Set in the near future, Ghost Fleet dares to imagine what the next global war might actually look like. We talked to P.W. Singer to learn how he and his co-author August Cole managed to produce a futuristic techno-thriller that’s as plausible as it is entertaining. We were also given an exclusive excerpt from the upcoming novel you won’t want to miss.
Peter W. Singer and August Cole are known for their extensive work as defense analysts. Singer is a strategist at New America and a consultant for the U.S. military, the intelligence community, and Hollywood; Cole is an Atlantic Council non-resident senior fellow and a former defense reporter who uses fiction to imagine future wars.
In Ghost Fleet — a scifi thriller set for release on June 30 — Singer and Cole portray a future conflict in which the United States is pitted against an expansionist China. Both sides refrain from a nuclear exchange, instead opting for a “hot war” that features an array of futuristic military technologies, from robots and drones through to cyber attacks and brain hacks.
But given the backgrounds of the authors, it’s fair to say this is no ordinary thriller. Every trend and technology portrayed in the novel is based in reality — so much so that the U.S. military has already taken notice. Indeed, the book features 374 individual citations spanning 23-pages of endnotes.
Make no mistake, however, this is no technical slog — it’s a highly readable and engaging thriller that sets a new standard for techno-thrillers. We spoke to P. W. Singer to learn more about the project, how it was put together, and what their story can tell us about the future of warfare.
io9: How did this project come about, and what were you trying to achieve with the book?
P. W. Singer: August and I first came into contact working in the national security business, he as a defense reporter and myself as a policy analyst. Along the way, we became friends and realized we both loved many of the same reading experiences growing up, vacations by the shore reading everything from Tom Clancy to Arthur Conan Doyle to William Gibson. We had a kernel of an idea that actually started from a point of curiosity in both the fictional and real world sense that then rippled into a series of questions: What are the risks of a world war in the 21st century, how would it be different or the same as the wars of today and yesterday, and, could you write a grabbing book about it that echoed back to the books we’d grown up loving? That led to the novel idea of writing a novel with endnotes, where it would read like a technothriller but be drawn from real world technology and trends in motion.
Our hope is to hit that sweet spot, to write a book that will be useful in laying out the issues and tech but also make some kid (or adult) on summer vacation stay up too late, racing to finish the book.
Given that this is a collaborative work, please tell us about the writing and research process. How did your differences in background and experience compliment each other?
Singer: It was a lot like one of the key technologies in the book, 3-D printing. We started with an idea, turned it into a design, then one would build it out and add content. Then the other would take the draft and layer on more content but also shave and change some of the design. Then back and forth, back and forth, adding, changing, and cutting, until this really complex structure was built.
August’s journalist background really aided in terms of honing in on a story, and finding ways to get to the heart of the matter rapidly. I think my background in big trend spotting, whether it be in tech or politics, was an aid. The wild card perhaps was also my work, not just with the Pentagon but with the entertainment industry, notably various scifi movies and TV and Call of Duty.
Image: Peter Singer talking about Ghost Fleet with Secretary of Navy Ray Babus
Our editor was someone I had worked with for my nonfiction book Wired for War, and his reaction to a particularly grand, cinematic scene in the book, was “I can really tell you’ve been working with Hollywood.” He’s a classic book editor, the best in the business of NYC publishing, so not sure if that was meant as a 100% compliment, but we took it that way.
Ghost Fleet reads like a scifi thriller and as a foresight exercise. But it could also serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy; how much of an influence could the scifi portrayed in this book have on the real world?
One of the amazing experiences with the book so far is how far it is resonating. I’ve been able to brief groups that range from the Defense Science Board to 600 Navy officers about the real world lessons from the book in areas that range from the future of war to autonomous robotics to 3D printing. Indeed, today I spent almost three hours with a group of U.S. Air Force officers at the Pentagon. And again, it’s a novel and the book isn’t even out yet!
Our hope, however, is different than the typical nexus between science fiction and the real world. It’s inspiring certain policies to be made, certain mistakes to be corrected, so that part of the book may come true, but, in so doing, help keep the overall story a work of fiction. That is, the best outcome of the book is that it helps keep its story of a future world war from ever happening.
The story portrays a conventional war between the United States and China. Given that we live in the atomic era, how plausible is it that the next big conflagration can avoid the use of nuclear weapons and assume the mode of a conflict reminiscent of the Second World War?
The nuclear version of a Third World War would make for a far less interesting and shorter book: War Begins, Big Bang, Everything Glows.
In all seriousness, the book explores the potential of a conflict and how the two sides’ plans interact, both now but also a decade out. Both militaries are planning for various contingencies, including a conventional conflict, just as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. did. It is not just that leaders may not choose to go down the nuclear pathway, but, as we explore in the book, the cross with cyberwarfare raises new wrinkles for nuclear options, too.
Can you explain your choice to pit the U.S. against China?
Two words: Red Dawn.
If you want to do a realistic look at great power conflict, you have to place it between great powers. You can’t cop out like the Red Dawn remake and have it be something silly like North Korea.
I don’t think war is inevitable between the U.S. and China, but they are the two leading political, economic and military superpowers, both of whom have now military strategies focusing on the other and are engaged in a growing arms race in everything from fifth generation fighter jets to warships to cyber weapons. Oh, and statistically, great powers have gone to war against each other 73% of the time in history. So bottom line, the once unthinkable is very thinkable.
Tell us about some of the more fascinating and futuristic technologies portrayed in the book.
As one reviewer joked, it is more difficult to think of a new or looming tech that isn’t in the book! We gathered everything from DARPA contracts to visited consumer trade shows to documented Chinese military lab research. So the tech in the book includes the next generation of military gear, such as details on various future types of weapons like electromagnetic rail guns to warships like the Zumwalt, which a Navy Admiral joked would be the ship Batman would choose for himself to now not-so secret Chinese stealth drones.
USS Zumwalt (U.S. Navy photo illustration)
It includes civilian tech like electronic ink tattoos to the future of VR and the smart rings that might soon replace your mouse and touchscreen. To tech that both the military and civilian world will be using that might range from where Google Glass eventually ends up to brain machine interfaces which has been used in everything from medicine to gaming, but will have a far different role in war.
A theme that runs through the novel is the use of older, legacy technologies and systems. A lot of what you guys talk about pertains to futuristic technologies, but all wars feature old-timey stuff as well.
The next world war, like the last ones, will see all sorts of new technology that was recently science fiction make its debut. Back then it was things like the tank or atomic bomb, both of which H. G. Wells played with. In Ghost Fleet, its technology that ranges from autonomous robotics to AI battle management systems. But the story of tech in war is also evolutionary, a survival of the fittest, the best of last wars also stays in. So, there is also likely to be a role for IEDs, which was insight we gained from sessions with military experts. Or, another of our storylines follows a killer as they navigate their way through a city policed by all the latest high tech surveillance tools, from drones to DNA tracing. And yet they still figure out to how elude detection and kill in low tech manners.
Which of these technologies are poised to be the most disruptive? Which have the potential to make war more “humane”, and which are poised to do the exact opposite?
I don’t know if we can answer that yet, but there are definitely a variety of technology that is disruptive in everything from the next tactics used in battles to who can do the fighting. Take robotics for example. There is a scene in the book that looks at what a next generation dogfight might look like. For it we sought the guidance of U.S. Navy and Air Force fighter pilots. But it wasn’t just about what moves they might pull, but also exploring the very conflicted feelings they have about drones sharing the skies with them. Or will the ideal cyber warrior be someone at the NSA or a teenaged Chinese university student or a Silicon Valley geek or an Anonymous mask.
As far as “humane,” my own take is that war is, by definition, a human endeavor. No matter the technology being used, whether it’s a stone or a drone, war is driven by our human desires, and usually mistakes, and comes with truly awful human costs. Thus, what makes it human is what also makes it inhumane.
In your opinion, what’s the scariest scene in the book?
The “interrogation” scene with the brain hack. It is spooky to me on so many levels, from the idea of a technology originally designed to aid people being used to cause pain in entirely new ways to how it plays with classic philosophical and science fiction themes like the manipulation of memories and a person’s sense of what is real or not. And, like everything else in the book, that scene may read like science fiction, but the technology used in it is all drawn from the real world.
Singer was kind enough to provide io9 with an exclusive excerpt of the scene.
Research Facility 2167, Shanghai
The fact that he couldn’t feel the drill going into the back of his skull made the noise all the more terrifying.
Sechin’s eyes darted around the room. He tried to turn his head, but he couldn’t move. A computer display in front of him was all that he could see; the screen showed a surgeon drilling into a shaved skull. A puff of bone dust smoked up from the metal boring through the skull on the screen. Then the screen itself was covered with a fine white powder that wafted in from behind him. His vision blurred as some of the powder fell in his eyes. He tried to blink but couldn’t. Someone outside his field of view squirted a liquid into his eyes and dabbed the corners as the liquid dripped out.
A second and third time, the drill bored through the skull on the video screen, sending more puffs of bone dust wafting over. He wanted to close his eyes to stop watching, but he couldn’t. After the second squirt of liquid into his eyes, he realized it was because his eyelids were no longer there. He couldn’t do anything, in fact, but watch as the surgeon began to insert thin fiber-optic wires into the three holes in the skull. He knew the wires were filled with over five hundred electrodes, each as thin as a human hair, that would link with the electromagnetic signals of his brain’s neurons.
The surgeon, if one could call him that, then disappeared from the computer screen. Sechin heard the sound of metal wheels scraping on the tile floor, coming closer. Then the surgeon was there in front of him, pushing a cart with a small box on top, fiber-optic wires stretching out from it and wrapping around the back. Also on the cart were two robotic hands; other wires linked them to the box.
Sechin knew who the man was even before he removed his surgical mask.
“General Sechin, it is a pleasure to meet you.” Dr. Qi Jiangyong stood with the practiced upright posture of a university lecturer, which he had been before his neuroscience research had led him to be reassigned to the Public Security Ministry.
Sechin didn’t reply; he was trying to take his mind elsewhere, lock his thoughts away in a place of complete intensity beyond, just as they’d taught him in training. He thought of Twenty-Three’s touch, losing himself in the exact moment of his imagined release.
“Well done, General, exactly as you should,” Dr. Qi said. “So, it seems you recognize the Braingate technology. Just a few more seconds and I will complete the modulating test.”
He felt Twenty-Three’s breath hot on his neck, then blowing slightly in his ear; his body spasmed.
“Now, there it goes. Hookup confirmed. General, I must apologize, as it does seem you are enjoying yourself, but we must begin.”
Suddenly Sechin was thrown back in the moment, and he noticed the two metallic hands in front of him moving, as if caressing something that was not there.
“Yes, there we are.”
The two hands stopped their rhythmic motions and then tried to reach out. The fingers stretched, grasping, their attempt to strangle Dr. Qi futile, as the robotic hands each ended at a wrist affixed to the cart.
“Let us start, then, shall we, General?”
Qi then began a lecture he had given hundreds of times, first to his students, then to the Directorate officials who had paid for the research, and now to his subjects. It was as much a ritual as a requirement that he felt obliged to follow. He still felt the desire to teach even as he learned.
“The human brain is the most powerful computer in the world. And if we want to unlock its secrets, we must treat it as such. The neurons we have in our brains fire to communicate, each signal beaming out on a different frequency. These are the so-called brain waves. Already in electrical form, these waves convey what we believe to be our thoughts, both conscious and unconscious. They carry memories, instincts, and the body’s operating systems, everything from your deepest fears to your brain’s command to your lungs to keep breathing. They are all but simple electrical signals.”
Sechin could only watch as the two hands before him balled up into fists, clenching in anger.
“The challenge is not just transforming these electrical signals into something that can usefully connect to a machine but isolating the ones we want from all the trillions of other signals going through the brain. One way to achieve the brain linkup is noninvasively, by tapping into these brain waves from the outside. An electroencephalograph, or EEG, for example, is what’s used by most researchers. It essentially listens in on the electrical signals that leak out through your skull. Such systems, however, remain limited by the fact that the technology is not directly connected to the body; it merely allows someone to watch from the outside. The EEG provides such an unsatisfying representation of what the brain is doing. Have you ever worn glasses? Ah, I see you have not. Well, I will tell you, then, that using the EEG is like seeing the world not only without the clarity of optical correction, but with lenses of the wrong prescription.”
The fists unballed and just hung in the air. Sechin again tried to lose himself in thoughts of Twenty-Three, in his mind running his finger along her tattoo.
“When I was coming out of graduate school, the cutting-edge brain-interface research focused on direct links. The idea of such a jack into the brain originated in the West. Not from a scientist’s lab but, aptly, from the mind of an artist. We know that you are an aficionado of science fiction. Are you then familiar with William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer? If not, I highly recommend it. Not so much for the plot, but for the vision. In the imagined future, hackers plugged wires into their brains to link up with a virtual world of computers that Gibson termed cyberspace. Yes, the very word we use today to describe its fruition.”
The hands began caressing something in the air.
“Now, this concept remained theoretical, of course —” Dr. Qi noticed the hands, paused in his lecture, and entered a command into the keyboard. “Please pay attention.” The robotic hands stopped moving and balled up into clenched fists again. “Until American military researchers found willing subjects among the paralyzed. With Braingate, they implanted a computer chip in a young paraplegic and recorded the neurons that were firing electric signals. It was a remarkable discovery. It was like putting the right prescription to the lens; they now could see everything that had eluded them. Soon, they were not just recording the signals but isolating those that were leaving the brain when the boy thought about moving his arms or legs, even though the pathways to those limbs were now broken.”
Dr. Qi paused and dabbed a cloth over Sechin’s forehead, blotting the beads of sweat that had gathered just above where his eyelids had once been.
“A mere three days into what was supposed to be a twelve-month research study, there was a breakthrough. Just by thinking about it, the young man moved a cursor on a computer screen. And with the ability to move a cursor, a new world opened up. The paralyzed boy could move a robotic hand, surf the web, send e-mail, draw, and even play video games, just by thinking it. This work became the basis of modern-day prosthetics. Indeed, what your ‘hands’ are experiencing right now is exactly the kind of link first forged between man and machine years ago. I find it to be a useful test, as it provides evidence that the system is working, evidence for me and, more important, for you.”
Sechin tried to focus on Twenty-Three but found that he couldn’t pull up her memory. Then he felt himself wanting to move the robotic hand. But why? He didn’t want to move the hand.
“Ah, you are now likely asking, What does this mean to me? Let us pause for a second as the calibrations begin to take hold.”
Half of Sechin’s brain tried to focus on Twenty-Three, her breath, her skin, her hair, anything, while the other half seemed to want only to move the fingers on the right hand and then the left.
“Well, that is where my research comes in. You see, in addition to real-time monitoring analysis of neuron patterns to relay movement, we began to explore other options for such brain interfaces.”
Sechin watched as all of the fingers on the robotic hands began to wiggle, his mind now simultaneously telling them both to move and not to move with all his focus.
“Data that can be monitored can also be changed. Just as in a computer, so too in the signals in your brain — we can change your commands for movements, your memories, and, most important, your will.”
Ghost Fleet is scheduled for release on June 30, 2015. More information on how to order here.