Reading 'Ghost Fleet' is a Mistake
When Ghost Fleet, a novel of the next world war by P.W. Singer and August Cole, appeared in June, a fever swept both the Beltway and the Internet, as reviewers clamored to extend an increasingly laudatory laurel and hearty handshake to these wunderkind of the twenty-first century techno-thriller. Their work has been variously described in the Navy Times as a “realistic look at an imagined war;” by the Wall Street Journal as “a fictional warning that real-life technologies could expose the U.S. to a devastating attack;” in USAToday as “a message to decision-makers, and the public;” by The Strategy Bridge as “an insightful and prescient book;” in War is Boring as “one of the more plausible depictions of a major 21st century war — and one of the more realistic portrayals of cyberwar … seen in fiction;” by War on the Rocks as “the best techno-thriller since Red Storm Rising;” and in Small Wars Journal as “an eminently readable novel, which is both highly entertaining and sobering.” Admiral James Stavridis calls it “a plausible, frightening, and pitch-perfect vision” of global war between China and the United States, “a startling blueprint for the wars of the future and therefore needs to be read now.” Even Doctrine Man!! proclaimed, “If you’re not reading Ghost Fleet you’re missing out on the best fiction read of the summer.”
A wise man once asked, “If your friends all jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” I only wish now I’d listened to that wise man. But with such praise before me, a profound mistake was made: I purchased and read this book.
The Three Flaws
The most fundamentally frightening thing about this novel is less the dangerous future it purports to show and more the wild misrepresentation of risk implicit in it. The initial and evolving technological conditions presented in the novel involve a collection of substantial asymmetries — asymmetries in cyber capabilities and vulnerabilities, asymmetries of information, asymmetries of will and intent, etc. It is the accumulation of these that sets the initial conditions necessary to the novel’s plot — tactical, operational, and strategic disaster for the United States. (The subsequent recovery is a matter of deus ex machina and MacGuffinry, a separate flaw … but a bit more on that in a moment.)
The authors might suggest that this is a work of fiction rather than prediction, but their public pronouncements and interviews suggest they view this future as possible or even perhaps probable.
Accepting any one of the asymmetries necessary for the story to begin isn’t necessarily problematic; perhaps the relative likelihood of any individual technological success on the part of the aggressor here, a descendant and usurper of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party known as the Directorate, may be relatively high. Similarly, the likelihood of each technological and tactical mistake made by the U.S. may be relatively high. Cumulatively, though, these describe a future that is relatively unlikely, a bit like forecasting head after head after head in the tossing of a coin. In retrospect, history always looks this way as we create a narrative after the fact, but concentrating on a single possible future is at least problematic when looking forward and planning for potential futures. The authors might suggest that this is a work of fiction rather than prediction, but their public pronouncements and interviews suggest they view this future as possible or even perhaps probable. As such, considering relative probability is important if we are to view the work through the credulous lens of prescience espoused in more than one review.
This leads naturally to a cogent criticism leveled at the strategic value of fiction as a heuristic. It has been observed, for example, that in speculative fiction “the presentation of politics and historical change have no restraints outside of the whims of the authors and tastes of the audience” and “the flow of politics and war are slaves to narrative art … so that the author can make his or her selected themes resonate as powerfully as possible.” This does not mean there is no strategic value in fiction, of course, but it does leave one wondering at the choices made by Singer and Cole for the sake of narrative art and for the sake of whatever other agenda pertains.
These considerations matter if we are to view the world through an (admittedly flawed) risk model based on probability and consequence. If the probability approaches zero, how much are we willing to pay to eliminate this probability? This is the calculus driving minimum deterrence, for example — a nuclear policy incidentally pursued by the Chinese. Paradoxically, the copious footnotes are actually a hindrance in this regard, as they increase confidence in the narrative without actually driving a change in its real probability.
A related flaw arises from the shallow geopolitical and strategic analysis presented in the novel. How and why the issue comes to open conflict, other than the unexamined narrative gift-horse called the Directorate, is an assumption worthy of the most egregious of think-tank wargames (as well as the DoD’s strategic planning scenarios). We get only a transparent and uninteresting War College-like argument between characters that is unworthy of the War College(s). How and why the conflict remains conventional in the face of the loss of strategic U.S. assets and sovereign U.S. territory is assumed away with a wave of the hand. It’s useful to recall that in the very Tom Clancy novel the authors claim as inspiration, Red Storm Rising, this issue was addressed directly and not (entirely) implausibly. What we get from Singer and Cole is nothing more than offhand argumentative nonsense from cardboard characters.
One might forgive these issues (or one might not, but let’s be charitable for a moment) if not for a third and fatal flaw in the novel: a clumsy narrative that is neither particularly powerful nor interesting. After all, this was (early) Clancy’s genius, to take a somewhat improbable assumption as a point of departure for the creation of a powerful narrative problem and then to tell that story with aplomb. Singer and Cole fail in so many ways on this score they’re difficult to enumerate. Characters in a story such as this will assume the form of archetypes, but these archetypes lack even the depth of stick figures. And then these stick figures follow sophomoric subplots that do little to advance either the plot, the motivations of the characters, or our empathy for them. Gruff old hand, guilt-ridden guerrilla, brilliant scientist who saves the day with her solution to the power problem (one of many deus ex machina’s), enemy spies motivated by we-know-not-what to turn their coat, a serial killer who might be interesting if she weren’t written to titillate teenage boys, etc. Even this might be forgivable (it isn’t, but let’s say it is) if only the entire plot weren’t so transparent an attempt to drive a think-tank agenda for the Department. Alas.
Recommending the Road Less Traveled
Feeling a bit like a lemming in free-fall, I would like nothing better than to go back in time a few weeks and save myself the time and cost of this book … but I would also like for others to learn from my mistake.
Let it be said, I am a fan of Singer’s work in general. Rather than spending your time in the narrative nightmare that is the Ghost Fleet, however, I recommend reading his other work (Corporate Warriors, Wired for War, and Cybersecurity and Cyberwar are excellent) and foregoing this foray into fiction. You’ll trade the human power of narrative — even poor narrative has power — for the difficulties of nonfiction, but you’ll also see nearly every idea Singer and Cole offer in this disastrous novel … and I promise you’ll be better for having spent your time more wisely than I did.