Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War – P.W. Singer & August Cole

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

I don’t usually get my speculative fiction reading suggestions from The Economist, but I found a recommendation for Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War in the reviews section of the June 27th edition, and since I trust the Economist not to (at least in general) provide positive recommendations for weak writing or unintelligent prose, I figured it was a pretty safe bet that the book would be a good read.

My trust, I am happy to report, proved well-placed. The book is a well-told near future story driven by a large cast of believable (if not particularly lovable) characters. The style straddles the gap between the Tom Clancy combat narrative style and a Pentagon policy paper on future defence strategies. Given the author’s credentials in the latter respect, the novel benefits from believability, depth and a knowledge of the subject matter that’s not a regular feature of my reading. At least in the SF genre.

This is most obvious when referring to the copious footnotes, an exercise that was a lesson in itself because much of what I initially assumed was speculative was, in fact, not speculative at all. The authors applied their imagination to what might be done with the current bleeding edge of technological development, and pushed technology only a little into the future. How do these capabilities affect geopolitics, naval warfare, communications vulnerabilities and so on, that is where the initial thrust of the book is directed, before we get to the action.

The book is also unashamedly military in its approach – much of the near-future geopolitical ideas I have read focus on tropes like a hacker in one country making nuclear power plants go critical in another. It is perhaps because this risk is so often talked about – and therefore mitigated – that the authors focus elsewhere, with direct “hack attacks” taking only a supporting role in the development and execution of their war.

The story starts with energy shortages, in the form of diminishing oil and natural gas reserves – the consequence of a previous conflict that enveloped the Middle East and clearly left its traces on the international political landscape. China’s communist government has collapsed, replaced by a balanced coalition of Chinese military and corporate interests, and this new “Directorate”, has a far colder and more ruthless view of the world’s future energy and power balance than does the West.

A discovery of a vast gas field under the Pacific leads the Chinese government to launch an all-out coordinated assault to secure global domination and thereby ensure that the new energy reserves are theirs and theirs alone. Supported by years of planning and infiltration, their plan is extremely effective, and all the more frightening for how simple and believable it is.

There closes the opening act, and from here on we will see how the rest of the world responds, how old and new technology must be repurposed, harnessed and adapted to recover from an initial strike so effective it almost wins this unexpected war in a single act.

We follow the action from a great many viewpoints, including policy-making sessions in both China and the US, the decks of warships, the computer terminals of Chinese hackers, the astronauts participating from orbit and the resistance fighters on Chinese-occupied Hawaii, to name but a few. The writing is fluid – even though the viewpoint changes a little too frequently for my personal tastes – and there is a strong sense of the authors having worked (or having been worked) very very hard in order to reach the clipped and comprehensible prose that the book deploys with great success.

While this will not satisfy those who seek true science fictional weaponry or technology, let alone aliens or faster-than-light travel, the novel is a very satisfying bridge between where we are today, the technology of tomorrow, and the forces that will decide how these get used.

Halting State – Charles Stross

Halting State

A multi-viewpoint novel that manages to weave several  threads at once to make a story, Halting State takes us into a future where information, interaction and games have to a large extent blended with the real world through the near ubiquitous use of augmented reality overlays.

I had a very hard time deciding if I liked this book or not.

On the one hand, the vision of the future is extremely well-pitched, with augmented reality providing different layers of information overlaid onto the real world through the use of glasses that are more or less ubiquitous. The police see the Copspace overlay, army see Milspace, and the technology has allowed gaming to step out of the realm of 100% simulation and into the real world. At the same time, massively multiplayer online gaming has reached a stage where so much value is at stake that specialised financial companies are contracted to manage the in-game economies by taking control of the central bank. The games run on compatible platforms, which results in borders and passages from one game to another, and games compete for players through the aggressive management of “fun”.

These technologies, valuable though they are, provide numerous new ways to compromise national security and corporate secrecy, and this is not lost on the various secret services and terrorist groups, who have all been creative in their use of the virtual and semi-virtual environments.

What we then have is a detective story that begins with the robbery of the central bank of a major online game. This is the thread that our main characters pull on, which begins to unravel a much larger series of interlocking conspiracies that rapidly spill over into the real world.

Despite the very promising melange, somewhat reminiscent of Neal Stephenson (the master of this particular art), we have a narrative that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and therefore tries to do too much.

A short way into the book I began wondering why I was being beaten over the head with a narrative written in the second person. That is a very strange point of view to adopt, and a very unusual literary device. Had there been a specific point to adopting it I might have found it interesting, but instead it was just jarring, and combined with the rapid jumps between three different main characters – each with their own point of view – made the book heavy going. I had such a hard time getting used to the narrative style that I put the book down, re-read Snow Crash to remember how this kind of world can be properly portrayed, and then came back to it.

The narrative also doesn’t entirely decide whether it wants to be a bit funny or more serious. The technology and its implications are very interesting and have the potential for much storytelling and analysis, but while we’re reading about the very real theft of tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a virtual environment, we get descriptions of orcs and dragons that appear to serve no purpose, all narrated by a confused Scottish police officer which means we’re in for lots of “Aye, Reet” and “Ye dinna have tae take ma wurd fer it, I’ll text you a photie“, in order to get the point across that her accent is unintelligible.

I’ve lived in Scotland, briefly, so it doesn’t bother me too much, it’s even charming in small doses, but I can’t imagine it going down easily for a US audience, for example.

I feel like there’s a lot of potential here, but I keep thinking of Stephenson and the way he gets so much more into the story than just a detective story – the interesting world-building is just that, it doesn’t go further, making any points about how this world affects people, how it might affect the balance of power between government and people, rich and poor, first world and third world, or whatever. It doesn’t go into much depth about the relative importance to people of the online world versus the offline world, and how people’s habits might change, and what felt like a world quickly becomes window-dressing for a detective story.

Given the potential of the vision, I’ve already bought the next book in the series and it’s on my virtual “to-read” shelf, and I’m hoping Charles Stross is more ambitious next time. I think this could lead to something great.

In short, I enjoyed the book, but was left with the feeling that I’d been sold a full meal and realised at the end of it that I’d been put on a diet without getting told first.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

Uprooted

I was a little dubious of Uprooted , in large part because several reviewers classified it as Young Adult, which is not my preferred genre, and I really wanted something I could enjoy selfishly while I was travelling.

I needn’t have worried. While there are overtones of the Young Adult style, there are clearly scenes and themes that stretch well beyond the borders of teenage fantasy.

Set in a world that is evidently based on Poland (our heroine is Agnieszka, the wizard wears a Zupan, the country is called Polnya), the main events occur in a set of villages and towns at the perimeter of a bewitched forest, and in the capital, where political intrigue gets in the way of any form of logical or coherent decision, as is so often the case in works of fantasy.

I enjoyed the writing style and I thought that the pace of the novel was close to perfect – I rarely had the urge to jump ahead a few pages, a problem that plagues me as soon as I feel a story is beginning to stall, nor did I have to stop and go back to figure out what was going on.

I understand, however, why some others thought this might be best categorized as a Young Adult novel, and this is driven largely by simplicity in characterisation and fairly linear storytelling. It all unwraps like an intricate work of origami, neatly leading to a culminating moment. The characters are nearly clustered at each end of a simple spectrum, either fooled into acting on behalf of the enemy, or unimpeachable in their dedication to the cause. This is neither good nor bad, and facilitates the flow of the story, but is a feature of young adult novels rather than more complicated, character driven stories that deal with moral ambiguity, true conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas where every answer is a wrong answer.

I enjoyed the read and powered through the book faster than I thought I would. While the ending is coherent and neat, I felt it was perhaps a little too much so, to the point of being a little trite, I can’t say more for fear of spoiling it, other than to say that I felt there was a lack of people among the survivors getting their comeuppance (or showing real remorse) for the abject stupidity and selfishness of their actions.

Magic is depicted as a talent-based career requiring study and mastery, rare but not so rare that it alienates its practitioners, and key to the survival of the realm. The culture is not very developed, but familiar, leaning of our pre-existing understanding of castles, courts and cities. The book doesn’t impose a radical re-imagining of the world upon the reader.

If you like the fantasy genre, this is a good example, with solid storytelling, an enjoyable story and a very likeable heroine that’s easy to relate to.

Sleepover – Alastair Reynolds

Mammoth Books presents Sleepover

Originally published in 2010 as part of the  Apocalyptic SF Anthology from Mammoth Books, Alastair Reynolds’  Sleepover flew somewhat under the radar for me, in large part because I wasn’t much of a short story reader back then.

When asked to perform feats of imagination for post-apocalypse science fiction, writers have every reason to go looking for stories that lean slightly away from the traditional nuclear winter by-way-of global warming story lines that I for one find slightly over-worn, and in this Reynolds doesn’t disappoint.

The origin of the world-ending cataclysm is left a mystery for much of the story – something I didn’t find very plausible, but which works well given the well-measured parcelling out of meagre hints and misdirections. It’s not a ploy that would have worked well in a longer novel, but it’s sufficient to maintain the dramatic tension here.

I can’t fault the writing, and I can’t fault the imagination that went into the story design. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to love the story either. Probably because the nature of the catastrophe and the consequent relative powerlessness of both the main character and everyone else makes it difficult for me to engage.

I was curious to find out what happened next – the story leaves you more or less in the lurch and feels like an experiment in world building – but I found that my frustration at being left hanging didn’t last long and I was soon looking for a different story to read, so I wasn’t as hooked as I would have liked to be.

At under one euro, it’s good value and certainly a brief distracting read, so it still gets my recommendation, even if I’m glad it’s only on my Kindle and not taking up shelf space.