Cheeseburger Gothic

Ghost Fleet. PW Singer and August Cole

Posted August 25, 2015 into Books by John Birmingham

Short review.

I loved it. If you enjoyed the Tom Clancy school of the 1980s and would like to see them redone with modern and future technology, just go buy it.

Longer, more considered review.

It's lucky Tom Clancy wasn't able to put hyperlinks all the way through his books. Not in the early years, anyway. This is what they would look like. A military thriller in which every mention of weapons technology is hyperlinked to an explanatory source. But even more than that, there are hundreds of other inexplicable links which break up the experience of just letting the story carry you along. It's an artefact of the authors' deeper purpose — to spin a cautionary tale for policymakers as much as for readers. But seriously, I really didn't need the footnote explaining how Arnold Palmer had been commissioned to design that golf course on which Marine Corps Osprey's were setting down. Just land the damn aircraft and start blowing things up. Sheesh.

I bring this up before even getting to what Ghost Fleet is about because those footnotes are going to piss a lot of people off. I tried to turn them off on my Kobo but couldn't find the appropriate checkbox. Maybe it would be easier on a Kindle or an iPad.

That minor aggravation aside (I stopped noticing them the same way we train ourselves not to see banner ads online) and with all the usual caveats, I really did enjoy this book.

Ghost Fleet is very Red Storm Rising, one of my favourite Tom Clancy books. It's set in the near future, the exact date being left vague, but feeling like twenty years out to me. That's long enough to bring a lot of cutting edge technology into the mainstream, but not so far removed from our present concerns as to morph into science fiction. China is ascendant, but the Communist Party has been swept away. The emergent hyperpower is ruled by a nationalist cabal of billionaire tycoons and the military. The US is not just in relative decline; a series of foreign policy misadventures and economic travails find it in absolute decline. China's ruling clique, which styles itself as the Directorate, discovers vast reserves of natural gas on the floor of the Pacific in an area still controlled by America. They decide the time has come for Washington to learn a few ugly realities about the new blanace of power. Or what the old Sovs would have called 'the correlation of forces'.

And so we come to the point, or rather the first point of this novel, a tour de force of just how US could be driven out of the Pacific in our lifetimes. The Chinese plan is not far removed from scenarios being war gamed by all of the great powers right now. The guilty pleasure of Ghost Fleet is seeing the scenario-building worked out in narrative form.

Like Clancy, Singer and Cole deploy a broad canvas with a lot of storytellers. They do return to a couple of favourites however, a Navy captain who fights his LCS out of Pearl Harbor when the Pacific Fleet is attacked there, his old man, a retired Navy chief petty officer who is recalled to service with thousands of other old salts when the 7th Fleet is destroyed, a female Marine who turns insurgent when Hawaii is invaded, a Chinese-American scientist whose research holds the key to a counter-attack, and one of my particular favourites a British-Australian billionaire turned space pirate. (Seriously, this character is great fun and provides the only comic relief in an otherwise pretty serious endeavour). There are dozens of others.

No it's not Tolstoy. It doesn't even make a pretense at being fine writing. A lot of the secondary characters are just Lego pieces to click into place when building the story, and although the writers take some time with their favourite characters to fill out their back stories and emotional lives, it's largely a paint by numbers exercise.

So fucking what. You don't judge these books by the standards of Tolstoy. You judge them on their own merits, and I judged Ghost Fleet to be such enormous fun that I decided to take a day off work to finish reading it in one big, guilty binge. It helped that I had a bit of a hangover after the Melbourne Writers Festival. I was able to convince myself I would not have done any worthwhile work on my own books. Also, it made me think I should really write some more stuff like this.

A lot of the pacing, character, and formatting problems (those hyperlinks!) fall away as the story begins to accelerate under its own momentum. By the time the US has put together its counterstrike (the second real point of the book) most of the lumpiness of the early narrative has smoothed out and it's a fast run to a very satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed it. I'm happy to recommend the purchase.

Amazon affiliate link. (Hardback. But go the ebook).

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

64 Responses to ‘Ghost Fleet. PW Singer and August Cole’

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan ducks in to say...

Posted August 25, 2015
Are you coming the raw prawn with me?? Arnold Palmer was commissioned to design a golf course on which Marine Corps Osprey's were setting down??

If true, that rocks my world, mate. Rocks my fucking world.

GhostSwirv ducks in to say...

Posted August 25, 2015

Not only was Arnold Palmer commissioned to design a golf course for Osprey training but Mario Andretti was tasked to design a race track for Abrams M1A2 Tanks to take on Russian T-14s, on-loan from the Ukrainians ... and Mark Spitz was called upon to design a cluster of Olympic-sized swimming pools for HALO SEAL insertions - but somehow the design parameters where not explained properly and that programme was unexpectantly terminated.

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Aaron ducks in to say...

Posted August 25, 2015
I heartily endorse your desire to write more military thrillers. And call the hero Tolstoy.

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Blarkon swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 25, 2015
"Also, it made me think I should really write some more stuff like this."
Fuck Yes. Who cares about characterization if there is an F22 skimming the waves with big arse ship splosions in the background on the cover?

NBlob mutters...

Posted August 25, 2015
+1

damian asserts...

Posted August 25, 2015
I think the beginning of the SF&F immersion I've taken on in recent years has been to work out whether I'd like to write it. Whereas maybe what I really want to write is more along the lines of Alastair Maclean (I lost patience with the 80s era guys in the 90s). Getting the balance of ingredients right is probably the main thing. Terse, double-fisted prose. Or something, no idea really and time burns like a fuse.

Murphy_of_Missouri mumbles...

Posted August 27, 2015
Damian, if you can possibly break into writing through any other genre then for the love of God, go do that.
Don't get wrapped up in the mindless insanity of science fiction. Especially not after the spectacle which took place last weekend.

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Sudragon mutters...

Posted August 25, 2015
It's not available on Amazon.com.au. It is, however, over on Google play.

Peter in the bleachers is gonna tell you...

Posted August 25, 2015
Also at iBooks. I re-read Red Storm Rising about 3 months ago. I'd forgotten how much I had enjoyed it back in the late 80's

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Murphy_of_Missouri puts forth...

Posted August 25, 2015
Didn't Ralph Peters essentially write this novel back in the 1990s? Of course the bad guy was Japan, of all folks, not China. But it featured the same declining United States of America as the plucky come back kid.

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Aaron has opinions thus...

Posted August 26, 2015
I have seen loads floating around in book shops, very similar plot but because explodey goodness who cares.
I need to re read red storm rising, with some grilled meat on the side. Ahhh....

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Sudragon has opinions thus...

Posted August 26, 2015
And I turn on ABC and there's Peter Singer talking about the War on Isis....

damian has opinions thus...

Posted August 30, 2015
What program was that? That would be a cracker, and it'll still be available to download.

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Dick reckons...

Posted August 26, 2015
I read an article on this book yesterday. I believe whilst it is a novel, the authors are seriously also trying to role play a definitely possible outcome, and they are qualified to do so apparently.

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ChrisB mutters...

Posted August 26, 2015
Looks like my Sunday is now set...thanks JB

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Aaron reckons...

Posted August 26, 2015
The appeal for me is not so much the explodey but the interesting ideas of how to take out a powerful opponent like the USA. A classic example was the war 2006 book, a combined Mid East force taking on the west using an air denial strategy. It sounded good anyway. Red storm had some good bits like that as well.

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Sudragon reckons...

Posted August 26, 2015
The trick is to write a book about a Superpower clash that isn't 400 pages of the extremely short period of time between 'launch warning' and 'earth-shattering ka-boom'

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TexasTeaserPony puts forth...

Posted August 27, 2015
First, should the Master write more military SF? Absolutely. It's his highest and best use.

Second, Murph, you may be thinking-I think-of another Clancy book in which the US did have a dust up with Japan--remember when Japan Inc was scaring the shit out of some people? Clancy wrote a book to capitalize on that happy time.

Peters wrote a really excellent book called The Red Army--highly recommended for nostalgic Cold Warriors--in which a Warsaw Pact invasion of Germany is told from a Soviet point of view. The ending was interesting, to say the least. Highly recommended. Peters is currently doing a series of truly remarkable historical novels of various campaigns and battles of the US Civil War. His Cain at Gettysburg puts Shaara's Killer Angels to shame.

Red Storm Rising was the best of all the various efforts to try to write a WWIII book. So, with our Master's recc, I'll be buying and reading Ghost Fleet on tonight's trip to left coast. Thanks for that, Lord and Master.

As a footnote, Clancy wrote one where the US and NATO smacked the PRC around--we were helping Russia as I recall. He wrote a lot of stuff. As time passed, it got pretty same-same.

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted August 27, 2015
That Japan book featured an airliner slamming into Congress. I recall TC having to explain why he wasn't responsible for 911

Murphy_of_Missouri asserts...

Posted August 27, 2015
I remember very clearly back in the 1990s that everyone thought that Japan was the dominant future Asian power followed by a host of regional follow ons and that we, the United States of America were, doomed.

In an International Relations class at Park University (what do you get when you spell Park backwards) I basically stated that I thought their market growth was unsustainable and that regular predictions of U.S. collapse were just as regularly disproven. The instructor, an adjunct and my first encounter with one after two years of college, was convinced I was wrong. Well, history vindicated me with the collapse of the Tiger Economies and here in a bit I suspect when China implodes history will vindicate me again.






Dave W has opinions thus...

Posted August 27, 2015
I think you raise an interesting point, Mr Murphy.
When I lived in the UK for a few years, I was staggered and impressed at just how important the country is. From the outside we get the impression that the place is crap and really is just a faded superpower. From the inside, though, it's startling just how influential and necessary (from a manufacturing, research and facilitation/financial perspective- probably militarily too) the UK remains. I suspect the same is true of the US.
I'd say that reports of their deaths are greatly exaggerated.

Brother PorkChop would have you know...

Posted August 28, 2015
Murph, you really think the PRC will go the same way as Japan and more recently, Korea? I would disagree, at least with the way it stands ATM. I studied Japan's economics and politics in the 80s when it was all Japan Inc. and Japan As No.1. I didn't agree with it then for Japan - too far, too fast and too naive. The PRC is a different beast and looks very much to the future and very long term strategies. Looked at the rare earth stats on ownership? Gold as well. It is at best uncertain and at worst, quite scary.

NBlob swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 29, 2015
i miss the rambling geopolitic sessions we used to have in the old burger. Yeah the carpet was sticky and you wouldn't crap in the bathroom if you could avoid it, but geeze we tackled some big issues. Not so much with the "which ap on my iWatch do I like most."

Murphy_of_Missouri mutters...

Posted August 31, 2015
Their demographic ticking time bomb will do them in. I'm not overly worried about China in the near term, at least over the next fifty years.

NBlob mutters...

Posted September 1, 2015
The demographic issue will have interesting consequences, for me more interesting will be the shake out from the Ehrlich collapse of the natural systems (breathable air & potable water) economic concentration & disparity and GM tinkering. Each of these pressures have more than enough inertia to destabilise the People's Republic how they interplay will be intriguing.

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damian swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 30, 2015
Just Testing

damian mumbles...

Posted August 30, 2015
*takes a small bow*

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 30, 2015
Gold star.

NBlob asserts...

Posted August 31, 2015
You know what's gunna happen now.

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HAVOCK21 reckons...

Posted August 28, 2015
FK ME YES!!!!

its about time...thats YOU and TC..well he can't but you have no fkn excuse!...I'M BUYING IT!...got some time on me hands.
OH...and BTW. FKN NOT FKN HAPPY ABOUT MELB, but mum and dad come first...old boys been pretty crook!

NBlob is gonna tell you...

Posted August 29, 2015
Spend every minute with him you can comrade. Bung him in the shotgun seat while you do your chores. Once he's gone you'll regret every chance you had & didn't. I know I do.

damian would have you know...

Posted August 30, 2015
+1

AuntyLou ducks in to say...

Posted August 30, 2015
Missed the chance with Mum. Dad is living with us at the mo...trying to find the good stuff amongst the day to day dross. Grateful for the chance. Thinking of you and yours Havs (PS I know you don't know me from Adam but I am claiming a degree of Burgerhood which I am probably not entitled to but proud of nonetheless.)

NBlob is gonna tell you...

Posted August 31, 2015
If you identify as a burger, you're Burger enough for me.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan puts forth...

Posted October 4, 2015
NBlob does not speak for the entire cartel. It takes more than self identification of Burgerosity. It takes a cash donation to me. Upon receiving said cash donation I will provide a certificate of Burgerhood.

AuntyLou has opinions thus...

Posted October 4, 2015
Okay PNB! If you are willing to disclosed your contact details to some strange old lady on the interwebs...I am sure we can come to some arrangement. Or I can buy you a drink next time you come to BrisVegas. But I would really like that certificate! It can sit proudly between my Bronze swimming certificate & my BA (Bugger All) degree.

NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted October 5, 2015
Don't do it AuntyLou, it'll be nothing but pen!s enlarging Nigerian princes from here to eternity.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mutters...

Posted October 6, 2015
Yeah, but she will also get a cool certificate.

AuntyLou asserts...

Posted October 7, 2015
Look...if PNB can throw in the name of that one food I must never eat in order to lose unsightly belly fat and a job that I can do from home & earn thousands of dollars only working an hour or two - I think we have a deal!

NBlob is gonna tell you...

Posted October 7, 2015
And another innocent falls to PNB's charm. The most distressing aspect is the propensity for PNB to be a "gateway" pundit to worse, far worse. Like GreyBread. Despite what the nuns tell you it's not that one toke on a joint and next thing your addicted to crack, but rather PNB erodes the standards by which you judge, loosens the scope of acceptable, broadens what is tenable. Then GreyBread seems rakish, daring even. Then that's the ball game.

AuntyLou puts forth...

Posted October 7, 2015
Quite some time since I have been called "innocent"! I have a tendency to be the somewhat wayward oldie in many groups. While I may have met my match in this crowd I reckon I could give the standard loosening of PNB & GB a run for the money! Play ball!!

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted October 8, 2015
Blob, the kind of "standards" you champion are the hobgoblin of little minds. I don't really know what that means, but it sounds intellectually pompous, thereby achieving my sophistic goals while simultaneously proving your point. I mean, come on, how cool is that?

Lou, we have a deal. I will begin preparing your custom certificate.

AuntyLou is gonna tell you...

Posted October 8, 2015
Yeah...no idea what you said PNB but...way cool! Sorry Mr Blob - like all women (ooh! gender stereotype alert!) I am a sucker for the bad boys! So looking forward to my custom certificate and lots more chats with my official Burgermates! (Please be aware that the exclamation mark is my punctuation mark of choice! It is used with gay- in the old fashioned sense- abandon. Please assume no particular level of excitement!!!)

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan ducks in to say...

Posted October 9, 2015
Excessive punctuation use will jeopardize your Burgerhood.

AuntyLou reckons...

Posted October 9, 2015
Damn. And I thought I was solid.

NBlob mutters...

Posted October 9, 2015
When he says "we have a deal" I'd urge you to engage counsel, count your fingers and pay very close attention to the fine print. Unrelated; you do have an arm, leg & first born?

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pedrogb reckons...

Posted August 29, 2015
Saw an article on it online, thought about it, but after your post JB I bought the ebook version.As a long time fan of miltary SF, anything by Tom Clancy, (and showing my vintage now) James Cobb or Eric L Harry I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would recommend it.

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Steve would have you know...

Posted August 29, 2015
I finished reading it yesterday, and enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Red Storm Rising.
I honestly doubt that China would let itself get into a shooting war with the US. When you owe the bank a million dollars and can't pay, you have a problem. When you owe the bank a billion dollars and can't pay, the bank has a problem. China's biggest financial assets is its US debt holdings, which are in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions, and these would become worthless overnight if a shooting war started.

Nocturnalist ducks in to say...

Posted October 3, 2015
The version I've heard for the post-GFC world is "When you owe the bank a thousand dollars and you can't pay, you have a problem. When you owe the bank a million dollars and you can't pay, the bank has a problem. When you owe the bank a billion dollars and you can't pay, the government has a problem."

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan would have you know...

Posted October 8, 2015
Heavens no, when you owe the bank or a government many billions of dollars the creditor/debtor relationship transforms into a partnership.

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sibeen mutters...

Posted August 29, 2015
So, just finished the book. For all the wrap JB gave it I must state that I just didn't love it. I didn't hate it, but love was still far away.
The disinterest started fairly early. For a book that was supposedly thoroughly researched there was a line near the beginning where China's monopoly on rare earth minerals is one of the tipping points for their ascendancy. Thing is, rare earth minerals just aren't that rare. In fact they are reasonably common. There's shitloads just lying around. I could dig up some in my backyard, not cheaply, but I could do it.
That sort of crap just turned me off.
As a China vs USA novel, it really didn't do that for me as well. I was hoping for a new and improved "Invasion" by Eric Harry. It didn't even come close. If you want visceral blood, guts, strategy, etc, the Harry novel wins in a canter.

Sibeen gives this book a big pfft.


NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted August 30, 2015
I've had a similar experience in a number of otherwise entirely adequate yarns. Page 5 or 6 some hand-waving or a clumsy Maguffin unsettles me for the rest of the yarn, meaning I never properly engage and find myself @ page 300, still unengaged.

HAVOCK21 asserts...

Posted August 31, 2015
yall....remember that Sibeeeen is an engineer!..OK.....JUST SAYIN!.." fkn ducks for cover"

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John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted August 30, 2015
Turn off the italics!

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robW mumbles...

Posted August 31, 2015
Ditto on the footnotes, they drove me crazy. When I read the book like you I was instantly reminded of Clancy, but not just Clancy. It reminded me wistfully of Birmingham's earlier work. I thought of writing him a note asking why he [Birmingham] didn't write more along those lines, but then realized he isn't my book bitch. *sigh*

NBlob asserts...

Posted October 11, 2015
& book bitches

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mumbles...

Posted October 12, 2015
It has been my honor to be acquainted with a number of fine authors. None can be characterized as my "book bitch." If they were, then Doctor Funk and the Leather Pirates From Planet Love would be a published novel today.

And I take this opportunity to point out to the literary Powers That Be that there still is no AoT sequel (although long promised) and no fourth novel in the Nantucket series (never promised, but certainly something that needs to be done: I mean, seriously Steve, how cool would it be to jump a couple of generations ahead to a quasi steampunk world where the Wolf Queen of the Steppes seeks a reckoning?).

And Dean - you can stop writing those Odd Thomas novels. Please.

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TexasTeaserPony mumbles...

Posted August 31, 2015
Invasion *was* awesome.

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S.M. Stirling asserts...

Posted October 3, 2015
I've got two objections to this scenario, one general and one specific.
General first: when was the last time two major industrialized nation-states seriously fought each straight up -- not through proxies, but head-to-head with mainforce units of their own national forces?
Answer -- 1945.
When was the last time nuclear weapons were used?
Answer -- 1945.
This is not a coincidence. It's now 70 years since the last Great Power war, and the reason is simple: anyone who can field major forces can build nukes, and nobody will accept a major defeat without escalating.
Shortly thereafter, we all go into the stratosphere, as fallout.
As the saying went in the 1980's, NATO's strategy for WWIII was: we fight with conventional weapons until we start to lose, then we fight with tactical(*) nukes until we start to lose, then we blow up the world.
Same-same here.
The -specific- objection is on the next rock.

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S.M. Stirling reckons...

Posted October 3, 2015
OK, specific objection:
"China Rising" stories are so 2005. Rather like "Japan will eat our lunch" stories are so 1985, only it's not so generally obvious yet.
As usual, near-future SF focuses on yesterday's problem.
China has just run bugsplat into the "high middle income trap" and shows no signs of being able to to get out. To progress beyond that they'd need structural reforms so deep that even Japan hasn't gotten around to them seriously yet.
More fundamentally, like the Japanese and Koreans (and the Taiwanese and Singaporeans and other East Asians) the Chinese have effectively stopped having babies. Their urban TFR's are about 1 -- among the lowest in the world. This is not a matter of government policy; they're not having babies because they don't -want- to have babies.
What's more, like Taiwan (and following in Japan's wake) they're getting into the "more and more women refuse to marry" trap too; this pattern is common in East Asia once a certain development threshold is hit, starting among the upper-middle-class in urban areas and spreading. China is in the earlier stages but it's unmistakable. It's a consequence of uneven cultural modernization, and particularly devastating in cultures with a long tradition of universal marriage.
Add in the grotesque male-female imbalance in the younger generations, and you do not have a formula for a dynamic superpower. Countries with declining, (and rapidly aging) populations tend to become conservative, risk-averse and inward-looking, with a general attitude of grumpy depression.
Here's a graphic of Taiwan's population "pyramid", which as you can see has a distinctly non-pyramidal shape these days. Urban China's is about the same, and China is now majority-urban, with the countryside increasingly hollowing out and almost no young farmers.
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/graphics/population/TW_popgraph%202014.bmp

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