S. Lee Manning: In this round of blogs, we are writing about truth stranger than fiction. Specifically, we are supposed to be writing about truth discovered through research into our novels that our readers might think is too out there to be credible.
I have a problem.
My problem is the truth that is most unbelievable but most closely related to a novel that I’m currently writing – isn’t something that I found through research. It’s been widely reported in the news.
In Ride a Red Horse, my Russian-born, American-naturalized hero, Kolya Petrov, reluctantly returns to his former agency after weaponized uranium has been smuggled into the United States. He’s the only one capable of talking to a possible source back in Russia. Not to give up too much, the plot turns on a misinformation scheme set into motion by Russian officials. Not only are American operatives fed misinformation, Russian sources plant fake news stories on line to whip up public sentiment. Purpose: confuse and mislead the United States into allowing Russia to invade and take over a country that was formerly part of the Soviet empire.
My worry in coming up with this plot was that it might not be sufficiently credible. After all, credibility is critical for espionage fiction. The reader has to feel that events put forth in the book could happen, even if they probably won’t.
Now the elephant.
When I came up with this plot about a year ago, I had no idea how close my book’s plot would be to what occurred over the past year. The American intelligence community has verified that Russia did indeed launch sophisticated cyber attacks on the United States, using hacking and misinformation, in an effort to undermine the democratic process of the presidential election.
Russia hackers invaded the e-mails of the Democratic candidate and the DNC. Russians put up fake news sites. Legions of Russian trolls and botnets tweeted false information back and forth.
Russian manipulation of social media didn’t start with this election. In 2014, researchers found various social sites advocating for the return of Alaska to Russia. The posts were traced back – you guessed it – to Russian trolls. Russia trolls also attacked people criticizing Assad in Syria. They’ve spread misinformation about a second coup in Turkey, and about Disney World. They sometimes seized on a target’s ethnicity, using that as a basis to launch personal attacks that others would join.
Russian intelligence relied not only on an army of hackers and trolls, and on sophisticated bots, but on “useful idiots” who picked up on Russian misinformation and continued to spread the false information as if it were true. The Russian campaign was further aided by news organizations that reported in-depth every e-mail released by Wikileaks, even with the knowledge provided by US intelligence that the releases were part of a cyber attack to undermine the Clinton campaign.
Why did this happen? Clearly, Putin preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, for reasons I will decline to explore at this point. The fact, however, that Russian cyber warfare may have been a factor, possibly the deciding factor, in a razor thin win by one side in an American Presidential campaign should be the stuff of fiction. But it’s not.
Then the question turns to Putin’s ultimate goal with this campaign in America. That’s not completely clear, but it is clear that Europe, especially Eastern Europe, is very worried. There is a lot of discussion that Putin may feel emboldened, rightly or wrongly, to advance in Europe after various statements about NATO and Putin himself made by the President-elect over the course of the past eighteen months. Clearly, Putin has had designs on Ukraine. He may also have his eye on other countries that split from Russia. Today, as I’m writing this, Marines are going into Norway, on the border with Russia, because Norway is concerned about the potential for Russian aggression. Unfortunately, this is not the terrifying stuff of fiction. This is the terrifying new reality.
On a slightly lighter note, it’s scarily close to what I’ve been plotting out and writing for a year. It has me a little worried. First, because life now seems to be paralleling my plot outline – it gives me some grandiose ideas of my ability to look into or influence the future. If everything I plot out comes true, we’re in real trouble. (I think I just came up with another idea for a novel.)
Second – I’ve put a year into working on this book. Probably have at least six months more to finish the writing, and then a minimum of a year to publication. Maybe more. At the rate we’re going, current events could overtake the events described in my novel. And that would be a bad thing for my novel.
It would be even worse for the world.
Talk about prescient, S. Lee –I can't wait to read RIDE A RED HORSE as I'm sure it will be a terrific thriller. Many authors wait and read a headline and then craft a "what if" story (Nelson DeMille has done this with several of this novels. The fact that you could call them "Ripped from the Headlines" never seems to take away from the pleasure of reading a well-written book!). And yet, you were way ahead of the game. Way to go! Thanks for posting.
Very interesting that you were able to capture something "real" that was happening in the world. You won't have to worry about it being too far fetched now! Can't wait to read RIDE A RED HORSE! (and love that title!)
I love all the background about Russia's disinformation campaign, and you're right – we've been seeing it carried out in countries on Russia's periphery as well as in European countries like Germany, where there's a public warning to beware of Russia's cyberinterference. What a world we live in.
I wish I could be more pleased at having foreseen this. Right now, I just trying to finish Ride before events with Putin and Europe make it outdated.
There have been several times that I've published something and then had it come true. I think it's because we're writing on the cutting edge. Great post, Sandy. Keep writing. If the book comes to life, it may not be great for the world, but it will be good for your book. I can't wait to read RIDE A RED HORSE.