Baron Dave Romm (barondave) wrote,
Baron Dave Romm

Dunn's Conundrum, by Stan Lee (no, the other one)

One of the most interesting things about Dunn's Conundrum, a novel by Stan Lee, is the confusion over who wrote it. lists it as a novel by the comic mogul Stan Lee. The copyright is under Stanley R. Lee, a completely other person, perhaps most infamous for his involvement in the Daisy ad during the 1964 election. doesn't care. I'm inclined to believe the latter, since the book is remarkably non-cinematic and doesn't sound like ol' "Nuff Said" himself. Whatever.

Dunn's Conundrum is pretty good. Published in 1985, it makes a bunch of assertions about politics and the spy game that are still basically true. The spy novel chugs along, perhaps not quite the thriller John LeCarré or Tom Clancy might write, but certainly better than the science fiction of its time.

The science fiction/spy literature circa 1982-1992 is quite interesting, in an historical sort of way. This is the period between the rise of the internet and personal computer but before the world wide web. Reagan's anti-Soviet saber rattling until the fall of the Soviet Union. Most speculative fiction didn't get the internet right. 80s cyberpunk seems almost quaint. SF writers, especially the right wingers, tried to rattle their own sabers with varying results.

James P. Hogan's Endgame Enigma is typical (of the ones I read, anyway): The 1987 novel is set in the year 2000. The hero of the book is the Soviet Union's SDI system. Hogan is a good enough writer to pull a lot of it off, but ultimately the two incredibly bad guesses make it laughable.

Dunn's Conundrum is contemporaneous. While political figures are made up, the politics are that of the mid-80s. Us vs. Them. Many threats all exist over the world, but the Cold War between the US and the USSR dominate. Our politicians rely on intelligence to guide them. A super-secret organization called The Library, with only 12 members, has access to a staggering amount of data: Microcams everywhere, spy satellites, analysis of garbage. They know everything, from the location of Soviet submarines to which nuclear missiles are operational to the sex lives of their friends.

All Librarians know everything. And yet, one of them is a spy. The conundrum faced by The Library's head, Harry Dunn, is: How do you search for a spy when you have to reveal to the spy that you're looking for them?

The technology is also contemporaneous. Computer access to information allows them to do complex searches and hone in on potential hot spots. And yet, when they're away from the office, a portable computer needs an audio coupling to call in.

The book scores really well on privacy issues and how technology destroys the very concept of "privacy". How can you deal with people -- people on your side -- when you know their weaknesses and fetishes? Is it better or worse to know that your enemies are human too?

Dunn's Conundrum also scores on the political front. Far more than any arms build up, it was the information age that dissolved Stalin's Police State. In a novel published in 1985, Dunn says, "The Soviet Union is finished; it's only a matter of time now. I give them five years, maybe five days. And we're the ones who made it possible. Us. The Library. We pulled it together."

As speculative fiction: Not too shabby. Holds up better than most cyberpunk and the political commentary rings true. As an historical set-piece it can be read as a snapshot of the times, and so works as well or better than, say, Bonfire of the Vanities. The implications of the changing nature of privacy are well thought-out and apply to today's social networks as well as our spy networks.

Whichever Stan Lee wrote this, he did a good job. If you're into privacy/technology issues or just like political thrillers, you'll probably like Dunn's Conundrum.

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