At the start of Dan Fesperman’s timely and disturbing new novel, Air Force Capt. Darwin Cole is inside a trailer in the Arizona desert, his eyes fixed on a screen, his hands on a stick and rudder, waiting for a missile he’s fired from a Predator drone “to zap a roomful of bad guys on the other side of the world.”

Seconds before the missile is to strike, there’s sudden movement on the screen. A girl steps out of the mud-roofed house in Afghanistan, followed by two small boys. Cole cries out in horror, but it’s too late to abort. The screen “erupts silently in a boiling cloud of fire and dust.” When the dust settles, Cole sees the girl lying on the ground, one arm severed, apparently bleeding to death. She’s about the age of his daughter. Her image will haunt him for the rest of the novel.

We next see Cole 14 months later. After the mission’s unexpected “collateral damage,” 13 people in all were killed, the one-time star jet jockey had a breakdown that led to violent behavior and a dishonorable discharge. He’s living in a battered trailer. His wife has taken the children and gone to her parents. He keeps a loaded shotgun at hand, consumes a great deal of bourbon and ignores the Air Force drones that fly over to check on him because he’s a known troublemaker.

One day, his privacy is invaded by an attractive woman named Keira. She and two other freelance journalists are trying to develop a story on drones and, in particular, on a mysterious figure called Fort1. Cole wants to know about him, too, because he was the unseen “attack controller” giving orders on the intercom the night the missile hit the children. Cole doesn’t know who Fort1 is or works for — possibly the Pentagon or the CIA or even a military contractor. The journalists also want to find Fort1 — whose name is later found to be Wade Castle — because one of them was in Afghanistan when another drone strike he commanded killed several children before her eyes.

Cole decides to join forces with the journalists, even though he knows the Air Force might call that treason. He agrees to go to Baltimore with them but travels by bus because he knows his face would be spotted by airport cameras. Fesperman often reminds us that it’s almost impossible to travel anonymously in today’s America, because cameras are everywhere and the government has access to them all — as well as to everyone’s computers.

"Unmanned" by Dan Fesperman. (Knopf/Knopf)

Once Cole moves in with the three journalists — two women and a man — certain predictable but interesting tensions arise, but mostly the novel centers on two suspenseful chases: Cole and the reporters trying to find Castle even as a vengeful Air Force investigator searches for Cole. Along the way, Fesperman, a journalist as well as a novelist, raises many concerns about drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). He has done extensive research, and his novel will probably tell you more than you’ve learned elsewhere about the possibilities and dangers of drones.

Fesperman implies that these supposedly “surgical” weapons cause a great deal more “collateral damage” — such as at the terrorist gathering that later proved to have been a wedding party — than Americans realize, and there is no question that burnout is common among those who, like Cole, operate them. In Fesperman’s telling, the drones are sometimes controlled by people like Castle, whose authority is unclear and whose agendas are unknown. It is suggested that their use in Afghanistan has been a testing ground for military contractors who hope to dominate the future domestic use of drones, which promises huge profits and raises serious questions about the government’s ability to spy on its citizens.

Fesperman also suggests that Americans will be much less infatuated with drones when other nations and hostile groups start using them against us. He introduces American hobbyists who are testing their own drones the way teenagers used to fly model airplanes. Some versions are as small as hummingbirds but still big enough to carry cameras or explosives.

Readers who view drones as a valuable military asset may be angered by Fesperman’s dark view of their potential; others will be concerned by issues of safety and privacy he raises. Either way, “Unmanned” — a title with several meanings — is an exciting story, expertly told. My only complaint is that novel’s ending may be more optimistic than the available facts justify. We’ll see.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.


By Dan Fesperman

Knopf. 316 pp. $26.95