A literary character with the actual power to kill
February 20, 2013 12:15 PM   Subscribe

How To Write Drone Fiction: "One can easily and self-righteously claim the merits of writing non-fiction about drones by asserting a primacy of fact over “false fiction”. The problem is that one does not write non-fiction about drones."

"A drone is a literary character–it is an archetype of uncanny and deadly technology, spread out around us in the geopolitical world in such a way that they are nearly invisible to our non-fictional sense of fact, and yet around us all the time in fiction, invisibly hiding in the clouds, with as much reality as a paranoid delusion. And yet a drone is a literary character with the actual power to kill. They are related to the world of fact as surely as a bullet fired out of the pages of a novel, hitting the reader in the face. The substance that we use to create the fictional character of drones is drawn from a world where these are not speculations, but every day fact.

This strange one-way overlap between fact and fiction is due to the fact that we have yet to fully deal with our present concept drones as fiction, and therefore we are unable to deal with the present and future of UAVs in the world as fact. Think about the non-fiction of UAVs–it is boring, dry, and doesn’t relate at all to most people’s experience any more than a publication by Jane’s or a report by Amnesty International. And this is why we turn to science fiction to hear about drones–because this writing corresponds to our imaginary world, and the characterization we have formed around drones. We pull UAVs into our fantasies of the future and technology. To allow us a separate dimension of speculative investigation drawing upon the world of facts is science fiction’s purpose, at which it excels."

Sarah Wanenchak responds in The Society Pages. (via)
posted by not_the_water (21 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
A frequent cause of Writer's Block is overthinking (which is why I don't keep beans around the house when I have something to write).
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:24 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

In this respect, drones are a lot like spies. The ones you're always reading about have a tenuous connection to the intelligence professionals that are sometimes called by that term.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:27 PM on February 20, 2013

I think the confusion about drones or maybe our insistence on referring to them as "drones" rather than Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs is part of their weaponization.

They are a psychological weapon, too, like Stuka dive bombers were also psychological weapons.

Instead of eagle's talons and screeching sirens, the drone lurks within the veil of secrecy and mystification that obscures its operators and the inscrutable institutions that employ them, seeing but never seen.

Pull back the curtain and it's a militarized remote control airplane and an air force pilot in a shipping container.
posted by notyou at 12:51 PM on February 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Didn't Fred Saberhagen cover this rather thoroughly?
posted by Confess, Fletch at 12:53 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chapter One
Treats of the place where the drone was built,
and of the circumstances attending its manufacture.
Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a factory; and in this factory was built; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of machinery whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the shift foreman, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the machine would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country.

Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being built in a factory, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a machine, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for the drone that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing the drone to take upon itself the office of ignition -- a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence -- and for some time it lay still on a little rubber tray, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, the drone had been surrounded by careful engineers, anxious inventors, experienced technicians, and arms manufacturers of profound wisdom, it would most inevitably and indubitably have been destroyed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old janitor, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a floor inspector who did such matters by contract; the drone and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, the drone clicked, tipped, and proceeded to advertise to the workers in the factory the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the company, by setting up as loud a whirring as could reasonably have been expected from a drone who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a motor, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter....
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:57 PM on February 20, 2013 [19 favorites]

particular opposition to the use of drones by the US has always bothered me when civilians get atomized by unsexy ordinance on the reg. these two articles make me think that it's the smell of western narcissism that's really my problem, the privileging of our scifi dystopian fantasies and associated exciting new fears over the grinding tedium of real people getting killed in basically conventional ways leaving us no room to insert ourselves into the story.
posted by Ictus at 1:00 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wanenchak is right. Speculative fiction about near-future capabilities is far more important than fiction that explores our feelings about drones (not to say the latter isn't also important)

Consider the history of conventional strategic bombing. Pre WWII people were terrified of it, to the extent that many thought it could be a war-ending weapon. The British military under Bomber Harris invested too heavily in it and not enough in fighters. In reality, strategic bombing had some effect but was debatably not even cost-effective. The British people would have been better served by more realistic forecasting of what effect strategic bombing would actually have.

Speculation: in the near future we're going to see air superiority drones, and that's going to have a major influence on the way wars are paid for and fought. Drones can be far more agile in a dogfight than conventional planes because they don't contain a bag of meat that needs to be protected from G-forces, and they don't need a giant carrier from which to take off and land. A lot of hardware is going to become obsolete in the near future. If they are relatively cheap to manufacture and maintain we may find that smaller countries and even non-state actors have a new way of resisting major powers.

our insistence on referring to them as "drones" rather than Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

What's wrong with defining the word drone that way? We could start calling F-16s Manned Aerial Vehicles but that would be awkward.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:18 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

So close to that post referencing Scalzi's Redshirts, I thought this was yet another review of the plot.
posted by CancerMan at 1:19 PM on February 20, 2013

posted by rocketpup at 1:28 PM on February 20, 2013

We could start calling F-16s Manned Aerial Vehicles but that would be awkward.

More likely, we're going to end up removing the pilots and calling F-16s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as well. We've been using remotely piloted surplus aircraft for target practice for a while now. But when it comes to unmanned air-to-air combat, I'm not sure sensors, datalinks, and other command and control elements are up to that yet. It may still be a bit of a wait. And it would seem to want to throw you back to a ground controlled intercept model for air superiority, the inferiority of which we've been busily demonstrating for a while now.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:46 PM on February 20, 2013

posted by cjorgensen at 1:56 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Drone fiction: Malak by Peter Watts (podcast)
posted by Artw at 1:59 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Drones can be far more agile in a dogfight because they don't contain a sack of meat that needs to be protected from G-forces,"

The plot of 1979 Japanese SF novel Yukikaze. Except the author also thought getting rid of the pilot would help because it would leave more space for the giant computer that would fly the plane instead.
posted by subdee at 2:23 PM on February 20, 2013

I say it's time to ban the earworm now!
Drones that small, lethally dangerous, are still in the realm of fiction.
But it won't be long.
posted by hank at 2:36 PM on February 20, 2013

Among other public buildings in a certain town...

Interesting twist on the classic, Ice Cream Socialist.
posted by dersins at 3:16 PM on February 20, 2013

You can take my drone slash fiction when you pry it from my motorized Sagem Sperwer launch vehicle.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:34 PM on February 20, 2013

posted by homunculus at 6:15 PM on February 20, 2013

Drone fiction: Malak by Peter Watts (podcast)

That's quite a story. Thanks. Nobody does psychologically constricted protagonists quite like Watts.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:14 PM on February 20, 2013

In 2007, I blogged a piece of dystopic serial speculative fiction (apologies for the self-link, but looking at the MeFi FAQ, I think it's relevant to the topic under discussion; second link has links to intermediate episodes) that used drones (or, in my take as a West Point instructor on the Army's passion for acronymization, Secure Wireless Armed Redundant Munitions) as its McGuffin -- and am now disturbed at how true some of it has become, and how quickly.
posted by vitia at 12:09 AM on February 21, 2013

Literature? How about photography, by Trevor Paglen?

New Yorker: Trevor Paglen's State Secrets and Prying Eyes

He is the author of I Could Tell You But Then You'd Have To Be Destroyed By Me and his work has been posted about many times before
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:10 PM on March 15, 2013

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