War Stories from the Future

After finishing Burn-In, I decided to read this book since it also has a story from that novel’s co-author August Cole.

I thought it was one of the many books I got a review copy of and hadn’t reviewed yet, so I thought I’d chip another bit off that list.

It turns out it was just a freebie from the Atlantic Council, and you can get your free copy at the link below.

Review: War Stories from the Future, ed. August Cole, 2015.

Cover by Sam Cole

You don’t usually see a Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States of America introducing a science fiction anthology, but Martin Dempsey was just that. He has a master’s degree in English and praises sf not for its predictive abilities but its provocation and power to develop “the professional imagination” and as “a mental laboratory”.

The book proved weirdly appropriate for the age of COVID – at least as presented in the panicked minds of the Sanitary Dictatorship in charge of various countries and their propaganda organs.

A Visit to Weizenbaum” from Jamie Metzel gives us a story where the use of tailored bioweapons requires Isolation Soldiers. They live in very sealed compounds for 18 months, their bodies monitored for signs of infection and entertained with virtual reality systems. Unfortunately, the rest of the story isn’t that interesting. It’s a therapy session with a soldier missing his beloved Elizabeth.

You would get the impression from Matthew Burrows’ “The Exception That Proves the Rule” that think tank types (like the Atlantic Council) have been in love with the idea of lockdowns justified by disease epidemics for years. The story itself is pretty amusing, one of the best in the book. Our hero is a British mathematician who, illegally using National Health Service data, manages to come up with a genetic profile pointing to spiritual people who can be radicalized by random events to commit terrorism. He works clandestinely and is successful, but his work is sabotaged by an assistant. She conceals the fact that her younger brother fits the profile as does their older brother who already became a terrorist. While I enjoyed the story and the hero’s career trajectory, its underlying premise annoyed me. Wouldn’t it be simpler to deal with Muslims via immigration than a surveillance state to curb increasing terrorism?

From a Remove” in not a bad story at all from a 20-year old, Alec Meden. He sort of takes up the idea of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and envisages the existence of “sovereignty groups”, extra national affinity groups that can carry on war with traditional nation states. The protagonist is Donya, a college student in America though certainly not loyal to America. She belongs to Scalpel, the military of one such sovereignty group. It wants to protect her Donya’s father’s invention – space satellites that shade the atmosphere to prevent further global warming and provide power to beam down. The story starts out with her in a training simulation to prevent an attack by an African confederation on the satellites, but it ends when things go, as the military likes to say, “kinetic.to

Ken Liu’s “Article I, Section 8, Clause 11” brings privateering to cyberwarfare. Private hackers get letters of marque to go after their Chinese counterparts. Liu puts his training at a lawyer and programmer to good use. However, I thought the story had the flaw of assuming Chinese hackers were already doing their worst and couldn’t escalate things further when attacked.

Fear not. There are some stories that immerse in good old-fashioned combat.

August Cole’s “ANTFARM” immerses us fully – and with predictable confusion — in a war where the protagonist flies a plane over the Middle East attacking terrorist targets. He’s not dropping bombs but carries drones and air-fuel munition with a 3D printer on board to fabricate weapons literally on the fly. The targets are crowd-sourced. And there’s the problem.  

I certainly had heard of Linda Nagata’s “Codename: Delphi” before but hadn’t read it yet. And, as usual, Nagata doesn’t disappoint. Set in the same world as her The Red trilogy, it’s about Karin Larsen. She’s so far away from combat, she’s not even in the rear echelon. She doesn’t hear the thump of mortars and the whiz of bullets and smell the blood and fear directly. But she still feels them though. As a civilian, her job is to monitor reconnaissance drone feeds, the weapons status of troops, and dispatch medical rescues. And for three combat missions at once. Nagata has a knack for conveying emotion with few words, and you feel Karin’s concern and absolute dedication to making sure that no soldier she provides support for dies – no matter how many missions she is coordinating or what surprises war throws up.

Another highlight of the book is Madeline Ashby’s “A Stopped Clock”. If Nagata’s story provides sort of a god-like view of war (albeit a caring god), this is a civilian’s worm-eye perspective on war. The three main characters are street food vendors in a Korean city. The city has something like a Chinese social credit system though not as intrusive, but it falls apart when hackers destroy its infrastructure. For a while, the vendors profit.  People are actually outdoors buying their food, but they eventually end up as refugees. This is another story with COVID echoes with temperature screenings at train stations to detect flu.

Ashley Henley’s “Another Day of Infamy” won a contest for stories built around a “presidential address after the ‘next Pearl Harbor’” in the year 2041. I must say that, in its strained acronym for America’s enemy – FASCISM (the Federation Alliance of Socialist, Communist, and Islamic State Members) – it sounds depressingly plausible as does the nod to being “the greatest nation in the history of modern civilization” and “your commitment to make the necessary sacrifices in the coming days”. The address follows a massive cyberattack on America’s infrastructure. It also has an ultimatum given to FACISM – it has 24 hours to restore the infrastructure or face “targeted, simultaneous ‘lightning strikes’” against key infrastructure, both electronic and otherwise”. The President wants a declaration of war. 

Time has not been kind to one of the stories: “Coffee, Wi-Fi and the Moon: The Unknown Story of the Greatest Cyber War of Them All” by Nikolas Katsimpas. It reads like a hypothetical scenario written for a think tank, and it tried so hard to be relevant that it’s dated quite a bit. We have Hillary Clinton elected President in 2016. Dick Cheney died in 2016. Japan has cancelled its 2020 Olympics (the story seems set in 2019). The world has been taken to the brink of war by a heart attack suffered by President Putin. It kills him. Russia contends his pacemaker (allegedly hackproof) was sabotaged. There is a pre-WWI vibe to the story with Putin having his attack outside of a Starbucks as Franz Ferdinand was shot outside a deli. There is even a sort of a race for Africa going on though here it’s for sections of the Moon with Helium 3, a potential source for fusion fuel. China, the US, India, and the USSR want to mine it, and its concentrated energy makes that economically feasible.  After Putin’s heart attack, hacker attacks are launched on the US which disable the power grid (done through Stuxnet-like means), and America launches counterattacks. The story opens on Christmas Eve, 2019 in a newspaper room where copy is being banged out on manual typewriters, and the war is probably going to escalate with NATO launching cyberattacks on Russia. The hack that killed Putin, though, may actually have been Chinese in an attempt to break up an anti-Chinese alliance. 

I wasn’t far into David Brin’s “A Need for Heroes” when it started to seem very familiar and an awful lot like a chapter in David Brin’s 1990 Earth. The story involves UN troops being used to stop the smuggling of animal relics. Sure enough, at story’s end, my suspicions were confirmed. Technologically, the story hasn’t dated that badly, but Brin’s hope for a world state seems even sillier 30 years on.

It’s free, and I’d recommend you get yourself a copy if you’re interested in the future of war. As Trotsky said, “You might not be interested in war. But war is very interested in you.”

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