Well, Foreign Policy just reminded me that people in the Pentagon are taking this book very, very seriously.
This series has not been forgotten; other things have simply intervened. We still owe posts on the implausibility of the naval technology, the outright impossibility of the space battles, and the ridiculousness of the tactics used by the Hawaii occupation and resulting insurgency.
Right now, a short post on tone.
One problem for all books presenting a villain is how to get into that sweet spot where the villain is competent enough to be frightening, but not so competent as to become caricature. Some readers don’t mind caricature, of course. But Ghost Fleet bills itself as plausible, so it has to hit that sweet spot or fail.
In terms of what the Chinese actually do in the book (and ignoring the technical flaws) the authors more-or-less accomplish their goal. The Chinese of Ghost Fleet are improbably but plausibly competent, and such competence is required for the plot. The book suffered more from making their American opponents implausibly incompetent, at least at the beginning, rather than making the Chinese superhuman.
That said, there are ways to make competence seem like just that, normal old competence, rather than silly steely Nietzschean power-willing. The book did okay on the substance (ignoring its technical impossibilities) while failing in tone. It tossed in throwaway lines about the Chinese Directorate’s super competence for absolutely no reason — well, no reason other than playing on the implicit prejudices of readers primed to fear China in order to make them more scared of the villain.
And that was a major disappointment, especially since I believe that the authors were convinced that they were doing the opposite.
He points out that so far the impeachment has been a good thing: markets have risen and Interim President Michel Temer is known as a “dealmaker” who can manage Congress.
But! Temer has a hard row to hoe. He needs to restore fiscal stability while retaining social inclusive policies: i.e., income redistribution that actually redistributes income and gives people a stake in their polity. How can we know whether he can do that? Well, take it from the source:
In Brazil in Transition, my coauthors and I pose three questions to help us assess whether a leader such as Temer has what it takes: does he know what policies are needed to recover from the shock? Can he coordinate a coalition that includes economic and political actors as well as citizens to embrace those policies? And is he trusted and does he possess moral authority?
Lee doesn’t come out and say it, but his tone is negative. (He even briefly feints in the other direction, sardonically pointing out that at least you have to admit that Temer isn’t afraid of controversy.) His conclusion:
His early moves may please markets, but to satisfy Brazil’s diverse citizenry, he will need to demonstrate that he is not abandoning social inclusion. On this as well as his own fate in the ongoing corruption scandals: the jury is still out.
As for me, well ... I think the list of questions is an excellent one. The answers to the three are maybe, probably not, and hell no. The jury is certainly out, but there are a lot of signs coming out of the box.
Meanwhile, buy the book.
The previous post reminded me of DMZ, an excellent comic book about a future American civil war.
Towards the end of the series, we get to see the President of the United States, who leads government forces in that war. He is never named. But you see his face. And he is ... Dennis Kucinich.
Over at Vox, Jedediah Purdy (Duke) just wrote an article entitled, “How the 2016 election undermines Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ argument.” It starts with a good explanation of what Francis Fukuyama was really arguing. It then goes off the rails by trying to argue that the 2016 election somehow shows History raising its ugly head.
First, Fukuyama. In The End of History and the Last Man, he argued that fascism and communism had collapsed as viable governing ideologies, leaving liberal democracy the last one standing. Unless liberal democracy generated some sort of problem that liberal democracy could not solve, history in the sense of grand ideological conflict was over. Sure, Islamic theocrats might gain power or start wars, but they were not going to gain mass support among non-Islamic peoples. We all agreed on the big picture. Of course, that big picture was pretty wide, running from the U.K. under Thatcher all the way to Scandinavia. In fact, Fukuyama later used the phrase “Getting to Denmark” as shorthand for perfecting liberal democracy. (Hold that point, I’ll return to it in a paragraph or so.)
Second, 2016. Why does 2016 disprove Fukuyama’s argument? Let me pull two quotes from Prof. Purdy.
And now my head hits my desk. Jedediah, no!
First, the 2016 election is completely in line with Fukuyama. Bernie Sanders is a liberal democrat who believes in private property. Denmark is his political vision ... and Denmark, as I pointed out above, is entirely within Fukuyama’s definition of liberal democracy. Hell, the U.K. in 1950 is within Fukuyama’s definition of liberal democracy! Purdy is pulling a fast one by harping on the “socialist” label.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, often “acts like a fascist.” And he has blown off a lot of recent taboos in American politics, which I think is dangerous. But even he can’t just come out and call for white supremacy or openly support abolishing the rule of law. Even that authoritarian blowhard needs to keep his rhetoric within the broadest bounds of liberal democracy. Oh, he is a threat, because illiberal democracies are ugly things and liberal democracies can be riven by identity politics ... but that is still small-h history, not History.
Second, Piketty found that found that the liberal democracies of the postwar period did a great job of limiting income inequality through high redistributive taxes. In other words, liberal democracies solved the inequality problem. Purdy is implicitly stating — oh, heck, it’s barely implicit — that the liberal democracies of 1945-80 were not liberal democracies. That is another fast one.
Maybe the support for Senator Sanders means we are heading towards Eisenhower’s tax rates and Canada’s health and education systems, or maybe it doesn’t. But Senator Sanders’ surprising success does not mean anything for the United States as a liberal democracy! The United States might socialize medicine, impose draconian inheritance taxes, make public universities free, and return to a 90% top tax rate ... but it would still be a liberal democracy. Because, you know, Eisenhower’s America was a liberal democracy and so is Trudeau’s Canada.
Maybe a Trump presidency would widen racial divides and inflame identity politics. And maybe it would end in Nixonian-scale scandal. Or maybe it would just be an aggravating damp squib. Either way, a liberal democracy that could survive Richard Nixon will survive Donald Trump. America in 2016 is not Italy in 1924. And it is still more likely than not that Trump loses in November.
In other words, the essay relies on pulling two definitional fast ones and ignoring the limits on Trumpism. I am more than a little surprised.
Ghost Fleet’s climactic cyberwar scene reached a depth of stupidity suitable for a SyFy made-for-TV movie, only without the self-awareness. It would have been laugh-out-loud funny had the authors not been telegraphing what was going to happen for about 100 pages.
We have already covered most of what is wrong with the cyberwar climax on page 288 of Ghost Fleet. At the start of the scene, a Chinese superhacker is moving to shut off Akron’s power supply. The set-up, of course, makes no sense. The superhacker is attacking using software “modeled after the Americans’ Project Aurora malware.” You can go to this video to see what a cyberattack really looks like. She would not be flicking rings to “initiate attack protocols.” Maybe she would fool around with the utility’s control panel after the malware had executed, but she wouldn’t be “initiating” anything.
Second, and more importantly, there is no way on God’s Green Earth that the United States would still be vulnerable to the Aurora vulnerability more than a year (or two; the book is remarkably unclear on chronology) into the war. Consider: “Mitigation is relatively inexpensive and straightforward. It entails placing a hardware device between each substation and its loads. That device monitors for the rapid out-of-phase condition associated with an AUORA event and isolates the substation from its loads before the torque of the grid can be applied to the equipment loads.” Sure, the United States might be vulnerable at the start of the war. But if the enemy doesn’t attack immediately, then it won’t be able to attack at all.
But the real idiocy is at the end of the scene, where our Chinese attacker is thwarted by … Anonymous. Yes, freedom’s secret weapon. Anonymous get a very Hollywood moment where the Chinese hacker’s virtual reality gear and interface to her hacking tools is obstructed by a rendering of a wall of Guy Fawkes masks. Anonymous then proceeds to take over the systems that keep her drugged up (WTF?) and kills her and all the rest of the cyberwarriors.
Anonymous is presented as an ally of convenience than “good guys” or “patriots” for the U.S. At that point, the accuracy stops.
The book paints Anonymous as a coherent and effective force. The truth is rather different. Fact checking their cohesion and ability is not terribly hard. In fact, Anonymous just conducted an operation. One deemed #OpParis.
After the attacks in Paris, Anonymous announced they would go after Daesh, aka “the Islamic State.” They planned to take down twitter accounts associated with Daesh and compromising forums and systems associated with the same. After a week of their #OpParis, Anonymous reported taking down more than 20,000 twitter accounts and claimed to have doxxed several Daesh recruiters. (“Doxxing” means posting private information about names, locations, generally personal details, etc.)
Already one might start to wonder whether the authors of Ghost Fleet were grinding an ideological axe or (more likely) writing a scene they knew was immensely stupid in the hope of getting a movie deal. Taking down Twitter feeds and doxxing Daesh sympathizers is a long way from killing Chinese government operatives by remote control.
Except Anonymous is even less capable than than its claims about OpParis reports would indicate. After all, accounts that were supposedly taken down included such Daesh supporters as the New York Times, U.S. President, BBC and Hillary Clinton.
Multiple sources reported most of the twitter accounts were active still after the so-called attacks. Twitter stated the lists of supposed Daesh accounts provided from some Anonymous members were wildly inaccurate. So is the claim they took down 20,000 accounts complete hogwash? Is there a way to reconcile Anonymous’ statements with the observations of the outside world?
Yes, actually, there is. At least for some of their claims.
To do so though will require examining how Anonymous attacked its targets. While there are a number of skilled hackers, the majority of Anonymous is little more than what we call script kiddies. These are users of prepackaged software meant to compromise systems. How such software works, we’ve talked about before. Such software is not, however, anywhere as near as sophisticated as Stuxnet or other real cyberweapons.
Anonymous essentially spammed the Twitter accounts so people could not, while under attack, use them. They sent wave after wave of messages including Rick Astley’s 1987 Song “Never Gonna Give You up.”
Yup. Essentially Anonymous rickrolled the supposed Daesh accounts, spamming all incoming communication and making conversation impossible. The accounts were taken out … but only temporarily. As soon as Anonymous stopped their attacks, the accounts were usable again. This is what is called a denial of service attack, and, frankly, it’s a weak one. In other words, Anonymous didn’t take anything out. All it did was make a few accounts temporarily unusable until Twitter’s management stopped the nonsense.
That brings us to the greatest problem with Anonymous: its a volunteer organization attracting support based on enthusiasm and interest. Its a militia, of a sort. But it not a militia driven by concern for people’s homes or life. Rather, most Anonymous volunteers do what they do for the “lolz;” their own amusement. When they get bored, they stop. #OpParis petered out. The Islamic State steams on.
I’ll mention here that when Anonymous decided to doxx people who collaborated with the Zetas, they learned right quick that it was a bad idea. As for other ways of cyber-attacking the cartels, so far there has been nothing. The cartels are not running scared of Anonymous.
To be sure, there are probably talented hackers out there affiliated with Anonymous, but the vast majority of them are not. That majority is the cyber equivalent of bunch of high school kids egging a house. Nothing more.
And certainly not the insanely powerful group portrayed in Ghost Fleet. And I see no way for the current group to somehow transmogrify itself into an all-powerful collective in only nine years ... or ever.
In short, the way the authors portrayed cyberwar may succeed as a way to catch a Hollywood agent’s attention. It failed on every other metric. Which is really quite disappointing, given that they have the knowledge to have written a good book.
Things are slowing down professionally, and so this series will continue. But I just finished re-reading the book ... and man it looks much worse than the first time through. Really shoddy work by the authors in what should have been a classic. I am befuddled by the positive reviews.
Any way, here is Politico (of all places!) reporting on America’s arsenal of offensive cyberweapons. Key quote: “One thing everyone I spoke to agreed on: The U.S. has the most powerful cyber arsenal in the world.”
Weirdly, the article quotes one of the authors of Ghost Fleet. I know that they know all the stuff Will Baird explained here. So why does the book pretend that they don’t? They really could have done much better ... and realism would have introduced more drama, not less. It is weird.
Next up: the silliness of the way the book treats insurgency and counterinsurgency, followed by fisks of how it presents international politics, conventional military capabilities, and space travel. (Oh, God, the space travel.)
One of the most disappointing things about Ghost Fleet was the dog that didn’t bark: the massive immeidate American cyber-counterattack against China. It’s one thing to write an exaggerated warning against a threat that you believe your country is neglecting. It’s quite another to ignore the loud and massive preparations for cyberwar that the United States has already made — and that those very authors have reported upon extensively. It was weird; weird enough to remove much of our ability to enjoy the book.
One thing that the authors get completely right is that much of any future cyberwar will be fought using malicious programs that are pre-positioned inside hardware. Trojaned electronics are a very real concern. It is entirely conceivable that in a future conflict, the Chinese government could do serious damage to the American civilian infrastructure. Moreover, with the advent of the “internet of things” such an attack — when combined with the more “traditional” operations described in our last post — such an attack would consist of a serious Weapon of Mass Annoyance, as toilets seized up and heating systems went haywire. To their credit, the authors evocatively show just such effects: a home front dealing with unfixable automated refrigerators.
Unfortunately, the authors jumped (a lot of sharks) far away from the great fictional war classics like Red Army or Arc Light or The War in 2020. They moved out of the realm of the plausible. Let’s start with the idea that the Chinese could install Trojan horses in most of our military systems. They couldn’t. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding on how some of this works. Adding a modification to a chip is a pretty profound process. It is highly likely to add glitches that would be easily detected. It would likely add significant time to delivery as well … and sudden additional delays for manufacturing a relatively generic chip would catch people’s attention.
Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are even less susceptible to Trojan horses. (Elsewhere, the authors of Ghost Fleet have pointed out in ominous tones that two-thirds of all the U.S. military’s field-programmable chips are made in China and Taiwan. We’ll ignore the fact that Taiwan is not in fact a part of China but an ally of the United States and pretend that all the key chips come from the People’s Republic.) FPGAs are not where you need to worry about Trojan horses because FPGAs are blank slates: the customers can put whatever programs they want on the chips. There is no way for the manufacturer to know what the customer (whether the U.S. Air Force or Intel) plans to put on the chips.
Remember, in order to subvert a program, a hacker must have an understanding of a program. But there is no way to know what program will be placed on a FPGA. Furthermore, many FPGAs allow for a program to be permanently loaded — written once, read many – such that any attempt at overwriting with a new subverted program would be impossible.*
Moreover, the United States has a trusted foundries program administered by the National Security Agency to make chips for the military. (Bizarrely, the authors have the trusted foundries play a key role in the successful U.S. counteroffensive.) Now, the trusted foundries do not make the United States invulnerable. But it does make a breakdown on the scale depicted in Ghost Fleet very hard to believe. The worst case scenario is an attack allowing for the crashing of the software through understanding the hardware — garnered through espionage.
Recovering from a cyberattack based on Trojaned electronics would “merely” require resetting the software. The scare quotes are because such a reset would be far from simple and would take a substantial amount of time. During a battle, such an attack could be catastrophic. We believed in the U.S. defeat during the initial offensive. (Save perhaps the actual invasion of Hawaii: more on that later.) But over the course of a war, the problem is entirely addressable, and the U.S. should have gotten a handle on the issue much faster than it did in the book.
But to be fair, while the scale of the attack may have been hard to believe, but it was not impossible to believe. Yes, the details were wrong, but the United States could in fact get punched in the nose as hard as it was in the opening battles of a future war.
What was impossible to believe was that the United States would not strike back, hard. The U.S. is already training offensive cyberteams. And this is the latest part of a long-standing program — viz the fact that the only documented cyberattacks in the history of the world have come from the Israel and the United States. Hooah, indeed.
As for Trojan Horses hidden in hardware, the Chinese have far more to fear than we do. They don’t know what they are manufacturing! It’s far more likely the U.S. is slipping in something into their chips than vice versa. Not because the U.S. is miraculous, but because we are doing the design. Chinese firms, for the chips made there, do the manufacture. It’s easier for us to verify that a design is what we think it is than it is for them to verify that a design does what they think it does.
Now, perhaps the United States isn’t installing Trojan horses in Chinese electronics. We’re perfectly willing to accept that as a premise. (Even if it’s improbable.) And we are willing to accept that the Chinese could inflict enough damage on American systems as to allow them to win a naval campaign in the Pacific. What we’re not willing to accept is that the United States would be unable to strike back against Chinese infrastructure.
A realistic counter strike would cripple the Chinese in a manner in parallel to the United States. Those same fridges taken out in the U.S. are likely to be taken down in China. The irony of the Chinese situation is with their modern infrastructure, they are likely to have far more of their critical infrastructure taken down in a cyberwar scenario. The analog systems of yesteryear are completely immune to the hacking of digital systems. Digital upgrades will be very uneven in the U.S. They will be almost ubiquitous in China. The Chinese could pummel the United States. The United States would equally pummel the Chinese in a cyberwar. The authors highlighted Los Angeles and the problems with fridges, a metropolitan area currently of 13 million people. What happens when Beijing’s 21 million can’t store food either?
A realistic scenario for cyberwarfare would be the race of the cripples: compromised systems on both sides will cripple each side’s military and homefront in unexpected ways. Both sides would go into battle with their equipment malfunctioning. Both sides would find some of their premier weapons unusable. No one has a monopoly on cyberwar. As of 2015, the U.S. has a significant lead, despite what the authors imply. It is certainly possible that the U.S. would lose that lead by 2024, but it is simply impossible that America would lose the ability to strike back.
The revelations about Stuxnet and the Equation Group have made it clear that the United States has adapted its Cold War approach to nuclear warfare to the new world of cyberwar. During the Cold War, it was theoretically possible to defend against nuclear weapons on a large scale. (Using nuclear tipped interceptors, for example.) But the costs — and there were many! — were deemed too large.
Instead, American war planners adopted an approach that worked surprisingly well: mutually assured destruction (MAD). If a power launches nuclear weapons against the U.S., then the U.S. will literally destroy them in response.
The U.S. could construct an economy invulnerable to cyberattack, but that would slow progress in development of computers and the internet to a crawl. Moreover, it would require civilian discipline unprecedented outside of the two World Wars: does your grandmother always update her computer? Or your uncle his phone? Your child her tablet? Or your husband his new smart thermostat?
Rather than attempt the impossible, the U.S. has applied MAD to cyberwarfare: China unleashes cybernetic hell on the U.S. and the U.S. will unleash it in turn on China.
Finally, there is no way that a cyberwar on this scale wouldn’t go global. The authors themselves have noted in other venues how Stuxnet spread to systems far outside Iran. The same would happen with Chinese and American cyberweapons unleashed in a Third World War. To some extent, that’s a minor point: why should the reader of a good WW3 yarn care whether municipal sewers and automated metros in Lyon are going haywire? They shouldn’t. But the rest of the world will be affected and they will be angry … and in a scenario where China strikes first, they will be angry at China. Maybe America’s NATO allies would refuse to invoke Article 5. (We’ll get to whether that is believable in a later post.) But there is no way on God’s green Earth that they would pretend as though nothing has happened.
In short: the scale of the effect of the initial cyberattack on the U.S. is believable, even if the depictions of how it was carried out make no sense. But it is improbable. And it is completely impossible that the U.S. wouldn’t strike back. We can believe a Chinese victory in the first phase of the war. But one of on the scale depicted was laughably silly and the lack of an American counterstrike was ludicrous fantasy.
And so, once again, our disbelief was desuspended. If you can’t believe the scenario is possible, then what’s the point? These guys know enough to have done much Much MUCH better.
Neuromancer set the template for fictional depictions of hacking: colorful icons swooping through cyberspace in a glorified videogame. Sometimes the depiction is a little more sedate, but only a little: hackers frantically banging at keyboards as they break enemy defenses. Films like Swordfish or Hackers and many, many others make it seem rather glamorous, even visual.
Ghost Fleet falls right into that trap early on. Page 41:
“The young hacker focused on her attack, navigating the malware packet through the DIA networks while fighting back the desire to brush a bead of sweat off her nose with her gloved hands. The Pentagon’s autonomous network defenses, sensing the slight anomalies of her network streams, tried to identify and contain her attack. But this was where the integration of woman and machine triumphed above mere ‘big data.’ Hu was already two steps ahead, building systems components and then tearing them down before the data could be integrated enough for the DIA computers to see them as threats. Her left arm coiled and sprung, her fingers outstretched. Then the right did the same, this time a misdirect, steering the defense code to shut down further external access, essentially tricking the programs into focusing on locking the doors of a burning house, but leading a small ember on the outside for them to stamp on, so they’d think the fire was out.”
Needless to say, this is not how hacking works.
Hacking comes in two major flavors. The first is the all-out assault. The second is the stealthy compromise.
The Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack is a prime example for the all-out assault. A large number of software bots are surreptitiously placed on computers all over the world, usually by getting someone to click on an infected link or attachment. The software then automatically downloads itself and send reports into a controller server (itself likely another hacked system). The number of bots can range up to the hundreds of thousands and be directed by a small handful of servers. When the attack is launched, all those computers fire off requests in such volumes to cause the receiving computers to lock up. This is somewhat like having several hundred 5-year-olds ask questions of one person at the same time.
A variation on this is a massive port scan: using the same botnet, hackers can check all the different places software listens to for communication. The bots will then try to crash the software listening on that port, hopefully getting the system to cough up another entryway in response, like a username or password. The botnet is effectively looking in all the computer’s pockets for a hole from which it can swipe the key. Again, the hacker “merely” pulls the trigger after aiming the botnet. You could, I suppose, have a scene of the hackers feverishly writing the code before they launch the attack. But nobody is going to be sitting in a room swooping through 3-D displays. No typing, no visuals.
Then there is the stealthy attack. The special forces to the DDOS tank army. The classic is stealing access to passwords, preferably from a network administrator. The attacker then moves through the network slowly and carefully. The problem with this method is lots of places log their access and strange places often get flagged. If it happens too often, they lock accounts. That is part of the reason why many sites require periodic password changes.
The problem with this model — the hacker working hands on — is that it’s far more traceable and slow. Better is to compromise a system and let a bot go to work. In fact, far better is to let a bot just plain do all the work. It’s faster and safer.
The most common bot for this is the infamous “malware”: viruses, worms, Trojan horses, etc. The single most famous example of malware that went above-and-beyond was Stuxnet. The authors of Stuxnet didn’t sit and click or wave their hands in real time as they manuevered their way into the Iranian nuclear facilities. They had someone pop in a USB drive and the rest was automated.
This makes it tremendously unsexy. The Stuxnet infection took a significant amount of time before it compromised the systems at the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. And once it was in, there was no way to know if it had worked until the U.S. received human intelligence that the centrifuges it targeted had actually broken. The infected Iranian facility wasn’t hooked up to the internet, but even if had been, it would have been very, very dangerous to report back. Communications can be intercepted.
Now, the Chinese hacker is working in nine years in the future. Why couldn’t she use virtual reality to hack systems in 2024? Well, maybe she would write code using a V.R. headset and virtual keyboard, although I’m unclear as to why. But she wouldn’t interact with the cyberattacks once they were underway. That would just result in detection once the communications were intercepted. Moreover, the time it would have taken to send back data about what was happening and send back the response could be up to ten seconds on the round trip. Add another ten seconds for her reaction time. That is a lot of time for the DIA to realize something is wrong and start shutting the doors.
The authors talk about her and her bots trumping Big Data. It’s a nice buzzword, but it is totally meaningless in this context. Big Data might have been used as a way to train the DIA’s intrusion detection system to recognize which data flow patterns are normal activity and which might indicate an attack. But I have no idea what it would mean for the Chinese hacker to be “building systems components and then tearing them down.” As a description of cyberwarfare, it’s not even wrong; it’s meaningless.
In summary, the hacking in Ghost Fleet is derived from the silver screen, not the reality of today. It also is highly unlikely to be what comes about in ten years.
Now, to be fair, these scenes are just window-dressing. There is, in fact, a scene on page 37 in which a Venezuelan refugee accidentally infects U.S. defense systems in a realistic way. (Although I have to admit I have some doubts that you could actually copy malware onto a security badge — the article cited in their footnotes does not describe anything like the scene.) But there are much more serious problems with the way the cyberwar develops in Ghost Fleet, which we will get to in later installments.
Comments and criticisms very welcome!
On page 55-56, the Chinese attack the Panama Canal by smashing a giant container ship into the locks. “Two ships ahead, the Xianghumen, a Chinese-flagged freighter, had turned on its engines. This was craziness. What was Xianghumen’s captain thinking, speeding up inside the transit zone? The canal master was screaming over the radio for the Xianghumen to acknowledge and stop. But there was no reply.”
After the Chinese freighter crashes into the locks, “crushing the doors inward,” a Filipino sailor watching it happen thinks : “[He] wasn’t sure how long it would take the Chinese companies that ran the Panama Canal Zone to fix this mess, but their investment had clearly gone down the tubes.”
This was the second moment where I was yanked out of the book, because the scenario is impossible on multiple levels.
The first problem is that ships are not allowed to enter Panama Canal waters under the control of their captains. A Panamanian pilot takes full control. The Xianghumen would have to start its kamikaze run several miles away from the locks, which would making smashing into them a pretty impressive feat of navigation. Moreover, it would give the game away hours before it crashed. The Canal Authority would mobilize tugboats to push the ship away.
Now, the story is set in 2024. So maybe the Chinese ship has some sort of ghost computer system that can seize control back from the pilot and start its run close to the locks. Still, there will be plenty of warning; ships do not accelerate quickly.
But that brings us to the second problem: it is goddamned hard to get to the locks. Look at the above picture. Better still, look at this video, which shows a ship clonking into the side of the canal as it approaches the locks:
How in the name of God is a kamikaze vessel supposed to navigate that entrance? Even now, ships cannot safely transit without being hooked up to those locomotives that you can see in the video.
Finally, we should point out that the Panama Canal has three separate lock systems. You would need three kamikaze vessels to crash simultaneously. That kills your robot scenario, since the Panama Canal Authority does the scheduling. Be hard to make sure that you have three ships in the right places at the right time.
The scene is just fantastically silly.
If the Chinese really want to knock the Panama Canal out of action, then they should send a commando team to blow the Gatún dam. (Or just hit the damn thing with cruise missiles, as was pointed out in comments.)
And it gets worse, because there is no reason to take out the Panama Canal in a hypothetical war. The Canal cuts the transit time from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but presumably the U.S. Navy will have the initiative in any counterattack. As Carlos Yu and I showed in our book, the Panama Canal had no substantive effect on anything in World War 2 other than the the marginal campaigns in the Aleutians and the timing of the Doolittle Raid. If the Canal had no strategic benefit in World War 2, why would it have one in World War 3?
The final nail in the coffin of my suspended disbelief was at the end, where the Filipino sailor wonders “how long it would take the Chinese companies that ran the Panama Canal Zone to fix this mess.” Chinese companies do not run the Canal. The Panama Canal Authority runs the Canal. Chinese companies do run some of the port facilities on either side the Canal. But those ports are a different thing.
Ghost Fleet admirably has footnotes, so I checked the ones for this passage. They footnoted “Chinese companies that ran the Panama Canal Zone” to an article in the Economist. Go read the article. Now come back. You will note that the Chinese interest the article cites is about the possibility of financing a fourth set of locks or building a competing canal in Nicaragua. How did they turn that into Chinese management of the existing canal?
It is a minor plot point, but it planted the skepticism that will blossom in this space over the next few days.
Novels about great power war have long held fascination, particularly since the world hasn’t really seen one since the Korean War ended in 1953. Red Storm Rising is well known, as is Red Army and the Third World War. All three dealt with a conventional European war against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. All wrestled with the specter of nuclear weapons and all got most of the technical stuff right. The best of the bunch is Red Army, in part for the characters, and in part because the author dared to have the United States lose.
All of those books, however, took place in what was more-or-less the present at the time they were written. Today, unlike the 1980s, the United States holds near-absolute military superiority. War is still possible, of course ... see, for example, Eric Harry’s Arc Light. It portrays an accidental war between the United States and the Russian Federation in the early 1990s. What makes Arc Light unique is twofold: it gets the politics and economics absolutely and it lets nuclear weapons out of the bottle without destroying the world. (I won’t spoil it by saying how; the book is worth reading. James should take a look at it for this series.) The war depicted was a great power war, of course, but it was accidental and it was not between peers.
So to consider what a modern great power war between peers might be like we need to move into the future. On this blog, Martin Skold discussed what a near-future great power war might be like. But that excellent discussion was heuristic and only tangentially touched upon operational or technological issues, let alone the politics. (Go read!)
And now we have Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole! In it, China and the United States go to war in 2024. (The authors give away the exact year on page 48.) A real, genuine great power war. Both sides refrain from using nuclear weapons (for reasons I find plausible) and the conflict plays out over land, sea and space. It has gotten good reviews and it is a book that we really wanted to like.
But we have read it, and while it is a good gripping read ... we just cannot give it a thumbs up. The reasons are basically technical. The authors appear to get enough issues seriously wrong to make it impossible to keep our disbelief suspended.
Over the next few days and weeks Will Baird and Noel Maurer will be collaborating on a series of short posts pointing out the problems with the scenario laid out by the authors. We are doing this for three reasons. First, it is a fun bit of procrastination. (The book is well-written and fun to read!) Second, the book has gotten a lot of attention in policy circles ... and if we are right about the flaws, then that is a problem. Finally, we think we might be able to learn something. These posts aren’t intended to pan or fisk the book; rather, we think of them as opening up a conversation. Are we missing something? Do the authors know something we don’t?
We have divided the apparent errors into three types:
“That’s Not How It Works” technical problems that affect verisimilitude, but not the main plot.
“That’s Not How It Works” problems that don’t affect the plot, but are so major that they yank you out of the book completely. “WTF moments” is another good term.
Serious screw-ups that make whole sections of the book impossible as portrayed.
Watch this space.
My boy and I are reading With the Fifth Army Air Force. He picked it out along with Fighter from the sidewalk shelves of a bookstore on the corner of 20th and P Street. It’s a picture book; we’re following it along. Which led to this exchange this morning.
“Poppa. Are you Japanese?”
“No. Are you Japanese?”
“No! I’m American Flag!”
But it didn’t end there. “You’re an American flag?”
“I’m American Flag! I’m a banana American.”
“You’re a banana American?”
“I’m a outside American!”
I would like to think that there’s some sort of deeper meaning to this particular early-morning exchange, but I doubt it. Other than that reading World War 2 photo books with a 2½-year-old is an interesting experience.
Of course, some people are more modern and believe that little children should never be told anything that might possibly intimate that violence exists.
My wife and I are not of that school. But then again, I thought that this column in the New York Times today had a point. And while I will be very angry if my little girl or little boy (or any future siblings) do what we saw three skinny preteen boys do on Christmas day, I also have to admit that I felt some gratification in watching them skateboard down the middle of East-West Highway with no helmets on. (Two of them were on the shoulder. The third? Trying for a Darwin Award.)
OK, that was your shaggy dog story of the day. Happy day after Boxing Day!
I was pleasantly surprised by John J. Lumpkin’s first novel, Through Struggle, The Stars. I’m normally wary of the sub-genre of military science fiction. Many of the more recent titles that I’ve seen appear on bookshelves aren’t very good books at all, titles written by their generally right-wing American authors who were much less interested in the art of writing than they were in creating crude nationalist propaganda. The need for a jihad against Muslims, the amusing fatal decadence inherent in the French (or, more broadly, Europeans), the underhanded cunning of the Chinese, the need for the simpler and more martial mores of the past to replace an immoral liberalism — all these tacks have featured too prominently in too many milSF books I’ve picked up for me to feel comfortable with the genre. To the author’s credit, he did a very good job of avoiding this pitfalls of milSF.
Through Struggle, The Stars is set in the starfaring future of 2139, decades after the development and deployment of technologies capable of creating stable wormholes between points in space light-years apart and antimatter-fueled starships capable of transporting wormhole terminuses to distant planetary systems made interstellar travel possible, and after a devastating asteroid impact on Earth gave every countrry capable of mounting interstellar colonization efforts the incentive to do so. Colonies from dozens of different powers are scattered among the nearby stars, different countries’ colonies clustering in different areas. China and Japan, apparently the dominant powers on Earth, are also prominent players beyond the Solar System. Of late, these countries have begun to drift towards war. In this dynamic, unsteady environment, newly commissioned American cadet Neil Mercer joins the United States Space Force and catches himself up in the various maneuverings of the United States as it and its leadership bring the United States and its allies into the Sino-Japanese conflict.
To my relief, no one is propagandizing for any country in this novel. Each of the actual and potential combatants have their good sides, but each also has their own flaws. Lumpkin has written a novel where China is probably the biggest power in the world, but it isn’t an obviously evil or threatening polity. Military fiction novels where the parties in a conflict are complex are inherently more interesting than ones where contrived conflict is created between Good Guys and the Evil Ones, if only because it makes it possible to sympathize with characters on all side that aren’t sockpuppets. Lumpkin deserves to be praised for his even-handedness.
Some of my fellow reviewers have pointed out that the world of 2139 is a world where not much seems to have changed since the early 21st century, politically and otherwise. China is an oligarchy with an expansive sphere of influence on Earth; Britain is an independent American ally outside of an integrated Europe where France seems to be a major player; countries in the global South like Brazil, India, and Mexico seem to be present only in passing, although Iran does make an interesting appearance. Culturally, too, the world of 2139 seems almost too recognizable and contemporary, a certain Hispanicization of the United States aside. These likely anachronisms did stand out to me, although they didn’t prevent my enjoyment of the novel.
I also liked the attention that Lumpkin gave to his material universe. Different worlds are not perfectly Earth-like, the colonization of distant exoplanets is a costly venture that isn’t universally successful, and attention has been given to the import of the location of different stars in different places. The planetography of some of the worlds visited is paid attention, and the nature of life on sai; he even gives multiiple explanations for Fermi’s paradox. (One of these explanations lies at the root of the Sino-Japanese conflict and the United States’ involvement in sai.)
The novel is definitely a good first novel, and a worthy one. I’d give it 3.5 stars out of 5. The novel’s website points to it being the first novel in a projected series, The Human Reach. I look forward to seeing followups, and to seeing this and other novels on the series on bookshelves. Well done.
I bought my copy of Through Struggle, The Stars from Smashwords for $US 2.99, but the novel is also available from Amazon and other online retailers.
Carlos Yu here.
Through Struggle, the Stars
A Human Reach Novel
By John J. Lumpkin
Copyright 2011 John J. Lumpkin
The important things out of the way first: Through Struggle, the Stars is a solid, readable first novel. I would read this novel’s sequel, and I would consider reading an unrelated novel by this author. It’s well-paced and has moments of genuine dramatic tension, a B in a world without grade inflation.
Through Struggle, the Stars is military science fiction without being military pulp science fiction. It’s not a dumb adventure novel of the kind where your IQ points are used for target practice by the writer, and it doesn’t read like someone else’s fetish porn. Quite frankly, this is probably why it hasn’t found a publisher yet. The story is jingo-neutral, or close to it.
Lumpkin has put some thought into each of his set pieces and how they fit into the overall plot of the book. The space combat is realistic in that ships radiate energy like real physical objects, they move with very low accelerations, and they are very vulnerable to hypervelocity impacts. Lasers in space and as a form of artillery have important roles. Lumpkin abides by the constraints of his imaginary wormhole technology, and he uses the local stellar neighborhood as his playground. It’s not totally rigorous, but he’s put in some work.
There is a nagging problem with inconsistency in the setting, however. I’m not sure whether this would be picked up by the general science fiction reader, should such a person exist, but it jarred me. Simply put, the timescales are off. A social setting that would not be a bad extrapolation of today’s demographics in 2050 is given a date of 2139. Future institutions are immediately recognizable. Technological progress outside of the space applications sector has moved very, very slowly —there are no flashy advances in automation or genetic engineering, for example. Despite Japan becoming a major power once again through its first mover advantage in space technology, economic convergence between the richer nations and the poorer nations has stopped. At the same time, interstellar colonies on previously barely habitable worlds somehow have reached populations in the millions and have been settled for decades, and there is significant commerce. Many nations have colonies.
This mismatch in timescales is a shame, because each part of Lumpkin’s universe feels realistic enough. If anything, his setting feels a little too contemporary — a scene involving a Mercedes and a brawl in a casino parking lot comes to mind.
The politics of colonization motivate the background of the plot — true terra nullius, there are no aliens so far in this setting. There is a worldwide belief in the necessity of developing colonies off-Earth to maintain cultural and biological survival due to the horrible effects of a near-future asteroid impact. This belief has merged with a resurgent nationalism. Policymakers also believe that wars between superpowers can escalate incrementally, perhaps because of the excellent defensive countermeasures in this setting, but I wonder if Lumpkin has in the back of his mind what happens when the conditions for deterrence through mutually assured destruction no longer apply.
The characterization in Through Struggle, the Stars was, for want of a better word, adequate. The soldiers are more fully realized than the intelligence agents. I didn’t believe in the motivations of the two principal Chinese agents, but it wasn’t because of “characterization through ethnic stereotype,” and they are presented as outliers. People die, and I am pretty sure that Lumpkin has read Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Bullet in the Brain.” (Go read it. It’s short.)
Through Struggle, the Stars is an emotionally cool book. It lacks some of the quirky outsider energy of classic science fiction, but it also lacks the same undercurrents of dogmatism and score-settling. This book is not about saving the world with a single grand gesture, or flipping the table over to reveal the rot underneath; it’s about conflicted people in the military and the intelligence services at a particular point in geopolitical history. I enjoyed how the Big Secret turned out not to have very much effect, although it is conceptually important.
I’m more than happy to answer any questions.
A friend of mine, James Nicoll, asked me and a few other mutual amigos to review a self-published science fiction novel: Through Struggle, The Stars, by John Lumpkin. Somewhat reluctantly, I downloaded and read it. To my surprise, I enjoyed the read while remaining unconvinced by the scenario. I will also put up my friends reviews (all written separately). Here (with one change) is mine:
Through Struggle, The Stars is much better than a self-published novel has any right to be. It’s a tale of a war in the year 2140 between China and Japan, told through the eyes of a new officer in the United States Space Force. The USSF — which has inexplicably adopted naval ranks and conventions despite the name — exists to defend both the terrestrial United States and its interstellar colonies. The setting is hard science fiction, in the sense that the only gimme is a system of wormholes to allow interstellar travel. No aliens; space vessels rotate for gravity; and while they use fusion engines that we have no idea how to build the accelerations involved are tiny. The politics aren’t self-evidently silly and the populations of the colony worlds are sensibly low. In fact, it reads like the kind of novel that I tried to write as a teenager, only well-crafted.
From the tone of the above paragraph, I’m sure that you can guess that my overall review is going to be negative. Since the book has a lot of positive qualities, let me start with them. First and foremost, I kept reading! I am not the sort of person who finishes every book he starts. In fact, I finish only a small minority of them. Most of my reading is work-related nonfiction and thus mostly skimmed. As for novels, I’m a high-friction reader: the moment I have to work to maintain my attention, my reading speed drops quickly — and it takes very little to get me to quit. This novel I did not quit. That is an extremely good thing.
Second, I very much liked how the majority of the American characters had Spanish last names. Finally, somebody who thinks about demographics! I also liked that they threw in Spanish catch-phrases, but just as that: catch phrases. That is exactly how Spanish survives after several generations. We learn (from a Senate vote) that the United States has at least 52 states by 2140 and the author opens the possibility that Cuba might be one of them. Normally, that would get my “silly future cliché” alert up, but the allusion is simply that one enlisted USSF person has Havana for a home town. That would be possible today. While I do not believe that Cuba will ever become part of the United States it is supremely easy to believe that the country will continue to have a “special relationship” with the mainland, up to and including free migration. So the throwaway line didn’t desuspend my disbelief — after all, add Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and you’ve got 52 right there.
The characters were believable, if somewhat clichéd. Actually, “clichéd” isn’t the right word. They were believable enough for me to care about them (and therefore keep reading) but they weren’t distinct enough for me to really remember any details. The one exception was a Chinese gangster-turned-intelligence-agent, and he stuck with me because I didn’t really ever believe in him. He wasn’t a cliché by any means; he just seemed too much like an agent of the plot, a character created by “The Narrative” rather than a real person who naturally found himself involved with the other people in the book. (The phrase in quotes is a reference to Scalzi’s Redshirts.)
The politics were well-handled … but lacking. First, the portrayal of China as a quasi-democracy felt wrong. Such regimes first appeared in Latin America in the late-nineteenth century; they quickly collapsed (via coups or civil wars) or turned into full-on dictatorships. That pattern continued through the 20th century with a third wrinkle: several of the quasi-democracies turned quickly into real democracies. Mexico’s second dictatorship-in-drag collapsed in the 1990s; even in Turkey today, the “deep state” seems to be on its last legs. It strained my belief to think that China would be ruled by a century-old corrupt oligarchy 130 years from now. (A newly-minted corrupt oligarchy would be a different story.)
Second, the politics of the war were given disappointingly short shrift. It is indisputable that major inter-state war has gone into serious decline since 1945. It strikes me as very plausible that it could see a comeback. The novel provides a necessary condition: powerful directed-energy weapons make it at least plausible that politicians would believe that they could control the ladder of escalation. (The prevalence of robotic and precision weapons had a similar effect.) Logically, therefore, the war began as a limited conflict fought at sea and in space; one can imagine future audiences cheering on such a contest.
The problem is that there was something very pro forma about the backdrop. There is an interesting question about whether industrialized interstate war (limited or not) is possible in a modern democratic environment. Can modern democratic politicians capitalize on violence? Would modern audiences countenance unleashing death in their names for anything less than national survival? These questions are unaddressed. When the author reveals the reason the American president maneuvered the U.S. into the war, it comes as an anticlimax. (It depends on the FTL McGuffin.) There were some references to U.S. domestic opposition, but mostly in the context of “ethnic Chinese” congressmen objecting to a war with the madre patria. (Which is, I have to say, a silly idea — in a world where China has been rich for a century, there will be no discernable Chinese-American community have been little net immigration from China for at least as long. The descendents of past and current immigrants will have long since assimilated; second-generation outmarriage among Chinese-Americans currently tops 50%.) There is a subplot involving a Taiwanese independence movement that strained credibility. In short, the politics never became unbelievable — but they were underexplored.
Which brings me to the killer problem: the book read like it took place in 2012, 2030 on the outside. It was simply unbelievable as a depiction of life in 2140. The ground combat scenes, for example, read like they happened last week. (The main characters were a little too composed during the fighting, but that’s a different issue.) Sure, there were exoskeletons and lasers from space, but that felt like window-dressing. Nothing about microdrones, intelligent robotic “pack animals,” self-guided ammunition ... the tactics of ground combat were basically unchanged.
The same problem afflicted the rest of the book. There were passing mentions of self-driving vehicles, advanced drones, machine translation, advanced 3-D printing, computer interfaces implanted in people’s eyeballs and “the best genes that money could buy,” but none of that had any appreciable effect on the course of the action or the social background in which the characters operated. The author failed completely at giving the impression that the book took place in the future. Now, it is possible that the author is correct that by 2140 automation will advance, sensor technology improve, cyborgization continue, 3-D printing mature and gene modification become common among the rich ... yet with daily life remaining about the same as in 2012. (Along with military organizations, ground combat and democratic politics.) That is possible! And hell, as a small-c conservative, I would very much like it to be true. But it’s a tall order, and a writer who wants to keep my disbelief suspended needs to make the case. The author of this book does not even try.
As a coda, I had three other quibbles. First, while the space combat scenes seemed well thought through, I did have to wonder what all those people on board the ships were actually doing. Even if our 22nd-century space navies decide to keep human commanders in the loop rather than entrusting it all to the AI’s, one would think that the ships would operate with tiny stripped-down crews and lots of maintenance robots. If that’s wrong, I want to know why.
Second, the dynamics of space colonization didn’t make much sense, at least not on the surface. There wasn’t much commerce, so the motivation seemed to be non-economic. The few colonies we saw were not rich places, so there was some indication that the author realized the problem, but it wasn’t explicit. Nothing caused me to recoil, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something didn’t make sense about the scenario.
Lastly, there were a few dumb throwaways. A reference to helium-3 mining on the Moon. Ugh. A reference to asteroid mining. Slightly more plausible for a few rare elements, but double-ugh as something needed to power Earth industry. And then there was a major lacuna for a book about geopolitics: a bit about coastal protections for major cities was the only reference to global warming.
In short, the book succeeded as a yarn. But it failed as science fiction. Props for the Spanish last names, thinking through the dynamics of orbital combat, and avoiding (most) clichés. But minus for essentially writing “2012 in Space!” rather than something about the year 2140.
I would read other works by the author; he shows a lot of promise. I’m not sure that I would read other works set in the same universe, though. None of my objections require him to rewrite his background — just explore it in greater depth. The end result, however, won’t look much like the “2012 in Space” that we saw. Maybe Charlie Stross would let him bounce ideas around?
Comments welcome on any and all of the topics raised above.
An “express kidnapping” occurs when a criminal gang mugs you and takes you from ATM to ATM until your cards don't work anymore. In all the first-hand accounts that I've heard the victim was let go within hours. (I have reliable second hand accounts of ones that ended rather worse: one lasted a few days; in the other the victim resisted, got shot with a small caliber handgun, and drove himself to a hospital.) After nothing that this sort of thing doesn't happen in Cairo, Wood wonders why such a “high-reward and not more than medium-risk [crime] does not happen more in America.”
Sometimes it seems that half my Canadian in-laws are in the Mounties, and my uncle Brent is a cop in Baltimore. So I asked him why it doesn't happen. His answer was fairly obvious: express kidnappings are not medium-risk in the United States. They are superlatively high-risk, in terms of being caught. An express kidnapper needs accomplices, needs to travel with a victim in tow, needs to visit public spaces that are often under electronic surveillance, and leaves a very exact trail showing where they went and when. If they don't want to commit murder, they also usually leave behind an eyewitness who has spent enough time with them for a positive ID. You'd have to be nuts to try it anywhere in the United States outside New Orleans. People do, of course, but they get caught, so it doesn't catch on. The same applies to other countries with efficient police forces, like Chile or Spain. There was a brief surge of express kidnappings in Spain in 2006, but the criminals were often caught.
Mexico City does not have an efficient police force. Not only does it lack anything resembling an investigatory capacity, but response times are extremely slow, and the police are often involved in criminality themselves. The mystery isn't why express kidnappings are rare in the U.S. and Canada. It's why they don't happen in Cairo.
Meanwhile, enjoy Method Man:
Proposition: As traditional written science fiction fades away as a popular genre, it becomes increasingly acceptable to cite it in intellectual and academic circles.
Proximate inspiration from Brad Delong, with secondary impetus from this event with Charlie Stross and Paul Krugman. (What the hell did happen to my post about Charlie? I swear, he has magically erased it from the internets.)
I'm not sure this rises to the level of a great debate attempt.
Go buy our book! It is the best book. Ever. About anything.
Or not. But is a very good book about Mexico since 1980. Here are the chapters:
1. The second Mexican revolution: economic, political, and social change since 1980;
2. Mexico before 1982: the political economy of authoritarian rule;
3. The causes and consequences of free trade;
4. The Mexican banking system: the politics and economics of financial underdevelopment;
5. The transformation of Mexican politics;
6. Health, education, and welfare in Mexico since 1980;
7. Democracy and development in Mexico: future challenges and the legacy of authoritarian rule.
The book is a stand-alone, but it's really the second one in a planned trilogy. You can buy the first part here. Anyway, if you're interested in Mexico, economic development, or the importance of democracy, I'd recommend that you pick up a copy of Mexico Since 1980.
Normally I try to be witty in these plugs, but this time I'm going to skip it. I am simply going to say that anyone who wants to know about Barack Obama's intellect and philosophy can simply pick up his second book, The Audacity of Hope. It is very well-written, and rather substantive.