Book review: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War

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Martin Blank
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Book review: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War

Post by Martin Blank » Thu Jul 21, 2022 9:54 pm

I heard a lot of good things about this book since it was released in March 2021. Written by a couple of prominent names in the military analytical field, including one general, it tells the tale of the US and China finally breaking into outright hostilities in 2034. Minor spoilers follow, but not too much.

The book itself is short, only a little over 300 pages, which is practically a novella in the genre. There are six chapters, but each is broken into smaller sections, which are easily digestible. I got through most of them in 5-10 minutes each, which makes it easy to put down and pick back up. I think I got through it in three evenings of 2-3 hours each.

In the opening scenes, some mysterious force takes control of a US F-35 testing some equipment off the coast of Iran. In the South China Sea, three US destroyers see their electronics, weapons, and communications disabled as a Chinese fleet approaches. Even though these capabilities are reused over the length of the conflict (which is substantially longer than it realistically should be), it's never explained and the US never seems to get even a tiny clue about what was going on.

It is more of a character study than most war books, leaving out a lot of technical details. That could be OK, depending on how it's handled, but the authors fall flat. The main characters are mostly familiar tropes that go through familiar plot tropes: a Marine Corps pilot who is a fourth generation flyer and who longs for the seat-of-the-pants flying his great-grandfather experienced (while flying, of course, in the same squadron as one of the great US air-to-air aces of all time); a naval officer who sacrificed an early-career romance with a senior officer to pursue her own career, only to end up under his command anyway; a non-white, relatively senior White House aide who has input but no power and has to watch mostly from the sidelines as his racist boss keeps him away from anything important; a Chinese officer who wants his own command but is desk-bound by other leadership. Of these, the White House aide and the Chinese officer are perhaps the most interesting, but that's not saying much. They both have families, they both have to struggle to balance work and family life, and both are caught up in events over which they have little control, though they try.

I finished the book, but it was a struggle to get through the last third. The Americans finally get some capability back by not relying so much on the latest technology (another tired trope of "the old ways were better"), but it's never explained just how an adversary as advanced as China is in this book can't even block radio communications using literal WW2 technology.

Ultimately, the book is supposed to be a warning of how the US may not waltz through World War III. But it's told through deus ex machina after deus ex machina. As the US struggles with China, there is literally only one mention of a NATO ally, and it's not in the context of them coming to help. I don't think the US's closest allies are mentioned even once. Even though Australia would certainly have a problem with a war in its neighborhood, there's not even a whisper of them, nor of Canada, nor the British. It's just the US vs. China (and sort of but not really Iran), like they're the only players on the planet.

Warning scenarios need to be plausible. This one is not. I recommend finding your warnings elsewhere.
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