During January this year, I was witness to a most interesting event. It was a cool weekday morning, and I had just stepped out of the elevator onto the floor where the offices for my department are located when, lo and behold, I looked out the windows lining the hallway and watched as none other than Jeremy Renner dashed over the roofs of the residential area just behind my university, pursued by cameras. The sight, of course, would have been startling on any other day, but I already knew what was going on: shooting for The Bourne Legacy was well underway, and the chase scene was apparently part of the film. Social media and the news channels had been abuzz with the filming, which was a pretty big deal, really. Legacy was a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, and the Philippines was one of the more important shooting locations: a boon for those in the government who were trying their hardest to raise the tourist profile of the country. No one was entirely sure how negative or how positive the portrayal of the country would be on-screen, but back in January nobody really cared about that. It was about seeing Manila in a big-time Hollywood action movie, and the host of opportunities that presented, both while shooting was ongoing and in the future.
When the movie finally showed here in August, there was a mad dash to the cinemas to see exactly how the Philippines – Manila, more specifically – was portrayed. My father, who works with the airport administration and so had a hand in some of the scenes shot there, wanted to see the movie, and since my mother wasn’t too interested, that meant he and I got to have a father-daughter date to see it. We did just that, and came out rather disappointed – not in the way Manila was depicted (though we did have a good laugh over certain aspects of it), but in the overall story. Despite the powerhouse cast, with Renner, Weisz, and Norton headlining the whole thing, there was nothing their combined enormous acting talent could do to save the movie from its ill-paced and poorly-told plot.
I suppose the reason neither my father nor I came to care for the movie was because of the lack of depth. The concept was fascinating, to be sure, but it had none of the tension we both had come to expect from the Bourne films. A certain predictability in the thriller genre is to be expected, but in such cases I want my thrillers to have at least two things: characters I enjoy, and a concept that is both fascinating and well-used in the course of the story. Legacy, unfortunately, had neither.
When I first learned about Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez, I thought it would be a near-future military/sci-fi novel, since it dealt with drone technology and the possible ways the technology could be used and abused. It was only when I’d read the blurb at the back that I realized that while it was true I would be getting some science and drone tech, I wouldn’t be getting a military/sci-fi novel: instead, I would be getting a thriller the likes of which would make executive producers at Hollywood drool. That was precisely how I approached it, and it did not disappoint.
Kill Decision begins with a scene familiar to anyone who has already watched The Bourne Legacy: a group of military techs are monitoring a pilgrimage of Muslims to Karbala, on what’s known as the Day of Ashura, an important day for Shiite Muslims who make the pilgrimage on foot to shrines at Karbala. The peace doesn’t last, however, as a drone shoots a missile at the pilgrims – an attack that the Muslims blame on the United States, thus leading to a wave of terrorist bombings in the United States. Or at least, that’s what most people think it is. The truth is that there’s something far more complex, and far more deadly, going on behind the scenes – something that Dr. Linda McKinney, a myrmecologist, finds out the hard way when she’s targeted by a drone attack and is rescued by a mysterious man named Odin.
The first thing I realized about this novel, after I’d finished the first chapter, was that my initial assessment was entirely correct: this is no military/sci-fi novel, but a thorough-going Hollywood thriller of summer blockbuster proportions. If I had gone in with any other notion, I think I may have well and truly disliked this book, but as is often the case with a lot of books, if one approaches it with the correct expectations, then one is usually only minimally disappointed.
The characters could all easily have been cut out of the typical military-thriller script with some alterations. McKinney is the damsel-in-distress in this tale, and would have been irritating were it not for the fact that most of her reactions are actually quite realistic. In so many military thrillers the female protagonist is generally portrayed as an obedient follower of the male protagonist, which is admittedly an acceptable reaction to having one’s life threatened, but I like how McKinney, as a scientist, attempts to get to the bottom of something until she runs up against the wrong people. Her inquiring mind and the nature of her work prevent her from simply accepting everything Odin tells her, and so she goes out to find her own answers – and puts Odin’s entire mission at risk. Odin, though, is pretty typical for his role: brooding, isolated, great at his job but not with anything else outside of it.
The relationship between him and McKinney takes an expected trajectory: he saves her, they nearly get killed a few times, and during a quiet moment they suddenly realize that they are, in fact, in love with each other, and they make love while Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muginn watch what they’re doing (something I find oddly creepy). I think I recall reading somewhere (or hearing Hope inform me at some point in the past) that extreme danger increases the sex drive of the human being: something to do with threats to one’s life turning some primal switch on to full blast and creating a desperate need to procreate. I suppose in that light, McKinney and Odin make sense, but it was also to be expected, having seen it and read about it in other thrillers both onscreen and on the page.
The other characters are, I think, more interesting. Odin works with a talented group of people, and though they don’t usurp the stage from their boss and McKinney, still manage to shine in their own way. There’s Ripper, for instance, who first makes her appearance dressed in a sari and turns out to have earned her name because of her proficiency with knives. In a scene in the latter third of the book, during a climactic battle against a horde of drones aboard a Swedish transport ship, another team member observes that Ripper is “crazy,” which just goes to show how scary her own teammates find her sometimes – and it becomes pretty easy to imagine what she can do with her knives if given the chance to use them. And then there’s Foxy, who looks Eastern European but plays a mean kora (a West African stringed instrument), and has some very clear ideas about how music can help heal the world. Mooch is the team doctor, described by McKinney as a handsome man in his twenties with South Asian/Middle-Eastern looks. Hoov, team tech, is described as Eurasian with a soul patch. Smokey is Latino, and Tin Man is described as having a red beard; McKinney speculates he has some Irish and/or Scottish in him based on that assessment. As I said, they’re not given much screen-time, so to speak, but what the reader does see of them is intriguing and fun, albeit a little cookie-cutter.
And then there are the villains – or the supposed villains, I should say. One thing that’s made clear in this novel is that no one really knows who’s behind these attacks – Ritter, an old colleague of Odin’s, states that “Everyone wants this,” but it’s never made clear who “everyone” is. The reader, of course, can easily guess, and that guess is confirmed when Henry Clarke, a master spin doctor, confronts his client, who is only known as Marta, about the truth behind the drone attacks. Even Marta herself is not entirely sure; she merely has information and passes it on to those who want it for a fee, and then uses Clarke to massage public opinion to get the results desired by her clients. It’s pretty obvious by the time this conversation happens that it’s warmongering parties in world governments that are behind the attacks, but there is no absolute conclusion to everything. This leaves room open for a sequel, but I personally think that the ending of the novel stands just fine on its own.
Despite the cookie-cutter nature of the characters and some of the plot, it was the core concept of this whole thing that kept me reading. The US military is already making extensive use of drones in warfare, mostly for surveillance. There are weaponized drones, of course, but those aren’t automated; the kill decision is still in the hands of a human being, instead of on the machine alone. But it seems logical that automation become the next step in warfare, and Kill Decision presents what could happen if that becomes the case. It’s not a pleasant reality, to be sure, and it will certainly raise questions regarding what exactly the US is doing with the drone technology it has right now – and what other countries might be doing with their own drone technology, if they do have such a thing. Novels and stories are great for this sort of thing, in my opinion: asking “What if?” and then proceeding to explore the possibilities of that question.
Kill Decision asks a very relevant question: “What if military drones were automated, programmed so that they could take out targets on their own, with no one on the other end controlling them?” Suarez then proceeds to spin out a list of possibilities that are, if one considers them long enough, truly frightening. What makes the scenario presented in the novel even more chilling is how the technology to make an automated drone is actually quite cheap and readily available: just off-the-shelf stuff made to work for a more sinister purpose by someone with enough creativity to realize their potential. As for the software, any software needed to power it can be created based on readily-available research, or can even be stolen. This is precisely the sort of conspiracy that I find fascinating, and really, truly wish had been incorporated into The Bourne Legacy.
Another interesting question this novel brings up is the role of social media in the development of opinion, and therefore of policy. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, and other similar websites – are so pervasive in everyday life (though especially so in first-world countries) that they often can and do shape the opinions of a very, very vast audience from around the world. And when one is capable of changing ideas and shaping opinions on that grand a scale, well…it can be a rather terrifying thing to contemplate, especially when one thinks of how small groups of people who can be hired to change opinion to match those of their clients. Most people like to view the Internet as a bastion of free speech, but what if it isn’t after all? A frightening thing to contemplate.
Overall, Kill Decision is everything The Bourne Legacy could have been. Science and technology are not explored in-depth, but that’s hardly the issue here: this is an unabashed Hollywood blockbuster of a novel that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a rollicking good read that could easily translate into a movie. As a matter of fact, this should be a movie – it has everything Hollywood could possibly want in a summer blockbuster: military conspiracies, evil politicians working in the background, exotic foreign locales, a pinch of romance and an enormous showdown that concludes with the biggest ship in the world going up in one enormous boom. I actually put together a fancast for this thing, that’s how much I want to see this made into a movie. Readers looking for a more serious exploration of the question of automating war won’t get what they’re looking for with this novel, but for anyone who just wants something entertaining to read, then this is absolute perfection.