GHOST FLEET by P.W. Singer and August Cole — a Review

GHOST FLEET by P.W. Singer and August Cole is a near-future technothriller that imagines World War III–a war between China and the United States that takes place on the land, on the sea, in the air, in space, and in cyberspace. After discovering vast resources buried deep under the Pacific Ocean, a post-Communist China launches a multi-faceted attack on American forces that destroys physical assets and renders electronic assets blind, no longer stealthy, or just plain bricked. Chinese forces (with some Russian help) invade Hawaii. But the US launches a counter-attack, largely led by the titular (and previously mothballed) Ghost Fleet of decommissioned ships, but helped by a Hawaiian-based insurgency group. Having read much of Singer’s non-fiction, I was excited to read this book. And while quite an enjoyable read, it’s not without its flaws. Nevertheless, what weaknesses there are in the story are more than made up for with the provocative ideas expressed within.

P.W. Singer currently works as a strategist and senior analyst for the New America Foundation, a think tank, having consulted for the U.S. military, the intelligence community, and Hollywood. August Cole is an Atlantic Council non-resident senior fellow and a former defense industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal (he helped break the story of China hacking the F-35 program). It’s clear these guys know their stuff–in fact, unlike Tom Clancy, this novel ends with nearly two dozen pages of footnotes backing up the ideas described in the novel. And book excels when that expertise is on display throughout the story, grounding their “what if” story in fact and educated guesses.

And while that expertise and deep understanding of military possibilities can be impressive and surprising, the book works better as more of a war game manual or a policy paper written with a sense of style than it does as a novel. The characters are a bit flat–more there to operate tech or be frustrated by it than to tell a story–and not as compelling as I would have liked. And the constant head hopping from sentence to sentence only weakens that connection I would like to have with characters. Additionally, a subplot about a serial killer seems out of place.

All that being said, this is a great read for a day on the beach or a few hours of a flight. The initial attack is exciting and cinematic, even if it outshines the finale. And despite what I will qualify as the weaknesses of first-time novelists, I would come back for a second one, should Singer and Cole decide to write another novel.