The view that fiction belongs on modern military reading lists is becoming mainstream. One only need look at the titles on the reading lists put out by US Special Operations Command or the senior officers of the Navy and Marine Corps to see that it has a valued place in military professional development. And this is not limited to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Fiction, and specifically science fiction and future-war fiction, is going mainstream in Western militaries.
There are myriad ways to try to understand how robotics and autonomy will change warfare. The more creative, such as theater, the better. The short story remains one of my favorite ways to work through these kinds of questions, particularly with the idea that a carefully written narrative can help check our assumptions and biases about how we want things to unfold vs. how they might actually. My latest military future fiction short story is Operation CANDLEMAKER. It follows two frontline characters present when US forces employ autonomous weapons in combat for the first time. My favorite feedback about the story so far is that “the laws of physics and Murphy prevail.” High praise indeed.
After seventeen years in the US Navy, Commander Wayne McCabe got seasick for the first time when a robot had the helm.
Technically, there was no actual metal humanoid at the controls because the 130-foot Sea Hunter-class trimaran warship was driving itself, six miles south of Jazireh-ye Larak in the Strait of Hormuz. McCabe ground his teeth as he fought the urge to throw up yet again and wondered what he was really doing aboard the USS Nantucket. McCabe adjusted the five-point harness on the captain’s chair by feel and looked at the spot on the console in front of him where the ship’s chief engineer had duct taped a red “NO” plastic button from a party store. Just out of reach. Fitting.
If McCabe hadn’t been aboard, then it would have essentially been a ghost ship. The nine other Sea Hunter-class ships in his squadron were unmanned and were the only ships in the mine-laden waters, making him the sole American sailor in the entire strait. The ships ran as close to silent as possible, communicating just by laser burst. They kept watch using infrared search and tracking sensors that flew like parasails 1,000 feet above the ship. In the middle of this summer night, the Nantucket was all but invisible.
At least it was cool, if not cold, sitting in the “fridge,” as he had jokingly called the bridge because of the onboard air conditioning constantly battling to keep the floating computer within its optimum operating range. He wore a tan aviator’s flight suit and augmented-reality (AR) helmet, deepening his sense of irony over his lack of control. This deployment was going to be hard to explain to the kids; he was aboard the Nantucket, at the cutting edge of naval warfare, but he was no more than a passenger. He was technically in command of the entire squadron, yet practically, he was in charge of nothing. But you couldn’t court martial an algorithm, so the Navy brass had to keep a human “in the loop” in case things went awry with the onboard autonomous combat system.
It was a packed house, just not the usual crowd for a think tank event.
But last week in London, an unusual evening of theater and discussion about artificial intelligence and the future of conflict brought together more than 200 people, including actors and art students, military and civilian government officials, tech and defense industry, among others.
The event, “Staging the Future: Artificial Intelligence and Conflict,” was put on by the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, in partnership with Central St. Martins and the Platform Theatre. There are myriad efforts underway currently to better understand, and prepare for, a future in which computers and other machines can operate with human-like reasoned judgments and individual initiative but many of these reports or conferences overlook the crucial questions of the human element. As theater is inherently an analog – and live — activity, it focuses the audience’s attention on the actors on stage.
Throughout my reading life, I’ve picked books for lots of reasons. I can remember going to Tower Books in Seattle when I was in elementary school and perusing the sci-fi section, discovering David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers on the strength of its cover art alone. I did that a lot. Other times, I’ve had books recommended to me with heartfelt conviction, like when a former Navy SEAL first told me about Gates of Fire and the work of Steven Pressfield. More recently, the suggestion to read the novel Room came during a conversation on how I could get better at character development while speaking with Ken Liu, a writer whose prose and translation—and work ethic—are indomitable.
Today there is growing acceptance that fiction belongs on military reading lists, and it is leading to some outstanding suggestions. A great novel or short story (particularly sci-fi) pushes us to confront our assumptions, helps us understand other perspectives, and stokes our imagination in ways that nonfiction cannot. In particular, dystopian sci-fi stories have their place on these lists for their cautionary value in an era when technology’s downsides can sometimes only be revealed after calamity. Terrible times often produce the most memorable heroes.
These are among my favorite fiction titles that I’ve read (or re-read as in the case of The Profession) recently. As a package, these books complement each other for their exploration of everything from human migration and trafficking to political collapse to narco superpowers to private armies. Plus, they all have great covers.
Peruse the shelves at any bookstore and one section sure to be well stocked is for books on writing. There are notable titles, from rule books such as Elements of Style to the inspirational and craft-oriented Naming the World, that are well suited to equipping writers with the tools to put their words on a page as effectively as possible.
There are other types of writing books, though, that pull back the curtain of what it is like to write professionally. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one that stands out, and so is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing endure as being entertaining and useful.
Add to the list two more worthy reads. These recent autobiographical books hew to the “show, don’t tell” adage and reveal the stories behind their authors’ lives: Steven Pressfield’s The Knowledge and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. While these books are rooted in the past, their value to future-minded writers is in understanding the importance of personal stories in creating inspiring characters and credible settings perched on the knife edge between fact and fiction. This is perhaps even more important in tales that can be easily overrun with technology and fantasy.
This week the paperback edition of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War goes on sale. This is a big milestone for the book, and for me. Paperback thrillers and science fiction novels were a staple of my reading when I was young. This is the version of Ghost Fleet that a younger me would have nodded off with and cracked open at first light.
The impact a novel, particularly a sci-fi story, can have in the national security community is growing. Ghost Fleet is part of that shift. Adm. Harry Harris, who heads up US Pacific Command, said in a recent Foreign Policy article that “warfare novels like Ghost Fleet help us to question assumptions and prevent complacent thinking that inhibits innovation.” It is an entertaining story, but it is a story written with this purpose in mind.
As the paperback edition debuts, help spread the word. This can be in person or online. If you enjoyed the book as entertainment or education (as in 4- or 5-star rating enjoyed it), head on over to the Goodreads page or the Amazon.com page and share that positive feedback by rating it. Even a quick star rating will help.
Useful fiction like Ghost Fleet can start conversations that are otherwise difficult to have about what makes us strong, and what weakens us, as a nation. A year from now, when you see a dog-eared, marked-up and torn paperback edition sticking out of a backpack or wedged under a cot you’ll know those kinds of talks are well underway.
Over the last 15 years, the idea of “killer robots” has morphed from science fiction to reality, with unmanned systems now a common feature in post–9/11 conflict zones. Just about everyone fighting the multi-sided war in Iraq and Syria, for instance, has used drones, from the US and Russia to the Syrian government and Hezbollah to the Islamic State.
As robots have become more commonplace on the battlefield, fear has grown that they may be on their way to becoming too independent, too intelligent, and too autonomous, able to do more and more on their own without being steered from afar by human control or restriction.
If Secretary of Defense Ash Carter did a Google search for who would make the biggest splash as the head of the Pentagon’s new innovation panel from Silicon Valley, he couldn’t have gotten a better answer than the executive chairman of the eponymous search engine’s parent company, Eric Schmidt. The move announced at the RSA cyber security confab in San Francisco makes clear to the Beltway the military is serious about closing its innovation gap with the commercial sector by reestablishing ties to the Bay Area’s tech heartland.
Yet if the Defense Department’s innovation scouts get too focused on the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, they risk missing out on existing or nascent technologies from America’s other innovation hubs.
Gaming website Gamasutra shed some light on Tom Clancy’s The Division development and how Ubisoft used a strategy-game oriented studio it acquired, Massive, along with its existing studio capabilities to strike the right balance in developing the game’s look and feel.
One of the most telling, and important, quotes from the article is from a Massive executive describing how the Ubisoft team built and organized the development process. It has applications for any creative project where disparate skillsets need to be aligned toward a common objective: “What are you really passionate about? And, be blunt, where do you think you’re better than us? Because that’s what we want you to do on this project. What would you like to own?”