I was born at the tail end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell when I was nine years old, the Soviet Union collapsed before I’d finished elementary school. As a kid, the Cold War was something discussed by adults over my head, or presented as a fact with little larger context on the evening news. To me, it had little tangible impact: duck-and-cover nuclear drills were already something of a bygone era to giggle at, and the Soviet Union was little more than a big red blob on my globe.
My exposure to the nuances of the Cold War thus came later, not through current events, but through the lens of popular culture—specifically, spy stories. Books like John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or, to some extent, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels; later, movies like The Hunt for Red October and Sneakers, and TV shows like The Sandbaggers. It would be hard to claim, of course, that these stories were high fidelity mirrors of the real life espionage conflicts of the era, but they boast enough of a common tone and similar DNA to suggest a seed of truth below the many layers of fiction.
In these stories, diplomatic powers feint and joust far above the heads of the folks on the ground, and our secret agents often have far more in common with their opposite numbers than with the people giving them orders from back home. So an air of professional courtesy emerges: yes, we are on opposing sides, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sit down and have a drink with each other. Our conflict is ideological, not personal, and we can draw a line between them, even as we carefully look for a weakness to exploit while trying to give nothing of our own away.
That atmosphere is one of the key elements of Cold War spy stories that has always fascinated me. As depicted in fiction, Cold War espionage is game-like, bound by unspoken rules: who to engage, how to engage, where to engage. What things are acceptable and what lines you simply do not cross, even in pursuit of your country’s agenda, because at the end of the day the more important battle may be the one in your soul.
And there’s something refreshing about that. With today’s constant barrage of events that seem to daily go beyond the pale with glee, I think we all harbor a little nostalgia for the idea of an era where some things were simply not done, even if perhaps it never really existed as such. An era that felt, if not civil, at least civilized.
Fictional Cold War spies like George Smiley and Neil Burnside are defined by a world-weariness that stands in stark contrast to many of their modern counterparts, the gritty Jack Bauers who often seem all too eager to defeat the enemies by any means necessary, where “any means necessary” usually means violence and torture. And whereas today’s conflicts seem to delight in othering our enemies, Cold War opponents have the self-awareness to wonder if we are really so different. After all, both our powers have their fingers on the nuclear trigger. Mutually Assured Destruction, like the tango, takes two.
And even as that risk of catastrophe hangs in the balance like Sword of Damocles, everyday life continues apace. For every pulse-pounding U2 incident or Cuban Missile Crisis, there were uncountable days of pseudo-normalcy, of people getting on with their lives, never quite aware—or blissfully embracing the ignorance—of how destruction was being fended off by a few key players making often small choices. Those agents on the ground are willing to make deals because there’s one simple truth that all can agree on: a cold war is still better than the alternative.
That’s the kind of conflict I wanted to portray in The Bayern Agenda. Simon Kovalic is an agent of the Commonwealth of Independent Systems, a man with a job to do. But he also has a bigger responsibility: to ensure that this Galactic Cold War between the Commonwealth and its rival Illyrican Empire remains one of frigid diplomacy rather than incandescent weaponry. Even if the galaxy isn’t at peace, it’s at least largely peaceful, and Kovalic has seen enough of open war to know that he’d like to keep things that way. It’s a tricky balance, because it means playing by the rules, but just as importantly not being the last person playing by those rules when the game suddenly but inevitably changes.
The Bayern Agenda will hit shelves in March 2019, but you can pick up The Caledonian Gambit, set in the same universe, right now.