October 19, 2015

Book 50: Ghost Fleet

Ghost Fleet
P. W. Singer and August Cole

At its core, science fiction explores the (possible) effects of technological developments, no matter how minute or majestic, how realistic or ridiculous. Co-authors P. W. Singer and August Cole play at the genre's edges in Ghost Fleet, spinning a story of World War III using only plausible current technology (as the book's numerous endnotes attest). Moreover, the authors exploit current political tensions by choosing the United States, China, and Russia as the three primary combatants, a scenario that seems increasingly plausible by the day. This adherence to reality provides the book's core energy, even as the authors track a handful of influential individuals on all sides of the fighting. These personal stories are as convincing as they need to be in this context, offering readers additional emotional footholds alongside the ones provided by the very real, and effectively exploited, fear that the novel's events could easily take place in the near future.

Though the authors are, unsurprisingly, most sympathetic to the United States's point of view, they adopt an all-encompassing geopolitical outlook that significantly heightens narrative tension throughout the book. Expected sympathies aside, Singer and Cole carefully portray the conflict as a relatively even affair, in part by following sympathetic viewpoint characters on all sides. If the authors do have a blind spot, it is the everyday experiences of lower-ranking combatants and civilians; their story focuses, for better and worse, on the generals and other elite forces. The resulting story occasionally slides into hero worship, but enough scientific intrigue remains to make the experience worthwhile. The authors' tendency to focus almost exclusively on the big picture, even during the scenes that (almost) pass for emotional vignettes, does lower the emotional stakes somewhat, but the sheer probability of the events at hand make up most of the potentially lost ground.

Ultimately, the occasional nods to characterization do enough to keep readers emotionally invested in the viewpoint characters, even if the narrative is driven more by the impact of various technologies than any other factor(s). The novel offers little in the way of nuanced psychological drama or particularly beautiful prose, but its science is so solid that these omissions hardly matter. Somehow, the authors manage to focus on the science without losing too much of the fiction; they actively engage with, but do not become overly enamored by, the technology and avoid the kind of overwrought prose that exists merely to grasp at some "literary" cachet that books like this rarely even need. Moreover, the novel is accessible to everyone, despite the thorough research behind it, and the authors manage to portray the impact of technology without requiring their audience to sit through lengthy lectures. In the end, it all just works, and each of the books elements effectively accomplishes precisely what it needs to. Ghost Fleet is an excellent example of widely accessible hard science fiction that neither compromises its intellectual integrity nor grasps at unnecessary straws for so-called literary merit; steeped in uncompromising realism, it is a thrilling vision of a future that may be frighteningly close at hand.

Grade: A

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