Modern readers expect pace-racing action, an intriguing plot, and realistic characters. But they also demand a believable story, and that presents a unique challenge to thriller writers in today’s world of high-tech gadgets, the internet, and massive computing power.
I love working with high-tech. I graduated in electronics in the eighties, and the exciting gadgets and ideas that engineers generate never fail to amaze me. I try to use that experience to enhance my writing, and in this two-part blog, we’ll look at some of the constraints and difficulties our high-tech world imposes on story lines, the new challenges authors must grapple with to maintain realism, but also the fresh opportunities that new technology offers for plot ideas.
High Tech in the Crucible
For Agatha Christie, it was simple. Suspense could easily be generated by imprisoning her book’s characters in an environment in which mortal danger lurks, but from which they cannot escape. This is sometimes known as “The Crucible” technique.
Trapping them there is a simple way to create tension—take six friends and place them in a manor house surrounded by ten feet thick snowdrifts; they cannot leave. Now murder one of their party, and the opportunity for tension is obvious. The murderer is one of the five still alive; he or she is still in their midst because there is no way to leave. And if they find someone has snipped the phone line, they cannot call for support. They are stuck with a murderer without help. What was his motive? Will he strike again?
While that was fine for the 1950s, it is hard to make such scenarios work these days. Any of the guests could call the emergency services from their mobile, or send a Tweet to the local police station. The modern writer creating stories based in the 21st century must therefore work a little harder than their predecessors to make crucibles work.
And technology makes plot lines more difficult in other situations, not just the crucible. Barely twenty-five years ago, no-one but the richest high-fliers had a mobile phone; today, seventy-five percent of the world’s population can make a phone call almost anywhere across the globe. These days, a 4G phone call can be made on Mount Everest to an altitude of 5,200m[i]. This means modern authors cannot be lazy. They must work at their plots to ensure they remain realistic in the modern world.
When writing Eavesdrop, which has pivotal scenes in Finland, I had to site some of them in the country’s remoter northern areas away from its capital Helsinki so that the hero couldn’t simply use his phone to tell the authorities what he’d discovered. These days, isolation can be difficult to achieve.
As spy writer Charles Cummings pointed out in an article for The Times[ii], technologies such as number-plate recognition cameras and computer systems that track phone calls and credit card swipes mean a terrorist is no longer able to drive across Europe unseen. Now, one’s character must have access to credit cards in false names (and must therefore have a means to obtain those, despite all of today’s identity checks), and have contacts who can arrange false car registration plates, as well as access to large amounts of cash without arising suspicion.
None of these are impossible; they simply make the author’s work harder to maintain realism.
Demands on the Modern Writer
As well as recent advances in technology imposing constraints on modern plot lines, they also place a demand on authors to keep abreast of what’s possible.
For instance, hacking and virus generation are now sciences in their own right, and the author needs to be aware of what can be done. Think, for instance, of Israel’s scheme to destroy Iranian nuclear plants in 2008. They could have sent F15 and F16 fighters across Saudi Arabia from their Negev base to drop 2000lb bombs on the reactors as they did in 1981. However, twenty-seven years later they took a more subtle approach.
In conjunction with American intelligence experts, Israel’s software engineers developed a computer worm (a type of virus) they christened Staxret. Once released, the virus spread throughout the world’s computer networks to hunt the specific Siemens computers known to be running the Iranian’s uranium enrichment plants. Once it had infected those in the centre of the Iranian facilities at Natanz, the virus exploited a known security vulnerability of the computer to take control of the plant’s centrifuges. While reporting back to the centre’s control desk that all was well in the system, it secretly sped up the centrifuges to such unprecedented speeds that they started to break. One thousand centrifuges were rendered inoperable before anyone realised something was amiss.
No-one has yet made public how the worm succeeded in reaching the Iranian computers—something it managed to do despite those computers deliberately being isolated from the internet. It is surmised that they entered by first infecting laptops used by technicians that worked there, which were later connected to the main computers during maintenance procedures.
Novelists must obviously know and understand the methods deployed to deliver computer viruses to their target.
There are frequent cases of industrial espionage, where hackers have succeeded in getting their spying software installed on their victims’ computers. Some years ago, a London couple ran a profitable but illegal business selling trade secrets. Their main tool was a piece of highly sophisticated software (called a Trojan), which they embedded in DVDs containing business proposals, which they mailed to CEOs of a variety of companies. Because their software was so targeted at those individuals, the anti-virus programs failed to detect it, and the CEOs happily inserted the disks into their machines. The Trojan set to work and scanned the companies’ entire computer systems. Anything interesting was copied and sent back to the hackers, who promptly sold them to that company’s competitors.
The modern thriller author must understand these techniques, at least in basic terms, if they are to maintain realism. How? Search internet technology news sites for such stories, and a wealth of real-life examples come to hand from which to copy.
Of-course, Edward Snowden’s leaks have placed details of many high-tech espionage techniques into the public domain, and these can again provide the author with an appreciation of what is currently possible. For example, he leaked information about how the NSA developed an innocent-looking USB lead with a tiny transmitter built into the connector. A spy just needed to break into an office and swap the cable with one already in use (for example to a printer), and they’ve got access to that computer’s data the moment its owner entered their password the next day.
And what about eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations? Although phone tapping isn’t as easy as in the days of copper cable, everyone knows from media reports of phone hacking that it’s possible to intercept cellular phone calls. A common technique is what is known as “man-in-the-middle”, where the spy has equipment that mimics a base station (just google ‘Stingray spy tool’ to discover more). As the victim’s phone comes near, it locks to the spy’s fake base-station’s radio signal rather than the genuine one because it’s stronger. All of the phone’s traffic then passes through the spy’s hands, which he forwards on to the real base-station so that his presence isn’t spotted, while taking a copy for himself. It can even instruct the victim’s phone to reduce the encryption level to make the data easier to decipher.
Accounts of such events are easily available via news articles, and authors should regularly scour such sources.
In the second blog of this two-part series, we’ll look at what opportunities modern technology brings to fiction storylines.
[i] The Telegraph, 5th July 2013
Photographs (freeimages.com) by: Natalia Pankova, Stefano Barni, Pietro Ricciardi, Chris Cockran, Lotus Head, Nick Benjamisz, Philippe Ramaken, Ryan Bowen, Simon Stratford, Colin Adamson, Matthew Bowden.
About the author
Eavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?