Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 21 November 2016
Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s novels, The Marmalade Files, The Mandarin Code and The Shadow Game (Secret City)
I have been thinking that I should write something about cybersecurity and the slow moving tragedy of what is happening to the Internet. But there is so much, the task seems daunting and I know I’ll just keep tinkering about the edges.
It’s trying to navigate between Scylla and Charbydis — superficiality versus getting bogged in detail.
I’ve at least begun in The Last Days of Osama bin Laden 2 and even with some insight in William Gibson’s The Art of Prophecy. I’ll keep on trying to sneak up on the issue. Remember, also that this enormous task is about the Internet, which to my reckoning (i.e. becoming functional and useful) is barely 21 years old.
On the way back home from Spain (three days late, another story) I purchased Luke Harding The Snowden Files 2014 in Singapore. Finishing it stirred up my need to write about cybersecurity. Whilst in Spain, I also read the Secret City Trilogy: The Marmalade Files, The Mandarin Code and The Shadow Game by Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann, 2012, 2014 and 2016, on Denise’s ipad.
The Secret City Trilogy
I’d always thought I’d like to write a thriller novel set in Canberra but I’m too lazy, unfocussed or incompetent. The idea of nefarious doings in one’s home town are exciting, but being Australian you feel also difficult to make realistic.
This is from someone who will happily believe that Arnaldur Idrason’s Erlander murder mysteries set in Reykjavík, Iceland are realistic. Reykjavík has a population of about 130,000 while Canberra’s population is 400,000. Yet, I know enough of human nature to realise that everyone can sustain many mutually contradictory beliefs.
Nevertheless, Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann have achieved this feat of realism and plausibility with three inter-related novels that run at a cracking pace and are very readable, whilst they are still pursuing high pressure careers in journalism.
I heard Chris Uhlmann say on the radio recently that after the third novel their wives have put their collective foot down and that another novel is not on the cards any time soon. However, a television series Secret City by Foxtel has been released in 2016 and appears to be good.
Steve Lewis arrived in Canberra in late 1992 and spent the next two decades tormenting the nation’s political elite. He worked as a political reporter for the Australian Financial Review, the Australian and News Corp metro papers, and is currently senior adviser at Newgate Communications. (Harper Collins)
Chris Uhlmann is one of Australia’s best-known political broadcasters. He won a Walkley award for broadcast interviewing in 2008 and is highly respected for for the quality of his reporting and analysis as political editor of ABC News. (Harper Collins)
Chris Uhlmann is married to Gay Brodtmann. She is a Federal Labor politician representing Canberra and he a political journalist charged with keeping those politicians in check. She is part of the right faction of the Labor Party and his politics he professes are more conservative. Supposedly, there is a line they do not cross at home to keep their career paths separate.
More biographical information is accessible in Further Information below.
The Secret City trilogy is a thriller about Canberra, politics, the public service and government. It features power politics between China and the USA, with the Australian Government in the middle. One of the delights for Australians is that recognisable politicians are major parts of some of the characters, but two of the main ones have become feminised, that is, male politicians turned into women, which is delightful.
Parts of ex-Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are obvious, but many other politicians and other prominent figures are also vaguely recognisable and supposedly lead to interesting dinner table conversations. It is also exceedingly interesting to have recognisable and more obscure parts of Canberra littered throughout the novels.
Canberra is an educated and more politically knowledgeable community than elsewhere in Australia. For example, most Canberrans are well-aware that Kevin Rudd was virtually catatonic from the time he returned from the Kyoto climate change conference and that policy decisions were mostly implemented when Kevin was away and Julia Gillard was the stand-in Prime Minister. Most Australians don’t seem to know this and probably don’t care.
Although not a subscriber to Foxtel, I can’t wait to see the Secret City series when it becomes available elsehere.
I’m not sure that the novels will be of much interest to other Australians or to outsiders, but I hope like the Erlander books set in Iceland, they will find a wider audience, if only for the international politics which is believable and quite riveting.
As political journalists Lewis and Uhlmann have used their experience and expertise and amalgamated real political events into an insightful view of the way politicians, public servants and others in that community behave. The stories are realistic and believable at the micro level, and have a good grasp of the psychological forces driving the characters, unlike many political thrillers.
The major plot lines, which are drawn together meticulously, may seem far-fetched. However, I am reminded of a comedy television series called The Games (two series, 13 episodes) featuring John Clarke, Bryan Dawe and Gina Riley, and written by John Clarke and Ross Stevenson in the lead up to the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000. The Games was a mockumentary about the Sydney organising committee. The episodes were far-fetched about bureaucratic ineptness, corruption and cronyism. Yet, it seemed that after virtually every episode which appeared beyond the believable, a scandal would erupt in the real world that was equally astounding.
Lewis and Uhlmann have pulled together and fictionalised real political events over years that collectively do seem far-fetched. They have utilised the expertise of experienced strategists in several fields. Therefore the scary thing is that what seems over-the-top now may not seem so in future. (I began writing this 5-days before the US presidential election. Now, the unexpected Trump victory seems to make the far-fetched seem quite reasonable.)
In terms of geopolitic events Lewis and Uhlmann have satirised the Chinese penetration of and ability to take over Australia’s cyberspace, very much as I wrote in a letter to the Canberra Times early in the year about the Australian Government’s inability to take the need for cybersecurity seriously (see Further Information)
When Veteran journalist Harry Dunkley is given a compromising photograph from the 1970s of the Australian Defence Minister and upcoming Chinese leaders, it sets off a series of events that bring down a Prime Minister, cause a murder and destroy reputations and careers. For the first two novels it looks as if the ‘baddies’ are too powerful to combat. The small team of ‘goodies’ are powerless. It is only in the last novel that events conspire to enable the ‘goodies’ to get together and make a difference. The denouement ties up all the loose ends and leads to a satisfying explanation and conclusion.
The Chinese are portrayed as truly ruthless and villainous. Initially, they outwit America in the South China Sea and look like they are emerging as the number one world power. Similarly, America is interfering in Australian politics as they have been since the demise of Whitlam in the 1970s. The US doesn’t want Australia to move more towards China. They don’t want Australia to renege on US defence contracts and they want Australia to purchase Japanese submarines. The ‘they’ may be the official US Government or they may be the unofficial military-industrial complex. It doesn’t matter. There is a cabal of powerful Australian politicians and public servants working behind the scenes with the Americans to ensure that the Alliance with the US remains strong. Although presented somewhat over-the-top by the demands of fiction. The scenario is very plausible.
The Marmalade Files (3.46 Goodreads)
I began with my usual search of Goodreads reviews (246 ratings, 40 reviews) in the hope that I could see how people outside Canberra felt about the trilogy. However, I could mostly only find reviews (good ones) written by people who either lived in Canberra or knew it well. Perhaps, the TV series may be taken up internationally.
Latika Bourke (4-star) excerpted is an example of the local Australian positive reviews that I mostly agree with:
Since the election of Kevin Rudd it’s often refrained about national politics that ‘you couldn’t make this shit up;’ but it turns out you can … Part thriller but mostly satire, Marmalade Files is a deliciously fun look at Australian politics and the characters of Canberra.
Marmalade’s protagonists are easily identifiable caricatures of current political figures. Marmalade sets a pace as cracking as the 24 hour media cycle it lampoons…
If you’re not a political junkie Marmalade’s wickedly mischievous take on Capital Hill’s antics is for you. If you are a political junkie I hope you’re not in it!
(See Further Information for two complete reviews.)
Some international readers focussed on the negative:
…this book is junk. The language is try-hard and tedious, and the plot simply corny. For a political tale, they can’t hold a candle to Joe Klein, who they likely sought to imitate. Don’t give up your day job boys! (Amazon) [Joe Klein is the author of Primary Colors a brilliant political novel, a fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s first campaign for president. The comparison is unfair — different genres.]
Each of the shortish chapters in this novel is headed with a date, starting with June 16 2011, but the reader soon discovers these chapters are not sequential although there is a logic to them. Eventually this sent me to pen and paper to try to make sure I understood the time line. (Librarything)
I think the first review is unfair, but he is correct about the writing, it is somewhat stilted and awkward. The authors don’t quite get into the pace. The other two books are much more free-flowing.
The second review raises a problem I found most irritating myself. The moving back and forth in time is confusing and bad story construction. This also doesn’t happen in the last two novels and I suspect the authors had become aware of it themselves.
The Mandarin Code and The Shadow Game
The Mandarin Code (3.62 Goodreads) and The Shadow Game (4.17 Goodreads) were preferred in general over the Marmalade Files.
The Mandarin Code
The Mandarin Code (137 ratings, 20 reviews) was only marginally better. For me it was more readable but also did not have the defects of the first book. The story is more pacy and perhaps believable.
A couple of reviewers said that it was not as satirical as the first book, but it I think Karen and Elina nail what we all felt, who had read the books in sequence:
THE MANDARIN CODE wasn’t as laugh out loud funny as the first book. It’s certainly as ironic, telling and sharp. Maybe it’s because the world it’s sending up is a much more sobering place that there’s enough here to make you laugh, but more to make you think, squirm and put your head in your hands and sigh a lot. (Karen)
A fantastic follow-up to The Marmalade Files that goes even deeper into the darkness of politics behind closed doors. The suspense is really kicked up a notch and the stakes are raised in frightening ways. I wish I could say that the events are so serious they verge on unbelievable, but they really function to highlight the diplomatic tightrope on which we walk, and how seriously we should take the threat of cyberwar. (Elina)
The Shadow Game
There don’t seem to be any detailed reviews on Goodreads (29 ratings, 1 review) but the community obviously liked it as the denouement of the trilogy with a rating of 4.17 (but a small sample size). My view is that the two books were similar in style and pace but the last of the trilogy had the benefit of tying everything together and it was done well.
On a slight negative note, I found the depiction of Harry as an alcoholic homeless person and his quick resurrection unlikely. I also found the main villain and his comeuppance slightly unrealistic, but they didn’t spoil the story.
These novels are charming and satirical. Canberra is presented well and believably as are most of the characters. The political game as portrayed is real.
The deficiencies in Australia’s approach to cybersecurity and its current vulnerability are chillingly real! As are, Australia’s cavalier inability to treat massive defence contracts as really crucial elements of public expenditure. I include a letter below that I wrote to the local newspaper — for my sins — that covers both issues.
Key Words: Secret City Trilogy, Steve Lewis, Chris Uhlmann, cybersecurity, The Marmalade Files, The Mandarin Code, The Shadow Game, Canberra, Australia, government, politics, USA, China, geopolitical strategies, Luke Harding, The Snowden Files, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott
More biographical information
Chris Uhlmann & Steve Lewis
Fenella Souter Good Weekend Two of Us: Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis The Sydney Morning Herald 29 May 2016. Also contains a short video
Uhlmann and Brodtmann
Megan Doherty Chris Uhlmann and Gai Brodtmann a very Canberra couple The Sydney Morning Herald 21 June 2014.
Secret City TV series (Foxtel)
Luke Buckmaster TheDrum Secret City: A fictional antidote to the dull reality of Canberra ABC News 6 June 2016
Goodreads on The Marmelade Files (3.6)
Latika Bourke 4-star Review in full
Since the election of Kevin Rudd it’s often refrained about national politics that ‘you couldn’t make this shit up;’ but it turns out you can as Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis demonstrate with their laugh-out-loud novel The Marmalade Files.
Part thriller but mostly satire, Marmalade Files is a deliciously fun look at Australian politics and the characters of Canberra.
Marmalade’s protagonists are easily identifiable caricatures of current political figures. The dumped-Prime-Minister-now-Foreign-Minister is rendered speechless after collapsing from a stroke during one her of many live and unnecessary media appearances, finds comfort in tweeting and hosting from her hospital bed, a live broadcast of a commercial tv breakfast presented by Australia’s best mate ‘Thommo.’ It’s not hard to identify also, the small-l Liberal Leader whose reputation is suffering after being duped by a Finance Department official in an elaborate hoax aimed at bringing down the Prime Minister. A defence minister is sacked because of his relationship with a Chinese spy. Other characters are less obvious and perhaps only recognisable to those who toil daily at Parliament House, like the press secretary who texts bad Newspoll results to the Leader and then attempts a runner or the cross dressing intelligence analyst who helps our hero, Veteran journalist Harry Dunkley eventually unravel the biggest political scandal history could know.
Marmalade sets a pace as cracking as the 24 hour media cycle it lampoons, serves up plenty of character assessments of politicians, their parties, media-tart campaign outfits (GetSet!) but also at times denotes a sadness in the political scene it does not need to exaggerate to mock.
If you’re not a political junkie Marmalade’s wickedly mischievous take on Capital Hill’s antics is for you. If you are a political junkie I hope you’re not in it!
Karen 5-star Review in full
One of the biggest problems with the blanding out of Australian Federal politics and society is that Political Satire seems to have disappeared around the back, probably mugged by some idiot with a bias obsession. Well that is until THE MARMALADE FILES where I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was to finally find something to laugh about coming out of Canberra. In an amused way, not that panicked titter that escapes when you realise that the idiot on the telly who just said what they said may actually be believed by someone out there…
As a political junkie I will admit to being somewhat predisposed to love THE MARMALADE FILES simply because of some of the opening cracks. It really didn’t hurt that it’s obviously fact wrapped up in fiction, with the names changed to protect the innocent (for the nanosecond it takes for you to replace the fictional name with the true life name). Well, it didn’t hurt until there were aspects of the plot that got a bit too real, too feasible for comfort mind you. What with a dumped Prime Minister / Foreign Minister with a control fetish right down to refusing to die when everything physical had shut down…. A Defence Minister in bucket loads of trouble over his relationship with a Chinese Spy… And a Liberal Leader well entangled in a Finance Department plot to down the Prime Minister. There are other characters who are so magnificently real that you just know, somewhere deep in the bowels of Canberra Society, there are some press secretaries and intelligence analysts that aren’t going to be buying Uhlmann and Lewis a drink anytime soon… then again, maybe it’s a badge of honour to get a gig in a book like this. It should be. It’s hilarious.
Whilst THE MARMALADE FILES is definitely more on the satire side than a straight-forward thriller, it sets a cracking pace. You have to wonder whether the authors have gotten themselves caught in the 24 hour media vortex and simply can’t let go. Regardless of how or why, or what the book is, this was a fantastic read, although I think those who are less interested in politics as a spectator sport might not see the glorious wonder of some of the in-jokes and references. Now, whenever anything, no matter how normal or how odd, occurs in Canberra’s political halls, all I’m going to be wondering is how these two are going to spin that into the next book.
Letter to the Canberra Times on Cybersecurity
I don’t write letters to the newspapers often and said to Rukmini in India: I don’t know why I bother! It’s about as futile as attending a demonstration. Just a chance for a rant.
I received a stern reply with examples from Rukmini: My experience is that regular rants and attendance at demonstrations do make a difference but it takes years so keep going…
I should have known… I just can’t keep banging my head against a brick wall, which is what it takes to be a committed social activist. Besides, people still read newspapers in India. Sorry about republishing this letter but it is just as relevant here as in the William Gibson article.
Letter to The Canberra Times published 2 May 2016
(My subject: Cyber Threat not taken seriously by Australia)
Cybersecurity sytems behind the times, vulnerable to attack (with stock photo)
On 2 December 2015 The ABC announced that China is being blamed for a major cyber attack on the supercomputers at the Bureau of Meteorology, which had compromised sensitive systems across the Federal Government because all of government is linked to these computers and uses them. The following day the ABC said the only solution was to replace the computers but that the government couldn’t afford the several hundred million dollars.
On April 21, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, unveiling a $230 million cyber security strategy, confirmed the 2015 attack and announced that the Commonwealth had the ability to launch cyber attacks as well.
On April 25 the Conversation website noted that Australia still doesn’t see cyber attack as the menace our allies fear, noting that the US is spending A$24 billion and the UK A$3 billion on the problem. Australia is very far behind other countries on becoming cyber alert.
Yet on 26 April the Federal Government also announced a $50 billion contract to build 12 submarines, a project supposedly bigger than the Snowy Mountains Scheme in government hyperbole.
The government doesn’t seem to comprehend that at some time in the future the Trojans in Australia’s supercomputers could be used by a cyber opponent to close the nation down. That is, cease banking, electricity, water, food and logistics supplies, government services, all communications etc.
Australia doesn’t understand that militarily the world has changed. On the day the nation is shut down the Commanders of the new submarines may get communications through secret channels from HQJOC, but will they be able to trust them?
Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlman in the Secret City Trilogy use the same information and come to the same conclusions. They add the penetration and stealing of plans for the new ASIO Headquarters by the Chinese. ASIO delayed moving in for over a year.
They also mentioned the (Tony Abbott) preference of Australia for Japanese submarines, which in the novels was instigated by the US. There was a scandal with the previous Collins Class submarines because the third and worst tender by the Swedish firm Kockums was accepted because the other two had almost even support. It was very like a political process, where the third unfavoured candidate is chosen because the neither of the top two quite has the numbers. Lewis and Uhlmann lampoon the process of defence procurement mercilessly in Secret City. The issue is that the budget items are huge for a small country but the tender process is always rocky, usually it becomes politicised and bad decisions seem to be the norm.
Various experts in academia, defence journalists and commentators have criticised the new French submarines on various levels, but the most cogent and strong critique appears to relate to the propulsion system, which will be diesel-electric. The first of the 12 submarines will be delivered in 2030 and the last in 2060. Given that they will probably operate well away from Australia, for example the South China Sea, the submarines may take weeks to get there and will be no match for nuclear-powered subs. Diesel-electric submarines are slow and will probably be antiquated by 2030. Although the Australian public are against nuclear weapons most critics seem to think that at least two of the submarines, if not more, should be nuclear-powered because of the speeds and distances required. The French do, of course, have a nuclear-powered version of its Barracuda class submarines.
Lewis and Uhlmann also mention the long criticised US F-35 strike fighters, which also seem to have been in the pipeline for an inordinate amount of time. I don’t know enough about either the planes or submarines to comment personally.
Posted in Canberra
(Apologies for the placement of the images after the first one. Somehow the 3 other book covers could no longer be positioned correctly after an automatic them update. Even scanned new images. Who knows!)