Like nearly every author who works in the techno-thriller genre, I receive occasional comments about the (supposed) lack of believability in my story plotlines. These remarks are usually accompanied by categorical statements, such as “The President of the United States would never do X,” or “No Navy pilot would ever do Y.”
The implication is that — given a specific set of circumstances — people can be relied on to do (or not do) specific things. In other words, people are predictable. As comforting as I find the notion of rational and reasonable human behavior, I only have to watch about three minutes of cable news programming to realize that people do all manner of strange things. And what is true for individual humans beings is every bit as applicable for governments, corporations, and military units. The fact of the matter is, even the most stolidly consistent organizations will occasionally do things that shock the hell out of me.
I write thriller fiction, which means that I basically have two options… I can show my readers geopolitical situations that they’ve seen before, or I can try to show them something new. Since there’s not a lot of point in rehashing scenarios that they’re already familiar with, I try to craft unusual situations, and see where they might lead. By definition, anything that varies significantly from the status quo will seem unfamiliar, but that’s really the point, isn’t it?
Still, there must be a boundary somewhere, between the realms of the possible and the impossible. There has to be an invisible dividing line between things that might actually happen in real life, and things that would never happen. But exactly where does that border lie? That’s really the magic question, isn’t it?
I’d like to try a little experiment, to see if we can locate the edges of that hazy dividing line. I’m going to list ten scenarios, some of which are real and some of which are the product of my fevered imagination. Your job is to figure out which ones are too absurd to be true. Are you ready? Alright, he we go…
A NASA astronaut/fighter pilot/active-duty Navy captain dons an adult diaper and drives 900 miles to kidnap a romantic rival.
The seventh largest corporation in America (and one of the most successful energy companies in history) turns out to be a decades-long pyramid swindle.
A major film studio drops nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to make a blockbuster motion picture inspired by a $14 board game with little plastic pegs.
Nineteen maniacs armed with box cutters destroy the World Trade Center, damage the Pentagon, ignite two wars in the Middle East, and inspire the creation of a new Federal Department larger than the Department of Justice, or the Treasury Department.
The Chief of Naval Operations commits suicide because a journalist from Newsweek questions his right to wear a certain insignia on two of his military ribbons.
Iraqi militants hack the video downlink from $4.5m Predator drones, tapping into real-time military intelligence data with a $26 piece of off-the-shelf computer software.
A Nigerian extremist sets his underwear on fire while attempting to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit.
The captain of a 4,200 passenger cruise ship runs his vessel aground while attempting to wave hello to a retired colleague ashore, resulting in more than 30 deaths.
Eleven Secret Service agents are suspended from duty for extreme misconduct involving foreign prostitutes.
An Austrian bodybuilder/action film star is elected Governor of California.
If you follow the news, you probably know that I told a little fib earlier. I didn’t make up any of those scenarios. Every freaky little item is true. Despite that fact, I couldn’t use a single idea from this list in one of my novels. They’re all so improbable that they would destroy any semblance of credibility in my plot lines.
I invite you to think about that the next time something on the news triggers your I-can’t-believe-it reflex. When Mark Twain wrote that, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” he wasn’t kidding. Real life is much weirder than anything I’ve ever created in the pages of my novels.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a great idea for a completely improbable story…