Monday, August 3, 2015

A dark and loosely plotted future

Greetings, friends of the blog. You're in for a treat: this will be the second post in a row about writing! I'd like to talk to you about "Ghost Fleet." (Like "Callahan Crossroads," it's about a world war, but it's a little... less kid-friendly.)

I'll try to keep this general and spoiler-free, but if a few plot points slip through here and there, my apologies--you've been warned.

The subtitle of "Ghost Fleet" is "A novel of the next world war." And almost immediately, it delivers on that idea. The setup, broadly, is that in the near future there has been some calamitous radiological warfare in the Middle East--not by the U.S.!--that wrecks the oil market, the stock market, and the global economy in general... except for China, which somehow escapes in a position of strength.

Ghost Fleet--the cover.

'Murca, facing sudden and gigantic budget constraints, cuts military spending, leaving a lot of research and development in limbo, and a lot of the Navy's vessels in mothballs. With me so far? OK. China is rich and powerful, and the U.S. is less so, although things are getting better, as American companies do brisk business with the Chinese. Oh, and the Communist government has fallen in China, laid low by the economic downturn. A military-business partnership called The Directorate runs the show now.

Then China discovers a huge petro-energy deposit in its waters, giving it energy independence, and that leads its leadership to decide the time is ripe to crush the United States.

For me, this was a bit of a "needle scratches on the record and the jukebox stops" moment.

It could be that the authors have greater insight into Chinese military thinking than I do, but this seems like a move with almost no upside and tons of downside. Right? If the Chinese military pulls it off, then China's position (as the book describes it) is not greatly improved, and if it DOESN'T pull it off, then China is in for a world of hurt, both militarily and economically. China is already top dog, and starting a world war just seems like trying to hit boxcars on one roll.

But hey, it's a novel, and every novel needs a starting point. From there, of course, things get heated.

China invades Pearl Harbor! Destroys most of the U.S. fleet at anchor! Has hacked critical systems in American weapons like the F-35! And, critically, destroys nearly all of America's space capabilities--GPS satellites, communications, and so on. (This is accomplished via every space nerd's worst fear: an ostensibly peaceful space station having hidden weaponry.)

The key to America's ability to strike back, or strike at all, lies in the aforementioned mothballed ships, which are called--wait for it!--the ghost fleet. In the book, they are America's only hole card: new enough to do damage but old enough to not have been hacked.

Ghost fleet--the real thing.

I will omit details from here, because, you know... you might want to read the book and enjoy it yourself. But the plot follows a reluctant Navy captain thrust into a position of heroism; a Marine forced to lead a jihadist-style insurgency in Hawaii; and various players on the Chinese and Russian side. Oh, yeah, about the Russians: they collaborate with China in the sneak attack.

America is left mostly without allies, as NATO dissolves itself and Japan turns its back, kicking the U.S. out of its bases there.

It's one of the few books I have read in which the United States is involved in a war in which it has literally zero advantages. After the Pearl Harbor invasion, China holds all the cards. This was illustrated nicely, to the point where I as a reader was feeling angry at China in real life--yikes.

Now, the thing about this book is that it is written by two defense analysts, and the text is heavily endnoted. Just about every supposition they make about technology or capabilities in general is supported by at least a smidgen of research, which lends some smaller plot points some weight. And the story itself moves fast. As Mrs. Blog can tell you, I traded sleep for reading time a couple of nights in the last week, which is rare.

Having said that, "Ghost Fleet" suffers from some problems in both the plot and writing departments.

In terms of plot, the setup is kind of a worst-case scenario. A lot of things have to go wrong to get to the status quo, but sure, OK--it's not implausible, I'd say, just unlikely. But from there, I was disappointed that the story did not have more sweep. America, in the book, is left with two allies: 'Straya and Great Britain (Scotland has seceded). But the story takes us to neither of those places, although they are mentioned repeatedly.

Some key stuff (like how the deus ex machina behind China's ability to target its anti-ship ballistic missiles works) is never explained, which is a little jarring considering the pains taken to add realism elsewhere. Other things, like where the huge U.S. military presence in Korea was during this whole affair, never even come up. And broadly, the story feels like it is missing a third act; there is a major battle at the end, but to me there was still a lot of war remaining. I would also have liked to see some of the politics play out, as the U.S. dealt with former allies like Japan.

In terms of writing, there is only one (maybe one and a half) human relationship in play in the book. That leaves plenty of action-based tension but not a lot of personal stakes. Characters often sort of fill archetypes rather that inhabit their own space. And on occasion, people take the time to explain to each other things they already know--just for the sake of the reader.

But let me reiterate, it's a good read. Just feels to me like it was cut off abruptly, and missing a resolution to a lot of subplots and themes that are abandoned by the end.

In conversations with others in the defense industry, it has become clear to me over the years that there is indeed a genuine fear that China might underestimate a U.S. response to aggression. China hasn't fought in a major war in forever, whereas--for better or worse--America has been shooting or blowing up enemies pretty much constantly since the early '90s. And this might lead China to make the same mistake Japan did at the outset of Pacific hostilities in World War II.

Let's hope everyone remembers the lesson from that bloody affair (China, in "Ghost Fleet," clearly did not):