As an author who found myself specializing in spy thrillers with female antiheroes, I was naturally drawn to La Femme Nikita and The Little Drummer Girl, two of the shining examples of the subgenre.
During my break after THE WATCHMEN, I spent years toying with my own spin on these stories. I would have a young – a very young – teenage runaway, living on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks, drafted into service as an assassin by her government. Ideology would be used to indoctrinate her. But this same ideology would also set her head spinning, and perhaps – herein lay the tension – eventually lead her to rebel against her masters.
As a bonus, I saw a chance to fulfill a childhood fantasy by writing a Marvel superhero-type figure. My young teenage assassin would kick over-the-top ass. This meant providing a Marvel-esque origin story, complete with an Oedipus (or Elektra) complex to supply motivation. Spider-Man had Uncle Ben. Daredevil had Battlin’ Jack Murdock. My antiheroine, Cassie Bradbury, would have her surrogate father figure Julian Quinn.
But for years, I couldn’t wrestle my story into shape. I knew it would take place in Russia, and as I did my research, the novel got bigger and bigger. I had come of age during the Cold War, and so part of me considered a Russia-set spy novel to be a “real” spy novel. If this was to be my first “real” spy novel, I wanted to get everything in. After writing a thousand pages, I set it aside. I would come back to it only if I could find focus.
That focus came with Edward Snowden.
Western intelligence agencies, Edward Snowden revealed in 2013, were not only infiltrating Islamic extremist groups and Russian sleeper cells. They were also watching you, model citizen and responsible taxpayer, via the webcam and software already installed on the computer you had bought at your local neighborhood superstore. (And this was before the Biggest of the Big-Brother technologies – Siri and Alexa – had gained much traction.)
Whether you considered Snowden patriot or traitor, hero or narcissist – or, perhaps, all of the above – his revelations drove home the uneasy inverse relationship between privacy and security. And by running into the waiting arms of the Kremlin, he put a metaphorical big Red bow around the package.
Other post-9/11 disclosures had raised my antennae already. Suspected enemies of the state were detained indefinitely without trial, subjected to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. The Patriot Act had authorized roving wiretaps and government searches of business records. But these remained comfortably removed from the typical personal experience. Snowden’s leaks, by contrast, hit the average Westerner where he or she lived – in front of his or her computer.
In Disposable Asset, Edward Snowden is not mentioned once by name. But his presence is felt on every page. The book evokes Snowden explicitly, telling the story of an American defector who has fled to Russia with a cache of classified documents that expose intelligence overreaching, where, having been offered sanctuary by the Kremlin, he is murdered by a CIA assassin – my kick-ass over-the-top teenaged operative.
As a manhunt develops for the assassin, we witness firsthand how, in the information age, privacy has become an antiquated concept. Cell phones are remotely accessed without users’ knowledge. Facial recognition software combs through endless surveillance camera and quadcopter drone footage. Spy satellites with a resolution of five centimeters reconnoiter the earth’s surface from thousands of miles above. Infrared cameras and parabolic microphones eavesdrop through walls and closed doors. The scantest traces of blood, skin or hair lead to complete DNA profiles, with the chances of different individuals sharing identical profiles one in one billion.
Disposable Asset was the first time I wrote about cutting-edge spy tech, but not the last. FALSE FLAG continues where Disposable Asset lets off, adding the real time surveillance drone ARGUS-IS to the mix. THE KOREAN WOMAN, with the advent of the quantum computer, takes it to the next level.
Disposable Asset also describes a reenergized Russian Empire, a reinvigorated network of secret prison camps in Siberia, and a ruthless and determined inner circle at a Kremlin that harbors little respect for human rights and none whatsoever for civil liberties.
My Marvel-type superheroine, as it turned out, was going to carry some pretty heavy thematic baggage. But I tried to keep it all beneath the surface, to make the story my fastest, most action-packed yet. The book received my first starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, giving me hope that I succeeded.
And then the age-old question: What next?
I had written spy thrillers about World War II (A GATHERING OF SPIES and A GAME OF SPIES), the Cold War (THE ART OF THE DEVIL), and the War on Terror (THE WATCHMEN). I’d set stories in America, Germany, England, and Italy and France and the Mediterranean (DECEPTION), and now Russia.
But so far, I hadn’t directly confronted the most obvious geopolitical tinderbox of our time …