(WARNING: if you don’t like geopolitics or have no interest in Russia, this might not be the best read for you. Thanks ever so much.)
My thriller writer friends often, with a secret pleasure they fail to conceal with lengthy exhales, regale me about their pre-publication interactions with the FBI’s manuscript reviewers—or whatever they be ostentatiously dubbed. You see, they have to—well, actually they don’t have to, it’s voluntary—get their manuscript checked over because the Feds don’t want terrorists getting any brilliant ideas from brilliant novelists’ hyper-researched, perfectly-executed villainous plots. At least that’s the general premise.
But if you ask me, which nobody does and that’s just as well, the FBI wants to make sure they’re being portrayed in a positive light since they have a bit of a PR problem (unlike the CIA, which has benefited from a pro-Western intelligence Hollywood campaign since World War II—think about it).
Anyway, if any of these manuscripts are returned with even minor parts redacted, these friends of mine will bluster their disapproval and mourn the loss of trivial bits of the plot for it’s back to the bloody drawing board—curse you overzealous Federal Bureau of Investigation!
Yet, beneath the loud swills of scotch, there lies in the author’s dilated pupils that secret pleasure which says: “Oh boy, I came up with something of FBI interest—I’m so bloody smart.” I nod and smile, leaving my eyes out of the action because I have different problems aside from non-state actors.
What if instead of terrorists using one’s novel as a blueprint for their next violent act, it’s actually notoriously virile authoritarian presidents stealing your precious ideas before they even have the dignity to make it as far as the FBI’s human word processors? What then?
My story begins in 2014, just before Vladimir Putin—you know the one, and don’t pretend you haven’t seen the memes—seized the Crimean Peninsula from the civil-war-torn and politically overwrought Ukraine following the deposition of the then-president Viktor Yanukovych.
What’s the problem?
Well, besides the land grab being, like, totally illegal, it was my bloody move. Not Putin’s. Mine. And Putin stole it from me.
Oh, sure, disbelieve, but I assure you this isn’t a joke. I was completely buried in plot for a new novel centering around US-Russia-Ukraine relations, and I wrote the catalyst event, which shocked the world and had my fictional Obama frown more sternly than he possibly had ever frowned in his life. I wrote it first, and then Putin, that sly bear-riding wolf, went and did it. And really, it doesn’t matter to me what you think because I know what I know, and what I know is that I predicted the Kremlin’s actions and Ukraine’s subsequent eruptions before they happened. And to this day, to this very day, Twitter is still fluttering about Putin’s actions on the ground in Ukraine through his proxy militias and continual stream of weapons across the border and what-have-you.
Civil war perpetuated in a frozen conflict that benefits nobody except Vladimir V. Putin? Russian oil companies constructing new pipelines to entirely circumvent Ukraine in order to stress the Kyiv government? And the latest thing that has ambassadors and DC officials atwitter, the anti-aircraft S-400 missile defense systems rolling into Ukraine from Russia with their ugly thick treads and walnut-headed soldiers riding in the back?
Tell me something I didn’t inadvertently predict seven years ago.
So, the question is: did Uncle Volodya steal these ideas from me, or did I just play the game of Risk one too many times as a kid and actually learn something from all those Russian history books I read?
If I sound arrogant, please know that it isn’t arrogance but rather disgruntled irritation talking right now. Like, I would absolutely prefer if the things I make up don’t come to pass because what’s the fun in that? If I wanted to write about reality, then I would have written nonfiction to examine—in the safe harbor of retrospection and with all the added details and depth of analysis that 20/20 hindsight provides—what happened and why.
Imagine, if you will, the movie Air Force One or Hunt for Red October or Olympus Has Fallen … The reason such films, such stories, are so riveting and delectable are because their plots, while thinkable and logical to an extent, just aren’t going to happen. If I had written something about planes crashing into the World Trade Center, no one would ever want to read it after the tragedy of 9/11 because then the fiction became reality.
The relationship between fiction and reality is a one-way street with reality coming first always and then fiction hustling along after the fact to scoop up those memories of a certain reality and turn it into something artistic and meaningful in its own right. Like a souvenir you pick up at the beach, so that days or weeks or years later, you can look at it and smile, gaining a feeling that transports you out of your present reality, and just for a little while you are exactly where you want to be—or at least don’t mind being.
Fiction becoming reality just causes the fiction to lose all its magic, all its transportability, all its artistry and power. It’s incredibly dispiriting when impossible things (deemed such by virtue of originating from Hollywood) become possible, and not just possible, but actualized events. Imagine, if you will, the freeway in Los Angeles and some three hundred vehicles stopping and its passengers emerging to dance and sing in egregious fashion to some ill-written song about being stuck in traffic underneath the California sun? God forbid.
It boils down to this: fiction must remain fiction, otherwise it’s without charm, and when without charm, it has no sway over anybody.
That’s what happened to my books, you see. Through no fault of my own, at least as far as I can tell, my books predicted far too much. And they have not only gained relevance and proven to be quite accurate but seem to have been stuck in the same timeless black hole that the Ukrainian conflict has unsurprisingly fallen.
Until Putin dies, which I have been very careful not to write, my books will remain in the category of borderline nonfiction, and I really don’t appreciate that.
Here’s a funny little story:
Five years ago, when I was pitching my first book in this 7-part series, one of the literary agents wrote me back with a very supercilious, “I feel as if your manuscript is going to lose relevance quickly. By the time it goes to press, Ukraine won’t be an issue and Russia will likely return Crimea with all the international pressure.”
I’m so jaded, I’ve forgotten how to laugh.
But Ukraine’s not the only subject in which I made some—let’s say—lucky predictions. Libya is another place. In 2015, I was writing the screenplay version of my first book and started the whole thing in Tripoli. Russians were working with the Libyan anti-government forces, specifically with the Islamic jihadists of ISIS who had settled near and around Sirte (in my story), sending them containers of weapons. Some of those closest to me questioned why I was doing this.
Libya? What does Russia possibly want with Libya? It’s too far, and Putin couldn’t possibly care about North Africa … Fast forward a few years, and now, with the U.S. and other Western allies evacuated from yet another civil-war-torn, frozen-in-oil country, Russia has quietly infiltrated cut-throat, elite mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group into Libya along with weapon systems, training Libyans on the side of their interest simply to perpetuate this conflict as well and expand Russia’s sphere of influence.
Why? Well, as I wrote, U.S. exceptionalism and interference in countless conflicts that are exceptionally far from its geographic borders have infuriated Russia enough that the Kremlin is using the U.S. foreign policy handbook of the last couple decades against the West, implementing American tactics in regions of traditional U.S. interest and occupation. Russia does not need Libya, or Syria, or other countries which are socioeconomically poor and fractured by religious intolerances, but its best tactic is to keep all these areas in a distressed state so that such places look increasingly unappetizing to America, and, more importantly, American troops.
So, all that to say, I felt a tiny bit pleased with myself for predicting what even some experts thought was far-fetched.
Before I say goodbye, one more little thing about Ukraine. I wrote once about Russian-make anti-aircraft missiles operated by ill-trained Ukrainian insurrectionists with not the ability to tell a military cargo bird from a passenger Boeing—I had them accidentally shoot down a plane full of Chinese and American businessmen. And wouldn’t you know it? In Eastern Ukraine, west of the Dniper river, on July 17, 2014, the Malaysian airlines flight MH17 was shot down by one of these exact anti-aircraft missiles, and nearly 300 people died. Well, maybe I didn’t get all the details right, but close enough is too close for fiction.
Moreover, I haven’t mentioned this yet, I was born in Malaysia. And at the time, one of my uncles was the UN Representative for Malaysia as well as the Malaysian ambassador to Austria. Thus, he lived in Vienna, but was in Paris on vacation the day MH17 went down. He was in the L’ouvre, pondering Monet no doubt, when he received a call from the Prime Minister of Malaysia: “Selwyn, you need to handle this.” He handled it, and ended up meeting Putin himself.
“A thug,” my uncle soon after said to me, describing the Russian president who had apparently been slouching in his chair to one side, no remorse visible whatsoever. People aren’t exactly Putin’s thing…
So, there it is, there’s my story. And as you can see, it’s not much by way of fiction, and no one’s going to read my books and find any magic, any charm in them whatsoever because they’re too real. I mean, seriously, Putin’s master plan is probably just to keep me from getting published. I’d have to write something really far-fetched to get anywhere in this crazy world: like a Russian opposition leader getting jailed after he failed to die because he was emergency flown to Germany (by no will of his own since he was dying), thereby violating the terms of his discharge from prison some years prior for trumped-up charges emanating from the bear-riding dictator of a fledgling democracy that never had a chance.
Dear President Putin,
Please resist the urge to plagiarize me. Thanks ever so much.
*Feature photo by Aghyad Najjar (Pexels)