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Sci-fi Saturday Books: Will World War III Be the U.S. vs. China?

One thing that is certain is that it will be a cyber war

Wired Magazine devoted its entire February 2021 issue to the first four chapters of a book depicting a near-future dystopia in which the U.S. goes to war with China. You can read the first part of the book here. The authors of 2034: A Novel of the New World War have military backgrounds and were inspired by Cold War literature that speculated on the worst-case scenario if the U.S. and Russia had gone to war.

The reason for the Wired editors’ interest is that 2034 is no ordinary thriller. Admiral James Stavridis comes with a wealth of experience in how such a conflict might play out.

He is a retired four-star U.S. naval officer who has received numerous medals and honors. He has commanded fleets of destroyers, a carrier strike group, and the US Southern Command in Miami (2006 – 2009). His naval experience comes into play in 2034, in which the inciting events occur in the South China Sea.

From 2009 to 2013, Stavridis served as 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. Among his responsibilities with NATO were counter piracy and cyber security strategies. He has published nine books and hundreds of articles, as well as given a TED talk on global security (June 21, 2013). He has served as dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Elliot Ackerman is an accomplished author and journalist and well-versed in issues around military conflict. He is a former White House Fellow and Marine. He served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and has received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. The Middle East is an important component in his fictional war between the U.S. and China, and his experience shows in the narrative, particularly scenes involving character Wedge Mitchell.

From Wired’s editors about their six-part series:

Ackerman and Stavridis’ collaboration, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, is a supremely well-informed effort to cast a similar kind of spell against sleepwalking into a war with China. ‘The case for this book with Elliot was that a cautionary tale might help us stay out of any event like that,’ says Starvridis.

The Editors, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War, an Exclusive Excerpt” at Wired (February 2021)

Personally, I love a good military science fiction story with plenty of political intrigue. The first four chapters published in Wired hooked me with compelling characters whose lives I was immediately invested in as well as an exciting plot line — the U.S. and China are about the start the Third World War. As someone who writes on China and technology for Mind Matters News, I found the plot an all-too-believable scenario that extrapolates from the U.S. and China’s current contentious relationship. It’s horrifying to think of the ramifications of this kind of technological warfare.

In an interview with the authors, Wired’s Maria Streshinsky asked Admiral Stavridis where the idea for the book came from. He said he was influenced by The Third World War by Sir John Hackett (1979) about a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union: “I started to think: How can we avoid a war with China? And I think part of the reason we avoided a war with the Soviet Union was that we could imagine how terrible it would be. And part of imagining that is books like The Third World War, which kind of walks you through it.” (Wired , page 86)

2034 follows the narrative lines of Captain Sarah Hunt, Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell, Dr. Sandeep “Sandy” Chowdhury, and Admiral Lin Bao. Stavridis tells Streshinsky that, of the characters, he probably relates best to Captain Hunt because her career mirrors his. The first scene of the book is taken from his personal experience commanding a fleet in the South China Sea. Hunt is commander of three destroyers that patrol waters claimed by China in the South China Sea. Her ship responds to what appears to be a stranded fishing boat that was actually transporting computer hardware from China. Without giving away what happens to Hunt’s fleet, Starvridis says that in real life his experience went better than Hunt’s did.

Ackerman, meanwhile, bases Wedge’s later command on the experience of a friend of his in the Marines. He admits that the internal struggles of the characters tend to reflect something of his personality. Chowdhury, in particular, reflects some of his experience working in Washington, DC. Chowdhury’s character is probably the easiest for the reader to relate to because he is not in the midst of the battle, even though he is involved in key decisions. We see more of his personal life than that of the other characters, at least in the preview in Wired.

An important component of Starvridis and Ackerman’s story is China’s exploitation of the U.S.’s dependence on technology. This is where China gains the upper hand early in the story. Without giving away any spoilers from the first four chapters, suffice it to say that anything remotely controlled through satellites, through the internet, or through the power grid, is a vulnerability.

The authors originally set the book at a later date than 2034 but real-life headlines forced them to keep moving their timeline back. They also had to change a few elements of their fictional account because real-life events changed. For example, while they were working on the book, Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani was assassinated in January 2020. In a previous draft of the book, Soleimani is still alive in their fictional 2034.

Another example of needed revisions was the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier drafts were written before the pandemic. Obviously, in a book about China and the U.S., they couldn’t leave the pandemic out.

Stavridis points out, this is not a predictive book but a “cautionary tale designed to help us stay out of events like this. And it’s about trends, where things are going.” (Wired, p. 87)

Pertinent to the topics Mind Matters News covers, when he was asked what trends keep him up at night, Stavridis cited cybersecurity and AI: “ The number one thing is the thought of a massive cyberattack against the United States — that our opponents will refine cyber stealth and artificial intelligence in a kind of witch’s brew and then use it against us.” (Wired, p. 87)

Hopefully, this doesn’t in happen in real life 2034.

2034: A Novel of the Next World War comes out March 9, 2021 from Penguin Press.

Here is Stavridis’s TED talk:

Here’s the transcript of the talk.

You may also wish to read Heather Zeiger’s account of human rights abuses in China:

Leaked Police Database: Total Surveillance of China’s Uyghurs. Human Rights Watch notes that many countries engage in human rights abuses, but “more than any other government, Beijing has made technology central to its repression.” The police in one precinct use technology to track every move to the point that some say it seems as if their thoughts are being surveilled.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Sci-fi Saturday Books: Will World War III Be the U.S. vs. China?