2034: A Novel of the Next World War
By: Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis
Published: March 2021 (Penguin Press)

In a culture saturated with eco-dystopian future fantasies, a novel about the next world war on a still mostly functioning planet is as startling as it is distressing. Forget empty, flooded cities and Mad Max-style wasteland vendettas. 2034, co-written by Elliot Ackerman and retired Admiral James Stavridis, opens on a calm if disputed South China Sea. U.S. Naval Captain Sarah Hunt (the “Lion Queen”) is surveying the horizon from her flotilla of destroyers, out on a “freedom of navigation patrol,” a euphemism for reminding China that these barely rippling waves are still international waters. Hunt dislikes military circumlocution but understands all too well the threat of Chinese overreach. Trusting her intuition, she responds to an apparent distress call from another vessel, and—for all the world’s advanced cyber capacity, or actually because of it—a cascade of conflict ensues. The distress call turns out to have been bait.

The novel unfolds in a series of vignette chapters, moving from Hunt’s embattled flagship to the cockpit of an F-35E Lightning, where Maj. Chris “Wedge” Mitchell tests stealth technology on the edge of Iranian airspace, and from the halls of power in Beijing and Washington, D.C. to the outskirts of Tehran, where Wedge’s eventual torturer finds it’s easy to kill squirrels, too. The lead characters do not fall neatly on either side of international divides; a U.S. security advisor is related to an admiral in India, and the novel’s key Chinese official is Harvard-educated with a taste for M&M’s. Still, such global ties are not enough to ward off global disaster on a nuclear scale.

2034 works as a thickening nexus of key characters in conflict zones, whether in contested waters or in policy meetings. Each figure has enough personal depth to keep even non-military-trained readers interested (or even pacifist readers, as this reviewer admits), from Wedge’s wish for the elusive “it” experience when flying, to Admiral Lin Bao’s fascination with egalitarian undercurrents in American hierarchy. Sarah Hunt’s naval command does not read like tokenism but takes her competence for granted. Her own relationship to hierarchy is more pragmatic than “badass.” When she has to repurpose fighter planes as a “dumb squadron,” in order to destroy a Chinese vessel, she calmly dismisses understandable objections from one squadron’s commanding officer, since there is no choice but to “fight blind.” At the same time, she is all too aware of the mission’s terrible difficulty and potential consequences.

Though the novel is more a cautionary tale than a literary work, it does describe moments of strange marine beauty, beginning with the opening scene on the South China Sea. Hunt “imagined that if a single needle were dropped from a height, it would slip through all the fathoms of water into the seabed, where, undisturbed by any current, it would rest on its point.” Much later in the book, when Russian-Iranian vessels on the Barents Sea prepare to blow up undersea internet cables connected to the U.S., Lieutenant Commander Farshad watches a school of sharks drawn by the 10G cables’ electromagnetism—sharks whose ability to chew through cables will give the mission “deniability.” After the explosion, the sea’s surface remains calm. As the sharks bob belly-up to the surface (and pass with horrifying noise through the Rezkiy’s twin propellers), “seawater mist still lingered in the air. The sunlight passed through it, casting off brilliant rainbows—blues, yellows, oranges, reds. So much red.”

Of course there is blood in the water, too, and human devastation to come. As the authors note in a 2021 New Yorker podcast, their goal was to draw on current international tensions to speculate on where they might lead. “We need to get better at imagining,” Stavridis puts it, in the hope that a cautionary tale might actually do its job. In the novel’s not-so-distant future, U.S. chaos populism has apparently died down, and a female President has followed “Pence,” with a narrative ellipsis standing for whatever happened there. China, Russia, and Iran loom as a triple threat. Climate crisis appears only in the fleeting phrase “two nuclear submarines under what remained of the Arctic ice.” With these two current terrors swept aside, the novel’s old-school, jets-and-torpedoes drama can take center stage. The novel leaves out less cinematic strongman-populist threats unfolding now on a global scale and unlikely to dissipate by 2034 (Putin’s current strategy to destabilize NATO and energy alliances in Europe, for example, however Russia’s military threat against Ukraine plays out). The authors themselves could be, as they put it, “better at imagining” the looming climate crisis, too, which will certainly lead to less-than-sexy global conflict over water, food, and breathable air in the coming decade.

2034 is brainy future fiction on stealth aircraft, internet sabotage, and surveillance technology beyond our current grasp, but at heart—and on a larger scale than its carefully wrought scenes—it’s a long look back into the twentieth century, into the mythology of war machines. It imagines a future without “clean” drone strikes taking out more civilians than anyone in power wants to admit, without political divisions turning even school board meetings violent, without a dragging pandemic (though the book does mention a “vaccine-resistant strain of rubeola”), and without deadly heat, storms, wildfire smoke, or drought. The future looks to me more like a planet erupting with mob attacks on climate migrants, smoke-induced city lockdowns, and large-scale water wars. All that, likely as it may be to transpire, is absent from 2034.

2034 is nostalgic not for war itself but for the epic movie version, for characters who agonize and compromise, for the sweeping scene on the deceptively calm sea. It risks, as Elizabeth Samet writes in Looking for the Good War (also 2021), sentimentalizing and justifying warfare, even in a cautionary gesture. “Wars are seething struggles, not object lessons,” Samet writes, with reference to the many fictions glorifying World War II. The human traces that might be obliterated in this novel’s final conflagration, told in humble human terms (egg, bread, and olives, or a dog-eared children’s book), are compelling in the way a Spielberg scene is. The dialogue reads naturally. The characters are believable—a leading female character whose intelligence matters more than her looks, an interrogator who likes a quiet walk on dirt-packed roads—despite the occasional bad-guy stereotype in the Beijing scenes. The novel calls attention to real threats in today’s world, from Russia’s imperialist posturings and dissident poisonings to China’s barbed-wire camps and ubiquitous cameras, though it avoids the economic and pandemic chaos that ensues as the U.S. comes to resemble a falling empire more and more. For all its skill, 2034 ultimately makes me wish for something messier, more confounding, with more at stake than territory and technology. More like a planet already on fire.

Heidi Hart

Heidi is an Art and Humanities Research Fellow with SixtyEight Art Institute in Copenhagen, and she also serves as a Nonresident Senior Research Fellow in the Environment and Climate program of the European Center for Populism Studies. She holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in German Studies from Duke University. She completed a postdoc at Utah State University and is a regular guest instructor at Linnaeus University in Sweden. She has received an ACLS-Mellon fellowship, several grants for environmental arts and curriculum development, and a Pushcart Prize for poetry. Her publications include the literary memoir Grace Notes (University of Utah Press, 2004), the quartet-series poetry collection Edge by Edge (Toadlily Press, 2007), and two academic monographs, Hanns Eisler’s Art Songs: Arguing with Beauty (Camden House, 2018) and Music and the Environment in Dystopian Narrative: Sounding the Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), as well as numerous literary and critical essays. Her curatorial work includes Climate Thanatology, an international arts constellation on music and climate grief, with a related book forthcoming from Really Simple Syndication Press.

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