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This Is the Way the World Ends (According to Novelists)

In the opening chapters of “2054,” a new thriller co-written by Elliot Ackerman and Adm. James Stavridis, the action shifts every page or two — from a private jet, to the White House, to a Ritz-Carlton hotel, to Capitol Hill and elsewhere. The short sections are titled with locations and time stamps (including time zones) to signify global scope and high stakes. We understand at once that this is a story too big to be told from one perspective.

It’s a familiar technique; in movies, such titles are often given extra technical sheen with a flashing cursor that prints them out across the screen, a skeuomorphic legacy of teletype and early command-line interfaces. The implication is that diverse situations are being monitored in some way, logged and recorded by a technically proficient authority that sees them as part of a coherent whole.

“2054” is a sequel to “2034,” “a novel of the next world war” that meticulously laid out a sequence of events starting with a naval confrontation in the South China Sea and ending in nuclear conflict. Twenty years afterward, Sandy Chowdhury, a character in the first novel, asks the pilot of his Gulfstream to divert so he can view the reconstruction of Galveston, Texas, which was leveled by a Chinese warhead. The physical consequences of the devastation are being repaired, but the social and political divisions remain.

The geopolitical epic is at least as old as “War and Peace,” but there’s a particular kind of novel that came into its own with globalization, taking on new life in recent years. Call it the apocalyptic systems thriller, or, because abbreviations and acronyms are crucial to its aesthetic, the A.S.T.

Multi-stranded, terse, often anchored in character just enough to drive the action forward, these books invite us to take an elevated, panoramic view of events that extend too far in space and time to be grasped by a single narrative consciousness. Conflict, climate change, pandemics and natural disasters offer ways to contemplate our interconnection and interdependence. At its best, this kind of fiction can induce a kind of sublime awe at the complexity of the global networks in which we’re enmeshed: A butterfly flaps its wings in Seoul and the Dow crashes; a hacker steals a password and war breaks out.

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