2054, with Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

Mar 19, 2024

As we begin to see the effects of AI on the American political process and society, where will this trajectory lead? In their new novel 2054, the follow-up to 2034, authors Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis imagine a moment when a radical leap forward in technology combines with America’s violent partisan divide to create an existential threat to the country, and the world. How will the world’s great powers react in a new era of scientific discovery?

In this virtual book talk three years after their discussion on 2034, Ackerman, Stavridis, and Doorstep co-hosts Nikolas Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin discuss AI, biotech, geopolitics, and a dark yet possible future that we must do all we can to avoid.

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TATIANA SERAFIN: Good evening and welcome to The Doorstep Book Talk. I am Tatiana Serafin, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, along with Nick, who is out in Washington, DC, as you can see.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good evening, everyone.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We are so excited to welcome back for their second appearance of three—and we will tee up what that means in a second—Admiral James Stavridis, partner and vice chair of global affairs at The Carlyle Group and chair of the Board of Trustees of The Rockefeller Foundation, following five years as the twelfth dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, which is an Easter egg in your book, and we will talk more about that too.

We also have his co-author and co-writer Elliot Ackerman, author of many novels, including Halcyon, Red Dress in Black and White, and Waiting for Eden. He is a former Marine. These two wonderful partners are here to talk about 2054, but I have to put next to it 2034 and we can talk about the red and white of it all as well.

Thank you so much for joining us to discuss your new book, 2054, and how it ties into the trilogy you are working on. I do want to start out with that because it fascinates me the way that authors put together a series of books.

Elliot, could you tell us how you decided that this was going to be a set of three, where this one fits, and how you have planned it out, or can you plan this at all or does it just come from within?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: First of all, thanks so much for having us. It is great to be back with Carnegie Council.

These books were always planned as a series, a trilogy that would look at what we predict will be the three great challenges not only facing the United States but facing our species in the 21st century, the first of is the peer-level conflict that we see in 2034 between the United States and China as well as on the technological side developments in cyber.

The second that we address in 2054 are the challenges posed by artificial intelligence (AI) and the idea of the “singularity”—we can probably get into that a little bit more later—but also how that coincides with challenges that we see at home in our democracy.

The last in this planned trilogy, 2084, which will be out in a couple of years, will deal with the environment. When it came to these books it was always envisioned that they would be a trilogy, and we had a lot of fun imagining three cautionary tales on these subjects.

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: Can I just add a thought, which is simple, and Elliot used the word, this is “cautionary” fiction and not predictive fiction. We still have time to reverse engineer and avoid these catastrophes. That is the point of this series, and our inspiration for it was Cold War literature. If you look back and think about all the cautionary tales of Red Storm Rising, The Third World War by Sir John Hackett, and On the Beach by Nevil Shute, all of this cautionary fiction—the queen of all those would be Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb—was intended to frighten us to avoid a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is the same idea here except spread out over the century.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I know that there has been a lot of focus on the technology side, but before we get into that, can I ask you a bit about the politics? Even though this is set in the future, the politics seem a bit closer to us—a rise of authoritarianism in the United States, dysfunctional politics, and so on. While you are writing a cautionary tale about technology and geopolitics, can you address as well the authoritarian subtext, that the United States of 2054 is not a liberal democracy and how you chose to set the world of 2054 in an environment where the forms of the republic may be there but our politics have changed quite dramatically?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think the one thing and variable that is the throughline through all of these books is humanity itself. We are the control, we are changeless, and 2054 is very much a political thriller that in some ways probably echoes Julius Caesar. The book begins with a political assassination, except in our case the weapon is not a dagger but a piece of technology.

With regard to the politics, it certainly echoes some of the trends we see in American political life today, for instance, the fact that the two major parties have lost membership and have really become rump parties and most Americans don’t identify with them. It also deals with a president who does not want to relinquish power at the opening of the book. I think that these are themes that, as much as they resonate today, have resonated throughout all time in politics, and I think we imagine that in the future we will probably be wrestling with the exact same challenges.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What is so interesting is how much everything you write feels like it is of today. I know conceptually I am reading about 2054 and there is some cool tech that you guys envision and cool changes to airplane travel. I am not going to give away more because I want people to read the book and read your vision in the book, but how much stays the same, to your point, Elliot, is the interesting part, that people are still motivated by the same drivers.

One thing that struck me—and maybe, Elliot, you can take this—is that casinos are still an important part of life and how people communicate. I don’t know. I just kept seeing casinos pop up, and I am like: “Oh, look. They’re still around in 2054.”

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: One of the principal characters who is a scientist and Japanese American is also an avid gambler.

When Jim and I set out to write this series, there were a few things we were immediately aligned on. First of all, we were aligned on the purpose of this series, that these would be three works of cautionary fiction, very much in the spirit of Cold War fiction, which we already discussed. From a creative standpoint we were immediately aligned on the fact that these were going to be novels that were character-driven, that we wanted you, the reader, as much as you are engaging with the policy ideas that are in the books are also engaging and getting to know characters, some of whom come forward from 2034, and in 2054 I will preview some of whom and their progeny are in 2084.

In wanting to create human beings we looked at what are some of the consistent human variables, and I think one of them, sure, is an appetite for risk, an appetite for risky behavior, which we see not only in the casinos featured in the books but in some of the geopolitical and domestic political decisions that the principal actors are taking.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Admiral, in our last Book Talk with you we talked about which characters you most associated with in 2034, and I wondering, is there any particular character that stands out to you in this that is more of you?

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: The character I would like to think I am the closest to is Rear Admiral John “Bunt” Hendrickson, who is a graduate of our shared alma mater, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, check; he works at the National Security Council staff, check; he is an admiral, check. By the way, he gets that nickname because that is the only thing he is good at doing on a softball field, check.

I like Bunt a lot, and he also is a kind of voice of reason who helps guide this very turbulent journey. He is also very caring about his goddaughter, Julia Hunt, who is the Marine junior officer who is the centerpiece of the novel in many ways. I would have to say in this one Admiral Bunt Hendrickson is my favorite. By the way, Bunt is not the tallest guy in the world, check.

TATIANA SERAFIN: How about you, Elliot?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think one of the things that has been fun in doing this series—I have written other novels on my own, and people will sometimes ask me about the characters and whether those characters are me or not me. I often say they are kind of all me, but the thing that has been so great about this book is that they are not all me. They are all both of us. I think it has been fun to create characters who very much come from two different people.

One of the characters I loved helping create was Lily Bao, who is the daughter of Lin Bao, who is a Chinese admiral, a very central figure in 2034—I hope without revealing too much for folks who might not have read 2034—who has a tragic character arc, but his daughter lives forward, and when you meet her she is the immigrant to the United States who has made her way here.

The first scene in which you see her she has done quite well. She is working in private equity, but you see her in a hotel room, she is having an affair, and as her lover—who also becomes a central character in the book—is leaving, you see that she is making the bed in this five-star hotel room because her mother made beds in hotel rooms, and she cannot bring herself to leave an unmade bed in a hotel room.

The idea of following these characters over decades has been rewarding to me, and inevitably you become very fond of all of them.

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: I would just add that beyond fond I have loved some of these characters. Every time I go back and read 2034 I particularly focus on a character who has a “tragic arc,” as Elliot said—that’s writerly for “dead”—I literally choke up, and I have read the book too many times to count, but I feel very moved at the ending of particularly Admiral Lin Bao.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: We had Amy Webb on a previous episode from The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology, laying out this world of synthetic biology, engineering diseases, engineering cures, and lifespan extension. In the abstract that was pretty scary stuff.

To see it as you have used it here almost makes me think, in a work of cautionary fiction are you advising perhaps that we should not go down certain roads that science may be taking us down because we are not ready for it or because you can see some of these negative consequences, or is this the cautionary tale of “the genie is out of the bottle” just as with Oppenheimer in 1945, and we have to learn to live with these new technologies?

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: As I look at synthetic biology and what is the singularity, which is really this merge of the human physiognomy with technology, predicted of course 20 years ago by Ray Kurzweil—who is also a character in the book kind of delightfully—who wrote The Singularity Is Near: When We Merge with AI. In 2054 it is not near; it’s here.

That idea is very central, and I try to think, Nick, what are other inventions like that in history? I go back to, for example, the printing press. It comes out and you could easily spin the case that this is going to be an incredibly dangerous invention because it is going to put mass learning in the hands of everybody, and sooner or later people are going to want to learn how to read. Everyone is going to read, everyone is going to write, and everyone is going to have books. How dangerous is that? It is dangerous, and a lot of bad things have come as a result of printing presses.

On the other hand, so many marvelous things have come because we can now—like Tatiana is sitting in a library—have human knowledge physically arrayed behind us in beautiful spaces. The printing press, electricity, the Internet itself, as you said, Nick, nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and now it is artificial intelligence and eventually the singularity. It will come with some malevolence, but it will also create enormous moments of compassion, benevolence, and real achievement for the human race.

It is here. We have got to steer it as best we can, and what Elliot and I try to do in 2054 is to warn you what could happen if we don’t steer it. It is ultimately quite dangerous potentially.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I would just add if you remember the myth of Pandora and her box, when she opens her box all the evils of the world flood out, and of course any technology from the Industrial Revolution, that age to the singularity is a sort of Pandora’s box, but if you look back at that myth people often forget that after all of the evils of the world leave Pandora’s box, there is one thing left in the box, and that is hope. As we wrestle these technologies, yes, there is a lot of noise that comes out of the box but probably left there at the very bottom of it is a kernel of human hope.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of hope, Admiral, this book is to me a little bit more hopeful than 2034. Without giving anything away, after what happens in 2034, even though many bad things happen there is a rejuvenation happening. People continue to live and move forward. Speaking of hope, Elliot, I found that hopeful.

Admiral, do you think you felt more hopeful writing this book? How did you manage that?

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: We did. I certainly did. The first book is not apocalyptic obviously. Because there is a second book you know the world doesn’t end at the end of the first book, but both nations are very damaged.

Sometimes people say to me about the first book, “Oh, well, you’re trying to write like Tom Clancy,” and that makes my head explode. Tom Clancy is good guys and bad guys, and the good guys win in the end, normally in the last 15 minutes. That is entertaining. It’s fine. 2034 does not have good guys and bad guys. It has a villain, and the villain is war. Just as this is the opposite of a light-hearted opera, at the end of 2034 there is loss, there is pain, and there is setback.

So, yes, 2054, which is another 20 years on, is about coming back from that. When you do that, however, you often find yourself with the kinds of challenges that Elliot articulated a moment ago with the political system pulling itself apart. That I think is the real cautionary thread that runs through it alongside the artificial intelligence, but, yes, Tatiana, I think this is more of a hopeful book and less of a kinetic book about war and its outcome.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to go along with that thread of hope and how it plays and that there are no bad or good guys because it seems there is a new world order.

Elliot, I was looking at our transcript from 2034, and there was a question from an audience member then, “Why didn’t you include Europe in that?” and the answer was, “We could only include so many countries.” In 2034, China, India, Russia, and the United States, was enough. Here we have—and you mentioned that you would include more countries—the rise of Japan, Brazil, and Nigeria. I found that so fascinating.

Elliot, how did you graft these countries into our new fold in 2054?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think we were trying to project and see where the world is going. If we look at demographic trends, it becomes very obvious that those countries are going to be significant players as we get to midcentury, and when it comes to the technology featured in 2054, particularly the rise of biotech, those countries are going to be players by midcentury. It also seems obvious that they are going to be engaged in the sort of technological arms race that we predict in 2054, in which each nation is trying to arrive at the type of exponential growth that you see when you harness the power of technologies like quantum computing, for instance, in which there can be vast accelerations in human knowledge in a relatively short amount of time so that whoever gets there first just shoots to the stratosphere in terms of knowledge and advancement.

It felt important for us to make sure that we were predicting where demographics were going to take the power centers of the world, and it did not feel like it was going to necessarily be a particularly European focused or China-focused world in midcentury. It felt like a lot of these nations, as you mentioned, like Brazil and Nigeria were going to be key actors so we needed to put them on the center stage.

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: Just to add a thought there, Japan obviously has declining demographics, but we include them not because we think their demographics are going to suddenly turn around but because they are being so thoughtful and so intentioned about how they are going to use robotics, artificial intelligence, and these other technologies to compensate for those declining demographics.

There are two different national characters there, Brazil and Nigeria rising because of demographics, and Japan rising because of being so coherent and thoughtful in dealing with declining demographics. I don’t think that will happen with the Europeans, with Russia certainly not, and probably not the United States, but those are the two sets by midcentury we think will be the real players.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I was very struck by that, Admiral, and I commend both of you. So often—and I was just in some strategy meetings today—we talk about multipolarity, we talk about the rise of the Global South, and oftentimes it still looks like a Euro-Atlantic world with a few extra add-ons to it. It is striking that, as you said. It is not that Europe is gone but that the movers and shakers have shifted south and east. By the way, the fact that we are still going to have Europe be at the center of attention I think is a very striking frame that you put in there.

Perhaps out of the realm of the book and directed specifically to you, Admiral, do you think the United States is configured at this point, given your long period of service both as SouthCom and then as USEUCOM commander to manage a shift as the center of gravity in the world shifts from the Euro-Atlantic basin to the South and to the East? Are we set up in the coming years to anticipate that or are we simply going to react and others will drive the agenda?

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: I think unfortunately we have yet to create a coherent national strategy that gets out in front of that, particularly in the Pacific. I know you have in your work at the Naval War College been onto this for a long time. Several administrations have tried this “Pacific pivot,” and yet we always seem to be dragged back to the Euro-Atlantic—thank you, Vladimir Putin—or, most classically, back to the Middle East with yet another enormous eruption there. We are like a car that keeps wanting to get going to the West, but somebody is putting on the brakes every time we try to do so.

What we need I think is something China has, which is a highly developed, linear, out-into-the-future strategy that takes into account all the kinds of changes we are talking about and positions itself in articulate ways for that. I think we have yet to do that.

As we look forward at this century as it unspools we have got to put that at the top of the list, and that is why we addressed that first in 2034. That is the first of the evils out of Pandora’s box that we are going to have to neutralize before we even get to the events of 2054.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What was interesting—and maybe Elliot can take this question—is the central role that governments and government figures play, both in the United States and abroad. I am curious because in a world where we are dominated with news of Musk, Bezos, and tech companies—not that there was not a company that was very important in 2054; I am not giving anything away—it seems that governments are driving the bus. Many times I hear from students that that is not who they feel is driving the bus. They feel that “my friend TikTok” is driving the bus, “my billionaire friend”—not that they are friends—is who we look toward and for.

I wonder how you chose to stay in that realm. Was it a conscious choice, Elliot, or did you want to include business in that one company that appears in 2054? How did you balance that?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: We wanted to show—and you see it in the book. There is the Tandava Group, which is a character from 2034, who when we meet him in the first book is working at the White House and then after the calamitous events that occur between the United States and China—he is Indian American—and when you meet him at the opening of 2054 he is much older and actually in poor health but is now sitting atop a massive private equity empire. His group is called The Tandava Group, which comes from Hinduism. Tandava is this ritual dance of creation and destruction, which is very much the process through which his private equity empire works.

You see how Tandava engages with governments and the advancement of technology. The governments are still playing a very central role, but they are acting in many ways as the propellant to advance the technologies they feel are worth betting on. Yes, we see the private/public interplay, but ultimately it becomes a technological race between nations because the stakes are set so high; whoever can dominate artificial intelligence and arrive at this point, the integration of human consciousness and technological consciousness, first, is going to have a vast advantage over nations that have not arrived. By definition, because it is a zero-sum game, it falls into the realm of great-power politics.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just to build on that, Elliot, I think it is interesting to see that after 30 years or so in the U.S. context—certainly it has always been in the European and the Chinese context—we are comfortable uttering the words in Washington “industrial policy” or “technology policy,” where we don’t simply say, “We will let someone in Silicon Valley handle it.” I think that is a very interesting point that you are projecting out in 2054 how this may play out.

The other thing, just as a note and to commend you on, it is always a pleasure to read national security books where the characters look like America in the diversity of America rather than following the traditional stereotypes of American military, diplomats, and government officials all hailing from the Northeastern Corridor with maybe an occasional Southerner. Including the changes in American demographics means that we are going to have more senior officials whose ancestry does not come from Europe and comes from the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and certainly Latin America. Again, that is something I enjoyed reading, seeing these characters that you draw from the richness of the tapestry of American life.

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: I think this is a point to answer a question I get a lot, and I am sure Elliot does as well, which is: “Why fiction? If you want to write a book about a war with China or a book about the danger of artificial intelligence or”—the third volume is going to deal with climate and the terrible consequences of failing to reverse-engineer the climate challenges we have—“why don’t you just write a nonfiction book where you lay out the policy?”

Everybody in this group has written books of nonfiction. I have written ten, I think. The short answer is what you just said, Nick, which is that you can freight these ideas and put them on the backs of real characters, and people respond to that and think about it I think in deeper and more real ways.

Secondly, it is great to get out of the straitjacket of nonfiction, where you have to footnote everything and it has all got to be perfectly accurate, and 20 years from now someone is going to go back in and say, “You didn’t footnote this properly.” It is a dangerous minefield out there in nonfiction. In fiction you can splash a little more paint around the canvas.

Third and finally, fiction just gets a bigger audience, frankly. At the end of the day you can write a wonderful policy book, and a thousand people will read it. I think 2034 has been read by 300,000 or 400,000 people now. We are just not going to get that writing yet another policy book about avoiding a war with China.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I was reading the transcript from our last talk, and we discussed how the media was not really part of 2034, but, boy, does it play a huge role in 2054. Elliot, it is all over.

As a journalist, how conscious was it, or was it because this is so tech/AI driven and you had to include the misinformation and disinformation that we are hearing today in everything from—I just saw a piece about this—Russia putting fake YouTube people to give disinformation about Ukraine to Kate Middleton’s Photoshopped pictures. It is everywhere.

What was the role and how did you see the news media in this book?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: As we already mentioned, artificial intelligence is a central theme in the book and also this idea of the singularity, the moment when biological and technological evolution start to merge, when molecules and microchips become almost indistinguishable from one another. When that boundary between the technological and biological becomes porous I think what follows is that the boundary between our lived reality and our manufactured reality also starts to become porous and easily manipulated. It becomes very obvious then that questions in terms of the media enter.

We are already seeing this now. How many publications have lamented the fact that there are two Americas living in two widely divergent realities, consuming very divergent sources of news? If you just take those trends and extrapolate them further, it hits one of the great challenges that is going to exist in the 21st century, which is: How do we have a democratic society and exist in a democracy where there isn’t, at least at a baseline level, a general consensus as to what is true and untrue.

That is a central theme of 2054. No spoilers—it opens with the death of a president and a lot of questions about how that president died, who or what might have killed him, and the divergence in conclusions takes the country up to the brink of a civil war. Some people think he was assassinated, some people think he just died, and they are willing to take that out into the streets. I think that is something we are living with right now. Those divergent views on what is real and unreal are bringing our democracy not to a breaking point but certainly are putting us in some uncomfortable situations.

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: I am sure, Tatiana, that you noticed this, but instead of having a press secretary in the White House the person who is in charge of the media is the secretary of press. That is quite intentional. It is like the secretary of defense, the secretary of homeland security, the secretary of the interior. Now we have a secretary of press. I think that alone ought to indicate how we feel about the rise in the importance of media.

TATIANA SERAFIN: To that point, Admiral, there was a lot in the book about manipulation from the government side that I think caused me a lot of anxiety. Yet it also heartened me to see where people were getting information. There were scenes of airports, and there were always news channels running. That was kind of heartening. We still need this thing called “the press,” but it can be so manipulated.

Where do the characters land on that because they are using the press and they need it to give information, but is it a trusted source?

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: No, of course not. There are no trusted sources today.

Going back to what Nick asked about a while back, is this a book about the dangers of AI or the benefits of AI or should we put it back in the bottle, the reality is that AI is going to permeate every aspect of our lives, but where it might be most impactful is right here in the zone we are talking about because it can shape everyone’s perceptions.

In the book there is a lot of traditional shaping. The woman who is the secretary of press can be seen as an extension of what you see today, but by the end of the book the way perceptions are changed throughout the nation is very untraditional and is very grounded in AI itself. The short answer is, Tatiana, we do not know yet, but I think the idea of a highly trusted news source is questionable.

One final thought: One aspect of AI that I think is a potential benevolent side of this could be that AI can become, if you will, the fact checker. AI can put a stamp of approval on things, but to get to that point we are going to have to agree how that would be done, and, as always, the question will be, well, who writes the algorithm, who decides what is fact checked or not? It is not going to be as simple as Elon Musk selling you a blue checkmark on your X account, formerly known as your Twitter account.

I see a question.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let’s read the question. Do you want to take it, Elliot, and maybe, Admiral, if you want to add? From Casey Roberts: “How will a nation’s ability to train and educate their populace affect the integration of disruptive technologies and creatively solve the geopolitical stressors that shape our world in the future? Does the adage of ‘the best educated’ lead to a nation becoming a dominant power?”

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: That is a great question. The pace of change when we get to midcentury and already what we are living through now is so accelerated that just to keep pace with the rapidity of artificial intelligence, biological changes, and technological changes that are occurring nations need to be able to not only educate younger generations but reeducate those who are already moving on and potentially retrain their workforces.

We have certainly seen this in the United States as we become a deindustrialized nation that is having conversations now about how to reindustrialize, but education also gets to the idea of how a country is postured to deal with the changes that are coming. The pace at which we anticipate them arriving in the future is going to put a lot of stress on the education systems in countries across the globe.

That is a big question. I have small children, and I often ask myself whether or not they are getting the best education they can possibly get.

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: I will add to that in two ways. Again, this is an area where AI may end up being incredibly beneficial by providing a presence, potentially an embedded presence, such that, for example, you don’t need to learn computer-aided design, you don’t need to learn Spanish; it is embedded in a chip that has come into your body. Elon Musk, who has now been mentioned more times than he deserves in this conversation, is certainly talking and thinking about those kinds of things. Yes, that is part of what we interrogate in 2054. AI may be very helpful and may really change how education is, shall we say, “delivered.”

The second point, on a more prosaic level, is one thing I always mention at this point in a conversation. I hold up my iPhone and I ask people, “How old are your children when you put one of these supercomputers in their hands?” The answer is that in today’s world on average a child is picking that device up at a little over ten years old, and that is dangerous in my view.

My point is that part of how we educate has got to be how to educate the youngest and most vulnerable amongst us in what is coming in terms of AI. Again, as we all know, this device can communicate point-to-point anywhere in the world, it can play any symphony ever recorded, it can show any film, it can access all the world’s knowledge instantly, and yet it can also drag you into a cesspool of pornography and filth.

We have some serious work to do in education, starting right now where we are, and at some point I think AI is going to be a deeply important part of the delivery mechanism for all the things we just talked about.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Admiral, if I could just pick up on that, because when you held up your phone—and I have mine sitting here—this is a device that has essentially democratized. It is accessible to pretty much anyone on the planet. Even in poor countries people can get a version of this, whether it is a U.S. or Chinese version.

With some of these other technologies as they are developing, do you see a gap opening up so that we will have technology haves and technology have-nots, that some people will have access to much better medical care and others will not? How does that play out?

I thought I detected some themes of that in the book in the divisions and the like, but how do you see that playing out? Is it that we are all going to have access to this or some will have access and others will not?

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: First of all, we really dive into that in 2084 because that is when so much of this comes home to roost and ends up in a geopolitical conflict that stems from inequality, which itself has stemmed from lack of attention to climate and all the precursors that we are talking about.

In terms of today’s world, yes, we have enormous divisions already. In my role as chairman of The Rockefeller Foundation is that we are going aggressively to get clean energy into the hands of the approximately one-third of the world that does not have access to this and is therefore falling further and further behind deeply in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of South Asia, and other parts of the Global South. We feel at Rockefeller that the more we can do to provide electricity and therefore access to the internet is the key to solving that still very extant gap between the haves and have-nots.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is important for us to look at that and also to think about what events are happening now that might change how you are seeing your books. We are talking about 2084 and some threads from here. We discussed the last time you were here how some events made you change some things in 2034—the pandemic, some players in real life dying, so you had to pivot. Was there anything like that for this book? I don’t know, the Russian war in Ukraine. Anything, Elliot?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: One of the really nice things about this book and I think makes it feel different from 2034 is that in 2034 we were dealing with a nearer horizon, so anything that changed in 2019 and 2020, when we were writing it, was certainly going to echo 14 years out, but as we enter 2054 we are on the fringes of science fiction, so you don’t feel the changes in terms of news headlines today affecting the narrative in 2054.

What affects it are these macro trends, and we can see those pretty clearly projecting out from today, and by the time we get to 2084 we are certainly firmly fixed in the realm of science fiction, so one of the things that has been fun about this series for us to write is that we are kind of writing across genre as we put these books together, but we are also asking readers to come with us across genre. We are not asking you to read a trilogy that is a sci-fi trilogy; we are asking you to read a trilogy that sort of shapeshifts as you go book to book, and the thing that is consistent throughout are these characters. You are watching an entire lineage go from a near future that feels very much like the present into a distant future that feels very much like science fiction, and I that that is part of the fun of the series.

TATIANA SERAFIN: There were some fun things that we could expect in terms of the science fiction-y part of the book in 2054 already. Can you tell us one that does not give anything away that you thought was fun or that you thought of to put in there as you imagined what life might be in 2054?

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: The one that I like the best is that when you land at an airport you get on a people mover and just flow out the door. Nobody stops and checks your passport; nobody makes you look into a camera. It is just all happening around you as you go through the zeitgeist. It is sad for the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) team; they are no longer with us in 2054 because we have all this sophisticated ability to capture all that. That is one fun one.

The other one, without giving anything away, I will say that the power of dreams—literally you go to sleep and have a dream and are trying to understand. We have all had this feeling of being in the midst of something that is just beyond our understanding, and you wake up and reach for it and it just slips away from you, but in 2054 a couple of very interesting things happen to the characters that come to them in their dreams. That is a very conscious echo of Shakespeare and “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” A lot happens subconsciously for us. In 2054 we have a chance to actually grasp that from time to time. That is a second thing.

Elliot, am I missing anything?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: No. I like that Shakespeare quote. We should have put it in the book.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I wanted to see what your process is like. You share chapters, you share ideas. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? Do you text with this idea of, “Hey, we should go through TSA seamlessly?” How does that work, seriously, coming together and writing a book because that is not easy at all?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: We sit down and have pretty extensive story meetings. We have written all of these books the same way from the outset of 2034, which is chapter by chapter. We sit down at the beginning of each book and have a broader sense of what the book is about, but as we are in the trenches writing it we outline each chapter in a lot of detail, we know who the characters are, and then at a certain point once we feel like we know what is going on in each chapter one of us will take a first crack at it, usually me, and then I will pass it to Jim with the chapter written and some of my notes in it, what I am hoping he will fill in.

He will pass it back to me, and we will kick the chapters back and forth between the two of us until we feel like we have a solid first draft and are on terra firm, and then we move to the next chapter. That has worked for us, and it is how we have written all the books and had a lot of fun doing it that way. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Admiral, does anything ever not go in the books? How do you know that it is done, or is there always something that you wanted to put in, or now that you have a third book, “Hey, it’ll go in there?”

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: Writing a series is great. It is like renovating a house and you can always add on.

In terms of anything that hit the cutting-room floor, we wanted very consciously not to write The Winds of War by Herman Wouk or War and Peace, where you need in the front of the book a genealogy and pronunciation guide for all the characters. We wanted to write books that had like five principal characters.

It would have been fun and we kicked around at times having yet another character from yet another country to carry that part of the story. I think a runner-up might have been a European as we talked about, but I don’t think we want to add any more to the books. I think they are relatively tight, they are quick reads, you can get the five principal characters in both books in your head very quickly, and I think you develop real affection for the characters as we spoke about a moment ago.

The only other thing I can say is that we kicked around having more tech/science fiction-y/describing society and making it different like The Jetsons and that did not appeal to us ultimately. I think the best novels about the future avoid doing that, frankly.

Behind me on my bookshelf is a wonderful book—I have I think ten first editions—by Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Laureate, a British Japanese writer. His most recent book is called Klara and the Sun. It is a book about artificial intelligence in someone—I don’t want to go through it all, but the point is that the world is not really that different. I think it can be very distracting if a book about the future is trying to explain all the technology to you. Also, you get back into that straitjacket of nonfiction because then people say, “Well, there is no way by 2054 you will be able to do X, Y, or Z.”

This is a long way of saying I am quite satisfied with what is in the book and that we have not jammed in too many characters or too much technology.

Do you feel differently, Elliot?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: No, no, I agree. I would only emphasize that if were rewriting a work of historical fiction we probably would not spend a whole bunch of time telling you how bread was made in the 1800s. It would feel irrelevant to the characters and the immediacy of how people were living their lives, and you would just gesture to what life felt like as you went through the story. I think that spirit is how we wanted to treat the future that we were writing, to not bog the reader down into a bunch of technological details that are exogenous to the characters in the story.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely. We have one question coming in at the tail end of our conversation from Patrick McLaren: “How you have viewed tools, Elliot, like ChatGPT today with regard to your writing process?”

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Is this when we tell you that the whole book was actually created by an AI? You’ll never know.

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: This goes to Tatiana’s question from earlier. I think one of the things that has been a lot of fun for us in writing these books is that the conversation around the subjects which we are writing change over the course of the creation of the book.

When we began this book and were having these deep conversations about AI and how it would affect our democracy and how those technologies would move forward, it was pre I think the moment when ChatGPT really came into popular consciousness, so as we were working through these books it was coming into popular consciousness. It did not have a huge effect on our process because we don’t use ChatGPT.

TATIANA SERAFIN: On the record.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Yes, on the record.

With regard to how it affected our understanding of how these issues were going to alter society, our conception of how we create and how we live with these technologies, I think we started feeling a little bit vindicated, like, “Yes, this is truly going to be a profound change for humanity as we enter this age of artificial intelligence, and we are standing here right now at the dawn of it.”

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: I think that is the right answer to Patrick’s excellent question.

You asked it earlier, and I want to make a point about events in the world and did it change our perceptions. Certainly the events of 6 January here in the United States and the storming of the Capitol were occurring while we were writing the book, so the portions of the book that deal I think quite solidly with civil conflict in America were very influenced by that.

Elliot, I have been meaning to ask you this, and I will just ask it here in this fora: Do you remember where we were in the book when the 6 January thing actually happened? Had we written that or sketched that out? Was that before or after we wrote that section? Do you remember, because I honestly don’t?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Without spoiling the book, I think we were in the midst of the situation deteriorating in Washington, DC and working through those details as 6 January happened.

Yes, this entire project has at times felt a little bit like for us picking up a newspaper like life imitating art, but that has been part of the fun of it.

ADMIRAL STAVRIDIS: Yes. As people say to me all the time about 2034 and now they are saying it about 2054, the consistent thing I get is, “This stuff is already happening.” My response to that is, I just hope it stays on the fiction bestseller list and does not drift over to the nonfiction side.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is a great note to end our conversation. Thank you so much, Admiral and Elliot. Their new book is 2054 but also get 2034. You don’t have to read them in order, but you should. Thank you so much, everybody.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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