Review: Ghost Fleet

Let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way: Yes, Ghost Fleet is Red Storm Rising set in the Pacific in the late 2020’s. Some have made the comparison sounding like it would detract something from Ghost Fleet, which I find a bit odd. The novel is made up of a number of individual stories, which follows the main cast of the book. These are usually not interconnected in any way, and while some of the story lines run through the entire book, others are brief individual scenes. All in all, the book fits nicely into what has by now become the expected format of large-scale techno-thrillers. It worked in the eighties, it still works today, and while it might not score any points for creative writing, I don’t see any issues with it.

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The subtitle of the book is “A novel of the Next World War”, and that is where it stands out. While there is a continuous stream of think-tank reports and studies about potential conflicts, few of these capture how a conflict would look at the individual level. A novel offer the opportunity to take a different angle, without the demands of academic verifiability. That is not to say that Ghost Fleet is science fiction, the book does include a nice list of sources to all concepts and systems described which aren’t yet operational. Some of these feel more outlandish than others, but as always that will largely depend upon personal taste and preferences.

Being set in the Pacific theatre, the main focus is naturally on the air and sea theatre, with space and cyber also playing important roles. The fighting on land is largely a question of small-scale infantry skirmishes (some exceptions apply, but don’t expect any major tank battles). The political game is featured, but does feel more shallow, and some key elements are brushed over without going into details. At times this feels rushed, but some trade-offs have to be made in order to keep the number of pages down, and I understand that from my Eurocentric viewpoint I have a slight bias towards stuff happening here versus what’s happening in the Pacific (one of the few factual mistakes I found in the book concerned Poles not knowing their own 20th century history. Still, that’s minutiae and not really an immersion-breaker).

More annoying was the unhidden contempt for the F-35 and LCS. There are valid points of criticism for both projects, but the portrayal in the book does feel like an attempt to score cheap laughs. Especially in the case of the F-35, it does feel like the authors expect that the plane would not mature at all in the fifteen years between when the book was written and when it takes place. The issue becomes even more evident when contrasted to how the USS Zumwalt, arguably the star of the book, is described. Here the weaknesses of the vessel are discussed, but so are the strengths.

As a novel, the book doesn’t stand out. It does pick up towards the end when most of stage setting is done and the full focus can be on the developing story. Some of the characters remain stereotypes of the genre, and on the whole the character development largely failed to catch my interest for any prolonged periods of time. What did catch me was the developments on the frontline, including the story of the Zumwalt, while the problems of outsourced supply chains and a dependency on imported components are presented in a thought-provoking way.

As is probably evident by now, my feelings about Ghost Fleet are somewhat mixed. The book as a whole did keep up my fascinated. I did happily keep turning the pages until reaching the end, and at the end of the day, I do think it is worth a read for it’s thought-provoking ideas and well-researched storytelling.

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