Thursday, March 18, 2021

2034: A Novel Of Technological Illiteracy

      They ought to know better.  The novelist of the two men who wrote 2034: A Novel of the Next World War has Masters degrees in literature and international affairs; he was a Marine officer* in places where they shoot at you for real and did semi-spooky stuff attached to the CIA.  The retired career officer spent 37 years in the Navy, much of it in genuine seagoing commands and/or at various hot spots and has a chest full of ribbons that includes things that matter.

     I'm sure Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis know more about international politics and the military use of force than I ever will.  Based on the excerpt from 2034... published in Wired, they write well, with strong and believable characters.

     One problem is they don't appear to know much about radio; they don't know much about how radio-type jobs are organized in the Navy, nor about the care and feeding of the hardware, especially the older types.  They don't know much about the U. S. power grid, or the havoc that "bumping" the whole thing for a minute would create.  They're unaware of present trends in international short-wave broadcasting (there's less and less of it,  and the trend is continuing).  In the excerpt, the book treats cyberwar measures as if they were magic, with implausible effects and no justification for them.

     It ruins the story for me.  Which is a pity; it's an entertaining cautionary tale on the order of the nuclear war and after-the-Bomb novels of the 1950s through 80s.  But radio operation, maintenance and crypto are three different jobs, for outstandingly good reasons that include compatibility of skill sets and security, and if you're going to condense them to a couple of pulp-character guys (and throw in avionics for good measure), be prepared to prop it up.†  (Also, protip: soldering irons do not "smoke" unless you're melting solder with them.)

     My last paragraph points to another problem: 2034's military officers and White House staffers are fully-rounded; their various opposite numbers are about as good.  In the portions of the book Wired has published, Ackerman and Stavridis don't have much of an eye or ear for the "little people," and while that's about what we expect of an officer in wartime, it's not at all what we want from writers of fiction.

     I'll probably take another look after it comes out in paperback or the hardcovers show up used; I want to see if they ever try to explain the cybermagic (even logical-sounding handwavium would do).  They do use the flashpoints I would expect.  Nevertheless, I'm not expecting Hector Bywater-level prediction from this book.

     Maybe next time.  And whoever writes the next one?  The R-390A is your friend, and if crypto's not behind a locked door, it'd better be a black, black box.
* Wikipedia and his own website are silent on the matter of rank.  Or as the Brits say, "Too tall for Dick and too short for Richard."
† If you detect some personal interest in that, you're right: I am one of the "supporting characters" in my job, not the big brass or someone publicly visible. 


Ratus said...

"…soldering irons do not "smoke" unless you're melting solder with them."

They do if they are on fire. :)

Of course you will need a replacement after.

RandyGC said...

Yeah, I've had my suspension of disbelief become unwilling on more than a few books/video media due to ignorance of (easily checked) details.

I know a few folks that have surplused R390A's they've restored. Nice.

By the time I was active out in the operational arena (mid-80's) RACALs were the norm for USAF.

As a junior officer it was a large part of my job to keep the ops, maintenance and occasionally crypto guys talking/working together to get the mission done. Never came to knocking heads together but... So I'm guessing these authors never spent any time working in those fields.

Just as having been in the military doesn't mean you know anything about guns and shooting, so too having been an Operator Operating Operationally in the Operational Area doesn't mean they know anything about what it takes to keep them out on the pointy part of the spear.

Cop Car said...

Thanks for the review. R X. I took precious little writing in school; but, my profs in English said to write what we knew and my profs in science & engineering said to gather data/info from original sources and to verify, verify, verify.

Randy's last paragraph says a lot. Hunky Husband (HH) keeps asking me about ships - never mind the fact that I never served aboard one. As a structures aircraft mechanic in the USNR, the only things I had to know about ships were how to shore up structure and how to fight fires. As a crypto/comm officer guy in the Air National Guard, HH had to qualify with a pistol and thought that every military puke would be so required.

Rey B said...

20 years in the Navy doing radar operation and repair would probably cause me some cognitive dissonance on some of the stuff but I may give it a shot. Less likely to throw my Nook across the room than I am an actual book. Thanks for the heads up.

roamer said...

The idea of Stavridis not knowing about the little people surprises me; I read his 'Destroyer Captain' and it showed great depth of knowledge of the enlisted men he worked with. Of course, as a four star his engagement with junior enlisted (anyone below Chief) has declined enormously since he actually commanded a ship.

Pigpen51 said...

I subscribe to Wired, and have that issue, but I have to admit, I have not yet read the excerpt of the book. Thanks to you, I will now take the time and read it, looking for not just the technical weaknesses that an old ham radio operator might find, but to see if I want to purchase the book when it comes out. Most likely, I will buy it as an E Book, since I have so many hard copies either paperback or hardcover, that storage becomes an issue.
I have read several similar styles of books over the past week and a half, and am finding them to bring me back to my high school days, when I read a lot of such books. The good old action adventure, with the hero that was a former military type, who worked with the CIA or such, on an uneasy truce type basis.
What can I say, they are fun for a teen aged young male. And the ones being written now are much more sophisticated, and for a very broad audience, especially now that society is much more diverse. I tried to go back and read Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, series from my much younger days, and they were quite dated, shall we say.

Ken said...

Thank you for the review and summary. I was looking at this title (still mulling it) -- how does it compare to Ghost Fleet, for Miz Ecks or anyone else who's read both? I read Ghost Fleet and thought it entertaining, and the authors certainly made a lot of hay out of their research; the endnotes are, um, extensive.

Roberta X said...

Ken, I have never read Ghost Fleet but I checked the Amazon "Look inside," and I think the writing in 2034 is a little more polished. While I'm not happy with their approach to electronics and they way they wrote the lower ranks (to the point that I'd probably be making marginal notes in a physical book), it's very readable and the overall storytelling is good.

Roamer, there's "knowing" and there's "caring:" the excerpt uses a couple of pure-pulp cardboard cutouts for the techs, and does in a manner that makes it very plain that's what they are. I found it jarring, especially since all the commissioned and/or suit-and-tie types were deftly drawn. I was left with the feeling that if you punch a time clock, you're nobody to the writers.