When Drones Attack! Daniel Suarez’s book Kill Decision

Daniel Suarez’s book Kill Decision takes on the topic of drones, especially autonomous drones that can make their own, “Kill Decisions” as in, “Identify and Kill that person” with no human in the loop. (Gee, with no humans in the loop, drones with guns will screw up the NRA slogan. “Guns don’t kill people, autonomous drones with guns and kill decision programming, kill people.”)US Marine holding a Scan Eagle in Iraq

I was excited to read Daniel Suarez’s new book, “Kill Decision” because Daemon and Freedom (TM) were the two best SF books I read last year. While this book doesn’t rise to their heights it is still a good techno-thriller that contains a few of the big issues Suarez developed in Daemon and Freedom.

The Kill Decision characters aren’t totally stock, but still follow some of the same guidelines of caste that I’ve seen in other techno-thrillers.

  • Military caste interfaces with civilians.
  • Civilian scientists caste learn how great the military folks are.
  • Military folks grudgingly learn to respect the civilians.
  • Together they trace down the bad guys.

Tension! Action! Gadgets! Guns! Things that explode! Thrills!

It’s a real “page turner” as they used to say before eBooks. (I wonder what they say now?” Kill Decision is a really exciting screen toucher” or “Kill Decision is a really fast scroller!” )

Spoilers ahead, but nothing specific. You can still enjoy the book after reading them (especially if you like these kinds of book in the first place.)

Drones, how they are used, where they attack and who they kill are all big issues in the news right now and this book moves the venue for drone strikes to the US. The question is who is behind them and for what purpose. (I wonder if Apple would still reject the app that tracks US drone strikes if they were hitting around Cupertino)

The military hero, Odin, and the civilian hero, Dr. McKinney are set up to occasionally talk about the ethical implications of deploying autonomous drones.  I found their little speeches forced but since that is one of the big issues at the heart of the book it needs to be discussed. In the real world we  are deploying more and more drones around the world and we need to make some decisions on this issue . Unlike Isaac Asimov famous 3 laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

autonomous drones can easily be programmed to harming humans because nobody is programing these “laws” into drones.  BTW, Asimov’s rules seem almost quaint when set up against our”reality or at least reality as created by the people who want to sell drones to people.

In the book military contractors with billions of dollars to gain from a active drone creation program use social media, sock puppets and PR teams to “shape the narrative.” That part rings true to me.  (Hello HB Gary!) If you have a threat, there is money to be made. But if the threat isn’t big enough or focused enough to scare your potential funders, you have to make it bigger and more personal, hence strikes on US soil.

It is easy to scare humans in the US. Klingons would mock humans all day for the cowardice shown by most Americans. That is why when someone comes along and says, “I will keep you safe from this threat, just  buy this.” the money, like the spice, will flow.

It is also important to understand that given the US’s corrupt pipeline to funding from congress, the most profitable products for the makers can trump solutions that are equally effective or cheaper. A product that can generate billions in revenue can justify a team of people who are prepared to promote it. (Who made millions of dollars on nude body scanners pushed my Michael Chertoff? Michael Chertoff! BTW, these are the same scanners that can be rendered inffective with a bit of sewing and would not have detected the underwear bomber.) As Kate Hanni, the founder of FlyersRights.org, said

“When Chertoff goes on TV, he is basically promoting his clients and exploiting that fear to make money. Fear is a commodity and they’re selling it. The more they can sell it, the more we buy into it. When American people are afraid, they will accept anything.”

One of the challenges for our heroes in the book is how to stop a well funded, connected drone industry that can make billions of dollars selling fear. One character even asks, “Why would you stop this? Everyone wants this!” Sound familiar?  “We must have this product/war/rights restriction! This will keeps us safe!”

What is clear to me is that using an expensive product/process (that might not even be effective) to protect you from a threat means that  money is not available for other things.  The current problem is that to even promote a less expensive options requires money.  The days of the low bid winning the government contract is over. The sellers just use the 1% doctrine and you are in. “What if 1 percent of those terrorists get though!?”

In the book the drone makers figure out they can sell “heroic” drones attacking their false flag ‘bad guy” drones to the media.  Everyone wins! (And by everyone I mean the drone makers, their lobbyists and the congressional people whose reelection campaigns they fund. The media gets exciting stories of death and international intrigue.  Citizens do what they do, flood congress with calls. “Buy heroic drones to protect us!”)

The spin and marketing of fear (with a product to sell) is another big issue at the heart of Daniel Saurez’s book.  If you are in an industry that makes money from scaring people you have no incentive for people NOT to be afraid. Every attack is an opportunity to sell something. They say sex sells, but so does fear.

As we get deeper into who is behind the drone strikes in the US one character says there is no “central authority” there are only ‘interests.”  It’s hard to stop, “interests” but we need to understand that this is how “interests” work so we don’t succumb to their sales pitch.

The solution to the mystery involves air, land and sea action with swarms for deadly drones, but  Suarez’s hero understands something few action heroes do. He knows that it is important to get the story in the news in an visually exciting way that will force questions to be asked.  He knows that people will want to know the back story and that is what the people behind the plot are most afraid of – being exposed. Not because they will get caught or arrested, but because the exposure will delay their project and delay the revenue stream.

As one of the characters finds out, delaying the revenue stream is the deadliest offense when it comes to “interests” and that can lead to a very personal kill decision.

Cross Posted to FireDogLake

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