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About the Network

 

The Network is a novel and must be considered a work of fiction. But like many novels it depicts characters and events which didn't simply spring from nowhere. In this book, in fact, there are descriptions of both characters and events which are taken almost wholly intact from life - real life, as we call it. There are others which are imaginary. It's up to the reader to decide which are which. Or perhaps it doesn't matter.


The Network is set in the months preceding 9/11. The historical background is entirely factual. The causal link between the events described in the book and the WTC attacks is not explicitly revealed, but it is there.


The protagonist in the story is Anthony Taverner, a former British Army officer - although he's not in the Army for very long - whose knowledge of Afghanistan leads to his recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6 if you prefer). He is tasked with the destruction of a cache of Stinger missiles, which have been bought back from various mujaheddin groups after having been supplied by the CIA during the period of the jehad against the occupying Soviet Army in the 1980s. To this end, he is assigned a partner and trainer, a thorough but likeable ex-Regiment (better known as the SAS) soldier and veteran of the 1970s war in Oman - arguably the last successful counterinsurgency campaign fought by the British. The logic behind the operation is that if the missiles are destroyed before al-Qaeda can get its hands on them, they will not be able to use them in attacks on civilian airliners, which is what the rumours are pointing to.


The two men's preparations to destroy the missiles is the motor that drives the story forward.


If only life could be so simple. We soon discover that not everything is as it seems, and that every character in the story has a hidden agenda, or is not really what he seems to be. The protagonist has a past he must keep entirely secret, and his motives for accepting the Operation in Afghanistan go far beyond the business of blowing up missiles. His real mentor isn't an SAS trooper, but a frail and elderly aristocrat; and nearly everyone he encounters is in some way concealing his or her identity (the only character who is more or less as she appears is Taverner's appalling ex-wife). There are even those who may want the operation to destroy the missiles to fail, allowing them thereby to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda.


Behind all these various strands lies the notion of a secretive entity - the eponymous Network. Unlike most of the shadowy organisations you'll find in thrillers, this one works wholly for good, is relatively small and, crucially, fallible. It is composed of people from every kind of background, whose task is always hidden from the world. Its members work for no visible gain but are mature enough to act from that rarely-heard voice - that of conscience. Their task, we are told, is not to change the world, but they may at times be able to influence it.


Before I wrote The Network, I hadn't read many other novels in the same genre. Those I have since read strike me, for the most part, as both improbable and unrealistic, and willing on every page to sacrifice vital details that might render them more credible. But perhaps that's their success. Things that are too realistic - especially when it comes to the world of secret agents - might actually leave us feeling unsatisfied, the way meeting a famous actor or author in person usually does. Perhaps the fictional has become more credible than the factual.


Take for example, since we're on the theme, the depiction of secret agents - and of secret things in general, since that is what they usually are -  and consider how problematic the task. Real individuals who have a grasp of complex political issues or training in the analytical side of intelligence, as well as the social skills to articulate them, tend to come from privileged civilian backgrounds. For the most part, they wouldn't know which way a gun is supposed to point, much less know how to disarm an irate Sudanese pirate on a hangover, as does our hero in The Network. People who do know which way a gun is supposed to point tend to come from different backgrounds, and have little patience for smooth-speaking analysts in suits. These two very different sets of skills seldom overlap. Those who also know foreign languages and have the knack of making friends and moving competently and unobtrusively in different cultures possess another, yet rarer, set of skills. It is almost impossible, realistically, to conceive of such a combination of talents finding their expression in a single person. Almost.


I've tried to make the Network as realistic as could be. There are in general more details about things and processes than you'll find in most thrillers. And yet, as the New York Times put it: 'it's a lot of fun, this mixture of spy-chic and übergeek'. The fact that a former director of MI5 calls it 'authentic' gives me a warm feeling.


But coming back to donkey-smuggling or, in another terminology, steganography - the practice of disguising something in an obvious form so as not to draw attention to it. The Network is not only a story and an adventure but an attempt to convey ideas as well as facts. You can't write a book and not want to get certain ideas across to your readers - but if you advertise what they are, it would spoil things.