In the world of literary fiction, the technothriller genre has always captivated my imagination. I spent many years serving on active duty between the U.S. Army infantry and the U.S. Air Force, with a battered, well-read Tom Clancy novel always within reach.
And while the late Tom Clancy may have practically invented the genre, a new cohort of authors has inherited the responsibility of both attracting new readers to the style and satisfying longtime fans of classics such as The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Executive Orders.
Authors P.W. Singer and August Cole have done precisely that with their newest book Burn-In.
Blurring the Lines between Fact and Fiction
For me, a work of fiction (and especially a technothriller) must do three things within the first chapter, or else it goes back on the shelf:
- Introduce me to compelling characters that I want to care about,
- Establish a believable world for those characters to live in, and
- Ignite conflict or create stakes.
Singer and Cole waste no time plunging us into a near-future version of Washington D.C. with a U.S. Marine Corps veteran-turned-FBI Special Agent Lara Keegan as she responds to a potential terrorist attack at D.C.’s Union Station.
What’s more, the authors frequently take technology that is present in 2020 and reason out its natural progression to the era when the novel takes place: an America in the mid-21st century.
The result of this near-term technological forecasting is a setting that is not only familiar but sometimes scary. As was common in the 20th century, technology often outpaced both the outspoken ethicists and the glacial pace of bureaucratic oversight and global treaties. This increasing reliance on and worship of technology has endowed humans, still emotionally tied to our limbic hamster brains, with Zeus-like powers. Therein lies the danger.
It’s worth noting that every tech trend in Burn-In is drawn from real-word research by Singer and Cole, complete with endnote references should the reader wish to seek out more information. There’s no sci-fi here… just a meticulously researched and well-informed future state of society.
Some of the frightening themes grounded in reality center around what’s known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which highlights advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum computing, nanotechnology and automation.
According to the World Economic Forum, “the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world.” But it’s not all wine and roses: As Singer and Cole deftly illustrate in Burn-In, the revolution could also yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential disruption of labor markets.
In Burn-In this excellent technology forecasting, wearing the clothes of a technothriller, automatically makes this book required reading for anyone in tech, IT, academia or the intelligence community.
Singer and Cole’s 2015 novel, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, joined the professional reading list of every branch of the U.S. military, leading to briefings everywhere from the White House to the Pentagon.
However, the difficulty for a book like Burn-In is not just to present a white paper on where technology is going, but to make it entertaining as well. On this score, the authors have dropped believable fictional characters into this hyper-realized near-future and made us care whether they live or die.
This makes Burn-In not only a gripping thrill ride, but a pedagogical one as well. And that is the best compliment I can give a book: both entertaining and educational.
Good technothrillers have a way of nailing the little details that make the world drip with authenticity. I remember reading Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger while deployed as an 11 Bravo infantryman and finding myself astonished at his description of little things that only an infantryman would know.
I would ask myself incredulously “How does this guy know that we smoked cigarettes with the lit end hidden in our fist so that the embers wouldn’t show up on an enemy’s night vision!?”
It is those very details that Singer and Cole sprinkle throughout the narrative that takes Burn-In from good to great.
For instance, a D.C. traffic jam early in the book is filled with “self-driving” or autonomous vehicles. As our protagonist sits in this traffic, her FBI colleague offers to “override and clear a path.”
This is precisely the type of protocol that would have to be implemented for self-driving cars to become ubiquitous: that they would have to make way for an emergency vehicle. While many of us think about self-driving cars from a height of 30,000 feet, the authors are contemplating the actual algorithms that would have to be in place for them to function in society.
In another instance, disgruntled veterans occupy Lower Senate Park to protest on behalf of the benefits they believe they deserve. The authors make a reference to the Bonus Army, a group of 43,000 demonstrators, made up of 17,000 U.S. World War I veterans, together with their families and affiliated groups, who gathered in Washington, D.C. in mid-1932 to demand early cash redemption of their service certificates.
Then little-known Army officer Douglas MacArthur brought in six tanks, infantry and cavalry to drive them off and burn down their camp. Since even many modern veterans do not know this piece of history, it is an excellent callback and just the type of detail that will make a reader set the book down and google “Bonus Marchers.”
The Final Verdict
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Burn-In is a riveting technothriller that is not only highly entertaining but meticulously researched and presents a near-future state that is closer than you think. Its stunning attention to detail and seamless blend of fact and fiction make this book a MUST READ for summer 2020. P.W. Singer and August Cole have crafted the most believable world that I have read in the past decade.
Burn-In – A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution by P.W. Singer and August Cole. An Excerpt:
“Don’t touch anything,” Keegan commanded. “You do that and ‘FBI seen on way to Union Station’ will be in the newsfeed before we even make it a block,” she explained.
The drive out to the downtown train station and subway hub hadn’t been a planned operation, just a quick response to a flash alert that had necessitated an FBI presence. It was likely a wild goose chase, but they had to assume whoever was behind it would be monitoring any activity of interest in the area.
Griff started picking at the sole of his shoe as the tension built, flicking out a small rock that had gotten lodged in one of the ridges. The nervous fixation annoyed Keegan because he wasn’t keeping his eye on the environment…
She picked up the origami robot off the dashboard and began to move it back and forth through the air, the way kids played with toy planes. Sweeping it slowly across the horizon, her eyes tracked what was happening in the distance behind it.
“Yep, right there. Just about your two o’clock. One coming down from the distro facility in the Post’s old printing plant in College Park.” Zooming the mantis back out, she aimed the triangular point of its head at the eight-rotor delivery drone flying above, an imaginary line running from her tiny robot to the larger one in the sky.
“As that thing flies over to deliver its beet juice or spare charger or whatever, it’s just soaking up data to mine and sell. That’s where the real money is. You set off the siren and it’ll flag us to anybody who’s buying that drone’s feed right now.” Keegan tipped the tiny robot in the direction of the Viking. “Plus, there’s no telling how our friend with the AR-15 will react to the excitement.”