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UNMANNED
by Dan Fesperman
Knopf, August 2014
316 pages
$26.95
ISBN: 0385351259


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Dan Fesperman burst on the crime fiction scene with riveting stories from the front lines and underground tunnels of Sarajevo. His latest book tackles a new kind of war remote precision killing conducted by drone pilots who see their targets close up from thousands of miles away.

Darwin Cole is a good pilot, but piloting drones from a computer screen in Nevada has none of the exhilaration of flying an F16. He's trapped in a chair, staring at displays, guided by invisible leaders who tell him where to fly his Predator drones and when to drop their bombs. His growing unease as he hovers over targets in Afghanistan, getting to know the rhythms of a remote village before the order comes to strike, turns into horror when a precision target turns out to be imprecise. Two children who weren't supposed to be there can't escape the explosion and Cole sees it all, close up, before the workday ends and he returns to his suburban home and his typical American family life.

It turns out his own family doesn't survive, either. His marriage in ruins, he retreats with his guilt into the desert to obliterate his memories until a reporter shows up at his broken-down trailer wanting to know more about Fort1, the code-named controller who guided him as he piloted that disastrous drone strike. He reluctantly agrees to help a trio of reporters track their story down, arranging to meet with a source in New England, all the while nervously scanning the sky. The reporters think he's unbalanced until they realize the drones aren't all watching targets abroad.

This is a beautifully written, well-paced, and very timely fictional examination of the same issues being covered in Glenn Greenwald's NO PLACE TO HIDE and James Risen's PAY ANY PRICE. As an added bonus, Fesperman doesn't just examine the uncanny ways technology has changed and ramped up the military-industrial complex, he shows through his freelance journalists how the same technologies have hollowed out the infrastructure of the Fourth Estate, making it much harder to cover an endless war played out as if it's a video game with massive cash prizes.

Fesperman gives us a taste of what's to come in the first pages. "One of Cole's occupational hazards is that he has begun to wonder what it would be like to lead a life in which every action was observed from on high for hours at a time. How would he function under those conditions? What must it be like to become an image lodged in the memory of some secret database, your digital signature retrievable by anyone with the proper clearance?" He notices how much surveillance is becoming a fact of daily life in America and soon knows first hand exactly what it's like.

This is a thriller, a brilliantly literate and fast-paced adventure story, and it can be enjoyed simply on those terms. Chances are, though, you will put the book down a little bit shaken. You might even find yourself walking down the street counting all the cameras that are following your moves, perhaps looking up, wondering about the ones you can't see.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, November 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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