Crypto, Sci-Fi, Soldiers, Spies (and Disasters): 5 Varieties Within the Technothriller Genre

The technothriller genre may be slated to become one of the most popular of the 21st century, and as such, it's a hot area in which writers can experiment. If you're looking to write a technothriller (or read one), here are five different varieties you'll find within the genre.
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The technothriller genre may be slated to become one of the most popular of the 21st century, and as such, it's a hot area in which writers can experiment. If you're looking to write a technothriller (or read one), here are five different varieties you'll find within the genre.

by Sam Boush

“The technothriller will become THE genre of the 21st Century.” I was talking to Blake Crouch, New York Times best-selling author of Dark Matter. He’s passionate about the technothriller genre, and it’s hard not to get wrapped up in his enthusiasm.

But even as he was telling me this, my mind wandered to an earlier conversation with an agent: one who felt the genre’s best days were behind it.

“Not what they used to be,” was how she described them. Nothing like the 1980s, when Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger outsold every other book for the decade.

To get another opinion, I asked Miriam Sontz, The CEO of Powell’s Books. “Technothrillers are alive and selling well,” she informed me.

I knew that technothrillers, more than other genres, end up being categorized as something else. They borrow from science fiction, thrillers, spy fiction, war novels, and more. So, when the occasional reader—or even literary agent—misunderstands what makes a technothriller, it’s not too surprising.

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But who was right? Is the genre in decline, or selling well?

To find out, I talked to some of my fellow writers. And in the process, I learned there are at least five flavors of the technothriller genre.

And they’re thriving.

Military Technothrillers

Dale Brown has penned thirteen New York Times bestselling military technothrillers, drawing from his experience as an Air Force pilot. When I asked him about the future of the genre he said, “I know I’ll continue to write them.”

It’s a good thing, because military technothrillers, which focus heavily on martial technology, are frequent bestsellers. Sure, they’ve fallen from their peak, when Clancy unleashed four chart-busters in a row. But with new military threats emerging, the Library Journal agrees “the genre’s death knell was rung too soon.”

“It'll be exciting to see the next generation of technothriller authors emerge,” Dale told me, with the assurance of someone who expects a bright future. Of course, a guy who navigated B52s can’t help but sound confident.

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Spy Technothrillers

Spy technothrillers focus on espionage and the specifics of tradecraft, while maintaining the pacing of a traditional thriller. The spy technothriller—and its cousin, Spy-fi—often revolves around defeating a rival superpower or keeping a singular enemy from achieving its aim.

Alex Berenson, New York Times bestselling author of The Faithful Spy, doesn’t think the technothriller is dead. But he does think readers have grown tired of some themes, like the war on terror. “As someone who tells stories of espionage and the intelligence community,” he told me, “I am very conscious of the need for fresh narratives, heroes, and antagonists, whether foreign or domestic.”

But spy technothrillers are evolving. With the resurgence of adversaries like Russia, China, and even North Korea, authors have a newfound wealth of material to draw from.

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Crypto Technothrillers

The drama in a crypto technothriller unfolds, in large part, online. When I first started talking to my fellow authors, I planned to combine crypto technothrillers with their sci-fi kin. But the more I read books like Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, the more I realized this concept deserves its own sub-genre.

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One of today’s dominant crypto technothriller writers is Daniel Suarez, author of New York Times bestsellers like Daemon and Freedom™. “I’d argue we're about to enter a golden age of technothrillers,” Daniel said. “How we retain human agency in the face of rapid, high-tech disruption has now become a relevant question to mainstream readers worldwide.”

Disaster Technothrillers

Whether it’s an earthquake, apocalypse, or nuclear war, dreadful things happen in a disaster technothriller. Sometimes the problem is localized, though often, it’s global. And usually the goal of the protagonist isn’t to end the crisis, but simply to survive.

I might have a bias toward this category because my own cyberwar thriller, All Systems Down, fits best here. But Boyd Morrison, New York Times bestselling author of disaster technothrillers like Typhoon Fury, might be even more passionate. “I think it would be difficult to find a single week out of the past year where there wasn’t at least one or two technothrillers on the bestseller list,” Boyd told me. “And because technology is constantly changing, there is always fresh material to base new stories upon.”

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Sci-Fi Technothrillers

Technothrillers, almost by definition, rely heavily on scientific details. Take, for example, the genetic science behind Jurassic Park or the astrophysics behind The Martian. It’s no surprise that technothrillers and science fiction have tremendous overlap.

Back to Blake Crouch. When I asked him if the technothriller was dead, he almost laughed. “No,” he said. "I predict, as mankind continues to race toward breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence, gene editing, and an understanding of our origins, that the technothriller will help us understand where we’re going, and the dangers inherent in progress.”

That seemed to be the last word on the subject, but then Blake added, “With all the great sci-fi surrounding us, how can anyone even reasonably ask if the technothriller is dead?”

I have the same question.

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Sam Boushis a novelist and award-winning journalist. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, journalist, and owner of a mid-sized marketing agency. Though he’s lived in France and Spain, his heart belongs to Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, Tehra, two wonderful children, and a messy cat that keeps them from owning anything nice. He is a member of the Center for Internet Security, International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, and Cloud Security Alliance.

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