Ghost Fleet: A Review

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I was a bit late in getting to it, but I was pleasantly surprised by P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet. It took a bit of effort to get into it, but the temporal leap the novel takes into years after a second Pearl Harbor attack allows for some very interesting worldbuilding. The United States has been taken down a peg and enjoys little to none of its previous dominance. What does the post-hegemonic era look like for America? How, in the fabled era of “degraded ISR,” can American armed forces operate and conduct operations? While we’re living through that transition now, Singer and Cole explore what that future might actually resemble.

Riddled throughout with trenchant criticisms of the current political-military-industrial complex (such as a “Big Two” defense contractors, numerous references to the failings of the F-35, and the Air Force’s institutional resistance to unmanned air-to-air platforms), the vision fleshed out in Ghost Fleet is not a flattering one to our current state of affairs. At times the references are a bit on the nose, but the degree of underlying wit makes up for it.

If nothing else, the opening sequence helps explain even to the layman the importance of sensor platforms and space-based assets, the US military’s dependence on them, and their exquisite vulnerability. Finite quantities of ship-launched missiles and other material become apparent in a way that can be challenging to discern in real-life operations. Our reliance on Chinese-produced microchips and other advanced technology becomes a easily-exploitable Achilles’ Heel, in a manner all too reminiscent of the Battlestar Galactica pilot miniseries.

A new techno-thriller is, of course, cause for comparison to Tom Clancy, and where this far outshines him is in its willingness to critique technology and current trends in military procurement rather than lauding it unreservedly, while crafting somewhat multi-dimensional characters (some of whom are even not white!). And as I’ve written before, even if wrong in the details, fiction like this helps broaden the aperture a bit and convey the potentialities of future conflict. If not China, then Russia; if not the F-35, then perhaps the long-range strike bomber: things will go wrong, technologies will fail, and the United States may well be caught unawares. Hopefully, with novels such as Ghost Fleet illustrating the cost of unpreparedness, it will be possible to forestall the future it envisions.

The Windup Girl: A Review

Everything I hoped it would be and more. This morning John Robb referenced aspects of The Windup Girl and that brought it all rushing back.

Bacigalupi paints the picture of a world where the “calorie men,” representatives of the midwestern agricultural combines that released the blister rust plagues into the wild, whose “U-Tex” and other genetically-engineered crops are the only defense against the diseases created by the same men, and the sterility of which forces India, Burma, and the other starving nations of the world into semi-feudal servility. A world in which rising seas have swallowed New York, Mumbai, New Orleans, and Rangoon, and where only the coal-powered monstrous pumps of King Rama XII prevent the similar fate from befalling Bangkok. Where the combustion engine has been replaced by kink-spring power wound by men and elephant-derived megadonts, where the exertion of labor to power the world requires the fuel of food, and calories are the currency of the realm.

In the midst of this, a former Japanese pleasure construct – the titular “windup girl” – discovers instincts and desires beyond the total obedience and urge to please that has not just been bred into her, but programmed into the very fiber of her being. An accidental übermenschen trapped among a peoples who regard her as trash, she represents a future that she can’t even understand yet. Which, coincidentally, is precisely what Bacigalupi has written here.

It is a rich portrait, indeed, and Bacigalupi excels at the alternate history/speculative fiction techniques of hint-dropping and hastily-sketched background details that he doles out like candy along a forest trail. But you’ll want to go where he’s luring you.

Corporate Warriors: A Review

It has been much too long in coming, but I finally finished P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. It is, quite simply, excellent.

Singer is one of the most intriguing defense/security writers out there, as his “thing” is basically finding heavily underrreported – yet crucial – developments occurring in the U.S. military. He seems to always be one of the first to really study in a comprehensive and coherent manner certain evolutionary changes in the way war is fought, and Corporate Warriors is no exception. His other works deal with heady subjects like robotics in war and child soldiers, and here he is at the forefront of yet another startling trend.

Corporate Warriors is an attempt to trace the lineage of the Private Military Firm (PMF) from early mercenaries to today’s corporate arrangements, and in doing so, to fit them into a theoretical framework for better understanding and predicting industry developments. Published on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, the book mostly deals with the 1990s, though to fully explain the rise of the PMF it jumps back to earlier examples in the 1970s and 80s.

Much of Corporate Warriors is couched in the language of IR theory, but Singer never slavishly tries to fit all of his findings into a rigid framework. Chapter 2 is an excellent historical survey of privatized military history, ranging from mercenaries in the service of King Shulgi of Ur to Syracusan hoplites to the first “companies” of the Hundred Years War. Singer fully explains the ‘state as monopoly on violence’ and the prominence that mercenaries enjoyed from the dawn of history until the nineteenth century, explaining that the odd little gap between roughly 1860 and 1950 in which the state’s monopoly was the only game in town. But he is never overly concerned with the theoretical framework. Chapter 11, “Market Dynamism and Global Security Disruptions,” opens with an epigraph from Professor R.B.J. Walker:

The disjunction between the seriousness of international politics and the triviality of international relations theory is quite startling.

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Megalopolis

Last week I had the pleasure of attending another Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs event specifically for Young Professionals. In this case it was a conversation between all-around-urban-intellectual Greg Lindsay and architect Jeanne Gang on nothing less critical than “The Future of Cities.”

Lindsay just cowrote the book Aerotropolis: How We’ll Live Next with John Karsada, which at its most basic is about the coming airport-centric design and planning that will determine the future of cities and the course of twenty-first century urbanism. But even that mouthful of a description doesn’t really do the book justice. Reading Geoff Manaugh’s interview of Lindsay (and also, Lindsay’s of Manaugh), puts the book in a new light and raises a whole variety of additional interpretations to Aerotropolis‘ main theories.

The talk, however, did not focus solely on Lindsay’s book. After a rather stilted introduction from a local Boeing representative, Lindsay launched into a brief overview of the cities of the future. In the next twenty years more “urban fabric” will be created than in the entire rest of human history. And none of them will look like Chicago. They will be born into nowhere, separated from their surrounding regions. Continue reading

The Fires: A Review

Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.

Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.

Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and  Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.

Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.

It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.

While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.

If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

Buy The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities at Amazon.com.

Cities Under Siege: A Review

It took far too long, but I finally got around to reading Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege.  In the end, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Graham’s book is sweeping in its generalizations, its implications, and its conclusions. It broadly traces the rise of the city in military and popular conception as a hotbed of vice and perversion, as a target for military operations, and as an increasingly oppressed environment for its citizens. Cities Under Siege is split into sections covering such phenomenon of urban militarization as the rise of the SUV (“Car Wars”), autonomous drones and robot warfare (“Robowar Dreams”), the destruction and replanning of cities (“Lessons in Urbicide”), recreated urban training centers (“Theme Park Archipelago”) and the nexus of the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network.” It’s a mouthful, as is much of this book.

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Freedom™: A Review

This author, with Suarez' duology at a London pub, May 2010.

After cruising through Daemon in about 2 days, Freedom™ was even quicker: I blew through it in about 24 hours (back in May). That’s no knock against it, though; rather, I just couldn’t put it down at all.

This review will be brief, even though it’s taken me almost three months to get around to finishing it. Basically, if Daemon was the end of the beginning, Freedom™ is the beginning of the end. Or at least of the next step. It lays out the climactic struggle much more succinctly, a titanic clash between people and business, corporate and individual. I found this particular passage most instructive:

You, sir, are walking on a privately owned Main Street—permission to trespass revocable at will. Read the plaque on the ground at the entrance if you don’t believe me. These people aren’t citizens of anything, Sergeant. America is just another brand purchased for its goodwill value. For that excellent fucking logo … No conspiracy necessary. It’s a process that’s been happening for thousands of years. Wealth aggregates and becomes political power. Simple as that. ‘Corporation’ is just the most recent name for it. In the Middle Ages it was the Catholic Church. They had a great logo, too. You might have seen it, and they had more branches than Starbucks. Go back before that, and it was Imperial Rome. It’s a natural process as old as humanity.

Of course, overreach leads to retreat and retrenchment, et cetera, et cetera. Even if the message seems a little obvious (and by no means subtly presented), it’s an important one, and it’s framed in an interesting new way. It’s that presentation that makes this not only legible, but well worth your time, if not just to see what the traditional cries of anticonsumerism and Adbusters-type activism look like in the digital age.

John Robb’s ‘holons‘ take some big strides here too; Suarez has done an excellent job of envisioning the resilient community concept, and doing so in a way that makes them seem not only possible, but inevitable. A blueprint for the future? Not necessarily. But at the least, a realistic portrayal of the kind of decentralized communities that we’ll hopefully be migrating to in the future. Thanks to Daniel Suarez, they’re more than just a concept.

So read Daemon and then read Freedom. Seriously, you won’t be disappointed. And even if you are, ignore the prose and focus on the message – it’s one we sorely need to listen to right now.

Buy Freedom™ at Amazon.com.

Daemon: A Review

After hearing praise from my various luminaries like John Robb, Shlok Vaidya, and zenpundit, there’s no way I could not read Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. The tagline reads “Michael Crichton for the information age,” and in virtually all aspects the book lives up to such a lofty claim.

It’s hard to really explain the book (I found myself attempting to do just that to a drunk South African, and coming up short), but as simply as I can: super-brilliant computer genius who’s responsible for two of the best-selling MMORPGs of all time dies. He’s left embedded in the internet a program – the titular DAEMON, or Disk And Execution MONitor – that can respond and react to news items (such as said genius’ death, or the abortive raid on his house). Using the interconnectedness of the global economy, the daemon insinuates itself into daily life, capitalism comes up against the resilient community, etc, etc.

Anyways, if it sounds pretty far-fetched…it will certainly seem so at times. The prose is nothing particularly elegant or lofty, but that’s not why you read a book like this. The concepts, technologies, and overall contours of the plot are entirely engaging, and this is really a ‘page-turner’ in the tradition of Clancy or Crichton, though with a clear contemporary bent. While the story may come across as somewhat apocalyptic, that’s sort of the point – and at this point within the realm of comprehension.

In case the technology and concepts of Daemon are a little too mindblowing for the reader, Suarez has handily thought to include a quick rundown of recommended further reading, including John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors, and the ubiquitous Jared Diamond’s Collapse. For the more dedicated skeptic, there’s even a compendium of links at the book’s website directing the reader towards further information on the technologies depicted in Daemon. You can even subscribe to “The Daemon Technology RSS Feed,” which is updated infrequently but with an excellent selection of recent technology links.

In addition to being a great read – it’s always nice to take a break from the really dense stuff and read some fiction – Daemon can also help to understand a lot of the terms being thrown around in the 4GW and milblogosphere, especially in a global economic sense. System vulnerability, swarming and nodes, a global elite class, and 3D printer personal manufacturing all hold a prominent place in Daemon‘s world. Its sequel, Freedom™, deals far more heavily with themes of resilient communities and a new system, but that review will wait for another day. In the meantime, read Daemon right now.

Buy Daemon, by Daniel Suarez, at Amazon.

The American Way of War: A Review

After a long while of meaning to, I’ve finished Russell Weigley’s magisterial book The American Way of War. Took longer than it should have, but as a foundational text for understanding not only American strategy, but basic concepts of national strategy itself, this book is unsurpassed. It’s one of the few I can truly call “epic.”

Beginning with George Washington’s “strategy of attrition” during the Revolutionary War, Weigley traces the scope of American strategic thought up to the closing days of the Vietnam War. Structurally, American strategy falls into several phases. Washington eventually gives way to Halleck, who is then replaced by Ulysses Grant. Grant’s approach to war – “a strategy of annihilation” – then serves as the United States’ guiding principle until well into the twentieth century.

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Brave New War: A Review

I had the pleasure of reading John Robb’s Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization over the last week. I’ve been familiar with his excellent blog, Global Guerrillas, for some time now, but reading the framework that he’s constructed for his own analyses has added a great deal of depth to my own understanding of his philosophy. Robb has a peculiar style of interpreting news and events, and one that’s very much influenced me. His predictions may not come true, but regardless, he has laid out some fine groundwork even just as a futurist.

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