***The Art of Forgery

paint-brushes

photo: Lynn Friedman, creative commons license

By Noah Charney – In this richly illustrated book, author Charney explores many of the most notorious cases of art forgery—a deception that dates to ancient Rome—and the often colorful characters bent on deception. Like all crimes, this one depends on opportunity and motive.

While Old Masters may be a forger’s more likely and lucrative target, what about modern abstract artists? Can you tell the fakes? Take this clever quiz!

Opportunity

Until very recently, the perceived value of artworks and religious objects was solely expert-driven, based on connoisseurship. If a recognized expert asserted that a painting was a heretofore undiscovered Rembrandt, for all intents and purposes (especially sales value), it was.

Today, science provides museums and private collectors with increasing protection. Chemical, radiographic, and other advanced techniques can analyze paper, canvas, pigments, wood, and other intrinsic attributes of a work. A common giveaway is the use of paints that weren’t available at the time the artwork was supposedly created. But science provides protection only if would-be buyers insist tests be performed before they write out their check.

Over the years, forgers have responded by becoming more skilled in reproducing the materials and techniques of the past, so that often their work can pass all but the most detailed examination. Detailed digital replicas pose a new hazard to unwary purchasers.

Those engaged in an art forgery racket also excel in producing false documentation and paper trails. These establish the spurious lineage and history of ownership (called provenance) of a work. Forgers rarely simply copy an existing work—it’s too easily identified as already hanging in a museum or private collection. Instead, they precisely mimic an artist’s style and favored subject matter. This new work is then passed off as a “lost” or previously unknown masterwork, with all the paperwork to prove it.

Motivation

Why do they do it, when the possibility of detection is ever-present? Charney says some simply like the challenge of pitting their skill against that of past masters. A German newspaper said forger Wolfgang Beltracchi “painted the best Campendonk that ever was.” Indeed, some forgers have been artistic geniuses, but underappreciated and undervalued in their own time. For that reason, revenge against an indifferent art establishment contributes to motive. Art forgery is not treated as a particularly serious crime and rarely results in lengthy jail terms (usually for fraud). Many former forgers have gained substantial fame after their misdeeds were exposed.

More rarely, copies of paintings are made and substituted for the real thing, delaying detection of the theft of the originals. At Prague’s Sternberk Palace, thieves skipped the hard part and substituted a poster for the original they stole; in Poland, more ambitious thieves replaced the painting they stole with a painted-over poster bought at the museum gift shop. It took days for anyone to notice.

Unscrupulous dealers—con artists, basically—persuade some artists to create works in a particular style. The excitement and pride collectors feel when they “discover” a lost artwork typically makes the seller’s job easier.

Charney describes numerous examples of fraudulent art from over the centuries, and his comparison photos add much to the book’s enjoyment. (Forgery of religious relics is a cottage industry in Israel and the Middle East, detailed in Nina Burleigh’s excellent Unholy Business, touched on briefly in Charney’s book.)

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur “The world wishes to be deceived,” the book’s cover says, “so let it be deceived.”

“Super-Recognizers”: A Crime-Fighting Super-Power

cctv-cameras

photo: Kevan, creative commons license

The ability to recognize faces is a neurological trait that some people are simply better at than others. You can test yourself here. People at the lowest end of the spectrum lack this perceptual ability altogether. In these extreme cases, mothers cannot recognize their own children; colleagues don’t recognize someone they’ve worked with for years. At this level, the condition is called prosopagnosia, “face-blindness,” and some degree of difficulty recognizing faces may affect about 14 million Americans.

For many years, interest in this trait focused on people who have problems recognizing faces. When recent scientific advances indicated the trait exists on a continuum, this opened interest in people who have a superior ability to recognize faces. Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of London’s Metropolitan Police Service (the Met) thought he had a job for them: identifying criminals.

London is the perfect place to test Neville’s idea, according to a fascinating article by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker. London has the densest concentration of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the world—more than a million of them, mostly in the hands of homeowners and businesses. Keefe quotes former London Mayor Boris Johnson as saying, “When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star.”

Crime fiction writers will have a field day with this. The “super-recognizers” seem ideally suited for solving cold cases and identifying suspects in real time. On the other side of the courtroom, smart defense attorneys—I’m thinking Mickey Haller here—might chip away at the facial-recognition ability of “eye-witnesses.”

In the 1990s, installation of cameras was promoted throughout London as a crime prevention measure, but it turned out to be a weak deterrent. There were too many images, they were too hard to analyze, and though the camera recorded lots of crimes, nothing came of this evidence, because the images couldn’t be matched to specific people. Last weekend, NewYork/NewJersey bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was captured on camera at both Manhattan bomb sites, but it was the fingerprint left at the scene that led to his identification and the match with the man seen on camera.

Early on, Neville headed a unit that analyzed this CCTV footage, trying to make identifications. It was slow work. But when he learned about super-recognizers, he saw the potential benefit of recruiting people who might be extra-skilled at the process.

Now a small, dedicated unit within the Met is assembling an image database, which has more than 100,000 pictures of unidentified suspects in crimes recorded by CCTV. Unit experts compare these images with mug shots of known criminals. They collect images of the same individual at different crime scenes; if the person in one of the images is finally identified, multiple crimes are solved. And, knowing when and where multiple images of the same person were captured gives clues to a criminal’s behavior patterns.

This is, says Scientific American, a very special super-power.

Friday: The Future of Facial Recognition: Man vs. Machine?

Wikimedia Privacy & You

Privacy

photo: SparkCBC, creative commons license

What is privacy in an era of NSA mega-sweeps, email hacking, and rampant security breaches? Sure, companies all have privacy policies, full of boilerplate, but what do they mean in practice?  The recent Wikimedia Foundation transparency report shines a light on one tiny piece of our potentially massive digital persona. If you use Wikimedia often, as I do, you may realize that it keeps some non-public user-identifiable information. Law enforcement and security agencies may be interested in those data.

Sometimes I joke about this, because, as a writer of crime thrillers, my history of searches would be highly suspicious. It has happened to writers, and  here’s a case where a Long Island family’s Google searches got them into trouble. UK’s Daily Mail has published a looooong list of search keywords and phrases of supposed interest to the Department of Homeland Security. Examples of suspect words: exercise (which I use mainly in the context of “I should get more”), prevention, organized crime (oops! a biggie for me), sick, smart. With such a “broad, vague, and ambiguous list,” as the Electronic Privacy Information Center termed it, adding Wikimedia searches to the data would generate a bazillion hits.

Wikimedia’s Privacy Practices

Wikimedia’s transparency report for the six-month period July to December 2015 is therefore a welcome peek behind the privacy curtain. It receives requests for user data from government, individuals, and corporations, but doesn’t collect much non-public data or retain it for long, so often does not even have what people want. Case closed. But when it does, it will notify you before disclosing any information and may even assist you in fighting “invalid requests.”

Between July and December 2015, Wikimedia received 25 user data requests, 14 of which were from non-government entities. It produced the requested information for only one of them—in response to a court order from France, affecting one user account. This is of course a vanishingly small number of requests compared to what Facebook or Google receive.

Wikimedia also sometimes discloses information to the authorities on its own initiative. That happened a dozen times in the same six-month time period. For example, it alerted authorities to a bomb threat originating from an IP address physically near the target site (an arrest and confession followed);  reported a detailed threat against President Obama; and disclosed a credible suicide threat, with another positive outcome.

The Internet Never (?) Forgets

Also in that period, Wikimedia received 220 legal requests to alter content or remove information, granting none of them. It encourages complainers to work with the community to rectify what they perceive as errors or inaccuracies.

You may know about “Right To Be Forgotten” (RTBF) efforts, authorized under a 2014 European court decision involving Google Spain. Wikimedia opposes this movement, and tends not to grant RTBF requests, though people may do a workaround, by having Wikipedia links removed from search engines. (Here’s an example.)

Dig Deeper

Although Wikimedia’s efforts are a tiny finger in the dike, its commitment to privacy and to letting users know it, is laudable. Read more on this topic:

privacy

graphic: Bernard Goldbach, creative commons license

Zero Days

Zero Days, Iran, nuclear

Former Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspecting centrifuges at Natanz.

This two-hour documentary released Friday, July 8, and playing in selected theaters and streaming online, traces the history and consequences of Stuxnet, a sophisticated piece of malware unleashed on the world in 2010 (trailer & theater list).

Before you yawn and click away, there’s an important feature of the Stuxnet worm and others like it that makes this story of vital interest to you. Stuxnet was not designed to invade your home or office computer, but to attack the industrial control systems (specifically, programmable logic controllers) that manage critical infrastructure. These systems make sure trains and airplanes don’t crash, control car and truck traffic, maintain oil and gas production, manage industrial automation, ensure you have water to brush your teeth with and electricity to run the coffee maker, keep life-saving medical technology operating, and, of course, give you access to the internet. Cyber-attacks on these systems cause real-world, physical destruction, even widespread death.

Behind the Computer Screen

The Stuxnet story—still highly classified, but revealed over time—began with an effort by the United States and Israel to thwart Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons by destroying centrifuges at the country’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility. The software was diabolically clever, virtually undetectable, and essentially untraceable. In theory.

The fact that it was a Zero Day exploit (that is, that the attack would begin before the software problem was discovered and attempts made to fix it or shut it down) and that the Stuxnet code contained not one, but four zero day features, was remarkable. Once it was inside, it worked autonomously; even the attacker could not call it back.

The Israelis, apparently, were impatient. They assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists, and they changed the Stuxnet code, and it spread. It ended up infecting computers worldwide, at which point it was no longer secret, people were looking for it, and the Russians and others found it. “Israel blew the [malware’s] cover and it could have led to war,” the film says.

Another consequence is that the day when something similar can be unleashed on us grows ever closer. It will come from one of three sources:

  • Cybercriminals, in it for the money
  • Activists, intent on making a political point or
  • Nation-states seeking intelligence or opportunities for sabotage.

U.S. security agencies are not complacent. While they talk publicly about our cyber-defenses, in fact, there is a large (unexamined) effort to develop offensive cyber-weapons. There are reports of an even more draconian cyber-weapon embedded throughout Iranian institutions. Warding off its activation is believed a primary reason the Iranians finally struck a nuclear agreement. Certainly it prompted the rapid development surge in Iran’s cyberarmy.

In putting this story together, writer and director Alex Gibney interviewed former high-ranking U.S. and Israeli security officials, analysts from Symantec who teased the code apart, personnel from Russia’s Kaspersky Lab, and many others, including CIA/NSA/DoD officials unable to speak on camera.

“Fear Does Not Protect Us”

The documentary makes a persuasive case for who holds the smoking Stuxnet gun, but it also suggests that finding fault is not the primary issue. The climate of international secrecy around Stuxnet—and the inevitable clones that will follow—makes an open discussion about them impossible. Nor does it allow development of rational strategies for managing the risks, regardless of how urgently needed those strategies are. Cyber-risk management will never be easy, but as one of the film’s experts points out, “it will never happen unless you start.”

The subject is “hideously overclassified,” says Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSA and CIA. (The climate of secrecy is so extreme that even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cyber team was unaware that Stuxnet originated across town and spent countless resources trying to track it down.) We, of all nations, need this debate, because there is no more vulnerable country in the world, when it comes to systems’ connectedness.

“Evil and good live side by side,” says an anonymous agent of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Keeping secrets is a good way to prevent being able to tell one from the other.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 69%.

SFMOMA Redo a Hit!

SFMOMA

SFMOMA main stair (photo: Tom Ervin, used with permission)

After visiting the magnificent new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), you may be tempted to hum “I Found My Art in San Francisco.” According to an article in Marin, SFMoMA was the first museum in the West dedicated to displaying 20th century art. Jackson Pollock’s inaugural exhibition was held here, for example.

The 10-story museum addition, which reopened May 14 after a three-year, $305 million makeover, is across from the Yerba Buena Gardens in SOMA (the downtown area south of Market Street) near the Embarcadero.

“In many ways, the unveiling of the new SFMOMA caps a period of transformation that speaks to forces at play in many U.S. cities — the rehabilitation of what had once been dilapidated urban cores. But the museum is also indicative of the role that high culture can play in that process. With its very presence, a museum can help shift the dynamics of a neighborhood,” says Carolina A. Miranda in the LA Times.
The 145,000-sq.ft. added exhibit space displays some 32,000 works—including large installations by Carl Andre and Donald Judd. Most of the inaugural exhibition works have not been seen before, including the impressive 1,000-piece Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, and numerous donated works by contemporary artists, including a gallery of works by color field painter Ellsworth Kelly, who died in 2015. The museum also includes a permanent center of photography and a temporary exhibit on the history of typography in graphic design.

Experience it Online

The eye-popping exterior redesign by Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta includes an oculus—an eye-like opening—and what the New York Times described as a “crinkly” façade of fiberglass-reinforced polymer skin that mimics the bobbing waves of San Francisco Bay. Other critics say the exterior resembles a beached cruise ship or a glacial form. An interactive article by Rene Chun in Wired highlights the museum’s many innovative architectural features.

The first floor is open to the public and includes exhibition space, a well-curated museum store and, soon, a public restaurant featuring culinary contributions from Bay Area chef luminaries such as Alice Waters. You scale a grand staircase flooded with natural light from the oculus to access the gallery floors. Once inside the galleries, a variety of well-executed architectural and artistic elements reveal themselves.

The higher floors have expansive windows running alongside the galleries, and wraparound terraces from which glimpses of the cityscape engage the eye and bring natural light in. A third floor gallery of huge Alexander Calder mobiles opens onto a larger terrace flanked by a three-story wall of native plants from nearby Mount Tamalpais that enhance the green building theme.

SFMOMA art

Author Jodi Goalstone at SFMOMA (photo: Tom Ervin, used with permission)

To minimize crowding and noise, hidden, one-way only stairs take visitors up or down along with easily accessible elevators. Another clever design element is found, oddly enough, in gallery restrooms. Higher floors’ facilities have a different, bold color scheme. The one I visited had deep purple walls and magenta stalls with soft, subtle lighting.

Because this is a modern art museum, new media is imbedded in the experience. Visitors can explore the museum with an audio tour that provides a personal docent—with a twist. One example: see the museum guided by Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Jon Miller and San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti.

More to Come

Coming soon is an app for virtual visits at https://www.sfmoma.org/app/. “SFMOMA’s chief content officer, Chad Coerver, calls the app ‘a cross between This American Life and the movie Her,’” according to another Chun article.

For more information on tickets, hours and directions, visit https://www.sfmoma.org/.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings.

Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman, Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman in Eye in the Sky

Exactly what a thriller should be, Eye in the Sky has high stakes, conflicting motives, believable characters with a tangle of personalities, and a ticking clock. If you’ve seen the trailer for this film, you know that British and American military forces have put an “eye in the sky”—an armed drone with a powerful camera—to track members of a terrorist cell in Kenya, including an American citizen and two Brits. It finds them. The rest of the film is “what next?”

When the terrorists are found to be preparing for more suicide bombings, what was intended to be a capture mission soon must be reevaluated—legally, militarily, and politically.

Director Gavin Hood assembled a terrific cast, with Helen Mirren as the U.K.’s colonel in charge of the operation from an underground military bunker and Aaron Paul as the Nevada-based “pilot” of the drone. Alan Rickman (so glad to see him, so unutterably sad he’s gone) is a British lieutenant general supervising the mission from a wood-paneled conference room, along with high-ranking British government officials (reminiscent of the crowded situation room when Osama bin Laden was killed). It’s a room filled with more indecision than people.

On the ground in Kenya is a British agent played by Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi, whose life if caught isn’t worth the proverbial plugged nickel, the terrorists in a supposed safe house, the local Sharia law enforcement and security squads, and a neighboring family of innocents.

Most of the movie concerns the deliberations of the groups in the bunker, in the conference room, and in the Nevada “pilot house” as they see what the cameras can tell them—a lot, really—about what is unfolding inside the safe house. They’re aided by a facial recognition expert based in Hawai`i watching the same screens, attempting to verify the terrorists’ identities. Because of the incredible detail of these images, the transitions from screens to street scenes (mostly from the point of view of Abdi) feel seamless.

The key issues are “collateral damage”— inevitable or unacceptable?—and whether a nation can pursue its citizens across friendly countries’ borders. Says Wired reviewer K. M. McFarland, “it’s the best movie yet to tackle the legal and moral quagmire surrounding modern technological warfare.” That review also describes the degree of realism behind the movie’s rather amazing drone technology.

In the screenplay written by Guy Hibbert, the military and the political leaders views’ on the situation differ irreconcilably. The U.K. military want to move; the politicians are cautious. Those views are flipped for the Americans. (Actor Laila Robins, seen locally on stage numerous times, plays a U.S. security official.)

Filmed in South Africa in 2014, the staging of the safe house neighborhood carries a dusty realism that’s a stark contrast to the diplomatic h.q. and the high-tech pilots’ domain. Yet, the decision makers in those far-removed settings are not at all disengaged from the consequences on the ground. Alan Rickman’s final words to a recalcitrant politician are: “Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences 88%.

Going Like Hell Again!

Ford GT, auto racing, LeMans

(photo: Ford Motor Company)

Caught up in publicity about Ford Motor Company’s return to the prestigious 24-hour LeMans endurance race, only four months away, I’m reproducing my review of the epic battle between Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II (“The Deuce”) below. It’s a terrific read!

Once again, in this year’s race, a Ford GT will represent the company, this time with a lightweight carbon fiber chassis and advanced aerodynamics. Most surprising, it will be running on a V6 EcoBoost engine against the V8s and V12s of its competitors. Ford is confident the V6 EcoBoost can do the job because it has powered Fords to the checkered flag at both the 12-hour Sebring in 2014 and the Rolex 24 at Daytona last year. See how this bright new red-white-and-Ford-Blue competitor evolved from its predecessors.

Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by A. J. Baime, read by Jones Allen, recounts classic duels of machines and drivers in the French countryside. It includes just enough biography of Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition. The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. And, when the Ford GTs came in 1-2-3 in 1966, his big gamble paid off. This sweep was followed up with wins in the next three LeMans races.

The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars. (The new 2016 racer already has inspired features built into Ford’s GT Supercar, available this year.)

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans. If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here in this book: Carroll Shelby, A. J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw the race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime noted that at top speed they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

The 21st Century Spy Novel

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Some readers may long for the (fictional) days of the Cold War—a nostalgia fueled by the brilliant movie Bridge of Spiesand the dark-soul novels of John LeCarré and Graham Greene. At least then, we knew who the enemies were. After the disintegration of the iron curtain that protected Soviet secrets, the spy novel became a bit of an anachronism, but now it’s surging back in popularity and creativity, 21st century style.

While the antagonists may have changed—or, with what’s going on in Russia these days, be cycling back again—clandestine operations persist among countries that are enemies. And, as Wikileaks has reminded us, spying even occurs among friends. “As a piece of news, this surely sits alongside the Pope’s status as a Catholic,” said Christopher J. Murphy for CNN last year. As a consequence, the espionage writer has a lot of conflicts to choose among.

Tthe techno-thriller subgenre, so well explored in the past by writers like Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal) and Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October), has rapidly expanded fictional possibilities. Every day, it seems, more sophisticated technologies emerge that can be used to create political instability in other countries or groups and damage their military and economic security.

A recent Library Journal article said, “One needs look no further than today’s headlines to see the global issues available to present-day storytellers that weren’t there even 20 years ago.” A good case in point was the 2015 near-future thriller, Ghost Fleet (by P.W. Singer and August Cole) about the vulnerability of a U.S. military dependent on communication technologies—like GPS and wireless—and compromised by the computer chips that make them possible.

Recent popular espionage thrillers illustrate how diverse the threats are: Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim, involves deadly biological warfare; cyberespionage in David Ignatius’s The Director; Close Call by Stella Rimington (first female director general of MI5) covers counterterrorism; and the agents in Todd Moss’s Minute Zero face political instability in Africa.

Books like these turn reading and watching the daily news into a quest for the story beneath the story.

UPDATE:  Great minds . . . Dawn Ius wrote about this same trend in The Big Thrill magazine, 1/31/16.

The Martian

The Martian, Matt DamonRidley Scott’s movie (trailer) based on the runaway best-seller by debut author Andy Weir is a knockout. But then I’m a sucker for stories with a big component of “how to make things work.” The hero of this story, astronaut Mark Watney has to get a lot of things working very fast, when the crew of the ARES III Mission inadvertently strands him on Mars, “the first person to be alone on a whole planet.” Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind when a massive sandstorm threatens the entire crew. Flying debris damages his biotelemetry unit, which registers him as dead. And in the storm, they can’t find his body.

First, he must solve the problems of food and water, long-term, since it will take at least four years until another Mars mission could rescue him, even if NASA knows he’s still alive. Which he has no way of telling them. It’s a test of humanity to put a person in extreme circumstances, and you cannot get any more extreme than the surface of the Red Planet.

Back on Earth, though, eagle-eyed Mars-watchers notice movement on the planet surface and come to an obvious conclusion. The race is then on—against distance, bureaucracy, technological limitations, and the implacable elements of Mars. All I can say is I’m glad I’m not NASA Director Teddy Sanders’s (Jeff Daniels) or his media relations director (Kristen Wiig). Especially strong were the roles of Jet Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng (played by Benedict Wong), and ARES III Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Matt Damon is terrific, as always, in the role of Watney. Just the right mix of angst and wit, supported by an excellent script from Drew Goddard. The Martian surface was filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

I know there are people who believe they don’t like science fiction. To me, movies like this are less about the science and more about the human spirit and how it can engage with the creative mind. The science makes it read “real.” As The Atlantic critic Christopher Orr wrote, “Excellence in cinema is sometimes a singular achievement . . . On other occasions, it’s the result of extraordinary collaboration. The Martian is one of these.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%, viewer ratings: 93%.

*****Ghost Fleet

navy ships, ghost fleet

America’s “ghost fleet” (photo: Ingrid Taylar, creative commons license)

By P. W. Singer and August Cole – This gripping thriller about what the next world war might look like has captured the attention of Washington policymakers and defense industry insiders alike. Singer is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank, and Cole is a former defense industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Unlike so many other speculative fiction outings, this one is based on technologies already plausibly “in the works,” and the authors provide 374 endnotes to backstop the action and interfere with readers’ ability to sleep peacefully at night. Ghost Fleet is a novel of the post-Snowden world, in which the techniques the U.S. National Security Agency used on others are turned back against the Americans.

The story begins at the International Space Station. Russia and China have declared war against the United States, and a U.S. Air Force Colonel, on a disastrously timed space-walk, becomes the unwitting point of the spear. Oblivious to the political developments taking place on the blue globe spinning below, he finds the ISS reentry hatches sealed against him. “Goodbye, my friend. I am truly sorry. It is orders,” says his Russian cosmonaut colleague.

It’s the initial action in a war fought not solely, but significantly, in cyberspace. Takeover of the ISS enables the analogous Chinese space station, Tiangong-3, to systematically knock out every communications satellite that U.S. armed forces depend on. It soon becomes apparent that not only the satellites are down, all local-area communications networks are compromised, because military suppliers have been using low-cost Chinese-made computer chips in their planes, ships, and communications equipment by the unidentifiable thousands, and these chips are insecure, tiny moles. Only the mothballed planes and ships destined for the scrapyard–the Ghost Fleet–are now safe: “The 707 passenger-jet derivatives did not have a modern chip anywhere, unlike the new KC-46s, which had turned out to be missile magnets like all the other Chinese-chipped gear.” This new top-to-bottom vulnerability of the military, which has become overly confident in the security of its communications systems, shows in brilliant and devastating relief.

This is a multiple point-of-view novel, with short scenes from many locations involving numerous protagonists, though most of the action takes place in the Pacific, San Francisco, and Hawaii, where “The Directorate”—comprising Chinese military, along with Russian elements under their command—has established an important outpost. At the story’s heart are the trials of the USS Zumwalt, an oddly designed, mothballed ship recalled into action after much of the modern U.S. fleet is destroyed—again at Pearl Harbor. The Zumwalt’s newly appointed captain, Jamie Simmons, is challenged militarily and by relations with his estranged father, retired chief petty officer Mike Simmons. Like the vintage tin cans—seagoing and aerial—rescued for the U.S. counterattack, retired military personnel are called back into service, and by some inevitable cosmic sense of humor or irony, Mike is assigned to the Zumwalt.

Other principal characters include: a Hawaiian woman working as a freelance assassin who is tracked by the omnipresent surveillance drones and a live Russian operative; a small team of surviving Marine insurgents harassing the Chinese forces on Oahu; a Russian who attempts to aid the Americans and ends up in a neuroscience laboratory nightmare; Sun-Tzu-spouting Admiral Wang, captain of the Chinese battleship Admiral Zheng He; and a wealthy Brit-turned-space-privateer. Other non-state players also emerge, providing a level of DIY unpredictability.

The epigrams for the several parts of the book come from Sun-Tzu’s advice to warriors, and the one for Part 3 is “All warfare is based on deception.” The levels of deception between the Chinese and Russian “allies,” between the antagonists, and arising from the inability to rely on secure communications is paranoia-inducing. Meanwhile, the roles of drones and robots escalate, which is great when they’re yours.

If you are a fan of techno-thrillers, like I am, this novel is the ultimate: fast-paced, high stakes, well-grounded, and, one may hope, consequential. International readers may be disappointed that the book is so US-centric—a casualty of “write what you know” or a realization that there’s already so much going on, we have to stop somewhere?! The book doesn’t come to a too-tidy conclusion, either, and that is also sadly realistic. The authors use it to explore in a vivid way what might happen and what we should be thinking about before it comes to pass.