LinkLock, a technology company based in Canberra, has developed a method of encrypting and securing data feeds in a way that makes them theoretically impossible to hack. This piece of tech is attractive to the United States Department of Defense, as the data sent to and from their drones operating in the Middle East is being intercepted by the groups they’re targeting. LinkLock engineer Daniel Carter is sent to oversee a test of the software, and must take part in drone flights over Yemen, Oman and Afghanistan, ostensibly joining the US’s remote war.
This is the premise of award-winning, Canberra-based author Andrew Croome’s second novel, Midnight Empire, an espionage thriller exploring the intricacies of twenty-first century warfare.
Running parallel to the story of Daniel’s role in a faraway war is a sub-story about poker, the rules, its players and the tactics of the game. It’s here, with poker, that Midnight Empire begins. Dmitri plays the game on his PC in a grey and distant Russia. At first, he uses the winnings to feed his family, but he quickly becomes a professional player, developing mathematical theories as he travels the world, winning huge pots of money and meeting our protagonist, Daniel, along the way.
The prologue’s solid colours and texturelessness is something of a bluff. That it’s misleading only becomes clear when the narrative proper begins and there’s a surprising and pleasant shift in story style and protagonist and place and subject. Detail, absent in Dmitri’s story, now rises – ‘The fridge was barren. A unit on the wall displayed both the indoor and outdoor temperatures, 59 and 98°F. There were six pillows on the bed.’ – bringing the story into sharper focus, exposing the reader to the bright daylight of Las Vegas.
Drawing the two narratives together is the simple fact that the drone operations are being controlled from the desert outside Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world. Despite the long hours at the air-force base, the game is inescapable. By placing them side by side, the two are inevitably compared; Midnight Empire makes the point that they’re both games that aren’t in fact games.
Croome’s idea of remote warfare as a game akin to poker – making moves based on behaviour and ‘intelligence’ and speculation – could quickly have gone awry. But he makes it work, partly because he doesn’t reduce either one, instead bringing poker up to the level of the life and death nature of remote warfare.
Crucial to the story is the concept that no war is remote, that there’s no such thing. It’s a point that Ania, a poker player and one of the story’s few female characters, makes to Daniel. ‘If what you are fighting is a war, then you must surely be in danger of dying,’ she says. ‘Otherwise what you are fighting is not a war. It is something else.’
It’s also through his treatment of remote warfare, channelled through the character of Daniel, that Croome has success. Daniel is uncomfortable with what he’s participating in, for reasons even he is unclear about. This is a world of unflinching men who have simple answers to hard questions, but it’s one which Daniel has willingly inserted himself into, his feelings of displacement inevitably bringing the situation to crisis.
Daniel’s confusion about his role is a nice, humanising touch. However, it is the only way the reader really has an opportunity to connect with him. Midnight Empire takes the idea of the detached, all-knowing writer and the hovering, all-seeing drone and combines them. Daniel is viewed from above, sometimes from near and sometimes from far, as if from the impartial eye of a drone, while he too views from above. From this height, connections on the human level cannot be made.
Of course, this could be incidental. But one of the points that Croome makes with Midnight Empire is that drone warfare, whether immediate or remote, is indiscriminate. At times, Daniel becomes smaller in the narrative, shrunk by the enormity of what he has become enveloped in. There are ‘hours in which Daniel became pretty much invisible, just the encryption operator, a benign presence, a regular face.’ This shrinking, or zooming out, is compounded by the effects of his displacement, of being from somewhere that isn’t here, and while here, experiencing somewhere else. This skilful erasure of Daniel reinforces the idea that you do not escape this, that after entering the war machine, you do not leave it.
The story is told, fittingly, with a straight face and a cold stare. But Croome’s cold stare is interrupted by the occasional glance away, an unevenness created by juxtaposing a speedy narrative with stony, near-DeLilloan descriptions of the Las Vegas light and desert landscapes. These patches are reminders that Document Z, Croome’s 2008 Vogel Award-winning debut novel, a fictional account of the Petrov Affair with a stronger literary bent, was no accident and Croome’s writing can be of the literary kind, even the focus, if he wants it to be. But does he want it to be? They recur inconsistently, all but petering out by the story’s conclusion.
Much of Midnight Empire’s action takes place on PC monitors. When Croome writes, ‘They came down out of the mountains, flew above the flat green lands that approached the city, came out of the bearing of the sun,’ what he means is Daniel, the drone pilots and other officers watch computer screens in a hut in the desert. That Midnight Empire is compelling and tense despite this is testament to Croome’s skill as a teller of stories. Any stylistic sideways looks, then, are those of the new practitioner; Andrew Croome knows what he’s doing, and confidence and evenness will come.
On the cover of Midnight Empire are the words ‘fiction’, ‘crime’, and ‘spy thriller’. This is where we are now, where publishing is. And it’s a bit of a shame, because Croome’s novel is all of these things and none of them. Midnight Empire is a smart, taut exploration of the methods of a particular, uncompromisingly modern kind of warfare. It’s addictive and suspenseful and manages to be both these things while being set in a time where remote warfare still seems so distant, happening somewhere over there and not to us, out of the now, overseen by men who call other men ‘sir’. But, of course, this is happening. It has been happening and will continue to happen, and it will reach a stage where we won’t have to go to it, it will come to us.
Allen & Unwin, 2012