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.
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.
In the past, readers toted a novel to the beach, shaking grains of sand out from between the pages on the commute to work the following Monday. With books on phones and tablets, people can bring fiction with to enjoy even while they might look like they are conducting serious business. Not that fiction isn’t serious. It is, and increasingly so. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War featured this week during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the future of war. Joining the esteemed witnesses for the hearing, chaired by Sen. John McCain, was P.W. Singer, my co-writer. Ghost Fleet is fiction, but it is useful fiction, as the hearing shows. It also must be a first for a novelist to get a chance to showcase their fiction before the SASC.
From autonomous systems to cyber, the assembled experts provided an insightful walk-through of technologies, actors and trends shaping the future of war. To actually “see” what that future might look like, you can crack open the book. Serious indeed.
Watch the hearing featuring P.W. Singer: http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/hearings/15-11-03-future-of-warfare
Some notebook highlights from my first SXSW Interactive…
Seeing curiosity as a superpower: You all have a superpower — your curiosity, said Hollywood mega producer Brian Grazier.
Making virtual reality an active, not passive, technology with eye-tracking in Fove’s VR goggles.
Exploring the duality of unmanned aerial vehicle technology: Meeting digital humanitarians like Patrick Meier.
Think of design like parkour: Paola Antonelli, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who riffed on design theory and revealed she once had her heart set on becoming an astronaut.
Thinking the unthinkable: My panel with Peter W. Singer and Dave Anthony, Zero Day: What Will Be The Weapons Of World War Three?, brought a different perspective to the event and broached a subject a lot of people don’t regularly consider — but should in the tech and creative community. “While I sincerely hope that we never need to serious contemplate these questions, but it was a refreshing break from the standard SX content,” wrote an executive from The Royals, an ad agency. Indeed, that was one of our aims. ExtremeTech also covered the talk, noting the tradeoffs advanced nations face with their military and strategic reliance on technology.