By David Eisler
By the time I turned the final page of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, nightly news headlines started to sound a little bit scarier. I kept seeing stories about cyber warfare and hacking, weaponized space stations, unmanned aircraft, robots, railguns, experimental ships--all reminding me of the role they are destined to play in the developments of the next world war.
Written by P.W. Singer and August Cole, two well-known figures in defense policy circles, Ghost Fleet chronicles the outbreak and eventual resolution of an imagined war between the United States and China. Unthinkable, right? Not for Singer and Cole, who do a fantastic job capturing the "it could never happen to us" atmosphere instantly recognizable to anyone who follows the international affairs news and has heard all the reasons why another major war isn't possible, why we're too connected or too invested in the system that has permitted so much prosperity. Ghost Fleet acknowledges--and quickly dismisses--that philosophy in a way that feels frighteningly real.
The story unfolds in short sections following the points of view of a bevy of interesting characters, including a nervous Chinese taikonaut, an underappreciated Russian counterinsurgency expert, a reluctant American naval captain, a vengeful widow, and a handful of others. The action shifts rapidly between them with an engaging pace, juggling multiple storylines carefully and effectively. Like many "future history" novels, the authors weave projected global developments into the narrative through dialogue and matter-of-fact references, from the evolution of the global reserve currency beyond the dollar to the detonation of a dirty bomb in Saudi Arabia. But they also toss in a few small details with a wink and a grin that add to the flavor of the future, such as the relocation of the Oakland Athletics to Palo Alto. It's always the little things!
The mixture of real-life details with their extrapolated future consequences gives the book a feeling of realness and immediacy often lacking in futuristic fiction. The world they describe is familiar but with just enough changes to seem distinct, the way 2015 might feel to a person from the year 2000 ("The Internet on our phones? No way!"). Singer and Cole force you to grapple with the possibility that their version of the next world war is not that far off, and that many of the events they reference have already been set into motion. Hundreds of research notes at the end of the book attest to the current trends that form the foundation of their reality. And although they are quick to remind the reader that Ghost Fleet is a work of fiction and not a prediction, I certainly hope that a healthy portion of people inside the Beltway will read it with a pen and highlighter nearby.
The authors' depth of knowledge regarding the more technological elements of the story is clear, but sometimes distracting. The narrative often lapses into descriptions and exposition of specific weapons platforms and systems which, though short (and arguably necessary to avoid too much jargon), do tend to take you away from the story, even if only for a moment. Sometimes it feels as though the authors really want you to know that they did their research.
But as with all good fiction, Ghost Fleet is ultimately about people and how they react to the usually horrible situations writers like to throw at them. A father-son relationship, a rich entrepreneur with a deep love and appreciation for his country, the tension between duty and family--Singer and Cole attempt to create characters on all sides worthy of empathy and understanding. Without these characters, Ghost Fleet would be just another academic text about global trends and international security, something the authors could have easily done given their established expertise on the subject. But by turning it into fiction and asking us to imagine the story through the eyes of their characters, we get a much deeper and richer sense of the consequences.
Ghost Fleet is a strangely satisfying blend of storytelling and strategy, of fiction and non-fiction. In an era where most people prefer not to think about all the horrible things that could go wrong in the world, it's good to know that there are writers like Singer and Cole who not only think about them, but also do so in a readable and enjoyable style.