Over the past two centuries, industrial technology has played an increasingly critical role in warfare. From the telegraph, ironclad steamships, and Gatling guns of the 19th century to the supersonic aircraft, computer-directed artillery fire, and drones of the present day, the capacity of human beings to murder one another by the thousands has grown at an alarming pace. In his military technothriller, Kill Decision, author Daniel Suarez explores the potential of the next step away from human intervention in warfare: robotic autonomous killer drones.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Two extraordinary lead characters
The central characters in this novel are a supersoldier we know initially only as Odin and a tenured professor of biology named Linda McKinney.
Odin is the next best thing to a superhero. He possesses a staggering range of skills and knowledge and is obviously a man of exceptionally high intelligence. Odin is a master sergeant, leader of a small team of special operators in a top-secret unit in the Pentagon known as The Activity. He answers to an officer known only as The Colonel. The team has orders to uncover the identity of the people who have been using killer drones to assassinate what seem to be randomly selected individuals all across the United States.
Linda McKinney is a myrmecologist, a specialist in the behavior of ants. Though she is a full professor at an unnamed university, she spends extended periods overseas seeking out colonies of aggressive ants for study. A talented mathematician as well as a biologist, she develops algorithms to represent the behavior she observes. When we meet her, McKinney is deep in the jungle in northern Tanzania studying weaver ants. “Along with mankind they were one of the few extirpator species on earth—meaning they deliberately sought out and destroyed rival organisms (including their own species) to maintain absolute control of their territory.” What this behavior might have to do with military drones will only become clear in the telling. Oh, and by the way: McKinney can hold her own in the physically demanding action that follows. She is an experienced skydiver and rock climber and appears able to handle weapons.
Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez (2012) 514 pages ★★★★☆
An explosive beginning to this military technothriller
Kill Decision opens in Iraq, where a million Shiite Muslim pilgrims are streaming toward the tomb at Karbala of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad. Suddenly, a Reaper drone appears overhead and looses fourteen AGM Hellfire missiles on the crowd. Tens of thousands die. The drone’s wreckage after it blows itself up in the air bears clear American markings, but the Pentagon strenuously denies responsibility. And this tragic event gives only a hint of the violence to follow.
Action that ricochets around the world
In their quest to discover who is behind the assassinations in the United States and the attack at Karbala, Odin’s team travels all over the globe.
- In Tanzania, they rescue McKinney from certain death and kidnap her, making her an unwilling member of their team.
- At Stanford University, Odin witnesses the assassination of a brilliant group of computer science graduate students who have developed a uniquely advanced form of computer vision. Their software enables an artificial intelligence not just to see and identify objects in its environment but to understand what they are and what they are capable of doing.
- In Karachi, Pakistan, the team observes a warehouse where parts from scores of crashed US drones are being reassembled.
- At a container port on the Chinese coast, they search for clues about the travel path of a huge shipment of drones bound for an unknown destination.
Meanwhile, we become acquainted with a public relations executive named Henry Clarke in Reston, Virginia, and a mysterious Washington, DC lawyer known only as Marta. It’s clear they are somehow involved in the events that are roiling American society. But we will only later come to understand just how.
A very real threat
The stakes couldn’t be higher. “Dozens of nations plan on using drones to shift the balance of geopolitical power—to undo U.S. aerial and naval supremacy at a bargain price.” The world will never be the same if America’s enemies succeed in creating autonomous killer drones that might destroy US military outposts in complete anonymity. However, we would be exceedingly naive to think that the Pentagon—as well as the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, North Koreans, and every other nation with pretensions to military power—isn’t actively working on developing such weapons. Once they make their debut in some near-future conflict, the world will be on a path to uncontrollable violence that might even eventually pose an existential threat to all of humanity. Today, we can read about this threat in a military technothriller. Tomorrow, it may be a reality.
About the author
Daniel Suarez (1964-) left a career as an information technology consultant to take up writing full-time. He has produced six novels to date, all techno-thrillers. On his author website, he describes himself as follows: “a former systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies, he has designed and developed mission-critical software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries.” He lives in Los Angeles.
For related reading
I’ve also reviewed other novels by the author:
- Delta-V (A brilliant hard science fiction novel about asteroid mining)
- Influx (Down becomes up in this clever hard science thriller).
- Daemon – Daemon #1 of 2 (It’s not artificial intelligence. But it’s taking over, anyway.)
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels
- 10 top science fiction novels
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers
- The top 10 dystopian novels
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.