Review: Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

10 Nov

-P. W. Singer, August Cole

This is the second-rate book, if I may steal a line from Brian Aldiss, about which there has been a great deal of third-rate talk.

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

Ghost Fleet was billed, not to put too fine a point on it, as the spiritual successor to Tim Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. Unfortunately, it lacks the effortless balance between the overall war and the individual characters caught up in the fighting that made Red Storm Rising such a great book. As it was, I came close to simply giving up and returning Ghost Fleet to the library on more than one occasion. The only thing that kept me going were hints of a greatness that never truly materialised.

For one thing, Clancy humanised the Russians even as he made them (or at least their leaders) the villains of the story. The reader can follow why the Russians feel that war with NATO is their only hope for survival. Ghost Fleet, however, does not present a convincing reason for war. The Chinese seem determined to start a war … why? Nations generally do not risk war, certainly not with nuclear powers, unless they feel there’s something significant at risk. But in this book, China already appears to be on the ascendant before triggering a war with America. Indeed, the Chinese leadership seems to spend too much time duelling with lines from Sun Tzu instead of actually plotting a war.

Leaving that aside, the book does offer some interesting insights into future war. The authors warn of the dangers of using computer chips from China, some of which (in real life) have backdoors built into the hardware for later exploitation. This gives the Chinese an excellent chance to cripple the United States, force America out of the Pacific and land troops on Pearl Harbour. However, at this point, the book fizzles. The United States introduces new weapons of its own, including spacecraft and railguns, yet the war is not over by the time the book comes to a conclusion.

Furthermore, while Clancy effortlessly weaved his POV characters into the story, Ghost Fleet fails to do it anything like as convincingly. The only character of real note is an USN Captain who is haunted by his father’s failures as a father, while repeating the same mistakes himself. A female marine turned assassin offers some interesting colour to the story (as does a Russian officer attached to the Chinese forces), but neither of them are particularly memorable.

The book does make note of social chances between now and the war. On one hand, it has a naval office make a passing reference to his husband; on the other, it illuminates the danger of forced and ultimately pointless ‘diversity.’ Racial tensions within the future United States have not abated in this book, a problem made worse by Chinese sleeper agents. As in real life, the people who pay for these problems are rarely the ones who started them in the first place.

Overall, Ghost Fleet really has too many problems to earn more than three stars from me. Red Storm Rising is still the king of modern war stories.

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