The best novels containing the origins of Spy-fi

Wesley Britton Author Of Behind Alien Lines
By Wesley Britton

Who am I?

Dr. Wesley Britton is the author of four non-fiction books—Spy Television, Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film, Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage, and The Encyclopedia of TV Spies. He's also the author of eight Beta-Earth Chronicles sci-fi stories. For seven years, he was co-host of online radio’s Dave White Presents. He earned his doctorate in American Literature at the University of North Texas. In 2016 he retired from teaching English at Harrisburg Area Community College, after 33 years as an instructor. He lives with his wife, Grace, their dog Joey and their cat Molly in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Wesley also has a Radio show and podcast called Remember When.

I wrote...

Behind Alien Lines

By Wesley Britton,

Book cover of Behind Alien Lines

What is my book about?

Behind Alien Lines is a collection of short stories derived from the Beta Earth Chronicles. The same characters and adventures that you love. We take the genres of science fiction and spy thrillers and mash them together as SpyFi.

The books I picked & why

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The Green Rust

By Edgar Wallace,

Book cover of The Green Rust

Why this book?

One of the most prolific thriller writers of the early 20th century, Edgar Wallace wasn't alone in writing speculative fiction employing new technology that reflected concerns over the First World War. He wasn't alone in fearing biological weapons as in the Green Rust in which Germany planned to use to release germs that would wipe out much of earth's wheat, giving Germany domination after their surrender at the end of the Great War.

The biological weapon in the Green Rust wasn't Wallace's first use of a concept that would be employed countless times ever since; his 1913 The Fourth Plague had an Italian gang called the Red Hand blackmailing England with their own biological threat much in the spirit of what Blofeld and his Spectre would try out in the thrillers of Ian Fleming.

Later, Wallace’s Little Green Man and Other Stories also anticipated the technology of the future, including a computer-controlled hidden camera and infrared photography.

Mr Standfast (1919).

By John Buchan,

Book cover of Mr Standfast (1919).

Why this book?

The most influential spy novelist of them all, John Buchan, had the Germans planning to disable the British army with anthrax germs. While an admittedly small part of all the various plots in the complex novel, Buchan’s Richard Hannay touched all the bases in the five books in which he starred. For another example, in 1924 The Three Hostages, international demigods stirred up trouble with brainwashing and hypnotism. This device was a popular weapon employed by the likes of Fu Manchu.

The Stainless Steel Rat

By Harry Harrison,

Book cover of The Stainless Steel Rat

Why this book?

While not exactly a pioneer in spy-fi, still when I posed a query to a number of fellow sci-fi authors asking who they would nominate for a Top 5 list of spy-fi writers, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat stories were listed more than any other series. The tongue-in-cheek intergalactic adventures showcased “Slippery Jim” Di Griz morphing from a successful criminal into a reluctant secret agent for the Intergalactic Special Corps reporting to its leader, Harold Inskipp. In a series of novels and short stories, DiGriz Moves from planet to planet, universe to universe, traveling in time, and sharing his world-saving action with his vicious wife, Angelina, and eventually their twin sons, Jim and Bolivar. Mostly they battle humanoid dictators, cruel right-wing governments, and power-hungry aliens using strange weaponry, incredible luck, and the wits and skills of a seasoned criminal. And all these yarns are told with a disdainful, ironic first-person point of view.

The Ipcress File

By Len Deighton,

Book cover of The Ipcress File

Why this book?

When I asked fellow sci-fi authors what books should be cited as Top 5 “Spy-fi” contenders, only the Stainless Steel Rat books and 1990s The Borne Identity got multiple votes. Well, if you like brainwashing and mind-control as a “spy-fi” trope, you gotta go back to the titles listed above, Richard Condon’s 1959 The Manchurian Candidate, and Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File. Of those, Ipcress most deserves a place on this list. Deighton’s first Harry Palmer spy thriller pits the British secret agent against the CIA, his own people, and the Soviets in their various schemes to interfere with neutron bomb tests. Suspected of being a Soviet agent, at one point, he thinks he’s in Hungary where he is drugged and subjected to psychological and physical torture, and nearly cracks before eventually managing to escape—only to discover that he is in fact in London. Eventually, he uncovers the baddies are using a process called "Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex with Stress" (IPCRESS) to brainwash victims into loyalty to the Soviet Union.

The Ipcress process became a dramatic feature of the Michael Caine 1965 film version of the story and again in 2022 when the book was adapted into a six-part British miniseries. How’s that for longevity?

Secrets of the Foreign Office

By William Le Queux,

Book cover of Secrets of the Foreign Office

Why this book?

William Le Queux’s Duckworth Drew was a secret agent working for British embassies around Europe reporting to the Marquis of Macclesfield, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Like many such agents to follow, he worked in diplomatic and aristocratic circles with finesse and had considerable luck with the ladies.

In short stories like “The Secret of the Submarine,” Drew starred in adventures that were precursors to later yarns focused on new technology as when he encountered an "electronic eye," an Italian device that detonated mines. Such playfulness with then cutting-edge tech reflected the author’s interest in merging adventure with weaponized science.

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