(Or, if you don't read French, as soon as it is translated. Seriously.)
It is increasingly difficult to provide a whole and appropriate context for the news that reach us. Consider just this sequence: last January, the Chinese used a ground-based missile to destroy one of their own satellites, 500 miles up in the sky. In April and May, Estonia found itself under a massive cyberattack, apparently originating in Russia, which came close to shutting down the country’s digital infrastructure. In June, a Pentagon report revealed that China has developed first-strike cyberwarfare capabilities. In August it became known that the computers of Angela Merkel’s Chancellery and three other German ministries had been hacked into; in September, similar news arrived from France, the US, Australia and the UK; fingers were pointed at the Chinese army as the possible source of the attacks. Beijing denies, as Moscow denied being involved in the Estonia cyberaggression. And their denials are plausible, because the muddy nature of the Internet -- where attacks can be performed masking one's identity, or exploiting remote computers turned into "ghosts" -- makes it nearly impossible to be sure of an attacker's identity.
What's the meaning of these news? Global electronic power play? Trial runs? Plain espionage? Twisted dialogue offers? What brings a government to decide to use its geeks to attack another country's infrastructure: foreign policy considerations, domestic power struggle, commercial advantage? Or may some of this originate from groups that aren't really controlled by a government? What's the impact of the way the news gets communicated? It is unlikely that this was the first time the German Chancellery was attacked: why the event did reach the public this time? (Hint: a few weeks before the upcoming 17th congress of the Chinese Communist Party).
The list of questions could go on for pages. But rather than waste time on that, pick up a copy of Guy-Philippe Goldstein's fabulous novel, "Babel Minute Zéro", and read it. Sometimes fiction tells reality better than non-fiction, and "Babel" is one of those times.
(Sorry, for now the book -- Editions Denoel, 643 pages -- is only available in French: I hope it will reach a translator very soon).
"Babel Minute Zéro" is a geopolitical thriller. It plays in, probably, 2015, but it is not a sci-fi book: it really just adds a few years of solid perspective on things that are already happening now (such as the cyberattacks listed at the beginning of this post, the surveillance policies put in place post-9/11, Bush's doctrine of preemptive strike, the economic growth of China, the India-Pakistan atomically armed tensions, etc). That's scary enough.
The book's main character is Julia O'Brien. She is a CIA agent -- you can read her blog here (in French) -- dispatched to Berlin to establish a contact with an (apparently) unhinged old computer scientist who has (apparently) fled Russia after contributing to building its electronic infrastructure. As O'Brien prepares to fly to Europe, news reach her of mass demonstrations in China following the assassination of a popular democratic journalist in Hong Kong. To calm the unrest, the Chinese government creates a diversion by invading two small islets belonging to Taiwan and accusing the Taiwanese of murdering the journalist.
To this point, nothing that you haven't read already elsewhere. But for Goldstein's plot, this is just the initial scratch on the skin: the real deep wounds starts a few pages later, in cyberspace (with a spyral of cyberattacks and counter-cyberattacks, logic bombs, mutant viruses, out-of-control computer centers, etc that take the world to the brink of a global war) and then in the minds of those in charge (who are tricked and overwhelmed by the sheer multiplication of crisis -- diplomatic, military, electronic, monetary, spatial -- and the growing complexity of a global game of bluff dominated by mistrust and manipulation even among rational friends).
To avoid spoilers, I won't reveal any more details. Goldstein's is a superior exposition of the mixing and combining and juxtaposing and reinforcing and contradicting of the complex forces of diplomacy, espionage, commercial competition, cyberwarfare, and military threats -- on a global scale, and with a subtle backdrop of a possible sex scandal involving the US president. His writing is fluid and captivating. His characters are fleshed out convincingly, they are of the kind whose actions can have a direct impact on the history of the world. His detailed descriptions of the functioning of the Chinese power could let you think that he has spent years hanging out in Zhongnanhai. His knowledge of the Internet is deep. And, more than anything else, "Babel Minute Zéro" offers a powerful study of the transformations brought forth by the nuclear weapon since 1945, and what it means now for the stability of the world to transition from the atom to the electron, where it becomes impossible to know with certainty the geography or the nature of an aggressor.
I asked Guy-Philippe Goldstein (picture right) for a meeting a few weeks ago in New York, as I was finishing reading his book. We had breakfast -- obviously -- at French bistro Balthazar. He told me that he has spent ten years researching and writing "Babel", and that he has not rewritten much of it after 9/11 -- which vouches for the long-view plausibility of the book. This was an ambitious project, and "Babel Minute Zéro" is so accomplished that it's surprising to discover that Goldstein is just 33 years old, and isn't a professional writer, and that this is his first novel. By day, Goldstein is a management consultant.
He told me about reading a Rand Corporation paper in the mid-90s on wargames, and being "shocked by the idea that you could now win a war without shooting a single bullet", and that got him started on the way to "Babel". "Does that make a global war possible again?", he muttered. "I have a sense that the next 50 years may be crucial for humanity". This anxiety maybe runs in the family -- Goldstein is a French Jew of Polish descent -- and it has certainly contributed to the fast-paced book.
Why, I ask, does he believe (that's in the book) that the world is getting more unstable? "Because in a traditional war the defending side has the advantage, while cyberwars give bonuses to the attacker: attacking information equals attacking meaning and understanding". Which explains George W Bush's "preemptive strike" doctrine. "Yes, but where's the line? From preemption to preemption you fall in a vortex of anticipating your adversary's every move -- that gives a very fragile, vulnerable system".
Even in democratic countries, he says, "we haven't really understood yet the real impact of technological developments". Somehow the book questions whether even intelligent species could succumb to the acceleration of knowledge.
Do read it. "Babel Minute Zéro".