Diamond in the Techno-Thriller: The Value of Speculative Fiction

A few years ago, some sort of switch got flipped in my brain and all of a sudden I became far more capable of and willing to plow through half a dozen novels in a single stretch than to finish a single non-fiction book. Recently, equilibrium has been at least somewhat restored, but I continue to find myself immersed in fiction in a way that I rarely was before.

Some recent reading has included a pair of Larry Bond novels from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vortex and Cauldron. Larry Bond is most famously, of course, the man who helped Tom Clancy game out many of his books’ wartime scenarios (and Bond co-wrote Red Storm Rising with Clancy). I hadn’t known Bond as an author in his own right, but recently read those two works of his in succession.

What’s wonderful about books like these is generally not their literary qualities, but nor is it even the conduct or proposed sequence of events in particular conflicts. Can fiction, in fact, predict the future of warfare? Perhaps, but more interestingly, such books serve as a time capsule of the era in which they were written. Much of the “valued added” from this is detailed (at times overly so) descriptions and explanations of the weaponry, arms systems, and military organization of the era. But furthermore, while not predictive in any meaningful way, these novels can help widen the Overton Window of the imagination, to at least consider a divergent future drastically different from our own.

With books set in the future, but now a dated future, it’s almost like reading alternate history. As of this writing, I’m reading The Third World War: August 1985, which is an account of World War III written in the past tense as a historical survey from the point of view of two years later (e.g., 1987). Of course, the book was actually published in 1979, along with a followup, The Third World War: The Untold Story, which was published two years later and dives deeper into specifics of nuclear postures, the war in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Solidarity’s effect in Poland, and other issues. It is a look at a world that never was, but seemed frightfully close to being so. And from that perspective, it’s a chilling look at the prospective war facing the world of the past.

Obviously, these never came to pass, but when one considers what might have been, that can seem a blessing.

Vortex, published in 1991, is an account of a war in which the truly radical hardcore racists in the Afrikaner government launch a coup by allowing an African National Congress (ANC) plot to destroy the Blue Train carrying much of the senior South African leadership to proceed without interference. Immediately the South African Defence Forces launch an incursion to retake Namibia; meanwhile, Angola and its socialist allies – most notably, the Cubans – begin streaming into Namibia and South Africa to repel the SADF invaders. Also, a civil war breaks out and a heroic American journalist (a white guy, of course) finds himself in the middle of things.

Obviously, reading this book in a post-Apartheid world is a rather different experience than that envisioned by the author. In one set-piece, US forces lead a raid on the Pelindaba nuclear facility; it was a surprise to me how much was known or suspected about South Africa’s nuclear program before the era of Reconciliation. But if nothing else, Vortex lays out in good detail the military forces and equipment available to these regional combatants in the era. Even from a distance, Vortex can also help illuminate the far-off divisions and sectarian struggles of the day – reading about the role of dissatisfied Afrikaners and white Anglophone South Africans in fomenting an anti-right-wing separatism (as well as the differences between the two) points to a split that might have been unknown to the casual reader.

Ralph Peters’ The War in 2020, which I’ve not yet read more than the jacket of, offers a wonderfully ludicrous late 1980s perspective of future war (and I can guarantee that in five years’ time its predictions will not come to pass). The original blurb from Publishers Weekly says it all: “America’s Seventh Cavalry, armed with a surprise electronic weapon, rushes to the aid of the Soviet Union, overrun by a Japanese-supported Islamic army.” So there’s that vision of the future.

Tom Clancy’s relative moderation has still resulted in some geopolitically hilarious post-Cold War plots. The idea of hastily bringing Russia into NATO so as to ship American M1A1 Abrams tanks down the tran-Siberian railroad in order to jointly fight the invading Chinese is perhaps a little outlandish given present geopolitical realities. The merging of Iran and Iraq into a Unified Islamic Republic, following the assassination of Saddam Hussein, at least points out that an Iraqi power vacuum might indeed be filled by Tehran, but the similarities with reality end there.

On the other hand, some of the crazier ideas from the depths of the novelist or screenwriter or video game designer are useful indeed. Clancy is instructive here again. He’s not the only one to have thought it, but was by far the most mainstream author to feature a widebody aircraft used to strike a building, in Debt of Honor. Clear and Present Danger captured, even if unintentionally, the self-defeating nature of US counter-narcotic operations in Latin America. And The Sum of All Fears led to a recasting of the part of Jack Ryan (“just kidding,” says this Harrison Ford partisan).

But this is all a very long-winded introduction to talking about the other Bond novel, Cauldron. In this, a post-Cold War European Union is stillborn as the Western powers turn inwards and establish restrictive tariffs and other fiscally illiberal measures. Somewhere along the way, NATO collapses and is dissolved. Instead, a joint Franco-German diktat names itself “the European Confederation (EurCon)” and begins calls the shots in Europe, particularly the former Soviet Union, where cut-rate EuroCopter plants are established with the DGSE running things from behind the scenes. All this comes to a head when a few nations – particularly Poland – refuse to join EurCon, and in response, EurCon cuts off gas shipments in coordination with Russia (hmmm…). The United States commits to supplying Poland, EurCon attempts to stop them, and before you know it, German tanks are yet again rolling towards Gdansk. Only this time, under supreme French command

The Franco-German leadership of Europe is a reality even today. But the tables are turned, with relative hardliners in Germany threatening the sanctity of the European project for…what, exactly? Euros? To “send a message” to those spendthrift Greeks? In Cauldron, France is the military power and Germany the economic one (relatively). Bond certainly nailed that reality, only he underestimated the primacy of the dollar/deutschemark/euro in the free trader’s paradise that is today.

We live in one of many possible worlds; it could always be worse. Or better.

I am reminded of a story from a previous job (and which predates my work there), in which wargames were being pitched to a customer along the lines of a number of scenarios. One stood out, which had had a lot of thought put into it, but was rejected as being “too outlandish.” That scenario? A Crimean War Redux in which Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula.

Thinking the unthinkable is truly a job for not just the fiction writer, but for everyone. And there is a wide swath of good thinkers producing interesting novels today. Daniel Suarez’s Daemon series, Pressfield’s The Profession, the inescapable Ghost Fleet by August Cole and P.W. Singer (and if reviews of the latter are any indication, it is indeed a must-read) – all at the very least encourage their readers to grapple with the ideas within, even if just to call “bullshit” on them.

The worst mistake we can make is assuming that trends will progress unabated, and that the world of the future will look like now, only slightly more advanced. That’s an easier scene to envision. It’s harder to conjure up or flesh out those moments and events and technologies that will throw us off our current trajectory. And what’s even more difficult is trying to predict where we then might land.

The important thing, though, is to try.