“Cassandra cried, and curs’d th’ unhappy hour;
Foretold our fate; but, by the god’s decree,
All heard, and none believ’d the prophecy.”Aeneid 2.323
Jeffrey Lewis is something as rare as an arms control rockstar, sporting not only knowledge of his niche field, but sharing it primed with one-liners such as his (in)famous ‘goat rodeo‘-analysis of the US-North Korea relationship. Recently Lewis released his first work of fiction. Unsurprisingly, it is about a nuclear war with North Korea.
The book, described as a “speculative novel”, has an interesting format in that it is written in the form a government commission report issued a few years after the events it deals with. This avoids the classic ‘non-fiction writer writing fiction’-trap of a subject matter expert actually not being that great at writing fiction, thereby dispensing with the need for a ghost writer. With that said, the book was not overtly dry in style, being on the more flowing end of the government report spectrum.
The fact that the synopsis of the book is given in the introduction makes it a somewhat strange read. Like Cassandra in the opening quote of this review, the reader knows that things are going to turn bad, and can only watch as the actors (more than a handful of which are real-world politicians) happily stumble on towards the disaster. The attention to detail (including the baseball cap) adds to the non-fiction feel. A large number of real-world events from history have also been ‘reskinned’ and brought into the story. For the (amateur) historian some are immediately recognisable, while others are more obscure. The combination of current-day details and past episodes provide a strong case for that while this might be a nightmare, there’s really nothing in that promises that it will remain that way. And while the plot of the book is a nightmare leaving millions dead, it isn’t your worst one.
The plot covers what is usually referred to as a limited nuclear exchange. There is no extinction event, no mutually assured destruction, just a couple of guys who aren’t deterred by what was supposed to be the ultimate deterrence weapon. Worse outcomes are hinted at, but the fact that the story never evolves into a full-blown apocalypse means that it is still possible to somehow grasp the huge amount of human suffering that even a limited nuclear exchange would cause. The decision not to invoke mutually assured destruction is one of the keys to why the book manages to hold the reader’s interest the way it does.
The basic premises of the book likely doesn’t come as a surprise for followers of Lewis’ writing or the Arms Control Podcast. This issue also hints at the single major flaw of the book, namely that it is likely that it is preaching to the choir. That is no fault of the author, nor of the book he has written. However, as the issue of the North Korean nuclear program is so closely associated with Trump, it seems impossible for the plot to be judged on its own merits and credibility. Nor will it likely be picked up by the people that would benefit the most from reading it. That’s a shame, as The 2020 Commission Report deserves a fair chance as a warning for our particular time. Let’s just hope Lewis doesn’t turn into a modern-day Cassandra.