As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second year and shows no signs of abating, many are asking: “Who could have predicted that Vladimir Putin would invade an Eastern European neighbor?”
In 2019, when I started writing Fire and Ice (my most recent novel), the high concept was this: What if there was considerable unrest in Russia due to economic conditions, and what if Putin did what so many autocratic leaders do and tried to shift the public’s attention from their not-so-great-circumstances to an outside threat?
And what if he decided to invade one of those perceived outside threats and also hold the rest of Europe hostage to Russia’s energy?
And what if he used cyber-attacks against the West, especially the United States, and also committed acts of terrorism and genocide?
For years, forward-thinking writers have examined future warfare through novels and shorter works; but in years past, U.S. officials responsible for the security and prosperity of America have either disregarded these stories or criticized them as unhelpful to crafting a coherent foreign relations and military strategy.
As more and more writers have examined future warfare through works of fiction, a new genre of military-themed literature has emerged. “Useful Fiction,” or FICINT (Fictional Intelligence), is generally understood to be imagining future warfare scenarios based on the realities of high-end combat and real-world intelligence—not fantasy.
No longer disregarding fictional accounts of future warfare, the U.S. national security community has embraced this new genre as a useful instrument to intuit how tomorrow’s wars will be fought. A number of U.S. military commands and think tanks, including The U.S Army Training and Doctrine Command, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Army War College, the Atlantic Council, the Center for International Maritime Security, the U.S. Naval Institute, and others, now sponsor fiction-writing contests to tease out good ideas from Useful Fiction writers.
As one small indication of the momentum that Useful Fiction has gained, I recently spoke at a Useful Fiction event at the U.S. Air Force Academy organized by futurists Peter Singer and August Cole (authors of Ghost Fleet and Burn In). It was attended by hundreds of Academy cadets, as well as scores of officers from various commands, including the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
There has been a sea of change in the way the U.S. national security community (especially the U.S. military) is now embracing these types of books. Several recent Useful Fiction novels are helping the U.S. plan for tomorrow’s wars, including Fire and Ice, which has proven especially prescient in light of today’s war in Ukraine.
To dig a bit deeper into this topic, part of why there is such a demand for this new genre of Useful Fiction within the U.S. national security establishment is the power of narrative. Here’s how Michael Lewis, a guy most famous for the book Moneyball, put it in his best-selling book, The Undoing Project: “No one ever made a decision based on a number; they need a story.”
My goal in writing Fire and Ice was not just to write and entertaining and believable military thriller, but to stress the importance of challenging our assumptions as they relate to national security. I’ll leave it to those of you who read it to decide whether I’ve accomplished those two goals.
Editor’s Note: What follows is Galdorisi’s presentation at the Useful Fiction event and the Q and A which followed.
Thank you for that far-too-kind introduction. I work at the Navy‘s Command and Control Warfare Center in San Diego, and I’m often asked to give our Technical Vision Briefing. When our commanding officer introduces me, he usually says: “Now you’re going to hear from a knuckle-dragging naval aviator on a closely supervised work release program.” So I appreciate the intro; it’s a big step up.
It’s an honor to be with you here today, virtually, for this event. I’d like to thank the Air Force Academy’s Homeland Defense Institute for hosting this forum, and Peter and August for inviting me to participate.
As Peter and August have teed up earlier, there are homeland defense stories that need to be told. In fact, there are many stories that need to be told if we are, collectively, going to provide for the security and prosperity of our nation.
For most of us in the military, we aren’t really exposed to the fact that stories are important. You cadets won’t be successful in your careers, and none of the senior officers here would have been successful in their careers, if you couldn’t master technical subjects.
That’s good as far as it goes. But technical topics are a left brain activity that requires linear and often methodical thinking. For example, for those of us in the aviation world, if we couldn’t follow a pilot’s checklist, we wouldn’t still be alive to talk about it.
But stories come from the right brain, that holistic, conceptual part of the brain. This requires that you give your left brain at bit of a rest. I think my fellow presenters all agree, and we hope that you agree by the end of the day, that stories are important and that you need to engage your right brain to tell them.
Here’s how Michael Lewis, a guy most famous for the book Moneyball, put it in his best-selling book, The Undoing Project: “No one ever made a decision based on a number; they need a story.”
Perhaps enough for now. I’m happy to address your questions.
- You’ve had such a fascinating career? Take us through it, especially in how did you make the shift into writing?
Look, without getting all misty eyed about it, I’ve been blessed to have a 30-year career as a Naval Aviator that was rewarding and energizing to the point that I would do it all over again for another 30 if they let me.
What made my career interesting to me was the fact that each assignment seemed to build on the one before it and helped me to be better prepared for each new billet. Said another way, I didn’t feel like I was playing baseball in one assignment and then ice hockey in the next.
I can’t give you a precise date during my career where I had an epiphany and said to myself: “Now I’m going to write.”
It all happened organically. To begin with, I had commanding officers who encouraged me to write for professional journals. As you all know, these are short articles, maybe 2000 to 3000 words. While my original stuff was pretty rough, I received valuable feedback from several editors, and was eventually able to spell most of the big words right and see some of my articles in print.
During graduate school, I learned about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, something that the United States signed in 1982, but has yet to ratify. I became quite passionate about the fact that we should ratify it, and ultimately, after doing many articles on the subject, I did two books on the Law of the Sea. And this goes directly to what my first literary agent told all of his clients: “Write what you are passionate about.”
As to fiction, I got into that quite accidentally, and it brings to mind the old saying: “You make plans and God laughs.” My best friend from high school days is an accomplished screenwriter. He was visiting and we were watching a wretched Steven Seagal movie, which had no plot but lots of kinetics.
I challenged him to write a movie script that was better than that, and he challenged me to write a novel. I protested that I didn’t do fiction, that I wrote professional articles and non-fiction books. But you know how it is when you have a friend kind of poking you and holding your hand and eventually that turned into my first novel and I haven’t looked back since.
Having said all that, there’s another old saying: “Write what you know. So there is a huge Venn diagram cross between my experience during my active duty career, and now with my career at a Navy warfare center, and the kind of fiction that I write. It really is a symbiotic relationship.
- Take us through your process of ideation+discovery. How do you find or create original or unexpected ideas for your projects? What particular attributes of narrative are you looking for?
As far as finding ideas for my projects, most of that is informed by what I’ve experienced in my time working for the Department of Defense, first in uniform, and now as a Navy civilian.
Basically, I write about things that worry me. For the Tom Clancy Op-Center series of books, it occurred to me that there are sometimes things that neither the military, nor the three letter agencies, can do, and that our national leadership needs to have some entity that can work essentially off-the-books to deal with situations or crises. That is how we created the Op-Center series. To summarize the four-book series in a sentence, think of it as the TV series, 24, but working internationally to protect our nation and our allies.
Two specific examples that stem directly from my active duty career are the books, The Coronado Conspiracy and For Duty and Honor.
At one point in my career in uniform I was in command of the Navy amphibious ship USS Coronado. We were assigned to Southern Command to do drug interdiction operations. I learned about the power of the drug cartels in that region, and that inspired the plot of The Coronado Conspiracy.
The idea for my next book, For Duty and Honor, sprang from the time I spent as chief of staff for an aircraft carrier strike group during deployments to the Arabian Gulf. I came to understand the enormous power that a carrier strike group commander had, as well as the cat and mouse game that the strike group commander had to play with adversaries such as Iran.
With that as background, and to the point of what we write that is in the Useful Fiction genre, the attributes of any story boils down to three things: “What do these guys want, why do they want it, and what’s keeping them from getting it?” That involves a protagonist and an antagonist, and a story that makes the reader want to turn the page.
- You’ve often hit trends and issues before they played out, such as how your book Fire and Ice was prescient regarding today’s war in Ukraine. How do you do it? What are the best means you’ve seen for foresight?
Thank you for mentioning Fire and Ice. Of the eight novels that I’ve done, it was the biggest leap for me because it did not directly stem from my experiences during my active duty or civilian career, but it was something that I just flat worried about.
For whatever reason, I’ve tracked Russian history quite closely. First, it was because I served during the Cold War where we were singularly focused on the Russian Bear. More recently, if you look at the threats that Vladimir Putin presents to the world at large, and especially to former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, it’s hard to imagine bad things not happening.
So when I started writing the book in 2019, my high concept was this: What if there was considerable unrest in Russia due to economic conditions, and what if Putin did what so many autocratic leaders do and tried to shift the public’s attention from their not-so-great-circumstances to an outside threat, and what if he decided to invade one of those nations and also hold the rest of Europe hostage to Russia’s energy, and use cyber-attacks against the West and especially the United States, and to also commit acts of terrorism and genocide?
The book was published in early 2021 and you all know how things played out in real life
And directly to the question of ways to generate foresight, I think it boils down to, as I mentioned earlier, giving your left brain a time out, and just thinking: “What if?”
That said, I wanted to take you back to some of what Peter and August have teed up, and focus on the term Useful Fiction not crazy fiction. I’ve read more military thrillers than I can count. Many have a believable plot. But some have a high concept that is so preposterous that you just want throw the book away after reading 20 pages.
So foresight has to be bounded. I think the best way to remember that is something that Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books that were made into fabulously successful movies. He famously said: “My plots may not be probable, but they are possible.”
- Your work tackles real world trends. But you also have to fictionalize. How do you do that blend?
That’s a great question. How do you blend real world trends and create a fictional narrative?
Circling back to Fire and Ice, I think that the real world trends that I leveraged in that book have been brewing for quite some time.
You can make a halfway decent story just by developing a narrative that reports those real world trends, but that’s not Useful Fiction, it’s just a story or even just a report – something more akin to journalism.
And that’s the key difference to keep in mind. Here’s one way to remember it. This is a story: “The king died, and then the queen died.” This is a plot: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” I’m certain you can see the difference.
It’s all about causation, and circling back to our friend Ian Fleming, he famously said: “The main ingredient for a successful novel is that you have to turn the page.” That’s what a plot does for you. You really need to know what happens next.
But the other thing you need to do to bring a real world trend to life in fiction is to have characters two have agency and who do things. In other words, if you wanted to write a military thriller about a war between the United States and China, it can’t just be about the United States and China. It has to be about people, with a protagonist on the United States side, and an antagonist on China side. So that really is the blend you want to be thinking about.
- Biggest challenge that our audience faces is often “thinking the unthinkable” in terms of what are the next security threats, especially to the homeland. Do you have recommendations for them on that? And what do you do when you find it…
Such a great question. Where do I start? I think that one way to do it is to write a novel in your head and make yourself the antagonist who wants to do harm to the United States and its allies. What are the biggest vulnerabilities that you would attack, what are the risks and rewards if you conducted such an attack? What could you do to mess with your opponent that would likely be below the threshold that would initiate a response? As one example, I suspect most of you recall that when Iran shot down one of our $220M Global Hawk UAVs in 2019, the U.S. response was muted.
Putting myself back on the protagonist side and thinking about what we should worry about the most when it comes to ensuring the security and prosperity of the United States, several things come to mind, and they mostly go to things that the adversary could do without an extraordinary amount of effort.
- How easy would it be to smuggle a chemical, biological, radiological or other weapon into the United States either by land or by sea? By the way, this was the high concept that Dick Couch and I used for our NYT best-seller, Act of Valor.
- How easy would it be to conduct a focused cyber-attack on our power, water, or other grids necessary for daily life?
- How easy would it be to take Americans traveling overseas hostage, and demand concessions that we might ultimately have to give into?
- What if a foreign agent became Americanized, worked in a bio lab, and released a deadly virus into the atmosphere?
These are just a handful of scenarios.
- What scares you the most?
As to what scares me the most, I think I hit some of that in the answer to the last question, but this provides a useful segue to focus on what we hope all of you get out of this day.
Without speaking for Peter and August, or for other presenters today, look around the room and ask yourself: “Who should write this Useful Fiction and develop convincing narratives about threats to the United States, and especially to the homeland?” Don’t believe that someone else is doing it, because they’re not.
When I was a junior officer I assumed (and you all know what happens when you assume) that all of the big thinking for the U.S. military took place within the walls of the Pentagon. Only much later did I learn that the officers and civilians assigned to the Pentagon are talented and hard-working, but that they are so consumed with their day-to-day activities that they don’t have time to think out of the box and “what if” various scenarios. If you need proof of that, just drive by Pentagon South Parking at 2000 any weekday evening, and you’ll see thousands of cars still there with people doing their day-to-day jobs.
So, without dumping it all into the laps of you cadets, you are probably the best ones to think out of the box. Why do I say that? There is a term in Zen Buddhism called “Beginners Mind” which basically means that when you are young, you are open to new ideas, but as you get older, you become more constrained regarding what you are willing to think about because you believe that you have all of the answers already.
Armed with what you experiencing today, I’d bet a ton of money on the fact that you all have the best “pole position” to create narratives that will help senior leaders think about – and be prepared for – the unthinkable.