A short history of fictional espionage

I was born in 1952.  That’s rather a long time ago.  About sixty years, in fact.  (I heard that, you in the back, and you are correct —  I am older than dirt.)

Now, back in my day, we had this thing called television.  Oh, yeah, I know you have television now, but not like we had television.  My family, based in Baltimore, had programming on three channels to choose from — 2, 11, and 13.  Sometimes, in the evening, you could get a snowy picture out of channels 4 and 5, broadcast from DC.

As a Little, my television viewing consisted of The Early Riser, Captain Kangaroo, various afternoon game shows that had moved into the new medium from radio — As the World Turns and Guiding Light, if I was staying with my grandmother — The Ed Sullivan Show, Monday-Wednesday-Saturday-Whatever night at the movies; and the other show that aired at four o’clock on weekdays, and ran movies staring Joe E. Brown, W.C. Fields, Abbot and Costello, The Three Stooges; The Keystone Cops; Charlie Chaplin; The Bowery Boys, Our Gang; Tarzan and Bomba…

I was a faithful viewer of Cap’n Tug, which came over Channel Five at my dinner time.  I’d sit on the floor in front of the TV with the dog, sharing my slice of yellow American cheese with mustard between two pieces of white bread sandwich with the dog (one bite for me; one bite for her. What?  She liked mustard.), watching cartoons, and listening to the Cap’n as he moved his tug back and forth across Baltimore Harbor in pursuit of work.

Course, there was Disneyland, and the Mouseketeers; Queen for a Day.  In the early evening, I watched Sergeant Bilko, You Bet Your Life.  Saturday was cartoons; Roy Rogers, Sky King, My Friend Flicka, The Lone Ranger, Cisco Kid…

Then there were the cop and G-man shows:  The Naked City, The FBI, Dragnet. . .

And then, in 1964, eleven days after my 12th birthday — there came The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

I had, by this point, absorbed quite a lot of storytelling through my eyeballs; and I was a tough critic.  But I had never seen anything like this.  The chemistry between the characters, the cool dialogue, the stakes,  the explosions!, the daring escapades, the sly humor. I  was in love, and I wanted More of This, Please.

In short order, I got. . .not exactly More of This, but More Like This:  The Avengers, with that marvelous tension between Peel and Steed; I Spy; The Wild, Wild West with the buddy-thing going between Jim and Artie (and y’know, the explosions and the cool dialogue and the adventure!); Honey West; Mission Impossible; Get Smart; Johnny Quest. . .

Television was spy-mad, and though my parents (unfairly!) ruled that I was too young to stay up for Secret Agent, and MUCH too young to view James Bond flicks, I had enough to keep my brain buzzing.  Also, my mother, who wouldn’t think of allowing my tender eyes to rest upon a  Bond Girl, had no problem with my reading every Ian Fleming book in BCPL’s collection.

It was about this time that I began making up stories in my head, to keep myself occupied during the long, dull hours at school.  And it’s not really a surprise, is it, that the very first character I met inside my head was a. . .spy?  Well, but!  An interstellar spy, because that was exciting, and new (since, yanno, I hadn’t heard of the Lensmen, yet).  Because a spy needs somebody to watch his back, I figured he should have a partner, somebody who could shoot and take care of both of them, should the need arise — not another spy, though, someone who hadn’t told lies so long he’d forgotten what truth looked like — a soldier!  Yes.  And the soldier should be a girl, because why should boys have all the explosions, anyway?

Twenty years after The Man from U.N.C.L.E lit up the black-and-white screen in my parent’s living room, having in the between-time told myself countless stories about Val Con and Miri and The Green People — On October 31, 1984, Steve and I packed up a manuscript detailing the adventures of Miri and Val Con and the Clutch Turtles — Agent of Change, by Lee Miller — and mailed it to Ace Books.

It was, of course, rejected; DAW rejected it, too.

In December, 1985, Del Rey Books mailed us a contract, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Illya Kuryakin and Napolean Solo have a lot to answer for, yeah.  But I like to think their grand-stories have done them proud.


2 thoughts on “A short history of fictional espionage”

  1. This makes so much sense! As another age-mate from 1952, I salute you. The nerds in the Chicago public schools back then were writing and making reel-to-reel spy stories and passing them around. Reading this blog today just warms my heart, and I want to thank you and Steve for the many many hours of enjoyment I (and my husband and kids) have spent in the Liaden Universe. You-two are treasured authors in our nerdy house (we all teach at a university), and we are on 2nd and 3rd copies of all of the books, having given them away or read them to shreds. Bless you!

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