Espionage novels have a peculiar capacity to capture the warp and weave of information flow, the textures of data transmission. In our own day and age, that makes for a very natural counterpart with the manifold fluidities of digital media, to the point where the espionage novelist’s profession has almost become redundant, so ceaselessly are we surrounded with inchoate informational possibilities. It’s quite breathtaking, then, to return to what many critics describe as the first modern espionage novel – Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands – and to experience this worldview mapped onto a landscape that’s so confined to natural locations that it’s effectively pre-analog. It’s even more breathtaking in that this was Childers’ only novel, written some twelve years before World War I, to warn the British Navy about the likelihood of a German invasion from the North Sea, as well as to alert them to the military possibility of the remote Frisian Islands, where most of the story takes place. That might make it sound more like propaganda than literature, but Childers’ complex, romantic life – he was a liberal anticolonist, and executed for his involvement with the Irish Republican Army – means that it tends to shy away from imperial dogma, and instead confines itself to the topography and topology of the German coast. In fact, it more or less plays as a nautical log, a series of efforts to map terrain that seems largely unmappable, to which end Childers draws quite heavily on his own specialist knowledge as a sailor and officer. As a result, there’s a great deal of specialist terminology, but what makes the novel so unique is the way Childers fuses that terminology with his extraordinary, mercurial descriptions of the Frisian Isles, landscapes that seem to defy all distinction between land and sea, sand and water, stability and flux. Although there may be terminology everywhere, the novel is really only about sand, wind and water, and Childers brings an extraordinary textural ingenuity to bear upon continually reinventing that combination, which of course also means reinventing the terminology he uses as well, opening it up to a more liquid, fluid flow of information that gives the story quite a momentous pulse and ebb. Like a poetic counterpart to the Beaufort Wind Scale, or the International Tide Chart, it’s informative and sublime at once – sublime precisely because of how much it informs, how much it wants to evoke information itself – and that makes it even more astonishing, prophetic and singular some hundred years later.