sake, and–in the case of Duncan Calder–as retributive.  I worry that such notions may be quickly becoming quaint.

I titled this blog piece “Shakespearian Guilt” because whether we’re familiar with Shakespeare’s villains, we understand the feelings of guilt that accompany heinous acts.  Richard III is visited by ghosts of those he murdered, and they curse him:  “think on me, despair, and die,” they say.  Macbeth is accused by ghosts, Henry IV feels the need to atone for usurping Richard II’s throne.  We understand it, and we feel better that these characters are miserable, despite their high status.  But what happens when they’re not troubled, when they have no qualms?  The epigram for Dark Network hinted at it:  “Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience” (Adam Smith).

For those who’ve read the books, I see the dark network conspirators as baffled that events have come to this bloody head (a few well placed bribes should have taken care of it); they’re appalled by the body count that’s piling up across the books, but not because there’s blood on their hands, but because it’s untidy, public.  Feeling mortified that it has come to this, doesn’t mean they can’t sleep at night, or that quiet moments are troubled with doubt.  Far from it. They’re doing the right and virtuous thing; and such men never question themselves or their motives.  If they win, it’s because the angels were on their side.  If they lose, the forces of darkness have won…but only for now.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network. Find them through Indybound.org.  

They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center