It’s 2054, and Civil War Seems Near

Following up on their bestselling novel “2034,” Tufts alums Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis offer a cautionary tale of political strife in the U.S. and the rise of biological AI

Imagine the United States 30 years from now, fractured politically and on the verge of a civil war between the American Dream Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. Imagine also that AI has evolved to the point that humans and machines are merging. It’s a scary scenario that Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis depict in their latest novel, 2054, published this week.

Three years ago, Ackerman, A03, F03, and Stavridis, F83, F84, former admiral, NATO commander, and dean of The Fletcher School, published their bestseller 2034, the first in a trilogy of cautionary tales about what the future could hold. In 2034, it was nuclear war between China and the U.S. With this latest book, the focus is tightly on the U.S. and the possible consequences of political division amid weaponized biological AI. 

Some of the 2034 characters—or their relatives—play key roles in the latest book, but it’s not necessary to have read the first book to appreciate 2054. Like its predecessor, it’s a futuristic political thriller, fast-paced with short, time-stamped chapters marching forward as narrative lines converge.

As the book starts, the three-term U.S. president Ángel Castro is laying out his plans for a fourth term when he dies suddenly of what seems like a heart attack. But was he in fact assassinated by remote gene editing? Machinations are afoot, and various groups are trying to harness the power of the AI revolution prophesized by real-world inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near. The action sometimes takes place around the world—Nigeria, China, Brazil—but always ends up back in the U.S.

Tufts Now spoke recently with Ackerman and Stavridis about 2054, the trilogy, their writing process, and where they see the future heading.

When you wrote 2034, did you plan to write a series?

James Stavridis: Yes, we always envisioned this as a trilogy of cautionary fiction beginning with 2034, a novel of the next world war, set in that year. The caution there is great power competition with China. Now we go to mid-century—2054. The challenges are artificial intelligence and civil conflict in America. The third book, which we’re already deep into writing, is set in 2084—a homage to Orwell’s 1984. 2084 is about climate, when the climate fires are burning quite literally.

“We can avoid civil conflict in America. We can avoid a disaster with climate at the end of this century, but it’s going to require intelligent hands on the wheel.”

James Stavridis

I hope people take this trilogy as cautionary fiction, not predictive fiction. What I mean by that is we still have the capacity to turn the ship. It’s hard to turn a big ship like the United States or the global system, but we can avoid great power competition. We can avoid civil conflict in America. We can avoid a disaster with climate at the end of this century, but it’s going to require intelligent hands on the wheel.

What attracted you to Kurzweil’s idea of the singularity, where technological growth is out of control and irreversible?

Elliot Ackerman: We had both read Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near, which came out 20 years ago and predicts so much of what is occurring right now in terms of artificial intelligence. We wanted to project those trends out even further, and then see how they integrate with our body politic. 

Why did you portray the political division as different than it is now? 

Stavridis: First and foremost, both of us have observed multiple times that there’s nothing in the Constitution that says there shall be two political parties, that one shall be Democratic, one shall be Republican. We’ve had many political parties in this country, and I would argue that the time is ripe for a new political party. 

In the novel, in 2054 the extreme ends of the Republican and Democratic parties, which are less ideological and more emotionally driven, have combined into a single party that’s known as the Truthers. The other party, the Dreamers, are what we think of as the center of the political party structure today. They have coalesced behind this president, Ángel Castro, who in the opening pages dies in an incredibly mysterious and weird way, which is a tip that the singularity is no longer almost here—it just killed a president, perhaps, we don’t really know, but we’re going to see as the novel unfolds.

You’ve included characters who appeared in the previous book or are related to its characters. Why did you choose to do that?

Ackerman: It was important to us that some of those characters or their progeny come forward. You see certain characters, like the daughter of Sarah Hunt, who is one of the key characters in 2034, and Lily Bao, daughter of another character, are central to this story. And there are new characters as well. 

Like in 2034, this book has different narrative lines, but as it progresses, they start braiding together. We realize that all these narrative strands are connected and the plot lines are interconnected. You discover what killed Castro, and how it not only relates to the story in 2054, but also to some of the themes that go back to the very beginning of the series.

How do two people write a novel together? How does that work?

Ackerman: We sit down and have story meetings, talk about each chapter, outline it in a great deal of detail. Someone has to take the first crack at it, so that’s me. Then I’ll hand it over to Jim, he’ll take his crack at it. We kind of bat the chapters back and forth until we both feel like they’re pretty good and then we move to the next chapter. That’s how we wrote 2034, too. We’ve had a lot of fun doing it.

“There’s a line from de Tocqueville, about the tragedy of democracy, that in the end you elect the government you deserve. I think that’s worth bearing in mind in 2024 as well, as we see that play out as part of the cautionary tale in these three novels.”

James Stavridis

Stavridis: We start with a pretty detailed outline, but we’re very unafraid to deviate from that. There’s a lot of verbal back and forth about, say, what would happen here? And then Elliot, who’s our senior novelist, is definitely the hand on the tiller in creating that all-important first draft.

Elliot, you’ve written a number of novels. Do you have a full plot in mind from start to finish when you’re writing a book?

Ackerman: The analogy I would make is that it’s like I’m going on a really long walk, and there’s this mountaintop in the distance I can sort of see, which is what the book is about. I’ve first got to dip down into a valley to get there, though. In the valley, sometimes you can’t even see the mountaintop, but there are interesting things happening. As long as you’re walking toward the mountain, you’re OK. You have to tell the tale of going through the valley and getting up the mountain.

For us in these books, we know what the mountain is—in this case, civil conflict and artificial intelligence. We know who the characters are, we know what they’re about, we know their interior lives, but then we sit there, and we dip into the valley and that’s where all the surprises happen. Sometimes the surprises take you in different interesting directions.

At one point, one character who could be a good guy or a bad guy is reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and I thought, this guy is not a bad guy—he’s reading de Tocqueville, someone Jim Stavridis would recommend reading.

Stavridis: I’m just endlessly fascinated by de Tocqueville. He comes here in the 1830s, he studies this new phenomenon called democracy, writes a book about it. Remember, in the 1830s, this is a whole new kind of way to run a country. 

There’s a line from de Tocqueville, about the tragedy of democracy, that in the end you elect the government you deserve. I think that’s worth bearing in mind in 2024 as well, as we see that play out as part of the cautionary tale in these three novels.

Ackerman: If you want a little more of a look under the hood, as I recall in the first draft of that chapter, the character was only reading a big trashy pulp novel. And Jim said to me, why don’t we also have him reading de Tocqueville?

Stavridis: Which I think is a perfect indication of the character, his ambivalence.

Your first book together, 2034, was a huge bestseller. Were you surprised by that?

Ackerman: We’ve both been in the books writing business long enough to say that you never know what is going to work. I see books coming out that I think are going to sell a lot and they don’t, and others that hit it big. You never know what enters the zeitgeist.

So you’re already working on the next book, 2084?

Ackerman: It’ll be out in about the year after next. That book deals with climate, as the last of the three great threats in the 21st century. We’re pretty far along—it’s not totally cooked, but it’s pretty cooked.

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