Saturday, November 30, 2019

Olen Steinhauer, THE LAST TOURIST, March 2020 Release

Olen Steinhauer's penetrating anti-spy espionage book The Tourist was published in 2009; for his March 2020 title, he's chosen THE LAST TOURIST. Like his other titles, this one can be read in several vital ways -- as announcing the last in his "Tourist" books, for instance, or as a label for Milo Weaver himself, struggling stepfather and agency-organized murderer with mega regrets. The group he worked for was called the Department of Tourism, and it tackled adjusting the global balance of power, one daring and highly illegal exploit at a time.

In the opening section of THE LAST TOURIST, however, it's not Milo's point of view we're sharing, but that of the very naive CIA desk jockey Abdul Ghali. To his astonishment, this young American whose first language is a special Arab dialect is summoned from his desk to fly to North Africa and interview Milo Weaver -- someone he's never heard of. But the CIA issues Abdul a specific set of questions to ask the notorious former "Tourist," and off he goes. Even Abdul has to wonder whether he's been chosen for the task because he is, ahem, expendable.
The shock took a while to fade. The idea that the Agency considered me expendable, yes, but more than that I couldn't shake the image of Collins, tosssed against that stone wall, the way his head had lost its form. His broken body stuck with me as we drove north, into the wide black desert that had been a home to my people, but to me looked like the antithesis of home, a terrain that left nowhere to hide.
On the other hand, Milo's transformation from authorized criminal of the Department of Tourism has led to his developing a very different organization, entirely information based: The Library. And Abdul's presence is quickly enmeshed in the issues of who's gunning for The Library now, and whether the attack is survivable — for Abdul, for Milo, for the information network itself.

Steinhauer's fast-paced thriller is based squarely in "today," including the current US presidential administration. He works from two directions: the awkward moral choices and deepening of Milo himself (and incidentally Abdul, much though he hates the notion), and an outrageous proposal about the nature of our time.

In terms of Milo, here's how I described this conflicted spy-on-spies back in 2012, when the original Tourist trilogy was completed:
The trouble is, Milo Weaver, like George Smiley, is one of those people who feels "responsible." In spite of having done some terrible things, he's mostly done them when directly ordered to do so, and he's the sort of spy who'd somehow try to make things right for people he's hurt by accident. So when people he cares about are threatened, and he's the only one who can take action, he's got little choice in his moral calculus: He's got to go back undercover.
In fact, Milo in later life is far further undercover than ever ... and managing a massive information network that engages a dozen nations and uses the effort of balancing their databases as a way to damp down conflict and disaster. With his sister Alexandra, he's held the group together so far, but with his power and control come regular attacks, and the group itself is a prime source of those! So, can he (1) maneuver around the latest effort to depose him and capsize The Library, (2) avoid killing indiscriminately and preferably only murder truly bad people, and (3) save enough of his interior morality to be able to face the questions of his now 17-year-old stepdaughter honestly?

You want to know about the outrageous proposal part? Let's start with the US court decision commonly called "Citizens United" -- the one that enables private wealth to operate easily as a political force. Steinhauer, through Milo's very uncomfortable multinational (and very risky) discovery process, paints the entire global power structure as transformed into a balance of profit: Corporations, especially information ones (such as a thinly disguised Facebook-cum-Snapchat), can overwhelm and overrule, and the Big Decisions are now made to favor their increasing wealth and power. Milo's catching on:
Bad days in America and always, the cloud that hung over all human endeavor: climate change. As world temperatures crept steadily upward, people remained resolutely distracted by the crimes humans committed against each other. Everyone was dancing to the wrong tune, and dancing toward a cliff.
Later, Milo will try to explain this to Abdul, a perfect foil in such naive ignorance:
"Look we got it wrong, and we kept getting it wrong. All of us. Afer 1990, we thought history as we knew it was over. The last big competing superpower had imploded, leaving only the US to oversee the final move into a liberal democratic world order. Not everyone agreed. ... Factionalism. So we all started adjusting our policies to deal with this. But history kept shifting. Russia and China rose and Europe began to fracture, which brought us back to the start: Superpowers were back. ... Money ignores borders. Corporations are the new nation-states."
Although there seem to be quite a few lectures to Abdul (and Milo's lectures to himself), the action is swift and suspenseful, with abundant firearms, explosions, and chases. (I'm on board for the film versions, just let me know when, Mr. Clooney.)

How Milo will resolve the dangerous refocusing around him and whether he and his family can survive it without further deaths or deep wounds -- moral or physical -- is in doubt all the way through. Brace for an ending that clearly concludes the Tourist espionage books. The author never gave you any other expectation, right? But is it also the end of the world, as we know it?

And who are we more similar to: Milo? His sister Alexandra? Or ... Abdul?

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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