Book Review: Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

In 2002, the British government agency, Military Intelligence, Section 5, also known as the Security Service, or simply MI5, advertised for a part-time historian to write an official history of the Service, in time for its 100-year anniversary in 2009. The paperback edition, released December, 2010, included some small corrections and improved details, particularly on more recent terrorist activity, which previously, for security reasons, could not be published.

It’s a far cry from just a few decades ago where Service staff often could tell no one where exactly they worked, and even the appointment of the Director General was not publicly announced. In order to complete this monumental task, Christopher Andrew, a leading authority on the history of intelligence had access to tremendous amounts of declassified along with still confidential records. No doubt there were occasional clashes between the desire to detail a complete history and the need to avoid compromising national security.

The story of British intelligence dates to the first decade of the 20th century, precipitated by several years of increasing public hysteria and popular novels about “the Kaiser’s spies” operating in England. It all culminated in October, 1909 with an army captain named Vernon Kell and a navy commander named Mansfield Cumming running a two-man operation, trying to build an intelligence organization from the ground up. It wasn’t long before the two men parted ways to head their own organizations. Kell was first Director General MI5, whose province would be espionage and subversion within the Commonwealth, while Cumming was first Chief of MI6, responsible for collecting intelligence about foreign powers outside British soil.

This hefty history seems both thorough and objective. Broken into sections on “The German Threat”, “Between the Wars”, “The Second World War”, “The Early Cold War”, “The Later Cold War”, and “After the Cold War”, the individual chapters nevertheless cover much of the same period from different perspectives. For example, one chapter in the section of “The Early Cold War” covers some specific decrypted Soviet communications that would eventually lead to the uncovering of the famous “Cambridge Five”, enormously successful Soviet spies who had penetrated British intelligence.

Then another chapter is all about the lesser-known but simultaneous period in history of the early negotiations for the state of Israel. The major security threat of that unstable time was Zionist terrorism. (Andrew also tells us that the extremist Jewish Nationalist groups of this time were the very last in history to self-describe as terrorists for their cause.)

It’s interesting to see how priorities have changed throughout the history of the Security Service. Though originally conceived of as defending British Commonwealth from agents of foreign powers inside its borders — essentially spies, saboteurs, and a potential fifth column in case of war – MI5’s authority over all state enemies within the realm also put it front and centre in all instances of domestic terrorism as well.

The significance of this became clear during the Troubles of Northern Ireland, starting in the late 1960s. Actions by the Irish Republican Army originally catalyzed the creation of Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police almost a century earlier (previous to the existence of any military intelligence service), but the Security Service took a leading role when violence re-erupted in the later 20th century. In more recent decades, Muslim terrorist groups have been a major concern to both intelligence officials and the general public in the West, and this, too, has fallen firmly within MI5’s operational scope.

By far the biggest focuses of the Service throughout its history are the enormously successful “Double-Cross System” used to mislead the Germans by false information in the Second World War, and the 40-plus years of espionage and counter-espionage against the Soviet Union, including the uncovering of the “Cambridge Five” and the famous “Atom Spies” who passed on the secret of the bomb. But as noted, it’s interesting to see that even while lesser-known threats are in the background as far as the public is concerned, the Service still has a smaller team quietly collecting information. During WWII, only a small amount of energy was devoted to Soviet intelligence (not enough, it later turned out), but analyzing what intelligence was collected became a priority during the Cold War. Similarly, glimmerings of Muslim terrorism are foreshadowed in the latter years of the Cold War, though they were not considered a priority at the time.

This is not a weekend read. Andrew could probably take some of the highlights and cut this 1000-page behemoth into something much more digestible, but if he did, it wouldn’t be a history anymore. Objective, fact-based (with an endnote for nearly every sentence to prove it), and detailed, Defend the Realm really packs it in. The density of information is high, the amount of filler is essentially nil, and the type is quite small.

Andrew also does not speculate as the writer of a general audience work might. He’s a professional historian and this is a professional piece of historical scholarship. I’ve been reading this book on and off for six months, and some casual readers might have given up before then. It’s not narrative and we know only what definitely happened; he does not tell us about the emotional states of the principal players or speculate on the dramatic tension at some of the events.

On the other hand, the material sometimes speaks for itself. This is the real-life story of war, foreign spies, secret political meetings, terrorists, and narrowly-evaded disasters of all kinds. For hard-core history/military/intelligence buffs, this is a goldmine of carefully collected and organized material. The shadowy realm of military intelligence is a rarely thought about but inescapable part of our modern world.

(Vintage Books, 2010)

Article first published as Book Review: Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew on Blogcritics.

Holiday Work Schedule

Just a quick note that I did indeed make it back safely from Panama last week, but have had very little time for writing since then. It’s been a busy month, lots of touring around both in Panama and here in CR. I did manage to squeeze out a couple quick reviews, one of which I’ll post up here later (another hasn’t been placed yet), and I also finished up an author interview I’m polishing up today for a potentially-interested outlet.

I’m also pleased that I’m officially caught up on all my assigned reviews. I have a pile of books that I’ve requested myself, which means I am not beholden to any particular editor or publication to review them for.

But I do have to make up for lost time. Before New Year’s, with any luck, I’ll get through a good five or six of the features and reviews that I’ve been meaning to start, or have half-finished, as the case may be. I do wish I wrote faster — it takes me a solid two or three days for a decent feature article.

And of course there’s the ongoing chore of placing my finished work, which means pitching, pitching, and pitching. Anyway, I normally try for three updates a week on the site, but I’m giving myself permission to do less than that from now until the New Year. Let’s call it a holiday schedule.

The Endpoint of All Future Technology

Science fiction writer Karl Schroeder’s intriguing answer to the Fermi Paradox, which basically asks, the universe is so big, so where are all the aliens at?

“If the Fermi Paradox is a profound question, then this answer is equally profound. It amounts to saying that the universe provides us with a picture of the ultimate end-point of technological development. In the Great Silence, we see the future of technology, and it lies in achieving greater and greater efficiencies, until our machines approach the thermodynamic equilibria of their environment, and our economics is replaced by an ecology where nothing is wasted. After all, SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products: waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals.”

Read the rest at Karl Schroeder’s blog.

P.S. Back from Panama today, but this is still an auto-scheduled post from before I left.

Another Auto-Post (with Comics!)

Still in Panama. Having a good Saturday?

Back in (I think) 2001, I made a little humour site for myself. I did some Googling (actually I probably used Yahoo or Metacrawler way back then) and found five one-hour lessons on basic HTML (it’s not a difficult thing, even for those who don’t care much for computer languages). I spent a couple evenings on it and then starting editing source code.

WordPress is user-friendly enough that I rarely edit the HTML manually anymore, but I still find this comic hilarious.

Nebula Nominations Open

I’m scheduling this post to auto-publish in my absence, as by the time you read this I’ll already be in Panama. Gonna go see the canal and have some Panaman tacos or something, I guess. Back on Monday, meanwhile, here’s a quick write-up I’ve done on this year’s SF (certainly not exhaustive), in light of the Nebula Award being open for nominations.

Five Important (To Me) Non-Fiction Books

Books that were not only interesting, but taught me something new that I also happen to think was important. In no particular order:

1) The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs: “It is easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic . . . or immigrants . . . or the whimsies of the middle class. The decay of cities goes deeper and is more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work. The forms in which money is used for city building — or withheld from use — are powerful instruments of city decline today. The forms in which money is used must be converted to instruments of regeneration — from instruments buying violent cataclysms to instruments buying continual, gradual, complex, and gentler change.”

2) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond: “The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas.”

3) The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier:The left needs to move on from the West’s self-flagellation and idealized notions of developing countries. Poverty is not romantic.

“The countries of the bottom billion are not there to pioneer experiments in socialism. They need to be helped along the already-trodden path of building market economies. The international financial institutions are not part of a conspiracy against poor countries. Rather, they represent beleaguered efforts to help.

“The right needs to move on from the notion of aid as part of the problem — as welfare payments to scroungers and crooks. It has to disabuse itself of the belief that growth is something that is always there for the taking, if only societies would get themselves together.”

4) The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan: “’Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world — and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.”

5) The World Without Us by Alan Weisman: “When you examine societies just as self-confident as ours that unraveled and were eventually swallowed by the jungle…you see that the balance between ecology and society is exquisitely delicate. If something throws that off, it all can end.

“. . . Two thousand years later, someone will be squinting over the fragments, trying to find our what went wrong.”

Bonus) The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: “To achieve style, begin by affecting none.”

A Plagiarist Confesses

Here’s an interesting story. A guy who loves to read and wants to be a great writer starts finding that his work is much improved when he spices it up with big chunks of text lifted from famous authors. He goes to college (I’m guessing English Lit), graduates, works in a bookstore, and all along is writing, with small successes here and there (a poem in a major anthology, a well-received short story).

This all culminates in a spy thriller book that receives great initial reviews and is selling well, until three weeks in it’s discovered that the first fifteen pages include twenty plagiarized passages from everyone from Robert Ludlum (creator of Jason Bourne) to the James Bond novels (created by Ian Fleming, but it’s not clear if he took anything from Fleming’s original books). All the books are now being recalled, and customers are being told to return them for a refund (though I wouldn’t, it might be worth something on Ebay one day).

The plagiarist tells his story on an addiction support site, and talks a lot about AA. Interestingly, as one commenter points out, he doesn’t actually apologize in the entire piece.

Frankenstein and Other First Novels

I look forward to a package of fresh books this week, all review copies I have requested from one publishing house or another. Meanwhile, I’ve been finishing up the last of the books I originally brought south with me, and expect to polish the last of them off next week.

I’ve just now finished Frankenstein, and yes, it is a first novel and sometimes clunky, as iconic as the story has become, but the (arguable) problems with it derive less from Shelley herself than the style of writing of the time. With respect to Austen, romantic aka pre-Victorian literature is not known for being tightly-plotted.

The 160-page novel, if you cut out all the exposition on the Swiss countryside, unnecessary back story of irrelevant minor characters, and long, melodramatic monologues by Victor Frankenstein (who, by all accounts, never was a doctor at all), you might have a decent 30-page short story (or a short graphic novel).

The 19th-century style, particularly for the pre-Victorians, is to drag out narrative, then pile it on when it comes to surprise, suspense, and terror, sometimes to the point where character behaviour makes little sense. Frankenstein brings his monster to life and as soon as it twitches, what does he do but literally run out of his own house and not return until the confused life form has stumbled off into oblivion.

He doesn’t see the monster again for a year, though we are told to believe he has maintained a frenzied sense of dread that entire time. The first few months are spent bedridden and near death, of course, since that brief glimpse of his awakened creation apparently shut down his immune system.

This is rather over the top. How frail were people in those days? Every time something unfortunate or simply unseemly happens, our poor Victor either has a nervous break-down or faints away into a coma. Either way he awakes in bed, prison, or a sanitarium to find three months (at a minimum) have gone by.

It’s certainly a lot easier to simply tell the reader a scene was horrific beyond imagination rather than actually developing dramatic tension and earning one’s emotional pay-offs. Maybe Shelley should have written teen dramas for television.

(For an example of pre-Victorian done well, although it’s faux-pre-Victorian, Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is pretty good once it gets going. At nearly 800 pages, though, its even less concise and to the point than the works it is inspired by.)