Quantum Storytelling

Journalist/author David Ignatius does it again.


If someone had asked me before now what I had in common with Wolf Blitzer, Michael Hayden, David Petraeus, and Leon Panetta, I’d have scratched my head. After reading The Quantum Spy, I now realize that we all enjoyed David Ignatius’ new novel. Like in his other books (read my earlier thoughts on his work here), Ignatius combines deft storytelling with insider information about spycraft honed over decades as a respected journalist specializing in explaining that complicated world.

The Quantum Spy deals with the United States’ and China’s national-security agencies fighting to develop the first quantum computer, the ultimate code-breaking machine and digital equivalent of a paradigm shift similar to the race to build the atom bomb in WWII. Ignatius helps hapless non-techies understand the power of the computer enough to move the story forward. Along the way, his characters debate about the intellectual war between openness and secrecy.

The story, like most good thrillers, takes readers on a journey — in this case, from Old Town Alexandria and Amsterdam to Vancouver and Singapore and Mexico City, and to seedy safehouses hidden along the way. The Quantum Spy has a bit too much jargon and too many acronyms to suit my taste but, as the great storyteller Elmore Leonard listed in his rules for good writing, readers can skip over these passages without losing the mood.

One quality Ignatius masters is absorbing the literature and philosophy of the cultures he writes about; the Middle East and Islam in earlier books, and China here. Some examples:

  • The Chinese proverb one character’s mother taught him: “When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter.”
  • “In intelligence matters, there are always rivals…it is our Chinese way.”
  • One character remarks that his hero, Leon Trotsky, “had written once that art wasn’t a mirror to reflect life, it was a hammer to pound life into a different shape. Carlos Wang felt that way about espionage. It was an art and a hammer.”
  • Another character admonishes: “You understand: Misdirection. False signals spreading confusion. This is the Tao of deception.”
  • And again: “The very best intelligence officers understood that the Truth was so important that it must be enclosed in a carapace of deceit.”

On realpolitik all over the world, one character observes, “The line between criminal activity and radical politics is a funny one…when people are scared of a movement, they say it’s an illegal gang, or a terrorist group.”

Ignatius also uses examples of spycraft that lend themselves to good storytelling:

  • “The Singapore police had so many cameras in place that there was no such thing as anonymity in this microchip of a country.”

And, as a reader of Trollope’s Phineas Redux, one of his characters offers worldly literary insights:

  • “How do we remember the moments when our lives begin to go off-track? A series of mis-judgements, small moments that have ‘big consequences.’”

And even the profundity of quantum technology had an impact on his chief character, who:

  • “Wasn’t a zero or a one. He occupied the space where things are ambiguous, when people are simultaneously friend and foe, loyal and disloyal, impossible to define until the moment when events intervene and force each particle, each heart, to one side or the other. A binary separation between black and white might be the human condition, but it wasn’t the natural order of things.”

Ignatius remarks in his afterword that he’s happy he didn’t have to choose between being a journalist and a novelist. Readers will be, too. He is so good at both. 

Ronald Goldfarb is an attorney, author, and literary agent. His column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Independent.

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