Monday, 3 August 2015

Neuromancer meets Red Storm Rising

In the summer of 1987 my teenage mind was captivated by a weighty tome lent to me by an American friend. The wide-ranging narrative and a whiff of authenticity that somehow overmatched everything else in the techno-thriller cannon. I was ahead of the game, I read Red Storm Rising pleasingly before it got its release in Europe, and when it broke on European shores it became a phenomenon that even my parents managed to pick up, prompting a somewhat curious “are they talking about that book you read on the television now?”.

Red Storm Rising probably wasn’t the first of its type, General Sir John Hackett certainly got there first with his Third World War, but it undeniably spawned a genre. Along with Clancy, the likes of Larry Bond, and Hank Brown mined a rich seam like a gift that kept on giving until the end of the Cold War cut them off at the knees.

The techno-thriller went through a long fallow patch. The 1990s weren’t kind to them and even the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to spark a credible narrative that recaptured the majesty of Clancy in his pomp.

As a reader it was fine, we found other things to read. Charles Cumming captured the Eric Ambler quiet school of espionage fiction, we ploughed back into history with John Biggins, and when feeling virtuous we would read something a little more like (whisper it) respectable literature, with Alan Hollinghurst, John Irving, and a newly grown up William Gibson.

Remember that last name, because the arrival of Singer and Cole's Ghost Fleet has made most people refer back to Clancy and Red Storm Rising, but as I progressed into it I found myself remembering another novel I read in the mid 1980s rather more than I expected to. Ghost Fleet may well be a Red Storm Rising for the 21st Century, but if so it’s every bit as much an homage to Gibson’s Neuromancer too - and in a nice touch it’s this which gets the namecheck from Singer and Cole in the running text a bit more than the Clancy link that most reviewers (and yes, my hand is up here too) initially introduce things with.

Linking with early Gibson introduces what one of the key subthemes of the novel - Dave Eggers caused some controversy in 2014 with The Circle, and while I read and enjoyed it, I could see why it simultaneously annoyed those in the technology community and may have been a little inaccessible to those outside it. Ghost Fleet works very well as a cautionary tale about society's reliance on devices to tell us things. This is powerfully linked as the novel reaches a climax, as a US Navy officer peers at a data screen rather than a horizon and reflects that "[t]he anxiousness he felt at that one missing piece of data flow was a reminder of how quickly people took for granted the sea of information they floated in. He only hoped that being thrown back into the dark would be even more disorienting for the Directorate generals and admirals who had enjoyed a war of such data dominance so far."

Leaving the roots aside, what’s Ghost Fleet like as a read? Gratifyingly it’s good, and part of me wants to say it’s very good. Just like Clancy (and indeed Gibson) it’s absorbingly pacy, with a series of vignettes telling enough of a story and creatively using negative space to create the vision that what you read is part of a far larger and more sprawling narrative which, critically, yields an interest in knowing more about what’s left unsaid.

There's an authenticity to the Singer and Cole's universe. Revolving around a Mahanite geopolitical view references to how we arrive at the setting from a contemporary point of departure all feel perfectly credible, with notions such as the Second Timor War, the Dharan dirty bomb, and the New York Quake all feel real, and like the unsaid elements of the conflict in Ghost Fleet, become part of a broader story that you want to know more about.  

The style of writing can raise a smile, insights into the fate of Richard Branson, the ultimate expression of Tour de France doping, and victory drives involving children surrendering tablets to be harvested for microchips all make Ghost Fleet a pleasant as well as interesting read.

Is it this century's Red Storm Rising? In truth I'm not sure, but then again I'm also the thick end of 30 years older than I was when I read Clancy's book, so maybe it's about perspective. While lapping up Ghost Fleet there was a part of me that whispered it wasn't quite as wide ranging and magisterial as Red Storm Rising, but equally saying so felt like needlessly carping, because remember, I was having fun reading Ghost Fleet. Either way, Ghost Fleet is a rattling good read, and sticking with the 21st century, remember, you still can't get an eBook of Red Storm Rising.

Disclaimers and disclosure are good things to includes in anything published. Here's a personal bit of disclosure: my PhD looked at the USN of the 1970s and 1980s in some detail, and as such the personality of Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt featured strongly and positively. In an era when the notion of heroism is brought into question by Donald Trump, I'm delighted that Ghost Fleet salutes a great surface ship sailor in Elmo Zumwalt.

You can get your copy of Ghost Fleet from Canelo here.

Disclosure: an advance copy of Ghost Fleet was provided by Canelo Books.

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