Warning: this post contains spoilers for P.W. Singer and August Cole’s book Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War
The world is a dangerous place. That’s true any time, and at any point in history, but certainly this year the point has been emphasized repeatedly. Although it is often easy to imagine that either it is hubris to think that we live in important times, or alternatively that what is happening right now must be a matter of grave and unprecedented significance, the objective truth is that this year has already seen more uncertainty and tumult than usual. So, naturally, I read a book written to scare people.
Ghost Fleet isn’t a horror novel. It is a near-future military thriller novel, like a much shorter, slightly more technical, faster-paced Tom Clancy book. In fact, it might be my fondness for Clancy’s work that made Ghost Fleet something of a challenging read for me – it took me a little more than half the book to really get into the story, which I kept expecting to slow down and become more detailed, with more planning and more deliberation. That never happened, but that didn’t prevent the book from being a worthwhile read. It seems conceived as a sort of wake-up call, a warning of the course that the present might take into the future if we’re not careful.
I’m going to avoid getting political, so we won’t get into how realistic China’s evolution or America’s actions in the book might have been. That’s okay, because the main focus of this book is the technology involved, as evidenced by the thorough research (including footnotes) underpinning the story, and the players involved can be seen as convenient vehicles to make those technical points. I could talk at length about the technologies involved, the realism of those technologies, and the vulnerabilities that are discussed and exploited in the book, but this is a writing website, so I’m going to choose to focus on the book’s writing.
When approaching Ghost Fleet, it’s important to keep in mind that this is supposed to be an idea story. Like other hard science fiction pieces, like Ringworld, Ghost Fleet doesn’t include very much character development, and the plot is primarily driven by the ideas, the technologies involved. Where there is description, the description is focused on the technology. Instead of following one or two main characters through the whole novel, the story is firmly planted in third person omniscient and jumps between many different characters involved in different plot lines, only some of whom are ever repeated. It makes for somewhat chaotic reading, especially if you go into it (as I did) expecting something more along the lines of a Clancy novel. If this were a more character-focused story, then there would be far too many characters for the length. Generally, adding more POV characters requires adding significantly to the length (hence why Fo’Fonas is so long, with its massive cast of main characters all engaged in different, apparently unrelated plots).
A bit like Ringworld, I would recommend this book, but not categorically. If you’re looking for a more traditional novelization, with a focus on characters, I would not recommend Ghost Fleet. Nor would I recommend it if you don’t want to be stressed by a book, because this book was stressful to read – not because I was worried about the characters or because the action is so fast-paced, but because of how realistic so much of what happened was, and it wasn’t exactly favorable. However, if you want an interesting exploration of a very realistic possible breakdown of a future war, and the technology that impacts and drives that occurrence, then Ghost Fleet would be worth your time.