Firefox: Book Review
Firefox is a Cold War technothriller written by Craig Thomas and published in 1977. It’s widely regarded as a classic and often mentioned in lists of the top ten spy novels of all time.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
And if you are wondering what a Firefox is, it’s another name for the red panda, a small Chinese mammal that looks a bit like a racoon. NATO reporting names for Soviet fighters always began with ‘F’ (e.g. Flogger, Foxbat) so Firefox was invented by Craig Thomas in that vein.
When the Russians develop an almost unstoppable fighter plane, British intelligence infiltrate an American pilot into the Soviet Union in a desperate attempt to steal the aircraft. The pilot must evade the KGB and the Soviet air force, and also deal with his personal demons, as he tries to escape with the aircraft.
Firefox: Plot Summary
The Soviet Union has developed a revolutionary new fighter, the MiG-31 ‘Firefox’. The Firefox can fly at five times the speed of sound, is invisible to radar, and its weapons are thought-controlled. Because of defence cuts the West is ten years behind, and their air defences are now obsolete.
In desperation, Kenneth Aubrey, of Britain’s MI6, makes a plan to steal the Firefox and fly it to the West, where they can reverse-engineer it and catch up again.
They find a Vietnam-veteran pilot, Mitchell Gant, who is capable of flying the Firefox due to previous experience on Russian planes. But Gant has incapacitating post-traumatic stress.
MI6 have a network of dissidents in the Soviet Union that reaches from Moscow all the way to the secret airbase where the Firefox is being developed. Even some of the key personnel on the Firefox are dissidents, tolerated because they have irreplaceable skills. The KGB watch them closely and also have much of MI6’s network under surveillance.
Gant arrives in Moscow and the same evening is followed by the KGB to a meeting with his MI6 contacts. MI6 murder one of their own men, leave Gant’s papers on the dead body and then evade the KGB. The KGB now think Gant was killed in a drug deal gone wrong.
Gant gets in a truck with another MI6 agent. The KGB are following the truck, but don’t know who Gant is. They start to suspect the ‘drug deal’ is not what it seems and are curious about the mystery man in the truck. They stop the truck, but Gant is already gone – he jumped while the KGB were unsighted and switched cars to one driven by one of the dissidents who works on the Firefox. The KGB have now lost him and the dissidents can smuggle Gant into the airfield.
At the airfield, the dissidents explain that Gant must infiltrate the Firefox compound disguised as a military policeman, and kill the real Firefox pilot. They will then cause a distraction and Gant can pose as the pilot to board the plane in the confusion.
The KGB manage to discover Gant’s real identity as a pilot and realise that he must be planning on taking the Firefox. They rush to prevent him. But they dare not cancel preparations for a demonstration of the Firefox to the Soviet Politburo.
The dissidents start a fire in the hangar, hoping both to distract the guards and destroy the 2nd Firefox prototype, the only aircraft likely to catch Gant in flight. The distraction is not as effective as they hope and they are all killed, but Gant does manage to get to the Firefox. Too late, the KGB realise he is in the plane. Gant starts the engines, taxis out of the hangar and takes off, narrowly missing the Politburo, who are arriving by air.
Gant tries to trick the Soviets about which direction he is going by letting an Aeroflot airliner see him heading west. He then flies north, hidden by the Ural mountains. The Soviets scramble their air defences north and south, not really fooled by the bluff. They set a trap at the other end of the Urals, which Gant only just escapes. He passes over the coast and is spotted again. The Soviets realise that he must be going to refuel, as he doesn’t have the range to get much further, but can’t work out where, as no enemy ships or planes have been detected…
Gant [blackout]evades another ambush, by Soviet anti-aircraft ships, but now his fuel runs out. He glides on, following a homing beacon to the refuelling position, and lands the Firefox on an ice floe, under which a US submarine is hiding. They start refuelling. With the Soviet Navy approaching, they rush to get the Firefox airborne again, succeeding with seconds to spare.[/blackout]
The Firefox [blackout]takes off, and Gant and Aubrey both think they’ve made it, but they have reckoned without the 2nd Firefox.[/blackout]
Gant [blackout]and the 2nd Firefox pilot dogfight. The aircraft and pilots are evenly matched, but eventually the 2nd Firefox is destroyed and Gant has escaped.[/blackout]
Firefox: Alternative Cover
A minimalist interpretation using the Soviet Star and a texture reminiscent of an exotic radar-absorbent material, as the Firefox was supposed to be invisible to radar. The font is military-style but also quite futuristic, which I liked.
The False Document Technique
Firefox is a great high-concept idea and Craig Thomas sets it up very efficiently using a series of false documents (imaginary official documents and letters) between Aubrey and the other participants. This one for example, explains to the reader what the story is about in a single page:
This is the essence of high concept: Craig Thomas asks a question on the first few pages: “Can MI6 steal the Firefox?” and then spends the rest of the novel answering that question.
Firefox has a straightforward Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots).
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The Mission breaks into two parts: first the infiltration of Gant into the airbase, and second the flight of the Firefox. Is he going to make it? [blackout]Well, yeah, he is. It’s so obvious it’s barely a spoiler.[/blackout]
As the probable course of the novel is apparent from the start, Firefox, like The Day of the Jackal is a ‘howdunit’, part of the sub-genre of spy fiction I call the spy-procedural. With its detailed descriptions of military hardware, it’s also a prototype technothriller.
The first part is a chase: the KGB on Gant’s tail, as he tries to avoid them and get to the airbase through a series of stratagems. To the author’s credit, Gant’s survival is not due to luck and coincidences as in some spy thrillers like The Thirty-Nine Steps. The chase does suffer though from the fact that the reader knows that Gant is going to succeed. Realistically, a thriller author like Craig Thomas is not going to have him fail before he even takes off. Although the KGB are not far behind at times during the infiltration section of the book, they never really come close to catching Gant.
The flight is even more straightforward: Gant runs for the border, with the Soviet Airforce and Navy chasing after him. The Soviets try to ambush him a couple of times, the ‘undetectable’ plane having suddenly become more detectable than we were led to believe. The spies have a trick or two up their sleeves to help Gant along. There’s a climactic battle and then, abruptly, it’s the end.
Perhaps this abrupt ending was deliberate to leave room for a sequel, but although the main plotline is resolved, the minor characters are left without resolutions. Even Aubrey, the second biggest character, is last seen biting his nails as the final confrontation approaches.
As far as characters go, there’s not much of interest: Gant is an automaton and Craig Thomas doesn’t make enough of his supposed post traumatic stress. The MI6 officers and dissidents have the self-preservation instincts of depressed lemmings, sacrificing themselves one after another to the demands of plot necessity, pausing only to rail against the iniquities of communism. The KGB officers are interchangeable brutes and torturers. Those who aren’t killed during the chase to the airbase disappear as soon as the Firefox takes off.
With a simple plot and weak characters, Thomas relies on two useful thriller strategies to keep the reader turning the pages, the checkpoint and the ticking clock.
The Checkpoint Technique
This is a great technique for raising tension in a story. The protagonist must pass through an enemy ‘checkpoint’ – somewhere where they might be discovered and their quest might fail.
A checkpoint might be a literal checkpoint with enemy police checking papers, or it could be an ambush, as occurs several times during the flight of the Firefox. In another novel it might be an interview or interrogation, a nosy neighbour, an accident, anything that might stop the protagonist in his tracks.
Firefox is really just one checkpoint after another, as Gant attempts to infiltrate the airbase and then escape with the Firefox.
The Ticking Clock
I’ve talked about the ‘ticking clock’ before in Writing a Satisfying Ending to your Novel. It’s something that the reader knows is going to happen and the protagonist is going to have deal with or fail. Of course in spy fiction, the time-bomb might be a literal bomb, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be any kind of deadline, naturally occurring in the story or imposed by the author. Craig Thomas uses the ticking clock several times in Firefox, particularly in the race to the airbase and the refueling scene near the end.
Aside: Is the Firefox browser named after Firefox by Craig Thomas?
The answer is “No”. The Firefox browser was originally called Phoenix. But that caused trademark problems so it was changed to Firebird, but that was still a trademark problem, so it was changed to Firefox.
Firefox: My Verdict
A great example of a high-concept spy/military technothriller. Well worth reading.
Firefox: The Movie
Firefox was filmed in 1982, produced, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. The movie is faithful to the book. Some of the special effects look a little dated now, as it was pre-CGI, but Clint Eastwood is pretty good as Gant. If you like the book you’ll like the film and vice-versa.
Here’s the trailer for the movie:
Firefox Down: The Sequel
After the success of Firefox, Craig Thomas used a retcon (an alteration of previously established facts) to set up a sequel: [blackout]although Gant won the climactic air battle in the original novel[/blackout], the Firefox was damaged. This forces Gant to land in Finland.
The abrupt ending of the first novel makes this retcon possible, if a little implausible, the Firefox is not mentioned as being damaged in the original book.
In Firefox Down, Gant is on the run, the British and Americans still think they can retrieve both the Firefox and Gant. The Soviets of course haven’t given up and still want the Firefox back, so a race develops. The story is not quite as good as the first, but much better than the average tacked-on sequel. It’s a shame Firefox itself didn’t end on a cliffhanger so the sequel was set up properly.
If you read and loved Firefox, then you won’t be disappointed by the sequel, but if the first instalment didn’t really grab you then I suggest you skip it.
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