Admiral James and Elliot Ackerman Stavridis, 2054

Admiral James and Elliot Ackerman Stavridis, 2054

 Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling authors Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis to discuss 2054, an explosive work of speculative fiction set twenty years after their first book, 2034, that shows a future America grappling with a violent partisan divide and a radical leap forward in AI. The co-authors discuss the inspiration behind this novel, their collaborative writing process, and the relevance of the book’s themes (like political polarization and the potential consequences of unchecked technological progress) to contemporary society. They also reveal the potential for adaptation into film or television!


Zibby Owens: Welcome to Elliot and Admiral James Stavridis. Thank you both for coming. I already read your introduction, so we can just jump right in. Congratulations. 2054, so amazing. This kept me up, all the fast-paced -- I was talking to my kids about it. I was like, "I've barely gotten into it." They were like, "But you're on page fifty." I was like, "I know, but it still feels like the beginning. I have so much more." Congratulations. Tell listeners what this book is about and how it follows up your previous book and all the rest.

Admiral James Stavridis: I'll start with how it follows up. Then Elliot is the master storyteller who can give a little précis of the novel itself. The way it came about, Zibby, was we started with a previous book, 2034, which is about a war with China set in the year 2034. Then as we looked at the way the century is unspooling, we saw that coming challenges include artificial intelligence and the potential of civil conflict in America. What this book does -- you don't, by the way, have to have read 2034 to pick up 2054. It kind of carries on with some of the characters and takes us to midcentury, the year 2054. I'll close with this and pitch it to Elliot. It's intended as a cautionary tale, not as predictive fiction, but as a warning bell. Read this. Think about it. We have to control artificial intelligence. We must avoid civil conflict in America. That's the mission of the book. Elliot?

Elliot Ackerman: In terms of this story, it really opens up by projecting out trends that we're already seeing in American life. It is told in the 2034 universe. The opening of that universe is a war between the US and China. Now we're twenty years out from that war. America is led by its first independent president who gets himself elected to office because -- this is a trend that is already occurring today. More and more Americans aren't identifying as republicans and democrats. The parties are just bleeding membership. As they bleed membership, it creates this opportunity for him to run as an independent. In the wake of this war, he's a pretty effective president, but as is often the case, people don't like to let go of power. His name is President Angel Castro. He often quips that if this country could elect a president with a middle name Hussein, it can certainly elect a president with the last name Castro. He doesn't want to leave Washington. There's much controversy about the fact that he's an effective president, but should he be allowed to stay in office? Is the United States starting to look like a one-party country? 

At that moment, Castro is giving a speech, and he suspiciously keels over dead. It's in the first fifty pages of the book. The circumstances around his death are very, very mysterious. What occurs are a number of competing narratives as to how he died, who may have killed him or what might have killed him. It's the "what" that gets into the second theme of the novel. In addition to being a book that is about civil conflict in the United States, it's also a book about artificial intelligence and how artificial intelligence not only affects us technologically, but affects our consciousness. It builds to this idea of what many people have written about, which is called the singularity. In our book, the singularity is really the moment where we start to see biological evolution merging with technological evolution and this idea that in the future, perhaps the new microchips will be molecules, and we'll begin altering ourselves. That's the entry point of the book. As Jim mentioned, some of the characters that come forward, many of the themes from 2054 are there. I think it's a pretty fun read. It's designed to be a thriller and a page turner.

Zibby: Wow. You take us inside the autopsy room where we see the surprise on the face of the doctors holding up the -- not to give anything away. I feel like it's early enough, maybe.

James: Oh, yeah. You're fine.

Zibby: Holding up the president's heart and saying this cannot be the same heart that he had just performed a test on. What on earth could have made this collection of cells? That takes you down this whole rabbit hole. In fact, it was quite graphic, the scraping down the thing and opening up the chest.

James: I have to tell you neither Elliot and I are doctors, but I have two son-in-laws who are physicians who helped me with that particular scene and helped us built that realism. It's quite good. It grabs the reader. Let's put it that way.

Zibby: It really does. Tell them they did a really good job on the details there. Definitely catches your attention. The idea that our bodies can be infiltrated in some way, even with your Heads Up -- Heads Up, right? That's what it was called? The implantable chips that everybody can wear, which are reminiscent of that game -- do you know the game Heads Up that kids play?

James: Yeah, I do. I do know that game.

Zibby: It doesn't matter. That's where my head's at. Anyway, the advantages and disadvantages of embeddable technology, if you will, talk a little bit about that and where you see it going. How can we prevent some of these scary things from happening?

James: I'll start by saying it is scary. The point of the book, a major point, is to be prepared for that. We've got to immediately acknowledge -- you'll find this in the book as well -- that it could be and probably will be an enormous force good as well. It's like the advent of electricity or the printing press. These big muscle movements in terms of technologies come with both dangers -- you can picture what people thought when the first printing press arrived. Suddenly, knowledge could go everywhere. How is electricity going to be used in war to power missiles and aircraft? There are always going to be good and dangerous things about any technology. We pretty much explore both sides of it in the novel. I think that's an important component to it.

Elliot: Zibby, I would just add, one of the things the novel addresses, too, is how we start to think about technology differently in the future. Listen, we've all just come off a moment where just about every American injected themselves with a piece of technology because it was a vaccine that was artificially created. When we think of technology now, we think of these. It's something that's made out of metal or glass. Increasing that technology will start to look differently. There's a moment in the book where one of the characters is musing on this idea. He asks himself, will robots inherit the earth? The conclusion he comes to is yes, but they will be our children. This will be a process by which, again, the technological and the biological start merging. The barrier between the two becomes increasingly porous. We see that in the opening of the book. The way the president is assassinated isn't with a bullet or a knife. It's with a piece of biological technology.

James: I'll just add two of my favorite authors are -- both British, by the way -- Ian McEwan and Ishiguro; Nobel laureate, the latter. His latest book, Klara and the Sun, kind of interrogates some of these issues. Ian McEwan's book is very much in this vein, a book, Machines Like Us, picking up Elliot's point of the biological and the technological drawing closer and closer.

Zibby: It's pretty frightening, just the idea that your own kids or grandkids becoming something very other and not understandable and not cut from the same cloth, if you will, and then the whole society and the effects of that.

James: Indeed. However, they could then live indefinitely. The dream of mankind forever has been immortality. That comes with its pros and its cons as well. I think these are the big issues of our time. It was very fun to explore them in fiction.

Zibby: How did the two of you write this together? Did you sit and brainstorm? What if? What would the world be like? Then you went to the writing? How did it happen?

Elliot: Again, this is part of a series. The last in the series that will come will be 2084, which will deal with climate, which we are already very much in the process of writing. When we first started collaborating on these projects, we had a preexisting friendship. Our mutual book editor suggested that the two of us work with one another. We sat down and said, how is this going to work? Let's try to write a first chapter together and see how that goes. That was a big success. We've sort of done every book the same way. We write them chapter by chapter. We sit down. We outline what we think is going to happen. We do that with a great deal of detail. Typically, once we feel like we've got it all planned out, I'll go take a first crack at it. Then I'll hand mine to Jim. He'll toy with it. We'll bat it back and forth until we both think it's in pretty good shape. Then we go to the next chapter. We've been doing that for a while now. It seems to work for us.

James: We also have an absolutely terrific editor who is very positive when he feels strongly that we're on the right track, but he is very quick to say, nope, you guys have really run off the rails here. Here is what I think you should do. Then we'll get back and forth. We'll be the ones saying, hey, this is the best damn novel ever. He'll be saying, well, maybe you could adjust. I think there's a third person in this writing relationship. Scott Moyers is his name, at Penguin Press Random House. He's a brilliant, brilliant editor.

Zibby: When you were thinking about the party system, which I also found interesting, and how there are the democratic republicans or the republican democrats and how there's the truth group --

James: -- Truthers.

Zibby: Truthers and these new parties, how did you come up with them? Do you see this happening? I know you were just saying the bleeding into one another and the rise of the independents. When would that happen? How soon? Where do you see all of this really going?

James: I'll start on that one just by saying people act like somewhere in the constitution it says there shall be two political parties, republicans and democrats. That's not in the constitution. We didn't start with either republicans or democrats. We started with Whigs, nationalists, republican democrats, the star party, nationalists, progressives, the Bull Moose party. We've had a lot of political parties in this country. I think, to Elliot's point earlier, people are increasingly dissatisfied with the way the extremes in both of those parties have co-opted them. There's a huge tranche of us who are kind of in the middle who are thinking, hmm. I have two daughter in their thirties. They're both married, as I mentioned, to physicians. All four of them look right, they look left, and they say, where's my party? I think this could happen fairly soon. By 2054, I'll be surprised if it hasn't happened.

Zibby: Maybe I'll start the book party. [laughter] 

Elliot: I think you already did, Zibby. 

Zibby: People can connect over that, right?

James: You bet.

Zibby: Do you wake up and feel just hopeless and depressed looking at the news ever? It feels like sometimes that things feel very hopeless, in a way. How are we ever going to unite as a country again? Where is all of that patriotism? I feel like it's not the most optimistic-looking time, and this election and blah, blah, blah. I don't know. How do you two feel about it?

Elliot: I agree. Listen, I can certainly sympathize with feeling that way. I think as much as these books are obviously forward looking -- one of the things that was fun about 2054 is this book becomes more science fiction than our previous book because it has to be. There are also all of these books that have been deeply rooted in history. Then when we think about the challenges laid out in this book, political assassination, division between the parties, civil war, potentially, they're all places where we've been before. They're all points in our own history where we've managed to innovate our way out of them and come together. Yes, I certainly feel pessimistic and frustrated when I watch the news. By the way, I find a great tonic to that is not watching too much, particularly cable news. All that being said, I think when you pause and you reflect on the trajectory of our country over many, many years, you actually see that we've done pretty well. I think as Americans, oftentimes, particularly, we have a tendency to think of ourselves as a young people. We are as a civilization. We are a young civilization. The Chinese don't even consider a society a civilization until it's three hundred years old, so we're not even there yet in terms of the Chinese. What we are is actually a very old form of government. There are very few democracies you can point at in the world that have existed for around 250 years. Not France. Not Germany. Maybe the Brits. That, the enduring system of our government, is what makes me optimistic. These are certainly challenging times. I think it's going to be a challenging year.

James: I think I see the bumper sticker for the book party. The book party: don't watch cable news; read a book. I'm optimistic by nature. Most Greek Americans are. It's kind of baked into our culture. Elliot and I have both seen our share of combat over the years. We've seen really bad things. Yeah, we've got problems in this country, but I'm cautiously optimistic, just as Elliot said a moment ago. We'll work our way through these things. There'll be speedbumps and challenges. Again, our mission with this book is to foreshadow what some of those speedbumps could be because if you see them coming, you can prepare for them and reverse-engineer it and end up in a far better place.

Zibby: What's the one thing we should really be focused on right now?

James: As a society, I think it's the divisions in our country. We can talk about all the challenges in the Middle East. We can talk about Russia-Ukraine war, US/China, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity. Is another pandemic coming? My view, we can handle all those things. What I worry about the most are these divisions in the country. We have got to find leaders who are willing to bring us together. That's how we find a path out of this dark forest we've wandered into.

Zibby: I love that. How far into 2084 are you? How is that going?

Elliot: We're pretty far. We're just about at the first draft mark. The first book was very much naval in nature because we are both two naval officers. It's a book that deals with climate, what the world looks like if you take some of the challenges we're facing today in climate and project them outwards, and the idea of geopolitics when certain nations are demanding climate reparations and their countries become entirely inhabitable and how that will affect migratory patterns, international politics, and domestic politics. It also, in terms of the technology, takes some of the strands that you see in 2054 and keeps projecting them out there. It also, like our other books, has a very heavy technological component to it. We're pretty far along.

James: I'll just add, this is partly why we wanted to write these as novels. You could certainly write a nonfiction book about the dangers of climate and the potential outcomes. You could write a nonfiction book about a war with China or artificial intelligence, its dangers and its benefits. With fiction, you get to put characters into it. I think readers are pulled through books, ultimately, by characters. Even nonfiction, you tend to be pulled through by whoever the nonfiction cast is. Look at the movie Oppenheimer, which is brilliant. It's based on a terrific book by Kai Bird, American Prometheus. It reads like a novel. Walter Isaacson's biographies read like novels. You're pulled by characters. In all three of these books, it's certainly the technology, but it's also the very interesting, vulnerable characters who carry the story, suffer its consequences, solve its problems. That's what makes writing fiction so much fun. We've both written both nonfiction and fiction. They're both great forms. For our purposes in this trilogy, fiction really was a big canvas that we could splash a lot of paint on.

Zibby: Is the trilogy going to have a home on the screen?

Elliot: We're looking for one. I think they'd make some fun movies or TV shows.

Zibby: I think so too. Maybe horror movies. [laughs] 

James: I think all three of them could be incredibly good films. We encountered some interest on 2034. That's still bubbling. I think '54 will be an easier sell for a number of different reasons. I'm kind of hopeful we could see 2054 in particular catch some interest out in Hollywood.

Zibby: It definitely reads like a movie. You feel like you're seeing the whole thing. That's such a wonderful type of writing where it's so immersive that you feel like you've already watched it and like you can see the whole thing. Congratulations to both of you. Can't wait for the next one. Wow, modern-day trilogy of -- this is how smart men deal with anxiety. [laughter] Plot it all out.

James: The other thing we do is -- we also like the idea of service dogs. I see that your puppy just wandered in there. Is that a chocolate lab back there?

Zibby: It's a black lab, yeah.

James: Black lab. What is his or her name?

Zibby: Her name is Nya. She was my late mother-in-law's dog. We adopted her a couple years ago.

James: We have a beautiful basset hound named Penelope. There's a literary reason for her name, Penelope. She's named after the wife of Ulysses who waited patiently for her sailor to come home from the sea in The Odyssey. Penelope is my faithful -- waited for me the whole way, just like my beautiful wife Laura. Anyway, thanks for taking time to be with us today. It was really fun.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on. Appreciate it.

Elliot: Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Admiral James and Elliot Ackerman Stavridis, 2054

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