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“Useful Fiction” Could Help Us Shape the Future

The new novel "Burn-In" offers an example.

Words: Katherine Voyles
Pictures: Hannes

The relationship between national security work and reading fiction is not fixed or obvious. Two poles immediately present themselves — reading fiction as an escape from work or reading fiction that isn’t obviously about work issues in ways that may be useful for work — and it’s entirely possible to swing between them. P.W. Singer and August Cole’s new book “Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution,” set in a not-too-distant but unspecified future, offers something outside these two poles. In an appearance to promote the book Cole discussed what he called “useful fiction,” by which I understood that current national security challenges presented in fiction might aid real-life national security analysis, policy and decision-making. Singer and Cole are not the first to explore this realm, but just how this “useful fiction” works is worth examining. “Burn-In” takes place in the future and is chock-full of novel technology and applications, but they also seem familiar to us today, which means that understanding the push and pull between today’s capabilities and the fictional tomorrow of the novel is key to understanding why a work of imagination is useful. Narratives paint a rich picture of a specific moment in time, but narrative by its very movement forward in time shows change, because a story unfolds. Stories also show the aftermath and effects of change. The narrator or characters mark the differences between then and now, yesterday and today. These complicated dynamics around the handling of time are crucial for understanding how a work set in the future that fictionalizes contemporary national security concerns seems vivid and life-like and plausible both as an image of our very moment and as a depiction of a possible tomorrow.

“Burn-In” tells the story of Lara Keegan, a “Marine turned Fed,” as she works with a Tactical Autonomous Mobility System, or TAMS. An epigraph to the novel supplies the definition of “burn-in” from Merriam-Webster, but Singer and Cole also provide their own spin on the term when one of Keegan’s bosses explains her role and its importance to Keegan: “TAMS is a learning system. You can study its capabilities, but you’ll be the one who can really tell us what it can, and can’t, do. In the end, if it fails, it will be in part because of you, that you taught it to.” By making Keegan an FBI agent and by setting these narrative stakes, Singer and Cole put the story of the relationship between a machine and a person inside law enforcement: inside a hierarchical, bureaucratic organization. This means not only that TAMS and Keegan shape each other, but that their relationship to each other is shaped by Keegan’s role in the FBI and that her relationship to TAMS has the potential to reshape the FBI.

The story of “Burn-In” is important in its own right, and it is also illuminated by the contexts out of which it emerges. Singer and Cole’s novel arrives into at least two literary contexts: the long history of stories about the relationship between humans and machines, and the prevalence of national security experts writing fiction. These contexts are helpful for understanding how Singer and Cole manage the elements of their novel.

Singer and Cole’s novel arrives into at least two literary contexts: the long history of stories about the relationship between humans and machines, and the prevalence of national security experts writing fiction.

Though Singer and Cole’s novel is up to the minute, it’s also the case that literature has long dealt with questions of the relationships between humans, nature, and machines. In fact, the novel form is especially well-equipped to engage with these dynamics because it is the literary form that is most concerned with how everyday people behave in everyday situations under the pressures and realties of social, cultural, economic, and scientific change. The example of “Frankenstein” is illuminating here. In 1818, Mary Shelley’s ”Frankenstein” dramatized the effects of scientific change on both humans and human-made creatures by telling the story of Victor Frankenstein making his creature, of the effects that reality had on the creature, and of the effects that reality had on Frankenstein.Frankenstein” was written in an era of mechanization – its backdrop was one of people moving away from rural areas and into cities, a geographic upheaval that was tied to economic change and inextricably part of social and cultural shifts. Stories about the relationships between humans and the things they make that are like humans, or which exceed the capabilities of humans, tell stories of social upheaval and economic inequality. How these stories end matters enormously, because those punctuation marks indicate not just that a story has completed, but also mark out the possibilities and limitations, the hopes and fears for the relationship between man and the man-made.

The centuries-old tradition of literature animating these issues assumes a special shape today. We’re in the midst of a rich age of national security experts bringing their experience to fiction. Singer and Cole’s previous novel, “Ghost Fleet,” already made them part of this trend. The narrative catalogue encompasses a range of experiences and kinds of writing; it includes the romance novels of Jessica Scott, the spy novels of Alex Finley, the graphic novels of Maximilian Uriarte, the lyricism of Elliot Ackerman, the speculative fiction of Jeffrey Lewis, Phil Klay’s writing, the novels of Kevin Powers –  and that’s just a sample of the output. There isn’t just one way of bringing today’s national security concerns to stories. The kinds of stories being written vary, but what binds them together is how a writer’s experience in contemporary national security issues is applied to the story they write. For example, Lewis directs the East Asia Nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and his novel from 2018 imagines a government report that lays out the events around a nuclear exchange between the US and North Korea in March 2020.

I’ve focused so far on old fiction and fiction from today in writing about a book set in the near future to make the point that Singer and Cole’s genre has a long history and is also up to date. What’s more, the timing of a novel’s publication, when a reader encounters the novel and the pacing of the novel itself are all central to understanding the nature of the story. “Burn-In” effectively plays with timing – by setting the novel in the near future, Singer and Cole suggest that what’s presented in the novel doesn’t quite accord with the world of today, even though the closeness in timing between today’s world and that of the novel suggests that the dislocations and changes we’re undergoing now are the same ones that the characters experience. Certainly, much of the detail in the novel focuses on specific technologies and capabilities: drones are omnipresent, vizglasses stream vast amounts of data in real-time to their wearers. And certainly, a lot of the push and pull between our world today and the tomorrow that Singer and Cole conjure centers on technology and how it is used both in everyday life and in policy, political and national security contexts; but the tug between now and then goes beyond gadgets. At one point, Keegan reflects on the disparities between the powerful and comfortable and those who aren’t in ways that seem relevant today: “The station had been turned into an encampment for desperate people, crushed together to escape the cold. She was a stone’s throw from the White House, witnessing the abject abandonment of fellow humans that she’d only before experienced in refugee camps. And she knew that her commander in chief would never walk the two city blocks to confront that dark fact.”

At its core, “Burn-In” is about the relationship between TAMS and Keegan. How Keegan responds to TAMS, how TAMS responds to Keegan, and how the people around them respond to their relationship are all on full display. Keegan constantly keeps an eye on TAMS and interacts with it as part of the burn-in process: “In that moment, though, Keegan reminded herself she’d have to monitor the effect also on TAMS; the robot’s experience during this disaster was foundational, transformative . . . This was a data set unlike any other.” It’s relatively straightforward to have Keegan thinking about TAMS. Much of the narrative sticks with Keegan in this way.

It’s considerably trickier to have the robot thinking about the person, but Cole and Singer do edge into this territory. Using dialogue between TAMS and another character that makes Keegan the subject of that conversation is one way that they pull this off. During a meeting with the president at the White House, the president quizzes TAMS: “‘How is Agent Keegan doing today?’ Keegan again felt her stomach clench. Toying with technology and people came easily to Shaw. ‘Agent Keegan is currently showing above baseline levels of cortisol and adrenaline, with suboptimal levels of glucose.’” It’s not just TAMS adjusting to Keegan’s training of it, or Keegan learning to train TAMS,  it’s also the case that people around Keegan and TAMS react to them. After Keegan has worked with TAMS to rescue a woman drowning, the crowd around them responds: “He threw a salute and then started clapping, a steady authoritative rhythm. The crowd of hundreds behind him joined in, wet palms slapping together in applause, humans looking for something good to cling to on a day of awfulness, even if it was a machine.”

In an age of automation and artificial intelligence, the role of the human being is shifting around. “Burn-In” makes clear that these shifts are complex, complicated and multifaceted. One of the first things Keegan does in the novel, even before she is teamed up with TAMS, is to take off her vizglasses in Union Station when she is looking for a suspect. The glasses are feeding her information, but she chooses to rely on her own training and background. This early move prizes the human over the technological, the lived experience over the burn-in. Over the next 4oo pages, Keegan relies on TAMS, and TAMS achieves impressive tasks through Keegan’s instruction. The arc of the story bends toward showing off the mutual benefits of a close working relationship between the man and the manmade as seemingly random, unconnected incidents force TAMS and Keegan to work with each other.

As the novel progresses, however, the potential links between events that seem unrelated raise the narrative stakes for Keegan of her relationship to TAMS; deep in the novel, whether and how Keegan and TAMS works together becomes not only a professional issue for Keegan, but a personal one as well. This escalation happens both because her family becomes involved in events, and also because the nature of the events appears to be an organized, violent reaction against automation – a reaction that is itself born out of family tragedy. Keegan’s role as a mother, her job as an FBI agent, and her task to burn-in TAMS come to a head in the novel’s final scenes as the ways powerful politicians and technologists use people and machines for their own ends comes into clearer view. That clarity provides both resolution to the novel and the hint that TAMS and Keegan have more work to do yet.

Katherine Voyles holds a Ph.D. in English and writes issues of national security in culture. She recently talked about pandemic fiction and Lawrence Wright’s “The End of October” in “War on the Rocks.”

Katherine Voyles

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