In their acclaimed novel Ghost Fleet, Peter Singer and August Cole want to get us into the action as quickly as possible without mucking around the political and strategic origins of conflict. In a sense, they commit fully to an idea, first attributed to Thucydides, that the dynamics of the international system make conflict inevitable, and that the details of why states go to war are incidental.
In the real world, and in the best war fiction, nations tend to need reasons to go to war. These reasons have an impact on the course of the war; they affect operational objectives, the limits of escalation, the degree of mobilization, and the extent of will necessary to conducting the war.
Here’s the second half:
Singer and Cole take as their model Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, the classic account of a war on the central front and in the North Atlantic between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In Clancy’s narrative, the Moscow decides to strike because Islamist terrorists have disrupted a large percentage of Soviet refining capacity, leaving the USSR vulnerable to US coercion. Red Storm Rising is justly remembered for its depiction of late Cold War naval warfare, including the famous “Dance of the Vampires” chapter in which a Soviet strike package devastates a NATO task force. While Clancy has a wide lens, his story is character driven, told through the personal experiences of generals, admirals, fighter pilots, and submarine commanders.
Believe me when I tell you this; Tom Clancy is much more effective at generating face plausible characters, especially in contexts not normally given to effective characterization, than is commonly thought. And Red Storm Rising serves his skills particularly well, as we don’t spend enough time with any of the multitude of characters to really require in depth development.
Singer and Cole… do not rise to the level of Clancy. They have a Chinese admiral who is almost literally a collection of Sun Tzu quotes, strung together. They have father and son sailors; the son has father issues, the father has son issues. They have some cardboard counter-insurgents chasing some cardboard insurgents. They have a hacker, and a couple billionaire industrialists, and a billionaire industrialist hacker. They have a Sexy Serial Killer (more on that in a bit). The single most interesting character is probably a Weary Russian military detective named Markov, drawn essentially from a combination of Jake Gittes and the Cuban counter-insurgent in Red Dawn. Anonymous makes an appearance for some reason.
And with respect to that sexy serial killer, there’s one extremely important rule to remember when you’ve decided to include a Sexy Serial Killer in your World War III techno-thriller. The rule runs as follows:
Do not include a Sexy Serial Killer in your World War III techno-thriller.
Singer and Cole use the Sexy Serial Killer (pursued by the Weary Russian) to demonstrate some nifty technology at the nexus of counter-insurgency and domestic policing. That’s not a good enough reason to violate the rule about including a Sexy Serial Killer in your World War II techno-thriller.
The authors would have been better advised to follow the model of Sir John Hackett’s 1979 book The Third World War: August, 1985. Hackett largely eschews character development to focus on the larger strategic and operational decision-making in NATO and, to a lesser extent, the Warsaw Pact. This makes the novel somewhat less gripping than Red Storm Rising, but helps to better fulfill its essentially didactic purpose. Moreover, following this model would have forced the authors to go into more detail about the strategic and operational aspects of the war, which would have provided helpful framing for the techno-thriller sketches.
All that said, the novel certainly hits its beats; the Russians and (especially) the Chinese are sufficiently arrogant during their successful half of the war to make them extremely irritating, and the Americans sufficiently creative and heroic in their half to make the action compelling. And the authors certainly show no reluctance to kill people in interesting ways, so there’s that.