Unmanned by Dan Fesperman
|Unmanned by Dan Fesperman|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A dishonourably discharged pilot teams up with a random bunch of journalists to track down what is really happening in the world of drone technology. An engaging spy-thriller, with a sharp insight into the military / commercial interface that will leave you looking skywards and wondering.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 316||Date: October 2014|
|External links: Author's website|
Unmanned, the title of Fesperman's latest thriller, refers to the drones, the Predators, that Captain Darwin Cole flew over Afghanistan, from a shed somewhere in Nevada.
It also refers to the state that those missions left Cole in, after one of them went badly wrong. A poor call-down led to a misidentified target, a house destroyed, civilians killed, including two kids lying out in the open running away, and a girl, not dead but wounded. Cole could see her from his thousands of miles away, moving, agonising, separated by a considerable distance from the arm she would never use again.
A one-armed girl would haunt his dreams for a long time to follow.
Fourteen months later and Cole is holed up alone, most definitely unmanned in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, with only the booze and the coyotes for company. A court martial and dishonourable discharge weren't a direct result of the mis-call, but of what happened afterwards, a botched recon and a complete mental breakdown that saw him going AWOL in a stolen Cessna. That the family would walk away to let him sort himself out was no surprise. The fact that he didn't really care enough to try to do so, likewise.
Then three journalists show up. They've got their own agenda and their own demons. The latter include some sinister echoes from the same part of the world as Cole's own nightmares. Babs is a photographer as much as a writer, and she's seen kids caught in the cross fire too. Pictures of them, smiling and serene beforehand, and then afterwards, hang on her wall to remind her of what the point is. With her are Steve and Kiera. There is a strange dynamic between the three of them, but they clearly believe that Cole can help them uncover the biggest story of any of their careers.
That story involves a 'spook': a mysterious higher-up in the military (or maybe not) who called in Cole's ill-fated mission in Sandar Khosh.
Joining up with the team (who aren't all in favour of his involvement), Cole finds himself getting dragged into a world, much less military than he imagined. This is a world where the real development of weaponry happens these days. If you're of a certain age and believe that it's worth funding military research because of all the nice, peace-use spin-offs that come out of it… then you need to get with the programme.
What Unmanned demonstrates far better than any non-fiction work I've read to date, is that the paradigm has well and truly shifted. The research is now out in the non-military labs and it is out of control. Commerce has taken control. Every development – and just as a reminder, in this case we are talking about drones here – the pilot-free, reconnaissance robots that can fly at several thousand feet, invisible against a sunlit sky or hidden in the very lowest reach of cloud, able to analyse the expression on your face – is now being driven by market forces. The fact that the drones can then be adapted to deliver the weaponry and destruction is almost by the by.
Many of us have (rightly or wrongly) long since accepted that wars will be increasingly fought long-distance. Hand to hand combat will give way to long-range strikes.
The connection that Fesperman makes for us is that we don't have to wait for the military to declassify the technology before it drips (nicely and neatly regulated) into the private arena. It's being developed in the private arena…with commercial application being the driving force.
If you think you are under surveillance now… 'look on these works and despair' to use the mis-quote. Oh, and just in case those high-flying bots don’t scare you… there's also the prospect of tiny, nanobots flying down your chimney and…
Is this sci-fi? Maybe it's a stretch for now, but I'm prepared to bet they're working on it.
Back at the story… Cole gets drawn into this world, and what follows is a fairly traditional cat-&-mouse thriller: the bad guys not necessarily being all bad, the good guys not necessarily being good, smart-ass-geeks breaking into all and sundry – helped by desk-wallers who ain't quite so geekily smart-ass and making it easy for them.
Of course the plot gets a tad 'James Bond' at times, but what the hell. It's a fast read, with some moments of genuine tension, a few fast & furious chase set pieces, the body-count is kept low and realistic, the spooks are never fully delineated (though to be fair, some of them would be sacked for not knowing spying-1-oh-1).
Sit back and enjoy the ride.
Then start to worry about the implications.
And just as final nod to the author… he does a reasonable job of undermining the notion that pilots sitting thousands of miles away flying remote missions don't get the trauma of battle. If Cole's view of the world holds true, the action is up much closer and more personal to them, than it is to the guys flying directly over in real metal planes, dropping bombs, and seeing only a flash and dust. Predator pilots might not smell the battlefield or taste the dust, but they do get to see up-close and personal what their calls do to flesh and blood. An arcade-game it ain't.
You can read more book reviews or buy Unmanned by Dan Fesperman at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Unmanned by Dan Fesperman at Amazon.com.
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